Larry Levan's Paradise Garage
Putting a roomful of people in the moment. Amazing them, surprising them, challenging, even confusing them; pushing, electrifying, loving them; carrying them with you towards a better place. Shaking the dull daylight out of their bones, waking them into their other life. Few people know what great DJing is really about. Those who don’t dance think of wacky radio presenters and gabby wedding spinners; they have a real problem seeing how playing records could be a performance.
But, ironically, most of today’s young clubbers can be just as clueless when it comes to separating a good DJ from a bad one. UK club culture, with its rootless brand-name jocks and their two-hour guest sets, has bred dancers with a painfully short attention span. Our dancefloors might throw their hands in the air for a clever technical mix, a swift key change or a bombastic snare roll, but they’re largely immune to anything that takes a bit longer to achieve – like pacing, building, teasing, exploring. Sadly, these days most of us just want to pay our money and get an immediate dance fix. We’re happy to be switched on by manipulative drug-pop and thrashed around at fever pitch all night. It’s rare today to find a DJ brave enough to take a crowd down as well as up. Or to reflect emotions more complex than mad-for-it ecstasy, or to play music outside the narrow focus of their niche. Or to throw a risky curveball or two and ‘cleanse’ the dancefloor for a fresh start. When you find a DJ willing to do more than stitch together a bunch of surefire floorfillers, shake his hand.
Larry Levan played records back when a DJ had to sweat for a living. When he started in 1971, a DJ’s set was built from 7-inch singles and uptempo album tracks. The album tracks had to be painstakingly unearthed and the singles had to be changed every three minutes. There were just a handful of records released each week and almost all of them were aimed at radio or home listening. There were no ten-minute dubs, no extended remixes, no minimal beat tracks, no easy-to-mix intros. Records were all made with live drummers, with often wildly wavering tempos, and record decks were mostly fixed-speed monsters taken from the world of radio.
DJing as we know it evolved from all these unimaginable restrictions. In New York a small band of explorers worked themselves to the bone to dig up danceable music from whatever sources they could find, and distorted, extended and manipulated it until it met the energetic demands of their dancers. In doing this they forged the DJ’s craft, pioneering almost everything that DJs do today. In clubs like Arthur, Sanctuary, Salvation, The Loft and The Gallery, DJs Terry Noel, Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Michael Cappello and Steve D’Acquisto built a whole new world, the world of dance music we’ve inherited.
Eventually we’d call their scene ‘disco’ and we’d think of its music as a single genre. But originally it was far from a homogenous, definable form. It was an amalgam of anything people would dance to: rock, Latin, soul, funk, rhythm and blues. It was simply music you heard in a discothèque, which back then was probably just a black loft hot with bodies.
This was a small, close-knit world and despite the basic decor of the first disco clubs, something else invariably filled the room: the dancers’ togetherness, their sense of redemption, their feelings of escape from a racist and homophobic reality. ‘More than anything, disco was driven by an underground idea of unity,’ says Vince Aletti, the first journalist to write about disco. ‘The manifesto was the music. Love Is The Message.’
Larry Levan was an early child of this scene. He danced in its clubs, he learnt from its originators, and he joined a growing band of DJs who were filling New York with thrilling, loving music. And later, in his own club, The Paradise Garage, as disco was declared dead he took it underground, nurtured and developed it and allowed it to take its first steps as something new.
Heaven in a car park
‘You have to un-learn everything you’ve ever experienced about clubs to understand The Paradise Garage,’ insists DJ and pioneer dance producer François Kevorkian, explaining what made this particular nightclub such a mythic inspiration for so many of the world’s greatest DJs, producers, clubs and dance labels.
The Garage was where, a decade or so after taking its first steps, black, spiritual underground disco reached its peak. It was quite simply the largest and most powerful expression of the original disco spirit. As disco became mainstream and often moronic, it was at the Garage that the underground sound and the scene’s strong sense of community were preserved. Outside, insurance men in brown suits were knocking their knees to Abba and The Bee Gees, dreaming of the coke-and-celebrity-fuelled nonsense of Studio 54. Inside the Garage, the original disco family were continuing and amplifiying their tribal rituals. And at the centre was Levan himself, a DJ who enjoyed such a passionate relationship with the people on his dancefloor that they worshipped him more or less as a god.
‘This is the Paradise Garage in a nutshell,’ says New York DJ Johnny Dynell. ‘One night, Chi Chi, my wife, was bartending at the Garage. And, having worked at Danceteria doing the same, she couldn’t believe it when she saw these boys making everything so clean. They would take the garbage out and then wash and scrub the garbage can, then dry it, and put a new garbage bag in. She was in awe at the love these kids showed that garbage can. Because to these kids, it’s the temple. It’s sacred. This isn’t just a garbage can, this is a garbage can at the Garage. It’s very Old Testament. And for everyone there, it really was the temple. It was sacred ground.’
The Paradise Garage inspired an unparalleled reverence. It dominated gay New York’s dance vista for a full ten years, with only the Saint – which catered for a very different crowd – as a serious rival. For its members the Garage was a sanctuary from an increasingly cruel and voracious city, a role made poignantly necessary as AIDS cut through New York. Dance there and you were treated as an honoured guest, with a level of courtesy and respect that is virtually unheard of in clubs today. ‘You felt special,’ says Danny Tenaglia, one of many DJs inspired by early visits to the Garage. ‘You felt like you were an elite group, with people who were on the same level of understanding about music as you.’ In a drab district in south west Manhattan, it created a private world based on disco’s original ethos of loving equality. In stark contrast to the harsh city lights outside, the Garage offered freedom, compassion and brotherhood.
Dave Piccioni, owner of London’s Black Market records, then living and DJing in New York, was a regular at the Garage in the late eighties. ‘It was New York cut-throat money time,’ he remembers. ‘Everybody was sticking knives in each other’s backs. It was dog eat dog. Aggressive. Dealing, 60,000 people living on the street. It was a dog of a place to live in. And then you’d go to this little oasis, where people were really well-mannered and friendly to each other. You just felt completely comfortable. People of a like mind who shared something, and that was an open mind. America is a very narrow-minded place. The thing they had in common wasn’t just getting high, like it is here – it was much more than that. That was what was so great about it.’
Prepare for take-off
You entered the Garage along a long darkened runway lit by tiny flickering egg-strobes. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to going up a ramp as much’, smiles DJ Joe Claussell, who today runs Body & Soul, the New York club founded on reclaiming the atmosphere of the Garage. ‘At the top was The Garage logo in neon. It was like going to church. Once you got up that ramp and paid your money, you were in heaven. Paradise.’
