"It was still an underground world, like Alice in Wonderland: You've gone through this doorway and inside was this incredible world you didn't know existed. That's what discos were like." --Andrew Holleran, on the pre-commercial, gay ug disco scene. "To qualify as an Odyssey Face, an aspirant need only be (straight) Italian, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, with a minimum stock of six floral shirts, four pairs of tight trousers, two pairs of Gucci-style loafers, two pairs of platforms, either a pendant or a ring, and one item in gold." --Ulf Poschardt, "DJ Culture" (1995), paraphrasing Nik Cohn's description of the new disco hipster in "Another Saturday Night" (1975).
X. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
In the early seventies openly gay communities were being built in cities across the country. The largest and most concentrated were in the Castro in San Francisco and the Village in NYC. New York's Greenwich Village had long been a refuge for those living alternative life-styles. In the sixties it was much like San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. In the seventies it became a gay "ghetto" or, perhaps more accurately, an intentional community.
The Stonewall was on Christopher Street in the Village and this street became synonymous with liberation and cultural revolution. The community built here was constructed by innovators, risk-takers -- those who were brave enough to fight oppression and build a safe haven for their brothers and sisters.
As I have said before, this intentional community, in some ways similar to ours, had a common bond: freedom through music and dance.
Dance music was everywhere in this ghetto. In the restaurants, shops, bookstores, bars, sex clubs, and even in the streets the life-affirming sounds of the dance could be heard day and night. The energy, the beats, would intensify so that by Friday night one could literally feel the anticipation in the air. The tribe was gathering to dance. Now it is true that one could dance nearly every night of the week. Wednesday became a popular dance night as a break in the work week. But Friday...electric. We took the "disco nap" after work, and then came the continuous, frenzied dancing until Monday morning. The search for dance was an adventure in itself, for the venues were often in very dangerous places and homophobia was very much alive. But in those days we all -- black, white, Hispanic, drag queen and macho -- the sexual outlaws of society -- came together in our off-off Broadway venues to celebrate each other through music and dance. This was before the recording industry had "discovered" disco; this was before "Saturday Night Fever"; this was a time when we reinvented the music for our own purposes.
A. MIX TAPES
The music was everywhere. But in those days you couldn't just pop a CD or cassette tape into a player. Bars, shops, sexual establishments and other non-dance venues didn't hire DJs to spin records all day. So people, including some famous and not so famous DJs, began making custom reel-to-reel mixes for this purpose. I assume most of these have been lost or stored and forgotten in boxes in the basement, but a lot of these mix tapes contained the freshest, most innovative sounds to be heard at the time. Especially those made for the sexual venues where pop, bubblegum ambiance just didn't work.
I was looking for some part-time job and Larry Levan suggested I audition for an opening as an erotic dancer at an all-male theater off Times Square. The money was decent with tips and I could pretty much arrange the dancing to fit my student schedule. The thought, however, of tearing off my clothes in front of a bunch of strangers was, basically, frightening to me. And I had no act, no music, no "concept."
Well, Larry had all those things including his experience with the theatrical Harlem drag shows. And he had the ability to make a good mix tape for my audition and performance. So he made a tape with some really funky, sexy beats that I could dance to and then helped me choreograph some wicked steps and rehearsed with me so that I wouldn't appear as a rank amateur. My vision was to appear as a high school jock, so he even worked on the costuming with me. Voila, "Randy" the erotic boy dancer was born. Yes, I got the job. And actually enjoyed my stint as a "stripper." No, unfortunately I no longer have the tape.
B. DISCO GOES MAINSTREAM
When one is involved in an underground scene it is often difficult to ascertain exactly when that scene becomes dominated by commercial interests. Underground cultures are self-involved. One day no "respectable" citizen would want to dine at the same table with you; then what you thought was your thing ends up on the cover of Time. Even worse, the same people still won't have dinner with you.
