At the helm of the Paradise Garage’s dance floor, Larry Levan spun marathon sets that forever altered dance music and club culture. Credit: Rovi.
In both dance-music culture and LGBTQ history, the Paradise Garage occupies a storied space. Between 1977 and 1987, the Garage’s parties served as a fantastical refuge for a mostly black and Latino gay clientele — one that favored a more soul- and funk-infused variation of disco, rather than the saccharine, Eurocentric version that had seduced straight, white mainstream America.
The club, located on King Street in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, exists on a short list of globally influential NYC discotheques, alongside the Loft, David Mancuso’s invitation-only dance parties; Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s Studio 54; Howard Stein and Peppo Vanini’s Xenon; Arnie Lord’s Sanctuary; and Michael Fesco’s Flamingo, the city’s first exclusively gay disco.
Many New York City dance clubs that catered to a primarily gay crowd, such as the Flamingo, Xenon and Paradise Garage, arrived in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village and the 1971 repeal of the New York City law that restricted men from dancing with one another. But even during that era of emerging gay rights, gay communities were often divided by racial and gender lines. In New York, many white gay men flocked to the Flamingo to move to the likes of ABBA and Alec R. Costandinos, whereas black and Latino dancers could boogie to Thelma Houston and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes at the inclusive Garage (which, with some irony, was founded by a white man, Michael Brody).
“The Paradise Garage was like a church,” says model, fashion designer and performance artist Connie Fleming in Myra Lewis’ upcoming documentary, Love Is the Legend. “I didn’t know there were that many black gay people on Earth.”
A constellation of elements must align to propel a dance club to mythic status. In addition to an enthusiastic crowd, there’s the décor, the sound system and, of course, the music. The Garage had all of these in surplus, especially with regard to its late, great resident DJ, Larry Levan, and the groundbreaking system he helped devise.
“As the Garage’s sound system evolved, Larry came up with the idea of a five-way crossover, a completely revolutionary component of sound design that he created with [renowned sound architect] Richard Long,” wrote the late record executive (and Garage investor) Mel Cheren in his book Keep on Dancin’: My Life and the Paradise Garage. “Larry could manipulate the five-way crossover to pluck out certain lyrics, and by omitting or emphasizing different voices, make records actually talk to each other [and to the crowd].”
“A lot of the stuff that I was listening to was dance-oriented rock or post-punk. I wanted to hear those records on the sound system,” says Richard “Dr. Love” Vasquez, a DJ and Garage regular who’s founded his own influential clubs and parties. “I’m talking about stuff like the Clash and Nina Hagen — and Larry played them! At first I wasn’t that much into disco. But I came to appreciate it more and more. And then when house music came from Chicago, that music didn’t sound good on the radio or any other sound system. It only sounded good at the Paradise Garage. That music was made to be played on a very loud, clearly defined sound system. That sound system at the Garage just made you want to crawl into the speakers. And you actually could. You could crawl into the bass bins of those speakers and be intensely assaulted by the music.”
The Legends of Larry
When it comes to influential DJs deserving of a biopic, Larry Levan is the one. Often cited as the first superstar DJ, he was born Lawrence Philpot in Brooklyn. As a teenager Levan became lifelong friends with Frankie Knuckles, another hugely influential DJ who’s often referred to as “The Godfather of House Music.” Levan was the Garage’s main DJ, working with alternate DJs including David DePino, Joey Llanos and François Kevorkian.
For Levan, the Garage served as an incubator for his talents as a DJ, remixer and producer to evolve, after he’d learned the ropes from Nicky Siano and David Mancuso. Levan was not the most technically gifted DJ when it came to beat matching, but he knew how to project his mercurial personality through his wide-ranging selection of music. He could create deep, dub-like soundscapes by manipulating the EQ knobs and volume controls of his mixer. Most important, he told stories, sometimes dramatic ones, through his marathon sets. He would drop ballads in the middle of peaks, or abruptly stop a song midway through to leap into another. Sometimes he would even play the same record repeatedly for an hour.
He not only gave patrons music, he gave them immersive experiences that engaged nearly all of their senses. Of course dancers could hear the music and feel the thump of the groove; but to accentuate the emotions of certain parts of songs, Levan would manipulate the lights. Among his legendary light techniques were the blackouts, where he would drop all the lights and play an a cappella portion of a tune, sending dancers into a frenzy. Sometimes Levan would project music videos, such as Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” then manipulate portions of it to sync with a tune like Aleem’s “Release Yourself,” creating trippy visual suspense to accompany the music.
Levan’s mood swings also came through the music; if he wasn’t in the best of spirits, dancers felt that too.
