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BY CLARISSA-JAN LIM | Brendan Jay Sullivan is Lady Gaga’s former DJ and longtime friend from her grungy Lower East Side beginnings. He recently led this reporter on a walking tour around the neighborhood to talk about his new book, “Rivington Was Ours,” in which Sullivan regales readers with stories of his friendship with Gaga and their hardships struggling to make it as artists in New York City.
We stopped at Pianos, at 158 Ludlow St., a key early site in the rise of Lady Gaga.
“Gaga is trying to get booked all over town, but no one likes her sound because she seems a little too clean-cut for the Downtown crowd,” Sullivan recounted. “She’s not in a rock band, she’s not a Williamsburg girl, she’s from the Upper West Side. Meanwhile, these record companies, all they want to find out is who’s the next Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse because that was what was selling records at that time.
“So Gaga and I are down here. Everyone — us, the music industry, Downtown, everybody’s kind of looking for a savior. Everyone’s looking for a reason for music to be fun again. In the ’90s when you went out and saw a band, no one ever said, ‘Is this music fun? Can we dance to this? Are we having a good time?’ It was art rock. There was noise, all sorts of stuff.
“Me and Gaga, especially, were just about like, let’s play classic rock, disco, stuff you can keep people dancing to and have fun. And it was stuff you could play in the middle of a set. When you throw Gaga’s track on with a DJ already playing and a big dance party, it’s like the only way you can make a dance party go off the charts.
“Everybody listens to recorded music. But to have a singer of this song you’ve never heard be there and everybody’s already dancing — that just flew it off the charts. Pianos was the first place where we were able to do that.”
The next stop was 127 Ludlow St., until recently the home of Motor City bar.
“When The Killers played Madison Square Garden, they were put up here at the Hotel on Rivington,” Sullivan said. “I said, ‘We’ll set you up with a party after the show where it won’t be pretentious, it won’t be a club thing. It’s called Motor City, it’s Detroit-themed, it’s beautiful.’ And they loved that idea.
“Gaga and her boyfriend had tickets to see the show. And Gaga comes back… . Keep in mind, she just got dropped by her first record label; she’s got nothing going for her. … But she was so floored to see a rock band play Madison Square Garden that she started thinking of ideas of what she wanted to do. She was so excited.
“So she comes Downtown to Motor where the after-party is. I’m the DJ, friends are doing it, The Killers are there…Spectecular. So much fun. Gaga took that feeling — she had a studio session right after that — and she wrote the song “Boys Boys Boys.” She wanted it to be her version of the Motley Crue song “Girls Girls Girls.” It’s a song about a girl on a date with a guy, they have fun, and oh my God, afterwards they meet the band at a party Downtown where her friend’s the DJ.
Another favorite hangout of Gaga and Sullivan’s was Welcome to the Johnson’s, at 123 Rivington St.
“It’s just wonderful. You know, it looks like your friend’s parents’ basement,” he said. “Drinks are like $2. It’s totally unpretentious. Pool table’s $1.”
Another key stop along the way as Gaga was striving to make a name for herself was St. Jerome’s, at 155 Rivington St., now closed.
“We all worked there — me, Gaga, everyone who’s in the book,” Sullivan said. “The day I met her, somebody introduced us but I couldn’t hear what they said. So when she gave me her number I had to fake it because I didn’t want to say, ‘Sorry, I forgot your name.’
We’d been talking for two hours. So I say, ‘Do you want me to put you in my phone?’ And that’s the first time she said, ‘Gaga. Put me in your phone as Gaga.’ ”
Our next stop was 176 Stanton St.
“This was Gaga’s apartment,” he said. “You know how you can tell? Because it’s covered in graffiti from fans — ‘Love you Gaga,’ ‘Gaga I love you.’
“We had St. Jerome’s where all of us worked,” Sullivan recapped. “It was packed and we worked hard. On nights when we wanted to step away from it, we had places like 151 [Rivington]. When we wanted to hear bands play, we had Pianos.
“I know a lot of the places have closed, like Chelsea Hotel. Beauty Bar’s [on E. 14th St.] still open, it’s my favorite. I went there for five years. A lot of these places, they’re still open, they’re still fun, they’re still cheap. And right now in those exact places where my book happened, there are people who walk in there and there’s still this vibe. They’re not saying what internship they have. They’re saying like, ‘Oh, I’m a painter, I want to be a writer… .’
“When people talk about Gaga, they talk about her now and they sometimes say, ‘Well it’s a lot better than when she was in those dirty dive bars in the Lower East Side with these drugs.’ But you know, that was probably the most beautiful part, and a very important part of her career and life that people look down on because they don’t understand it. And that’s why I wrote the book.
“The fun part of the story,” Sullivan said, “is I meet Gaga when she was very young, and I get to help her along, and Gaga and I become each other’s first fans. About two-thirds of the way into the book, Gaga just says, ‘O.K., this is happening and I want you to come along with me. I want us to do our thing — you DJ and I come out and do my songs, but we’re just going to take that on the road.’
“And then it was just one thing after another, after getting ignored for so many years. Nobody wanted to hear Gaga when she started — nobody. And after all these years, one day the record company calls and says, ‘We’re going now, because we’re late on this and we want this to be the song of the summer 2008 — “Just Dance.” ’ If you ever see the music video to “Just Dance,” I’m in it, just dancing.”