Here is what Ed Bailey will be doing on Saturday, July 15, the closing night of Velvet Nation, the seven-year, mammoth dance event he created with longtime friend and partner-in-nightlife John Guggenmos: ''I'll be running around making sure everything is right, because you know,'' he grins, ''there's plenty to not go right during the night.''
Here's what Ed Bailey won't be doing on Saturday, July 15: DJing. That duty will be left to Manny Lehman, who spent several years as Velvet's resident DJ and who has been provided the honor of musically helming the final Velvet.
DJing -- prompted by a genuine, almost instinctive love of the tribal, spiritual experience created out of spinning music for the masses -- is how Bailey got his start. Back in the early '80s, he fell hard for the nightclub scene at Tracks and, fortuitously for gay nightlife, was tapped by promoter John Guggenmos to continuously help create, reshape, reinvent the scene.
From the glory days of Tracks in the early '90s to the recent hit Halo, of which Bailey is a part-owner with Guggenmos, the duo have imbued everything they've worked on with a refined sense of style, a sophisticated aesthetic, and an unwavering commitment to providing a quality experience for their patrons. Their path is mostly lined with hits -- Black Parties, White Parties, Red Parties -- and some parties that enter the realm of blockbusters, like Velvet's annual Madonnarama.
With the advent of the Southeast stadium deal, Nation, the massive 30,000-square-foot space that houses Velvet, has been slated for closure and will soon be razed for development. Yet Guggenmos and Bailey are going out with a bang -- not to mention an inner-awareness that down the line they'll create another Saturday night dance event.
''Nation may be the last of its kind as a big, dark warehouse space,'' says Guggenmos, noting that ''nightlife is cyclical and the large...warehouse experience is probably gone until the 13- and 15-years-olds of today are the 25-year-olds of tomorrow.''
He hints at the future of nightlife. ''I think we've moved into a period of more boutique style.''
For Guggenmos, the impact of closing Velvet carries with it a sense of loss.
''Since Halloween 1989,'' he says, ''if I wanted to go dancing on Saturday, I went to an event that Ed and I produced. For the short term -- and I will say short term -- that's not going to be the case starting July 22. It's strange.''Bailey, who will turn 40 the week after Velvet's final party, is even more reflective.
''It's going to be very sad,'' he says. ''It's going to be tough. Especially saying goodbye to people. There are friends that you make along the way -- I may not even know their name, honestly, but I've seen them every Saturday for years in a row. To me that's a friend. These are people I'm probably not afforded much of an opportunity to see after Velvet closes.''
With Velvet, Bailey feels ''extremely proud to have brought the world's best nightclub elements'' to Washington.
''We did everything we could to bring Washington into that discussion,'' he says. ''And the tough thing about Washington is that Washingtonians will not allow themselves to believe that they actually had a club like that in their own backyard. Anybody who comes from anywhere else and sees Nation says, 'I wish we had one of these where I'm from.' And that includes New York, Europe and places that most people would think have 'better clubs.'''
The laid-back, soft-spoken Bailey easily settles into a three-hour conversation, talking up a storm about his personal history and the history of the clubs he had a hand in, as well his opinions on everything from the state of current dance music to the impact of drug use on the nightclub scene. There is something irrefutably cool about Bailey, an aura of hip, self-assured confidence.
Yet no matter what event Bailey next brings to the gay community, it's impossible not to recognize his influence in the world of D.C. nightlife. He will forever be known as the man with the velvet touch.
METRO WEEKLY: Let's begin with a mini-bio. What was your childhood like?
ED BAILEY: Born, raised in northwest Washington. Went to high school at Sidwell Friends. Grew up in an extremely, highly-charged political atmosphere. My father was a political consultant for a lot of big-time politicians. He ran Gerald Ford's presidential campaign. My mother is a lawyer, private practice. In the latter parts of her career, she was a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission, appointed under Jimmy Carter. So I grew up in that world. I won't say I was expected to do something political [with my life] because there was never any pressure like that.
MW: When did the realization hit that you were gay?
BAILEY: Very early on, in high school. The summer before I went to college I met my first boyfriend.
MW: At what point did you come out to your folks?
