|Los Angeles, April 3, 2000
LONG TRAIN RUNNING - THE SAINT-AT-LARGE
Everybody always sings the praises of the dance party that takes us on “a journey.” But rarely does anyone specify the mode of transportation. For me it is a Train. Both in feeling and in sound. And my effort to better understand that Train has taken up the better part of my thinking about the gay dance scene during the past year, a year which, for me, has been framed by two quite remarkable Saint-at-Large Black Parties, both dj’d by my personal favorite, Michael Fierman.
This “train journey” is not something I ever thought about back in the day. I “came out” when I moved to San Francisco in the Fall of 1979. That was a time when literally thousands of gay people were moving each month to the Bay Area, staking out our turf, and filling up the City with an incredible energy that really cannot be imagined by anyone who was not there. It was in this setting that I discovered Disco, which was then in its “high classic” phase. Records like Ashford & Simpson’s Found A Cure, Cut Glass’s Alive With Love and Without Your Love, Technique’s Can We Try Again and Bonnie Pointer’s Heaven Must Have Sent You were among our anthems. Disco was the religion of the “Castro Clones” (today’s muscle boys), and it reigned supreme as the music of our joyous Liberation in the 1970s. Its engine was not so much a locomotive, as it was a great big calliope of joy and sound, magically spinning from the center of the dance floor. It was hot. It was blasting. And you didn’t need to “journey” anywhere. Because there was no place better to be than right there at the core of that incredible energy. Disco Inferno, indeed. Even after the Epidemic began the assault that eventually killed off San Francisco’s gay dance scene in the early 1980s I never lost my love for, or faith in, that Music. But I, like so many others, did stop dancing.
Oh, I would still go out now and again, but I never really felt the Spirit. To be honest, I had found the Spirit to be waning even before the reality of the Epidemic fully hit. By the end of 1981 it increasingly seemed that the music and drugs were getting ever more hard. And a harsh S&M was sweeping the town and sapping the soul of our community in its wake. The Epidemic finished the job, plunging San Francisco into a literal Dark Age. In a few short years the Castro went from Oz to Auschwitz. Retreating back to academic life in Berkeley (literally back, as I pursued a Ph.D. in American History), a big weekend night for me would be spent with a female friend, sharing a joint, eating pizza and watching Rosie O’Donnell or that skinny black guy host the latest dance music videos from Janet, Michael or Whitney on VH-1 a go go. Every now and again, I would “journey” back musically, opening my turntable, and playing some of my old Disco classics. But like my sex life, it became a solitary pleasure.
Little did I know that a New York club called The Saint was keeping the Spirit alive. And little did I know that there was still a bounty of great energetic dance music being made throughout the 1980s and very early 1990s - from Talk Talk’s Its My Life to John Farnham’s Age of Reason, and all of the greats from OMD, Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys - songs which are now among the Classics of “Morning Music.” Fans of the Saint insist it was the Club which gave birth to the modern gay dance “Tribe.” If you follow the website for San Francisco’s Hell Ball, you will find a contrary view. Leaving that debate aside, what seems clear to me is that during the mid to late 1980s, the time when the Lights went out in San Francisco, the Saint played the crucial role in keeping the gay dance Flame burning bright. And the Saint-at-Large continued that tradition. I never went to the Saint, but from all that I have heard, it was an incredibly magical place that kept the Train running.
I can remember the precise moment when I rediscovered the Spirit. It was during the Weekend of the March on Washington in 1993. I will never forget it. My best friend was scheduled to go. But he was dying and couldn’t make the trip. His friends suggested that I go in his place. I didn’t want to. I wasn’t feeling very political. But ultimately I went. I arrived in DC on a Friday and experienced the most unusual and wonderful feeling of déjà vu. First, Dupont Circle, and then it seemed the whole of Washington, was filling up with gay men and women full of power, pride and a most wonderful energy. All of a sudden it was like San Francisco in 1979. Just Happenin’ All Over Again. I was amazed. And that Saturday night I went to a party at the Post Office Pavilion called “Spring to Life.” It was the most remarkably jubilant dance party I have ever attended. When “We Are Family” was played, there was no question but that We were back. Only this year did I discover the party was dj’d by Robbie Leslie, one of the Saint’s most revered djs.
