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Love Saves the Day: An interview with the legendary NYC club pioneer and DJ David Mancuso
11.18.2016
07:02 am
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As if 2016 didn’t suck enough already, Monday night saw the passing of one of the most influential (yet unheralded) figures in late 20th century popular culture. That man’s name was David Mancuso, and if you’ve ever danced to great records on a great sound system in a room full of smiling people and thought “could Heaven ever be as good as this?” then David Mancuso is the person you have to thank.

Mancuso, a one-time follower of LSD guru Timothy Leary structured his parties into three stages, and borrowing from The Tibetan Book Of The Dead (as Leary had for his guided LSD sessions) he termed them “Bardos”:

“The first Bardo would be very smooth, perfect, calm. The second Bardo would be like a circus. And the third Bardo was about re-entry, so people would go back into the outside world relatively smoothly.”

The parties Mancuso started throwing in his Manhattan home in 1970–which eventually picked up the moniker “The Loft”—are the absolute ground zero for dance culture as we know it today. This isn’t some hyperbolic statement: practically every one of the great NYC DJs who emerged during the 1970s and 80s—from Larry Levan to Frankie Knuckles to Danny Krivit to Kool Herc to Afrika Islam to David Morales to Junior Vasquez to Danny Tenaglia—are indebted in one way or another to Mancuso’s work (many being regular attendees at his Loft parties). And that’s just the DJs. Plenty of club owners were inspired to open their own nightclubs after visiting The Loft, often with the same shared values as Mancuso’s: peace, love, unity and diversity. While music was the main focus, socially the Loft was incredibly mixed. From day one the majority of the patrons were both homosexual and non-white. The freedom that could be found on The Loft’s dancefloor helped attendees fully express their (often marginalized) personalities, bond with people from both their own social circles and further afield, and helped them shape a vision together of the kind of world they would like to live in once the party had ended and they had left Mancsuo’s home. All to a spellbinding soundtrack carefully chosen by Mancuso himself, music that would later be classified as “disco,” but which was, in reality, simply the very finest in funk, soul, jazz, rock and electronica.

I was lucky enough to meet and interview David Mancuso, for my Discopia fanzine, back in 2003. He had recently come out of a period of relative inactivity, and was touring the world, trying to set up each and every venue he played in to be as close as possible to his New York home. I met him in Glasgow’s CCA, in between testing out the specially-hired audiophile event PA and beginning to blow up the hundreds of balloons that would become his party’s’ signature decoration. What follows is an abridged version of that interview, and while I would have liked for there to have been a happier occasion for digging this talk out and dusting it off, it’s still a fitting tribute to a man who changed not just my own life, but the lives of countless others. Rest in peace, David!

Dangerous Minds: You’ve been DJing for a long time. What is it that makes you still want to do it?

Mancuso: Well, actually, that was the last thing I wanted to do! And to this day it’s the thing that scares me the most.

What, DJing?!

Mancuso: Yeah. I mean it’s not something I fantasized about or wanted to do. But as I started doing my own parties I sort of found where I could be the most help. Also I was into sound systems, so there was a whole relationship there. But the DJ part of it really, and not to be vague, but the music really plays us. Really it’s an opportunity where one can shed their ego. Sort of like having an out of body experience. So I feel there’s a responsibility with the sound, with certain aspects and so forth, that I can contribute to.

Is it still going in New York?

Mancuso: Yeah, I’m about to do my 33rd anniversary. I don’t do it as frequently, as I don’t have a permanent location. The last four or five years the rents and things have gotten so astronomical and the parties are not designed to make a lot of money, okay? And I’m not into having a bar. It’s a very private, very personal thing that’s me and my friends. That’s what this is all about, it’s not about being a club. It’s not out there in the commercial world. The music relates to all these situations, yes, but it’s a very personal thing.

Can you tell me a bit about the sound system and how it is set up?  

