People You Know: Michael Musto, 25 Years In

A PARTYThe Village Voice‘s newsroom, which has gradually been consolidated onto one floor, was eerily quiet when I went to visit Michael Musto. Cubicles had been folded down and stacked near the windows, leaving empty space. A trio of people in suits-speaking to each other in hushed tones-patrolled the maze. Blown-up Voice front pages marked another era. Musto said that he saw “depressing” trends towards corporatization all over New York, but he renounces easy nostalgia trips. Although he already has fond memories of the most recent boom.

“At first I thought it was too glossy and Disney, and too aimed at tourists and condo owners,” he said. “But now I’m getting a little nostalgic for the New York of a few years ago, before it was sort of ratty, and filled with closed storefronts. I’m like, ‘Sorry I complained about the girls in black dresses with the credit cards.'”

“You know, they weren’t so bad,” he said.

Musto was going through all the swag on his desk as we talked. The pile included a thermal undershirt, and a letter from a prison, and a gift card to Dunkin’ Donuts; that one would go in the trash.

Since 2006, when a band of Phoenix-based raiders gobbled up the Voice, Musto’s franchise has existed at the pleasure of corporate executives. He said they don’t interfere in the column. (“No one is saying, ‘You know, that’s an advertiser, how dare you,'” he said, “or ‘that’s a friend of the boss. Stay away.'”) Around him, regular purges have claimed longtime writers from rock critic Bob Christgau to fashion reporter (and Musto’s close friend) Lynne Yaeger. “I have all kinds of survivor’s guilt. It’s like I’m indestructible,” Musto said. This was a dual reference to AIDS and to recent newspaper bloodbaths.

Musto took the weekly gay-friendly gossip beat from Arthur Bell (also a serious journalist who investigated a string of unsolved murders of powerful gays) who died in 1984. He started off hitting hard. “I hadn’t really found my voice yet. I originally was too nasty and too snarky. I thought the way to make waves and to make a name for myself was just to trash everybody and everything,” he said.

In 1986, he was crowned “King of Clubs” at the Limelight. “This is my year,” Musto then told Advertising Age.

And then in October of 1989, he was profiled in Newsday, by Frank DeCaro, who described the column’s style as “bubble-bursting bitchiness”: “A bold-face mention from Musto has become the equivalent of the cover of Time magazine for the young glitz-hungry stylemongers known as Club Kids. As one devoted reader put it, ‘It means they matter.’ Even if only to one another.”

In January of 2010, two decades and 3000 Voice columns after the Newsday profile, he was profiled in the Times, and nothing much had changed except for his lowered drug intake. Also now, as the Times noted, he has the opportunity to blog about the experience of getting a colonoscopy.

What gets omitted from these historical accounts is his longer-form essays and political work. “In the mid-80s, AIDS was raging amongst my whole circle, so that turned me into this screaming, politically correct gay activist,” Musto said. “So then I kind of channeled the rage into writing more about politics, at that point. But that also had its drawbacks, because I just was so ultra-PC that nobody could say anything or do anything without invoking my rage.”

Musto works alone. (He refuses to use interns. “They’re available for whatever, Xeroxing or getting you a Diet Coke,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I can do it myself.)

“Do you think if you were a kid now, you would be a blogger?” I asked.

Yeah,” Musto said. “I mean, it’s like in a way I was the original blogger. But now everyone in the world is a blogger, which means everyone on earth is a gossip columnist. I used to compete with maybe five people, now you’re competing with like five billion people.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “that’s sad.”

“It’s not sad, it’s kind of fabulous,” he said. “It certainly makes me scramble harder to stay relevant, but it also means everyone in the world has a voice.”

Even as his wit has grown more exact, and more regular, there have been setbacks and a certain crossover appeal has eluded Musto. He is bothered that the publishing date of his new collection, “Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back”-which was already pushed back by Alyson Books-is still up in the air. The other week, “230 Fifth,” a Midtown office tower’s rooftop enclosure, pulsated with the 550 people Michael Musto called his “best friends.” This was a planned book party, and now it was a party to celebrate his 25 years at the Voice.

Nightlife’s wilder species predominated: elderly cruisers, famous trannies, fag-hags, runny-nosed Chelsea Boys and ditzy fame whores. Musto had left an equally deep impression on the few non-scenesters in the room. Larry Keigwin, the choreographer, had read Musto as a confused suburban teen. He was with his partner, a patrician in a gray pinstriped suit. “The Voice has been part of my identity for 20 years,” Keigwin said. Even now? “Even now,” he said.

Musto attended stag. His last “serious boyfriend” was a six-month fling three years ago. (“I’m a little bit afraid of intimacy, so I’m much more comfortable just having sex — not even having sex, just making out in a night club or something and then just discarding them and going home,” he said. “I don’t like bringing people to my house.”)

Joan Rivers was there, though. “He’s a genius!” she said. “How come nobody in America knows him?” Her glassy-smooth features contorted to convey dismay.

While Musto’s wardrobe usually leans towards pink cowboy shirts and paisley felt jackets, he had dressed up for the occasion: slim cut gray-plaid suit, pink shirt and gray striped tie. He spent much of the night in a long-perfected stance: a hand cupped over his mouth, whispering sly one-liners to a succession of friends. He would periodically walk over to check up on his 90-year-old mother. I went to say hello, and she pulled me in close. “I’m very, very proud,” she said softly.

Matt Harvey is a New York City-based writer who writes primarily for New York Press. He has also contributed to the New York Observer, the New York Post, Time Out New York, Chelsea Now, the Villager, Exiled.com and Gawker.com.