‘You walked up the ramp and you heard this ‘wooof, wooof, wooof, wooof’’ remembers Louis, another Garage regular. ‘And then, as soon as you got into the tunnel people would start this scream, and you knew you were going into somewhere special.’
In his evocative book Disco!, Albert Goldman wrote that ascending into the Garage made you feel like a character in a Kafka novel. ‘From overhead comes the heavy pounding of the disco beat like a fearful migraine. When you reach the bar, a huge bare parking area, you are astonished to see immense pornographic murals of Greek and Trojan warriors locked in sado-masochistic combat running from floor to ceiling. On the floor of the main dancing room are the most frenzied dancers of the disco scene; black and Puerto Rican gays, stripped down to singlets and denim shorts, swinging their bodies with wild abandon.’
Inside there were changing rooms, a chill-out area where movies were shown, a non-alcoholic bar, the large, beautifully-appointed booth, and the giant, relatively spartan dancefloor. In the summer you could climb through the cinema onto the roof, which itself was half the size of the club. Dancers would take a breather from their intense workouts and hang out under the stars among fountains, flowers and brightly coloured lights, watching the majestic New York night until Larry threw down another unmissable tune, perhaps ‘A Little Bit Of Jazz’ by Nick Straker Band or Spark’s ‘Let’s Go Dancing’, and there’d be a rush for the floor.
The Garage was located on 84 King Street in west SoHo in the echoing expanses of a cast-concrete parking garage. Levan was its pilot from the beginning, but the club was the creation of a tireless young clubber named Michael Brody. As disco grew to define gay life in post-Stonewall New York, Brody dreamt of recreating the atmosphere of its earliest clubs on a much larger scale.
His prototype had been 143 Reade St, set in a two-floor warehouse space which he ran from the summer of 1974 till it was forced to close in 1976. Here a gay and predominantly black crowd had gathered to sweat to the young Larry Levan’s increasingly exciting sonic experiments. ‘Reade St was very free and open,’ chuckles clubber Yvon Leybold. ‘I remember going there dancing topless. It was hot in there, but it was so much fun that you wanted to take your clothes off.’
Reade St gave Brody the confidence and experience to proceed, and proved his hunch that as a DJ Levan was exceptional enough to build a club around. However, the Garage would be an altogether more massive undertaking. He borrowed $110,000 from friends and relations, including $30,000 for sound equipment lent by his ex-lover Mel Cheren, founder of West End Records, but quickly found that this was a tiny fraction of the money he’d need to renovate such a huge space. He continued running it as a parking garage, but this was never going to generate the necessary sums, and parking cars all day left him with no time or energy for anything else.
The solution was to open a small fraction of the space as a club and enlarge it bit by bit. Thus, the Paradise Garage opened in early spring 1977 with a series of ‘construction parties’, held in the Grey Room, what would eventually become the entrance area. For its first months, the club was just a raw space with an amazing DJ, the germ of a phenomenal sound system, a small but loyal crowd and a whole universe of possibilities.
Things grew steadily, until, in January 1978, Brody felt it was time for an official opening. He planned a grand launch party and invited the cream of Manhattan nightlife. Disaster ensued. Blizzards had been raging, delaying the arrival of a new sound system, which had spent several days sitting on a runway in Kentucky. And true to form, Levan refused to hurry the installation process, instead spending days incorporating it with the existing equipment and ironing out problems. This perfectionism continued right into the night of the planned opening, and even as thousands of people waited outside in sub-zero temperatures, the DJ refused to open the club until he was ready. Naturally, most of the waiting A-list clubbers stormed off. Those that were finally admitted found themselves in a vast club, not much warmer than outside, with plenty more glitches to meet them throughout the night. Few ever came back. As Cheren writes in his memoirs, Keep on Dancin’, ‘These queens never gave a disco a second break.’
Paradoxically, this failure was the defining moment for the Garage. Brody deeply regretted the club never held the attention of the A-list and he worked hard to entice the more upmarket (and mainly white) gay crowd. (He even at one time arranged free buses to and from the gay beach resort of Fire Island, 60 miles away.) However, in the long run their absence was the making of the club. Had the Garage opening gone smoothly, it may have ended up as chi-chi as Studio 54 or with the hi-NRG music tastes of The Saint. Instead, rather than being an instant hit with the in-crowd it was forced to grow organically, filling up gradually with dancers who came simply for Levan’s music.
Time to dance
In a city which usually decides a person’s importance by their money, their clothes or their race, the Garage became a rare place of equality. ‘One of the great things about The Garage was that it was very mixed,’ says François. ‘It was a place where everyone would mingle together – whether you were a superstar or whether you just happened to have a regular job. No heavy door scene. There is no alcohol for sale. The point of the club is dancing.’
Every weekend, regular as church, the club filled with people who came to shake their troubles away. But more than escaping the harsh outside world; they came to the Garage to feel close to each other. The atmosphere made them feel part of a huge, inclusive family. And this sense of communion was powerfully infectious. The club regularly welcomed stars like Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Eddie Murphy, Boy George, Mike Tyson and Stevie Wonder. But when celebrities came to the Garage they didn’t draw attention to themselves the way they did at Studio 54, they dressed down and joined the crowd.
‘You didn’t know who would party there,’ recalls musician and songwriter Ray Reid of Crown Heights Affair. ‘Diana Ross, Calvin Klein, everybody came to the club. Russell Simmons tried to get in there. The common celebrities went to Studio 54 for the dressing up thing; that glamour, that little fuck parade. But everybody knew if you really wanted to party you had to go down to the Garage. Celebrities would go there in their jeans and be inconspicuous, and no-one would run up on them. You could party next to your number one hero. You’d just be minding your business and enjoying yourself.’
The majority of Garage regulars were far from wealthy; some could barely scrape together the price of admission. They were predominantly black and Latino, although the Garage was never an intentionally ‘black club’ as such (Although some have suggested that Brody’s developing sexual preference for black men influenced the club’s creation). It was simply a place where, unlike most well-appointed New York nightspots of the time, skin colour was no barrier to admission. As Mel Cheren writes, it was ‘the one place that truly reflected the rainbow that had produced disco’s pot of gold. The potent intersection of rhythm, race and realness that had produced disco in the first place – black as it was gay, gay as it was black – all came together here.’
