Interview – Tim Lawrence

Posted: February 6th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Photo: Katja Ruge

You published your first book „Love Saves The Day“ in 2003, and although there had been plenty of literature on the topic of the classic Disco era of the 70s in New York City, it still stood out. What led you to write it?

I don’t know if that much had been written. Albert Goldman’s book „Disco“ had come out in 1979 and contains a small amount of information on David Mancuso’s private party, the Loft, and the Sanctuary, the discotheque where the pioneering Francis Grasso DJed, but it’s main focus is on the midtown discotheque Studio 54. In 1997 Anthony Haden-Guest published „The Last Party“, but that was mainly about Studio 54 and was largely concerned with celebrity culture. Both had a completely difficult reading of disco to the one I developed in “Love Saves the Day”, which focused on the influence of DJs on the rise of dance culture and what came to be known as Disco. I thought they missed the underlying dynamic of what made the culture so exciting.

Is it true that „Loves Saves The Day“ originally started out as an introductory chapter of a book about House Music?

Yes, that is true. The book about House Music was supposed to start in mid-1980s Chicago and then move on to New York City and the beginnings of UK Rave culture. I was born in 1967, so for me Disco was the music I liked when I was a kid, because the music reached its commercial peak in 1977/78. By the time I was in my 20s I was ready for something completely different and that came in the form of House Music, thus the original idea for the book. But I ended up interviewing David Mancuso early into my research, even though he was a relatively unknown figure at the time, and when he suggested that the history should begin with the Loft in 1970 I asked other interviewees, including house legends Tony Humphries, Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, if they’d heard of David and the Loft. They all replied that the Loft had been a transformational experience and so I quickly came to understand that the history of underground dance culture—a culture that ended up inspiring Disco—had yet to be narrated. Initially I thought I’d write a chapter about the 1970s but by the time I’d written 500 pages I’d only reached the end of 1979, so that turned out to be a book in itself. I just became fascinated by the way in which the communication between the person selecting the records and the dancing crowd introduced an entirely different form of musicianship to the world.

This marked the beginnings of contemporary DJ culture and it amounted to a form of democratic music-making that was firmly rooted in the counterculture, or the social forces that were unfolding in the US of that era. Before the beginning the 1970s DJs were required to “kill the dance floor” with a slow song every five or six records in order to persuade dancers to buy a drink. But when Mancuso and Grasso started playing at the beginning of 1970 they played to dancers who were rooted in the culture of gay liberation, civil rights, feminism, experimentation with LSD, and the anti-war movement. Grasso was already playing at the Sanctuary in the late 1960s and told me it was quite boring, but when the Sancutary became the first public discotheque to welcome gay men onto the dance floor at the beginning of 1970 the dancing became much more energetic and Grasso decided to try to maintain the intensity by inventing the technique of mixing two records together. Mancuso, meanwhile, started to hold dance parties in his downtown loft on Valentine’s Day 1970 and gave the party the name “Love Saves the Day”, which referenced universal love and the acid trip. Rather than mix records together, Mancuso took his dancers on a transformational journey through the juxtaposition of sound.

There is a direct lineage from the early days of The Loft through to New York dane venues such as the Paradise Garage, because the Garage owner Michael Brody and his resident DJ Larry Levan were Loft regular. The influence extends to the origins of House Music, because Robert Williams attended the Loft before he opened the Warehouse in Chicago, where he employed Frankie Knuckles to DJ, and the coinage House Music first referred to the music Knuckles would play at the Warehouse. Knuckles was also a Loft regular. So in many paths led back to the Loft. Everything seemed to be connected.

Were the interviewees in „Love Saves The Day“ waiting to tell their story?

Yes, because up to then it had not really been told, even if their cultural influence in the 70s turned out to be enormous. By the time I got home after that first interview with David Mancuso word there were five messages from people he knew and who were ready to talk on my answer machine—so it seems as though he trusted me and that there was a desire for this untold story to be told. One of the messages was from the DJ Steve D’Acquisto, who introduced me to Francis Grasso, and so things unfolded from there. This all took place in 1997, so a couple of years, I believe, before Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton started to track down David and Francis for their book „Last Night A DJ Saved My Life“.

Did you feel it was important to emphasize the political aspects of Disco?

I would say they emphasised themselves because Disco was so obviously political. The backlash against Disco peaked with the Disco Demolition night at a baseball game in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on July 12th 1979, where a local radio DJ asked the audience to bring Disco records and then blew them up in the middle of the baseball double-header. It amounted to a Mid-Western backlash against the multicultural and polysexual coalition that underpinned disco culture and I’ve argued that in many respects we can track the rise of Donald Trump (and before him Ronald Reagan) to this moment. Disco became one of the first scapegoats for the decline of industrial culture in the United States and Trump appealed to the same disenfranchised and discontented demographic. I’m always interested in the correlation between music scenes and the wider culture in which they occur. So “Love Saves the Day” was about more than Disco, even if Disco was one of its central concerns. It’s important to remember that Disco music didn’t emerge as a genre until 1974, so the first for years of the book analyse a period when the culture was fermenting but didn’t have a name or a settled sound. It’s also important to note the version of disco depicted in „Saturday Night Fever“ had very little to do with the kind of culture that was still taking place in downtown New York, and by the end of 1978 downtown DJs were also becoming tired of commercial disco. The quality of the music had declined and it was time for something new. But the downtown expression of the culture survived the backlash.

