On Sunday, New Yorkers will crowd onto a King Street in Tribeca and dance for hours in daylight to remember DJ Larry Levan, a former de facto leader of underground nightlife. The party is sponsored by Red Bull Music Academy, and the purpose is to get the street named in his honour.
You see, starting in 1977, Levan held unquestionable dominion over it and the raging dance party he lead on it at club Paradise Garage for an entire decade.
That was, of course, before AIDS truly ravaged New York City. Levan himself succumbed to the disease in 1992.
The stories you hear about ‘The Garage’ and Levan, its head DJ, are impossible not to retell. They slide off the tongue. There was the time Boy George broke the heel of his pump in the middle of dance floor and just kept dancing, one legged and care free.
There was the time — and some argue this flat out isn’t true — that not even Diana Ross could talk her way into the club. She didn’t have a membership card. Those that didn’t sometimes dropped hundreds of dollars to go in with members.
The music was that good and that unique. The Garage, after all, was one of the first clubs to bring house music from Chicago to New York City. Levan is the man to thank for that.
In the DJ world he was so large a figure that people sent him music from all around the country. Unlabeled records flew in and out of the club carried by the radio jockeys that decided what songs ruled America’s airwaves.
On Friday and Saturday nights Levan commanded a crowd of 3,000 dance addicts including pop stars, club rats, gay kids hiding from home, socialites that were tired of mirrors, and anyone else who knew what was really good.
And he wasn’t afraid to play whatever he wanted, even if it was some weirdo synth band from Germany (Kraftwerk). Because of that, Levan had the power to make hits.
Mick Jagger was there, and so was Madonna. Grace Jones played graced the stage as did Lolita Halloway. The sound system was titanic. No alcohol was served but, yes, there were drugs. Poppers and ethyl rags mostly (Google it). There was free food and drinks, a movie theatre, and a party that didn’t stop until noon on Sunday mornings.
The crowd was diverse but dominated by gay African Americans and Latinos. They called it by many names, including ‘Church’, ‘Saturday Mass’. Some say it was because when partiers left the club they rode the same train home as people heading to church. Others say it was because Levan’s DJing itself was a religious experience.
The Paradise Garage closed in 1987 not because it wasn’t cool. It closed because people were dying. Imagine the panic of the AIDS crisis, when people saw their friends one weekend and those friends were dead the next. It happened so fast, no one knew what it was, and it hit the Paradise Garage community particularly hard. The club’s owner Michael Brody, closed the club because he was too sick to scout for a new location when its lease ran out. People say that when Levan found that out, he went up to his DJ perch and turned up the club’s speakers so loud that some of them blew out completely.
Garage veterans still get together sometimes for reunion parties and raise money for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a charity Brody helped to found during the most terrifying days of the crisis. The DJs that learned under Levan, like David Depino and Joey Llanos, play those parties (as they will play on Sunday). They tell survival stories and dance.
“We came through a war,” Depino once told me. “AIDS was a war. It was a battle.”
Listen to one of Levan’s DJ sets from 1983 below.
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