One thing was never in doubt: this was where you found the city’s most devoted clubbers: kids who danced for seven, eight hours, or more every week. They knew the records that were played, they screamed with excitement for their favourites, and they booed with bitchy contempt at visiting performers who didn’t cut it (including the young Madonna, who bombed badly when she first performed at the Garage). As Cheren writes, ‘There was no attitude here, no cliques defined by their muscles, no fashion victims, no A-list. These people were dancers.’ And this is what made the atmosphere at the Garage so electrifying – it was driven by the energetic input of its clubbers. ‘The intensity of the disco pyrotechnics was unlike anything anywhere. Venturing onto the dance floor was like swimming into an undertow – you were sucked into the vortex, and you surrendered, for hours at a time.’
Family members only
This dancefloor singlemindedness was possible because only members and their guests were admitted. And as the club gained in popularity, fairly stringent measures were taken to ensure that its population of hardcore devotees was not diluted by an influx of curious onlookers.
‘The Garage was underground. There was no advertising’, explains David DePino, one of Levan’s closest friends and one of the few other DJs to have played at the Garage. ‘We were not an off-the-street club – it was a private, 100 per cent membership thing.’ Prospective members had to turn up in person and submit to an interview before they were accepted into the family. These membership days were kept virtually secret. Nevertheless, as DePino remembers, ‘so many people would line up at the door, there’d be a line round the corner twice.’
Initially the Garage only opened on Saturdays, and efforts were made to keep it almost exclusively gay. However, in answer to the growing number of women and straight men who wanted to get in, a mixed Friday night was launched which was, as people recall, much straighter and blacker. But the Saturday nights kept their reputation for being wilder and more explosive and straight guys would swear that they were gay to try and get Saturday night membership. Few succeeded.
For those who danced there, the Paradise Garage felt like home. It was run for the benefit of its members, and changes were made not with profit foremost, but with the impact of the party in mind. It was open during an unprecedented boom in nightclubbing and all around it businessmen were raking in the disco dollars. The Garage could have easily shared in this, yet its owner Michael Brody rejected commerciality as far as possible. ‘He could have made a fortune,’ says DePino. ‘But he was never money greedy. The party was first.’
Fruit, coffee and soft drinks were served free, as were lemon ices in the summer, while at Christmas and Thanksgiving clubbers were even served turkey with all the trimmings. ‘In the winter time we’d be baking brownies and popping fresh doughnuts and pastries,’ laughs DePino. ‘We’d be in the kitchen tripping our brains out wondering if we turned ovens on or not and then screaming when we touched them. Then we’d realise that Larry was pumping it, run out onto the dancefloor, and forget we were cooking in the kitchen, and all the muffins would be burnt. So I’d go up into the booth and say, ‘Larry, don’t play any more of our favourite records, we’re trying to bake brownies.’ Then we’d be back in the kitchen but he’d put on our favourite records and we’d run back up to the floor. Then it was like, ‘Get the fire-extinguisher, we’re burning all the muffins again.’ That’s the kind of thing that went on.’
There was no alcohol, a reflection of the serious focus on dancing. This also let the club escape the scrutiny of the notoriously draconian New York Liquor Commission and stay open as long as it liked. Most of the dancers energised themselves with drugs, however, selecting from the era’s range of misappropriated chemicals: speed, poppers, cocaine, acid and angel dust, with newer confections like MDA and ecstasy creeping in as the years progressed.
It is an open secret that for the first three-to-four years – until the crowds grew too big, increasing the risk that someone would get hurt – the punch was spiked with acid, ‘In the early days, you took a glass of electric punch and you were going, boy!’ recalls DePino. ‘It was never enough to actually make you trip, just enough to make you have a fantastic time and not know why. We knew what was in it though, so we’d drink 12 or 13 cups of punch and we’d be flying!’ Surprisingly though, the euphoria on the dancefloor had less to do with illegal substances than it does in most clubs today. ‘It was the music,’ continues. DePino. ‘There were lots of kids there who did drugs and there were a lot of kids that didn’t.
The Garage opened around midnight and allowed admissions until 6.30am, after which the doors were closed and the party would continue until midday or later. As well as Levan’s music, there were live acts, and Chaka Khan, Dan Hartman, Loleatta Holloway, Gloria Gaynor, Al Hudson and the Jones Girls were all regulars on the club's stage. One weekend Michael Brody booked Patti Labelle to perform for the princely sum of $20,000. A snowstorm on the ‘straight’ Friday night kept all but 500 people at home. But on the Saturday, raging blizzard or not, there were 4,000 queens there for her, some crying as she sang, and the club scraped through to break even.
Disco was revolutionary. In its spirit it rescued the best elements from the swinging sixties and refined them for a new decade. As rock turned into a ‘progressive’ headtrip, disco reclaimed its peace and love agenda, together with its original emphasis on dancing, and made them its own. Indeed, while disco is usually seen as glittery and mindless, it actually had a tangible political agenda – an enduring obsession with equality and togetherness. The 1969 Stonewall rebellion had opened up American gay life forever, black people too were enjoying greater equality. In the first disco clubs, as gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor danced together, the word ‘love’ in a hundred songs took on a forceful reality.
The Paradise Garage was perhaps the grandest expression of this. In its intimacy, in the way it treated its guests like an extended family, it was a direct descendent of the earliest disco clubs. It was from two places in particular that Michael Brody took his inspiration.
Opening on Valentine’s Day 1970, David Mancuso’s Loft had been a clear bridge between the decades, a place that would redefine clubbing forever. Mancuso filled his home, a Broadway loft, with balloons, friends and beautiful music played on an audiophile quality sound system. At this time nightclubs were the preserve of the jet-set, scenes of aspiration and exclusivity. The Loft showed that a club could be in-clusive, an interracial, pansexual celebration of humanity. With guests who shared a love of music and dancing, brought together by invitation and word of mouth, it was a professional house party. It would stay open, in various locations for the next 25 years.
In 1971 the teenage Nicky Siano opened the Gallery, the first properly commercial club to follow Mancuso’s inclusive, dance-driven blueprint. He hired the city’s leading sound engineer Alex Rosner to repeat the magic he’d worked for Mancuso, and armed with a similarly shattering sound system, drove New York wild with his soaring mix of music.
And, as DJs, Siano and Mancuso were also Larry Levan’s main inspiration. (He had brief affairs with each) and he never hid his obvious debt to his forebears: ‘Nicky Siano, David Mancuso, Steve D’Acquisto and Michael Cappello, David Rodriguez,’ Levan told Steven Harvey. ‘This is the school of DJs I come from.’