BAILEY: I came out to my mother when I was still in high school. She suggested that maybe we wait a little bit to tell my father. Trusting her judgment on that issue, I waited until I graduated from college. Looking back now, I wish I had given my father the opportunity to embrace that [part of me] earlier. I am extremely close to my father -- he is fantastically supportive of me and who I am. I don't want to give you some sad story like it was uncomfortable or weird, because it wasn't. I think we all go through that at some point where we wonder why we were so scared.
MW: Do you recall your first experience in a gay nightclub?
BAILEY: My first huge gay nightclub impression was Tracks, Christmas night, 1983. Packed. Completely, wall-to-wall packed. I go down to Tracks with a bunch of my straight friends who don't know I'm gay and we're in the main room. We're dancing to ''Let the Music Play'' by Shannon and the power went out. There's 2,500 people there and my friends, who were concerned for me, tell me to get my back up against the wall because there are gay people in the club. [Laughs.]
People started banging on the railings and the furniture. They start chanting, ''We don't need no power.'' They were keeping the beat so everybody could keep dancing. They had their lighters out. I don't want to make it seem larger than it was, but it was kind of tribal. Everyone was there to have a good time, and it was amazing. Eventually the power came on and everyone screamed. It was my indoctrination into nightlife and dance clubs. I think that was what drew me into the nightlife scene.
MW: What was Tracks like in 1983?
BAILEY: Bad hair, big hair, lots of black clothing, very alternative, very much about Morrissey and the Smiths and the Cure.
MW: At that point, you couldn't have imagined you would become a key figure in the club's history.
BAILEY: Not at all. Some people have those ambitions. It never occurred to me.
MW: So how did you get into DJing?
BAILEY: When I was in college [at Vanderbilt], I started DJing [at frat parties]. That's where I cut my teeth. When I came back for vacations from college, I hung out at Tracks and other clubs around town -- Poseurs, Cagneys. I started to get to know DJs, watching them, trying not to be too intrusive but asking questions if it seemed appropriate. I made a lot of friends. One friend in particular -- Andy Meade -- was the resident VJ at Tracks. He played video in the small room on Friday and Saturday nights. Andy would sometimes say ''Hey, why don't you play for me?'' That was my foot in the door at Tracks. Eventually Andy took a more managerial role and suggested that I be hired to take his place. That was my break.
MW: Do you remember what it was like to play the big room at Tracks for the first time?
BAILEY: I should back up a little because it will explain it better. While I was in the small room, the club was purchased by Paul Yates, John Guggenmos, Reg Tyson, Kim Potzman and David Franco from Marty Chernoff, the original owner. With it they inherited all of us who had been working there. I remember everyone being a little bit freaked out about who was going to keep their job. It wasn't my livelihood so I wasn't as worried as everyone else. I was young and didn't understand how it could be somebody's livelihood -- to me it was just a big party. It was fun.
After a few months, they asked me to be involved with things on a bigger scale. I think a lot of that was because I went to them with suggestions. I was playing several places at that point, not just Tracks. I was doing my own party on Thursday nights at Perry's Restaurant. I was playing Wednesday nights at Dakota [in Adams Morgan]. They said, ''What does it take for you to be more involved? And exclusively involved?'' I said ''You're going to pay me good money to do this?'' I was blown away. John Guggenmos was the marketing person. He took me to lunch. It was a moment he and I remember specifically because it was the first time we really talked other than just having a brief interaction between boss and employee. It was a great meeting. We clicked.
I started right away. Maybe a year after that, John forced me, kicking and screaming, out of that VJ booth in the small room and put me in the main room. He thought it was the right thing for the club. Not that I wasn't excited to try it, but I look back on it now and I'm absolutely positive I wasn't ready to do it. The first night I was so nervous -- this was long before CDs, it was all records -- I remember trying to put the needle down on the record and my hand shaking so much that I couldn't put the needle where it needed to go. I actually had to go get a drink, just to calm my nerves and stop shaking so much. And I don't drink.
MW: Why were you that nervous?
BAILEY: Playing in the main room was part of a culture of partying that I wasn't really a part of before I started DJing in it. It's a hard thing to walk into and know what to do without ever having experienced it firsthand. I had been playing every single Saturday night on the other side, so I was never in the big room. I didn't really know how the night would flow and what would happen. I remember getting some of the worst looks any patron has ever given any DJ over my first few months. I don't think it was my choice of music, but my choice of music at that time of the night. The later it got, I wasn't getting prettier and softer and happier, which was part of that culture. One of the people who worked there, Jesse Wily, who is still on the scene, came to me and said, ''Ed'' -- or as he calls me, ''Eduardo'' -- ''you need to not play this way at five o'clock in the morning.'' That was a huge help to me.