American culture feeds on the innovation of outcasts and misfits. Most of our valuable music arose from black culture, yet we still have racial divisions. Many of the young white kids who adopted hip-hop fashion, talkin' and music are still the first to reach for the pepper spray when approached by a real b boy. I would bet a fair amount of money that most of the sweater-clad gay professionals in SF would be horrified at the thought of interacting with any of the people who fought the police at Stonewall. Gay Pride parades are pretty sanitized, commercial events these days.
By 1975 commercial interests finally began to see that disco was a money-maker. Disco sounds like "Fly, Robin, Fly", "That's the Way I Like It" and "The Hustle" made it into the Top Forty. And things began to change.
In the fall of 1975 a new disco called "Infinity" opened on Broadway. The intention here was to marry uptown sophistication and chic with downtown music and culture. Infinity originally attracted up-scale white gay men who wanted to tip-toe out of the closet and dance in an environment where they could feel downtown yet not have to deal with downtown. But the promoters had other intentions, and Infinity finally attracted the demographic it desired: white, single professionals who came by cab, not subway. The upscale gay white men went onto the Flamingo and Le Jardin. At one point memberships for Flamingo were selling for $500 on the black market I heard. It was now safe for solid white folk to dance to disco.
C. NIK COHN: COMMERCIALLY MOTIVATED, OR JUST A POSEUR?
Nik Cohen was considered to be the one of the cultural gurus of the '70s. A brilliant writer and journalist, he claimed to have produce ethnographically valid observations of underground music cultures, fashions and values.
In 1975 he wrote an article titled "Another Saturday Night." In this article, which he asserted at the time was based on real-life characters and participation in the scene, he described for Americans what disco culture was really like. He wrote that he frequently visited the club 2001 Odyssey and interviewed the youthful creators of this new culture.
First of all, it is interesting that he chose an all-white disco in New Jersey as the setting for this ethnographic study of disco culture. Here, there were no blacks, no gays, no one who was even remotely connected with the origins and growth of the scene.
The main character in this article was an Italian teenage super-dancer named "Vincent." Vincent works in a paint warehouse. His father is in jail. His oldest brother was killed in Viet Nam. The disco 2001 Odyssey is the raison d' etre for his life. Vincent has appeared on "American Bandstand." Has been offered contracts from the music industry as a dancer. He was part of the Faces: "The Vincents and Eugenes and Joeys. A tiny minority, maybe two in every hundred, who knew how to dress and how to move, how to float, how to fly. Sharpness, grace, a certain distinction in every gesture. 'The way I feel,' Vincent said, 'it's like we have been chosen.'" Joey danced the Hustle, and he danced this seminal disco dance like a god.
Ulf Poschardt in his somewhat scholarly work "DJ Culture" devotes several chapters to this "...sociologically precise description of the dancefloor hipster."
It was on this "ethnographic" journalism that the movie "Saturday Night Fever" was based. John Travolta became "Vincent," and all America finally knew what it really felt to dance the night away, to raise one's arms in the air with attitude, to dress, to wear the chain, as it were. Downtown had been exposed. It was white and, really, it didn't look much different from the swing era of the '40s. The "Hustle" was couples dancing. The white kids were really sweet and family-loving. So, there was nothing to fear after all. No gays, no blacks, just folks like you and me.
Incredibly, twenty years after he wrote this article, Cohn admitted to the "New Yorker" magazine that this, and much of the other insider stuff he had written, was all fiction. Yes, he had visited 2001 Odyssey once, saw a kid standing outside, and invented a whole story and purported ethnographic study based on what he imagined this kid's life was like. He had never visited a gay or black underground disco. He really knew nothing about the music or the culture. Yet this fraud and the movie that followed it became America's bible to disco.
Was Cohn paid by commercial music interests to deliver this romanticized, white version of disco culture? Who knows. But it is little wonder that blacks who really invented disco felt disenfranchised, actually driven from the New York dance scene, by these untruths and the sanitized white disco culture that emerged. It's no coincidence that blacks developed their own dance music again, hip-hop, outside of NYC beginning in 1975.