Interview Series: Tim Lawrence, Life & Death on the New York Dance Floor

by Jarek Ervin on November 1, 2017

Tim LawrenceLife and Death on the New York Dance Floor

In Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, Tim Lawrence (University of East London) recalls a largely unknown history of the New York party scene in the early 1980s. Lawrence shows that in this period, New York was home to a cultural renaissance that flourished until Reaganomics, gentrification, and the HIV/AIDS crisis transformed the social and economic fabric of the city. In so doing, he complicates conventional narratives of popular music history, arguing that lines between punk, disco, and hip hop were far from clear in the New York music scene. In September, IASPM-US web editor Jarek Paul Ervin (Westminster Choir College) spoke to Lawrence via Skype, discussing the untold story of 1980s party culture, the complicated social map of New York’s music scene, and the democratic ideals of the New York dance floor.

Jarek Paul Ervin: This book focuses on the 1980s, a decade that doesn’t always get a ton of love. I think especially as far as New York history is concerned, the 1970s tend to dominate. This is true where musical genres like disco, hip hop, and punk are on the table, but it’s also the case in more theoretical discussions of class, race, and urban space. The story is emergent neoliberalism and the 1971 Powell Memo, Ford telling the city to drop dead in ‘75, and so on. Against this tendency, your Preface suggests that “New York experienced a community-driven cultural renaissance during the early 1980s that stands as one of the most influential in its, and perhaps in any city’s, history” (xiii). What is it that makes this period so important?

Tim Lawrence: The first thing to say is that I didn’t set out to write about the early 1980s or the 1970s. Initially I was going to write a history of house music and rave culture. But it quickly became clear to me that nobody had written a serious history of 1970s party culture—this culture that eventually mutated into disco. This led to my first book, Love Saves the Day. After writing my second book on Arthur Russell, I returned to the task of writing a history of house music. But early into the research for it I grasped that, far from being an anonymous period that fell between the fall of disco and the rise of house, the early 1980s had been this remarkably prolific period even if much of the culture couldn’t be easily classified.

More broadly, I came to understand with increasing clarity that New York City during the 1970s and early 1980s operated as a kind of petri dish for an extraordinary level of cultural innovation and community participation. It’s almost hard not to be hyperbolic when talking about the level of musical creativity in this period. Writers and politicians tend to portray New York City of the 1970s and 1980s in a negative light. By now I’ve spoken to something like 500 people who lived and worked in the city during this period, however, and not one of them told me they wanted to get out. Quite the opposite: they told me they didn’t want to leave the city for even a weekend because there was so much going on.

The early 1980s turned out to be the climax of this extraordinarily fertile period. A cultural renaissance rooted in convergence, pluralism, hybridity, and openness ensued. It didn’t just feature music but also fed into No Wave cinema, video, television, immersive happenings, performance art, and the wider art scene. There was all of this activity and much of it was democratic, participatory, and innovative. Some of the activity has been touched on by other historians, but my overriding sense was that the period remained under-documented and underappreciated.

JPE: The other thing I have to acknowledge right away is your decision to include playlists throughout the book (many of which were put on YouTube by Red Bull Music Academy). They really capture the dynamism of this period. There really isn’t a singular sound or style. It’s all over the place. This hints at a broader methodological assumption structuring your book. Despite focusing on just a few short years in a single city, your narrative is incredibly expansive. One minute, we’re Downtown at an art gallery, another we’re up in Harlem at a dance party, and then we’re off to Fire Island to hit up the Pavilion. Why do you cast such a wide net, which you present as a story about musical pluralism?

TL: I found it really tough to write the first chapter—it was easily the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a writer. Initially I felt compelled to continue the story of Love Saves the Day. I eventually grasped that the first chapter, like the book, had to explore the way in which everything seemed to bleed into everything else during the early 1980s. It helped that I’d written my second book about Arthur Russell, because Arthur moved almost seamlessly between the city’s music scenes. Researching Arthur’s movements prepared the ground for writing about the early 1980s as a period of exploration, openness and mobility.