Mancuso: Well basically it’s set up around the fundamentals of physics, of sound. And this is not magic, some kind of formula for having, you know, a really great sound system. It’s not about that at all. It is set up and designed to be honest and respectful to the music. You wanna hear the music not the sound system. Usually what happens is, you’ve probably seen this yourself, they put four stacks up, then face them toward the middle.

Right.

Mancuso: Well that’s just not how things work. Your voice is coming from there, my voice is coming from here… You get my point? It’s not coming from [over there], there’s not two more of us. But that’s a formula people have used and in some cases they just don’t know, but it’s got nothing to do with music standards. I mean if you take two flashlights and you switch two beams at each other they cancel.

So you start with the centre ‘cos there’ll be three speakers. The centre channel is mono. It has a lot to do with the vocals. You come down the room, and there’s two more, one in each corner. Then two on the sides which are delayed, but reinforce the sound. So whatever the artist is doing [it replicates], just as my voice is travelling from this point down that room as if you were sitting down there and vice versa. You relay exactly what’s happening. It’s all mathematics. So it’s set up to be as though there people, standing there playing instruments.
 

An action man styled as David Mancuso by Reggie Know
 
Over here [UK] we get told a lot about certain clubs and the Loft is one of them…

Mancuso: Correction, it’s not a club, please! Sorry, I got a little out of hand…

That’s okay.

Mancuso: ...but once you start going in that direction you start getting away from what the Loft is all about. I mean I’m here on a tour, but this is not the Loft. First of all the Loft is a feeling. While there are certain aspects that reflect the Loft and how it develops, it’s not the same. The name “The Loft” itself is not a name I gave it, it’s a given name. People eventually started saying that, ‘cos what is it? Oh, it’s my house! This is not about the club scene. I find some of them are really good, but that’s not what this is about. Sorry, I’m not trying to give you a hard time.

No that’s cool, it is a distinction that need to be made. But in terms of the clubs that people hear about over here, especially the New York stuff like the Paradise Garage and the Gallery, did you go to any of them?

Mancuso: Yeah, of course. I mean, I know Nicky [Siano] very well,  I knew Mike Brody very well, I knew Larry [Levan] very well, and the bar for quality as far as a sound system goes was much higher. Part of what the Loft did was contribute to that. People started, in about ’73, opening up other lofts and things, and they had to have a good sound system ya’know. So that’s one of the things the Loft has done. But these days the quality has gone down, in a lot of situations.

In terms of general quality?

Mancuso: Yeah, be it musical, or less musical. I mean you ever go into a place and you can’t make out the words, or you can make out some of them? It should be very precise.

Continues after the jump…

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Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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11.18.2016
07:02 am
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‘Love Saves The Day’ by Tim Lawrence: The Disco Bible
03.10.2012
05:32 pm
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Many, many books have been written about disco, and I have read a whole bunch of them (including more well known works like Turn The Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco by Peter Shapiro, Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco by Daryl Easlea and The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night by Anthony Haden Guest) but still nothing comes close to matching Tim Lawrence’s exhaustive yet entertaining Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-79.

For those of you who still believe that disco was nothing more than an music-industry creation dreamt up in a backroom by a bunch of coked-up suits and sold to passive, gullible consumers too high to know it was an empty fad (here’s looking’ at you, Em!) then you need to get your hands on this book. That goes for anyone else with an interest in the disco genre, particularly those who know the basics of the story but crave more. Because, believe me, it’s all here.

Lawrence is a lecturer at the University of East London and a renowned writer on dance music and culture. He has in the past published books on the avant garde/disco composer and performer Arthur Russell (Hold On To Your Dreams; Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene 1973-1992) and most recently added the introductory foreword to Voguing And The House Ballroom Scene of New York City, 1989-92. But to me, at least, Love Saves The Day is still his best work. From his website:

Opening with David Mancuso’s seminal “Love Saves the Day” Valentine’s party, Tim Lawrence tells the definitive story of American dance music culture in the 1970s - from its subterranean roots in NoHo and Hell’s Kitchen to its gaudy blossoming in midtown Manhattan to its wildfire transmission through America’s suburbs and urban hotspots such as Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Newark, and Miami.