Over the next five years I rediscovered dance music, chiefly at Probe, and chiefly thanks to Mike Duretto. Mike is younger than me, and so he was able to bring me up to date with the music I had missed. Being an old time Disco Dolly, I was especially attracted to the High Energy Classics of the late 1980s. My drug of choice was beer (the high caloric brands, thank you), and that allowed me to go out and have a good 5 hours of dancing (either at Probe on Saturday night or at one of Mike’s T-Dances). It was especially exciting to come out of retirement and discover the dancefloor packed with such a stunningly beautiful new generation of young men.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, thanks to a new found dancing buddy, that I began to explore other types of music and the late night time periods during which it was played. And that was when I first became aware of Michael Fierman. A big part of my attraction to Fierman was his loyalty to Disco, and particularly his insistence that Disco could and should be played right up front, as powerful invigorating dance music, and not merely relegated to a T-Dance or an Oldies Night. But equally compelling to me was the way in which Fierman would blend Disco and current vocals with music (sometimes joined to vocals, sometimes not) that, for me, produced the whole Train sensation. This sensation was evoked both by certain “trainlike” musical sounds, and also the ability of those sounds to provide a recurring loco-motion that consistently propelled the party forward, much like a train moving down the tracks.
This sensation became most clear to me during last year’s Saint-at-Large Black Party at Roseland. Just as I had never been to the Saint, I had never been to Roseland. But I thought the party was amazing and afterward sent Fierman one of my many long fan-mails. Albeit with considerable difficulty, I tried to explain my “train” thing in terms of a “sound” that seemed to keep weaving in and out of his music. I wrote to Fierman: “[This sound] took many different forms, but it seemed like it was often being generated by a big machine. At times this machine sped up, at times it slowed down. Because of that, the machine often felt like a train. When you played the Boys on Boxes party at the World, and the Climax Party at Palm Springs, I felt like I got on that non-stop train and went for this wonderful ride that never ended until the last note. I especially liked the way you would tease the crowd in the final hours by making us think the train might be coming to its final stop, and then revving it back up, zooming right past the station, and letting us know the journey would continue. (While Darin Arrowood plays different music than you, and with a different style, I feel a similar kind of experience at his parties). I don’t know musical categories, so I just come up with my own. And because of that train thing and because the sounds often seemed like gears and rotations, I just called that music ‘clackety-clack.’”
If you can get access to a promotional tape set of last year’s Black Party, take that Ride. But do it all in one sitting, without distractions, and when you are in the right “space.” Some of the most remarkable moments come in the first half when Fierman weaves in and out of Old and New. I still remember how the dancefloor and disco ball lit up when Fierman mixed from a fairly dark set into Jackie Moore’s exuberant This Time Baby. It’s like the Train coming out of a long dark tunnel into a Disco Boogie Wonderland of bright colors and Disco balls. This transition is even more intense later on, when a lower energy set that concludes with Junkster’s sleazy Slide suddenly breaks into the Pet Shop Boys’ fabulous Left To My Own Devices. But my favorite part of the Journey actually occurs way back toward the end, in what was then mid-afternoon at Roseland, when the Train headed out over a very somber gray landscape. It could be Siberia. Or it could be Oklahoma. It could be dusk. Or it could be dawn. But the Train just keeps chugging along, carrying the dancers forward during a full 60 minutes of sultry sexy music that starts with Walterino LWS’s Jam Experience, moves through Dave Matthews, Talking Heads and Garbage, and ultimately concludes with Underworld’s Corndog. A review in The Circuit Dog complained that Fierman “flatlined” it. I couldn’t disagree more. Train tracks are laid straight, and an engine strong enough to carry a Party nearly 10 hours requires a recurring groove. But that Party and that Music were anything but flat.
For the remainder of 1999 I went to more than my share of various dance parties, and I would have to say my goal was always the same: to once again find and board that Train, and then ride it to the end of the line. But that was easier said than done. Particularly since I wasn’t even sure what “the Train” was, or how to go about finding the station or conductor. But whenever I did manage to find it, there was no doubt. I definitely climbed aboard when Buc played the Friday night after-hours party at the Palm Springs White Party. Likewise when Joe D’Espinosa played an Aftershock party in LA over Memorial Day. And again when Fierman played an after-hours party at Icon last Fall. Each of those parties, for me, had a very different musical style, but nonetheless represented “clackety-clack” at its best.
