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Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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Stonewall 25: Oh My Papi

Oh My Papi
June 28, 1994

Pornography imagines an eroticized uni­verse where anything can happen, nothing is forbidden, and the unattainable is all yours — an orgiastic Eden with no threat of expulsion, or mortality. But even the porno­graphic imagination, particularly the highly profitable corner of it that latched onto the gay male libido, has its limits and conven­tions. Anything goes, perhaps, but not any-one. Like fashion models, porn actors are more form than content, and that form — ­both a mirror of and a spur to changing tastes — quickly becomes standardized. Cur­rently, the porn ideal is the same cartoon (actually, a Tom of Finland drawing) of masculinity found at most gay gyms, dance clubs, and go-go bars: He’s broad-shoul­dered and bubble-butted, with a chest like shiny armor plate and no sign of body hair; he’s clean-shaven, thick-lipped, straight-act­ing, and white. He’s the ’90s clone, and we’re over him.

Thing is, many of us were never into him in the first place. There’s no denying the attractions of the hunky whiteboy: they’re damned near unavoidable. So maybe I wouldn’t throw the boy out of bed, but I wouldn’t coax him there. He may be an icon for our times, but he’s just not part of my fantasy life. But, faced with limp indif­ference, pornography is infinitely resource­ful; like any niche marketer, it specializes.

Lately, the consensus has given way to a whole new porn multiculturalism — maga­zines and videos whose subjects are exclu­sively Asian, black, or Latin. In New York, it’s the Latin angle that seems most reso­nant. Maybe that’s because the city has a long history of cross-cultural Caribbean connections and that melting pot really boils over when sex is added to the mix. Or maybe it has something to do with the fuck-­anything-that-moves stereotype; when it comes to polymorphous perversity, Puerto Rico is definitely in the house.

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The relationship of gay white men and Latinos, whether mutual attraction or mu­tual exploitation, has its lore, its literature, and plenty of anecdotal evidence. (You could start with the personals in any gay rag, the ones that read “GWM seeks PR homeboy, 18-28, beefy, hung, uncut. Bi a plus.”) And for the past nine years it’s had its own porn auteur, the pseudonymous Brian Brennan, whose Barrio-based outfit, Latino Fan Club, has turned out 60 exhila­ratingly cheesy, way hardcore extravagan­zas. The LFC motto: “Celebrating the beau­ty of the Latin male.” Right — all nine and a half inches of it.

Latino Fan Club films — from the seminal Boys Behind Bars trilogy to the four-hour epic Spanish Harlem Knights to the insouciant Horse-Hung Hispanics (in four vol­umes), Red Hot Ricans, and Foreskin For­ever — have a raw energy due partly to their homemade, improvisational style, but most­ly to their rambunctious young stars. While most mainstream gay porn is fixated on buffed beauty — the choreographed coupling of two well-oiled machines — LFC gets off on homeboy horseplay and utterly unaffect­ed horniness. Some of this gangsta attitude is what the ball children call banji realness, a butch pose played to the hilt, but much of it is genuine. Many of LFC’s most popular “models” look like the kids who regularly show up in handcuffs on the covers of the Spanish-language tabloids: dark-eyed, tat­tooed, scarred, slightly built, haphazardly groomed, mean, cocky, wounded.

This personality profile promises a heady combination of brute domination and lost-­boy vulnerability. Over and over again, with plenty of the requisite cum shots, that’s exactly what Latino Fan Club delivers. But what animates the best LFC titles is an all­-consuming interest in the boys themselves. It’s not that these guys spill their guts out in the course of the amateurishly impro­vised dialogue, but they do emote in ways most porn would relegate to the editing floor. Since many LFC movies actually have narratives, some of the boys even get to act, or at least react.

The LFC aesthetic — though inspired by exploitation (and mock-exploitation) au­teurs like Roger Corman, John Waters, and the anonymous dirty old man behind those “solo” films from Old Reliable — owes its style to its stars. Loose, funky, playful, al­ways ready to drop real work and fool around, LFC doesn’t take itself too serious­ly. Without actually introducing a woman onscreen more than a few times, it swings both ways. Though most LFC actors come across as straight (“trade” Brennan calls them), the ruling sexuality of the films is definitely bi. “You do it even better than my wife,” one man tells another, and lots of homo sex is sparked by conversations about withholding girlfriends.