Tales of nocturnal journeys, radical music making, and polymorphous sexuality flow through the arteries of Love Saves the Day like hot liquid vinyl. They are interspersed with a detailed examination of the era’s most powerful DJs, the venues in which they played, and the records they loved to spin - as well as the labels, musicians, vocalists, producers, remixers, party promoters, journalists, and dance crowds that fuelled dance music’s tireless engine.

TIm Lawrence may not have lived through this era, but his book is phenomenally well-researched and features interviews with all of the remaining key players, sketching the very earliest days of the movement: from David Mancuso’s Loft parties to Francis Grasso mixing records at the Sanctuary as far back as 1970 (the first dj ever to do so), from Nicky Siano opening The Gallery while still a teenager in 1972 to Steve Ostrow’s gay/mixed Continental Baths (home not just to performances by Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, but also the venue where future legendary djs Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles cut their teeth.) all the way up through the decade to the opening of both Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage.

Love Saves The Day IS exhaustive (perhaps too exhaustive for disco newcomers) and while it can act as a great reference for fact-checkers, it’s also an entertaining read that spares little detail of the complicated drug-and-sex lives of these people. This was an era of radical social change and these folks (and this music) were right at the forefront of those changes. The first chapter of Love Saves The Day is available to read in full on Lawrence’s website, and it focuses on David Mancuso, the man whose Loft apartment-cum-dance-space gave birth to disco culture and who, to this day, remains the beating heart of “real” disco. It also makes clear the connection between hippie culture of the 60s and the emerging gay/black/female-centeric dance culture of the 70s:

When it came to public venues Mancuso’s preferred to go to the Electric Circus, which opened in June 1967, and the Fillmore East, which opened in the spring of 1968. Both of these psychedelic haunts were situated in the East Village — the Electric Circus was located in an old Polish workingman’s club on St. Mark’s Place, the Fillmore East, in the words of the New York Times, on “freaky Second Avenue” — and both hosted live entertainment 1. “I went to the Electric Circus at least once a month,” says Mancuso. “Everybody was having fun and they had good sound in there. It was very mixed, very integrated, very intense, very free, very positive.” The Fillmore East showcased some of his favourite artists. “I heard Nina Simone perform there. I went with my friend Larry Patterson. The Fillmore East would often be noisy but that night everybody was very focused. She was wonderful.”

Mancuso didn’t just go to the Fillmore East to listen to music. “That’s where I also first heard Timothy Leary. He gave a series of lectures backed by the Joshua Light Show.” The ex-Harvard academic was already an important figure for Mancuso, who had first taken Sandoz when he was twenty and the drug was still legal. An early trip coincided with a snowstorm (“each flake was like a universe”) and ten tabs later he came across Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which argues that psychedelics can provide a shortcut to enlightenment. “The book blew me away. It became my bible and I started getting involved with him.” The young acolyte met the acid guru at his LSD (“League for Spiritual Discovery”) headquarters in the West Village, went to his Technicolor lectures and became a regular at his private parties. “People were tripping but the parties were more social than serious. There was food and music. I knew we were on a journey.”
Mancuso’s personal voyage took a vital turn in 1965 when he purchased the key to 647 Broadway, just north of Houston, for two hundred dollars.

Like Soho, NoHo (as the north of Houston area was nicknamed) had historically functioned as a manufacturing district, drawing on New York’s immigrant population as its low-wage workforce, and when industry relocated to the cheaper terrain of New Jersey and beyond New York’s artists moved in, delighted to exchange their cramped Upper East Side apartments for a range of stunningly expansive lofts. The influx triggered off a sophisticated experiment into the relationship between art, space and living that apparently excluded the likes of Utica-born Mancuso, but he quickly established himself as a key player within this creative population, intent as he was on reintroducing art back into the party. “Everyone loved my space,” he says. “There might have been a hundred people living like this so it was very new. A lot of people would just come and hang out there. There were all sorts of activities going on.”

