Boogie Nights: How Surviving Disco Helped Me Understand EDM
Photo by Victoria Pickering
Some kid I know asked me if I ever plan to write an article about electronic dance music. I told him yeah, probably I would.
I guess that seemed too cavalier an answer. He wanted to know if I had something against EDM.
Naw, it's all right, I told him.
What was I, he wanted to know, some kind of music snob?
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I assured him I was not. Plenty of room for the Skrillexes (Skrillices? Skrilli Politti?) of the world, as far as I'm concerned.
Maybe. But you don't care for it, do you, he asked.
Let me ask you something, I said, and asked whether he enjoyed EDM. Because that's what really matters, I told him.
If anyone else believes the Paul van Dyks of the world aren't creating classic and enduring music, who gives a shit? If you like it, enjoy it while you can. And if EDM acts soon fade like dying embers because they are solely of this era, all the better. They belong to you. Embrace them as your own.
Wow, the kid said, that's pretty wise. How'd you get so smart, he asked.
Easy, I said. I survived disco.
The older one gets, I've found, the better one's revisionist history holds up. For starters, fewer people who lived the times you're attempting to correct are still around. Dead, moved on or just disinterested, they're just not there to dispute how awesome you claim you were back when.
So, it's tempting to tell you in the 1970s I was a Bowie fanatic, dolled up, wildly androgynous and way ahead of my time. Or that I was the first kid on my block to wear a safety pin and Johnny Rotten-like snarl. Or that I was even at least a Pink Floyd fan, sluggishly worshiping Dark Side of the Moon in my Army jacket with a comb sticking up from my back pocket.
Revisionist history is for wimps.
The truth is, I was an Afro-headed, silk-shirt-sporting, smooth move-having disco fan. I didn't follow Bowie until he was wearing that yellow suit in the "Modern Love" video. I wasn't even a Ramones fan until my own kids started listening to them.
So, who am I to shit all over anyone else's taste in music? I was an aficionado of some of the worst American music ever made, according to many.
But I survived because disco wasn't the first music I appreciated in my life and it wouldn't be the last. That helped me greatly once disco died. And it really did die, in a catastrophic way. Like the dinosaurs, it's never returned and its existence is confirmed only by fossils like me, left behind to prove it once was a real thing.
Before disco died and before it was ever born, my parents compiled a large collection of record albums in their stereo console. For those who don't know, a stereo console was a piece of furniture, rectangular and wooden. Somewhere inside it was a turntable and also a deep well where one's record collection was held. Our collection was vast and spilled out into stacks next to the console.
My mother was the adventurous music fan in our family, but the person who grew my musical interests more than anyone was her brother, Roy. He lived with us and had joined the Columbia House Record Club, so thanks to him, I was introduced to Steely Dan, Maze, George Benson and Mountain.
I was interested in everything Uncle Roy did because he was so damn cool (still is) and I wanted to be exactly like him. He lived in a small room in our house, but it was a world away from the rest of the place. Its walls were adorned with black velvet posters of half-nude ebony queens. The room smelled like cherry incense. He slept on a twin-sized water mattress that laid directly on the floor -- no frame, no heater.
When Roy cut his long hair, coiffed it Deney Terrio-style and began learning The Hustle, it seemed like the thing to do. So, I did and, it turned out, it was one of the few things I was good at. I had rhythm. I could put some dance steps together and make it look fucking cool.
When you're 12 years old, if you can do anything well, you stick with it. So, from 1978 until 1980, I was a dancing, dancing, dancing machine.
I learned well at the quick-moving heels of my uncle. I looked the part. I wore a pair of shoes, called Crayons, that had orange polyurethane soles. My neck was draped with gossamer-thin gold chains. Literally topping it all off, my hairstylist, Sam Zurovec, gave me a perm so my hair could grow into an Afro.
Recently, my nephew Isaiah saw a picture of this hairstyle and dubbed it "microphone hair."
In our living room, on the orange shag carpet (no, I am not making this shit up), Roy showed me his best moves to the greatest disco jam of all time, Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." Then, after practice, off he'd go to the discotheque and off I'd go to St. Mark the Evangelist's parish hall, which held teen disco dances on Friday nights.
I was no looker, but the girls wanted to dance with me because there was a dance contest and I gave some of them at least a fighter's chance at winning. One night, I danced with a girl I'd never met. The song of the moment was Foxy's "Get Off." We won the contest and were awarded a trophy, with two gold, plastic dancers atop it.
Two dancers -- one trophy. I wanted to take it home so I'd always have proof I was good at something at least once in my life, but when I told my partner she could keep it, she was literally so happy she cried.
Looking back, it's weird that we disco-danced at a church. Everything about my uncle and his lifestyle exuded sexuality. Was this something to emulate at the house of the Lord?
It didn't matter because soon they'd built teen clubs for us. While we did "The Sperm" to provocative songs like "Ring My Bell," we sipped on virgin daiquiris and chatted each other up like we were planning to knock boots later, had it not been for our 11 o'clock curfews.
In the end, my biggest salvation was music and the people around me who loved all kinds of it. My pal Shawn Mansfield was a Stones freak. He'd been seriously disappointed by the disco grooves of Some Girls, so he had me listening to Black and Blue on repeat until Emotional Rescue came out. My next-door neighbor, Kenneth Roberts, handed me an album with a very shirtless, very effeminate Prince on the cover. He told me to listen to the song called "I Wanna Be Your Lover" and I haven't stopped listening to his work - the good and bad -- since.
In 1980, I graduated junior high and enrolled at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts. The kids there were listening to old Beatles songs, The Sugar Hill Gang and John Coltrane. The next year, I went to Strake Jesuit and the guys there were into the Pretenders, Joe Jackson, The Kinks and The Police.
By the time I graduated high school, my musical palate was developed by all the people I'd met along the way, including my brother Anthony, who once went to a WASP concert one weekend and was in a break-dancing battle the next.
Today, there's way more recorded music criticism than ever before, thanks to tweets and Facebook posts and, of course, blogs. Everyone has an opinion about what's good and what isn't.
The lesson I learned from surviving disco is to never feel badly about the music you enjoy listening to. Whether it's The White Stripes or The Wiggles, if you believe it will be able to stir something inside you years down the road, it's worth a listen now.
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