In San Francisco in the 1990’s, the club scene fell into one of two camps: the heavily promoted, large scale parties at Club Townsend and the Sound Factory or the smaller word-of-mouth underground parties like Informal Nation, the Beer Cellar and Sophies, (Raves rested somewhere between the two). My world revolved around the underground. You wouldn’t hear about a party on the radio, you had to call a special phone number on Thursdays to hear a recording of what was happening on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. San Francisco was a very different place in the early 1990s. The dot com boom had not taken hold of the city yet. South of Market was a warehouse graveyard that provided perfect venues for cheap parties. These were the days when the survival of your car in the pre-gentrified Mission was 50/50 crap shoot, but you went anyway because the good music was at the Elbow Room. Slowly over time, as software engineers began to exercise their stock options, with their companies going IPO and being flush with new money they came to San Francisco to party with the musicians, artists, DJs, students and yuppies looking for acid jazz, hip hop and house music venues. For a brief period of time it was this diverse mix of people coming together for the love of music that made San Francisco unique, but it quickly transformed as the clubs and the city became more exclusive and cost prohibitive.
Many years later when reflecting the differences between the “Radio DJ” club and underground club scenes, I realized there were similarities between early 1990s San Francisco and 1970s New York. San Francisco was in many respects a gritty place in the early 1990s, not remotely on par with the recession laden, arson and crime riddled New York of the early 1970’s but there was enough of a disparity in wealth and class that somehow forced outsiders together within the confines of the clubs. It was while doing research on New York that I noticed the discussion around clubs and nightlife revolved around Studio 54, the Mudd Club, the Loft and Paradise Garage. I gravitated to the stories about Paradise Garage and the Loft, because they were more inclusive, and also as a lover of house music, I listened to Larry Levan. These were places that tapped into the early roots of disco, during the days when the scene was about the music, not the look or the money in your wallet. They were liberating and affirming spaces that provided space for expression regardless if you were Black, White, Asian, Gay, straight, rich or poor. The energy in these clubs was erratic, eclectic, exciting and dramatic and the DJ wielded an unusual amount of power over the crowd, controlling the mood and tempo of the night. When researching the clubs that fueled the sociocultural dynamics of New York in the 1970s, one name was repeated in every book, article and essay ever written about music in New York at the time.
David Mancuso was the founder of the Loft, one of New York’s underground parties that ushered in a wave of venues dedicated to disco, house, Latin and early hip hop. Mancuso’s first party, held on Valentines’ Day in 1970 was called “Love Saves the Day”. Caught between the free love movement of the 1960’s and the greed is good zeitgeist of the 1980’s, Love Saves the Day was part rent party, part love-in, part listening party and part guided acid trip. Mancuso was heavily influenced by Timothy Leary and it was his influence that molded Mancuso into being an architect of experience, taking the idealism and soul of the music of the 60’s and propelling them into the 1970’s in innovative ways, with the cornerstone of this experience being the high-end integrated sound systems designed to engulf listeners in a full sonic experience. The sound system, the DJ and the eclecticism of club goers transformed a night at the old “Discotheque” into a “cultural experience” for guests.
Mancuso sat at the center of this phenomenon. The Loft was an organic experience that was all about hosting a fun party and his goal wasn’t to become rich off of the effort. There was limited advertising and parties relied predominantly on word of mouth via a special invite system; they were also largely crowdfunded without exorbitant cover charges. The Loft ultimately inspired countless pioneers in the worlds of disco and house including early attendees like Nicky Siano (who went on to create the Gallery), Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan of Paradise Garage fame. Then there were those that appropriated the concept, forsaking the soul in pursuit of the dollar. In 1977 Bianca Jagger rode into Studio 54 on a white horse and ushered in an era of gloss, spandex and cocaine fueled hedonism that Studio 54 became synonymous with. It also torpedoed disco as a musical genre, marring its legacy and creating an environment of exclusivity that early disco and the Loft railed against.
It’s the reason why I cringe when people malign disco or when I see designers of $200.00 sweatshirts attempting to co-opt the spirit of a genre that many chose overlook today despite disco’s recent resurgence in popularity. It’s the reason why I sigh when people glorify the good ole days of Studio 54 without recognizing the pioneers, the social outcasts found in the early underground clubs, whose energy and vibe club owners sought to appropriate, but would later deny entrance at the door, and it’s the quizzical looks I give shows like the “Get Down” that attempt to provide us a glimpse of Disco, but frequently fall into the same clichéd traps in their portrayal of the genre. These stories are rarely told in the richness they deserve.
For me, the most endearing Mancuso story is the one that led to his first party “Love Saves the Day” in 1970. Mancuso was born in 1944 and grew up an orphan until the age of 5. He admittedly didn’t retain many memories from those early years but one vividly stuck out to him during that bleak, post-World War II period. One of the orphanage’s nuns, Sister Alicia, would decorate a party room filled with colorful balloons, streamers, a piano and a table. At the center of the table was a record player and a stack of records.
“We would wear party hats and play games around these little tables. We were kids and we were bubbling with energy so she would get us together and have these parties…I wouldn’t be surprised if it was every day, or at least every Saturday night.” (From: Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979, By Tim Lawrence)
As Tim Lawrence describes in his book, the orphanage had a steady stream of fresh, new faces, with people from different backgrounds who were forced together under unfortunate circumstances, but Sister Alicia cultivated an environment where the parties were the constant. In the absence of home, the music provided a safe haven that gave the children a moment of happiness.
Love Saves the Day.
This was the environment Mancuso sought to replicate in his parties. Despite the backgrounds of the people coming in the door, the Loft provided that safe haven and brief respite from the harsh realities outside the Loft where people came together with a shared love for music.
Mancuso became an inscrutable master of DJs and club culture for decades. His Loft parties took on a life of their own, traveling worldwide and his formula became the blueprint for many including those with intentions to replicate the spirit of the Loft and others intending to capitalize off it. Regardless of where your musical tastes lie, Mancuso left an indelible mark on how music is experienced today.
“New York City tends to erase its history, endlessly reinventing itself: that is its way. But the music remains.”
We have lost some incredibly talented musicians this year and I can’t help but think about Mancuso sitting at that beautifully decorated table like the one at that orphanage with the countless number of musicians and performers who left this earth this year… and that party is lit.
For a taste of the Mancuso Musical Experience:
Love Saves the Day, Tim Lawrence, 2003
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes, 2011
David Mancuso and the Art of Deejaying Without Deejaying, Greg Wilson, 2013