Lawrence Philpot was born on 21 July 1954 in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, the son of a dressmaker named Minnie Levan. Her other children, a twin brother and sister were 18 when baby Lawrence arrived, so he enjoyed the attention usually granted to an only child. His parents never married and in later years he chose to take his mother’s name, becoming Larry Levan
Most of Levan’s teenage years were spent in the company of his lifelong friend Frankie Knuckles from the Bronx, also destined to become one of history’s most important DJs. The two met at a Harlem drag ball in 1969, while sewing beads onto a costume for a lavish queen known as The Duchess. They became so inseparable that people regularly confused their names. And as they danced across the city together, they were soon known in Manhattan’s clubs as energetic party catalysts. Their adventures started in a tiny gay bar called the Planetarium, but soon they were regulars at the Loft, where Levan was mesmerized by David Mancuso’s musical mastery. When Nicky Siano opened the Gallery, he recruited the two club bunnies to put up the decorations, set out the buffet and pop acid blotters into the mouths of arriving guests.
Siano also schooled the duo in DJing, as Frankie recalls: ‘He showed us how to work the equipment and taught us an appreciation of the music, how to put it together and what a song is supposed to do. Nicky was the first DJ at that particular time that came remotely close to making beats match, and what happened was that Larry pretty much perfected it after that.’
By 1971 they were making money as DJs. Knuckles landed a six-month stint at a midtown club called Better Days, and Levan’s job working the lights for DJ Joseph Bonfiglio, turned fortuitously into DJing. ‘I was doing the lights and the DJ walked out,’ he told Collusion magazine. ‘The manager, who was like a six-foot three-inch Cuban guy, said, “You’re going to play records tonight!” I told him that I didn’t have any records. “You've got five hours!” It was Memorial Day weekend. I went back to Brooklyn and borrowed records from my friend Ronnie Roberts, who had everything. I went back and worked three straight days.’
This was at the famous gay spa complex, the Continental Baths, and at first Knuckles refused to visit his friend in the Bacchanalian ‘Tubs’, as it was known, even though Levan was now living in an apartment there. When he finally set foot in it, he didn’t leave for three weeks. After Levan left, Knuckles became the Baths’ resident, playing there until its closure, when he, famously, moved to Chicago and forged house music.
Levan’s next great break came when he started dating Richard Long, a talented sound designer who had once worked on the door at the Planetarium. Together, the couple turned Long's showroom, at 452 Broadway, into a club that became known as The SoHo Place. Levan, still only nineteen, built this up to bursting point. From here he went to Reade St, starting his long partnership with Michael Brody, and when this was forced to close promised not to play elsewhere until bigger premises could be found. These would of course be the Garage.
‘The Paradise Garage was open for so long and it was so obviously and blatantly superior to anything else going on,’ insists François Kevorkian. ‘You had the best sound-system around, the most talented DJ you can imagine, with amazing records that no one else could get: things he’d made himself and things others had made exclusively for him.’
The Garage holds an almost supernatural place in the history of dance music, and it would be pointless to try and separate the myth of the club from the legend of its controlling genius. Larry Levan is regularly hailed as the world’s greatest ever DJ. Listen to this performance and you’ll get a hint of his power, a glimpse of the way he could turn mere records into a soaring, probing, energising narrative.
You may well be surprised to hear a few sketchy mixes, but surprise turns to excitement when you see the bigger picture –the connections he makes with the meanings and feelings of songs, the way he teases just the right moments from each record. The variety of styles and tempos. Levan’s greatness is proof that technical prowess is but a tiny part of DJing. Technically speaking, he was no match for the likes of Walter Gibbons or Nicky Siano or, indeed, most of the early disco-mixers. His mixing was slapdash, and he’d often prefer to slam something in awkwardly rather than seamlessly blend. What made him great was his sense of drama, his obsessive control of all aspects of his clubbers’ experience, and his heightened ability to transmit his personality through the very grooves of his records.
‘He yearned for more than technical perfection,’ writes Cheren. ‘ He wanted inspiration. Ecstasy. He wanted to spin the way he lived – in inspired anarchy.’
‘Larry himself was a wizard when it came to DJing,’ says Joe Claussell. ‘But I don’t think many DJs today understand his philosophy. Everyone is still with the pretty mixes, making sure that it’s all on-beat but they don’t have a clue what it takes to present their music to a crowd.’
For Claussell Levan’s greatness came from his almost psychic understanding of the people on his dancefloor: ‘It was his combination of different music and the fact that he knew how to read a crowd, he knew what record to play at what time; he knew the crowd intimately and what record would move what part of the dancefloor. It was magical to watch.’
Kenton Nix, who produced some of the classics most closely associated with the Garage (including Taana Gardner’s ‘Heartbeat’), agrees. ‘He would have a feel of people’s records, he would read peoples’ minds. He was the puppet master and he controlled your emotions.’
Justin Berkmann, a Garage regular and later the DJ who envisaged the Ministry of Sound (originally based firmly on the Garage) remembers watching Levan standing in his booth, conducting the crowd as if he was controlling their very movements.
‘He’d go into the booth and say, ‘Those people over there aren’t dancing, watch this,’ recounts Berkmann. ‘Then he’d put on a record, and they would just go off. That’s how well he knew his dancefloor. After ten years, he knew everyone in the club and he knew what got each group going. That’s something very few people get. Most of the big DJs now are flying all over the world, and most of the time they go into a club and they haven’t got a clue what people want.’
François believes Levan was the first DJ to show that such a profound understanding between DJ and dancers was even possible. ‘To have a relationship with the crowd. It’s not larging it; it’s a lot more spiritual than that, and it’s something that’s life-long. Not just something that lasts for a couple of hours while you’re on drugs. That’s what the spirit of The Garage was about. Something that was so powerful, it actually changed your life, and let me tell you, it sure changed a lot of our lives.’
Larry’s idea of control went far beyond the music. Thanks to his different club jobs – from decorating the room and spiking the punch at the Gallery to doing the lights at the Continental Baths – he strived to make a visit to his nightclub a total experience. At Reade Street, where the dancefloor was in a refrigerated meat warehouse, he even used the temperature as a way of manipulating mood, letting the airless room heat up to extraordinary levels and then cranking up the cooling equipment. Frankie Knuckles recalls stepping in as the temperature dropped suddenly below zero. ‘I would go into the booth and yell at him, ‘Somebody’s gonna catch pneumonia, you can’t do that.’ And he’d just say ‘Miss Thing, you’re getting on my nerves!’ and throw me out of the booth.’
He also loved to work the lights. Although the Garage had a very talented light man in Robert DaSilva – who had also worked the lights at the Gallery and Studio 54 – Levan had a second set of controls fitted on a rail along the top of the booth. When the mood took him – when he was ready to take people for a ride – he would draw the console towards him and decant the booth of its occupants. It was like clearing the flight deck for take-off.