Encouraged by my dancing buddy, I would also go to a lot of other parties - typically with first rate djs such as Victor Calderone, David Knapp, Manny Lehman or Kio Kio - where I would often have a good time and do a lot of dancing, but even so, never really rode the Train. While some of the music was like clackety clack, more often it had a pounding sensibility. I typically referred to this music as either “Jackhammer,” or its close cousin, “Bang the Gong.” Music is of course closely linked to sex, and I increasingly saw my musical categories in sexual terms. Clackety-clack, for me, moved like the wheels of my Train, circular, yin-and-yang-like. It integrated the female principle. Bang the Gong and Jackhammer, on the other hand, were exclusively male. And more specifically, seemed to me essentially like an adolescent male’s notion of what it meant to be a “top.” In some of my more obnoxious moments, I described this as “white boy jerk off” or “pound the pussy” music. In any case, it was not a style that I found especially appealing either sexually or musically. And I also found it to be a style linked to the pornographic imagination that I believed (and continue to believe) had imprisoned way too much of our gay male psyche. At the same time, I must admit, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the sheer muscle and power of this music. It was a muscle and power one witnessed in the driving percussions, in the buff young men on the dancefloor, and even in some of the djs themselves.
During the second half of last year, I started buying a lot of vinyl, talking up a lot of djs, and finally came to learn that what I was describing as Jackhammer or Bang the Gong was more generally known as “Hard House.” And that my beloved “clackety clack” was nothing more than the beat and sound patterns of what was more generally know as “Progressive House” (and in some cases carried over into “Deep House” or “Progressive Trance”). I remember asking a couple of Latin djs (who seem to have a very different perspective on things) why it was that I felt comfortable dancing to the music of David Harness or Eddie X (even if it was not my favorite style), but often had such difficulty with the white boy “hard house” crowd. And they gave me the simplest of answers: because the former was “rhythmic.” And it all started to make sense. The various sounds that I lumped together as “clackety clack” played out in a circular rhythm, not simply a driving beat. They had sway. In my first “Dance Diaries” (written almost a year ago) I wrote of a woman who said to me, “you like music that goes sideways; that other music goes up and down.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand what she meant. Now I do.
In any case, now I finally had a label, a cause, a team, and thus unfurled my banner: “Progressive House.” But most important, I believed I had found a music with sufficient force and dynamism to take on what I (always a Drama Queen) had decided was the Hard House Army of Darkness. Nonetheless, I felt the troops on my side were sorely outnumbered, and even I remained all too aware of (and often seduced by) the powerful appeal of the Hard Guys. Also, while sure of my cause, I was unsure of my leaders. The LA djs still seemed very stuck in High Energy and a traditional vocal sound that even to me seemed very tired. And unless they were playing after-hours, most of the “House Music” played by the Fire Island djs usually seemed far too slow and jazzy (and again, too tied to vocal conventions) to go up against the Tattooed Muscled Battalions.
My best bet seemed to be to return to my roots, to San Francisco, and its extremely powerful Progressive Music, which had reinvigorated the San Francisco dance scene in the early 1990s, the very same time when I myself had rediscovered the Magic of the Dance. Far more than anybody else, the SF djs seemed to celebrate the “Progressive” music that I most liked (and which, for me, now constitutes a third “Classic” body of gay dance music, Disco being the first, Morning Music the second): records of the mid-to-late 1990s like Chakra’s Home, Alibi’s I’m Not to Blame, Kamilian’s Guidance, Evolution’s Your Love is Calling, Red Sun’s This Love, Brainbug’s Nightmare, Lithium’s Ride a Rocket, Sungod’s Ancient Forest or anything remixed by the Trousers Enthusiasts. But the great shortcoming of the San Francisco Sound was that it had no History. It was like a Phoenix risen from the Ashes, a postwar Germany or Japan, all newly minted leather and molten steel, but having completely turned its back on its cultural past. No Trocadero. No Dreamland. No Disco. And No Morning Music. It was like one of those hard-boiled veterans of late 1940s Film Noir, engulfed by amnesia because the nightmare of the wartime trenches is just too painful to revisit. San Francisco was Ground Zero of the Epidemic (don’t let anyone tell you different) and there could be no looking back. Musically, that meant you could ride the fiercest of Trains at Magnitude or Hell Ball. But you were never going to leave the Tunnel.
