Avoiding acid trips, taking refuge from the AIDS crisis, David DePino, François Kevorkian and Joey Llanos recall the impact of Larry Levan as they fight to honor his singular legacy, fittingly, with a party.
Left to right: Mark Riley, Gary Thornton, Joey Llanos and Larry Levan. Image courtesy of Joey Llanos
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Confronted with the tried-and-true "DJ set-as-journey" and "nightlife-as-going-to-church" metaphors, jaded clubbers tend to roll their eyes; such statements entered the realm of hackneyed cliché ages ago. But there was an era—and a spinner and a dancefloor—when such observations were not only fresh, but true.
The time was 1977 till 1987; the DJ was Larry Levan; and the dancefloor was in a former parking garage at 84 King Street in west Soho, fittingly named the Paradise Garage. An enduring, romantic, near-mythic aura surrounds Levan and the Garage in the minds of many veteran clubbers—rightfully so. On May 11, 27 years after the Garage's final night and more than two decades since Levan's untimely demise, Red Bull Music Academy is closing down the street for the Larry Levan Street Party.
Part of an effort to rename the Garage's King Street block "Larry Levan Way," the event will feature veterans François Kevorkian, David DePino and Joey Llanos on the decks. Each of these DJs, at various times, plied their record-spinning trade in the club's hallowed booth. Llanos also headed up the security team, while Kevorkian helped to bring Levan's musical vision to fruition via his work as A&R man and mixing-board wizard for Prelude Records.
Levan and the Garage are the stuff of nightlife history—but strip away the legend, and here's the bare-bones story. Levan and his pal, the recently deceased Frankie Knuckles (who also has a street named after him) were regulars at David Mancuso's Loft and Nicky Siano's Gallery in the early 70s, places where Levan, in particular, soaked up the magical power that a DJ has over a crowd. From the former, he absorbed his aural adventurism; from the latter, pure flamboyance; and from both, how to inject high drama into a set.
Partygoers at the Paradise Garage. Image via
Both men got jobs spinning at the gay den of iniquity, The Continental Baths; Knuckles made his historic move to Chicago, while Levan eventually ended up at Reade Street, a club in Tribeca run by Michael Brody that, like the Garage, largely catered to gay men of color. After Reade Street closed its doors, Brody—with help from sound-system master Richard Long and West End Record's Mel Cheren—opened the Garage with Levan as the main resident, a post he held till the club's closing.
There's much more to it than that, of course—but first, back to those timeworn journey and church adages. "Clichés generally come from the truth," DePino says. "I really do think many of those specific kinds of clichés were made for the Garage and Larry. Here's mine: I always tell people that Michael Brody was Dr. Frankenstein, and Larry was Frankenstein's monster. Sometimes Michael would get so mad at Larry—'Larry is driving me crazy!' I'd say, 'Well, you're the one who created him!'"
For DePino, Llanos and Kevorkian, Brody is the Garage's unsung hero. "Michael gave Larry total autonomy, which is something that you didn't see see much at all, and still don't," Llanos recalls. "He was that way in general. Part of my job there was servicing the sound system, and he let me do anything that needed to be done. At the end of the night, I would check everything out and make sure nothing was blown or whatever; I could go to Richard Long and order double of what we needed. We had spare turntables; we had spare mixers; we had spare 18-inch bass speakers. We had spares of everything! Except the rubber bands: We had belt-driven turntables, and they would always melt because it would get so hot!"
DePino remembers those rubber bands, too. "They would stretch out, and the music would start going 'lah-laaah-laaaaah-laaaaaaaah.' Larry would say, 'Go to Richard and get more!' I'd be like, 'Larry, I can't—I'm tripping!'"
Ah, yes, tripping—hallucinogens are a big part of the alcohol-free Garage's folklore. But it's a part that DePino, for one, feels is a bit overblown. "There's always been a rumor that the punch was electrified," he says. "But that really wasn't true. Well, maybe at the construction parties, but once the club was fully opened, definitely not. There was this time that we saw a piece of paper floating in the punch, and we realized it was a pretty big dose of acid; Michael had the whole batch thrown out. You just couldn't have that with 3,000 people there. It would have been mass hysteria!"
Spiked punch or not, it was the monster on the decks—Levan—who wrecked the havoc and created the hysteria. Though many consider him the greatest DJ ever, technical skills were never his strong suit. His sets were more akin to daredevil acts, teetering on the edge of disaster—he would bang one track into another, and moments of dead air were not uncommon—but brimming with shiver-inducing moments of beauty and transcendence, emanating from the power of the music and the sheer force of Larry's personality. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton wrote in their seminal tome on the history of deejaying, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, "One thing is for certain: Larry gave good show. He could shock you. He could thrill you. He could amaze you. He could even appall you. The only certainty was that he would surprise you."
The Garage was a private membership club—only card-holders and their guests were allowed in—and while that might not have made it the most egalitarian of venues, it allowed Levan the freedom to develop his own style as a DJ without regard for an outsider crowd. His style took in disco, dubbed-out postdisco (a sound that featured heavily in his remixes and productions), funk, hip-hop, rock and, towards the end of the club's run, early house.
"There was an incubation period at the Garage," Kevorkian says. "It allowed a sound to develop there. It didn't necessarily have to reference outside beacons or whatever outside tastemakers might deem to be important. The Garage crowd was into what was going on at the Garage, really. I hear so many DJs nowadays with a style that feels great, sounds fantastic, is technically awesome—but it doesn't say anything. It's this unending flow of music that's faceless and nameless, without any real identity. With Larry, it was very different. Because he had this closed circuit, he could form his own aesthetic, his own sensibility, one that was undisturbed for long enough that it could flourish and blossom. He was promoting a sound that was truly heartfelt and original, and was a true reflection of the Garage community."
Brahms "Bravo" LaFortune, a noted dancer and dance instructor, was a core member of that community. "At the Garage, they didn't play any kind of music that was on the radio," he says. "They do play it on the radio now, 35 years later! Now they call them 'classics'—for us, it was our stuff."
For LaFortune, it was the like-minded collection of revelers at the Garage—a group that sought temporary shelter from AIDS, prejudice and all the pressures of the outside world—as much as it was Levan and his music, which served as it driving force. "I always describe the Garage as a group of people who don't adapt to the norm. You had the places where you had to get dressed in your Pierre Cardin and nice shoes and cologne. But at the Garage, you could wear what you wanted. So it was really a different type of person. Even though we didn't wear cologne, we did wear deodorant—you really needed deodorant—but the club was full of free-spirited people. I don't want to call us misfits…but that's a good word. And even though we were from all different neighborhoods, once we got together, you'd be like, hey, this cat's like me! It a bunch of open-minded people, just jamming. And we were gonna dance and scream and yell and shout all freaking night!"
What would Levan have thought of the efforts to rename King Street in his honor? "I think he'd be into the block party itself—why not?" DePino says. "Naming the street for him… I think he would shy away from that. I mean, when he was on—really on—and the whole club was going crazy, you know what he would do? Sometimes he'd black out the lights and duck down so no one could see him. He wanted it to be about the music. He was much more proud of the Garage than he was about himself. That was his place. He loved it."
On May 11, so can the rest of us.
For more information about Larry Levan Way and Sunday's event, click here.