‘They used to do these blackouts and they would switch all of the lights out,’ recalls Johnny Dynell. ‘Exit lights and everything. Totally illegal, you can’t turn exit lights out! You couldn’t see a hand in front of your face.’ He would build the intensity to a peak and then let fly with an acappella or sound effect – one time Dynell recalls him playing the Wizard of Oz – before the system would crank up and – BAM! – he’d hit the crowd with another favorite. ‘Oh, man, it was fabulous. He would just take control,’ sighs Dynell.
Play me a story
One facet of Levan’s performance which is all but lost today, is the use of lyrics. Disco was largely centred on real songs, and the words they contained were far from mere vocal decoration. The era’s messages of inclusivity, love and togetherness may sound banal after decades of repetition, but back then they were vitally important to people. Following his mentors, Mancuso and Siano, Larry rejoiced in telling stories with his music.
‘Larry was able to use songs – songs with lyrics – and he used those lyrics to talk to people,’ says François. ‘It was very common for people on the dancefloor to feel like he was talking to him directly through the record. ‘He built sets that were built on stories that went into each other.’
Mel Cheren had first-hand experience of this kind of communication. ‘Larry and I had our ups-and-downs. He did a lot of mixes for my West End record label, and we’d have a disagreement and sometimes we wouldn’t be talking. And if he was upset with you, you knew about it. If he was angry with me, he played songs that said, ‘Fuck you, excuse me’ – he actually had a record that said that.’ Other times, as Cheren recalls, Larry would use music to ask forgiveness after a fight. ‘One night we hadn’t been talking for a while, and I was dancing, and he was playing ‘Gotta Get You Back Into My Life’ and songs like ‘I Love You’. All of a sudden I turned around and there he was. He’d left the DJ booth and gave me a big hug.’
Levan explained his technique in Collusion magazine: ‘Out of all the records you have, maybe five or six of them make sense together. There is actually a message in the dance, the way you feel, the muscles you use, but only certain records have that.’ He went on to give an example. ‘Say I was playing songs about music – ‘I Love Music’ by The O’Jays, ‘Music’ by AI Hudson and the next record is Phreek’s ‘Weekend’, that’s about getting laid, a whole other thing. If I was dancing and truly into the words and the feeling and it came on, it might be a good record, but it makes no sense because it doesn’t have anything to do with the others. So a slight pause, a sound effect, something else to let you know it’s a new paragraph rather than one continuous sentence.’
Master of sound
If Levan was a virtuoso, his instrument wasn’t just the turntables, it was the whole system, the whole room. Elements of the Garage’s sound system are copied to this day in clubs around the world. To most who heard it, it has never been bettered. Designed by Richard Long, it managed to recreate the intimate crystal clarity of Mancuso’s Loft on an unimaginably vast scale. Levan rejoiced at having this phenomenal instrument at his disposal and used it to the full. He became a master of the crossover controls, using these to cut out certain frequencies, to boost particular instruments, even to isolate particular words in a song.
He would spend hour-after-hour lovingly honing, manipulating and adjusting the sound system. Often, Richard Long would optimise the room’s EQ levels, only to come back and find Levan holding a screwdriver changing the whole thing around. Several times, with the club about to open, he’d insist on rewiring or repositioning speakers, making his disciples wait outside while he made perfect some tiny – but to him, essential – aspect of the peerless system. Klippschorn speakers, a quartet of JBL bullet tweeter arrays, a Bozak mixer: these were items of recently-perfected equipment that came together wonderfully in the Garage. And Levan would experiment ceaselessly, doing things like progressively upgrading the cartridges throughout the night from the most basic up to $150 Grace models.
‘Larry managed to fine-tune the sound over the club’s 10 or 11 years until it was so incredibly superior to anything else you ever heard,’ says Francois. ‘There has never been anything remotely close to it ever since. The Ministry system is a copy of what the Garage was 10, 15 years ago, but The Garage was never a static thing. Larry’d spend all these hours after the club was closed moving speakers around, changing amplifier levels and trying out different cartridges and other different things. It’s not just about building it, it’s about maintaining it, improving it, tweaking it and taking care of it. No one does that now.’
‘He didn’t want the biggest sound-system and the best booth to fuel his ego,’ clarifies David DePino. ‘He just wanted what he thought would be incredible for the people. Speakers got moved around every week. Lights got changed every single week to give a different atmosphere. And if it didn’t happen, he’d go crazy and fire people. He never wanted it to become stale, he never wanted it to become regular. He always said, ‘The people won’t come. They’ve gotta know that it’ll be different.’ And they did. People never came into a stale place.’
On occasion, Levan’s attention to detail would even mean a pause in the music. ‘I’ve seen nights where everyone was rushing around to get things open and they’d forget something like cleaning the mirror-balls,’ recalls DePino. ‘It’d be 1am and Larry would run onto the dancefloor with a ladder to clean all six mirror-balls. The record would run out and everyone would be standing there waiting. Not booing, nothing mad… just waiting. And when he finished, he’d go up and put the next record on and people would go mad again. They loved that. The fact that even though he was the DJ, he’d spend half an hour cleaning all the mirror-balls. That would never happen today, DJs are such divas!’
As well as his fierce controlling instinct, Levan had a dark self-destructive streak. In his personal life this manifested itself in tireless drug abuse. In the club it provided an aura of intense drama. Each week was a lesson in improvisation, an unscripted performance on the emotional level of high opera. What would be served up on a particular night depended on any number of variants, with only one thing certain: Levan 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. He was an audacious programmer. His high-octane, seat-of-the-pants DJ style was the aural equivalent of a highwire walk across Niagara Falls.
Rarely has a DJ’s mood been broadcast quite so powerfully to a dancefloor. By the records he played and the order he played them in, you could tell whether he was feeling good or bad, whether he’d just had an argument, whether he was tired or whether he was ready to party.
David Morales, who was lucky enough to play at the Garage as a young DJ, says Levan’s mood swings were dramatic. ‘He could be shit for seven hours and he could take 15 minutes and kick the shit out of you, and that made your night! That’s what it was about. There was nobody that was able to do that.’
He could drive dancers wild with desire or work them into a fury of frustration, often at the same time. Sometimes he would simply disappear from the booth. Occasionally, he would play an hour of dub reggae, or the same record three times in succession. Once (while sitting on a rocking horse), he had the whole club dancing to nothing more than a few of his live keyboard doodles, unaware that the record he was accompanying had finished minutes ago. Occasionally he would collapse in a stupor; somehow always managing to keep the party – if not himself – going. One time François remembers him putting on a movie instead of music. ‘What are you gonna do? There’s two and a half thousand people there and you suddenly play Altered States. That’s the kind of freedom that I think people need to know exists.’