Earlier histories of disco, punk, and rap/hip hop tend to figure these sounds as being discrete and consistently oppositional, yet I became convinced that it was impossible to tell the history of these sounds during the early 1980s without exploring the way in which they intersected. People weren’t terribly interested in genre, they were following the music and wanted to enjoy themselves. Everything pointed to an open and convergent democratic culture. Trying to provide a coherent account of something that was inherently diffuse and complex became the challenge of writing the book.

If you look at the playlists from the era, it’s true that Anita Sarko’s taste was different from Larry Levan’s taste, Larry Levan’s taste was different from “Jellybean” Benitez’s taste in music, and so on. But it’s interesting to note the significant number of records they drew on as a de facto common pool, because the hybrid quality of these records meant they could work in a wide range of settings. Also, if you went out to dance to any of these DJs there was never any way of guessing what the next record would sound like.

JPE: It’s intriguing—maybe a bit perverse—that your first few chapters are mostly about No Wave, mutant disco, and other punkish genres; I love that one of the first names the reader sees is Sid Vicious! One might expect a book about the dance floor to start with disco or house, which are often regarded as the foundational dance genres of the eighties. Why not start there?

TL: In many ways, postpunk and mutant disco embodied the spirit of the period. There was a sort of militant freedom at work. Nothing operated according to genre. Musical and social boundaries really came to be broken down during the very late 1970s and early 1980s.

Through figures like Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquat, the art-punk scene began to interact with the borough graffiti scene. It was the Mudd Club—a downtown punk discotheque—that staged the first graffiti show. To their amazement, participants in these two worlds discovered that, despite coming from almost entirely separate backgrounds, they enjoyed a shared commitment to collage, to cut-up, found objects, improvisation, DIY, and so on. And so these improbable meetings between people from different backgrounds and distinctive cultures began to accelerate.

Meanwhile, the club Danceteria brought a downtown sensibility to the midtown Garment District. The structure of the venue was symbolically important, with its three floors simultaneously presenting different forms of entertainment. The floor dedicated to DJing featured a punk DJ and a disco DJ who were instructed to play together. Another floor was dedicated to live bands, many of which were rooted in the city’s art scene. A third floor featured experimental video and amounted to the first space of its kind. All of these different forms of creativity were brought together in a single venue and all of them were rooted in challenging existing cultural norms. As co-owner Jim Fouratt argued, participants had no excuse to be bored.

JPE: You mention hip hop, which obviously is one of the major sounds in the era’s musical landscape. One of the things that I like about your telling of this story is that it undermines the conventional wisdom that the genre was kind of sequestered up in the Bronx before Def Jam and the like came along. In your book, the story looks different. It’s Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five opening for the Clash, Afrika Bambaataa playing for East Village hipsters, etc. You even point out that Coke La Rock—who DJed for Kool Herc—was a regular at Paradise Garage, a gay disco club. Could you say a bit more about the way hip hop fits into your narrative?

TL: The history of hip hop has to a certain extent been written backwards. On close examination, hip hop effectively didn’t exist as a closed off, cohesive culture in the 1970s. Graffiti was entirely separate from the Bronx party scene. Nor did the people who were hosting parties in the Bronx think of themselves as being completely separate from the wider New York party scene. Some people say that hip hop was a reaction against disco, but the Zulu Nation were still using the word “disco” to market their parties as late as 1978.

We should always remind ourselves when talking about disco, rap, and hip hop that the 1970s and early 1980s amounted to an open period in the city’s history. There was no sense that hip hop was at war with other cultures. The very fundamental premise of Bronx party culture and DJing was to be continually borrowing and recycling, so participants didn’t see themselves as being separate.

JPE: After you discuss punk and hip hop, the names start to look a little more familiar: David Mancuso, Paradise Garage, the Saint, etc. You get into disco, and in particular gay dance culture in the late seventies and early eighties. The major factor you discuss there is the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It breaks out right in the middle of your book (1981). How did that crisis figure into your story?

