Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983
(Duke University Press)
director's cut version, Bookforum, Sept / Oct / Nov 2016 issue
by Simon Reynolds
The title of the new book by disco scholar Tim Lawrence has taken on an unintended ominous overtone following the massacre at the Orlando nightclub Pulse. Of course, the grim reaper alluded to in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor is not a homophobic terrorist, but a disease: AIDS, which ultimately scythed a deadly swathe across the cast of characters in this absorbing history of early Eighties Manhattan: performers, artists and promoters such as Klaus Nomi, Keith Haring and Bruce Mailman, to name only a few casualties. Less literally, Lawrence identifies club culture with a vitalist spirit of Eros, celebrating the ways in which desire, communality and improvisation dissolves boundaries. Conversely, the opposed puritanical and purist principles - segregation, regulation, etc - are implicitly marked down as forces of Thanatos.
Life and Death is the sequel to Lawrence’s 2004 book Love Saves the Day, which chronicled disco’s emergence in the 1970s. But the British academic has already taken a first pass across Eighties New York with 2009’s Hold On To Your Dreams, albeit using a single, if widely networked, artist – Arthur Russell - as a prism. Originally a minimalist composer in the 1970s “New Music” mold, Russell explored a dizzying range of absurdist disco directions via numerous artistic aliases. For Lawrence, this flux and mutability made Russell (another AIDS casualty) an exemplar of the fully deterritorialized artistic life. This new book looks at the larger subcultural landscape through which Russell moved and finds many other figures informed by that same spirit of flux and mutability. Operators like Michael Zilkha, whose ZE label was the home of “mutant disco”: genre-bending collisions of rock, funk, jazz and Latin music perpetrated by outfits like Was (Not Was), Material, and Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
One of the valuable things about Lawrence’s book is the way it focuses attention on a period that’s usually considered an intermediary phase, a mere gap between the classic disco era and the house explosion. For want of a better term, some have come to call it post-disco; at the time, people just talked about club music. Disco’s official demise in terms of its mainstream profile occurred circa 1979, the year of the “disco sucks” backlash, radio stations dropping the format as swiftly as they’d embraced it, and major labels closing down their disco departments. But dancing as a leisure activity did not fade away, obviously, and nor did music made purely for dancing. Its consumption and production became more concentrated in certain cities – New York paramount among them – and it became the preserve of independent labels like West End, Prelude, and Sleeping Bag (co-founded by Russell).
The clubbing industry that had emerged during the disco boom didn’t wither away either: it adapted and in some instances even escalated in ambition. One of the most interesting barely-told stories here concerns the lavishly designed gay club The Saint, with its planetarium-style ceiling. Owner Bruce Mailman engineered a total environmental experience for dancers, using disorienting lighting and engulfing sound to create sensations of transcendence and absolute removal from reality.
“Post-disco” also fits what happened to the music, which mutated and fragmented into substyles: the slower, blacker grooves of what some DJs nowadays call “boogie”; the bouncy, diva-dominated Hi-NRG that eventually took over gay clubs like the Saint; a brash, crashing style known as freestyle that was particularly popular with Latino kids. In all these subgenres, electronic textures and programmed elements – thick synth bass, sequencer pulses, drum machine beats, early sampling effects – gradually took over, as heard on classic tracks like Peech Boys’s “Don’t Make Me Wait” and Man Parrish’s “Hip Hop Be Bop.”
There are other terms featuring “post-“ as prefix that apply to the four year period Lawrence examines here. Postpunk, for instance, fits the way that No Wave groups like the Contortions strove to be more extreme than the CBGBs bands like Ramones, only for their assaultive approach to be itself eclipsed by more groovy sounds from outfits like Liquid Liquid. “Postfunk” pinpoints the way that hip hop isolated the percussive quintessence (the breakbeats, the half-spoken half-sung chants) of James Brown style R&B. And then there’s that old reliable “postmodern”: the early Eighties was when retro first became a term in hip parlance, with revivalisms galore and camp parody infusing nightspots like the Mudd Club and Club 57. Staging themed parties based around concepts like blacksploitation movies or dead rock stars, these clubs were more like arts laboratories than discos – Lawrence terms them “envirotheques”- although deejays remained key and dancing was always a fixture.
Life and Death provides the most intensive mapping of this relatively brief era of New York subculture we’ve yet seen. The book’s strength is its depth of research, drawing on the real-time journalism of the era and a huge number of new interviews. The detail is fascinating, Lawrence salvaging from the fog of faded memory such ephemeral brilliances as the deejay Anita Sarko’s Cold War themed party at Danceteria, during which she played Soviet-banned music such as ABBA alongside state-sanctioned music like socialist men’s choirs, while the club’s co-founder Rudolf Piper, dressed as a commandant, periodically entered the room and pretended to arrest dancers. But strengths can become weaknesses, and Life and Death sometimes gets too list-y: there’s rather too many passages where, say, 21 bands are lined up to indicate a venue’s booking policy without anything much substantive conveyed. Part of the art of a book of this nature is knowing what to leave out.
