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Tuesday, November 25, 2008


larry levan and two turntables- well before "and a microphone" even reared its head.

"We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it."
"We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves."

yesterday, i happened to catch a rerun of the documentary "maestro" on logo, which is about the underground origin of bouse music. it really highlights several new york (and chicago) clubs from the late 70's and features an homage to paradise garage. and no piece on this snapshot of american lgbt history (monumental if you are black and gay) could be without a bio on larry levan. he was the genius at the turntables at the garage, very much the heart and soul of the parties that happened there every weekend.

there are interviews with new york natives that talk about the underground and subsequent "club" feel the garage provided. several talked about how it helped them move from beyond their provincial and neighborhood attitudes and took them into a more metropolitan and more cosmopolitan sensibility. today we would no doubt call that global or multi-cultural. a few interviewed spoke of how having access to the garage, and spending so much time there, kept them from drifting into more dangerous and likely criminal lifestyles.

this is not to say that those days were not filled with rule breaking. drugs and public sex were very much a part of the scene. these particulars were interwoven into the fabric of those dance hall days. young persons experimenting with their minds, their freedoms , their bodies and their hearts, but all corralling themselves into dance halls to listen to beats and breaks, incidentally forming a movement and drinking in new ideas about acceptance, tolerance, and the value of personal expression.

larry was no doubt a genius. one can only listen to any of the hundreds of remix recordings available almost everywhere to get a hint of this. he understood and captained the direction of a subculture and helped careen it through one of the most catastrophic times in lgbt history. this was, of course, the onset of aids.

the themes in the documentary are very much the early years of gay liberation. stonewall happened in '69, and the beginnings of underground house-y music appeared at the loft and the paradise garage (and the warehouse in chicago) in the mid-70's. any of us around at that time can also remember vividly the stark difference in that decade's predominant attitude about drug use - especially cocaine that pervailed. the underground scene enveloped this popular attitude and sexual liberation just like a kangaroo. and these set the perfect stage for the wildfire of aids that shook the cities (and now the world) by storm. and i will probably never think of aids (in my own mind) without thinking of the dance hall culture that first became infected in america.

sadly, larry became engulfed in his drug use (as did many of us) and his own life cracked and crumbled as a fortune cookie does. as so many of his contemporaries died from aids around him, he began a far slower and perhaps more painful death from drug abuse.

there was so much that was bittersweet about our dance hall days. they held so much promise, gave so much supreme joy, and heralded so much terror. that generation definitely had a lasting effect on our culture at large in so many ways, but the fires of social change we conjured up in those dance halls is still burning wildly today. i can't go back and make the outcomes different and wouldn't really anyway. but i do believe that what was percolating in those mirror-balled testubes that we called our second home, has altered our modern world. i'm not sure if it's made it better, but i'll probably go to my next destination believing that indeed it has.

i definitely recommend giving "maestro" a once-over. the interviews are candid and very understated. the film seemed in black and white, although i was multi-tasking and unable to be sure. the interview with frankie knuckles is quite enlightening, capturing some aspects of him that don't always make it public, as he and larry were very good friends for many years.

today's sound choice is a larry levan remix of tracy weber's "sure shot"
sure shot baby- ain't no way we can lose...



Sheria said...

I missed so much growing up in a small southern town. Thanks for taking me on a wonderful journey. I've got to cehck the listings for "maestro."

Northwest said...

I missed this part of history as well. As usual, you are my LGBTQ narrator. I came out later in life, when HIV-AIDS cocktails already were routine, and crystal was ascending to the top of the list of gay men's downfalls. So I don't really know firsthand the more innocent days before we realized so much of what we were doing was destroying us.

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