Michael Alig died of a heroin overdose on Christmas morning—a tragic ending that those who knew the nightlife icon wouldn’t find surprising, or maybe even saw coming. Alig lived for drama and loved to make headlines; this sort of dark timing is something he might have even appreciated.
The 54-year-old nightclub fixture—whose life was immortalized in the movie Party Monster—was a countercultural legend, who came along with an infamous drug habit. Rising to celebrity status as New York’s most influential party boy, Alig was the ringleader of the city’s downtown Club Kid scene in the late 1980s and 90s. The Club Kids were known for their outlandish costumes, flagrant drug use, and guerilla-style illegal raves. In 1996, Alig rapidly descended to infamy after he murdered his ex-drug dealer, Andre “Angel” Melendez. After serving 17 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter, he was released in 2015, and I spent the next year charting his attempt to return to New York nightlife.
Psychedelic pioneers are often associated with ayahuasca shamans or mushroom curanderas like Maria Sabina, artists like Alex Grey, and philosopher kings like Timothy Leary, while today’s leading cultural conversation revolves around plant medicines, ceremonial use, FDA-approved psychedelic medications, and wellness—prioritizing healing over hedonism. But nightlife has an equally important and legitimate place in psychedelic culture, with dance floors serving as experimental and autonomous spaces where club kids, both in the 90s and today, have explored the therapeutic and mind-expanding benefits of MDMA, LSD, ketamine, and other drugs, long before their recent de-stigmatization in the mainstream.
Alig’s parties at seminal New York clubs like Limelight and Danceteria, as well as his renegade raves at hijacked Burger Kings and subway platforms, were notorious drug dens where he would give out Ecstasy pills like candy. These bacchanals were party drug paradises for all the misfits and weirdos who flocked to them; unlike the 80s Warhol era of nightlife, the doors were open to everyone fabulous enough to get in, not just celebrities and the wealthy. Alig often told me the Club Kids’ core truth was radical self-acceptance, and he wanted to help people discover their inner freaks. (“It doesn’t matter what you look like!” declares Alig’s friend James St. James in Party Monster’s most famous quote. “If you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go dancing!”)
But as his wild parties spiraled deeper into heavy drug use, Alig also struggled with addiction, often binging for days on a cocktail of heroin, Special K, Rohypnol, and cocaine. After going to jail for the murder of Melendez, which he claimed was caused by a drug-fueled fight, Alig spent extended stretches in solitary confinement because he kept failing his drug tests (yes, he got the drugs snuck in). When he was released in 2015, Alig attempted to return to the New York nightlife scene, throwing occasional parties at bars around the city. At the time, he told me that he was sober, and wanted to inspire others with problematic drug use to fight addiction and find redemption. But in 2017, he made headlines again when he was arrested for trespassing in a park with a crystal meth pipe. According to his most recent neighbor, one of the first questions he asked her when he moved in was where he could find dope. Alig’s ex-boyfriend found his body in bed shortly after midnight on Christmas morning.
Alig often told me the Club Kids’ core truth was radical self-acceptance, and he wanted to help people discover their inner freaks.
Last night I paid tribute to Michael the way he would have understood: head bowed, eyes closed, dancing through clenched tears to the rave anthem “Overdose” in my living room. I thought about how Alig was a deeply troubled and complicated figure who understood both the emancipatory freedom and dark delusions of drug use better than anyone else. In nightlife—as with psychedelics—there is a great universal truth lying beyond the realm of consciousness, somewhere you can only access if you close your eyes on a throbbing dance floor, something you can only touch through feelings, not words. At the same time, there is also a threshold that, once crossed, sometimes there is no coming back from.
In a year where we have lost so many to drug overdoses, souls slipping away silently in solitude, I hope Alig is now resting in a place where he can find forgiveness and peace, which is what he was searching for all along.