Larry Levan and Paradise Garage by Reba Maybury
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Reba Maybury is a writer, lecturer and political dominatrix. Born in 1990, she now teaches a program in political and theoretical thinking on the Masters program in Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. She is the founder of Wet Satin Press, a publishing project focussing on capitalistic, heterosexual, white male sexuality and its eccentricities. In 2017 she published her first novella, Dining with Humpty Dumpty.
A queer icon, under all circumstances, rejects the sanitised. All too often we have now become immersed in setting rules to define ourselves. The irony of these new labels is that they often become mini fascisms in themselves. Boxes of acceptable behaviour, as so not to disrespect or insult others within our own community, now trap us. Political correctness acts as an invisible environment where even the most open minded can trip up.
It is of no secret that the ‘gay world’ is now a space of widespread racism and a dangerous aspiration towards white - homonormativity intermixed with a toxic theft from black culture. Defining yourself as ‘gender queer’ is all too often an amazing way for many to neglect the damaging reverberations that colonialism is still emitting through us. To be queer has always been about the rejection of mainstream pleasantries because there is no real social progression without discomfort. The body hold can often restrict us but there is nothing more arousing than a brilliant mind and that is not dependent on what genitals you are born with. The very notion of being ruthlessly yourself - no matter how mainstream society may project its disapproval onto to you is a radical way to spread love.
The world is increasingly becoming a more accepting place, even if that does mean once radical ideas become physically consumable. It's complex, tiring and can feel claustrophobic as we see gay venues shut down and right wing governments endorse the consumption of, rather than the action of, protest culture. This summer however, I experienced the most beautiful and affirming night at the 40th anniversary party for Paradise Garage.
Opening in Manhattan in 1977, Paradise Garage ran for ten years and its most famous resident DJ was Larry Levan, now thought of as one of history’s ever super star DJs. It is hard to articulate the absolute importance of this nightclub and Levan’s work on modern music, club culture and LGBT culture because it is so vast. I first started listening to Larry Levan mixes as a teenager after hearing his remix of Is It All Over My Face by Loose Joints (Arthur Russell’s disco project). Although I thought I was aware of disco and soul music, Larry Levan’s mixes at Paradise Garage exploded any expectation of how dance culture could operate in my mind. His mixes feel endless, deeply human and utterly euphoric. Levan catapultes human voices to guttural and gospel like repetitions, his beats transmit into electrifyingly mortal energies which radiate nothing other than elation and he was the first to transplant these songs onto a 12 inch format. His remixes evoke in me a kind of pleasure that is abstract to anything else I know. They reject the pretentious and instead maximize joyous emotion, because those feelings should never be complicated- they should always be accessible to everyone.
Paradise Garage had been inspired to take its model from David Mancusco’s iconic, invitation only private parties held at his home called The Loft in the mid 1970s. Levan had apparently been a one time lover to Mancusco who is thought of as a sort of genesis of how we construct late 20th century western fun. These parties weren't so interested in verbal communication but instead physical movement and nuanced sound systems were created and would surround the room which in themselves have iconic respect within the sound recording world. Tailing off from a hippy mentality in the mid 70s, the likes of Grace Jones would attend and boast of digesting The Loft’s LSD spiked punch, however Paradise Garage evolved into a more modern, sweaty and glamourous amalgamation of Mancusco’s vision with Levan’s progressive use of mixing music. If it were not for these two night clubs we would never have had the likes of Studio 54 of Taboo. Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Divine, Patti Labelle, Amanda Lear, Sylvester, New Order, Gwen Guthrie and more all performed there.
Paradise Garage- as its name suggest was held in a garage and gorgeously was often referred to as the ‘Gay-rage’ however it wasn’t exclusively a gay club. It provided itself on being safe and in a divided America it was one of the first night clubs to actively endorse welcoming everyone. Its ethos was centered around the music and nothing else. Larry Levan would perform his Saturday Sermons and club attendees would respect the space in the same way you respect a space of worship. Levan even lived in the building at one point and took the upmost care of the night, emptying the bins himself and shining the discoballs, something utterly unheard of today in our neoliberal madness where nightlife is focused on profit and directionless excess through the employment of zero hour workers. Levan would dream of making endless music, sometimes even djing for 12 hours straight. The creation of new energy is what really creates the most exceptional progression.
Like any important subculture, Levan and Paradise Garage’s influence has been profound. Frankie Knuckles was a teenage friend of Levan and would DJ at the garage before going back to Chicago to create House music
Within queerness I believe that to disgust is sublime and to polarize is even better, however that means nothing if its aim isn’t focused within the aim of provoking collective joy. I am a huge sceptic to any kind of quasi- western spiritualism but I totally endorse the unification that incredible music can create and a community that tails off from that. When a body all too often unfortunately defines us, what could be more queer than the ability to create energies to make us feel like we’re momentarily transforming and living in some beautiful paradise where religious stagnancy, capitalism and post-colonialism aren’t still controlling us. Music and sex are the same thing and their purpose is to maximum pleasure and in our culture pleasure is still seen as dangerous. Larry Levan was in no way selfishly debaucherous but he made music for us to reconnect with basic but valuable human emotions and those are about spreading unadulterated kindness.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.