"Watching the sun come up Sunday morning from the rooftop of the Paradise Garage after a night of ecstatic dancing was one of the most beautiful experiences of New York City nightlife. Much like greeting the sun after an great all-night rave these days. Something one never forgets..." Apollo, on the Paradise Garage.
XII. I LOVE THE NIGHTLIFE
Dancers are truly creatures of the night. Like characters out of an Anne Rice novel, our bodies and souls come alive when the sun goes down. We are nourished by the night music, night moves, night beats -- night life. We work our bodies, jack our bodies when the rest of the world is asleep. The dawn brings delight, for at that exact moment we are closest to those we love most: other dancers of the night.
A. BACK TO THE DISCO UNDERGROUND: MORE DIVISIONS
1. Different Disco Genres
Last issue we discussed some of the more obvious divisions in the NYC disco nightlife of the seventies. These divisions greatly affected the development of musical styles over time, especially the foundations of house music.
Music critics at the time divided disco music into three sub genres: popular disco; R&B disco; and Euro disco.
Popular disco was the commercial, "white" music, often insipid, that was designed to support the "Saturday Night Fever" above ground scene. Think Bee Gees and Andy Gibb. This music is best buried and forgotten and had no impact on house or later electronic dance music.
R&B disco was the authentic sub genre that gave birth to modern dance music. This African American disco sound arose, as we said, in the gay black underground and was rooted in funk, Philly Soul, gospel and Motown. LaBelle, Rick James, Gloria Gaynor, Taana Gardner and Thelma Houston are representative R&B disco artists. This sound was what one danced to at the black gay venues like the Paradise Garage.
Euro disco was the sub genre created by George Moroder and featured synthesized sound effects and rhythms. The first all-synthesized disco album was Moroder's "From Here To Eternity."
It was the merger of the latter two, R&B disco and Euro disco, in the gay black underground dance scene that eventually produced house and EDM as we know it today. Some have said that house music is really garage on a budget. That is, instead of using live musicians with big budgets the house pioneers in Chicago recreated the Paradise Garage sound electronically and thus inexpensively using a few synthesizers and drum machines.
2. Racial and Other Segregation
This is a very difficult subject to address, for there undeniably was and is shameful segregation in modern dance culture. I have said that it was in the 70's that diverse groups of people, including gays and straights, first came together on the dance floor. This is true, and that in itself is remarkable testimony to the power of music and dance.
But it is also true that the mainstream disco scene, both straight and gay, was segregated along racial lines. This fact is often glossed over or ignored in discussions of our culture then and now. I have never quite understood why this is so. What bigoted door and promotion policies, hidden individual racial fears, socioeconomic elitism, or downright overt prejudice created these divisions? How is it that the creators of the music are not welcome to dance to their music?
Certainly there were token groups of blacks and Hispanics who attended the mainstream discos in NYC, but the majority of gay blacks and Hispanics who wanted to dance had no warm and welcoming large club venue until the arrival of the Paradise Garage.
This segregation continues to this day. The current gay dance scene is now defined by circuit culture which, from my observation, is very white and middle class. One need not attend gay discos to arrive at this conclusion. One need only look at the promotional fliers, club rags and magazines.
Further, I believe we have to honestly examine our own rave subculture. It has been characterized by many outsiders as race segregated -- a primarily white, middle class phenomena. Armand Van Helden went so far as to define trance, one of the most popular mainstream rave EDM genres, as racist. Is this true? I personally believe there is much work to be done here to make our dancefloors more attractive to people of color.
Finally, in the disco era there was gender segregation in the gay subculture. Most gay men did not want to dance in a venue that was balanced by gender. Didn't matter if the women were lesbians or not. On the other side I got the feeling that gay men were not welcome in the lesbian haunts of the time, for this was the age of radical feminism and even in the gay/lesbian community there was ugly political divisiveness.
Yes, segregation was and is a depressing reality. I find it unnatural. Something antithetical to the spirit of music and dance as I, at least, envision it: that magical tribal experience where many become one in love and peace.
3. Divisions by Choice of Drug
I have no data to back this claim, but it was my experience that different drugs were associated with different disco segments in the 70's.
