Talking with Tommy Gunn

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Joe Strummer of The Clash once sang these lyrics: “Tommy gun, you cant be a hero in an age of none.” I think these words apply to today’s interview with club folk hero Tommy Gunn. Tommy adds an ‘N’ to his last name, which stands for “Nothing he can’t do.” Tommy Gunn was the golden boy, the leader of the pack, the go to guy, the man about town in the 1980s, in what many consider the best age of clubs. The A-list started with him. Word came to me that my old friend was going to throw a party. There hasn’t been a “for real” Tommy Gunn party since I cared what people thought of me. The day after this party Tommy will be as much a hero to a new generation as he was to another. I caught up with him and asked him a few questions. He rambled on for days.

What was the first club you ever went to? I think it was Max’s Kansas City. I was very young at the time. I was working at the Museum of Natural History as the assistant curator of mammalogy. And I was in charge of new collections that came in. I had to identify bones and figure what sex they were, what region they came from, catalog them and so on. My dream job was actually to become an Ichthyologist, a fish scientist, and maybe work with Jacques Cousteau.
I was already a young scientist winning science fairs and making the papers back then. Well, I went to Max’s to meet these two girls and they took me home.
That was the end of my scientific research and my club research beginning. The girls took me shopping. I got my first leather jacket. I think it was at Canal Jeans. Then I reinvented myself a whole new look. I was very punkish. I figured out quickly how to get into clubs without paying. I got myself an attention getter, a red handset from a phone that I used to drag around. Voila! I was all new from head to toe: bright blue, suede winklepickers, tight, white bondage pants, zipper shirt, crazy eye makeup that was sometimes bird-like and sometimes only one eye, dragging around a red phone 3 to 5 feet behind me. After two weeks doors parted, ropes opened and I never paid from that point on, unless I wanted to help a benefit or charity. I think it’s so tacky to go to a benefit and ask for the guest list. Even if I’m on the list I will still pay.

What clubs did you work at? Not including clubs where did a special event, I have worked and promoted
at 
Exiles, Electric Circus, AM/PM, Bowling Club, Peppermint Lounge, East of Eden
The Palace, Elan, Hell Fire, Cat Club Visage, Nirvana, Pizza a Gogo, Club Burgundy in West Hampton, Bay St in Sag Harbour, Ruff Sexx, Sanctuary, Rock and Roll Church at Limelight, Kitten Club, Palladium, Pyramid, Jammin on 42 St, Virgin Outlaw Club, Gunn Club, The Grand, Sex Once a Month at Dancerteria, Sex in the Basement at The Tunnel and Webster Hall. These are clubs I worked at ether as a head doorman or promoted on a regular basis. I did not include other venues were I just did one off events. In the beginning of my club career I began working doors. The first club I worked at was in Queens. It was called Exiles. I worked as a busboy for about a month. Not much glamour in that. I started to slowly reinvent again, to punk/rockabilly. I stopped dragging the phone around. It did its job and got me noticed everywhere. Now I could wear cool stuff and be more up scale. Then I got a job at the Electric Circus. I lied through my teeth to get the job. My position would be head doorman. The problem they had was that it was a disco and there were about three big fights a night inside. They wanted to clean up “the joint,” so they hired me, a punk/rockabilly young kid, to work in a disco to filter out the troublemakers. From the first day I walked out to the velvet ropes, the whole club changed. It was fun again. I think in the whole time I worked there, there was only one fight. Jellybean Benitiz was the DJ there and kept talking about his new girlfriend, who was Madonna. But Electric Circus was not what I was looking for. I had moved in with a Ford model and Elite model and was only dating one of ‘em. So I found this ad in the papers for a doorman wanted at 59 Murray Street. So the girls suggest that they both come with me as arm jewelry. They got dressed to the nines! And we went down for my interview. I walk in with both girls in tow. Vito Bruno and Roman both dropped their jaws. I think they asked me two questions, if that, and hired me. The club was the afterhours AM/PM right across the street from the IRS building. The club was getting a Brooklyn crowd and they wanted a hipper crowd. 
I went out and promoted like crazy and got the Mud Club crowd to come over. It started building up to a nice crowd and got better and better. Then Fred Rothbell Mista came in the picture and became the host, which added even more to the club. And then Stephen Saban was added to work the door with me.
In the end we were even getting the door staff from Studio 54 and the owners coming down and tons of celebrities hanging out in the basement, sitting on milk crates instead of the cozy VIP room upstairs.
And the crew of Hellfire. It was one crazy place. I met John Belushi there. We used to hang together and he brought down Dan Aykroyd. One time Dan wanted to work the door for me so I let him. Not a good idea but it was really funny. 
Well, it was more a title for him. He was mostly inside with Fred and popped out once in a while. I worked there I think two and a half years.

