All That Glitters Is Not House

All That Glitters ... is a bit different than my other mixes. As much as I love house music and all of its children from deep to progressive to electro to techno, I've been around a while.

So indulge me.

When I was child, the disco phenomenon swept the country. You could watch people dancing on TV, while the music was pumping on the radio, while the glitterball spun in the corner bar, and people catwalked down the sidewalk in all sorts of discotastic garments that would make your children blush (--and not your mother because she was there and loved it).

At one point in 1978, when I was 8 and when Chic's Le Freak was topping the charts, I wanted to hear the song again so badly that I called a radio station's request line and was picked up on the air and immediately asked: "Can I hear Le Freak now?!"

The DJ stopped me, saying slowly like I was some kind of idiot: "Whoah, wait a minute kid. You first have to tell me your name What's your name?"

I responded curtly: "Jonathan ... can I hear the song now?"

I really didn't care that 100,000 people in Houston were listening in. Or maybe even my mom in the other room. It was about the music. And just the music. And he did play that song as soon as I said "Thanks" and hung up, ok?

Le Freak is still one of my favorite songs of all time. That breakdown with the rising strings and handclaps while Bernard Edwards goes on and on and on (and on) with the guitar? That is pop music perfection. Until Madonna's Vogue single hit the charts in 1990 this song held the records as the most popular single in pop music history. Sidenote: Even Vogue samples a bit of disco history. That trumpet stab that echoes in the intro? MFSB, Love is the Message, considered by many to be disco's anthem.

Disco crested in a wild wave from 1975 until 1980 when it disappeared from popular culture after one last hurrah from Lipps Inc and their hit Funkytown. I was only 10. I had lipsynched in my bedroom to Donna Summer on the radio singing "On The Radio". I played Casey Kasem's American Top 40 on my plastic record player using the 7" records I would buy from Cactus records when my mother or grandmother would take me shopping. I counted down all the radio songs of the day, dropping platter after platter onto the spinning deck. And the ranking really mattered. I wanted my imaginary listener to KNOW that Boogie Oogie Oogie was THE hottest song in my bedroom that week.

BTW, at the time I thought A Taste Of Honey was one middled aged white woman with blonde hair and a glass of bourbon on the rocks in her hands while she stood in front of the mic. I also thought the Bee Gees were three large black women whose big hit in the summer of 1977 was called ... "Stay On the Line".

I was a weird, gay white child.

I was also too young.

Too young to know that there was a whole other disco I didn't know anything about. The radio dance crap then was the modern radio dance crap of its day. Sure there were some catchy tunes and songs that still proudly wear their 5 stars in my iTunes library. But it wasn't the real disco any more than commercially broadcast dance music resembles the gritty, deep, "out there" house and electro music one finds in the clubs today.

This other disco, was the provocative, heady disco of the wild and crazy clubs of New York: the deep, danceable R&B played at the Paradise Garage, the energetic Hi-NRG spun at The Saint, the funky bliss at the Loft, and in San Francisco: the cosmic disco blasting off at the Trocadero Transfer. You talk to anyone in their mid 40s and older who had the chance to go to these dance palaces and they get this wistful smile and faraway look in their eyes that is unforgettable. It makes you realize that if you were younger, no matter what you thought about contemporary music and the scene today, you had missed the real party: the fashion, the drugs, the sex, and most of all, the music.

And because of the brutal reality of the AIDS epidemic, that party came to tragic end.

I've said many, many times over the years that I was born 15 years too late. But had I been able to step into the energized world of 1970s Gay Liberation as an adult I'd surely be dead today. So many men died. So many. So quickly. Without mercy. Without hope.

Talking with gay men over 40 about the early years of the epidemic is like talking with Holocaust survivors. I've talked with both and studied both historical moments as an academic and feel comfortable saying that. It fills me with an unspeakably intense sadness every time I walk away and I often need some time to compose myself. Sometime being witness to another's grief is unbearable. But we must all bear witness. Especially if we were fortunate enough not to have gone through what these people experienced watching their loved ones die one after another.

About 9 years ago I had an ongoing conversation with an older friend who'd done the party scene in New York City during that era. I had been thinking that the house music I loved had to have come from somewhere other than the pop radio of my childhood. And I figured he'd probably know.

So we'd chat at length about it. He remembered showing up at Studio 54 and making the scene in order to get in. He recalled the provocative energy and druggy atmosphere of the Paradise Garage—or "the Garage" as it was popularly called. He talked about the amazing lightshow and sex on the balconies and back room of the Saint. And he talked about losing 70% of his friends and what it was like to open photoalbums with hundreds of people he had known over the years and that most of them died in a five year period when the epidemic set in.

