They played everything. Everything.
That was my first text to Michelle sent the morning after the 2019 Paradise Garage Reunion party in Brooklyn, New York. A second message gushed out the first 12 songs I could remember before coffee. I was much too excited to recognize the forgotten routine I was resuming. Over 30 years ago, if one of us didn't make it to the Garage, the other would report how the call and response went between founding DJ Larry Levan aloft in his booth and the frenzied disciples writhing across the floor below him. It was always first and foremost about the music that fueled a weekly hallucinogenic ride steered by that wizard genius.
Like most of the artifacts of my youth, the Garage is long gone. The sacred building that housed our reverie was demolished in 2018. Once founder Mike Brody discovered his days were numbered by AIDS, he shut down his creation three months before he died in 1987. In its wake, the club continues to be memorialized like none other. It has a whole genre of dance music named after it: garage. The intersection near 84 King Street in Manhattan, where the club once stood, was renamed Larry Levan Way. But the most meaningful homage, one which ensures its immortality, is the annual reunion party.
This past summer I went to my first such event -- and it delivered its promise. This was no hollow echo of any night at the Garage. As the song goes, "Once upon a time never comes again." Yet as a most fitting tribute, this reunion invoked the spirit of that hallowed dance hall. A sprawled-out crowd of 50-, 60-, and 70-somethings entrusted body and soul to the anointed hands of DJs David DePino and Joey Llanos. Once again we gave ourselves over to the ritual undeterred by any thickening or stiffening acquired since we last bopped out of 84 King St.
This year's event was held at Elsewhere, a new music venue and art space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Entering its unremarkable lobby, I could not help but recall the fabled Garage ramp illuminated with airway strip lights that led our way to Paradise. Just inside, heaps of Garage T-shirts sat on display, sporting the Garage's imprimatur, the bicep flexing hunk holding up that tambourine. A massive sunken floor and smaller gallery spaces gave the party ample room. DePino and Llanos are both internationally recognized DJs who have led the reunion parties for many years. Once again, they brought it in abundance.
House Music Ministers Then and Now
From 1977 through 1987, the Garage spanned what were arguably pop music's most prolific decades, outliving the disco phenomenon that spawned it. Larry would consistently pull from music adjacent to disco -- R&B and Afro-Cuban music -- illustrating that disco and house music are in fact black and brown people's music. In that tradition, the reunion featured essentials like Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa" and War's "City, Country, City," which under Levan's revolutionary mixing would give way to "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Teddy Pendergrass' version) and Colonel Abrams' "Music Is the Answer." They served up the underground fare that Larry's mixing for the dance floor helped turn into classics.
My friend Michelle, who was always there with me at the original Paradise Garage parties, could not make it to the reunion this summer, the singular event we had anticipated for months. For us, this would have been a personal reunion, celebrating our lost stomping ground where so many shared memories were made. She had worked overtime that day, too worn out to schlep from the Bronx to Brooklyn. Back in the day, a tab or a cup of coffee might have been enough to rebound. But it is not 1984. We are both well into our 50s, so our bones don't bounce back as easily. At first, it was hard to get past her absence. I wanted her there to help me reconnect the pieces of memory that each song unfurled in front of me.
But as the night revealed its purpose, the music began to minister. My favorite partner was not there, but there were hundreds willing to party with me. Just as it was back then, we needed only our smiling eyes to meet or one random swivel in the other's direction as mutual invitation to join each other, separate, and repeat. From across the floor, we pointed to each other and lip synched the good parts together. We knew we were free, and the knowing gave us a joy that would not be contained in our individual bodies. The joy surged through and between us. We didn't need to know each other's names to know what was most important. In this, our moment, we were family.
Once off the floor, I studied the cross-section of millennial and middle-aged party people. The makeup was mostly black, but plenty of Latinx, white, and some Asian folks were in the mix. It was heartening to see young people show up. Their presence gives hope that the legend may be preserved and passed on. I noticed an abundance of hetero couples, more so than I would usually see at the Garage. Then I remembered the Friday party at the Garage.
