As the 1970s gave way to the 80s, New York's party scene entered a ferociously inventive period characterized by its creativity, intensity, and hybridity. Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor chronicles this tumultuous time, charting the sonic and social eruptions that took place in the city’s subterranean party venues as well as the way they cultivated breakthrough movements in art, performance, video, and film. Interviewing DJs, party hosts, producers, musicians, artists, and dancers, Tim Lawrence illustrates how the relatively discrete post-disco, post-punk, and hip hop scenes became marked by their level of plurality, interaction, and convergence. He also explains how the shifting urban landscape of New York supported the cultural renaissance before gentrification, Reaganomics, corporate intrusion, and the spread of AIDS brought this gritty and protean time and place in American culture to a troubled denouement.
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Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor
By Tim Lawrence
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
STYLISTIC COHERENCE DIDN'T MATTER AT ALL
Born in 1942, Steve Mass grew up in Macon, Georgia, the oldest son of Chicagoan-Jewish parents, his physician father head of the only radiology department in town. His childhood was a privileged one, yet the presence of a church on every block reminded him that he was an outsider, his interest in the arts provoked jeers at school, and visits to the country club, where his parents were required to socialize with other local notables, many of them with southern aristocratic roots and golf panache to spare, left him convinced of his inferiority. For a while he didn't even know that half the local population was African Americans, so severe was the separation between whites and blacks, but he got to spend time in the same room as African Americans — albeit a segregated one — when he began to head to concerts held in downtown Macon with his closest school friend, Phil Walden, who went on to found Capricorn Records and spearhead the development of southern rock. The experience of seeing the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, James Brown, and Little Richard virtually levitate before his eyes was formative. Thanks to his father's line of work, Mass already knew about the steady stream of unsolved murders that were clearly related to Ku Klux Klan activities, and he came to regard these performers as heroes, conscious that when he and other teenagers screamed during their shows, the Klan judged that to be "dangerous."
Mass studied anthropology at Northwestern and creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, after which he moved to New York to forge ahead with a publishing venture initiated with a Ceylonese aristocrat, determined to take the artistic-curatorial-business pathway because "there was no hope in those days" of earning a living from art. The city was so cheap he launched a printing press in SoHo for "virtually nothing," only to see the venture founder, following his decision to organize it around a wondrous yet inefficient 1938 printing press. He bounced back with a business that provided an out-of-hours ambulance service to the membership of a large medical insurance company, which enabled him "to see how the city really worked" when he stepped into one of his adapted vans to cover for a sick driver. With no daytime responsibilities and a significant level of freedom at night, given that he could coordinate his business via two-way radio, he also started to pursue his poetic passions, assisting underground cinema pioneer Jack Smith on "a few small films," hanging out with punk director Amos Poe when the opportunity arose, and purchasing a 16mm Frezzolini camera so he could film bands at CBGB, the down-and-out (yet very in) Bowery venue where punk and new wave acts such as Blondie, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Television had built a following. When New York descended into semi-anarchy during the summertime electricity blackout of 1977, he headed out with his camera to capture "the explosive social ramifications of the machine stopping."
Mass edged deeper into the city's subterranean theater when Poe introduced him to Anya Phillips, a Taiwanese-born designer, dominatrix, ex–Times Square stripper, and art-punk scenester. "Anya had a little circle of friends," he recalls. "They were all designers, they were working with spandex, they were wearing stiletto heels. All of this fascinated me. I was interested in Anya more than the bands." It was through Phillips that Mass also became friends with Diego Cortez, an Illinois-raised artist, performer, and fledgling filmmaker who immersed himself in the SoHo art scene until lead singer David Byrne invited him to see Talking Heads play live at CBGB. "I was brought into another scene that I thought was more vital than my own," reasons Cortez, known as Jim Curtis before he moved to New York. "The conceptual art scene of the 1970s was radical but it was a little bit too much removed from reality for my taste." On-off roommates, Cortez and Phillips were happy to spend time with Mass. "Steve would take Anya and I to dinner and we would hang out a bit," remembers Cortez. "He was one of the few people who had any money in the scene we were part of."