MW: You eventually became the resident DJ at Tracks.
BAILEY: I was the main room DJ from 1991 until the end of 1994. That was the heyday of the Saturday night parties -- the theme parties, the big events -- at Tracks. I was playing 45 Saturdays a year.
MW: A DJ has a lot of control over how the evening goes for people.
BAILEY: [Laughs.] And you are definitely talking to a control freak. You're talking to someone who was really, really high on that in those days. We were coming up with themes, then creating the decorations, booking the entertainment, producing the advertising -- so everything was being controlled in some fashion. DJing was just one more component to that. And that was the reason I was purely, completely intoxicated by the concept of standing there in the DJ booth, 10 feet over peoples' heads, looking out and knowing, ''Wow, they're having a great time [because of something we're producing].'' The thought of that gave me chills.
MW: You weren't an owner of Tracks, right?
BAILEY: Right. I was never an owner. I became the marketing guy. John [Guggenmos] and I had such a great working relationship, he offered me an opportunity to be involved in all of his projects. John made all these things happen -- no doubt about it, he was the man. John made Trumpets happen. John made the Ozone deal happen. And then Cobalt. The day Cobalt caught on fire, he called me from the corner across the street -- woke me up, like six in the morning. I thought I was dreaming, it was kind of surreal. I went over, I couldn't believe it. It was a sad moment because we had envisioned Cobalt as our long-term [project]. With big dance clubs, there's a shelf life. But you can make smaller places into a kind of neighborhood place -- they're more comfortable and simple. It's a long-term nest egg kind of thing.
Cobalt was literally going up in smoke in front of us. It was hard that day, but even harder coming to the realization that the insurance situation wasn't right and we weren't really able to recover from that in a way that made sense for us. So we did the right thing -- we got out and moved on.
MW: Millennium, which was held Saturdays at the 9:30 Club, was your next major Saturday night dance event. It was very successful, but only lasted a few years. Why did it end?
BAILEY: It ended because Nation nightclub was being built. Nation nightclub was formerly the Capitol Ballroom.
MW: Can you give me a brief history of the space?
BAILEY: It was right before the March on Washington in 1993. We knew at Tracks what that meant for us business-wise, so we decided we were going to look all over the city and see if we could find another, larger location to hold an event. I got in my car one day leaving Tracks, drove 15 feet and looked in front of me: A building I had driven by hundreds of times stared me in the face, a building I had never paid attention to before. It was the Hurley Boiler Building.
I knock on the door. There's a guy sitting in there just minding the empty building because the [business had closed]. They had built boilers there. I said, ''What's going on here?'' He said, ''Nothing's going on here.'' You could see the potential in the space, but it was never going to be ready for us to do events by the time of the March. So I went back to Tracks and I said, ''Look, this isn't going to work for us now, but there will be a day when Tracks ends. Maybe we should look at this.'' Everyone agreed. And Paul Yates, the [principal] owner at the time, took the reins and made contact with [the concert promoters] Cellar Door Productions and said, ''We've got the space, what do you think? Do you want to partner on it? You could do concerts, we could do parties.'' That was the birth of the Capitol Ballroom.
A few years down the road John Boyle, the son of Jack Boyle, who owns Cellar Door, takes over the leadership position of running the Capitol Ballroom and says, ''We're going to transform this into a mega nightclub the likes of which the city hasn't seen.'' And he starts to do just that.
People were like, ''You need to talk to these guys. You guys should do Saturday nights there.'' We were very happy where we were [at Millennium] -- the 9:30 Club was fantastic. But we went over and saw what they were doing to this space, saw the plans of how it was going to be finished, and we were amazed. We knew it would work if we were to do events there. But Nation was owned by Cellar Door, and there was bad blood between them and [IMP], the people who owned 9:30. All of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a very dicey, touchy, uncomfortable situation. How were we going to end 9:30 and move over to Nation and not burn any bridges? In the nightclub world everyone tells you everything you want to hear. The nightclub world is full of a lot of very complicated people, and I've navigated that for a long time. You have to be really careful about what you do. You don't put all your eggs in one basket unless you feel very confident. I was trying to not ruffle any feathers at 9:30 Club. It was very uncomfortable, very difficult, and I probably didn't handle it as well as I should have.
