How Reagan-Era New York Nightlife Could Provide a Template for the Next After-Dark Revolution
Charting the life and death of New York nightlife with author Tim Lawrence.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
The promotional campaign for Tim Lawrence's much anticipated and unusually prescient new book, Life and Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, has seen the acclaimed author traverse the Atlantic to attend panels, receive plaudits, and throw parties. Over the course of four years, Lawrence has made it his business to interview around 130 people for his journey through the vibrant and occasionally volatile environment where disco, punk, early hip hop, and skronky outsider art met Downtown against a climate of sometimes radical social and political change. Although he'd tell you otherwise—humbly insisting he's just offering a snapshot—Lawrence has established a definitive guide to a period of musical history that's notoriously tricky to define. The book is so thorough, and often so evocatively overwhelming in its sheer detail, once I finish it, and with our interview looming, I worry if I'll have anything left to ask Lawrence at all.
I needn't have worried. On the eve of the US Election, we have more than enough to discuss. A few days earlier, a personal Facebook note from Lawrence neatly details how Donald Trump's early power plays helped pave the way for the sidelining of New York nightlife in the early 1980s, forewarning history's habit of repeating itself.
Twenty four hours later, Trump becomes the President Elect of America. Less than a week passes, and David Mancuso, founder of New York party The Loft, a godfather of clubbing and a DJ of enormous integrity, unexpectedly passes away. Suddenly, Life and Death, already a voluminous 600 pages, feels much heavier.
Lawrence has already documented Mancuso, as well as a vast legion of disco's other key players, in Love Saves the Day, his seminal 2006 exploration of American dance and club culture in the 1970s. Life and Death, then, can be read as a spiritual follow up, albeit one that attempts to make sense of a more disparate era. Originally, Lawrence had intended to document the following decade, charting a relatively neat through-line to house, techno, and rave culture. Instead, he found just one brief period in time provided more than enough to chew on.
All beginnings, in their own way, start with an ending. For Lawrence's book, that ending took place in a sport's stadium. Across much of America, the death of mainstream dance music had been cemented by July 1979's violent Disco Demolition, a mass burning of disco records before a baseball game at Chicago's Comiskey Park, organized by local radio shock jock, Steve Dahl. The event, which descended into a riot, had a bleak undertone; the rejection of black, gay, and latino art and values. However, while disco's radio status suffered elsewhere, in New York, and in the face of President Reagan's ruthless first term in office, those very same groups were just getting started.
"In 1980, we see the New York scene seem to accelerate," Lawrence says. "All of these new venues developing new ideas open in 1980, whereas existing venues seem to go from strength to strength. The other thing I started to realize was that there was this party scene—which the Garage and the Loft were central components of that, along with the Saint—which was like the white, gay end of things. I see as this broader downtown movement, even if they didn't necessarily see themselves as part of it. These were actually parallel energies that were intersecting."
Lawrence is keen on the idea of Scenius—a term suggested by Brian Eno to reflect the extreme creativity that cities and scenes can generate when the social temperature is right. Eno himself arrived in New York during 1979 in order to record Talking Heads' seminal Fear of Music. Eno's proposed three month jaunt became a three year residency.
"It was really artists and musicians, and people like David Mancuso, who just wanted to move to the city, downtown, in order to explore new ways of living in the world, and the ways you may be able to engage creatively and socially with other people," explains Lawrence. "There's all this concentrated artistic energy during the 1970s, and initially they hang out in relatively defined clusters. So, the artists hang out with the artists, the poets hang out with the poets, and the people into DJing hang out with the people into DJing. But as the decade progresses, the sheer density and concentration of living means the poets start to come into contact with the punks. Some punks start to come into contact with the DJs, and the artists start to meet the people in bands, and join the bands. And so there was this melting pot of meetings and interactions in these abandoned spaces."
One of the spaces where this cross pollination was prevalent was the Mudd Club, a hangout frequented by the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Vincent Gallo. Highly admired by the art and fashion crowd, the Mudd Club—an inclusive antidote to Studio 54's opulent elitism—it was a vital component in NYC's dance scene.
"You could only really understand the dance scene if you saw the way that the art punk scene and the hip hop scene also developed, and the way that all three contributed to one and other," explains Lawrence. "It became the case that I'd speak to people like (Mudd Club DJ) Anita Sarko, and they felt, I think quite rightly, that their contributions haven't being recognized—in as much as nobody had really written about them—and then on the few occasions that they do get mentioned, really in passing, they were usually characterized as rock DJs, because they played in these punk oriented clubs. But the reality is, if you look at their playlists, there's as much range and variety in those playlists as any other you could find in the book."
