"What remains is the music. It was the music that brought us together, music that kept us in touch, music that saw us through and, finally, out. Appropriately, the same music that shaped our lives soothed our deaths.... When music is your way of life -- your blood, your air, your ground -- it informs every moment, even the silent ones.... The music never stops. It helps us to remember, helps us to connect, helps us to go on. And on."
-Vince Aletti on AIDS and UDM quoted by Kai Fikentscher, "Underground Dance Music in New York City" (Wesleyan University Press, Hanover and London, 2000), p. 114.
"Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It's the dirt that does it.... Everybody's going to make it if there are enough shovels to go around."
-Thomas K. Jones, Reagan administration defense official in an interview with LA Times reporter Robert Scheer on a multi-million dollar civil defense program during Reagan's massive transfer of funds from domestic programs to the military in the 80s.
XXI. INTRODUCTION TO THE EIGHTIES.
Most histories of EDM read like the "Rough Guides" to Electronica: lots of names, places, attempts to classify genres and sub genres (often with complex charts and diagrams), hallmark recordings, and brief historical overviews. These publications are useful tools for those who have some experience with the music, just like Cliff's Notes can refresh the mind for an exam -- if you've actually read the material. These handy guides, however, make it appear to the neophyte as if the evolution of EDM and house music is a simplistic matter of names and musical influences. There is little attempt to contextualize the material; to put a human face on the sounds. Music, that most primal expression of the soul, is reduced to soulless lists of names and dates and gross oversimplifications of the emotional and creative processes involved in artistic innovation.
House music and EDM as we know it arose out of the ashes of disco and seventies underground dance culture in the eighties -- a time of great social, political, technological and cultural change.
A. THE BLACK AND WHITE DECADE
In the more rigid, Puritanical segments of my family there is an expression that I often heard as a child: "Laugh today, cry tomorrow." The intent was clear. Those who devote too much time to fun and pleasure will ultimately suffer great pain and sorrow. A Puritan's version of Karma. For me and my comrades in the underground music scene, the eighties appeared to be a fulfillment of my relatives' black karmic beliefs.
Good or bad, karma can change life like the flick of a horse's tail. My life changed completely in the eighties.
I vividly remember waiting for a trolley with my partner on Market Street in the late eighties just after we had moved from the east coast to San Francisco. A group of people drove by in a car and shouted to us: "Long live the black and white!!" They were referring to our clothes. Everything we had on was either black or white. The eighties.
I started to notice midway through the eighties that my once colorful, costume-filled closet had taken on a hard, severe edge. Blacks, whites, shades of gray. Leather. As time went by, black boots, chains, military gear overlaid with the blacks filled the shelves. Mourning. Despair. Cynicism. Rage. Those things and, perhaps, lack of my former appreciation for nuance and playfulness.
In July of 1981 there appeared in the "New York Times" a little, one-column article with the head: "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." This was the beginning of twenty years of living under the sword of Damocles for me and my comrades who managed by some miracle to survive 'till now the plague of AIDS. For most of my friends, however, this header was a prelude to their own obituaries.
I thought that after all these years of living with the sickness and the dying of all these dancers from the dance my heart would grow hard; that my emotions would be in check and well-defended. But I still often weep uncontrollably when I recall those days; when I see a comrade's obituary; or when I hear of another young dancer's recent infection. And I find it difficult to write about all this.
To me, however, the pain and suffering of AIDS, and the music that was created and the dancing that was done in defiance of death has more to do with the creation of the soulful, spiritual and sensual music that is house than technology or technique.
At first we all thought that this infection or whatever that was going around was some minor threat that would be dealt with swiftly by science. As the eighties rolled on it became clear that the killing machine that would be called human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was only gearing up in those early years for the slaughter that was to follow. Relentless, it was. And democratic. Everyone who was infected with that virus -- rich, poor, black, white, priest, pagan -- lived under a certain death sentence. Until 1996, with the introduction of the new antiretroviral class of drugs, there was no appealing that sentence. No chance to buy some time. Once the evil virus started ripping apart your immune system you had one to three years to live, and that time could hardly be classified as "quality."
The lucky died quickly of PCP pneumonia. Others wasted away for months -- some years -- with all kinds of horrid infections chopping away at their bodies and souls. Young boys became walking skeletons -- eaten up by fungal infestations; made blind; suffering dementia. A dark night of the soul if there ever was one.
Now these boys, for they were all very young men, had grown up hating themselves because they happened to love those of the same sex. They lacked self love because they were almost universally hated and despised by mainstream Puritan society. That greatest expression of human love, sexuality, was for them an outlawed activity. A black sin. So they came to the big cities like New York and San Francisco to find community. Support. Those boys suffered for years inside the gut and soul working through all this negativity to free themselves from the hate. I know how painful and exhausting that process was. For many the communal, tribal experience of music and dance with others of their kind helped heal wounded souls and open closed hearts. The music reflects this struggle. Finally, these boy dancers had reached a point where they could love themselves and find joy in sharing their sexuality with other boys.
Then -- the horror -- this invisible monster lands in their midst and cries out: "Because you have loved other boys you will die!!!"
The very thing that defined us spiritually, our sexuality, was killing us off by the thousands. Familiar faces just disappeared from the dance floor. Kids committed suicide. Not a week went by without two or three memorial services. We died because we loved.
And since we were Americans, and prone to backslide into Puritan negativity relating to pleasure and sex, it certainly seemed that we had been abandoned by the official God and were being punished for our evil ways. Some went back into the closet. Others embraced religion and became self-hating homophobes. I confess during all the confusion, depression and blackness of those times that my relatives' expression floated through my mind and, hell, if I had occasion to talk with them they would tell me this directly. Not only them. The religious right gloried in all this death and dying. "The homosexuals are getting what they deserved."
Those old self-hatreds were back and being reinforced by mainstream society. Not only were we evil and sinful, but now we were lepers carrying a deadly disease and should be avoided at all costs. Hospitals in those early days used full quarantine measures with infected boys, so one had to dress in gowns, masks, and gloves to bid loved ones farewell. Gays were fired from restaurant and other public contact positions because it was feared they would infect the patrons. Straight friends would cancel social appointments, especially dinners and other intimate occasions, because they thought they might "catch something." I started to notice Lysol cans in the bathrooms where I worked. Question was: "Could one share a bathroom facility with a queer?" On and on, days black as nights, one was surrounded by revitalized bigotry, religious condemnation, and abandonment by family and straight friends.
At the Paradise Garage we didn't have to worry much about straight folks pretending to be gay to get on the list anymore. Only the bravest would dance with the gay boys in those days. Ignorance about the disease fueled paranoia and hysteria and our dance scene became a true underground once more.
NEXT: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DANCING IN A PLAGUE: THE EIGHTIES CONTINUED.