The mainstream and uptown scene was heavily into "performance" drugs, especially cocaine and meth. Cocaine became such a status item that one could buy expensive little nose candy kits at upscale boutiques all over town. I still have one that I received as a gift. Each kit contained a small vial for the coke, a mirror upon which one could drop a couple of lines, a gold-plated tube for snorting lines off the mirror, and a little spoon, also gold, for an alternative trip to the nose. All packaged in a fine leather wallet. One could find these kits in the pockets of suits on Wall Street as well as disco divas at Studio 54. When one got too buzzed up, you took a Quaalude to offset the edge.
If one was gay, one also had a vial of "poppers" or amyl nitrate. This liquid was originally designed to dilate the blood vessels of heart patients and produced a warm, wild rush throughout the body including the sexual parts. Used for dancing and sex, the substance was often poured onto cotton in a metal cylinder with a screw on cap and hole for snorting that was worn around the neck. This was for safety's sake. Poppers were highly flammable. One could still smoke in clubs. Doing the stuff from the glass vial with cigarette or joint burning could easily ignite a disco diva's wig into a flaming horror. I have seen it.
While cocaine and speed were everywhere, it is interesting to note that the drugs of choice in the black, gay underground scene were LSD, marijuana, Angel Dust...the staples of the 60's. The punchbowls at the Paradise Garage were laced by Larry Levan with just the right amount of LSD -- not too much -- to augment the sound and the visuals. Everyone used to comment on that extraordinary punch. It was certainly part of the vibe of the place.
I've not done this overview of drug segmentation to glorify drug use. I'm reporting the facts as I saw them. From the perspective of musical evolution, however, one might note that much of the best underground music in those days was created and produced by folks on acid. Further, and even more interesting, I hope to establish a direct connection with the acid house movement in the UK and the Paradise Garage.
B. BACK TO THE DISCO UNDERGROUND: LARRY'S NEW GIGS.
In 1974, in the early spring I believe, Larry Levan left the Continental Baths for a richer soundscape. Rich Long, the best audio designer of the time, and the talent who assembled David Mancuso's awesome sound system at the Loft, invited Larry to spin at his new club, SoHo Place. SoHo Place was also a loft -- located on Broadway.
Larry was delighted. The sound system at the Continental was mediocre compared to the fabulous new toys he could play with at SoHo. Further, this was another black gay friendly venue like the Loft. Here Larry learned from Rich the art of high-end sound engineering, and came to understand what many in the club business did not: quality sound engineering and components are critical for an outstanding dancefloor experience.
There were problems almost immediately with the neighbors and police. SoHo was relatively small and they were cited for overcrowding. It was closed in the summer of '74.
1. Reade Street -- the Precursor to Paradise Garage.
It was at this time that Larry met Michael Brody.
Although NYC is a big town, the disco music business was built by an intimate, incestuous little family. Michael Brody was the ex-lover (by that time) of Mel Cheren, the founder and President of West End Records, a disco power house.
Michael, like David Mancuso, was attracted to black men as well as R&B disco. Michael was very impressed with Larry and offered him a job as resident DJ at his new gay, black club, Reade Street.
Larry seemed to be initially ambivalent about spinning at Reade Street, but he ended up accepting the offer. This was a fateful decision and the beginning of a thirteen-year Larry-Michael business relationship that included the creation of the legendary Paradise Garage.
Reade Street was a bizarre venue located in Tribecca between Hudson and Greenwich. The club was built in a still-functioning meat storage facility with functional temperature controls.
I wasn't aware of this first night I went. We were dancing one minute in heat that felt like a blazing inferno. Everyone was sweating and ready to drop. Then, suddenly, the temperature would drop so that it felt as if one had been teleported instantaneously to the North Pole. Turned out Larry had controls to the refrigeration unit installed in the DJ booth and he was manipulating the temperature according to his mood.
If the crowd was unhappy with his selection of music he would lower the temp. Or he might do it to emphasize a musical point, or just for fun. Larry WAS a control freak, especially when it came to the creation of the total environment for any club in which he was spinning.
Dancing in Larry's meat locker was certainly one of the most unusual experiences in my dance career.