"It was a fantasy. Everything was up for grabs at the Baths. EVERYONE was up for grabs." - Frankie Knuckles.
VIII. BOYS, BATHS AND BEATS
I got to know Larry Levin well when we were both in our late teens.
In the early seventies I was a student. When I wasn't studying or making music I would head into NYC every chance I could get.
Even a very poor, virtually homeless student like me could travel about and get over with some street smarts and ingenuity. My method of travel like most kids in the day was hitch-hiking. My "luggage" was an extra pair of jeans, undies, and a toothbrush. Accommodations were as easily, and often as cheaply, obtained as travel. One could hustle up an overnight pad by making connections in a club. If that failed, there was always the YMCA. Or a bath house.
The bath house is an ancient institution. The Greeks and Romans had often ornate public baths that were used for, of course, bathing and also as relaxed, general meeting places. The gay bath had been around in most major cities long before Stonewall. Disguised as legit steam baths, and often private, the bath house enabled men who feared outing as homosexuals to meet in a relatively safe haven.
The gay bath house turned the usual hierarchy of society upside down. It was very democratic in that rich, poor, old and young, executive and janitor came together in the same place. Clothes and accessories did not convey rank or status because one wore only a towel...or nothing. There was a hierarchy here, of course. It wasn't based on wealth or fame.
One paid a very small amount to enter for twelve hours. For the lowest price you got a locker and key; for a bit more you could get a private room. If you knew someone you could often get in for free. There was often food on the premises or, with the in and out privilege, you could go out and get some eats and tour the city. Thus, one could use the bath as a cheap hotel and entertainment center.
The primary purpose of the baths was to facilitate sex. But the baths, like in Roman days, were also very important places to socialize and make contacts. Face it, no one can have at it 24/7. Most of the time was spent talking. It was here that I met many ultimately influential people in the dance music scene: DJs, producers, club owners and promoters, including Larry and Frankie. Also, it was here, as in other gay venues of the era, that some very important music was played for the first time.
I must confess that when I discovered these places I was not the most sexually liberated kid in the world. I had engaged in public nudity at some rock concerts and at one memorable anti-war protest in DC where a bunch of us kids threw off our clothes and bounced around naked in a fountain whilst the police looked on and the cameras rolled. But nudity here had a more, well, purposeful intent. And I was never comfortable with the towel. Even to this day I can't wrap a bath towel around me so that it stays on for any length of time. Try dancing in one. Then, I mostly walked around with the thing held in front of me, so to speak.
A. THE CONTINENTAL BATHS: TWO ALTAR BOYS
Gay bath houses before Stonewall were often pretty shabby, dirty places I hear. But with the revolution things changed and in 1969 Steve Ostrow opened a really magnificent, huge bath venue in the Ansonia hotel. This was the famous Continental Baths.
The Continental Baths was really like a little cruise ship. One could literally live in there for days at a time if one wished. The Continental had a swimming pool, steam baths, a gym, little stores and restaurants, bars, a dance floor, a salon, apartments, a movie theater and a cabaret stage (where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their start). And of course there was always music, music, music. Since I got to know some of the people who managed the place I usually got in for free, and so I used the Continental as my home base.
"Straight" people (I use this term for convenience because I don't believe the issue of preference is so simple) came to the Continental to see the shows, so one would often see trendy folks in suits and nite attire sitting about with gay men in towels.
I first actually talked to Larry at the Continental. I had seen him around, especially at The Gallery, but I only knew him on a wave n' smile basis.
My first conversation with Larry, interestingly, was about religion. It turned our we both had been altar boys. I had been a Catholic altar boy, he an Episcopalian acolyte. This came up, I believe, in the context of psychedelics as sacraments and Larry's penchant for putting things in punch.
Although he was an animated, energetic kid he had some health problems. Asthma attacks for one. And heart problems.
His mother Minnie was a seamstress. She was not married and his father was the absentee type. Minnie was a passionate lover of jazz, blues and gospel singers and they had a large record collection. Larry said she taught him to use the family record player when he was only three years old. They would dance together to the music.
When he was five Larry actually had his first DJ gig. He played records at the birthday party for a neighbor kid.
Now I'm not attempting to create some mythology here. Although I am openly biased, loved the guy, and now believe he was one hell of a genius on the turntables and a master crafter of club environments and creator of new musical genres -- then we were both boys talking about music, sex and getting by in the city. Had he been around as a boy now, he would probably have become a computer programmer. He was very bright, had an aptitude for math and physics, and could wire up lighting and systems better than anyone I had ever met. But Larry, as I recall, had no big plans to become a famous DJ. He loved music, was a school drop out, and was working the system to survive. Neither did Frankie who felt that, given the average tenure back then for a DJ was about two years, attempting to make a permanent career in music was poor planning. Me, I was planning to stay in school as long as I could, then write and make music.
Larry told me about his musical connections and introduced me over time to a number of people in the business, including Mancuso and Cheren. He also felt he was getting screwed about at The Gallery and was anxious to find a venue where he could try the skills he was learning from Siano as a DJ. I got the impression he had had an affair with Siano and that didn't work out, so additional drama.
The DJ at the Continental Baths at the time was a guy named Joey. Larry eventually talked Joey into hiring him to work the lights on the dance floor since Larry was a master on the light board. Joey was a moody diva type and one day he got pissed off about something, walked out, leaving Larry to finish the set.
Well, this was Larry's big opportunity. Management fired Joey and told Larry that if he could assemble enough records to put together a set and deliver he had the job. Using the contacts he had developed with Siano, Larry ran all over town collecting recordings from various sources for free, because he couldn't afford to buy them. And then he spun his first set as a professional DJ.
Even from the very beginning Larry was a god with the turntables and had amazing intuition and skill when it came to building music freshly and innovatively to drive dancers to ecstasy.
B. PHILLY SOUL
Like Siano, Larry introduced Philly soul music into the mix at the Continental. Some called this the "Philadelphia Sound." This music was characterized by a very heavy bottom, smooth highs, hard-driving percussion and funky basslines with a male or female vocal.
The form was pioneered by Philadelphia producers Gamble and Huff who rolled out hits like "Love Train" by the O'Jays, "The Love I Lost" by Melvin and the Blue Notes, and "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul. This soul music, combined with the forms previously discussed including funk and Motown, was another stone in the foundation of the House that Jack built.
C. FRANKIE AT THE BATHS
Frankie had also left The Gallery and was spinning on Mondays and Tuesdays at another gay club called Better Days. Business was slow on those nights so the managers eventually fired him.
Friend Larry came to the rescue and got him a gig spinning Mondays and Tuesdays at the Continental.
The Continental by this time was the city's most famous bath house and attracted not only sex lovers but a wide range of folks interested in dance music and musical developments. The two, Larry and Frankie, soon moved from virtual unknowns in the city's dance culture to two rising stars in the underground dance scene.