I never visited the Warehouse, the Chicago club where legendary Frankie Knuckles was DJ (and where the moniker “House Music” was born), but I was lucky enough to dance all night at the Power Plant, the club he opened there in the early 1980s. Later, during a visit to NYC in the summer of 1983 (before I moved here in 1987), my friends took me out for a delirious pilgrimage to hear the mighty sounds of Larry Levan at Paradise Garage. This former garage at 84 King Street was a place of few words. Dance was the message. Waitresses, postal clerks, trannies, and bankers all moved with an eloquence absent from ordinary life and transformed that dance floor into a music-fueled perpetual state of grace.
At places like the Pyramid Club and King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, I hung back, watching larger-than-life personalities like Ann Magnuson, Ethyl Eichelberger and Dagmar Onassis (performer John Kelly’s magnificent invention) perform onstage. Though I never saw them play, I heard the 3 Teens Kill 4 album NO MOTIVE, which featured an outrageous cover of the Rufus and Chaka Khan classic “Tell Me Something Good” (written by Stevie Wonder), in which they’d sampled audio of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt into the mix. I didn’t notice it then but, among others, that band included artists David Wojnarowicz and Brian Butterick (later known as Hattie Hathaway, one of the inventors of both Wigstock—the drag saturated annual festival that began in the East Village in the 1980s—and, later, the weekly Meat Market boîte Jackie 60). I have fuzzy memories of burlesque nights at the Pyramid presided over by the gravel-voiced Hapi Phace or Tabboo!, drag queens like none I’d seen in Chicago—more Weegee than Bob Mackie (or maybe both). And it was funny to notice, when the fright lights came on at 4:00 a.m. and scattered the nightclubbers like cockroaches, just how tiny that dance floor really was.
This was an outrageous mirror-world where people transformed themselves like characters out of a novel—names were taken, dropped, changed altogether. Since nearly everyone lived in shitty little apartments, by necessity we gathered to escape the brutal summers in the relative cool of Tompkins Square Park (before the police riots changed everything) or in dark, humid clubs. There was little separation between my nightlife and day-life, then, and the boundaries of my creative work became increasingly blurred. Many of us would go directly from ACT UP meetings (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—a direct action group that began in 1987) to The Bar, the gay bar on the corner of Fourth and Second Avenue where conversation, debate, and cruising continued.
My first two video screenings in New York were at The Kitchen and, tellingly, The World, a sprawling former theater-turned-nightclub on East Second and Avenue C. Many of the supporting cast in my first feature, Swoon, (including Trash, Mona Foot, and Ryan Landry) were people I met in those sweaty rooms. Later, in one hectic day in 1992, I shot dozens of people for a short film called Nation in the space then called Bar Room 432 (which housed the Clit Club, Meat, and Jackie 60 before succumbing, like most of the Meat Packing district, to a high end boutique). And when Gran Fury (another AIDS activist collective of which I am a member) made the public project Kissing Doesn’t Kill, the models were people we knew from all of these rooms—including dancer and performance artist Julie Tolentino and photographer Lola Flash.
It was still difficult in the mid-1980s to see films like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures or even most of Warhol’s films from the 1960s. At that time, I had seen only a sliver of Peter Hujar’s breathtaking photographs—they are indispensable for understanding an entire constellation of downtown personalities. I still remember being inspired by the loopy good humor of his work when I met Tom Rubnitz—he made delicious videos of the East Village drag scene and he encouraged me to do the same. So I’m grateful to curator Barbara London for gathering some of these old friends and legends under one roof with Looking At Music 3.0. I can only hope that, in viewing and interacting with this work, another generation gets it’s own wild ideas. I’m looking forward to Looking At Music 4.0 and beyond.