‘He had attitude,’ remembers Cevin Fisher, another DJ/producer whose formative years were spent on the floor at King Street. ‘He would leave the DJ booth and the record would end and just spin around. Who knows what he was off doing… Actually, we all know what he was doing! And he would come back into the DJ booth totally trashed, lift the needle off the record and start it again. People got off on that.’
DJ Harvey, who played with Levan on his 1990 visit to London, recalls how perfectly he could tease an audience. ‘He’d be playing one of his favourite records and just when it was getting to the best bit, he’d turn the system off, put the record back to the beginning and let it play again. He could do that three or four times and then not let the record play in full until an hour later. So people have been waiting for their favourite bit of that record for quite some time and they go barmy to it.’
‘There was no norm for Larry at The Garage,’ says David DePino. ‘It was his home and he didn’t follow no book. He didn’t care what happened. The freedom and the nonchalance he had up there was what made 2,000 people come together as one.’
‘Everyone has certain talents, natural abilities,’ adds Mel Cheren. ‘Some people are born with the talent to paint; some people are born with the talent to write. Larry had the talent for music and he could take 2,000 people and make them feel like they were at a house party.’
‘Garage’ is one of the most mangled terms in dance music. The term derives from the Paradise Garage itself, but it has meant so many different things to so many different people that unless you’re talking about a specific time and place, it is virtually meaningless. Part of the reason for this confusion (aside from various journalistic misunderstandings and industry misappropriations) is that the range of music played at the Garage was so broad. The music we now call ‘garage’ has evolved from only a small part of the club’s wildly eclectic soundtrack.
The Garage opened just as disco was enjoying its greatest mainstream success, and the music played there initially would be broadly categorised as disco by modern ears. Yet as Eurodisco took hold and the sound grew ever more formulaic, Levan took his sonic palette in the other direction. ‘It’s boring when it’s the same thing all the time,’ he would say, arguing that dance music should have as much contrast and diversity as possible. So he married solid gold disco classics, burnished at the Gallery and the Loft, with disparate elements that took in rock, pop and weird electronic oddities, as well as soul, rap, funk and post-disco releases. The Garage was Yazoo’s ‘Situation’ as well as Loleatta Holloway’s ‘Love Sensation’. The Garage was Steve Miller Band’s ‘Macho City’ as well as Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Seventh Heaven’, Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ as well as Diana Ross’s ‘Love Hangover’ and Chaka Khan’s ‘Clouds’. The Garage was Grandmaster Flash and Eddy Grant. The Garage was MFSB, Marianne Faithfull, Talking Heads and the Clash. In short, he played anything good, accepting no boundaries of style, tempo or ‘coolness’.
Levan could even take records that every other DJ in the city had long been playing and make them recognisably his, ‘Love Is The Message’ being the most famous. The fact that it all converged so seamlessly and effectively is testament to his personality. ‘Garage music was kind of breaking the rules,’ says DJ Danny Krivit. ‘It was what he felt like playing. It was really about having no boundaries.’
Levan took this to extremes and was a determined manipulator of his clubbers’ tastes, pushing unusual, sometimes bizarre records on them and making them work through his immense force of will. One such record was Yoko Ono’s sonic sonnet, ‘Walking On Thin Ice’. A rock mantra in which Yoko’s dissonant eastern wail weaves around a wall of heavy percussion, it was the song John Lennon had been working on the night he was murdered. Levan loved it. Another example was Pat Benatar’s ‘Love Is A Battlefield’, one of several extremely unlikely Garage anthems. ‘Someone said he could never play that there,’ chuckles Danny Krivit, a key New York DJ. ‘That was reason enough for him to play it – and make it happen, too.’
And he would just as easily champion a commercial record as the most obscure underground cut. Dave Piccioni remembers him playing ‘Fascinated’ by Company B, a real electro-pop commercial record. ‘It was tacky in the extreme. But, fuck me, he played that for 20 or 25 minutes and you could not help but get into it. He thought, ‘I like this record and it’s gonna sound great in the club, and I don’t really care if you like it or not.’ And he got away with it because he had talent and creativity.’
‘People would be gagging,’ adds DePino bluntly, ‘but eventually they accepted it. He was the bravest DJ I ever knew.’
There is no doubting Levan’s magnificence as a DJ. His famous inconsistency was the payoff for his bravery in exploring the power and the freedom he had in his booth. In truth, however, his legend grew from several sources besides his actual performances. Remember, he had the city’s most intensely dance-oriented nightclub at his command, a fact which greatly magnified his genius. Even more importantly however, he was a shining example of the new possibilities of his profession. This was a time when DJs were first emerging from their booths and entering the recording studio as producers and remixers. They started having the power not just to tailor their music live for their dancefloor, but to record original material and have it released commercially. With the support of a growing network of independent dance labels and with the inevitable attention of key radio DJs, they could even use their clubs to push records (including their own) into the mainstream charts. Few DJs expressed this new power as well as Levan. More than anyone else at the time, he showed where the DJ profession was heading.
He was a powerful tastemaker. Knowing they’d hear the best and latest tunes at the Garage, the city’s other key DJs would attend religiously ‘Two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon after the night before, he’d have a thousand people sitting on the floor,’ recalls DePino. ‘He’d be playing these obscure wild records and they’d be snapping their fingers and moving their heads around. Then he’d run down and dance, then run back up to change the record.’
‘After several years of being open, the word got around that this was the place where you had to break your record,’ adds François. ‘So everybody would bring Larry their tapes months and months ahead of time. He had access to the very, very best music months in advance.’
His friendship with radio DJ Frankie Crocker (the airwave equivalent of Barry White, known variously as ‘Lover Man’, ‘Fast Frankie’, ‘Chief Rocker’ and ‘Hollywood’) gave him even greater influence, to a level unprecedented for a club DJ. A record could go from the floor of the Garage one night and find itself on the platter at WBLS the next. After that the rest of America would join the party. It became an informal industry test centre. Veteran producer Arthur Baker recalls bringing ‘Walking On Sunshine’ by Rocker’s Revenge to the Garage for Levan to play. The following day, Crocker gave it its first airing on the radio. With such influence, Levan naturally shot to the top of the list of DJs when it came to receiving new product. One record promoter pointed out, ‘He’s someone to whom top record industry people hand-deliver new albums. When a record goes here, we know we’ve got a hit.’