The Garage was without question a gay club open to everyone -- and Saturday was its main night. In order to accommodate the hetero fans without displacing Saturday's queer base, they added Friday nights. These reunion-goers looked more like a seasoned Friday crowd, with its share of silver-haired trade. I began to check for the grown-up Saturday's children whose regalia ranged from biker shorts and parachute pants to leotards, wings, and feathers. I did not expect them to look or carry on as we did back then. But that degree of queerness should still remain evident.
Where Have All the Black and Latinx Gay Men Gone?
I asked myself where, then, were all the black and Latinx gay men who made up the Garage's core base?
When I arrived at the sobering answer, I wondered why I hadn't deduced it sooner. There could be another explanation, but I am hard pressed to dispute my unscientific conclusion. I just had not considered how many from back then would not have made it here because they did not make it out of the era alive. Most who were old enough to go to the Garage were part of the generation of gay men and transgender women who were practically annihilated by the plague. We watched many of them, while still in their 20s, slowly thin and fade. We noticed the growing number of empty slots marking their absence from the floor or that spot in the Crystal Room where they held court. Many more died during the in-between years after the Garage's closing.
"This shit will never end," I said to myself. I sucked in a few deep breaths to hold back welling tears. Whatever manner I am removed from this mortal coil, I will never outlive the ravages of this avoidable epidemic. Even though I have survived the carnage this long, I will never escape or outgrow it. I will never be a post-AIDS gay man. I am too old. I have loved too hard and remember far, far too much.
My heart stomped its tantrum against my chest. Deniece Williams' "I've Got the Next Dance" was playing -- and that was my song. I stood at the edge of the dance floor, afraid I would break down if I entered. I was at the edge of 18 when I first heard it, riding in the car with my father, who fancied that I might turn out straight. I recalled the closeted boy in the cream-colored Ford LTD silently imagining the day he would dance to that song with a man. I wasn't ready then, but in time, I would have that dance.
What I could not have expected or dreamed for was the sanctuary I found in those playgrounds -- the Garage, Better Days, and the Nickel Bar. In those spaces, I discovered myself through immersion in what the late Aretha dubbed "the spirit in the dark," the erotic. As a child, I loved to dance, but adolescent anxieties caged my expression. As a young man, I came to know my power in communion with my tribe, giving our bodies over to charismatic trance on that floor.
I took up George Clinton's delicious proposition, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." It did. I unleashed myself from the guilt and shame that indicted my puberty. Here I encountered friends, lovers, elders, muses, artists, healers, eccentrics, and geniuses, the sacred undivided from the profane. And when, at 25, I needed to love on my HIV-infected flesh, I sought refuge and found release at the Garage.
On that hallowed night, I felt the spirit of all those missing brothers and sisters. I never knew most of them personally, but we claimed each other as our own. I could do nothing to change the course of decades behind me. But there was something I could still do. As much as I missed my sister Michelle, she was still alive. With her, I still had the sacred promise of some other time. As for Kevin, Charles, and Darryl, who would testify how "we had a church" at some pleasure den, at least we had our day and our dance together. No matter how much was stolen from us, we can hold on tightly to memory. Sister Loleatta Holloway prophesied with furious repetition, "Time won't take it! Time! Won't take it. Away, Ow!"
So what did I do? Damn it to hell, I danced with the rest of my kin. As the night deepened, our love train turned uphill and we ascended from reunion to revival. We were no desperate souls trying to relive our youth through the music of our yesteryear. Our bodies held decades of love and loss, a collection of hard-knock scars and survivor tales to show and tell. We twirled under the rapturous light to honor our oneness of flesh and spirit, and revel in the short-lived bond between the two.
This was the occasion to celebrate all improbable triumphs, including our ability to shake booty when Bohannon invites us to start the dance.