Andy Warhol’s Dracula
Anno Dracula 1978-79
He stepped out of the Chelsea Hotel onto the sidewalk of West 23rd Street and tasted New York. It was the dead time, the thick hours before dawn, when all but the most committed night owls were home abed, or at least crashed out on a floor, their blood sluggish with coffee, cigarettes or drugs. This was the vampire afternoon. Johnny understood how alone he was. There were other vampires in this city – he was almost ready to seek them out – but none like him, of his line.
America was vast, bloated with rich, fatty blood. The fresh country supported only a few ticks that tentatively poked probosces through thick hide, sampling without gorging. By comparison, Johnny was a hungry monster. Minutes after taking Nancy, he could have fed again, and again. He had to take more than he needed. He could handle dozens of warm bodies a night without bursting, without choking on the ghosts. Eventually, he would make children-in-darkness, slaves to serve him, to shield him. He must pass on the bloodline of the Father. But not yet.
He hadn’t intended to come to this city of towers, with its moat of running water. His plan was to stick to the film people he had hooked up with in the Old Country and go to fabled Hollywood on the Pacific. But there was a mix-up at JFK and he was detained in Immigration while the rest of the company, American passports brandished like protective banners, were waved on to catch connecting flights to Los Angeles or San Francisco. He was stuck at the airport in a crowd of overeager petitioners, dark-skinned and warm, as dawn edged threateningly closer. The Father was with him then, as he slipped into a men’s room and bled a Canadian flight attendant who gave him a come-on, invigorating himself with something new and wild. Buzzing with fresh blood, first catch of this new land, he concentrated his powers of fascination to face down the officials who barred his way. It was beneath him to bribe those who could be overpowered by force of will.
America was disorienting. To survive, he must adapt swiftly. The pace of change in this century was far more rapid than the glacial shifts of the long years the Father spent in his Carpathian fastness. Johnny would have to surpass the Father to keep ahead, but bloodline would tell. Though of an ancient line, he was a twentieth-century creature, turned only thirty-four years earlier, taken into the dark before he was formed as a living man. In Europe, he had been a boy, hiding in the shadows, waiting. Here, in this bright America, he could fulfil his potential. People took him for a young man, not a child.
Johnny Pop had arrived.
He knew he had been noticed. He was working hard to fit in, recognising how gauche he had been a few short weeks ago. On his first nights in New York, he had made mistakes. Blood in the water excited the sharks.
Someone stood on the corner, watching him. Two black men in long leather coats. One wore dark glasses despite the hour, the other had a slim-brimmed hat with a tiny feather in the band. Not vampires, but there was something of the predator about them. They were well armed. Silver shoe-buckles and buttons, coats loose over guns. And their bodies were weapons, a finished blade, an arrow shaft. From inside his coat, the black man in sunglasses produced a dark knife. Not silver, but polished hardwood.
Johnny tensed, ready to fight and kill. He had just fed. He was at his strongest.
The knifeman smiled. He balanced his weapon by its point, and tapped his forehead with its hilt, a warrior salute. He would not attack yet. His presence was an announcement, a warning. He was showing himself. This man had seen Johnny before he was seen. His night skills were sharp.
Then, the knifeman and his partner were gone. They seemed to disappear, to step into a shadow even Johnny’s night eyes could not penetrate.
He suppressed a shudder. This city was not yet his jungle and he was exposed here – out on the street in a white suit that shone like a beacon – as he had not been in the Old Country.
The black men should have destroyed him now. When they had a chance. Johnny would do his best to see they did not get another.
It was time to move on, to join the crowd.
A mustard-yellow taxi cruised along the street, emerging like a dragon from an orange-pink groundswell of steam. Johnny hailed the cab and slid into its cage-like interior. The seat was criss-crossed with duct tape, battlefield dressings on a fatal wound. The driver, a gaunt white man with a baggy military jacket, glanced instinctively at the rear-view mirror, expecting to lock eyes with his fare. Johnny saw surprise in the young man’s face as he took in the reflection of an empty hack. He twisted to look into the dark behind him and saw Johnny there, understanding at once what he had picked up.
‘You have a problem?’ Johnny asked.
After a moment, the taxi driver shrugged.
‘Hell, no. A lot of guys won’t even take spooks, but I’ll take anyone. They all come out at night.’
Behind the driver’s gun-sight eyes, Johnny saw jungle twilight, purpled by napalm blossoms. He heard the reports of shots fired years ago. His nostrils stung with dead cordite.
Uncomfortable, he broke the connection.
Johnny told the driver to take him to Studio 54.
Even now, this late in the night, a desperate line lingered outside the club. Their breath frosted in a cloud and they stamped unfashionably shoed feet against the cold. Losers with no chance, they would cajole and plead with Burns and Stu, the hard-faced bouncers, but never see the velvet rope lifted. An invisible sign was on their foreheads. Worse than dead, they were boring.
Johnny paid off the cab with sticky bills lifted from Nancy’s purse, and stood on the sidewalk, listening to the throb of the music from inside. ‘Pretty Baby’, Blondie. Debbie Harry’s living-dead voice called to him.
