"Well, if not for AIDS, New York would have a lot more geniuses walking the streets, that's for sure. AIDS took some of the most ferocious and creative spirits who were determined to live the largest possible lives and to take risks that they may not have known were mortal."
-Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Hours," quoted by Patrick Giles, "AIDS-Twenty Years and Counting" (Interview, Vol. XXXI, No. 7, July 2001), p.93.
"I live now on borrowed time, waiting in the anteroom for the summons that will inevitably come. And then - I go on to the next thing, whatever it is. One doesn't luckily have to bother about that."
XXII. THE EIGHTIES, PART 2: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DANCING IN A PLAGUE.
House music evolved at a time of great spiritual darkness. In the middle of a plague that was killing dancers, musicians, DJs and others connected with music and dance by the thousands. One would expect that music created in this dark night of the soul would be characterized by soulfulness -- a crying to the heavens. And that, indeed, is house. Music of the heart and soul which can transport dancers from the pain of life to the transcendental joy and happiness of tribal union with the Other.
There is another side to house, every bit as compelling as the spiritual. This element of the music is defiantly physical, sexual, dark and sweaty. Jackin' the body to get to the soul. Celebrating sexuality even though sexual love seemed to be a sure route to death of the body. The overtly sexual, sensual lyrics of much early house might surprise some, given the context in which this music was produced. But those who continued to dance in the eighties were not people who bowed to the grim reaper and waited at home to die. These courageous dancers, producers and DJs celebrated life -- music, dance and sexuality -- and the spirit whilst the blackness of the plague enveloped their communities.
A. JEROME CAJA
Jerome Caja typified the kind of dancers I shared the floor with in the eighties -- the kind of person Hemingway would have said exemplified "grace under pressure." This bullfighter, if you will, danced daily with death. Yet he danced with such exuberance, spirit and grace that one would have never guessed he was one of those who was losing the battle with AIDS.
Jerome was born and raised in a small Northern Ohio town. Like many gay dancers and DJs I knew, he had been an altar boy -- and was a deeply spiritual man. Jerome came to San Francisco to live freely as a gay man, artist and drag queen.
Jerome was an exceptionally gifted and creative visual artist. Using media like nail polish and eyeliner he created on a variety of surfaces images that wedded the sexual with the spiritual. Artistic works that, to me, were metaphorical images for house music. In "Sacred Heart Circle Jerk", for example, Christ has a heart and a cock. Like Jerome, those of us who participated as dancers and/or producers in the creation of the house knew that the only way to the soul was through the body; that sexuality and mysticism are two sides of the same coin; that denying either, by bifurcating body and soul, can lead to living death.
Someone once said to Jerome after he was diagnosed with AIDS: "Don't you think it's time you stopped having sex?" Jerome's reply was: "Not until they drive the nails into my coffin."
So it was with dancing. Jerome danced vigorously until he could no longer walk to the floor. He conserved his increasingly limited energies to work in his studio and to dance. He was a fixture at Club Uranus and other parties in town, both gay and rave oriented. Appearing in fabulously wicked drag costumes, he was always near the center of the fun and dancing as a go-go boy, host, and jacker on the floor. Whatever little money he made from his art he gave back to the dance community. He was like a pagan priest at many parties, distributing "communion" piece by piece from a sheet of blotter acid to other dancers, dancers who like him were dancing for their very lives.
When he was going blind from CMV he described the coming darkness that others called the horror of darkening: "But it's not like that at all. It's like looking into the sun..."
After his death, Jerome's work was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum for Modern Art, and a book was published on his art entitled "Jerome: After the Pageant."
B. DANCING IN A PLAGUE
Much has been written about the psychology of death and dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's work is well-known as are her stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Like many attempts to categorize experience these neat little stages touch on some of the elements of the human confrontation with death but, as I found when I tried to force my own and others' personal dramas in the eighties into these slots, they fail to capture the complex realities of passage -- especially the communal experience that was and is AIDS.
There was certainly lots of denial going around when the disease first struck the gay community. For me, and others, the denial took the form of increased drug usage and even more dancing and sex. But as the dance floors started to thin, friends started to disappear at an alarming rate, and Christopher and Castro Streets turned into ghost towns at night, only those with highly developed perceptual defenses could ignore the obvious.
Many in the gay community went from denial of the realities of AIDS to denial of life. I make no judgments here. Folks get through the night as best as they can. Some left dancing and communal life altogether. Moved, as they used to say, to "upper State New York." Fear and self-hatred infected the souls of others, making physical and emotional love impossible. A few spent much time preparing for death and became obsessed with the process. Others threw themselves into 24/7 careers to keep the thoughts of mortality away. I heard about these people, but I knew few of them. My associations had always been with the risk-takers; those who lived the "largest possible lives." These were the tribe of dancers I loved, and these people, like Jerome, continued to celebrate life in the face of death even through that effort became more difficult and exhausting as each year wore by.
The very real prospect that one's life may end prematurely does, indeed, bring a focus that those who think they have plenty of time do not generally have. Material things become less important and experience becomes the center of living as, I believe, it should. A cliché, yes. Dancing through the plague for the past twenty years has been like riding a roller coaster with a psycho god in control. But there has been clarity. Much clarity amidst all the pain.
I came to know depression as a frequent visitor to the mind. Debilitating in the beginning, for the destruction of all I knew and loved was unbearably painful. Depression can, I think, kill just as efficiently as any disease. My anecdote for depression, and this is true for the other dancers in the plague, was and is music and dance. Whatever was left of the gay community was infused with genuine energy and spirit through dance. What brought us together as a community helped us bear all the pain over the years.
I am convinced that the thing that saved me and my partner all these years is the music and the dancing. Those who stopped dancing, as far as I could see, died either physically or spiritually. A DJ not only saved our souls but our bodies. And the music that redeemed us; the music that lifted our souls above the ruin; that made the sexuality and the spirituality positive life-giving forces for us was -- house music. Dancing to that music from the mid-eighties on; making that music; spinning the house -- this, more than career, conventional religion and family, and materialism kept our libidos powerfully sexual and our souls in touch with the goodness in the universe.
The house music came from people who were not accepting of death, but defiant in the face of death. People who were determined to celebrate sex and spirit and create light in the darkness.
So we continued to dance. We continued to celebrate our sexuality, albeit safely. We defied the conservatism around us and those who would demonize pleasures of the body and spirit and built house and EDM. We helped those who were dying, yes. We nurtured those fighting to stay alive. We focused anger into activism and created organizations like ACT UP and Queer Nation. The music and the dancing, however, even though greatly diminished and more underground than ever, gave us the strength and energy to live and fight our personal and collective battles.
I am often called an idealist, especially when it concerns EDM and its power to create community and give life. If that is so, my ideals do not come from some Platonic world of forms. My belief in the power of EDM is not theoretical. For some it may be a commercial opportunity or a pleasant past time. Even worse, a passion that is reserved for youth and discarded with maturity. For me, and for those of us who danced through the plague years, it has been a part of life every bit as crucial to survival and fulfillment as food, shelter, art and career productivity. When we were lost, ready to give up, burned out and sick of it all, the music was there for us. Friends died, jobs and careers ended, sickness burned at the body, but the music was always there to provide the very real opportunity for positive transformation on the dance floor. Aside from my relationship and true friends, nothing in life has been as faithful to me or as good to me as the music.
NEXT: THE EIGHTIES, PART 3