I’m trying to keep up slow down! Out of all these clubs which was the most exciting? I guess the Cat Club. The Palladium was opening up and I went to an interview with Steve Rubell.
He said to me that I knew too many people and he wanted to change things up a bit and put an unknown at the door, but I could be a bartender. I got pissed and walked out the door and went around the corner to the Cat Club and got a position as maître d’. I joined a band called Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5 and became one of the five and went on two world tours. Jumping way, way ahead I created Tommy Gunn’s metal night every Wednesday. No one was doing a live music scene let alone a metal one. Unheard of! Who the fuck going to come to that?! They will not drink and there was going to be fights! But Pat Kenny the owner of the Cat Club gave me the slowest night, Wednesday, and said, “you got four weeks to make it happen.” Well, I scrambled, made phone calls, went out and handed out invites. The big night comes! Doors open! Bands go on! They sound great! We have a total of 70 people! “I told ya this thing will not work! You don’t listen!” Pat said, “But go on give it another shot.” The next week 150. By the end of the month I got 300. From then on it’s never less than 450 and gets up to 1200 or more for some of my special events. This goes on for years, with the hottest girls and every guy looking like a rock star. And I expand to other clubs. Mondays, the Gunn Club,
Wednesdays, the Cat Club,
Thursdays, the Virgin Outlaw club, Saturdays, Sanctuary,
 Sundays, Rock n’ Roll Church. Being a promoter means you are a social engineer: find the right gears and the nights run smoothly. I had every band wanting to play on Wednesday. Every rock star that ever came to New York came to check out my night because they knew it had great music, and they knew they would get laid by the hottest chicks. Women made up 55% of the Cat Club. How did I get such a high number? I used science, the food chain. My formula was to lure women in with really cute guys in tight pants. Girls would flock to see these them, and bigger bands would notice the crowd and would want to play a show too. Which in turn attracts more women and even bigger bands until I get national acts wanting to play for cheap, or just play a guest spot. Take the Monsters of Rock tour, these huge bands would finish playing arenas and rush from the show to see if they could play a set. I had the whole metal scene on lockdown. Record company A&Rs would call me to see what was going on in the industry, 22 bands were signed from playing in my venues.

So it was a monopoly? Some people would say monopolizing on a music scene is bad, but I made sure acts got their fair shot at making it. I paired them together with the right acts, I made sure hot acts didn’t burn out and lose their power to draw a crowd by controlling how often they played, and I figured out when to put them with national acts to increase their following. Just like eating a good steak, if you have just enough you want more. If you have too much you’re over it. And I took care of my bands. Everyone got paid according to their worth and what kind of crowd they could draw. I was totally against how the West Coast was making bands pay to play, or sell their own tickets at the time- I spoke out against this at CMJ panels and other new music seminars.

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How long did you do the Metal scene? For about 4 or 5 years with a fantastic following. I think I left the Cat Club when they decided not to let me do other clubs. If I did, they’d pay me less as a consultant and a host so I walked away. From what I was told they started going downhill so they started making bands pay to play. Then Grunge music came along and they didn’t know how to handle it. They closed within a year of me leaving. I could not get into the big venues because they were tied up with [veteran rock promoters] Ron Delsener and John Sher, and other big promoters with deep pockets.