And leaving the tunnel was, for me, the Secret of the Train. The Magical Journey derived from the way in which Progressive House provided the engine of the Dance Party (with clackety-clack the Groove that kept the Party going down the tracks), but at the same time allowed it to Journey to many different lands, both Past and Future. Kind of like those buttons on the side of a Technics turntable. The speed is kept in balance when the key lit row is in equilibrium in comparison to the rows above and below, one of which goes forward, one of which goes back. Studying History confirmed my belief that you cannot make meaningful Progress without an understanding of, and loyalty to, the Past. And what I most liked about Fierman’s parties, when he was “on” and they really worked, was this interweaving of styles, of Old and New, Classic Disco with the current non-vocal drum beats. And it was (and remains) my view that strong Progressive House could provide the structure, the muscle, the sinews, the engine, that would make Happy Music and Pretty Music every bit as powerful as the most slamming, banging Hard House. And toward this end I would send e-mails to those djs who I considered my team captains to play “more Progressive.” The frequent result was that I alienated the very people I most admired and the very djs to whom I had pinned my most fervent hopes.
At the end of last year, I was concerned that the Progressive House “revolution” (proclaimed in that opening Manifesto to SM-Trax’s Got the Groove) seemed to have run out of steam. I feared the Train might be slowing down. But then somehow, just in time for the new Millennium, everything seemed to change. On Christmas Day I went to a party at the Factory, where Manny Lehman played beautiful rhythmic House. Not one jackhammer note. On New Year’s Eve I went to Octagon, where Michael Fierman got the party started, and then Susan Morabito combined Progressive House with her own Gospel-enriched style to drive the Train in a way I had not previously experienced. On New Year’s Day, Peter Rauhofer (whose Club 69 sound I very much associated with the enemy camp) played gorgeous rhythmic-Trancey music of a category I cannot define, but which stayed completely in Groove and had the Roxy rocking until very late morning. And all that weekend in New York I read in the local rags about the death of Hard House.
Upon returning to LA, I bought the new Sting single, Desert Rose, and was dismayed by the fluid, sexual beauty of the Calderone mix, with all of its echoing tribal beats and underwater bells (I began calling this sound, along with the type of sounds one hears in the Mike Koglin remix of Lustral’s Everytime, the “Bubbles”). When Buc played a party at Icon a few weeks later, he used the Bubbles in place of more tinny, mechanical “clackety clack” sounds to provide a gorgeous fluid sexual rhythm that carried throughout the whole party. Every good gay interior decorator knows to carry a theme throughout. The theme should never overpower, and it is often most artful when it is sufficiently subtle and “backgrounded” that the viewer (or listener) is not even conscious of its manipulative power. But continuity is key. There were many variations on the Theme, but suddenly with the new year everything seemed much more rhythmic. It was as if everyone had suddenly decided to ride the Train.
And then there was the Saint-at-Large White Party at Roseland. Not so much a party as a grand all-weekend Music Festival. I missed Julian Marsh’s set, but commencing with Warren Gluck, I viewed the event as a proclamation. My side had landed at Normandy, we were marching toward Paris and victory was at hand. Each DJ handed the engine room over to his or her successor, and it was a grand Train trip from start to finish. Lots of Bubbles. Lots of clackety clack. And most important, lots of Disco and traditional pretty vocal music along the way. Glitter, leather, lace, steel, sequins, boots and feathers all in the mix. New Progressive House music joined to the glorious Songs of our Liberation. And because the music paralleled the “circuit” of my own personal journey, I was pleased to have the White Party end with a glorious Classic Disco set from Robbie Leslie, who seven years earlier had helped me relight my own fire in DC.
