House music aunts and uncles often regale their younger brethren with tales of the good old days at the Paradise Garage, the celebrated downtown New York club that was open from 1977 to 1987 in a former truck depot at 84 King Street. With tears welling up in their eyes, they reminisce about one of the most beloved venues in the history of going out: They insist that the sense of ecstatic community that DJ legend Larry Levan, who died of heart failure in 1992 at the age of 38, engendered on the dance floor has never been matched since. They talk of the venue as a platform for experiencing realms of otherness without falling into anything crass or fascistic—a holy place where new states of enlightened consciousness and new modes of being were regularly achieved.
So were the good old days really that good? With the release of Larry Levan Live at the Paradise Garage, terpsichores born too late to attend this most spiritual of venues get the chance to find out what the disco codgers are talking about. While bootleg tapes of Levan at the Garage have circulated for years, this two-CD collection—recorded in 1979, straight off the mixing board—is the first commercially available set.
A word of warning, however: The Garage was such a site-specific experience that a CD played on a home system in the confines of a shoe-box apartment could never come close to emulating what it was like actually being there. Levan’s genius was intimately linked to the vast space of the austere club, the vibrant crowd of hardcore devotees who turned up faithfully every weekend and with whom he maintained a telepathic relationship, and most important, the humongous wraparound sound system—designed by ace engineer Richard Long—which was akin to an audio orgasmatron that worked on erogenous zones you never knew you had. The Garage is where the now commonplace combination of dance music technology with drugs to create large-scale magic was first perfected. Like another master magician, Aleister Crowley, Levan’s method was science, but his aim was religion. And the religious impulse is most keenly felt in an epic setting.
As detailed in Keep On Dancin’: My Life and the Paradise Garage, the compelling autobiography of financial backer and West End Records founder Mel Cheren, 1979 was a watershed period in the story of dance music. At the beginning of the year, Newsweek and Rolling Stone cover stories proclaimed disco here to stay. By year’s end, after Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl incited a riot in Comiskey Park as part of his notorious “Disco Sucks” campaign—based as much on class resentment as racism or homophobia—the music was all but over in the popular imagination.
Of course, the Village People aside, disco never really sucked, and it never really died, either. It simply stripped itself of the tawdry nouveau-riche accoutrements and went back underground, where it rediscovered its countercultural roots as a black, gay liberation movement, only to reemerge in the mid ’80s as house music (initially called garage music), which was then imported into Britain, where it was recirculated as global youth culture.
Live at the Paradise Garage portrays Levan before he produced his big hit—the Peach Boys’ 1982 classic “Don’t Make Me Wait”—and before he started experimenting with Jamaican dub, New Age music, and postpunk dance-rock. Drugs had not yet warped his mixing skills and ruined his body. What will undoubtedly surprise younger beat-freaks is the range of styles and tempos Levan threw into the mix. Unlike today’s sonic sultans of smooth swing, whose aim is to create a flawless stratospheric soundtrack where cuts blend seamlessly, Levan varied pulses and textures with abandon. By contemporary standards, the abrupt segue between Crown Heights Affair’s “Dreaming a Dream” and Bunny Sigler’s “By the Way You Dance” sounds exceedingly sloppy. But feeling was always more important to Levan than technique. No one performance was ever the same. Unlike today’s preprogrammed Stepford wife DJs, Levan constantly improvised. In this sense he was more like a jazz musician—sometimes scaling unimaginable heights of artistry and lyricism; other times, downright crap. His mood swings matched his music.
The first CD of Live is essentially an extended midtempo overture for the more uptempo second disc. Beginning innocuously enough with the swirling instrumental version of Ashford and Simpson‘s “Bourgie Bourgie,” the set proceeds in a leisurely manner—Levan was known for his dramatic sense of pacing. Like a tantric sex master, he was never in a hurry to reach a climax. Though some might wonder why a DJ so associated with subterranean sounds included Cher’s “Take Me Home.” Levan also saw no distinction between mainstream and underground. Good music was good music no matter where it came from.
It’s on the second disc that Levan really comes alive, though: People’s Choice, Change’s stomping floor-filler “Angel in My Pocket,” and John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Band, then finally Jermaine Jackson’s fierce, bass-slapping “Erucu” (with its squeaky child’s voice intoning, “If you’re good, you’ll live forever. If you’re bad, you’ll die when you die”). It’s here that you get a real sense of the frenzied neopagan abandon that made the Garage both such a scary and a joyous place to visit.