Tim Lawrence liest Disco-Geschichte, DJs: Daniel Wang & Finn Johannsen im Basso

Passend zum Disco-Special in der aktuellen De:Bug-Ausgabe haben wir Tim Lawrence nach Berlin eingeladen, den Autor von “Loves Saves The Day”, der Geschichte der amerikanischen Club-Kultur, an deren Anfang Disco stand.

Lawrence, Professor, Partyveranstalter und Autor, wird aus seinem neuen Buch “Hold On To Your Dreams”, einer Biographie des Disco-Cellisten Arthur Russell, lesen. Begleitet wird er dabei von Musik der Komponistin Jo Thomas, die unter anderem Arthur-Russell-Tracks extra für die Lesung neu bearbeitet hat.

Das Ganze findet heute, Freitag, den 23. Juli, ab 21 Uhr im Basso in Kreuzberg statt. Die Adresse findet ihr weiter unten im Interview. Oder hier auf Facebook. Der Eintritt ist frei. Zur Einstimmung haben wir Tim Lawrence schon mal ein paar Fragen per Email geschickt:

Debug: For experiencing the disco explosion first hand you are a little too young. Where does this fascination with disco and its originators come from?

Tim Lawrence: In short, it comes from David Mancuso. When I set out to write my first book I intended to chart the history of dance music from the mid-1980s onwards, but then a friend who worked in Dance Tracks, a record shop in the East Village, told me I should also interview David. This was back in 1997, and David was pretty unknown at the time outside of very specific insider circles in New York. That’s because he’d only given two interviews, and was seen to be somewhat “apart” from the rest of the New York dance scene, plus he’d also experienced a difficult ten years or so and wasn’t really putting on parties at the time.
But I decided to follow up on my friend’s suggestion and ended up meeting David in an Italian restaurant on Avenue B. We talked for about three hours, and to my amazement I barely understood a word of what David was saying, simply because I had no knowledge of the culture he was referencing — parties such as the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, the SoHo Place, and Reade Street, or organisations like the record pool, or other DJs such as Steve D’Acquisto, Michael Cappello, David Rodriguez, Nicky Siano, and the rest of them. Quite simply, David was talking about a scene that hadn’t been historicised, or even written about in a journalistic context.
Initially I wasn’t sure how to handle the information. I was something of a child of the house music era, and as far as I was concerned, the disco era was all about slightly cheesy music and flashing dance floors, so I had stayed well clear of it all. But David was proposing that I shouldn’t begin my book with the disco era, but instead in 1970, before disco even came about, and he made a compelling case for the social and sonic progressiveness of not only the Loft but a whole network of parties that emerged in New York during the first half of the 1970s.
I was pretty intimated about the idea of historicising a period that was completely outside of my experience and knowledge, but I was also intrigued, and had a strong sense that a major epoch had fallen outside of history — and that that needed to be corrected.

A little unsure of what to do, I started to ask interviewees such as Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphreys and David Morales if they’d ever heard of David Mancuso and danced at the Loft. They all replied with a semi-religious convinction that the Loft was the party that changed their lives – their view of what could be achieved on a dance floor. At that point I realised that I had no choice but to begin the book in 1970, and thought that I could probably devote a chapter to the 1970-84 period before getting onto what I thought would be the main narrative.
But I ended up becoming so intrigued with the story of the 1970s, and in particular the downtown party scene, that I ended up writing 180,000 words on that decade alone – or the equivalent of a 180,000-word book. At that point it became clear that the book should just tell the story of the 1970s. It became “Love Saves the Day”, which was titled after David’s first Valentine’s Day party back in February 1970. I haven’t regretted a word of it.

Debug: You are not just an author and teacher but also a party promoter, organizing events with The Loft’s David Mancuso. How did that come about?

Tim Lawrence: Nuphonic put on a Loft-style party with David in London to promote the first “David Mancuso presents the Loft”-compilation, and the party was such a success David decided he’d like to do another one. David tried to work something out with Nuphonic for a while, but they didn’t come up with a concrete proposal, so after a year or so David turned to me and asked me if I’d like to do something with him in London. I remember telling David that I was flattered that he wanted to work with me, but said that I didn’t think I was the right person because I wasn’t an experienced party promoter.
In reply, David something like, “That’s exactly why I want to work with you.” I think David was saying that because the Loft had always been run as a community-oriented house party as opposed to a nightclub, and hadn’t gone through any of the regular marketing channels used by club promoters, he was very up for the idea of working with someone who didn’t have “industry” experience — because he operated outside of the industry himself.

