As a connoisseur and supporter of nightlife as an important domain for activism and art in the face of judgments of its superficiality and frivolity, I naturally jumped at the chance to dive into Tim Lawrence’s recently published study of New York nightlife Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983. At 600 pages, was it a little daunting? Sure. Did it take me over a month to read? Yes. But nobody said nightlife was anything less than excessive. I guess its histories should be too.
Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London, Tim Lawrence’s book follows as a sequel to his prior disco-focused Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, which I’m just getting around to reading now. Following those mirrorball illuminated years, Lawrence proves that disco was not, in fact, dead after those hypermasculine douchebags (current Trump voters I’m sure) burned all their disco albums in 1979. Disco kept spinning in the New York clubs long after the Midwest flung themselves into an eventual, tired and predictable disco backlash.
Not only disco, but Lawrence asserts that New York nightlife reached its pinnacle in the 1980s due to a combination of economic factors and permissibility during the dire days of Downtown’s near bankruptcy. The enormous tome shockingly only traces a meager three years in New York’s nightlife history. Lawrence points to these years as the near utopian height of New York’s creative and artistic culture before the combination of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, gentrification and greedy real estate moguls and drugs shuttered its establishments.
Overall, Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor is an essential yet flawed reading for fellow nightlife obsessives. It leans too heavily on nightlife’s spectacular highs and nearly avoids its eventual decimation. I don’t blame Lawrence, I’d much rather be dancing than giving an elegy too.
Could It Be Magic
Where Life and Death thrives is the oral histories and nostalgic reminiscing that cements early 1980s New York dance floors as spaces of transformation and transcendence. Take the passage on the opening night of the Saint, the iconic gay megaclub with a planetarium ceiling that opened its decadent doors in September 1980. DJ Alan Dodd opened the night with a heartbeat (can you get more dramatic?). Then, Lawrence writes:
“The party peaked when Dodd introduced the first strains of Donna Summer’s ‘Could It Be Magic,’ cuing Ackerman to cut from bright lights to an artificial dawn. ‘All of a sudden, we were out in the stars,’ recalls bookstore worker and until that night 12 West regular Michael Fierman, ‘For miles around, there were nothing but stars. Everyone gasped. For the twenty seconds of the piano chords, before the drum kicked in, everyone was frozen in awe.’ Ackerman adjusted the star machine in sync with the introduction of the drum. ‘As the song took off, the galaxies began to rotate,’ Holleran recounted. ‘There was nothing to do but scream, throw up your hands and keep screaming…’ (117).
Are you screaming too? I know I am. It’s like a party in Rome before the fall. Lawrence continues, “When asked ‘Will you go back?’ another dancer replied, ‘I’ll go back every Saturday night until I die'”(117). Not only a commentary on The Saint’s utopian nightlife, it’s also a chilling premonition to the onslaught of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which would wipe out a large swath of The Saint’s clientele, staff and its founder Bruce Mailman.
Of course, none of these nightclubs were without fault. Lawrence does a good job of portraying honestly the segregated nature of some of the clubs. The Saint, in particular, almost exclusively catered to white gay men (and their musical tastes as depicted in Lawrence inclusions of numerous playlists from the clubs). Even still, it’s hard not to get swept up in the Donna Summer fantasy.
Similarly, Steve Mass’ art kid hangout the Mudd Club, popular with Downtown no wavers, new wavers, performers and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, also wasn’t known for its acceptance. But, who wouldn’t obsess about their hilarious and subversive theme parties? “Then there was the Rock n’Roll Funeral Ball Extravaganza,” Lawrence describes, “which staged a mock funeral procession of dead rock stars Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley and Sid Vicious who were laid to rest in coffins in tableau-style recreations of their death scenes, from the syringe that pierced Joplin’s arm to the plate of ham sandwiches on which Cass reportedly choked to death” (18).
Can I steal this idea?
These freewheeling moments are more than just fun and fantastical images to live vicariously through. They work to showcase how nightlife became a essential space for club goers. As Archie Burnett, one of The Loft frequenters recalled, “A lot of the guys who came to the parties had rough lives on the outside…The Loft was a sanctuary” (64). And many of the other clubs acted as a similar sanctuary, community and significant space of momentary escape for their patrons.
I Remember Yesterday
But this doesn’t mean the book doesn’t falter in parts. For example, Lawrence spends way too much time on wonky record company business. The book has “dance floor” in the title, let’s keep it that way.
Then, there’s also some petty factual errors. As a rabid Nick Cave fan, I clutched my pearls when Anita Sarko remembered Blixa Bargeld as the fourth member of the “super group” of Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch and Marc Almond that played Danceteria. No, the Immaculate Consumptive included Clint Ruin (otherwise known as J.G. Thirlwell). I know, it’s in a quote, but still, cover your ass against nitpicky Nick Cave fanatics like me. Lawrence also misspells artist and critic Nicolas Moufarrege’s name (as Nicolas Mouffaregge). As someone who repeatedly gets their named misspelled, I take umbrage, especially when it’s referencing someone’s death.
Some flaws are bigger though. Unfortunately because of his strict three year time frame, Lawrence buries much of this nightlife scene’s disappearance into the conclusion, which is a shame since the closure of many of these clubs due to fear of HIV transmission and the deaths of nightlife greats such as the Saint and St. Mark’s Baths’ Bruce Mailman, Paradise Garage’s DJ legend Larry Levan and performers such as Klaus Nomi, John Sex and Ethyl Eichelberger are essential parts of the story. They deserve more than a postscript. A short chapter on “Sex and Dying” and the conclusion are not enough to capture how rapidly party promoters and artists became caretakers and activists.
Lawrence succeeds when he highlights the connection between nightlife and activism. This activism ranged from benefits for an “ailing Klaus Nomi” to just the necessary escapism provided by clubs during the epidemic. He explains, “Many remained committed to the dance floor as a space of expression and community. With participants often compelled to conceal their sexuality in everyday life, venues such as Better Days, the Paradise Garage and the Saint celebrated gay identity as something positive, even during negative times” (436).
Similarly, AIDS activist Brent Nicholson Earle emphasized the role of nightlife in emboldening his voice. He says in Life and Death: “Being at the Saint, being part of my tribe, being part of this glorious community, went hand-in-hand with my becoming an AIDS activist…I would never have dreamt I could become a hero if I hadn’t had that image of transcendent glory, that iconized version of myself, bestowed to me under the dome of the Saint.”
And yet, even with these problems, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor remains an important contribution to the growing interest and understanding of nightlife as a significant cultural realm worthy of study. And there aren’t a lot. When researching for Party Out Of Bounds, Osman Yerebakan and I realized there weren’t many texts at our disposal. We could literally count them on one hand.
A flawed study is better than nothing since nightlife deserves to be taken seriously even if it shakes up those in stricter, staid and stuffy academic disciplines. As Ann Magnuson said in response to the difference between the Mudd Club and Club 57, “We tended to take nothing seriously and that can be an affront to people who are taking things way too seriously.”
And what of the future of nightlife? Could the conditions that caused the height of 1980s nightlife return?
Who knows, but Trump entering the White House might necessitate a new version of the anything-goes nightlife of that era. Why not? What do we have to lose? There’s no question we need escape now more than ever. “Feeding the appetite for change, the downtown era and its scarcely believable level of activity attest that, given the right conditions, a different kind of city can exist,” concluded Lawrence (483). And just maybe, it’ll happen again.