Austin's club scene has a godfather. Here's his story.
This story was originally published on February 27, 2020.
At a club on Sixth Street just before midnight on a Saturday, there is anarchy: A woman dressed as a mermaid climbs onstage in front of the DJ booth, holding a large inflatable ice cream cone. Someone licks it. A man on the dance floor is dressed as Santa Claus; a woman wears furry, white bell bottoms.
These misfits punctuate the thrumming house music. Beat. Santa Claus. Beat. Mermaid.
Then a disco ball emerges – a disco ball on a stick. The man carrying it dons a fur hat, sunglasses and a black kerchief around his neck. He fits in among the chaos because he’s just that: a shimmery oddity, a “sparkly unicorn,” as one friend describes him.
His name is Yorkie Louie, but he’s crowned himself the "Godfather of Clubbing." An anonymous listener wrote to KUT’s Hi, Who Are You? project about him: "‘Keeping it Weird’ is embodied by @godfatherofclubbing. Never met him, but regularly see him on the dance floor."
We wanted to meet him for ourselves.
'It Was Like Freaksville'
At 67 years old, Yorkie goes clubbing every weekend, typically with a crew called Vibe Vessel. The 20-somethings behind the operation throw dance parties throughout the city, many of which Yorkie promotes on his Instagram account.
“Hi kids, it’s another hot one on Planet Austin,” Yorkie says in one video posted last July, as he encourages people to spend the night at a party on Sixth Street. (Yorkie calls his younger friends his kids or grandkids; they call him Pop-Pop.) “But I’m here to tell you this Saturday, it’s only gonna get hella hotter.”
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In these videos, you can hear Yorkie’s native New Yorker: Yorkie becomes Yawkie. He was one of seven kids born and raised in the suburbs of Long Island, but he described Manhattan as his playground. The family spent weekends in Chinatown, Central Park and the Lower East Side.
“Back then it was very Hasidim,” Yorkie says. “It was like really going back in time to the old Jewish delis with the big barrels full of pickles, and there were things hanging all over the place from the fire escapes.”
By his mid-20s, he decided to leave New York and move to San Francisco, where one of his sisters lived. It was the late 1970s and the city was full of hippies and punks, of Harvey Milk, Jim Jones and the Dead Kennedys. Yorkie showed up wide-eyed.
“It was like Freaksville,” he says. “Everybody was just being themselves, and I just loved it.”
At work in his new office, Yorkie met a man with curly auburn hair named Michael Faino.
“He had a big, huge personality and everybody loved him.”
Yorkie did, too, eventually, and they became a couple. But after a few years in San Francisco, the couple decided to move to New York. The nightlife just couldn’t compete.
“I was in my 20s,” Yorkie says. “And the clubs closing at 2 o’clock was like, what? I just needed to go back home.”
'The Government Just Didn't Care'
Back in New York, Yorkie started working at a shop in the West Village. Just blocks away and a decade earlier, men and women rioted after police raided a gay club, the Stonewall Inn. The six days of protest came to be known as the Stonewall Riots, a significant moment in the fight for gay rights in the U.S.
Yorkie eventually opened a clothing store in the neighborhood, called Reckless NYC.
“It was a total club kid store,” he says. “No one came into the store because they needed something, because we didn’t have anything that anybody needed. We had things that you wanted.”
Yorkie worked at the store during the day and went clubbing with Michael and his friends at night.
“It was fun, it was hard, it was everything,” he recalls.
But soon, people around him started getting sick. It was the early 1980s, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. The New York Times published its first story on the disease in July 1981, under the headline: “Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals.”
“They didn’t have a name for it,” Yorkie says. “They were calling it 'gay cancer' in the beginning.”
By 1982, the year Yorkie moved back to New York, hundreds of people had died from the disease. That year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the mortality rate was as high as 60%. But it would be years before President Ronald Regan would publicly acknowledge AIDS.
“The only people who were dying from AIDs [were] gay people and drug addicts," Yorkie says, "and the government just didn’t care."
As scientists struggled to understand the disease, Yorkie says, he watched people around him waste away.
“I lost every single one of my friends to AIDS,” he says. “You just have to sit and wonder, 'Why am I here?'”
In 1993, more than 10 years after Yorkie moved back to New York and more than 15 years into their relationship, Michael passed away. Yorkie says after watching friends spend years drifting in and out of hospitals battling AIDS-related illnesses, Michael died less than two weeks after his first hospital stay.
Yorkie closed his store and left New York.
“I went back to San Francisco, because that’s where I had met him,” he says. “I just wanted to go back to a place where it was happy for me.”