TL: I try to push back against the narrative that disco died at the end of the seventies. Rather than regressing, if anything, party culture seems to have expanded and become more ambitious. The Paradise Garage entered its peak period from 1980 onwards. The Loft on Prince Street peaked around the same time. Danceteria opened in early 1980. And then there was the Saint, which opened in the autumn of 1980 and marked a dramatic expansion of the white gay private party scene.

The Saint blew competitor venues away within a matter of months thanks to its spectacular planetarium dome, futuristic interior design, and 4,000 person capacity. Saint DJs started to work with the light operators, developing this novel form of immersive synaesthesia that knew no obvious precedent in party culture. In many respects the Saint carried the culture of the 1970s white gay party scene to the next level, offering the A-list crowd something superior to what they experienced before.

The Saint took Flamingo’s “black party”—a de facto leather party—and made it more extreme; the artist Robert Mapplethorpe created the artwork for one party. The venue also introduced a balcony area that became a site of prolific public sex. When AIDS was first reported in 1981 people are said to have referred to it as Saint’s disease. By 1983, AIDS reached epidemic proportions and this inevitably had an effect on the Saint as well as other venues that attracted a gay male crowd. The atmosphere in party culture started to shift that year.

JPE: You bring up the relative whiteness of the gay scene in venues like the Saint. This starts to get at the complex racial dynamics of this period, which should be discussed directly. I want to come back to the LGBTQ story in a moment, but there is a broader point you raise about the role of race in eighties pop music. You write in the book that, “the retrenchment of the early 1980s amounted to a turn against black pop as well as disco” (439). How would you characterize the racial dynamics of pop music in this era?

TL: That quote refers to the response of the mainstream record companies following the backlash against disco and the recession. When the bottom fell out of the music market in 1979, disco became an easy target. By 1980 the music majors were trying to shore up sales by backing artists such as Dire Straits and Billy Joel. With the partial exception of Warner, their commitment to disco was fleeting and superficial at best.

In terms of the racial dynamics of the era, it’s worth noting that disco never straightforwardly whitened R&B, as some have had it. While it’s true that acts like the Bee Gees sold huge numbers of records during the second half of the 1970s, many of the most successful disco acts were grounded in R&B.

Yet the decision by the majors to abandon disco and the sounds that were coming through the NYC party scene ultimately enabled the relatively discreet elements of that scene to begin to communicate in a more concerted way. During the early 1980s there was a very significant coming together between the post-disco dance, art-punk, and nascent hip hop scenes. There were inevitably ongoing forms of exclusion but overall the direction of travel was very clearly towards exploration and integration, with people from different backgrounds and with different tastes partying and recording music together in ways that previously hadn’t occurred in straightforward ways.

JPE: Along these lines, you talk a great deal about the Paradise Garage, which stands as the foil to relatively segregated clubs like the Saint.

TL: The Garage started to take off on Saturdays as well as Fridays at the very end of 1979 or in early 1980—again, at the very moment when disco was declared dead by the national media. Friday nights at the Garage were mixed from the start and had always been successful. But in an attempt to generate business on Saturdays, owner Michael Brody tried to make that night a white-only night, hoping to attract the crowd that would soon start to head to the Saint. Brody abandoned the experiment after a few months and it was at that point that the Garage started to draw crowds of 3-4,000 people, with Fridays still open to a mixed crowd and Saturdays set aside for a gay crowd, which happened to be almost entirely black and Latino.

The Garage assumed an unparalleled influence during this period. Artists such as Patti Labelle, Grace Jones, ESG, and Liquid Liquid start to perform there and that encouraged hip hop pioneers including Fab Five Freddy, Afrika Islam, Coke La Rock, and Afrika Bambaataa to head to the spot. The Zulu Nation sound system guys wanted to get tips from the Garage set-up, because it combined power and precision to an unprecedented degree. Many also came to agree that Larry Levan was the most expressive DJ in the city. So the Garage became this magnet.

JPE: Some people might not know Levan. Why is he so important?

