Published Nov 01, 2000Sometimes the excitement over the contemporary dance scene resembles the confusion of Babel an explosion that has the languages of house, techno and drum & bass caught up in a race for exponential replication. DJs keeping their sets to the most basic groove, reluctant to mix them up in ways that might make even a little bit of creative sense. "The music they play today is like what I call the pots and pans,'" opines Mel Cheren, author of the recently published Keep On Dancing: My Life and the Paradise Garage. "You play boom-boom-boom and then play boom-boom-boom again. There's no story."
It's an attitude that might have come from parents appalled by the rise of rock n' roll; more recently, from guitar snobs insecure with the arrival of drum machines and synthesizers. But this "crisis" of contemporary dance music goes beyond an older generation's distaste for new forms. It's the absence of a spirituality that troubles Cheren and others from the diverse generation of heads that know better, that have lived it differently. That danced at New York's legendary Paradise Garage.
Despite the genre that took its name, the spirit of the Garage was never about a specific sound, but the experience of many mixing at a party, about a vibe that came from the musicians on the record, how DJ Larry Levan handled it on the turntables and how the crowd recreated that energy on the floor. Yet while it gets name-checked as the inspiration for today's biggest DJs Frankie Knuckles, David Mancuso, Kevin Saunderson, Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez, Little Louie Vega it wasn't the only one, or even the first, of its kind.
A long tradition of Garage-style gatherings in New York City, began 30 years ago at The Loft, and thrives today at Body & Soul. And yes, on some level they're simply dance parties. But unlike the majority of over-priced, E-fuelled club nights catering to today's glo-stick rave-olution, the best of New York's garage culture is unique. It inspires DJs to break all the rules of the mix as they so brilliantly do on recently released CDs David Mancuso Presents the Loft Vol 2, Larry Levan Live at the Paradise Garage and Body & Soul 3 but its also about getting back to a natural feeling of ecstasy, devotion and respect.
The Loft Is A Feeling
"It's like trying to describe the ocean to someone who's never seen it," says The Loft's founder, David Mancuso. Begun as a means of financial support, The Loft officially opened on Valentine's Day, 1970. Beginning at midnight "when the stars were the brightest," and going strong until dawn, the event transformed his 2500 square-foot apartment into the first all-night dance party in New York City. Entry was strictly invite-only, providing an intimately interracial, pan-sexual crowd of 200 "friends" that by the mid-70s, was more than 1500.
The Loft was more like a bi-weekly birthday party than a club, the dance floor flooded with balloons, with a spread of food ranging from freshly squeezed orange juice to pasta made from scratch all served for free. Alcohol and drugs were allowed, but never sold, and amazingly, this everything-goes policy rarely resulted in attitude or violence. "I've had five fights in the last 30 years!," Mancuso is proud to boast.
It was uniquely early 70s: post-Stonewall queers and civil rights enthusiasts pumped with a new sense of social freedom, while at the same time, the economy of NYC was going bankrupt. It was a combination of anxieties that made the Loft into a precious find.
"The Loft was my home," Mancuso says, "and it was your home away from home. You came here because you were gaining strength for the week. People felt safer and freer here, and that was the kind of privacy I was looking for."
Stars like Divine came to escape the paparazzi, while future DJs like Larry Levan and his friend Frankie Knuckles snuck in through the window to get their dose of underground musical education.
Musically, Mancuso's selections comprised of the pre-disco sound of "danceable R&B" (James Brown, Isaac Hayes) as well as longer tracks that constituted more "head music," like War and Manu Dibango (who got his first North American play at The Loft). Depending on mood, Mancuso might drop Nina Simone, Led Zeppelin or a recording of the rain. It was a vital complement to the Loft's eclectic and integrated atmosphere amplified through a state-of-the-art system installed by the city's top audiophile, Richard Long. It was a time pre-dating monster home stereos, and dancers heard and felt music as never before. It was a listening experience, as Cheren recalls in his autobiography, "of crystal completeness, from a bass so low it vibrated your heartstrings to highs so translucent that violins and voices shot through you like arrows."