But Levan rarely dwelt on his growing commercial power. Instead, he concentrated on increasing the pleasure of his clubbers and extending the range and possibilities of his music. The result was a striking combination of artistic freedom and commercial influence. By the early eighties, just 10 or 15 years after modern DJing was born, Levan was everything a DJ could be. No wonder he remains the central inspiration for almost every New York DJ above the age of 30. David Morales, Danny Tenaglia, Cevin Fisher, Junior Vasquez, Danny Krivit, Kenny Carpenter, François Kevorkian, Joe Clausell and many, many more. They all readily acknowledge their debt to Larry Levan. So many clubs too, have been based on the Garage. The Shelter, now Vinyl, home of the well-known Body And Soul nights, was founded more or less wholly on preserving its memory. The mighty Sound Factory too was a conscious copy of the Garage and at its early best came close to the same feelings of community.
And besides all this, Garage lore has been made more enduring by the fact that Levan died at the tragically young age of 38, after suffering heart failure (Levan had a life-long heart condition, though his legend-affirming drug habit can’t have helped). Music mythology loves nothing more than a good-looking corpse, which lends Danny Tenaglia’s description of Levan as the Jimi Hendrix of dance music yet more aching resonance.
Another crucial reason that Levan enjoys such a prominent place in the history of dance music is that his club presided over its most creatively fertile period: the death of disco and its rebirth in a hundred forms. As the eighties dawned and the mainstream was twisting disco into a camp cartoon, the Garage was paving the way for its many offspring to take their first steps. House and techno would soon emerge from the experiments of several innovative young DJs (Levan and his great friend Frankie Knuckles included). And the silicon revolution would make bedroom producers out of a generation of clubbers. Already in New York there were hectic collisions of underground energy and music. Hip hop and electro were blossoming onto record, funky new wave was rising from punk’s corpse, and after Bob Marley’s passing in 1981, reggae was about as popular as it would ever get in Gotham City. As disco boomed and busted, DJs were forced to search that little bit harder, that little bit longer to find the right records to feed their dancefloors. Levan was already the master of this magpie approach. Naturally the Garage became a key link between disco and the musical forms which evolved from it.
Levan’s role in this was to transfer his eclecticism to the studio ‘If you could see my collection, you’d know I like all music – you’d think it belonged to four different DJs,’ he explained. ‘And because of this, I found myself taking things from here, from there – reggae, pop, disco, jazz, blues – and using lots of things as a base to take things from.’
His first studio sortie, in 1978 was, bizarrely enough, to remix a novelty disco record by Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster called ‘C Is For Cookie’. The following year he remixed Taana Gardner’s debut single ‘Work That Body’, but his real breakthrough was the international hit ‘I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)’ by Instant Funk. The record went Gold and suddenly Levan’s studio career snowballed. His most prolific period was in the early-to-mid eighties when he created a series of classic productions many on Salsoul and West End. These included his dense, hypnotic remix of Gardner’s sensual disco workout ‘Heartbeat’, Jocelyn Brown’s anthemic remake of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, Edna Holt’s funky ‘Serious Sirius Space Party’ and a string of productions and mixes for Gwen Guthrie including ‘Ain’t Nothing Goin’ On But The Rent’.
His late seventies remixes – such as Cognac’s ‘How High’ and Dee Dee Bridgewater’s ‘Bad For Me’ – sound much like the regular disco mixes of his peers. But by the turn of the eighties, he was experimenting with drum machines and synthesizers and, like François Kevorkian around the same time, forging a new electronic, post-disco sound. This was epitomized by his group Peech Boys – Levan, keyboard player Michael de Benedictus (who had worked on ‘Heartbeat’), and vocalist Bernard Fowler – and their digital-funk excursion ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. It took Levan a year to complete the final single mix; he constantly tested the latest version in the club, before going back into the studio to make adjustments. When finally released it was a significant breakthrough; one that gave him worldwide acclaim in the dance community (it was even a minor pop hit in the UK).
‘Everyone was influenced by the Peech Boys record,’ says Arthur Baker. ‘When those handclaps started whipping around the place… oh, man.’ Fired by this new sound, Baker produced ‘Walking On Sunshine’ by Rocker’s Revenge. ‘ ‘Walking On Sunshine’ was specifically made for the Paradise Garage,’ he says emphatically.
With reggae making its presence felt, Levan had started absorbing dub as an influence. His interest in its warping basslines and luxuriant wide-open spaces came, no doubt, from the people he encountered while doing remixes for Island Records. Jamaican producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and in particular the engineer Steven Stanley, were to exercise an important influence on his tastes. He started airing many of the tracks coming out of Nassau’s Compass Point studios – records like Will Powers’ ‘Adventures In Success’, Ian Dury’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, and a succession of Grace Jones singles.
Levan would use echo and reverb to dramatize records in much the same way that Jamaican sound system DJs had done. The flitting handclaps on ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ were an approximation of a reverb trick he would often do live. And on the Garage’s superb system, certain dub-inflected records sounded simply awesome.
Where do we go from here?
But the Garage couldn’t live forever. In 1987, with Michael Brody tiring from AIDS and with some ugly conflicts within the club (not least the fact that its manager was blackmailing Brody over cash skimming and undeclared profits), when the lease expired he made no effort to relocate the Garage. The club finally closed on 26 September 1987. The last days were a truly bittersweet affair.
Judy Weinstein, one of Levan’s closest friends, now manager to Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, recalls the loss people felt: ‘It was a very sad moment when the club closed. It was devastating to both Larry and the 5-10,000 people that were members. But in retrospect it closed probably at the right time for where music was going at that point.’
‘It wasn’t until the last few weekends of The Garage that Larry really realised that it was definitely closing,’ remembers Mel Cheren. ‘Somehow he thought that Michael was going to come back and say that he’d found another space and everything was OK, but he didn’t. The last few weekends he finally realised this and began playing like it was a funeral march.’ However, Levan eventually saw it was wrong to bow out in a petulant sulk. And from then on the music was incredible.
The Paradise Garage ended its ten-year house party with an amazing closing event that ran for more than two days. An estimated 14,000 people came through the doors, it was rammed to bursting throughout, and Levan played music as if his very breath depended on it. People came from all over the world to be there. Artist Keith Haring, whose graffiiti paintings decorated the club, flew in from Tokyo to attend. Regular Garage performer Gwen Guthrie, whose biggest hits were also produced by Levan, was carried on-stage garnished in diamonds and furs. ‘You know why I’m wearing these?’ she asked the ecstatic crowd, ‘Because you bought them for me.’