Two typical LFC models, Gustavo Viva and José Pelos, identify themselves as bisex­ual but are quick to note their hetero preferences. Pelos, an LFC office worker who says he met Brennan while hustling the peep shows on 42nd Street nearly 10 years ago, insists that “with a guy it would be a hustling thing and it would be safe; if I’m going to do something I’ll do it for the money.” Viva, a carpenter who builds some LFC sets, says, “Working with Latino Fan Club — that’s my job. I’m not going out there and harming anyone else; I’m working for what I receive. Some people may look at me as, like, he’s nothing more than a faggot or a homosexual, but I have a fiancée at home, and she says as long as you come back home to me and use a condom, she has no problem with it.” Both say Brennan doesn’t push his models beyond their limits (Pelos’s are succinct: “Won’t suck, won’t get fucked, won’t kiss”), but there’s clearly a certain flexibility. In a gay porn zone too often artificially divided between tops and bottoms, this is definitely another country.

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Charting that territory is Brennan’s forte. Forty-nine, bearded, and frankly out of shape, the Latino Fan Club founder doesn’t pretend to understand or explain the whole Latin thing. He only aims to exploit it for his pleasure and, not so inci­dentally, ours. A former Madison Avenue art department slave, Brennan was working as Blueboy’s art director when he decided to do a photo spread of his own. He chose his first subject, the half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican boy who delivered coffee to the office every morning, by following his own tastes. He’d been going to a bar near his West Village home called the Phoenix that young Latin hustlers had turned into a kind of clubhouse. Sometimes they would bring their girlfriends, sometimes they would do what Brennan calls “hiphop stripping” and jump up on a table so guys could stuff bills into their G-strings. Encouraged by the MC to videotape these spontaneous strip shows, Brennan realized that his crude tape was exactly the sort of thing he could never find at the video store, where “it was all California surfer dudes, boy-next-door stuff, or leather scenes. You’d never see a His­panic model, and I thought this might be a niche that I would enjoy doing.”

In 1985, Brennan began setting up nude photo sessions and marketing “a typical jack-off tape” of five different models called New York Street Boys. He also began run­ning an ad for what he at first called, with typically clumsy bluntness, a Fan Club for Guys Who Dig Latin Guys. “I started be­lieving in the thing about please yourself, do it as best as you can, and you’ll find all the people who are just like you,” Brennan says, sitting at a littered work table in the Latino Fan Club office/photo studio/crash pad/headquarters in East Harlem. The mail­ing list of Latinophiles he began building nearly a decade ago now includes over 7000 men, one of them the owner of this well­-secured corner property. With the excep­tion of LFC’s suite and another space with a pool deck that turns up, stocked with grinning homeboys, in LFC’s promotional newsreels, most of the building has been gutted for co-ops and remains empty.

Sade wafts in from the pool deck below, where a potential LFC star splashes under the rear windows of neighboring tenements. Under the loft bed where Spanish Harlem Knights‘s picaresque hero, Julio Nieves, snores fitfully, there are two banks of VCRs busy duplicating a tape running soundlessly on a monitor nearby. A scrawled sign reads “Say no to drugs and yes to dicks!” It’s all a cheap parody of film studio empire, fitting for a company that thrives on parody, trash, and — yes! — dicks. Though LFC’s produc­tion values have improved since Brennan shot every scene of the original Boys Be­hind Bars in the same corner of the same room in his old apartment in Forest Hills, its tapes are still deliberately unpolished. Continuity is a sometime thing; the focus fades at the most crucial moments; and there are plenty of times when you can hear Brennan’s instructions from the sidelines: “Push your pants down” or “Move your hand away.” “Do it as best as you can” seems to be the operative phrase here.

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Brennan may admire the impeccable gloss of Kristen Bjorn’s gay porn videos, but he models himself on a rougher, more marginal (and much more low-budget) style. Boyd McDonald, the horny genius behind Straight to Hell‘s collections of true homo­sexual experiences, was a kindred outlaw spirit. He once gave Brennan written per­mission to do a video version of his books, but Brennan says. “The only real way to make a Boyd McDonald movie is to have hidden cameras and stuff. I don’t think that’ll ever get made.” So he carries on in his own way, fucking with the genre when­ever he can. As if the tough mugs of his stars weren’t enough to signal viewers that they’re veering off porn’s beaten path, Brennan jokes about putting barred-circle symbols on his boxes to indicate No Butch Queens, No Designer Underwear, and No Shaving (of the depilated California proto­type, he says, “It’s almost like ‘Oh my God, hair on a male! How gross!’ ”).

Like Hitchcock, Brennan appears fully clothed on the sidelines in several of his films (he’s the shady stockbroker in Latin Sex Party, the prim painter in Spanish Har­lem Knights). In one of his many outtake reels, where the rawest material pops up, Brennan is an off-camera audience to super­star Rico Suave’s nude posing routine. “You are so fucking beautiful,” he says, while Suave stretches his long brown body like a particularly sly cat. If there’s a typical Latino Fan Club moment, it’s probably the offhand exchange (“That was great, man.” “You like that, huh?”) between two macho boys who have just had sex. But Brennan’s “You are so fucking beautiful” sums up the feeling behind the camera.

