"Paradise Garage...was and still is regarded as having been the most influential underground dance venue in New York City. To this day many members in the underground dance scene consider it to have constituted the epitome of social dancing as a celebration of individuality and community at the same time. Dance records produced after 1987 have invoked the club's name more often than any other venue in New York by either mix or song title.
Ever since its closing, promoters and hosts at other clubs (and not just in New York, but as far as London or Tokyo) have been trying to recapture the sound, image, and ambiance of the Paradise Garage, referring to their clientele as 'family, we're all family in here.'"
-Kai Fikentscher, "'You Better Work!' : Underground Dance Music in New York City" (Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 2000), pp. 61-62.
XVII. WE ARE FAMILY
It's been over fourteen years since the Paradise Garage closed its doors. Even now, after all those years, those who danced at the Garage have a reverence for the place that one associates with the religious. For it was here that they first experienced the unity of the "tribe" or "family" in the context of music and dance. Even the most cynical, non-spiritual, disco-hating people I took to that venue came away from the evening with a sense that they had been touched by some primitive and transformative vibe that not only moved the body but the spirit.
My own passionate belief in the redemptive and transformative power of EDM and dance certainly has roots in the Garage. This belief was reaffirmed by my experiences with underground rave culture.
I have thought long and hard about this tribal/spiritual phenomena in dance culture. Every promoter wants to create this vibe at a party. Every DJ desires more than anything to look up from those turntables and see a crowd of ecstatic faces dancing as a tribe to his/her music.
I have danced in some of the world's best venues with great DJs, excellent sound, and creative visuals and left feeling that I had spent an evening in hell. Conversely, I have been to events thrown together in a few hours by neophyte promoters with unknowns on the turntables and primitive decoration where the vibe is so incredible that for days afterward I feel I have touched the very heavens.
The Paradise Garage certainly had the best sound available at the time. Larry Levan worked with Richard Long to create a system that was imitated (the Ministry of Sound in London used Larry and Richard as consultants for their system, amongst others) but never really equaled. The spiritual leader of the Garage was, to my mind, the best DJ of the period, perhaps still unequaled, who provided an eclectic and progressive musical mix that was unique. Larry was also an extraordinary sound engineer and master of lighting and effects. And the Garage itself was a happy place where thousands could dance with room to spare.
But many clubs of the period had sound, creative ambiance, good space and great DJs. The Saint, for example, was the epitome to my mind of the wedding of technology and music in an awesome and to this day unparalleled venue. But no club, at least in the NYC area, came even close to matching the Garage vibe.
And, with a few notable exceptions, no EDM party or venue matched this tribal vibe in my opinion until the arrival of the rave underground. The most notable experiences I have had outside of EDM that manifested this tribal/family feel were hardcore punk events and Grateful Dead and Rainbow Gatherings.
Larry without doubt had much to do with the creation of the tribal Garage vibe. He was a master manipulator of the body and soul and he had an intuitive understanding of the primal human spirit. Larry was also what I call an "interactive" DJ. His relationship with the dancers was very intimate; he seemed to understand their deepest needs on any given night; and he never lost touch with his audience. He didn't pander to the Garage heads, however. Larry fulfilled their musical expectations, but he also taught them something new every evening. New beats, new mixes, new genres. Rock, world music, all sorts of unexpected things would be thrown at the dancers with his version of underground disco. Sometimes the dancers loved his eclecticism; sometimes they would stop dancing and hiss. Larry would then play the offending sound over (and over) until they got it. This might seem like control, but there was always mutual respect between Larry and the dancers.
This power that Larry seemed to have led many to characterize him as the first of the DJs as super-priest or shaman: a god-like spiritual leader. I am ambivalent about this concept. Even in a traditional religious construct the priest is not godly. He/she is not the embodiment of a church. Rather, the priest is an intermediary between the god and humankind. The priest facilitates the spiritual transaction but the church, the tribe, is the collective spirit of all members of that church, not just the priest. Even the Roman Catholic Church with its hierarchy and Pope believes that ultimately truth can only be understood by the collective.
It is my belief that the church membership, the dancers, are at least every bit as important as the priest/DJ. Many promoters and DJs, I think, tend to forget this. There is no church without members. There is no tribal vibe without the dancers.
How then did the Garage manage to create this extraordinary, tribal, spiritual ambiance?