I still felt pretty overawed by the request, and told David I didn’t think I could manage such a huge undertaking. But David replied that he had another good friend, Colleen Murphy, sometimes better known as DJ Cosmo, who was also living in London, and he had also approached her and wondered if we could start to work on the idea together. My response was to think that the party was still too big an undertaking for two people, plus I didn’t know Colleen at all back then. But around the same time, and without any knowledge of David’s request, a friend and colleague of mine called Jeremy Gilbert noted that Nuphonic didn’t look like they were going to put on another party with David, so why don’t we organise one ourselves? I’d taken Jeremy along to the Nuphonic party and he’d been so blown away by the experience that he wanted some more of the same.
His comment was serendipitous, and with Jeremy keen to get involved, it suddenly seemed like we had approximating a team of people to get something going with David. Colleen then introduced her friend and then partner Nikki Lucas to the collective, and Adrian Fillary, who had helped with the decor at the Nuphonic party, also became involved. The collective has changed form a few times since then, but that’s how the parties got started in London. We held our first event in June 2003, and celebrated our seventh anniversary last month. The parties are really very strong indeed. People travel from all over Europe to come to them.

Debug: “Hold On To Your Dreams” is the name of your newest book, a biography of Arthur Russell, whose music has been rediscovered in the last years. He was a hippie in San Fransisco, played his cello together with John Cale, Philip Glass and Allen Ginsberg and moved to New York while disco was reigning supreme. Even though he appeared kind of late on the downtown disco scene, it seems that his impact was still quite big. What makes Arthur Russell stand out?

Tim Lawrence: Arthur stood out because of his willingness to develop a form of dance music that stretched the generic boundaries of disco. Arthur arrived in New York to study composition at the Manhattan School of Music, and quite soon after he headed downtown, where he became involved in the compositional scene, and also started to develop a quirky line in folk, pop and new wave. Initially he didn’t have any interest in dance music, but when a boyfriend introduced him to the Gallery, which was a Loft-style party that Nicky Siano opened in 1973, he became enthralled by the sonic progressive of disco and funk, and also the social progressiveness of the party set-up.

Arthur ended up persuading Siano to fund a twelve-inch dance track and started to work on the record during the summer of 1977, just as disco was about to peak — because Studio 54 opened in April 1977, and Saturday Night Fever was released towards the end of that year. Arthur came to the conclusion that dance music had become overly slick and produced during the peak of disco, and as a result it had started to lose touch with the organic space of the dance floor, and in particular the downtown dance floors of the Gallery and the Loft.
As a result, he looked to introduce elements that would give his recording an earthy, organic, rootsy feel — so the drummers were instructed to drag behind the beat in contrast to the metronome pulse of most disco, the vocalist was encouraged to sing slightly out of tune rather than in the mode of a gospel-trained diva, two bass players were employed to create a rumbling, discordant effect, and the lyrics told the story of an S/M relationship rather than some kind of mainstream heterosexual romance. The resulting single was titled “Kiss Me Again”, and although Arthur was unhappy with the final track, it stands as one of the first mutant disco releases — or tracks that twisted the key principles of disco into a fresh, original form.
Arthur went on to record other twelve-inch singles such as “Is It All Over My Face?”, “Go Bang”, “Pop Your Funk”, “Clean On Your Bean” and “Let’s Go Swimming”. All of them sounded completely fresh, and introduced unexpected elements such as compositional scores, dub effects, slurring trombones, operatic solos, homoerotic chanting and amateur percussionists into the disco matrix. As a result, Arthur’s inventiveness and willingness to try out fresh combinations of sounds became this incredibly influential element in the post-1979 dance scene in New York.

Debug: There are a number of other extremely interesting biographies waiting to be written (Walter Gibbons for instance). Are you planning to write another bio anytime soon?

Tim Lawrence: I’ve already written a quarter of a biography of Walter, who ended up recording some interesting tracks with Arthur in the mid-1980s. The research was initially published in a Walter Gibbons compilation released by Strut Records, and carried out more research and developed the piece further for the Journal of Popular Music Studies.
I’m very drawn to Walter’s work and am interested in writing a full-length biography. But for now I’m neck-deep in a history of New York music culture 1980-84, so am not quite sure when I’ll be able to dig out time for this, plus I have a sense that quite a bit of what I want to say about Walter is already out there.

Other than that, I should say that I’m generally not drawn to the biographical form, because biographies tend to celebrate the life of a single person, whereas I’m more drawn to collectives and scenes. Arthur was an exception because he embedded himself in so many scenes, almost to the detriment of his own career, and as a result of his span his story doubled up as a kind of shadow biography of New York during the 1970s and 1980s.
Arthur’s story was also very much a story not about Arthur but about Arthur and his collaboration, which he valued very highly — and almost always above his own self-interest. If I were to write another biography, I’d want to focus on someone who was similarly anti-individualistic.

Debug: “Loves Saves The Day” your expansive account of the beginnings of disco in the early 70s is informed by the perspective of the underground, the originators. Would a book about mainstream disco – what happened in all these franchise discotheques and Holiday Inns after Saturday Night Fever blew up – be an interesting subject to explore for you?

Tim Lawrence: There’s a moment in Saturday Night Fever when John Travolta’s character says something along the lines of, “You know, nothing makes me feel the way I feel when I’m dancing,” and I’m interested in that idea — the idea that even in quite a commercial, mainstream setting such as 2001 Odyssey, the Brooklyn discotheque featured in Saturday Night Fever, dancers have the potential to experience something that contrasts with their everyday experience.
I’m interested in that, and I also don’t like to look down on people who dance outside of the rarified settings of New York’s downtown scene scene as well as equivalent settings that have emerged since then. That said, I’m not sure if I could really dedicate myself to the kind of project you’re talking about. Ultimately I’m drawn to writing about marginalised communities who develop innovative cultural ideas in social settings, and Middle America doesn’t quite fit that description. I need to be compelled by what I write about, and I’m not sure how long I could stick with the commercial end of social dance.