Joey Llanos, DJ and former head of security at the Paradise Garage: The major thing that I learned from Larry was to listen to a lot of different music — not just dance music. He also taught me that it’s not just about the DJ; it’s actually about the party and atmosphere that you’re creating. Larry was one of the first people that I saw who was able to play records and control the lighting at the same time. He would also be shooting confetti cannons. The room would go insane. Watching him was a show in itself.
Danny Krivit, DJ and producer: Some DJs mix perfectly, like a machine. That wasn’t Larry. There were errors in his mixes, for sure. But I’ll chose his errors over other people’s perfections, because like his personality, his sets were dynamic.
Teddy Douglas, DJ and producer: One of my favorite things Larry would often do was letting records go off, and there would be just silence for a second or two. Some DJs would be terrified to do that. After the silence, you’d hear some a cappella or something.
Some DJs are just stuck in one genre. In the course of a night at the Garage, you would hear rock, jazz and other stuff, but it was all danceable. But if you didn’t go to the Garage at the right time, you might have gotten a horrible experience, because of Larry’s moods. I had some friends who went to the Garage, and at one point they just sat down in the middle of the fucking dance floor and played cards. They didn’t like the record that Larry was playing. And Larry was evil — he would continue to play that record again and again.
Connie Fleming, model, fashion designer and performance artist: The music and energy were like a religious experience. One of my favorite moments occurred during a Memorial Day Weekend. I spent maybe four straight days there, so I guess there was a bit of delirium. During that last day, it seemed like whatever song I thought about, Larry would play. I remember thinking of the B-52s, and he started playing one of their songs. So I thought, “OK, this is really weird.” Then, a couple of hours later, I thought, “I wish he would play one of my favorite songs ever, ‘Walking on Thin Ice.’” And he played it. It felt like all of the stars were aligned. It was a connective experience.
Tina Paul, photographer: I [recall] hanging out with some friends in the Punch Bowl room. Suddenly I hear Larry play Nina Hagen’s “Cosma Shiva.” Larry played a lot of rock. He often played the remix to [Mick Jagger’s] “Lucky in Love.” I also loved it when he played Man Friday’s “Love Honey, Love Heartache.”
Cesar Valentino, dancer and choreographer: There were so many memorable moments dancing to Larry Levan’s sets. But one I remember most was when “Jump Back” by Dhar Braxton was the hot record of the moment and Larry would mix it over and over again. Two hours had gone by and we were still jumping: “Jump, jump, jump, jump.” The sound system was so loud, and the jumping was so intense, that if you stood still on the dance floor for a few seconds, you felt like the floor was going to give way.
Richard “Dr. Love” Vasquez, DJ and club regular: It’s hard to tell my favorite moment at the Paradise Garage with Larry, because there were so many. But one was when I came into his VIP perch. There was a young man, Damian, about 19, who was there; he had been working as the doorman for a club I had started called Youthanasia. I think Damian had done mushrooms. He went up to Larry’s DJ board and started playing with the knobs. Larry was looking very puzzled. Of course, Damian was a really attractive man. So Larry went up to him and said, “What are you doing?” And Larry was so nice about it! Another DJ — especially of Larry’s stature — would have exploded.
Hot, Humble Beginning
Originally the venue was an actual parking garage. Brody borrowed money from many people, including his mother and his former romantic partner, Cheren, to renovate the space. Before the Paradise Garage’s grand opening in the winter of 1978 — which was reportedly a failure due to the sound equipment arriving late amidst a snowstorm — Brody hosted construction parties on site beginning in 1977 to earn money for the project. Dancing took place in the modest Grey Room, which would later be called the Crystal Room.
Krivit: For that size room, it was pretty intense. I remember walking in there [and] it was packed. The whole entrance set your mind to what you were approaching — the walking up the ramp with the runway lights and hearing the music the way you would in the background. It really set the stage for when you walked in the room.
Llanos: The construction parties were out of this world. There was sawdust on the floor; there was temporary lighting hung in the front part of the club, because the main dance floor was still under construction. But still, the music and energy of those parties were awesome.
The club was a long-running work-in-progress. At its full potential, the layout included a large dance floor, a lounge, a movie-theater room and an inviting rooftop deck decorated with plants.
Vasquez: The movie room was very dark so you couldn’t see what anyone was doing. But the Garage didn’t have anything going on like you would find above the dance floor at the Saint or the bottom floor of the Anvil. The Garage was more of a place to go dance. There were plenty other places to go to have underground sex.
Dancers couldn’t just waltz up to the Garage, pay an entry fee and go inside. While it didn’t enforce the icky scrutiny of Studio 54, the Garage was a members-only club. In order for Brody to ensure that the club remained a safe place for gay men, he made prospective members apply in person during certain hours that were never advertised publicly.