When Cortez directed a "schizo documentary" about Elvis that interspersed the story of the artist's time serving in the U.S. military in Germany with the trials of the country's militant Red Army Faction, he cast himself in the part of Elvis, handed Phillips the role of Priscilla, and brought in Mass to take on the role of cinematographer. The project took them to Memphis, where they drove in one of Mass's vans in order to film outside Graceland, Presley's mansion home, where fans were gathering in the wake of the artist's death on 16 August. After that they took a long route back via Chicago, because Cortez and Phillips had started to toy with the idea of setting up an alternative to CBGB and Max's that would mix live music with DJ-ing, performance art, and exhibitions, and having proposed the idea to Mass on the road to Memphis, they wanted to show him a trailblazing punk discotheque called La Mere Vipere located on North Halstead Street that could provide them with a reference point. The experience of seeing some fifty punks thrashing about in black made an impression on Mass, as did the shattered skylight that was positioned above the DJ booth. "I saw the urban terrain as consisting of all these eruptions and moral panics and riots," he recalls. "I thought, 'If neighbors were throwing bricks through the window, then these people must be doing something right.'" Mass confirmed later that the visit "inspired" him and had a "strong influence" on his decision to open a club.
Three factors tempered the southerner's enthusiasm. First, he didn't have any spare money. Second, he still hoped to make it as a filmmaker. Third, the tumultuous events of the summer, which also saw David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz terrorize New Yorkers, left him feeling cautious because "everything was going wrong." Yet the commotion also coincided with his growing interest in Situationist philosophy and in particular Guy Debord's call in Society of the Spectacle for citizens to overturn the commodification of social life by constructing "situations" that re-ordered life, politics, and art. At the same time he calculated that Jack Smith's skill at transforming a ramshackle cast into an expressive community could be partially replicated in a club situation. A self-described loner in search of a community, Mass concluded that the idea of opening a venue for "the moral panic crowd" rippled with potential.
The plan to open an art-punk discotheque remained speculative until Mass and Phillips hit on a dilapidated textile warehouse owned by artist Ross Bleckner, located at 77 White Street, a dead-end part of town that nevertheless lay at the hub of a series of discrete yet vital neighborhoods. To the north, SoHo had come to host the greatest artistic migration the country had ever seen. To the northeast, CBGB remained the choice destination for punks and new wavers. To the east and southeast, industrial Chinatown loomed large. To the south, the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center and New York City Hall hovered with authoritative intent. And to the west, TriBeCa, so called because it formed a triangle below Canal Street, hosted loft happenings that dated back to the early 1960s. "The whole 'science of location' idea — I threw that out of the window," recalls Mass. "I wanted a place that dragged along the bottom of the urban ocean. Whatever it picked up in its net I would deposit in this space." The prospective owner didn't mind that the building had no distinguishing features, drawn as he was to its industrial character as well as its status as an "appendage coming off the city hall and port system." When Bleckner expressed concerns about Mass's proposal, Cortez, who happened to be an ex-tenant of Bleckner's, reassured him that the venue would feature low-key experimental performances and most definitely not "constantly loud music." Mollified, Bleckner offered Mass a lease.
That spring Mass sold a house he owned in Massachusetts in order to raise a shoestring refurbishment budget of $15,000; Phillips became involved with James Chance, founder of the Contortions, which together with DNA, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks had started to break with punk and new wave to forge a disruptive and deconstructive sound; and Cortez worked on his Elvis documentary, edited a Private Elvis book, and semimanaged some of the bands that had also impressed Phillips, drawn to the way they were "doing something more extreme" than the CBGB breakthrough lineups that had landed contracts with Sire. "Those bands all had a strong concept," recalls Chance. "They had a look, an image of what they wanted to be, and that impressed me, but they were all using the same old rock and roll chord changes. None of them were taking it any further than the Velvet Underground or the Stooges — in fact they were more conservative — and none of them had an overt black influence."
Raised in Milwaukee, where he studied piano at a conservatory before switching to sax, Chance moved to New York because "that was just the place to go to make it in jazz," but he quickly gave up on the loft jazz scene because its white hipster and hippie contingents annoyed him too much. Instead he gravitated to CBGB and Max's, where he met Cortez, who encouraged him to explore punk, which led him to join Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus and the Jerks until Lunch kicked him out because his sax was wrecking her minimalist aesthetic. Chance responded by founding the Contortions, a James Brown–inspired outfit with added atonality and sax solos that debuted in December 1977 and played at an X Magazine benefit held in an East 4th Street hall the following March. "All these people started sitting and crouching on the floor, and it made me go crazy because that's what all those people did in the jazz lofts," he recalls. "That was the first time I attacked people in the audience." Phillips had looked right through Chance the first time he tried to talk to her but now approached him. "We ended up hanging out for two days straight," he reminisces. "Soon after she started talking about this club idea. Steve was the money man and Anya was going to be the manager."