The answer is, I think, that the Garage attracted the right congregation. I've often remarked that good people who throw parties attract good people. The worst vibes I've experienced at parties have been at those where money is the bottom line. Although the Garage management often tried to take the venue above ground for the money, fate intervened and racial bigotry ultimately prevented it. So like it or not, the Garage to all who knew it from the outside was a Paradise for all those who couldn't or wouldn't participate in the larger commercial scene. This image drew a well-defined sub segment of the larger disco dance culture: disenfranchised dancers of color; those who preferred dancing to glitz; and those genuinely interested in underground music and developments. Those who danced at the Garage were open-minded on a number of levels.
The Garage, of course, was primarily gay, at least on Saturdays. There was a built-in bonding mechanism here but, again, these gays were a subset of the larger gay culture. As time went on this distinction became less and less defining as people from all backgrounds, the famous and the infamous, came to experience the vibe.
The Garage was not a "bar." I have been to many bar dance clubs where it seems half of the patrons spend the night cruising at the bar, a quarter of the folks grab ass on the dance floor, while the rest actually dance. At the Garage everyone danced. It was first and foremost a paradise for dancers. Open-minded, music-loving dancers on a quest for spiritual transcendence through communal, tribal dance.
There are analogies, in my mind, with the rave underground. At least in the early days, underground raves attracted a distinct subset of people who were unhappy with the "bar" culture, who were tired of the lack of innovation in the commercial EDM scene, who were open to dancing with those of different backgrounds, ages and races, and most important, those who were passionate about music and dancing. I've never viewed EDM culture as primarily a manifestation of youth culture bonding, which is to me a marketing construct. EDM has a history that goes back thirty years and many of those who danced to the first electronic music are still dancing. EDM transcends race, age, creed, education and social status just as it did at the Paradise Garage. The wonderful difference now is that it is not only gays who are dancing tribally, but people of all sexual preferences.
A. "We Are Family"
1979 seemed like it was going to be the best year ever for disco. It was an eight billion dollar a year industry. Forty percent of all Top 100 hits were disco being played in over 20,000 discos nationwide. Gloria Gaynor's classic "I Will Survive" was released; Donna Summer brought out "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff." "Y.M.C.A." by the Village People, describing the cruisey sexual gay ambiance of the "Y," was being played on all the airwaves -- as well as a new hit by Sister Sledge entitled "We Are Family."
Of all the dance hits that year, "We Are Family" pretty much defined the decade for gays as well as the disco scene. Every gay pride parade in the country, it seemed, adopted the hit as its theme song. It was an amazing success in all quarters with, for example, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club adopting "We Are Family" as the club anthem. Yes, we were all family but the clouds were gathering on the horizon.
1. The Growing Gay Backlash
There are many things to worry about when your underground scene becomes commercial and above ground. One big problem is that every detail of your once underground activities are now of much interest to the press and other media and middle America is deluged with, let's say, the more press-worthy elements of scene: sex, drugs and Satan-inspired music.
H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as "...the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." America was and still is a society deeply driven by Puritanism. These days it's called "capitalism." Life is work and all pleasure that may divert one from productive labor is suspect. This is not to say Puritans hate happiness and pleasure. On the contrary they deeply desire them. Yearn for them. But they have been taught to fear all things that might divert them from their ultimate goal: creating value for investors. So, at the least, they don't want anything that reminds them of fun they are missing in their faces. As long as you keep your fun behind closed doors it's usually OK. Many of their religious leaders seem to abide by this "don't ask don't tell rule." One minute the preacher is on the pulpit preaching hell fire for sexual promiscuity. The next he is hauling cases of whipped cream into the hotel room with his mistress whilst the wife and kids are out marching against pornography.
When the press uncovers a group of Americans who are having fun, the Puritans become deeply obsessed with them. They devour the stories, TV exposes, and magazine articles and create god knows what fantasies in their undernourished minds. Then they move to suppress the fun.
This is what happened to the emerging gay subculture in the seventies.
It all began, as I remember it, with the "orange juice" lady, Anita Bryant. Anita was a second rate pop singer has been who was doing commercials for the Florida Orange Growers Association. In November of 1976 gay activists succeeded in electing a majority of the Metro-Dade Commission in Florida and then passed a gay rights ordinance. Anita at that time apparently got a message from her god telling her that: "The recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality." So she launched a nationwide campaign in 1977 called "Save Our Children" which was backed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the fundamentalist Christian right. She overturned the Dade County gay rights ordinance in June of that year and led the first national right-wing Christian political initiative under the banner of homophobia.
But this was only the beginning. Disco was really gay, wasn't it? And now everyone in America is dancing and listening to disco music. Having fun, dancing all night long.
Next: DISCO SUCKS!!!