As well as the historical narrative, Life and Death is littered with playlists. Even if it's unapologetically rich content proves somewhat weighty, the Discogs brigade should note that the book provides a treasure trove of both classic and overlooked record recommendations, which collectively could destroy whatever upcoming Christmas or New Years' party you've somehow managed to wangle a gig at. Nonetheless, Lawrence has a healthily cautious relationship with dancefloor nostalgia.
"I try not to get too nostalgic about this period. I try to bring up the tougher aspects, the multi-layered experience of living in New York at this point", he acknowledges. The book doesn't gloss over some of the racism evident in the early years of the Mudd Club, the problematic establishment of gay nights for exclusively white crowds, or indeed, the eventual, heartbreaking arrival of AIDS, the looming "death" of the book's title. Still, Lawrence is respectably keen to stress that even a writer as painstaking as himself can't possibly tell every side to every story.
"It's only anecdotal, but even during the research and writing of Love Saves The Day, people were telling me that the peak of the Paradise Garage for them was about 1983, and it started to decline from then," he recalls. "Now, if you were a person going to the Garage for the first time between 1984 and 1987, you're not going to think this is a venue in decline, you're going to think this is the best venue you've ever been to in your life—and you would be right. So these things are always relative. But even within the scene, there was a sense of things beginning to turn in that year. You can see that all sorts of things are changing in New York in 1983 and 1984, it sort of becomes a city and a culture under attack. And things change when you're under attack."
The playlist below, curated by RBMA, is a Lawrence-compiled playlist of what Francois K was playing at AM/PM
Lawrence grew up in the deeply parochial village of Winnersh, an hour outside of London, the son of a teacher who had escaped Nazi Germany in his youth. Although largely non-practising of the faith, he was the only Jewish child in his school, and at the request of his mother, joined a progressive Jewish youth movement in his teens. This lead him to a sense of community and a love of cities, eventually moving to Manchester for University, stumbling into the Hacienda just as Acid House was taking off. Although Lawrence doesn't directly resemble the often black, Latino and queer characters that populate his story, he possesses a natural empathy to any outsiders on the dancefloor, and a corresponding desire to shield them from more ruthless forces. As a London resident, what does he make of the increasingly less subtle attack on nightlife currently spreading through his home city?
"I think what goes on in these spaces are different forms of social interaction, of community building, of release and it's about participating as a straight up creative community," Lawrence observes. "Whether that's people going as dancers and responding to music, or indeed, being part of a creative economy that will see them make music themselves. It's an important part of the British economy, but that rarely seems to get recognized. I think what goes on creatively in this country, music is a big part of that, as is the party culture that creates, supports and sustains that industry."
Aside from dance music's natural disruption to potentially residential areas, what makes nightlife such a frequent, almost immediate target in the war of gentrification (or colonising, as Lawrence prefers to term it)? Are the government frightened of the public's hedonism, or the literal space for new ideas? Lawrence, like many, suspects the answer might be more cut and dry.
"My main impression is that, a lot of it is to do with the commercial pressures that come through increasing value of the property market", he argues. "People who own these buildings are looking to find ways to convert these buildings into residential, rather than commercial use, because that is a way of increasing the values of those properties."
Much of the success of Life and Death lies in the way in which Lawrence captures a unique energy—"an explosion of openness" as he puts it—one that it would be unjust to frame in the context of club closures across London. Still, in a disheartening political climate for clubbers, it's difficult not to dream of a brighter, more inspired immediate future.
"The whole rave thing exploded in the early nineties and early eighties, because there was all these disused warehouses in East London," explains Lawrence. "People who don't have much money always gravitate to cheap places, and they were, at that particular time, at that particular moment, amid the first neoliberal crash. The property market had been pumped up so high very quickly, and it was unsustainable. And it all came crashing down. And that was a period where things turned up a little, at least in party culture. Whereas now, there's this repeated closing down of spaces. It's really continual. So the next step I would say is some sort of sweeping political change, to really balance how societies are organized."
What that inevitable change will resemble, and how it will affect nightlife, remains to be seen. But despite the differences in time, city and context, Life and Death is an inspiring love letter to the power of collective creativity, and an urgent reminder to just keep on dancing.
Life and Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 by Tim Lawrence is out now on Duke University Press.