Some of these activities were influenced by Leary. “I would organise these intimate gatherings where we would experiment with acid,” says Mancuso. “There were never more than five of us when we did this. One person would take nothing, another would take half a tab and the rest would take a whole tab. It was all very new and we took it very seriously. We used The Psychedelic Experience as our guide.” Leary also had a bearing on the decoration of the loft space. “I built a yoga shrine, which I used for yoga and tripping. In the beginning it was three feet by five feet and it eventually grew to fifteen feet by thirty feet. As you walked into the loft you were immediately drawn to this area. It was gorgeous.”

Music — which was similar to LSD inasmuch as it could function as a therapeutic potion that “de-programmes” the mind before opening up a mystical trail that culminates in spiritual transcendence — was also introduced into the equation. “Leary played music at his lectures and parties and I went in the same direction. I bought a Tandberg tape recorder so that I could play tapes. The Buddha was always positioned between my two speakers.” That was the perfect position from which to hear the homemade compilations, which drew on a diverse range of sources and were structured to complement the hallucinogenic experience. “I made these journey tapes that would last for five hours. They drew on everything from classical music to the moody blues. They would start off very peacefully and the reentry would be more about movement, more jazz-oriented. Somebody might get up and start dancing around the room at some point, although they weren’t dance sessions.”

...and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

I can’t stress enough how good this book is, and how anyone with an interest in disco, underground culture or the 70s should try and track down a copy. It features some invaluable dj playlists from specific spots and times, which act as a checklist for a whole world of great, under-valued music, but besides that, it’s just a great read. I dip in and out of it all the time, and still find amazement and amusement after many readings, so I guess it would be pretty fair to say that Love Saves The Day is my bible. 

You can find a copy of Love Saves The Day on Amazon.

Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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03.10.2012
05:32 pm
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‘Maestro’ - a film about the Paradise Garage and the birth of Disco culture


Keith Haring’s portrait of the DJ Larry Levan
 
In the history of popular music, disco and dance culture generally get a raw deal when it comes to talking about of social change. Sure, some massive changes happened in the Sixties, but to paraphrase Nile Rodgers, the Seventies was when people started to enjoy their new social freedoms. It was an age that saw huge breakdowns of race, class, sexual and social boundaries that were not just confined to small social groups, and much of this was down to the disco and party scenes.

Maestro, a 2002 documentary by the director Josell Ramos, tells the story of the legendary New York club the Paradise Garage, and its equally legendary resident DJ Larry Levan. Levan is often cited as being the best DJ of all time, particularly by some of the most popular DJs in the world, and the music he played at his club spawned a whole genre named in its honour. The Garage’s cultural and musical legacy has been global, influencing some of the world’s best known nightspots, but Maestro is also careful to explain where the roots of the club and the world that developed around it lay - in the seminal underground New York nightspots of the very late Sixties and early 70s.,
 

Levan in the DJ booth at the Paradise Garage
 
Many of the characters still left standing from the era are interviewed in the film. Among these is David Mancuso, whose own private loft parties in his living space kick-started the serious dancing scene and gave birth to the modern idea of clubbing..There is the late Francis Grasso, the first man to ever mix two records back in the late 60s at the Sanctuary; Nicky Siano, who in 1972 and still a teenager opened the night spot the Gallery; Frankie Knuckles of Chicago’s Warehouse (the birthplace of garage music’s broodier twin house), reminiscences on his close childhood friend Levan with stories that are both funny and sad. Most movingly of all respected DJ and remixer Francois Kevorkian remembers how the AIDS epidemic swept through his social circle killing many of his friends and decimating the party scene.

The Paradise Garage was a true melting pot where black, white, gay, straight, male, female, old and young mixed, got high, danced, and had sex. The footage of the Garage, the Sanctuary and the Loft in Maestro is great, and really makes you want to grab a time machine to visit these incredible parties. While this film is flawed, it’s good to have the story of this era told from the perspective of the people who were there and helped shape it. Oh, and needless to say, the music is FANTASTIC:
 

 
The rest of Maestro, after the jump…

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Posted by Niall O'Conghaile
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06.25.2011
06:47 am
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