A short while later, a mutual friend told Cortez that Brian Eno — cofounder of Roxy Music, producer for David Bowie, and composer of the landmark ambient album Discreet Music — was traveling to New York on 23 April to master the Talking Heads album More Songs about Buildings and Food. Cortez invited the Englishman to Mass's duplex apartment on 8th Street to persuade him to record a soundtrack for his Elvis film. Just under two weeks later, Eno attended a five-night music series at the TriBeCa gallery and performance venue Artists Space that featured ten bands, among them the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, and DNA. With Cortez, Phillips, and Arto Lindsay of DNA facilitating a process that began with further meetings on 8th Street, Eno recorded a showcase No New York compilation album that captured their post–new wave sound, soon to be known as no wave. Lodging on the spare floor in Mass's duplex, Eno ended up extending his visit from three weeks to seven months. "It turned out that I happened to be in New York during one of the most exciting months of the decade, I should think, in terms of music," Eno recalled in 1980. "It seemed like there were 500 new bands who all started that month."
Back on White Street, Cortez and Phillips persuaded Mass to name his venue the Molotov Cocktail Lounge after the MCL letters inscribed on the building's frontage, only for the entrepreneur to backtrack on the basis that the name was too inflammatory. After all, whereas Cortez and Phillips were free to take chances, he had a medical business service to protect, plus he wanted the liquor license application process to be smooth. As an alternative he proposed the Mudd Club Lounge, which both referenced Samuel Alexander Mudd (the southerner physician who treated John Wilkes Booth for the injury he suffered after he assassinated President Lincoln) and somewhat obliquely evoked his anthropological interest in indigenous peoples. The suggestion riled Cortez and Phillips, however, and a subsequent meeting between Mass and Phillips culminated in a blow-out argument. Unable to remember the details of the altercation, Mass wonders if Phillips took umbrage to the news that he was applying for a liquor license in his own name, yet Cortez maintains that Mass's sole ownership was never in doubt. "We were never financial partners with Steve and we didn't want to be part of any administrative machine," he points out. "It was just our idea." Chance confirms that Phillips couldn't have cared less about the liquor application. "In Anya's mind she was going to be the manager of the club and the guiding spirit behind the whole thing, and Steve would stay in the background," he recalls. "But she absolutely hated the Mudd Club name and all of a sudden she was completely out."
Mass proceeded with the renovation of the White Street space as if nothing had happened. He organized the main room around a long bar embedded with his personal collection of aviation maps and equipped with two turntables. At the far end of the room he installed a small, collapsible modular stage that could be easily erected and dismantled so the room could support live music followed by dancing. For the sound system he teamed up with Eno to re-create the studio conditions he had experienced during the recording sessions of No New York so his future crowd could listen to punk's Rimbaud-style symbolist lyrics with absolute clarity. Outside he left the building's nondescript frontage untouched in order to contribute to the impression the club existed several urban layers deep. He also employed a local blacksmith to create an industrial chain and stanchion that would offer a symbolic challenge to the velvet rope deployed by Manhattan's elitist midtown discotheques. "The velvet rope was designed to keep the people lacking taste, the underclass, away," notes Mass. "But I took the velvet rope and devalued it."
With typesetter Alex Blair facilitating — she knew Eno and through Eno knew Mass — Punk magazine staged the first event at the Mudd Club, an awards ceremony after party that happened to fall the day after Sid Vicious was arrested for killing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (on Friday, 13 October). "There were all these people there, all these movers and shakers — Amos Poe, Anya Phillips, rock and roll people like David Johansen [of the New York Dolls]," recalls novice DJ David Azarch, a sales assistant in a record store called Jimmy's Music World. "I was, 'Wow, wow, wow, wow!'" Having maintained standoffish contact with Mass because she had started to manage the Contortions as well as date Chance, and hoping to be able to arrange for the Contortions to perform at the new venue, Phillips staged a party that featured Chance lip-synching to James Brown records a week or so later. Mass then held an unofficial launch on Halloween, during which local punk band Xerox took to the stage wearing blacklight outfits and the Georgian new wavers the B-52's performed in girdles. "It was just an amazing night," recalls Azarch, who showed up to DJ without even knowing the B-52's were going to play. "The downtown arts scene mixed with the rock and roll scene from a little bit north. It was just a magical mix. The place was electric."