But he still smiled about disco. Despite the tears. He told me so much about the nightlife, the happening places and what that moment in time meant. And what that moment's soundtrack was like. And I had no fucking clue.

I was into House music. Had been since around 1990 when I had a long string of "enhanced" experiences that bordered on auditory forms of the Rapture at a laser light filled cavern called Basics in Austin, Texas. Yes I'm smiling wistully with that faraway look in my eyes. (Honey, put down the LSD).

Before that I was "way" into Industrial, Gothic, and New Wave music. And disco was something I'd long moved on from, forgotten or mocked.

So fast forward a few years, when I moved to San Francisco in 1995. I had been in a used record shop a number of times in Berkeley, CA and found steals on all sorts of well known goodies like the 16 minute full length version of Donna Summer's "Love To Love You Baby" (in mint condition for $1!). But I kept on running into records with people on covers I didn't recognize, song names I didn't know, and labels that sounded exotic like: Prelude, West End Records, SalSoul, among others.

So here and there I picked up a few cd's that became fun cd's to take on road trips with my partner. A Philly Sound compilation here, a 70s mid-decade disco anthology there. And off and on I'd buy a used 70s record if I recognized some names that were becoming more familiar to me. And when Napster appeared and ushered in the age of downloadable music, I eagerly started scooping up old favorites of mine and started uncovering in that very associative fashion connections to other songs and artists. But it was very hit or miss. A reference here taught me about Raw Silk. A comment there mentioned First Choice. Scanning someone's other files introduced me to the New York Citi Peech Boys and Phreek. I began to learn about DJs and producers like Larry Levan, Patrick Cowley, and Tom Moulton.

But one day about two years later I stumbled quite randomly onto It changed me. I realized that disco really wasn't this surface phenomenon that people have so easily mocked for 30 years. There was an unbelievable amount of music put out during this time period. And sure, like any music movement, there's a lot of music that suffers from bad production quality, untalented performers, or really cheesy lyrics. But, on the other hand, there was quite a lot that didn't. And there were clubs, and DJs, and clubgoers who still paid homage to their roots.

The site, at the time, contained a Top 500 Disco Songs list. I'd not heard of many of the listed tracks. So, I decided to download them all off of the various filesharing networks I used to find rare and out of print music. All of them. And then more. And then I started getting to know the labels, the artists, the producers, the styles and started finding CD's that reprinted these artists or compiled music that seemed like it might be lost to history.

And 9 years later, from having rediscovered disco, I've ended up with almost 2000 tracks in my library. I listen to them so often I'm wearing a groove into my iPod's click wheel. In fact I listen to disco probably more than any other genre – and with almost 20,000 songs in my library, I've got a lot of other choices. And I try my best to evangelize people who visit, or for whom I get to play DJ. Many of my friends don't get it. They're either too young to understand this moment in time and why it mattered. Or they're older and contemptuously dismiss disco as having been a passing, absurd fad—even those that have regularly gone dancing to house music.

I love it, in particular, when I'll be playing a diverse set of music out, and people will ask me what the song was. And when it's a classic underground disco track, I relish the look that comes over their face when they say: Wow.

But still, disco is haunting music for me and for many people, actually. It's filled with ghosts. Things yearned for, but never experienced. People I should have known, but who were taken away before I could thank them for entering my life. A sense of fullness that is paradoxically hollow within.

When I listen it is always simultaneously an experience of spiritual joy and a poignant sense of loss.

For my listeners I hope that you experience something profound and beautiful. Let you soul be free. Turn out the lights and dance by yourself. Drive over a bridge. Play it at a party with your closest friends. Music like this is precious.

I sum it up in lyrics from the last song in the mix:

Souvenirs are signs that take you away
Souvenirs will make you leave here today
For a world of joy and living
A world of love and giving away, far away ...

... Let's find a place with celebrations and songs
And souvenirs go along, let's keep on moving

Let's find a place with celebrations and dance
And souvenirs and romance
We'll keep on moving
Let's find a place,
Let's find a place,
Let's find a place

From "Souvenirs" by Voyage (TK, 1978)

And now it's your turn ...

What is your relationship to disco music? What do you remember? What was your favorite song? Your favorite club? Are you haunted by the disco era, too?

Send me some comments and I'll post them here on this blog.

posted on 6.22.2007 01:50 AM • Add A Comment