In 1979, Mancuso stopped mixing records altogether, arguing that "the mix is in the musicians and their instruments," and the crowd at the Loft became known for applauding at the end of each track. These eccentricities were lost at other after-hours clubs of the time, which took Mancuso's communal concept into a purely gay, discotheque direction. Beat-mixed music was de rigeur for those crowds they demanded something that was, as Body & Soul DJ Danny Krivit recalls, "pumping" rather than progressive. "It was more about gotta have that energy now' and a keep me up' kind of thing," he says, "and certainly related to gay tastes at the time: Diana Ross and Donna Summer."
The popularity of black artists, divas in particular, was phenomenal at the gay discos. Yet those parties were virtually all-white something that almost didn't change as more elitist, glamorous and straight-centred discos like Studio 54 emerged.
It took the advent of Paradise Garage to turn these trends back around to the city's underground tastes.
Paradise Garage's Inspired Anarchy
The concept for the club came from a vision that Cheren had one night while waiting in line at the Loft with his boyfriend and business partner, Michael Brody. "I was thrilled," writes Cheren, "with the idea of a racially integrated dance space" like The Loft, "only bigger and better." Brody met Larry Levan in 1974, while he was still learning to mix records at NYC clubs the Gallery and Soho Place, and with financial help from Cheren, the pair found an abandoned car park and opened it as the Paradise Garage in 1977.
The club featured two chill-out rooms (one for music, the other for films), a rooftop garden, a fountain, a wooden deck, change-rooms and a kitchen. But the Garage was first and foremost a party again, with a superb sound-system designed by Long, a dance floor the size of a city block and, in Levan, a DJ who could turn it out with what Cheren remembers fondly as "inspired anarchy."
Levan's style of spinning was a synthesis of Mancuso's musicianship with the physical pulse of gay disco and his own extreme sense of emotion. While his tastes spanned everything from new wave to dub, his sets gravitated towards the orchestral funk and inspirational anthems coming out on disco labels like Philadelphia International, Prelude, Salsoul and Cheren's own West End Records. But instead of focussing on beat-patching one record seamlessly into another, Levan would do damage to the songs he'd drop in midway through, pull it off just before the climax, play it again from a different point in the track, or repeat it back-to-back for an hour. His mixes on the 1979 recording, Live at the Paradise Garage, are a little more restrained, but they still evoke this adventurous spirit.
In the club, he would enhance the emotional impact of this disruptive mix by throwing the crowd into a complete blackout, or as he did on one occasion, stop the music completely so that he could clean the dust from the disco-balls. On other nights, he'd change the position of the speakers and rewire the lights beforehand, offering a sensory experience that was never the same twice and hitherto unmatched outside the Garage.
"People got into music differently there than they did before," explains David DePino, Levan's friend and Paradise Garage guest DJ. "You would see people in the middle of the dance floor, their eyes like they're ready to roll behind their head, and they're totally straight. The sound system was that incredible. You'd have 3000 people, all participating, screaming for the same records. You didn't need to be on drugs; you were overwhelmed with what was going on on the dance floor."
But as much as the Garage was trippy and euphoric, for many of its members it was like family. The staff served coffee and pastries and members would help clean up. It was also the one of the only places in New York City where blacks and Latinos would not get turned away at the door. And despite the fact that it started out strictly as a gay party, the unexpected number of straights sneaking into the Garage forced Brody to create a second "het" night. Of course, in true underground style, members of all persuasions made it to both not out of principle, or to pick up, but simply out of their shared love for music.
It was a social club, support network and community centre. "It was just like school," says DePino. "You'd hear people talk about music in the back lounge. Most of them were pretty young, like 17 or 18. They would talk and by the end of the year, they were the authorities on the music."