Debug: You lived in Manchester during the acid house explosion and the british “Summer of Love”. A movement that accomplished a few landslide changes culturally in the UK, not unlike disco in the 70s in New York. Were you part of the whole acid house thing and do you see similarities?

Tim Lawrence: I studied Politics and Modern History as an undergraduate in Manchester between 1986-89, and then stayed on to take an MA in European Politics between 1989-90. I should have been in the thick of the dance scene, but only experienced the peak of the Haçienda once during the summer of 1988, and that only happened because I stayed in the city that summer to run a youth camp rather than head back to London. A Manchester-based friend who was also going to work on the camp told me that she’d heard the club was really good, and suggested we head down, so we did.

We showed up on a Wednesday to find find the floor awash with dancers who were gyrating on a single spot, their hands raised in the air, and their faces smiling ecstatically. I’d never seen anything remotely like it, and must have taken about five seconds to leap onto the nearest podium and join the throng. That was the first time I’d heard house music, and it was an unbelievable experience.
I’d heard all sorts of early eighties electro, which was actually quite successful in the pop charts in the UK, and I’d also been searching out beat driven music, with Soul to Soul a recent favourite at the time. But house was of a different order of percussive magnitude, electronic layering, and conceptual intensity. I immediately felt as though I’d finally heard the music I’d been searching for all my life.

I returned to the Haçienda with university friends at the beginning of the autumn, but headed there on a Friday, which must have been some kind of indie night. The experience was awful, and unfortunately I had no idea that clubs would put on different events on different nights of the week, so I simply concluded that the house moment had evaporated and that some other, much duller trend had taken over. There was no internet back then to check the state of the galaxy in a millisecond, and overall I was much more involved in student union politics and editing a political magazine (called Manchester Left) than all-night dancing. The UK was nearing the peak of the Thatcher era at the time, and I was pretty set on changing the UK, after which I had my sights set on the world (blush).

It wasn’t until 1991, when I had graduated from journalism school, that I got back into dancing. A politico friend who was involved in the Labour party took me along to my first rave, and I soon got into the house scene that was developing at the Gardening Club on Friday nights. But that’s another story.

Debug: I saw in your link list on your website that you are into labels like Hyperdub. Are you following what’s going on musically at the moment?

Tim Lawrence: Yes, completely. I work with Kode 9 and so get to hear a lot of the Hyperdub releases, which are compelling. Initially I wondered if people actually danced to the music in club settings, but I’ve heard Kode 9 spin at Plastic People a couple of times and there’s always been good movement there, even if the dynamic is quite different from Deep Space, Libation, 718 and the Loft, which I head to when I’m in New York. I’ve been getting into a lot of the LCD Sound System releases, and similar-sounding stuff, and my neighbour is deep into minimal techno, so I keep up with that through the brick wall that separates our flats (and hit on him when he plays a particularly good track).

Overall I tend to receive music rather than go out or go on-line to buy music, which is very nice, even if it means I’m often a bit behind the loop. I’m fine with that. I kept up with the latest releases for a good 10 years between 1991 and 2001, and ended up blowing more money than I want to think about on music that was only amazingly good about 5% of the time. The practice of hunting down new music and listening to all of the latest releases was also incredibly time-consuming. Now that I try to write big books in-between working at university and spending time with my two young daughters, I don’t have time to spend a day or two a week listening to the latest twelve-inches. I think that’s the work of the DJ, and I see myself as a dancer, so that’s where I’m at with that.

Debug: What are your plans for your visit in Berlin?

Tim Lawrence: Well, there’s this book event on Friday night that I’m thinking of going to — it’s taking place at Basso. Apparently I’m talking about the Arthur Russell biography and reading a few extracts… Otherwise, I’m going to take Danny Wang’s advice on what to do on the Saturday. At some point I’m hoping to meet up with Arnold Dreyblatt, an experimental musician and artist who was close with Arthur Russell before Arnold moved to Berlin in the mid-1980s (having calculated that it had become too difficult to keep going in inflationary New York).

I interviewed Arnold for the book, and got to meet him once in London, so it’d be good to hook up again. Other than that, I’m just hoping to absorb the atmosphere of what everyone seems to believe is the most interesting cultural city in Europe. I haven’t been to Berlin since 1990, when I was obsessed with the revolutionary movement that swept through Eastern Europe and wanted to see what had happened firsthand. I’m looking forward to seeing how the city has moved on.

“Hold On To Your Dreams – Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene 1973 – 1992”

Tim Lawrence liest aus seiner Arthur-Russell-Biographie
DJ-Support: Daniel Wang & Finn Johannsen
Freitag, 23. Juli, ab 21 Uhr


Eintritt frei

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