"If Studio 54 was the most famous disco of the hype, the Paradise Garage was the most influential and effective club of the disco age. The Paradise Garage survived the period of disco frenzy unscathed. The Garage...never succumbed to the temptation of being everyone's club or one of the top ten thousand, but remained true to the roots of disco music and above all the disco spirit: disco was underground, and nothing in the Paradise Garage suggested that is had ever been otherwise."
-Ulf Poschardt, "DJ-Culture" (Quarter Books Limited, London, 1998), p. 145.
XVI. PARADISE REGAINED
The Paradise Garage managed to be one of the handful of bright stars in the increasing darkness of the over-commercialized disco scene of the late seventies. And one of the few excellent venues to survive the anti-disco purge of '79 and the anti-gay homophobic movements and onset of AIDS in the eighties. It thus became an important bridge from genuine underground disco music of the early seventies to the creation of house music in the eighties.
One would have wished this had been part of some grand plan by the management to maintain the club's unique underground musical treasure and spirit rather than participate in the money-driven frenzy of late disco, but this was not really the case.
After the grand opening fiasco it was decided that more of the construction-like parties would continue while the staff worked on additional improvements to the garage and the sound system -- although no one could convince Michael to install heating and air conditioning. Too expensive. The dancers could generate enough heat in the winter to keep the place somewhat toasty, but in the summer the Garage was like a sauna. Along with the fine-tuning of the venue we would redecorate the whole place each week so that the patrons would always experience something new and often amazing when they walked up the ramp and into the club.
This weekly transformation concept led to the creation of various fantasy parties throughout 1978. The first of these was the infamous anti-Easter party given around Easter of that year which required everyone to dress in black (which ended up being mostly leather) instead of Easter white. It was at this party that Larry delivered his fabulous on-floor remix of Evelyn King's new song "Shame" which became a hit nationally.
That spring there was a big fire in Brooklyn and the Garage had a "Fire" party with pictures of naked porn stars and the fire and firemen projected on the walls. Tutenkhamen came to town and we did a "Tut" party.
The membership roles continued to grow, perhaps more gradually than before, although the Garage continued to be more black and Latino in composition than white.
1. The Black vs. White Issue
There was only one area where the Garage membership policy was exclusionary. Everyone agreed that the club should be primarily gay, so if one went to the door or approached a promoter one was asked a series of questions about the gay underground. If you didn't know the answers you usually weren't considered for a card, although this was not a hard and fast rule. There were so many straight guys pretending to be gay to experience the Garage that eventually they made Friday straight membership night.
When it came to race, however, there was absolutely no discrimination to my knowledge one way or the other. I promoted to a diverse group of people both white and of color.
While it is true the clientele was predominately black and Latino there were always a fair number of white dancers in attendance, and as the reputation of Larry and the Garage grew it became a hangout for music industry executives, DJs, and celebrities of all races.
But no matter what Michael did, and he tried everything, he could not attract the percentage of whites he desired into the Garage.
I have my own beliefs about this.
As I have stated before, and it's a shameful thing, I think there are many white, gay men who then as now are uncomfortable dancing on the same floor in a venue where half of the dancers are people of color. Although few will openly discuss this, the Garage is an excellent example of a place with great music, incomparable vibe, and an extraordinary dancefloor, open and friendly to all gays, that was boycotted by a lot of white gay uptowners and downtowners because of the racial composition.
I openly and vigorously expressed these beliefs to Michael and crew back then.
The dance crowd at the Garage was unlike any group with whom I have ever danced. They were the best and most passionate dancers in the city and they knew it. Further, they would shout and scream regularly when they liked the music and boo and hiss when they didn't. The vibe was also unlike anything I have every seen in a disco. Much more like the tribal, pagan, sensual but also profoundly spiritual experience of a primitive, non-Western ritual. Perhaps these qualities put some off. But I knew few people, white or black, who ventured into this magical place and were not infected by that powerful dance force.
But Michael was determined to "improve" the racial balance no matter what. He had lost his opportunity in a snowstorm to turn the Garage into another Studio 54. So the "A" list white boys were out. Now he decided to market to all the rest. These racial campaigns of his created horrifying discord amongst the staff, especially Larry, and led to great disenchantment on my part with management.
The first of these racial initiatives was the busing incident. I can't remember what fantasy party this was, but Michael hired a bus to transport white boys from Fire Island to the Garage and back. Larry was furious. I mean livid. He threatened not to spin if Michael did this. But the bus marketing tool didn't do the trick. The place was still too black.
Then one terrible night Michael and I don't know who else suggested that the Paradise Garage have a black night and a white night. Segregation in 70's NYC. I couldn't believe this. The most horrid, evil arguments ensued and Larry ended up physically assaulting Michael and sent him to the emergency room.
After this I withdrew my support for management and ended my status as unpaid volunteer worker and promoter. The whole thing smelled to me of the kind of money-driven amorality I disliked in business. And the politics of the larger organization were beginning to develop. It was Larry's people against Michael's. But Michael was the boss, so he soon began to replace key positions with his own folks creating more drama and tension. At one point he even hired a Mafioso-type manager that everyone hated to attract white boys. I personally loath this sort of behavior. I'm a start-up, we-are-all-in-this-together-as equals kind of guy. Management hierarchies, back-stabbing, and elitism are not my cup of herb.
Michael made a move to fire Larry when he returned from hospital. But Larry had all the cards musically. There was no DJ better than him. And only he understood how that sophisticated, very complex sound system worked. He put it together. Job security.
I retained my coveted VIP membership and continued to dance with my tribe and hang in the DJ booth. When Michael wasn't there on off hours I would help out with the sound system and spin on the tables, often bringing my own music to share with Larry and the others.
I had lost much respect for Michael though. But I dislike speaking ill of the dead, and he was one of the many to be taken by AIDS. Perhaps he was under greater financial pressure than I knew. Maybe he was unable to express his own ideals well and he came off as a money-hungry promoter who would facilitate racism to generate revenue. I don't know, and I am not the one to make these judgments. Back then I felt the whole racial initiative was evil and I hadn't as yet more fully developed the virtue of compassion.
NEXT: WINDS OF CHANGE