Global Gay Nation > Gay Identity - Queer as Volk?

Music and Gays...or why Paradise will always live in me.


When disco was born, it sprouted out of the fertile musical fields of the African-American community in New York.  The 4/4 beat of disco was the rythm that moved the gay liberation movement from its start.  It was the beat that provide the soundtrack to was playing in the background as the transgenders from Harlem and the Bronx decided that it was time to litterally kick off their heels and use them against the police in New York.

Here in NYC, music is a tribal thing.  Not in the way that tribal is a genre of house music, disco's offspring, but in the way that people form groups that vibe to a unique rythm as identity and expression.  And so it was with disco and it's '80s offshoot, house music.  They became the beat of a generation.  Just like rock defined the flower generation of the '60s, disco/house defined the newly liberated gay men of the '70s and '80s.  

Much has been written about the "death of disco" in the early '80s.  In truth, disco never died.  When the mainstream's dissatisfaction and backlash came, the gay community in NYC reclaimed what they had always viewed as "their" music.  Disco went back underground to the gay clubs, especially to the predominantly Latino and African-American gay clubs of New York.  With fewer and fewer new disco releases, the dj's had no option but to take what already existed and what little danceable beats were coming out and rework them, remastering them in home studios and playing them in the clubs where they worked.  This remixed form of disco was termed "house" music because it was the music created and played by the dj's in the clubs where they worked or their "house clubs".

AIDS changed the landscape of gay nightlife.  Clubs that were full of peppy, optimistic tunes, songs of love and romance, suddenly began playing the darker, intensely beat-driven, and often bittersweet songs that came to define underground house music.  

Today there is a passionate debate between those who proclaim that Chicago is the birthplace of house and those who hold that New York is the authentic item.  There are two varieties of classic house.  One is New York's Garage style, defined above all by the genius of dj Larry Levan.  The other, Chicago house, is the product of a New York transplant to Chicago and childhood friend of Levan's, Frankie Knuckles.  The differences sometime seem subtle, but Chicago house has been described as "Garage on the cheap" because of its use of synthesizers, drum machines, and layering of pre-recorded vocals.  New York's Garage sound relied almost exclusively on the real thing...real instruments with live vocals.

As the '80s raged so did the music and so did the AIDS epidemic.  Clubs went from places to go celebrate life to places you dreaded to go to because you knew that once you arrived you would be updated on the week's latest roster of deaths.

Among all the clubs in modern gay music, the Paradise Garage and its dj, Larry Levan, hold mythical status.  In part because of the genius of Levan's dj'ing, in part because he went on not only to inspire, but to actually train many of the dj's working today.  But also because of the atmosphere the Garage created, something never seen before or since.  This club was created by its owner, Michael Brody, expressly as a place where every member of the gay community was welcomed, regardless of class, color or ethnic background.  Because of this, even while other clubs were closing due to the demise of their clienteles throughout that horrible decade of death, the Garage kept pumping and drawing huge crowds.

As a kid in New York, every once in a while, a song that Levan had "broken" (introduced) would filter through the radio waves.  I began to notice that certain songs had a different vibe, a certain sensibility, but never could identify it or why.  Years later, finally out of the closet, I understood that the music that had teased my imagination was the masterful work of one of gay nightlife's brightest achievements and darkest personalities...Larry Levan.

Levan died of AIDS related complications in 1992.  I came out of the closet in the summer of 1987, 20 years ago this summer and the year the Paradise Garage closed its doors forever.  I got to go to the Garage for only one night...the night it closed.  Its closing was an event that drew people from all walks of live.  From celebrities to hookers to drug dealers, from New Yorkers to international dance music lovers, everyone flew in to witness the end of what has been called the club that has mattered more to popular music the world over than any other.  

I recall that we drove around seven times that Saturday night into the early morning of Sunday.  We drove around because the lines to get in stretched for blocks.  Finally, at almost exactly 6 in the morning we made it in.  The song that Larry was playing was called "Walking On Sunshine"...a song that has become an intensely personal part of the soundscape of my life.  Standing on the dancefloor for the first and last time, I couldn't escape the feeling that I had been cheated, that life had dealt me the worst card in the deck--that somehow I had missed the party.

A few years later at another club, I got that same foreboding feeling.  I glanced over and looked over my shoulder.  To my horror I saw a gay  man I did not know on the dancefloor but one look was enough for me to make out the entire context of that night and what it meant to him.  He was there with a couple and it was clear that this heterosexual couple were doing something very special for a gay friend.  They were treating him to one last night out doing what he probably had loved to do before AIDS had ravaged his body, made his clothes and his skin hang loose and listless, and turned him into a virtual skeleton in the eery fog of the strobe lights.  It was a moment, an apparition, that sent terror shooting through me like no other.  

That week I had visited the very first of my circle of friends to die to the virus's devastation to say goodbye.  I walked out of that club, the Palladium, and vowed never to return.  I could not and I would not witness the skeletons of my friends hauting the dancefloors of my mind the way that particular man haunted the dancefloor of the Palladium that night.

Despite this gut-wrenching reaction, house music, and Garage music in particular, became and remains the soundtrack of my life.  A music born of freedom and optimism, now cloaks my memories of so many dead, but has become the music that still brings me as much joy as it does tears.

Absolutely precious footage!  Definitely worth more than one look!

Love Saves The Day

One of the djs in this documentary, David De Pino (another disciple of Larry Levan's), took me through my first ecstatic, teenage, musical journeys in gay life and gay pride at my old haunt, Tracks.   Those Tuesday nights are precious memories.



[0] Message Index

Go to full version