The taxi did not move off. Was the driver hoping for another fare from among these damned? No, he was fixing Johnny in his mind. A man without a reflection should be remembered.
‘See you again soon, Jack,’ said the white man.
Like the black men outside the Chelsea, the taxi driver was a danger. Johnny had marked him. It was good to know who would come for you, to be prepared. The white man’s name was written on his license just as his purpose was stamped on his face. It was Travis. In Vietnam, he had learned to look monsters in the face, even in the mirror.
The cab snarled to life and prowled off.
Moving with the music, Johnny crossed the sidewalk towards the infernal doorway, reaching out with his mind to reconnect with the bouncers, muscular guys with Tom of Finland leather caps and jackets. Burns was a moonlighting cop with sad eyes and bruises, Stu a trust-fund kid with his own monster father in his head; Johnny’s hooks were in both of them, played out on the thinnest of threads. They were not, would never be, his get, but they were his. First, he would have warm chattels; get would come later.
He enjoyed the wails and complaints from the losers as he breezed past the line, radiating an ‘open sesame’ they could never manage. Stu clicked the studded heels of his motorcycle boots and saluted, fingers aligned with the peak of his black-leather forage cap with Austro-Hungarian precision. Burns smartly lifted the rope, the little sound of the hook being detached from the eye exciting envious sighs, and stood aside. To savour the moment, Johnny paused in the doorway, knowing the spill of light from inside made his suit shine like an angelic raiment, and surveyed those who would never get in. Their eyes showed such desperation that he almost pitied them.
Two weeks ago, he had been among them, drawn to the light but kept away from the flame. Like some older creatures of his kind, he could not force his way into a place until he had been invited across the threshold. Then, his clothes – found in a suitcase chosen at random from the carousel at the airport – had not been good. Being nosferatu was unusual enough to get him attention. Steve Rubell, passing the door, took note of Johnny’s sharp, beautiful face. Possessed of the knack of seeing himself as others saw him, Johnny understood the owner-manager was intrigued by the vampire boy on his doorstep. But Shining Lucifer himself couldn’t get into 54 with a Bicentennial shirt, cowboy boots and black hair flattened like wet sealskin to his skull.
When he came back, the next night, he wore clothes that fit: a Halston suit – black outside in the dark, with a violet weave that showed under the lights – and a Ralph Lauren shirt with fresh bloodstains across the polo player. They still smelled faintly of their previous owner, Tony from Brooklyn. The bouncers didn’t even need to check with Steve to let Johnny in. He took the opportunity, later that night in the back rooms, to lay a tiny smear of his blood on them both, apparently a token of gratitude, actually a sigil of ownership. Johnny was saving them for later, knowing they would be needed.
As he ducked past the curtains and slid into 54, Johnny felt Tony’s ghost in his limbs. He had taken much from Tony Manero, whom he had exsanguinated on Brooklyn Bridge. From the boy, he had caught the blood rhythms that matched the music of the month. Tony had been a dancer; Johnny had inherited that from him, along with his fluffed-up but flared-back hairstyle and clothes that were not just a protective cover but a style, a display.
Tony was with him most nights now, a ghost. The kid had never made it to 54, but he’d been better than Brooklyn, good enough for Manhattan. Johnny thought Tony, whose empty carcass he had weighted and tossed off the bridge, would be happy that some of him at least had made it in the real city. When the blood was still fresh in him, Johnny had followed its track, back to Tony’s apartment, and slipped in – unnoticed by the kid’s family, even the fallen priest – to take away his wardrobe, the night-clothes that were now his armour.
He let the music take him, responding to it with all his blood. Nancy’s ghost protested, making puking motions at the sound of the disco despised by all true punks. By taking her, Johnny had won a great victory in the style wars. He liked killing punks. No one noticed when they were gone. They were all committing slow suicide anyway; that was the point, for there was no future. To love disco was to want to live forever, to aspire to an immortality of consumption. Punks didn’t believe in anything beyond death, and loved nothing, not even themselves.
He wondered what would happen to Sid.
A man in the moon puppet, spooning coke up his nose, beamed down from the wall, blessing the throng with a 1978 benediction. As Johnny stepped onto the illuminated floor and strutted through the dancers, his suit shone like white flame. He had the beat with his every movement. Even his heart pulsed in time to the music. He smiled as he recognised the song, fangs bright as neons under the strobe, eyes red glitter balls. This was the music he had made his own, the song that meant the most of all the songs.
‘Staying Alive’, The Bee Gees.
In its chorus, he heard the wail of the warm as they died under his kisses, ah-ah-ah-ah, staying alive. In its lyric, he recognised himself: a woman’s man with no time to talk.
His dancing cleared a circle.
It was like feeding. Without even taking blood, he drew in the blood of the crowd to himself, loosening the ghosts of those who danced with him from their bodies. Tulpas stretched out through mouths and noses and attached to him like ectoplasmic straws. As he danced, he sucked with his whole body, tasting minds and hearts, outshining them all. No one came near, to challenge him. The Father was proud of him.
For the length of the song, he was alive.