Because this comically awestruck bit of psychological fluffing comes from a white man who’s paying his Latin models between $200 and $300 a scene (the “receiver” earns more), there’s a definite whiff of colonialism in the air. Aside from some lightweight rumination about the “qualities of maleness that turn me on,” Brennan offers no deep examination of the attraction to what he calls “bad boys.” And he shrugs off the relentless characterization of his Latin stars as criminals, hustlers, addicts, or street kids as typical exploitation film fare (besides, he says, he gives guys auditioning for his prison and rehab clinic films the choice of being guards or inmates). Danger, uncomplicated sex, the exotic unknown — “I’m giving them what they want!” Brennan barks with a laugh.

According to a 1991 LFC membership poll, the number one collective fantasy involves being accosted by a gang of Latin boys, dragged into an alley, and forced (but not too violently) to go down on them. Brennan associate, and sometime film heavy, M. Vic Mann realizes this fantasy for LFC’s cute young white boy star, Eric Beatty, at the beginning of his Homeboy Hoodlums. After the rape, Beatty dumps his nagging girlfriend and turns into a major cocksucker, picking up one rough trade Rican after another until he gets around, inevitably, to his original attackers, who get their comeuppance from his Latin cop lover, but not before an orgy at gunpoint. There are some happy endings.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

Most of LFC’s cracked scenarios have this Samuel Fuller on Spanish Fly quality, so it’s hard to get exercised about their racial politics. The white wardens, doctors, and petty functionaries in LFC’s clearly makeshift institutions (you’d be surprised at how much can fit between these prison bars) are either loudmouthed, cigar-chomping creeps or venal manipulators. But they’re such corrupt buffoons that their scheming and rapaciousness is more comic than alarming, and they always end up on their knees before sneering boys who purr, “You like that big dick, don’t you doc?” The boys may not look like angels, but next to these assholes and toadies, they’re the heroes, and the camera loves them.

Other LFC films imagine a world where Latins rule (Super Barrio Brothers) or triumph through a combination of cunning and sex. In Latin Sex Party, the funniest of Brennan’s movies, a windbag “professor” runs a seminar aimed at reforming uptight white yuppies. While he’s spieling, his increasingly bored audience is seduced one by one by the Latin boys from the basement apartment who are trying to raise rent money. The seminar is such a success that the professor and the homeboys go into business together. It’s the perfect LFC fantasy: white daddies, on their knees, only too happy to receive the Latino’s sexual healing.

If this fantasy can’t entirely quell our uneasiness at the boys’ willingness to trade flesh for favors or the men’s fetishization of their undisguised contempt, one more shot of superstar Romeo Castillo’s ripe, quiver­ing ass will. These aren’t tracts or position papers, they’re Papi potboilers; order is subverted, everybody gets fucked, and if anyone comes out on top, it’s the Horse­-Hung Hispanic, waving his meat like the flag of the latest independent nation.

Waving the freak flag right along with them is Brennan, who’s fast becoming the Russ Meyer of queer porn — part crackpot, part visionary, total obsessive. “When I was a kid I was nuts about just movies, movies, movies,” he says, and now he’s making four of them simultaneously. Here’s a trailer for one called Attack of the Amazing Colossal Latino: A broad-chested B-boy looms na­ked over Times Square at night, his fat uncut dick swaying next to the Coke sign. He leans down, scowls into the haze of neon, and shouts, “Fuckin’ size queen! Is this big enough for you now?” ■

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Vince Aletti’s Disco Diaries

On my way to interview former Village Voice art director (and current New Yorker photography critic) Vince Aletti, I happen to pass a poster proclaiming, “Disco Is Back! Now playing at Bloomingdale’s.” This is strangely appropriate, as I’m meeting Aletti for lunch to discuss the publication of his first book, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground Week by Week, which, as its title attests, collects five years’ worth of articles he wrote about the burgeoning disco scene as it happened.

So with this mighty new tome of his, is Bloomingdale’s right? Is disco back? Aletti laughs at the notion: “I feel that disco never really went away, as much as it was declared ‘over’ as the spotlight of the media moved somewhere else.” Seated across from the sixtysomething scribe in a St. Mark’s Place café, we are but a stone’s throw away from the Ukrainian National Home, which, every few months, hosts David Mancuso’s still-extant Loft parties. First reported on by Aletti in these very pages (June 16, 1975, to be exact, as part of a news story entitled “SoHo vs. Disco” and reprinted in the book), he was the first writer to address disco and the first to pen a story about Mancuso, the inscrutable DJ and consummate party host universally hailed as the genre’s founding father.

