"...it's got something to do with the speed of the beats. It's hypnotic, tribal, and primal. That particular speed has worked for thousands of years, which is why you can spin in Arab music, Bhangra music, Aboriginal music... You can take all these different cultures and find the same beat, between 125-130 bpm. It's there in ecstatic, trance music, where people shake and spin until they reach a state of hyperventilation and psychedelic alpha-wave experience. In a sense (house) is regressive music. You're going back to the roots of why music was invented: to reach ecstatic and visionary states, in a communal tribal celebration."
-Simon Reynolds, "Where 'now' lasts longer", in "Blissed Out," (Serpent's Tail, London, 1990).
XXXVII. DANCING WITH THE GRIM REAPER
A. DANCING IN THE 80'S: Disco with the Grim Reaper
The first AIDS benefit at the Paradise Garage in NYC was held in April of 1982. Dancer friends all over the city were getting sick; death was in the air. The Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) was formed to offer support, therapy and a political action platform in response to the plague that was enveloping us all, and the Paradise Garage staff decided to help raise much needed money for this organization.
The party was called "Showers," and was held in early April. Some folks thought this theme referred to "golden showers," and were disappointed, but...that was far from the intention.
Strangely, a late winter blizzard hit the City right before the event, dropping almost a foot of snow. Only a few hundred presales had been sold before the night of "Showers," and everyone was nervous that the party would bomb.
Mel arranged for the live entertainment, and got Evelyn "Champaign" King and the Ritchie Family to perform.
Fortunately, the terrible weather and sickness didn't keep the Paradise Garage dancers away. The party was a great success. Evelyn King sang "Shame" and debuted "Love Come Down." The New York Gay Men's Chorus also performed and several very emotional speeches were given on the theme of "we will survive" by GMHC leadership. Many tears that night, as well as dancing. The PG raised $50,000 at that first benefit.
I confess it is very difficult for me to write about, and thus relive, those days. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why House Music isn't being issued as often as it was. For me, as for all gay men, this was the beginning of a nightmare without end. All those beautiful, loving boys dying such horrible deaths. The act of love itself transformed into some terrible dance with the angel of death.
We didn't at first know what caused this immuno-suppressive disease. Some believed it might be poppers. Everyone used them for dancing and sex, and the little bottles now might be the gateway to hell. So most of us gave up poppers. Then some folks came forward with the theory that we took too many drugs, and this suppressed the immune system. Finally, of course, AIDS was identified as a sexually transmitted disease. What a horrific blow.
How the virus was transmitted was not initially clear. Could transmission be by any body fluid contact, like sweat and saliva, as well as sexual fluids? No one knew for sure, so we believed that any contact with another gay man, even a sweaty embrace on the dance floor, might put you in a body bag.
Symptoms might include swollen glands and fatigue; a cough that doesn't go away; purple blemishes on the legs and other areas that were the beginnings of some rare skin cancer. As the list of symptoms grew I became a hypochondriac. I would search my body every morning for blemishes. A common cold might be the beginning of PCP pneumonia. Almost any trivial infection might be a marker for the beginning of the end.
Dancing and sexuality had been intertwined for me in the seventies and eighties. After the liberating experience of dancing with the tribe I, and many others, would go to sex clubs, or have sex somewhere on the premises, to somehow concretize the foreplay of the dance. This sex was often communal. I thought, and still believe, this orgiastic tribal ritual of dance and physical communion was a good thing. But I had sex with so many people in the seventies that I thought for sure I was doomed.
This was my rather severe introduction to mortality. Life has an end, and life-giving activities, ironically, can sometimes kill. I was, as the data began flowing in, on the Grim Reaper's "A" list. What to do? How to live, with what time I might have left?
Now, I had to admit to myself that my life had always been high risk. Safety was a far lesser priority to me than experimentation, experience and quality of life. I decided, after many deep depressive periods, that I wasn't going to let myself fade into some ethereal, sex-sublimated entity waiting around to die. I had fought hard for many years, both internally and externally, to be able to express my love and sexuality without guilt, fear or inhibition. The tribe and the dance were a positive life force for me.
I, and others of my ilk, decided to stand in defiance of death and dance and make love in the face of it. The sexual expression became, in some ways, more prudent over time as the risk factors became clearer but the Dionysian quality was not to be sacrificed for some sterile surrogate contact like using absurd latex dams and the like. Condoms were bad enough, and it is a great mystery to me that after twenty years of AIDS a more efficient and pleasurable method of prevention has not been devised to replace that ancient, pleasure-diminishing device. But I would not forsake flesh for longevity, nor dancing for some better chance to cash in on a 401K.
Dancing and the music became so much more important to those dancers who continued to celebrate the ancient communal rituals. As long as one was alive and well enough, one could celebrate the body on the dance floor, move and sweat to those old, magical beats, come together as one with your oppressed brothers, and reach the heavens together. There was truly salvation here. Redemption of the soul through the body. I knew many men who continued to dance literally days before they died.
Then came house music. Extraordinary, soul moving, ass liberating house with those 125-130 bpms that have facilitated tribal, ecstatic, communal celebration since the beginning of time. Music like "Baby Wants to Ride" by Jamie Principle that combined sexuality with spirituality and brought us all to the tribal "church," the house, that jack built to shelter and succor us socially deviant, despised refugees from the oppressive mainstream culture, now fateful victims of some random, fatal virus.
NEXT ISSUE: The first commercial house recording