We had a target date of March in mind for Nation, and everyone kind of agreed in December that we should stop producing Millennium as opposed to going all the way [up to the opening of Velvet]. So we stopped and severed the relationship with 9:30. I felt really badly about the way it all went down. But I look back on it now and think, well, that three-month hiatus was not a terrible thing. It gave us months to build the hype, for people to miss big nightlife. We said, ''Get ready because we're going to give you everything the world has to offer in the nightclub vein and we're going to bring it to you. So, either enjoy it or run and hide because we're going to be relentless.'' We teased it and teased it and teased it....
MW: I remember the Velvet buzz. It was ingenious. I recall ads with furniture.
BAILEY: Velvet furniture.
MW: Why did you call it Velvet?
BAILEY: There were people who were familiar with the venue in its previous incarnation as the Capitol Ballroom -- it was a big, dark, concrete, metal, cold box of a club. I wanted to soften it, I wanted to give everybody kind of a plush, warm connotation. Hence Velvet. Not on its own very unique, but the name Velvet Nation definitely stuck. It seemed clubbier, warmer, more comfortable. And this was the age where things were getting a little loungier. No one would call Tracks back in its day ''comfortable.'' You sat outside, maybe...
MW: Or on that awful black wood riser.
BAILEY: Right. So the whole point of Velvet was comfort.
MW: What was opening night like?
BAILEY: Unbelievable, amazing and so satisfying. In this business you wonder if you're believing your own hype too much. We had said a lot, promised a lot, but we ramped it up to be something different for D.C. It was guest DJs and performers from day one. It kind of changed the landscape here in D.C. The next couple of months were tremendous. We were easily averaging over 2,500 people a week, every week.
MW: Tracks was still open at the time. Certainly the irony of competing with -- and eventually contributing to the demise of -- your former venue was not lost on you.
BAILEY: Absolutely. And my friends who know me well know how conflicted I was about that, how uncomfortable it was for me. It wasn't just my previous professional involvement with Tracks. Tracks was where I came out, it's where I met most of my boyfriends over my lifespan. Tracks was home, so it was very difficult for me to feel like I was in any way hurting that. It was like hurting a part of myself.
MW: With Velvet, you changed the model of nightlife. But with any change obviously comes huge risk.
BAILEY: Absolutely huge risks. [Weekly guest DJs] were a completely different thing for us. Before that, we were very conservative in nightclub terms. We knew every time you push the bar up one rung, you don't have an option to move it back down so you continue to push it. And you finally get to a point where there is nothing left. You can only push it for so long before you either surpass what is available to you or you explode. And we exploded a little bit. We came to a point a couple of years ago where Nation wasn't what it used to be. It just hit the wall. We had done every DJ there was to do. We'd had every act there was to have. The scene was changing. And there was an overall perception surrounding the image of Nation that had become negative through all of the [TV] news reports and the rumors and the [newspaper] articles -- all the stuff about the drug use. It just weighed us down. It was the perception of what the event catered to. It was honestly not the case but since that was the perception, it became the reality. And there are a bunch of people who just didn't want to be associated with that. It was stigmatized. They didn't even want to say to their friends ''Hey, let's go to Nation,'' because it inferred they were drug users.
Much of that happened at the same time that the whole scene started to become stale. Through it all, we maintained an average attendance of 1,200 to 1,400 people -- which is still tremendous -- because we changed our model over that time and [programmed the music to reach] a younger audience, which is totally different from the crowd we started with at Nation, a crowd generally called the Muscle Boy Group, which had for the most part abandoned Nation years ago.
MW: Why did they abandon it? Where did they go?
BAILEY: They went home. The whole circuit scene has come to a halt. The big club party scene has come to a halt. Everything's come to a halt for that group.
Now, we're business people. We had to continue to exist. So just because that was our audience doesn't mean we're going to run into the corner and cry. And so we tried to navigate through that, to figure out what we needed to do. Over the last few years we've had to reinvent what we do in order to fit what the largest potential clientele would be. We're still operating and making money and it's very lucrative. It's unfortunate that we have to stop, but we are.
