François K Reflects on the Everlasting Legacy of Larry Levan and Paradise Garage
Just how did an alcohol-free members club become one of the most important spaces in dance music history?
Strange, isn't it, that the most famous, well-loved, and highly-regarded nightclub of all time, is one that I'm pretty sure none of us have ever been to. None of us spent sweaty Saturday nights at 84 King Street, Lower Manhattan, watching Larry Levan play to a members-only crowd at the Paradise Garage, but it doesn't stop us speaking of the space in hushed tones. Without the Paradise Garage, we think, we feel, we believe, club culture as we know it wouldn't exist.
One man who was lucky enough to worship in those hallowed halls week after week is François Kevorkian. Kervorkian moved to New York City in 1975, and quickly found notoriety as a DJ. While it wasn't his chosen profession ("I thought I was going to be a drummer in a band") the city was lacking in both clubs and selectors and the Frenchman found himself able to score regular gigs. 40 years on he's regarded as one of the greatest DJs to ever do it.
As a producer, remixer, and DJ, François K's seen, and done, it all. I was lucky enough to speak to him ahead of a series of UK shows later in the summer. It made sense to focus on a topic that he knew intimately, and I was desperate to delve into: Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage. Kervorkian was both a Garage regular, and Levan's occasional co-DJ, so if there was anyone out there who'd be able to paint the picture I wanted to see, it was him.
THUMP: Let's get into the real meaty subject here. Can you remember the first the first time you ever saw Larry Levan playing out?
François K: It was at a Construction party at the Garage, which was before the main room opened. It held about 400 people. A friend of mine knew Larry—he was the guy who gave Larry a DJing gig at the Continental Baths actually. This friend was the manager of a club I was working at called New York, New York. He took me down to the then-unopened venue, and it was like a warehouse party basically. This was in August, 1977, and the place was steaming, it was so intense. Larry was playing music that was mesmerizing. The crowd were so enraptured by it, and him. I'd been to other great clubs, but nothing like that. It was unbelievable, and Larry had a very charismatic approach to music. When he played a song you felt like he was playing it for you. It felt like the song that was on was on because you liked it. That's a remarkable feeling. I had no idea who Larry was at the time, either.
Was it ever conceivable that he'd become this elemental touchstone, this totem of all things clubbing?
When we threw a street party in Manhattan—to have the part of King Street where the Garage was renamed to Larry Levan way—22,000 people showed up. That's how devoted people still are. When you talk to people who were there you can sense that it was not a normal club. That's not to say bad things about other clubs, but it was on a different level altogether, and Larry himself was the incarnation of that.
The Garage was a members club, and you could only visit if you were a member or knew a member. And that created a reverence for the club, for the parties. It's not fair to compare what happens in clubbing today to that. The Garage will always be something to reference. It's like being a jazz fan—Coltrane might not be around any more but understanding what he did then is central to understanding what you do now. While Larry owed a huge debt to people like David Mancuso and Nicky Siano, he became this foundational figure. When you're getting to that level of cultural relevance you transcend trend and become timeless.
There's little in the way of photo or video evidence of the club, has that helped build the mystique around it do you think?
Some people might think that it's a real shame that you can't see much of the club on YouTube, but someone else might argue that a lot of things happened in history before YouTube and we're still aware of how important they are. While there isn't footage there is testimony. We have that website full of memories of former Garage-goers. People have taken time to write these things down, to document their favorite moments, parties. This was a place that served the needs of a private group of people in a small, tight knit community. Now everything's about Facebook likes and social media activity.
There is something fundamentally different in the approach people have to clubbing these days: it's profit driven. The Garage didn't serve alcohol, they didn't have a liquor license, there was no bar in the middle of the dancefloor. The club owner of the Garage was really, really devoted to music, to the community. It was first and foremost a gay club—not exclusively but largely straight people went on Friday, gay people on Saturday. Back then, in 1977, being gay wasn't as easy as it was today. Having a private club like that acted like a safe harbor. It was a space where people could relax. They could enjoy themselves away from the way society was treating them.
How did the Garage crowd differ from what Mancuso was doing at the Loft?
There was an overlap, for sure. Most of the crowd at the Garage on a Saturday night knew each other. Membership was around 4,000 people, but the most people there at any given night was about 2,000. There were a lot of what you'd call 'normal' people there—people with jobs in offices. There were a lot of very successful people, lawyers, music business people. People didn't have to use their credit card to show their social standing.
Larry, by the way, enjoyed both clubs. So many times after a party at the Garage he'd lead us down there to see what David was doing. The Garage typically closed at 9 or 10 and the Loft might be open till 1 or 2 in the afternoon. It was a short walk from King Street to the Loft on Prince Street, and Larry himself was a big Mancuso fan, and I heard him mention countless times that in his mind no one compared to David Mancuso. It wasn't even the songs he picked: it was the direction, the idea that there was someone who could conceptualize what a party should and shouldn't be, and did it in his own home. Larry was keenly aware of how amazing and prescient Mancuso was.
The police challenged David and told him he couldn't throw parties in his own house. He said he could, and they could sue him if they were right. So the city of New York sued David Mancuso, and David Mancuso won. It set up a landmark case, it set a precedent in the law that the police had no right to tell people what they could and couldn't do in their own home. Larry was in awe of all these things David had done for the community.
Finally, what's the ultimate Garage record?
Let's pick a record Larry worked on, and it'll be "Don't Make Me Wait" by the Peech Boys. It was a signature record for the club, and people forget that this was the first record to have an a capella mix, which was a genius move on Larry's part. It was only on the b-side of the 7" and everyone had to have it. Within six months of that everyone was putting a cappella's out. You had to be there, of course, but there's no question that when the track was in gestation it sounded so so incredible in that club. There are other records like "Love Sensation" or "Love is the Message" that everyone knows are big Garage records, but for me "Don't Make Me Wait" is the one. These records, the Peech Boys ones, still sound absolutely amazing. They've not dated whatsoever. That's the trademark of something worth remembering.