How does the scene back then compare to now? What scene? Everything seems so tame- you can’t even smoke a cigarette! There is a difference between a busy club and a scene. In my eyes the scene was Disco 2000, Jackie 60, Heartbreak, and the punk matinees at CBGB. A scene to me is where you have a certain type of look, music and a hard-core following that dresses to the part. Now I don’t really see that happening anywhere. I don’t see the creativity anymore.

Why did you stop working in clubs?
 After I left the Cat Club I started an agency that handled personal appearances for magazine girls and adult video stars across the country. I had about 30 top girls on my roster. I still did clubs but not as much. I did a night called “Sex Once a Month” at Danceteria. It was theme night, rock-based event every month, and it was packed. Then I did “Sex in the Basement” at Tunnel, which was kind of like “Sex Once a Month” but without the rock. It was sexier and steamer than ever. I was talking to a friend the other day about it, and how Steve Lewis had no limits. One night, I think it was my birthday; I had so many people from the sex industry. Dungeon mistresses came with their “pets” and It got really crazy! You said, “I think you got to tone it down, this is too crazy!” I never thought I would hear those words from you! To hear that from Steve Lewis was like a pat on the back. My last event was at Webster Hall. I was filling in to do the side door for [doorman] Martin. After he left, I got the position of main doorman and promotions director of the club, but my heart was not into it, and the structure was not the same. I decide to have a birthday party and wanted to have a 21 Gunn salute, so I got 21 bands to play. 1,500 of my friends showed up throughout the night. I walked onstage to introduce one of the bands and said, “See Ya!” I walked off the stage and out the door, never to set foot in the club again or speak to anyone in the club world, for 17 years. I walked away and did an Eddie and the Cruisers thing: just disappeared and left with my name intact. I had a great run.

After that what did you do? I had my agency for a couple of years but I decided to give it to my partner and dove right into learning 3D animation and everything to do with multimedia. I got published in computer magazines and software companies would fly me out to big conferences to be their ”demo god.” I would demo the latest in 3D development. I was also heavily involved in the underground computer scene too.
 I landed a job at BSA Advertising Inc. as the director of new technologies for 17 locations across the country. I was there for about 6 years before I had to reinvent myself once again. I went fishing for the first time since I was a mate on a boat as a kid. I called a car service and it took me to Sheepshead Bay. I talked to one of the mates about my experience working as a kid and he asked what boat I had worked on. It turns out my boat, the Ranger 5, was docked with Captain Mike, the same captain I worked for. I walk over and said ‘Hi.’ An hour later he told me he was short-handed and asked me, “can you work tonight?” I told him it had been a while and he said, “Don’t worry it will come back to you.” I worked that night and I was hooked! Captain Mike asked me if I could work every weekend and I agreed. I would leave my corner window office on Lexington Avenue to go fishing for low pay. I went to the local fisherman’s bar, Captain Walters and every head turned to ask ‘who the fuck is this freak with the long hair?’ I sat at the bar and drank alone. The following year the boat was gone, but another boat ask me to work. By the end of the season I was going to be Captain Walters. Now when I walk into the bar it’s “Get Tommy a drink on my tab!” I was one of the boys after I moved up the rank from first mate to tuna Captain. I now hold a master license for a 100 ton fishing vessel. I was getting my assed kicked in 30 foot seas and 40 mile an hour winds, with broken engines a 120 hour a week work schedule. There are lots of cool stories about my adventures at sea. I did that for about 5 years and had a son and decide stop fishing because of the dangers. I became a stay at home Dad. I got married and have been married now for 19 years. Once my son Jesse James Gunn turned about 3 it was time once again to reinvent myself, this time as a real estate agent. I decide to go with the big firm Citi Habitats, where the turnover is extremely high. I have been there now for 2 1/2 years. Everyone I started with is gone, but I like the company. I won the Best Customer Service Award of the Year and I work with select high-end clients, doing rentals and sales. I just got upgraded to Senior Associate this month. The club world really helped a lot, from working doors you learn how to read people like a book. Promoting events helped me to find openings where there are none and in general you learn how to make people feel good, which in the end, is what counts. I still have a multimedia company where we design and host high end websites, and I also do video work.