Writing about an era so roiling with overlapping and simultaneous action presents formidable structural challenges. Dividing by theme or genre loses the narrative dimension. Focusing chapters on individual artists, labels, or clubs means that you keep the sense of storyline, but have to double-back to the era’s start for each new narrative. Lawrence opts for chronology, dividing his book up into year-long sections: 1980, 1982, 1982, 1983. That has its own downside, though: the reader feels like the story is constantly flitting across to another figure or scene, to catch up with where they’ve gotten to by this point. The same places and persons crop up repeatedly: clubs like Better Days, Pyramid, Hurrah, Negril, Funhouse, Paradise Garage.... movers-and-shakers like Anya Philips, Ann Magnuson, Steve Maas, Jim Fourratt, Diego Cortez, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ruza Blue.... There simply isn’t a perfect solution to this tricky task – writing the collective biography of an epoch – and Lawrence’s approach does at least retain the sense of forward propulsion through time.
By the end of 1982, the processes that Lawrence valorizes – cross-fertilisation, eclecticism, hybridity – are peaking. “The melting pot city was entering its hyper-whisk phase”, he writes. Ideas travel back and forth between disco, rap, postpunk, avant-garde composition, and more. Nor was the border-crossing limited to music: this was an era of polymath dilettantes, a time when most people in bands were also poets, actors, film-makers or visual artists, while a club maven might found a Lower East Side gallery as readily as organize a themed party.
The book’s last section, covering 1983, is titled “The Genesis of Division”. That begs the question: if “the drive to integration and synthesis” was so potent – and by ’82, so febrile and fecund - what went wrong? Like an ecosystem, the polymorphous jungle of New York bohemia flourished thanks to biodiversity – the frictional intermingling of different ethnic groups, different sexualities, different character typologies, different artistic traditions, different income levels. But every tendency produces its counter-reaction. In some sense the sheer variedness of downtown culture encouraged a kind of re-tribalization, the emergence of music-based identity politics. By the mid-Eighties concepts like punk-funk and mutant disco had gone out of fashion: rock became un-danceable noise with the rise of Swans and Sonic Youth; purist strands of club culture emerged; hip hop increasingly defined itself as its own movement and extended nationwide.
Club culture has always evolved through a dialectic of open-ness and exclusivity. Its rhetoric leans towards inclusive populism, but in practice, when the Bridge and Tunnel types arrive, hip early adopters move on. Achieving a “mixed crowd” is usually what promoters and DJs exalt as their ideal, but such a balance is hard to maintain. In Life Against Death, The Saint provides an example of a dynamic that goes against the boundary-crossing ethos that Lawrence prizes and praises. Both the owner and the membership decreed that the club’s peak night, Saturday, should be restricted to 98 percent male attendance. According to deejay Robbie Leslie, owner Mailman believed “that gay men danced well together... had this body chemistry where they moved on the dance floor as a tribe, as one entity” and that furthermore “women’s body movements were contradictory to this flow.... He didn’t even want gay women there.” This admission policy fed into an increasing uniformity of appearance (what one attendee described as “pectoral fascism”) and a taste conservatism that kept the deejays on a tight leash. But the whole point of the Saint was that it provided a sanctuary for a segment within the city’s population, a stronghold for a certain vibe. And vibe, as a vernacular concept, could be defined as “collective singlemindedness”.
Alongside the centrifugal force of self-segregation, other factors brought to an end the belle epoque. Far more than AIDs, the killer was finance capital and real-estate speculation. In his conclusion, Lawrence ponders whether downtown artists and musicians were not just on the cutting edge of their particular forms of expression but an unwitting vanguard serving the purposes of realtors, enabling them to rebrand run-down areas as cool-rich neighbourhoods. Bohemia priced itself out of its own habitat. That raises a further question that Lawrence toys with but leaves unresolved. Why are these culturally potent ferments so weak in the face of money and power? The Stonewall riots provide one example where an embattled site of pleasure, creativity and identity gives birth to forms of activism. But generally speaking the politics of partying are too diffuse and motile to translate into anything as permanent and disciplined as a political party.
Writing about club culture in Interview in the early Eighties, New York scenester Glenn O’Brien argued that dancing is the ideal form of cultural resistance against fascism, because its rhythmic fluidity worked to dissolve the rigidities of what Wilhelm Reich called character-armor. A more skeptical take on dancefloor utopianism can be found in a 1993 Greil Marcus column for Artforum. Discussing Design After Dark, a history of UK dancefloor style, Marcus praised the book for capturing the vibrant, ever-changing creativity of these “tribes of black and white Britons”, but ultimately found the book “a little depressing. So much flair, so much energy, so many ideas, so many good smiles, and, finally, no power. Style changed but not society; no-future didn’t move an inch from where it stood in 1977”. When I first read those words in ’93, as a convert to rave culture, I resented this dismissive verdict. But in 2016, with political darkness roiling turbidly on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder about the Eros-aligned liberating energies of music and dance, their ability to withstand the forces of division and death. The dance club as micro-utopia seems terribly circumscribed, terrifyingly defenseless. How do you get the fascists to dance?