Did you already identify the musician Arthur Russell as a key figure that connected said developments, as a subject for your next book „Hold On To Your Dreams“?

Yes, definitely. Steve D’Acquisto was very close to Arthur Russell and told me I should write a book about him. By the time “Love Saves the Day” came out I had realised I didn’t want to run through the dance music decades like a train and proposed a book about Arthur. At first my editor was worried that there might not be not enough interest in Arthur because he wasn’t a particularly well-known musician when he died in 1992 and he had somewhat faded from memory. But in 2003 David Toop wrote a big feature about him in the Wire magazine, because two posthumous album were about to be released, and the new interest persuaded my editor there would be a readership for a biography. Of course Arthur was an endearing character and an extraordinary musician, but in truth I was never really interested in biography as a form of writing. I’m much more interested in participatory scenes. But Arthur Russell was totally interested in collaboration and what kind of social experiences can occur though music. He was also inherently open to different forms of music and had operated as an itinerant figure who had moved with remarkable freedom between the orchestral scene, the new wave scene, the disco scene and the hip hop scene while exploring folk and dub. What’s more, he didn’t move sequentially, exchanging one scene for another but instead embraced all of these sounds simultaneously, refusing to see them in hierarchical terms. He wanted these scenes to have a simultaneous conversation and so became a musical and social visionary.

This seems to already hint at your third book, „Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983“, which examines how club and art culture interacted at that time.

That’s a very good point. By the time the Arthur anti-biography biography—as I sometimes call it—entered production I had already started work on the new book. The initial plan was to cover the whole of the 1980s, devoting a chapter to the opening years of the decade before focusing on what I assumed was the most important story—the rise of House Music in mid-1980s Chicago. But it’s also true that by the time I came to start the book I was no longer so focused on the thought that the entire world should follow the beats laid down by House. The world—or at least my world—had moved on somewhat. Back in the 1990s it seemed ideologically as well as culturally important to side with House Music, which embraced black, queer and feminist culture as well as technological innovation, where as Rock seemed to be stuck in time as as well as a much narrower demographic. House seemed to be progressive, rock seemed to be reactionary, and in many ways this was the case during the 1990s. But David Mancuso and Arthur Russell took me on a learning curve and more or less required me to widen my knowledge of music because both of them explored such a diverse range of sounds. So as soon as I started to write about the 1980s I realised that I couldn’t ignore the Art Punk Scene and the Hip Hop scene, even if I’d wanted to, because the early 1980s were defined by their mutant character, or the way that Dance, Punk and Hip Hop combined with one another in kaleidoscopic ways. Having initially thought that the period just amounted to a bridge between the bigger stories of Disco and House, I soon concluded that the “bridge” was the actual story. The early 1980s amounted to a transitional period that did not really have a name, and most of the music that came out didn’t really have a name, at least not back then, because Electro wasn’t in circulation at all, postpunk wasn’t in common usage and even hip hop didn’t start to circulate until 1981. Yet there was this incredible explosion of DJing, live bands, mutant music, experimental cinema, art and performance art during the early 1980s, and quite soon into my research I realised that the cultural renaissance of early 1980s New York required an entire book of its own. To give just one quick example, most of the important art from the early 1980s—the art created by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and David Wojnarowicz—didn’t happen in the city’s galleries but instead in its party spaces. So I was following the research, learning as I went along.

How did your research led you to decide that you needed to conclude your account of the downtown party scene at the end of 1983?

New York City went through changes. Clubs had to close because neighbourhoods became gentrified and the new residents put pressure on the club owners because they believed that the clubs were undermining the value of their investment. So a lot of the problems that party culture is currently experiencing began to take root in New York during 1983 and the years that followed. Also AIDS was first reported in 1981 and by 1983 had become an epidemic. This affected the downtown scene severely while Ronald Reagan didn’t even utter the word “AIDS” until the very end of his presidency. This put queer people on the defensive, because they were dying from the disease and were also facing spiralling homophobia. Meanwhile crack consumption reached epidemic proportions in 1984 and this put the African American community on the defensive, with the corrosive impact of the drug exacerbated by Reagan’s cuts to welfare, which disproportionately effected working-class people. As a result, two of the most important groups in the early 1980s party scene went from being open and willing to contribute to a shared hybrid culture to being defensive and much more focused on creating culture that was specific to their experience. The music changed with these developments. From 1980 to 1983 you can pick out so many records that are hybrid in character and move between the three strands of the New York party scene, with party people moving with increasing freedom between the three scenes as well. But this started to shift subtly during 1983 and from 1984 onwards the music became more segment and so did the city’s party spaces, which also started to close down. By 1988 only one of the party spaces described in Life and Death was still open. But the idea isn’t to examine the era as a form of nostalgia but instead as a way to critique the present.

taz 02/17

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