The Garage not only survived, but actually thrived through the "disco sucks" campaign at the turn of the decade. No longer just a party, it became known as the "church," where Levan was the preacher and the dance floor his congregation. The club became the central place to test out soon-to-be classic tracks and inevitably gave birth to the distinctive post-disco sound of New York "garage" a free interplay of androgynous vocals, deep grooves, freaky synth-work and dub atmospherics.
In 1987, a bad mix of personal and business affairs prevented Brody from renewing the Garage's lease. Diagnosed with AIDS and with only a few months to live, he decided to close it up in late September of that year. Club members responded on its final night with suicide threats and violence in the line-up, but none were as devastated by the news as Levan.
"Larry didn't handle it very well," says DePino. "He freaked out. Michael was like a father to him. Everybody was telling him to stop being destructive, but he went out then and was extra-destructive."
Levan's already substantial drug intake escalated, and with the added complications of loneliness and a childhood heart problem, he deteriorated. Despite a brief career rejuvenation that took him on DJ tours of Europe and Japan, Larry Levan died in November 1992 at the age of 38.
Body and Soul
Body & Soul: Music Is Music
Although critics often acknowledge the role of both Mancuso and Levan as godfathers of international dance culture, a sense of vibrancy has diminished since the demise of the Garage. The Loft is still running, though infrequently, and at an unadvertised location. "Garage" still refers to something spiritual, but it's become a commodity that represents divergent ideals: the canon of classic tunes popularized by Levan; a conservative style of gospel-house music; and a trend in the UK that, though potentially exciting, is totally separate from the New York tradition. And while a few soulful house spots like The Shelter and Dance Ritual tried to fill that void, the mainstream club scene in New York (like most in the world), remains marked by mild segregation of cultures and musical cliques.
In the summer of 1996, a trio of DJs Joe Claussell, Francois Kervorkian and Danny Krivit came forward with the idea of Body & Soul, an after-after hours party that begins on Sunday afternoons and continues to early into the night. The volume is a little lower than it is at other places, and unlike the policy at the Loft or the Garage, the door is open to the public. And while the DJs are veterans of the underground scene, they're not out to show off their expert turntable techniques; instead, they've revived an attitude for the mix that's refreshingly humble and open.
"Our DJing is nothing," muses Claussell. "We play what we want to play and people feel our love for music because music is music! When I hear about your acid jazz night, your Latin night, your all-house night, I don't get that. There's no reason why all of these cannot be played in one night.""
The tracks at Body & Soul (Detroit techno, Afrobeat, soul-jazz, house, classic rock) are wide-ranging and almost always played in full, rather than just cut at the break. But more than just the musicality, their eclectic sounds conjure a rich display of personal expressions on the dance floor: dreads ornamenting their moves with aspects of Caporeira (Afro-Brazillian martial arts); women in Santeria outfits clapping vibrantly as though performing a traditional ceremony; younger folks pouring baby powder on the floor and gliding on the mess for a greater freedom of bodily extension; and a ritual known as the "soul-clap" that sees the entire house stomping their own groove.
The trio has taken the party outdoors with an annual celebration in Central Park. And while some complain that Body & Soul is getting too big for the underground, it's managed (so far) to retain a feeling of intimacy. It's a connection between people, but also to its progenitors, linked in spirit to David Mancuso's Loft, to Larry Levan's Paradise Garage.
"The whole thing is really feeling what they're feeling," explains Krivit. "Our booth is close to the floor, and it's got a wide window, so you can see the whole crowd. And you're getting all this energy thrown at you from all directions at a magnitude that you can't compare it with anything. You're feeling the importance of these songs and the way they're hitting people and when its all over, it's really orgasmic. You feel like you're getting the enjoyment out of each and every person instead of just one. That's how it started and that's the essence of the party. And we're always reminding ourselves, that with all the hype, the popularity and all that, that's what we're playing for."