Hosted by Tina L'Hotsky, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, underground film director/actor, and organizer of several impromptu parties in rubble-strewn lots on Avenue C, the "Cha-Cha Party" of 5 December hinted at the creative bedlam that was about to unfold in the Mudd Club. Breaking with the East Village punk scene's benign disinterest in the local migrant community, the night celebrated Caribbean, Latin, and East Village storefront culture as revelers dressed "Rican," the room was hung with bananas and southern religious icons, waiters served Spanish sherry and pork rinds, a local Hispanic television celebrity sang ethnic songs, and L'Hotsky celebrated the publication of her photo-fiction book, Muchachas Espanola Loca (Crazy Spanish Girls). The night amounted to a rare flash of exuberance as Steve Mass waited for his temporary license to be made permanent. Then, once the owner was satisfied the certification was in order, he took the Mudd Club on a run of activity that knew no obvious nightlife precedent in terms of curatorial range and visceral fire.
Excerpted from Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
Part I. 1980: The Recalibration of Disco
1. Stylistic Coherence Didn't Matter at All 11
2. The Basement Den at Club 57 30
3. Danceteria: Midtown Feels the Downtown Storm 48
4. Subterranean Dance 60
5. The Bronx-Brooklyn Approach 73
6. The Sound Became More Real 92
7. Major-Label Calculations 105
8. The Saint Peter of Discos 111
9. Lighting the Fuse 122
Part II. 1981: Accelerating Toward Pluralism
10. Explosion of Clubs 135
11. Artistic Maneuvers in the Dark 155
12. Downton Configures Hip Hop 170
13. The Sound of a Transcendent Future 184
14. The New Urban Street Sound 199
15. It Wasn't Rock and Roll and It Wasn't Disco 210
16. Frozen in Time or Freed into Infinity 221
17. It Felt Like the Whole City Was Listening 232
18. Shrouded Abatements and Mysterious Deaths 239
Part III. 1982: Dance Culture Seizes the City
19. All We Had Was the Club 245
20. Inverted Pyramid 257
21. Roxy Music 271
22. The Garage: Everybody Was Listening to Everything 279
23. The Planet Rock Groove 288
24. Techno Funksters 304
25. Taste Segues 314
26. Stormy Weather 320
27. Cusp of an Important Fusion 331
Part IV. 1983: The Genesis of Division
28. Cristal for Everyone 343
29. Dropping the Pretense and the Flashy Suits 369
30. Straighten It Out with Larry Levan 381
31. Stripped-Down and Scrambled Sounds 400
32. We Became Part of This Energy 419
33. Sex and Dying 430
34. We Got the Hits, We Got the Future 438
35. Behind the Groove 449
Epilogue. Life, Death, and the Hereafter 458
Selected Discography 515
Selected Filmography 529
Selected Bibliography 521
What People are Saying About This
"Tim Lawrence brings the authority of his deeply sourced disco history Love Saves the Day to club culture's great melting-pot moment, when hip hop, punk, and disco transformed one another, with input from salsa, jazz, and Roland 808s. If you never danced yourself dizzy at the Roxy, the Paradise Garage, or the Mudd Club, here's a chance to feel the bass and taste the sweat."
"What a wonderful piece of work! I think this may be the definitive Bible for NYC and Dance Music during that era."
"Tim Lawrence connects the dots of a scene so explosively creative, so kaleidoscopically diverse, so thrillingly packed with the love of music and the love of life that even those of us who were there could not have possibly seen or heard it all! Now we can. Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980–1983 is not only a remarkable account of a remarkable time, it is a moving memorial to all those who left the party much too soon.
"Tim Lawrence’s powerfully pulsating and enthusiastically researched book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83, vividly captures the cultural revolution I took part in that had New York City under creative siege! The book flows like a time-capsule master-mix whisking you from club to party in those few no-holds-barred fun-filled years as a multiethnic mash-up of us grooved together to the DJ’s beat while the world clamored to get on the guest list."
"Tim Lawrence has followed his now-classic Love Saves the Day with a magnificent account of one of the most fertile and influential periods of New York City's long musical history. He manages to capture with striking accuracy the unique and stunning meshing together of styles and genres that defined this period as one of the key moments in modern popular and club culture. A must-read for anyone curious about how modern dance music got to where it is."