Friday nights at the Garage were predominantly straight, and Saturday nights were for the gay community. Core gay members could attend both nights, but straight men could only attend Friday nights. Members could bring as many as four guests on Saturday nights, but only one could be female. However, testimonials indicate that enforcement of these rules was lax or at least inconsistent.
Doors typically opened at midnight, and the parties would continue into the wee hours or the following day. The club served no alcohol, but sometimes partygoers would discreetly spike the punch with acid and other drugs.
Vasquez: I was invited to go there by Bruce Day, an art director at CBS Records. There was some kind of a fair that was gay-oriented in which various people had different art installations. Then there was a dance afterward. That was probably in 1977 or ’78.
Fleming: The first night I went to the Garage, I was too young, so I didn’t get in. A couple years later, in 1986, when I was of age, a friend of a friend was going. We were at the Boy Bar [in the East Village], and they were talking about going. I went with them to the Garage — and it was incredible. Grace Jones was there, and I think Boy George was there. But all of that floated away once I got on the dance floor and felt the people around me. That was it for me. From then on, I went every weekend until it closed.
Douglas: I first went to the Garage in 1984, [when] I was a DJ at the ClubHouse in Washington, D.C. If you had a ClubHouse membership, the Paradise Garage honored that.
Paul: The first time I went to the Paradise Garage, it was an off-night in 1984. There was a concert. Strafe was performing; it was also a party for the East Village Eye magazine. I was there again in 1985 for [a screening] of [Frank Simon’s] The Queen, which was about the drag ball scene. But still that wasn’t a regular night. I didn’t have my first club experience there until later that year, when I went with [fashion and costume designer] Patricia Field, who owned a boutique on 18th Street. Pat and Larry were good friends.
Last Dance and Legacy
Even though the Garage survived the racist and homophobic backlash of “Disco Sucks!” propaganda as well as some financial missteps, the AIDS crisis ultimately took its toll on the club. After Brody learned that he was dying from a long-fought battle with the disease, he decided he would shut the club down. It closed in September 1987, and its founder died later that year.
Following the Garage’s closing Levan continued to work, though his drug habits had spiraled out of control. He DJ’d at Llanos and Vasquez’s club The Choice, and briefly at New York’s Sound Factory, among other spots. In the early ’90s he found enthusiastic audiences in Japan and Europe — including at London’s Ministry of Sound, which was modeled after the Garage. But a return to prominence in NYC nightlife wasn’t meant to be, and in 1992 he died of endocarditis, just 38 years old.
The Garage’s final party began on Friday night and continued throughout the weekend, with patrons standing in line for hours to say their goodbyes.
Llanos: The closing party was difficult, because it went nonstop from Friday to Sunday. There was a lot of crying and hugging. A lot of people came through to say goodbye to Larry and the club. Keith Haring came by during the last weekend and decorated all of the walls inside the Punch Bowl room. He just pulled out a ladder and started spray painting the whole thing.
It was just a nonstop party. Nobody wanted it to end. People were holding up candles to the end.
Paul: Larry was playing great music that final night. It was festive and sad at the same time. You just didn’t want to leave. Larry’s mom was there.
Vasquez: I got to the very tail end of the closing party. I got there around the Sunday afternoon portion, but there were still a lot of people partying around 1 p.m. It went on until Monday the next morning.
Lewis: It felt surreal, because you knew that something like the Paradise Garage would never happen again. It was almost unimaginable. You just didn’t want to let go. There was already incomprehensible suffering because so many friends were suddenly dying of AIDS. Losing the Paradise Garage compounded that deep sense of loss. I’m sure there are some people dealing with PTSD from that entire experience.
Llanos: The Paradise Garage was way ahead of its time. Socially it was predominately gay. It was a sanctuary for gay people to come, be themselves, relax and be uninhibited — and to enjoy one of the best sound systems in New York City and the best DJ in New York City. Paradise Garage changed my life.
Vasquez: The Paradise Garage started out as a gay party, but it became very quickly nicely mixed. People didn’t identify themselves or maintain an identity of being this or that. They were mainly people who wanted to dance — and wanted to dance to good music because there was so much crap in most of the other clubs.
At most of the other clubs, the main focus was to pick up somebody. The Garage wasn’t about that, and there was a great freedom in that.
Valentino: There were a bunch of guest artists performing throughout the evening into the late morning. The mood was very somber; a lot of Garage members were crying. It seemed like the party would never end. … The Garage impacted many generations after it closed. People always refer to the Garage and Larry Levan for setting a precedent of music to uplift and liberate, a space for self-expression and freedom.