Aletti first started going to the Loft in 1972—”David is such an institution,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me that he would still have a following. Back then, it was very casual, with balloons and streamers, just like a kid’s birthday party.” In the intervening decades, that evergreen party’s vibe has matured, along with its host and audience: “Now I love that it has whole families there, middle-aged people, kids, all these Japanese kids—just this broad range of the kind of people who always flock to his party, but also people who grew up with him.”

Such broad inclusiveness is what first drew the young writer to disco, just as its earliest practitioners and DJs drew on obscure soul, hard funk, Latin music, left-field rock, and fusion jazz to make dancers move, before a more rigid “disco formula” descended upon dance floors across the country. Aletti’s weekly column for the nationwide industry mag Record World provides the bulk of The Disco Files‘ content and illuminates this point. “It was a constant processing of what’s new in music, week by week,” he recalls. “What was interesting to me about doing the column was being in touch with all of these DJs in every city that I could rely on to be awake at a certain hour, who could tell me what they were playing night in, night out.” Each page runs down four DJs and their selections, as well as Aletti’s own favorites, making it invaluable to crate-diggers the world over. It’s no wonder that The Disco Files (originally printed by White Columns gallery for an Aletti retrospective in early 2008) has now been published by the zealots at the DJ History website, who were also responsible for the classic book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

From such a privileged vantage point, it’s remarkable to re-investigate what’s often perceived as a flat music-scape consisting of little more than Saturday Night Fever, “Play That Funky Music,” and Larry Levan (who first crops up in late ’77). Instead, Disco Files reveals a much more nuanced and surprising topography. Club names run from Mind Shaft in San Francisco to the Poop Deck in Fort Lauderdale. Flipping randomly to Aletti’s column from August 16, 1975, we can see recently deceased Times scribe William Safire lauding “The Hustle” as a “return to discipline and responsibility” on the dance floor. That same week, Boston moved to the Boogie Man Orchestra, while in L.A., they dug “Chinese Kung Fu” and “Do the Choo-Choo.” Sure, the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” infiltrates every single playlist in 1976, but you also find out that crowds at one New York hot spot went crazy for Loggins & Messina.

On the strength of Aletti’s ear, he ultimately quit his column to do A&R for RFC/Warner Bros., the label responsible for post-disco (but
still totally disco) singles like the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” From there, he nurtured his passion for art and photography into a position at the Voice for over two decades before leaving in 2005. Today, he curates shows for the International Center of Photography, writes for The New Yorker, and listens to Mary J. Blige, Madonna, and the Junior Boys. But he has never abandoned his first love: “I loved the idea that disco could be so many things and didn’t have to be Donna Summer. And I loved Donna Summer.”

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ZOOM IN

The AIPAD Photography Show celebrates its 30th year of bringing together an enormous—almost overwhelming—array of works for collectors who favor traditional photography. A special exhibition this year is titled “Innovation,” featuring milestones in the history of photography from daguerreotypes to digital. With more than 70 of the world’s leading fine-art photography galleries represented, you’ll see everything from Mariana Cook’s black-and-white of Barack and Michelle Obama cuddling in their living room in 1996, to Stanley Kubrick’s memorable portrait of the boxer Walter Cartier from 1947, to a hand-colored print of a U.S. Army cavalry corporal from 1863. See how diverse this is? The annual fair, presented by the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, also features several panels on Saturday, including “Bruce Davidson: A Journey of Conciseness” and “The Art of Fashion Photography,” with critic Vince Aletti, among others.

March 26-29, 2009

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Dance! Dance! Dance!

Nothing is more soul-destroying than Fashion Week, and there’s nothing like being immersed in dance music history to save one’s soul. Luckily, last Monday, the first annual Dance Music Hall of Fame Awards took over Spirit, the former Twilo/Sound Factory space, now a multilevel spiritual fun house.

It was like a post-high-school reunion for the fortysomething crowd, with mini DJ sets from Nicky Siano, Jackie McCloy, and Pete Jones. The night’s best performance: Evelyn “Champagne” King, who didn’t look old enough to have been around in 1977 when her hit “Shame” was released.