After the marathon session, the exhausted crowd gathered at the front of Levan’s DJ booth on a dancefloor littered with ‘Save The Garage’ stickers, and pleaded with him not to go. But the sands of time had finally run out.
‘There can never be another Garage,’ reflects Judy Weinstein. ‘It was what it was. There was a time for it and that’s what it was. ‘There are all these clubs that fancy themselves to be the next Garage,but when I go to The Ministry, or places of that magnitude, with their huge sound-systems and their claims to be the best club in the world, I realise that nothing could ever come close to the warmth and the feeling you got from The Paradise Garage. It wasn’t just the sound, it was the whole thing, and there will never be anything like it again.’
King without a crown
The closure of the Garage, though long anticipated, had a deadening effect on New York clubland. ‘It was like somebody had died in my family,’ says Charlie Grappone, whose Vinylmania record store was almost an annex to the club, built on selling, as so many customers requested, ‘the tunes Larry played last night’. Then, on 28 December, only two months after the club closed, Michael Brody died. In the last five years, AIDS had been claiming more and more of the club’s family and now it had taken its creator.
For Levan himself, it was all simply devastating. He knew that without the Garage he would never achieve that same level of communion with a crowd. ‘He was now,’ says Mel Cheren, ‘A king without a kingdom’. Even before it closed, he had entered into a steep decline in which his DJing was running a distant second to his drug use, which now included heroin. Friends began to view the DJs actions as a kind of slow, deliberate suicide. In the final year, he was relying increasingly on the club’s alternate DJs, David DePino, Joey Llanos and Victor Rosado.
‘When Larry knew The Garage was going to close, he freaked,’ exclaims DePino. ‘He went on a self-destructive binge. He took drugs to spite people, to hurt them. The more you would say, “Larry, please don’t do so many drugs”, the more he would do them, right in your face.’
People recall him selling his records – unthinkable for a DJ who loved music so much – in order to finance his escalating habit. After the closure of the Garage, whenever Levan was booked to DJ, his friends had to trawl the rummage sales to buy back his collection, just so he could fulfil the date. Danny Krivit remembers finding Levan’s unique acetate remix of Syreeta’s ‘Can’t Shake Your Love’ on a record stall and realizing that most of the other records there were his also.
Frankie Knuckles recalls a night in 1992, when Levan paid a visit to his Friday residency at the Sound Factory Bar. David Morales was there too, and they stood together in the booth, playing records and having a ball. Larry was moved to confide something in Frankie: ‘He said, ‘I’m really proud of you and what you’ve done with your life. I hope you use what I’ve done with my life as an example of what not to do.’
Shortly before his death, Levan went on a successful two-month tour of Japan with Mel Cheren and fellow DJ François Kevorkian. He was treated like a star, a living legend. ‘Larry went into a set of Philadelphia classics which was just so poignant,’ recalls François. ‘It was so emotional because the message of all the songs said he was really hurting. We all felt it at the time, but I think he pretty much knew he was dying and all the songs he played were so deeply related to how fast life goes. He played Jean Carne’s ‘Time Waits For No One’ and The Trammps’ ‘Where Do We Go From Here’, and I realised that this was one of the best moments of greatness that I had ever witnessed in my life. It was so obvious, so grand, such a drama to it that you just knew.’
Larry Levan died two months later on 8 November 1992 too weak to survive an operation on an injured hip. He died of endocarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, which was exacerbated by his excessive drug use. He was 38. Nearly 800 people attended his memorial service, friends, colleagues and Garage kids alike. He was, as DePino puts it ‘the last DJ who could touch people in that way’.
Jimi Hendrix of the turntables
Now that the world is so full of DJs we need a few more Larry Levans. We need people to remind us that playing records is fun; that up in the booth you have a joyous freedom which you should revel in. DJs who make no mistakes are just not taking enough risks. There’s no safe road to paradise.
‘Larry was awful, he was too loud, he’d leave big gaps and let records jump, he’d play ballads in the middle of the night,’ laughs DJ Bruce Forest, one of his contemporaries. ‘But that was only five per cent of it. On the other hand, he had an atmosphere nobody will achieve ever again. He made it seem like he was playing records to you in his living room. His rapport with the crowd was immense. If you went to the club one week and a light bulb was red and the next week when you returned it was blue, people would say, ‘Larry changed the bulb this week.’
David Morales remembers his wilfulness: ‘Sometime the audience would get uptight with Larry – but it was his home and he did what he wanted to. If he wanted to go off on a Samba kick for an hour, that’s what he did. But make no mistake he was my hero and a genius. It’s only now that I fully realise just how much of a genius he was. Now that I’m older and a little wiser I can understand what’s required to entertain an audience. It’s more than just a tune. It was how he handled the system, how he talked and related to people. How he was able to work them up into a frenzy with them standing in the same spot.’
‘He was like the Miles Davis of the trumpet, the Jimi Hendrix of the guitar, the John Coltrane of the sax,’ reflects Joe Claussell. ‘He was the man of the turntables.’
Johnny Dynell says Levan showed him what DJing was really all about: ‘When you’re creating that magic on the floor. When they’ve thrown their hands up in the air, and they’re totally lost and abandoned into this other world. And you’ve taken them to that other world. That’s what DJing is. Before that I was just playing records, which is not DJing at all.’
‘There’ll never be another Larry Levan, just like they’ll never be another Paradise Garage,’ concludes David Morales. ‘There are a lot of other great DJs and awesome great clubs, but there’s never been a DJ that commanded an audience as strongly as Larry Levan.’
In recalling Levan, most people are also thinking back to their nights in his club, for many the best times they can remember. But equally, for those who were close to him, memories of the Garage are inseparable from memories of Levan himself. ‘He was very special,’ says Mel Cheren. ‘He was a genius. I miss him a great deal. So many people do. But you have to go on and keep things going.’
‘Larry was adventurous, he was daring, he was a risk-taker,’ reflects Frankie Knuckles. ‘He was a dark character, but a lot of young kids gravitate towards dark sounds, feelings, moods. He was very, very funny. He was always the odd man out, but he had something about him that automatically drew people to him. People were just drawn to Larry like a magnet.’
Another close friend, David DePino sums up what Larry brought to the world. ‘He was able to get 2,000 people to feel the same emotion and peak at the same time. He could make them feel like one. They loved him for his insanity and his genius. I miss him. I miss him very much. It was just like going over the rainbow every Saturday night.’
© Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster, 2000
Originally published as sleevenotes to Larry Levan Live at the Paradise Garage; sections also appear in the book ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’.)
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