TL: Larry Levan had been a regular at David Mancuso’s Loft and Nicky Siano’s Gallery, and when he started to work at the Garage, he found himself with the kind of expansive platform that enabled him to combine the taste and sensibility of these pioneers. This, paired with the scale of the Garage and the power of its sound system, resulted in the dance floor peaks assuming a new level of heightened intensity and drama.

Levan also established himself as the most innovative and prolific remixer of the early 1980s, and the Garage became the place where dancers along with other DJs and record promoters could hear them first. The enthusiasm of the Garage crowd and the willingness of dancers to go and purchase Levan’s selections also turned the Garage into a magnet for performers and record promoters. At points it seemed as though everyone in the industry wanted their act to appear at the Garage or hand Levan their latest record in the hope that he’d play it.

There was a period when it seemed as though Levan was more or less capable of reinventing dance music every time he went into the studio. When he released his remix of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat,” he slowed down the propulsive regulated disco beat to about 106 BPM and funkified it. When he first played it at the Garage he cleared the floor—dancers didn’t know what to make of it. A few weeks later, it had spread through the New York scene like wildfire. It became one of the biggest records of the era.

Many people experienced the backlash against disco with a certain dread, wondering how dance culture could survive such hostility, yet Levan helped show how the culture could thrive by embracing a diversity of sounds and mixing them together. He provided a sense through his DJing and mixing that there didn’t have to be a name for the music that came after disco. He showed that a creative and open culture could be sustained.

JPE: Your Epilogue is titled “Life, Death, and the Hereafter.” As you approach the end of the book, the tone becomes darker, even a little apocalyptic. Did 1983 see the death of the music? Are we living in the “Hereafter” years?

TL: Although it wasn’t clear to everyone who experienced it at the time, I think it’s possible to see 1983 as a tipping point. Earlier policy developments paved the way, with Ford’s decision to hand the city over to the banks during the 1975 fiscal crisis a critical staging post. Yet it was only during 1983 that the impact of these changes came to be felt in the form of rocketing real estate inflation and skyrocketing values on Wall Street. AIDS also reached epidemic proportions during 1983 and crack consumption went on to reach epidemic proportions the following year, so this change swept through the city rather dramatically.

The AIDS crisis put the queer community on the defensive and the crack epidemic along with Reagan’s welfare cuts put people of color on the defensive. So all of a sudden, these groups that had interacted with one another with such intent during the late 1970s and early 1980s became much more defensive in their outlook. Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee told me that when he and Chuck D put on parties during the early 1980s they would throw everything into the mix, including all sorts of tracks that we’d conventionally think of as disco or post-disco dance tracks. But by the time they released the first Public Enemy track in 1987 the environment had changed. Instead of making party music they wanted to make emergency music. “You looked at the black community and it was a shambles,” Hank told me. “Crack was at an all-time high plus there were no jobs. It was insane. I didn’t want to pacify the situation; I wanted to wake people up.”

The point isn’t that creativity ended during 1983 and 1984; it just assumed a different form. Now, 30-plus years later, it’s clear that there’s a real hunger from younger audiences in particular to learn about this period and understand what kind of things are possible. The current mood is one that holds that culture can be revitalized through collective action. A new kind of energy is making itself felt, especially from disenfranchised younger people. With the near-success of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary campaign and the remarkable rise of Corbyn and the Labour Party in the UK, it seems as though we might be on the cusp of entering a new era. We once again live in exciting times. ♬

Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992, and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983. He is a professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London, a founding director of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research, and a founder of Lucky Cloud Sound System.

Jarek Paul Ervin is Adjunct Visiting Professor at Westminster Choir College and Executive Web Editor of IASPM-US. His writing appears or is forthcoming in Popular Music, Popular Music & Society, Jacobin, and In the Muse, and focuses on a range of topics including popular music, philosophy of music, and the relationship of music to gender and sexuality. Ervin is presently working on a book about 1970s punk music, titled Pull Down the Future: New York Punk in the 1970s.

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