My Life and the Paradise Garage

Urb magazine

Keep On Dancin’ – My Life And The Paradise Garage
By Mel Cheren with Gabriel Rotello & Brent Nicholson Earle
(24 Hours For Life, $24.95)

It started in 1977 in downtown New York as a makeshift parking lot with a few crazies boogying in the corner. By the time of its closure ten years later The Paradise Garage was known quite simply as the best club in the world. It had the best sound system, the most fanatical and devoted crowd, and a magical DJ who span sets of a deliriously beguiling intensity. No wonder people said it was like Heaven on Earth.

Mel Cheren had very little hands-on involvement with the Garage – the club was actually owned and operated by his ex-boyfriend Michael Brody – but as a pivotal player in the disco scene he’s in a unique position to comment. He founded West End Records – home to a stream of underground and mainstream disco hits in the late 70s – backed the Garage financially and creatively in its early days, and was generally in the right place at the right time for the best part of 20 years.

Anecdotes – about mad music, free love, wild sex, drug benders – are a-plenty. But central to the story is the music, and in particular the era’s best DJ, the late Larry Levan. He was brilliantly mad and madly brilliant – and prone to drug-crazed hissy fits that would make the most ardent drama queen blush. Like the one night, in a sea of rage, he got down on all fours and bit a chunk out of Brody’s leg. Or the time he demanded a bedroom be built right behind the Garage DJ booth. He lived and breathed his art.

Levan was a technical perfectionist and a master of the mix. But he DJed the way he lived – in inspired anarchy. He hated the tyranny of the four-four rhythm and the seamless beatmatch tupor of most disco DJs. He would stop songs in the middle, play two tracks back-to-back with wildly different beats or even play the same song over and over again.  He would infuriate his friends and the crowd. But when he peaked behind the turntables – which was most Saturday nights – he created a musical utopia that few have topped since. As Cheren notes, Levan moved to the beat of his own drummer.

Cheren paints the history of the Paradise Garage against a wider backdrop – the climate of homophobia and racism that pervaded the ’60s and ’70s, the Stonewall riots, the fleeting bliss of Fire Island, the grim spectre of AIDS. That background is important, for it helps explain why gay and black men in particular embraced disco and the freedom it offered. And Cheren doesn’t flinch on the details either – like his series of tempestuous relationships, his drug addictions, and the squandering of obscene amounts of money. But as he sagely notes, he’s one of the lucky ones. He pulled through to the other side. So many didn’t.

It’s immensely readable, like some sort of “Behind The Music” disco special. For anyone even remotely interested in the roots of this thing we call “dance music”, Keep On Dancin’ is an essential historical document.

© Kieran Wyatt

Paradise Garage