When I think about disco in New York in the 1970’s I think of the lotus flower.
I have a slight obsession with disco. I honestly don’t know where it began but I’ve loved it since I was a little girl. Because of my love for disco, I get very defensive when it is routinely dragged as a vapid musical art form.
WHY DO PEOPLE HATE DISCO?
My quest to answer this question led me to a number of books, interviews, documentaries and movies that shed some light on the history of disco. Guess what? Its history doesn’t have anything to do with glitter, gloss or white polyester suits and it doesn’t have much to do with Saturday Night Fever or Studio 54 either. Yeah, I said it. Those are the very things that define and malign disco to this day.
So over on TONDI for the rest of the month I’m taking a deep dive into the world of disco.
Here on Culture Shock Art I’ll post links to music and photography that speak to the heart of disco and for those of you who want to learn more I’ll provide links on TONDI to some B-side content that highlight the social and political context that shaped the genre.
Since the Netflix series “The Get Down” debuts this week on Netflix, my goal is to give readers some historical context to the show and to show some love for music that we have forgotten.
For more on SUPERNOVA, head over to TONDI
Legendary producer/ DJ Larry Levan’s birthday is today, so I thought I would pay tribute to the musical master by giving you a sneak peek of a project I’m launching on TONDI soon. This piece is best read by listening to Levan’s music and this 1979 live recorded set at the Paradise Garage is about as good as it gets. Happy Birthday Larry!
To get inside you first had to either be a member or know one. It sounds exclusive but it is anything but that. This kind of membership didn’t depend on how you looked, what you wore or which celebrities you knew, it was different here. Members could bring in 6 people at a time and bouncers were far more relaxed about letting you inside if you had a good story to tell and a great vibe. This was no Studio 54. Here it wasn’t about tastemakers, influencers or followers; this was an oasis that provided guests with an escape from the world beyond its doors. Inside these walls lived a pulsing organism whose energy was fueled by music that took control of everyone who entered. You felt it moments before you step inside–walking up the infamous ramp, the rhythms of deep bass settling deep into your chest and the flutter of excitement growing stronger as the music becomes louder with each step. Finally a shining neon light beckons you inside, while the music levitates you onto the dance floor where euphoric Garage dancers welcome you with smiles and sweat.
The music, the people and the sound of the Paradise Garage created a perfect storm on New York’s King Street lasting a decade; while many clubs have since tried to imitate the vibe or duplicate the success, few have succeeded. An architect can build a building, but a designer gives it its soul, and Larry Levan was the soul of Paradise Garage. As the preeminent DJ reigning supreme over the turntables and the masses at the Garage, Levan’s devotion to creating a sonic experience became the soundtrack for unforgettable evenings. Just as Levan was the soul, Garage members were the spirit that kept this venue going strong between 1977 and 1987.
Many paths crossed at the Garage, gay/straight, black/latino/white, people finding themselves or losing someone else, it was a collective of open-minded indivuduals.
Some infamous artists called the Garage home and they all shared the same memory of it being safe and spiritually fulfilling yet equally outrageous and uproarious.
“You’d go to bed around ten at night, get up at four in the morning, go to the Garage, and leave at noon, refreshed to the soul…They called it the Church because a great Saturday night would end up on Sunday.” ~Grace Jones
“I don’t know if you know how important the “Paradise Garage” is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there. I discovered the Garage by divine ‘accident'” ~ Keith Haring
“The Garage was my church; it was where I healed my hurt” ~ Danny Tenaglia
“It didn’t necessarily have to reference outside beacons or whatever outside tastemakers might deem to be important. The Garage crowd was into what was going on at the Garage.” ~ Francois Kevorkian
As disco faded along with the 70’s, the Garage ushered in a new era of house music loyal to disco’s roots by using music to create togetherness from otherness. Good DJs use their music to tell a story that connects them to their audience. What separates a good DJ from an exceptional one is their genuine appreciation and respect for the music and an ability to create aural alchemy that fills tracks with new meaning and energy. The 1979 recording of one of Levan’s Garage sets includes a section of “Dreaming a Dream” by Crown Heights Affair (about 22 minutes in) that is acoustically pitched and imbued with such force that by the time the horns kick in you have completely lost yourself in the track.
The beauty of the Paradise Garage was that the music and innovative sound system were merely the vessels to create unforgettable experiences-Larry Levan was the guide, transforming music into a euphoric high for listeners. The crowd, eager to leave the realities of life behind them, briefly found paradise at the Garage. Sadly, reality has a way of catching up with everyone, even in paradise. The closure of the Garage in 1987 and Levan’s death in 1992 left musical and communal holes in people’s souls. While underground clubs in the 70’s and 80’s were a dime a dozen, the Paradise Garage created a winning formula that many continue to chase to this day. Today, aging socialites name drop Studio 54 in a desperate attempt for attention and exclusivity, but when people talk about the Garage, they make you feel like you were actually there. That is inclusion.
Last month, one of my reviews on MoAD’s latest exhibitions was featured on Arts.Black. Please click on the link below to learn more about The Grace Jones Project and Dandy Lion.
I truly appreciate the efforts of Taylor and Jessica to amplify the voices of black arts writers. Check out their latest post that features a letter to filmmaker Marlon Riggs.
Arts. Black is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue – a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee and Jessica Lynne.
In the absence of words there are just images. Here are some of the more thought provoking photographs that have helped me think about, process and grieve the tragedies of this week.
Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile.
“There is no contradiction between supporting law enforcement…and also saying there are problems, biases to be rooted out.” ~ President Obama
A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”- Marcus Garvey
Fred Martins, a Nigerian visual artist based in the Ukraine has recently completed a new series of images called “Orange, Black and Freedom”. His work combines vibrant graphic design with photography through his use of digitally created hair picks that are transformed into African and African American leaders. In each image the individual teeth of the comb are aligned to outline the subject’s profile while a semi transparent black and while image of the leader is overlaid onto the pick. I loved all 5 images in the series which include Fela Kuti, Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela. For more on the artist and the series see below.