And even more fitting, for me, was that my year-long voyage should culminate back with my main Conductor, Michael Fierman, at another Saint-at-Large Black Party. How right that Victor Calderone, King of the New Circuit, should warm up the crowd for Fierman, the Dean of the Old School. How right that Calderone should so flawlessly play his beautiful sound that inspires the Sting remix. And then how perfect that Fierman should use Abba’s The Visitors as his point of departure, and then move right into full on muscular Progressive House in a style to make Neil Lewis blush. And as soon as Fierman had his Train in high gear, how smart and wonderful to take the gentlest of scenic breaks, as we all paused to look out the window and enjoy a landscape as soft and beautiful as Soweto Funk’s African Dream. Even better that just when Fierman had re-powered that Train full of muscle in Black Leather into the deepest caverns of Progressive House, he would suddenly without any warning at all burst above ground into a fabulous Disco Fairyland with his signature Classic, Souvenirs. Roseland went absolutely wild. It’s amazing the Disco Ball didn’t just shatter right then and there. That’s my Train. Where you just lose yourself in the Ride (which is exquisite in and of itself), but then you are suddenly jolted into that glorious wonderland of gorgeous color, exuberant sound and truly unspeakable Joy.
Looking back, I must admit I am embarrassed at having seen things in terms of Us and Them. It’s never that simple. Just as clackety-clack depended upon the interchange and rhythmic rotations of the gears, so the Progress of Music (or anything else for that matter) depends on the interplay between the Old and the New. Literally, a back and forth between the Old Guard playing their house parties at Fire Island Pines, and the young black and Hispanic kids mixing away in their Brooklyn garages. To whatever extent I am right in my hunch that gay dance music is now much more on Track, it’s because of that healthy interaction. In my case, it helped that I am a bottom drawn to Disco and Morning Music, and my dancing buddy is a top drawn to harder beats. Meeting in the middle (just like that famous scene between Sharks and Jets in West Side Story), we found a common dance floor. And at both Roseland parties, we shared that Train the whole way through.
But of course this all means that I, being an eternal critic, am now going to get antsy for conflict again. I mean, hey everybody, enough of the damn Bubbles already! That is, going forward, I think I am going to want a little more Victor Calderone in my Victor Calderone, a little more edge to keep my Fire Island friends on their toes. And likewise, I am going to want a little more Michael Fierman in my Michael Fierman. Now that he has shown us he can flex his turntable muscles to light the Disco Ball like it has never been lit before, I know I am going to find myself longing for that other Michael Fierman, the one that takes me on one of those long down-tempo trips to those remote parts of Oklahoma I would never venture to alone, or even know how to find. You see, when all is said and done, the sadder but wiser girl for me.
And for me, it will always be Fierman’s Train. I am from his generation, and I know all too well what historian’s call the “long duree,” the slow endurance and continuity of our Music and our Spirit, and the bigger picture of where we are from and where we have been. When I was in New York for the Saint-at-Large parties I read a lot of nonsense in the gay rags about “When the Saints come Twirling In,” the old queens taking their “whites” out of the dresser drawer, the “Jurassic Park” djs and all the rest. And the current issue of Circuit Noize has a quiz by which you can discover whether you qualify for membership in AACP (the Association of Aging Circuit Partyers). One of the litmus test indicators for whether you “qualify for membership in this illustrious geriatric crew” is: “You recall the days when only Susan Morabito, Buc, Michael Fierman, Robbie Leslie and Warren Gluck comprised the small fraternity of DJs from which a party promoter could choose.” I will pose a different question, for both young and old: “What will the Circuit be like when we no longer have these precious few remaining links to our Musical Past and our Glorious Beginnings?” I say let’s cherish them. Let’s learn as much as we can from them while we still have them and while they still hear and sound the Call. And as for Classic Disco, I, for one, am not ashamed to say that I believe that Disco is to gay dance music what the slave spirituals and early gospel hymns are to Black Church Music. It was our original music of Freedom. Let’s not dare forget it.
But meanwhile, everybody, hey, let’s have a Party! Let’s Dance! That is, C’mon and Ride the Train. It’s a good Train, a fun Train, a Party Train. And it’s been a Long Time Running. You won’t be disappointed.
All Aboard!……Next Stop……..Roseland Ballroom!