My date was my own editor and the original disco critic Vince Aletti, who I knew was a Big Deal before the event, but didn’t realize exactly how big until we got to the venue and were immediately besieged by famous and important people from the disco industry, including Randy Jones (the Cowboy from the Village People) and Tommy Boy’s Tom Silverman, who co-founded the Hall of Fame (along with Daniel Glass, John Parker, and Eddie O’Loughlin). I just about had to bow down before my editor—who was set to present an award to Loft legend David Mancuso—when we heard that none other than Chic‘s Nile Rodgers would be introducing him! Of course, Aletti had to tell his young protégée who most of the people were, since I wasn’t even born when disco began. When I asked, “Vince, who are the Ritchie Family?” he sighed with the air of a father talking to his small child, “Oh, you’re too young.”

All night long, geriatric jokes abounded. Rodgers, who wore shades, explained that he wasn’t wearing sunglasses at night for style reasons (even though he was sporting a dashing red suit), but that the lenses were actually prescription. “I ain’t trying to be cool. I really can’t see,” he quipped. When DJ John Luongo seemed to have trouble getting his set started, his Boston buddy DJ Joey Carvello yelled up to the booth with some helpful advice, “You put the needle on the record!”

In the crowd, Lady Bunny hopped near Danny Tenaglia, who said he hadn’t heard about the first ever awards show honoring dance music until the last minute. “I wish they’d told me, I live for this. I’m over 40.” (Another old-person joke.) His complaint was valid. Many people didn’t even know about the induction ceremony, and the lack of organization showed. It’s a miracle anything ever happens in clubland at all, really. Host KTU DJ Al Bandiero was quite good and took all the false starts and technical difficulties in stride. “Do you get the feeling that we’re flying by the seat of our pants?” he cracked. “Why would we rehearse this?”

Denise Rich had a table right up front, and watched as Frankie Knuckles shared the stage with West End Records founder Mel Cheren to induct the famous Paradise Garage DJ, Larry Levan, who passed away in 1992. Their tribute was the most touching. “His talent was so much bigger than most people can imagine,” said Knuckles. “I’m here today because of that genius.” “Larry’s love for lyrics helped to entertain and educate at the same time,” said Cheren, who then went for another old-person joke: “He gave me a lot of the gray hair I have.”

Cheren encouraged the dance community to work with Robbie Wootton, the enigmatic Irishman who owns Spirit, and who donated the club rent-free. “Please support this man,” said Cheren. “He’s brought this great spirit back to New York nightlife.”

RuPaul inducted Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the illustrious production team behind “I Feel Love” and countless other disco hits, informing the crowd, “The whole electroclash thing is based on the work they did.” After Moroder—one of the only major stars actually alive and present—accepted his award, saying, “They call it dance music now, but it’ll always be disco to us,” RuPaul introduced a segment honoring “our queen,” Donna Summer, at night’s end. (Her daughter, Amanda Sudano, appeared in her place.) But by then, the spirits at Spirit had taken over the boisterous crowd, which seemed drunk and giddy with the possibilities of the night. Lifetime Achievement inductee Henry Stone, who signed KC and the Sunshine Band, proudly told the crowd, “You turned nothing into something. This is really something.”



tromano@villagevoice.com

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A Mouse of a Voice, Hiding in a Hole in the Bedroom Wall

From the Beach Boys to Peter Brown, from Enigma to Shikhee—a Bangladeshi young woman who records, mostly solo, as “Android Lust”—the bedroom, cubicle, and closet have generated a free-roaming style of musical intimacy. In it, interior-minded young people vent their wants, passions, dreams, and fears (and the rhythms of each), an intimacy different from that of romantic crooners but no less revealing. Vince Aletti, writing about Enigma’s Michael Cretu in these pages, has called this “good vibrations” music. Vibrations? The term suggests something disembodied: a buzz sent from afar, an orchestral impressionism surrounding or propping up a diffuse center. So it is with The Dividing, Shikhee’s debut CD. The center of it is Shikhee’s voice—a tiny soprano shriek, icy in tone. A mouse of a voice, hiding in its hole in the wall.

As it happens, Shikhee’s hole is “darkwave,” a techno-influenced adaptation of gothic rock. What she lacks in verbal luster, she compensates for by draping her angst in velvet in some of darkwave’s catchiest and least derivative instrumental work. Shikhee moves from overwrought dirge to dark drollery to the scruffy techno; from light soul music to ticklish electronica to funky metalism. Then, finally, to a harsh, Einstürzende-like industrial she calls “Sex and Mutilation,” and the sad end entitled “Burn.” It all works, because her rodent screech bonds with none of these styles, and jars them all. She and they do a kind of tango of desire and venom. At times she sounds like Tori Amos at her most feral; at others like Alanis Morrisette feasting on anger. But mostly Shikhee sounds uniquely abandoned, her life a lemon on which she revenges herself by making musical lemonade. Complete with all the sourness, saliva, and pucker.