According to friends, Michael’s death became a defining moment in Yorkie’s life.
“He talks about eras,” Roxy Van Der Lelie, one of Yorkie’s best friends, says. There's before Michael, with Michael and after Michael. "He carries Michael’s spirit with him now."
'I Literally Became Invisible'
In San Francisco, Yorkie fell in love again and began to get his life back.
But then the city that had been a haven for so many began to change. Tech companies set up their headquarters, attracting more and more high-paid workers. As The New York Times reported last year, gathering places for the LGBTQ community shut down amid rapidly rising property values.
“I just saw the whole neighborhood change and even the younger gay guys that moved in never said hello,” Yorkie says. “I would say hello to them and they would just ignore me and go running away. And I literally became invisible.”
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He felt ignored by a city that had once embraced and restored him. The loss felt profound.
“I think it probably echoed a loss he felt when he lost Michael and New York,” Roxy says.
Yorkie said he became a shut-in, refusing to leave the house other than to go to work. His partner, Clyde McConnell, suggested a move: What about Austin, Texas?
“That’s when I just blew up,” he says. “I’m already feeling the rope around my neck. I can never live in f------ Texas.”
But Yorkie became increasingly desperate to leave San Francisco, and in 2015, he and Clyde moved south.
His friend Kiki Avilez says Yorkie is good at knowing when to reinvent himself.
“I think he's good at, or has found a good way, to let go and be able to move on,” she says.
'Welcome To Planet Austin'
Landing in Austin in his early 60s, Yorkie didn’t know anyone but Clyde. The two still loved to go clubbing and were regulars at places on Sixth Street like the now-shuttered Ethics Music Lounge and Kingdom.
One weekend Clyde had to work, so Yorkie went out by himself.
“My plan [was] to walk into the club, get my beer and walk onto the dance floor and go right in front of the DJ so I could not see what was behind me," he says. "So, if people were pointing at me or laughing at me, I wouldn’t know.”
Instead, people went up to him and said they loved his energy and his dance moves. Yorkie started making friends, including many of the younger people who would come to found Vibe Vessel in 2018. He started to build a community he could welcome others to: “Aliens, freaks, misunderstood, bullied, dreamers … come on in. You have a home here.”
“Welcome to Planet Austin,” he likes to say.
Despite Yorkie having the spirit of a 24-year-old, Kiki says, he often serves as a sort of sage to the younger clubbers.
“He reminds people: hydrate, take care of yourself,” she says. “The reason he’s been able to last so long is because he takes care of himself.”
Yorkie often dances alone at the club. His moves aren’t flashy; his body hums, his legs steady and rooted, with most of the movement coming from his upper body. He wears sunglasses with a third lens above the eyes, sometimes called "third eye" glasses.
Roxy says he talks to himself.
“He’s like, ‘That’s right mother------,” she says, laughing. “'That’s right, we’re freaks.’ He’s just like preaching and letting go. Usually he’s wearing glasses so he can keep his eyes closed.”
On the dance floor, Yorkie says, he often conjures up friends he used to go clubbing with, like Michael. Many of his club friends say dancing is a way to forget, to let go; but Yorkie says sometimes dancing is a form of reminiscing.
“I’ll just do a little move that I’ll remember they did,” he says. “They’re all living through me.”
Yorkie has grieved the losses of Michael, New York and San Francisco. Friends say he works hard to stay positive.
"He’s so grateful to not be sad anymore,” Roxy says. “As a person that’s been sad, once you’re not sad, all you want to do is not be sad again.”
"He's so grateful to not be sad anymore. As a person that's been sad, once you're not sad, all you want to do is not be sad again."
The grief he’s experienced gives him a knack for finding people who look lost. Take Roxy, for example: The 26-year-old moved to Austin to be with a partner; when they broke up she felt adrift. She went out with friends and met Yorkie on the dance floor roughly three years ago.
“I was on the dance floor really getting down, feeling it, and then there was my mirror in front of me doing the same exact thing,” she says. “I don’t even know if we even spoke. I think we might have just started hugging or something really dramatic. From that moment on, we were just friends.”
Yorkie is quick to hug, quick to laugh, quick to dance. And, because he’s deemed himself the "Godfather," quick to give advice:
“Tips for clubbing! One is you have to rest up. Two, you have to hydrate. Three, you have to eat something. And four, you need to fireproof your shoes,” Yorkie often says.
“And then you’ll be ready to hit the floor.”
Update: After this story was published, Yorkie Louie moved to Colorado.
Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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