Readings — From the November 2016 issue

Disco Inferno

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From notes taken in the 1970s by Douglas Crimp, an art critic. The notes appear in Before Pictures, a memoir that was published last month by the University of Chicago Press and Dancing Foxes Press.

Flamingo is in a big, anonymous loft building on the northeast edge of SoHo. On Saturday night there’s nobody around. There’s no sign in front, not even a lit doorway. Going there for the first time feels like an initiation into a secret society. Gay men love the kind of ritual that makes what they do seem secretive, forbidden (as if the pulsating of the building doesn’t make the whole world realize what’s there).

You walk through the uninviting entrance into a dark foyer, where you can vaguely perceive a few people shuffling around. You put your membership card in a flashlight’s beam. You go through the doors at the back of the lobby to the stairway. Two official-looking if stoned attendants check off your membership number in a ledger, write down the number of guests with you (you’re allowed two), and write out a bill — $19 for three. You wait in line to go upstairs. This is the tensest part of the evening: you can hear the music coming from upstairs, and they’re usually playing one of your favorite songs, so you know you’ll miss it. At the top of the stairs, you pay your money and get your hand stamped with ink that glows under black light. Finally you’re in, but still not ready for the dance floor. There’s another line at the coat check, which takes forever, because you have to decide then and there how much to take off, and there’s a feverish shuffling of necessities from the pockets of shed clothing to pockets in what you’re still wearing: poppers, inhaler, downers, cigarettes, matches, coke, coke spoon, ethyl chloride (if you’re a rag queen), joints of dust. If you’re smart, you do all this at home.

When I first went to the new kind of disco, a few years ago, I was struck by the conformity of the people there, conformity that went beyond the stylistic similarities of people in a demimonde. It was not only a question of similar hairstyles or wearing the same mustache. These people had identical bodies, and these bodies were strikingly different from other bodies. They seemed to be honed for a particular activity, maybe a fairly athletic form of sex. In fact that activity was dancing, or what has become known as dancing.

Discotheques, of course, were nothing new. They came in during the 1960s, when people realized that good dance music was dependent on studio effects and could not be reproduced by a live band. They were part of that very brief episode when London — Kings Road and Chelsea especially — was synonymous with hip. They had names like Annabel’s and Arthur, and later the Electric Circus and Hippopotamus. They were private, or at least exclusive. They were expensive. They were straight.

The new discotheques bear very little resemblance to those places. They aren’t even heirs to that tradition. Flamingo, 12 West, Infinity, and the Loft are gay. Their predecessors are the Sanctuary, a late-1960s discotheque in an unused church on 43rd Street; the Firehouse, the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance, whose enginehouse became a dance hall on weekends; and the Tenth Floor, a private juice bar in a West 20s loft. All these places had in common the traits of pariah culture: they were in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in quickly refurbished spaces that had the feeling of being susceptible to a bust at any moment. You knew that their days were numbered, that they would be shut down, burned down, or simply abandoned for a new and better place to dance.

The sun seemed unnaturally bright when we opened the door and walked out onto lower Broadway on Sunday morning. Steven adjusted the pitch-black wraparound sunglasses that he’d put on in the lobby. Moving at all felt slightly painful and yet inevitable, as if the music had been absorbed by our muscles, especially the obliques, and would go on propelling that uncontrollable back-and-forth hip-swaying forever. On the way up Bedford Street to Seventh Avenue, two guys overtook and passed us. When one was right next to him, Steven drew out his breath in a reverent whisper: “Disssco.” He gave it the same whooshing sound as the drone that lingered in our ears. The two men smiled knowingly. There was no question where all of us were coming from.

“It was hot tonight,” Steven said. “It was really crazy. Creeps everywhere you looked, plaguing you. And you couldn’t get into it. The lights were so bright, and the music was weird. Then all of a sudden they turned off those bright lights, everything went red and blue, and everybody was gorgeous — just big, hot, butch muscle numbers. Then, after that real hot set, the music had no beat. I kept asking you if the music had a beat. I couldn’t get into it. Bobby kept dancing. He’s a little bopper, Bobby. He just bops around. He’s hot. You discoed good, babe. It was real good disco.”

Steven’s conversation is like that for at least a whole day after any night out: a running analysis of the night before, the night that’s really morning, beginning around one and lasting until seven or eight. And that’s not counting the preparation, which begins early Saturday. Getting your disco act together. Finding a member to go with. Eating lots of protein, but early in the day. Resting up. Deciding what drugs to take and what clothes to wear. The clothes are particularly important because apart from wanting the right look, you have to figure out how much you can comfortably shed or allow to get drenched in sweat without it bringing you down. At least until about five-thirty, when nothing could bring you down. At that point the music is always good, there’s plenty of room on the dance floor, and only the serious discoers are left. But best of all, your body has quit resisting. It has unstoppable momentum. It’s like distance running or swimming — you reach a point where you’re beyond tired, beyond pain, beyond even thinking about stopping, thinking only that this could go on forever and you’d love it. It’s ecstasy. Nothing matters but disco, and nothing — not sex, not food, not sleep, nothing — is better.

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