MW: How has drug use -- in particular, crystal meth -- impacted the nightclub scene as you see it?
BAILEY: A lot of people associate drug use with nightclub life. A lot of people get into the scene thinking it's part of it and they burn themselves out quickly. And a lot of people that I've been friends with for years have really hurt themselves doing that -- they end up not being able to go out at all anymore because they just don't want to put themselves in environments where they'll be tempted. It's been a very sad side story to my career. It's a large reason I tried to get involved with the [recent] ''Crystal Meth Sucks'' campaign and have tried to get that message out there in D.C.
MW: So you believe nightclubs can thrive without drugs?
BAILEY: Absolutely. It is possible to go out and have fun and go dancing and enjoy your friends and enjoy the nighttime without having to do any of that. But I don't think it will ever happen, that you'll go and find any nightclub that will be completely free of [drugs]. Look at history. There haven't been nightclubs that haven't had some of that going on. Starting with the discos in the '70s and all the way through the present, there have been drugs. I love clubs and music and dance floors and DJs so much -- it has nothing to do with drugs. And I have a lot of friends who are the same way. Unfortunately, there are a group of people who have taken the drugs to such an extreme that they've put a bad face on a lot of things, including Nation. And a lot of people like to blame club owners and operators for a lot of the problems with drugs in our community.
I don't speak a lot about this, but I do feel uncomfortable sometimes that maybe I'm providing a space and a location for someone to do something that's harmful to themselves. I've been very conflicted over that for a long time. I don't like the fact that I might be contributing to somebody's downfall. We try very hard to figure out everything we can on our end to keep all of that from being pervasive in the clubs. We go beyond the scope of what is required of us legally. We don't tell people what to do with their own bodies. Certainly people can make certain choices, but we try to create a scenario for them not to do it. Lord knows, we even implemented searching people at the front door -- something that John [Guggenmos] and I swore we would never do because we felt it was such an invasion of someone's privacy. But we decided to do it because we thought at least it will help say to people ''This is not something that you can do here.'' It always amazed me that you had to remind people that drugs were illegal. But nightclubs are kind of escapes from reality, so sometimes people don't realize that doing something illegal in a nightclub is still illegal.
MW: How do you reconcile your conflict over this?
BAILEY: I get through it by knowing that I really do provide an opportunity for people to go out and have a good time. I can't dictate what they choose to do in order to have a good time. That's on them. I feel badly for people who fall into it. And I also feel badly that people don't give the events and the clubs and the parties a chance to entertain them without feeling that they have to enhance it with something extra.
MW: You don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't do drugs.
BAILEY: I don't. And people can believe that or not, I don't care. Everybody who knows me knows that that's absolutely true. I drank in college. Everybody drinks in college. I was called ''Jäger-monster'' in college. But that's never what it was about for me. It was always about the music and everyone coming together to be inspired by the music. There's something about that that's kind of tribal. That was intoxicating to me.
MW: You say ''was.'' Is it still?
BAILEY: It is now that I have figured out how to re-package it. In the middle of this run at Nation, it got a little stale where I wasn't feeling it for a few years, where I thought the music became too dark. A lot of things have happened in our industry that have, I think, aided in [dance music's] decline -- and the drug use is a big part of it. Whether the music is a reflection of the drug use or whether it's just a trend, the music just seems to be darker and deeper and scarier. It sounds meaner. It's not the happy, ''put your hands in the air'' kind of music of the '90s.
MW: Do you think that's because today's music reflects the current state of the world?
BAILEY: Yes, but it also reflects the technology available to the people producing the music. Nation has evolved concurrently with the evolution of the change from traditional vinyl playback to digital playback. There is a difference between a vinyl pressing of a song and a CD. There's a different sound, a different feel. It's not as warm. And that might seem to a lot of people to be very ''out there'' esoteric, but the fact remains there really is a difference. [A CD has] a hollow sound. It's a digitally compressed file that's not as warm as vinyl. Then, every DJ, when they have a digital format of something, is able to manipulate it on their computer. Everyone is a re-mixer. So a lot of music that people hear today in a club is a far cry from [the original]. By the time a song gets to a club, the music has been chopped up, sectioned off and partitioned into this or that, so that a lot of the musical quality has been lost. And that's unfortunate. I think it detracts from the overall spiritual experience. I know it sounds corny for me to say that, but I really believe it. When all you hear is thump, thump, thump all night where you used to hear a lot of vocals and pianos and happiness, it changes the environment.
