'Round midnight, L.A.'s nightclubs begin to swirl. Black-clad men and women fill upthe hot spots, from designer-decorated dance clubs on the Westside to dingy, smoky hangouts Downtown.
They take to the dance floor, lean over the bar or just stand and watch, soaking up atmosphere until they're saturated with it.
Those unfamiliar with the clubs may view them as the ultimate scene, infused with celebrities and high glamour, or as the opium dens of the '90s, where partyers are forever strung out on the drug of the moment.
Truth is, they are neither.
Most nightspots are not celebrity-heavy drug emporiums where coke (the drug) is as easy to obtain as Coke (the drink), as some tabloidesque reports have painted them in the wake of River Phoenix's death.
The 23-year-old actor collapsed outside the Viper Room on Oct. 31 and later died of a cocaine and morphine overdose, according to the L.A. County coroner's office.
The owners of the Viper Room, on Sunset Boulevard, have denied that any overt drug use went on that night.
"If there was anything like that out in the open going on, the guys who work there would not have allowed it," actor-musician Johnny Depp has said.
Illegal drugs are undeniably a part of the club scene. But in most places, it's not obvious--there's no "Valley of the Dolls" atmosphere where drugs are sold like candy, club-goers say. (The exceptions are the illegal, underground rave clubs, popular a couple of years ago, where laughing gas and Ecstasy, a hallucinogenic amphetamine, were easily available).
"The scene is a lot more dry now. It seemed a lot more overt in the '70s," says Lance Loud, a New York and L.A. club watcher for two decades who writes about night life for the Advocate and Details magazine.
"Everybody's conscious now that drugs are out," he continues. "They're not as public about it. You don't do it in front of strangers or in front of people you don't know that well."
Will Phoenix's death change anything on the night life circuit?
"I think the public scrutiny (of the clubs) is certainly changing," Loud says.
At the Gate, the most potent concoctions on view are the vodka-and-cranberry-juices the bartenders pump out on demand.
On a recent Saturday, this yuppified club on La Cienega Boulevard has a line outside at 9:30 p.m. People shiver as they wait behind the ropes, hoping to pay the $15 cover charge, trying to catch the eyes of the doormen, who seem consciously oblivious to them. Dressed in black, with either buzz cuts or slicked-back ponytails, they look like thugs from a Joel Silver movie.
Inside, a large fireplace warms what looks like a living room with a bar. Books line the walls, the music isn't too frenetic and the lighting is appropriately dim.
Men and women, 20ish to 50ish, dressed up but not outre, mill about, looking bored or chatting. They light up cigarettes and sip drinks while coolly surveying their compatriots. Two men eating at a small table try not to look while a couple makes out just feet away. The tempo speeds up at 11 when the dance floor opens, complete with smoke machines and a man playing the bongos.
Afew miles east at Glam Slam, on the edge of Downtown, clubbies walk through a metal detector and get patted down before paying the $15 cover charge.
The dance floor is packed by 11 with people mostly under 25 wearing everything from dazzey duks to sleek panne-velvet dresses, jackets and ties, and the occasional grunged-out plaid shirts and jeans. They move to a nonstop barrage of deejay-spun rap, hip hop and funk.
An upstairs balcony runs the perimeter of the dance floor. From up there, it looks like a high school dance--if they served alcohol and had great big bouncers cruising the floor. The cultural mix would make for a great Benetton billboard.
In West Hollywood, the pierced-and-tattooed crowd is hanging at Sin-a-matic.
The patrons of the club, which is taken over by different promoters on other nights, have been under fire lately from nearby residents who accuse them of disruptive behavior. But the only thing happening this night among the cliques of teens and young adults is gossip and cigarette smoking.
After paying the $10 cover and submitting to the requisite frisk with a hand-held metal detector, club-goers step into a large space dedicated to--and decorated for--decadence. Campy nudie films and Tom of Finland erotica play on the video screens above the bar, and go-go girls in leather and latex gyrate above the dance floor.
A second room with a pool table and bar is lit in red and features sadomasochistic murals. A long, narrow passageway leads to the back room, where it's BYOW: bring your own whip. It's the setting for impromptu domination scenes.
Despite the purposefully decadent atmosphere, nothing illegal is transpiring. No nudity, no sex, no drugs being openly consumed.
Nary a table is empty at the Hollywood Athletic Club, a pool hall where there's no cover charge but a stiff $12-an-hour fee to play on weekends.