MW: How do you feel about Nation closing?
BAILEY: Very sad. It's amazing that it's been seven years and that it's been as successful as it has been. I put a lot of myself into Nation. I gave up a lot of other things in my life that I love in order to make this work.
But while I'm sad, I'm also happy that it's closing in a way that most clubs don't get a chance to close. Most clubs you go one weekend, there's a padlock on the door -- it's just closed. We actually have the opportunity to do this in a really classy way. We're able to bring back the people that helped us along the way, we're able to wrap it up in one nice package and say ''This was Velvet Nation.'' From beginning to the end, we kept it at a high level and we've got a great lineup to finish it off. [See sidebar, ''Velvet's Final Four''.]
MW: So many people are crying ''Nightlife is dead, nightlife is dead!'' So I'm going to ask you: Is nightlife dead? Is it dying? Is it on its last legs?
BAILEY: I hear the same things. I think that nightlife will never die. There is something about being able to go out and be social and interact with other human beings in a way that's fun and lighthearted that will never go away. It will always exist.
Having said that, we certainly seem to be in a strange place for nightlife right now. It doesn't seem to be as predictable as it used to be. I hear a lot of people try to blame the death of nightlife on the Internet. I'm not someone who subscribes to that theory. Obviously, people who may have gone out before may now be sitting at home on their computers. But I don't believe that's ever going to be a substitute for actual interaction and human contact. I do believe that the world is different and more accepting, and that gay people don't have to go to exclusively gay clubs or gay bars anymore. They can pretty much go where they want to go. Gay couples can go to any restaurant in this city now and it's not an issue. You can go to almost any bar. It may not be as much fun, but you can, when before you couldn't. Before there was a built-in absolute nightclub, nightlife, nighttime audience in the gay world that would have to do a certain thing. And it ensured big, prosperous nights at all the gay establishments. It's just not that way anymore.
I definitely think that the gay business community is in a tough position -- I don't think a lot of them anticipated having to figure out how to navigate the climate of changing opportunities for gay people. I can sit here and tell you that there may be fewer options and so maybe the public at large would see that maybe nightlife is hurting because of that. But none of these places that have recently closed have actually done so because they were hurting. It's been a very odd year in that regard.
MW: So what's the next big thing you and John will be bringing the city?
BAILEY: I've probably looked at 25 properties, I have probably had 50 conversations with landlords. Washington, D.C. has developed into such a real estate commodity market that it's pushed out people who want to do what I do. There are no opportunities, really. The price of real estate has made it impossible -- or really, not a good business decision -- to buy a building anymore. Rent is astronomical. Lease prices are off the charts. So with everything we've come across, everything that we've looked at, nothing has presented itself as a viable opportunity.
There have been big clubs in this city that have approached us and offered us the opportunity to ''move'' our party. There's a fundamental flaw with that. First off, I don't want to do something just for the sake of doing it. We've never done that, and I don't intend to start that now just because there seems to be a void in the market. If we do something, it's got to be at a level that we've hopefully risen to in our business career. I really want [gay] Washington to have something to be proud of, not something they do because there's no other option. So that's the first part.
The second part is that everything has a shelf life. Velvet Nation was what it was. It was an event that had an incredibly good run, longer than most nightclub runs for events of its nature and size. But it's done. And now it's time for something else. But nothing has presented itself. It's not for a lack of trying.
And this is not some big smoke screen where we're going to come out next week with some surprise -- ''Here's what we're doing!'' People are not going to come to the closing party at Nation and get a flyer that says ''Brand new club so-and-so.'' It's just not going to happen. There's nothing out there. I'm not happy about that because I need a job. I'm glad to take a little break, but I'm going to be itching to do this again pretty soon. And honestly, I look at specific dates on the calendar and feel I need to have a venue to do an event for that weekend or that holiday. But there isn't anything. I wish I had a bigger scoop for you than that, but I don't. But you'll be the first person I'll tell when I know something.