Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story
y summer jam was Escort’s “Starlight.” This assemblage of disco evergreens—Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell,” “Funkytown,” and a couple of Norma Jean Wright tracks—evokes a joy as evanescent as starlight itself. Its rhythm guitar—more urgent and plaintive than even Nile Rodgers was capable of—suggests Fear of Music-era Talking Heads. Escort’s origins and ambitions are irrelevant, since the singer’s emotions are as unreadable as Sanskrit. This alone would have made Escort (can’t you see the name on the Thank God It’s Friday soundtrack?) the archetypal disco band. Anonymity fueled the ambition of the genre’s greatest hits. The dilution of identity, the subsuming of individual desire to the popper-kissed sound, concentrating on the lock of your boyfriend’s hair plastered to his damp forehead at the expense of everything else about him—how muscular this music seems when it turned its rapacity in on itself. Disco fetishized the present.
Larry Levan, Paradise Garage’s premier DJ, understood that his largely gay black fans in large part lived private lives which mirrored the anonymity that Journey Into Paradise’s tracks projected. Journey Into Paradise documents this communal release. While there’s a lot of stuff missing, I can’t imagine a better collection of this era of dance music: the demise of disco as an American commercial force forced its creators to return to their club origins, unchastened yet hungry for new influences. In this context Talking Heads' “Once in a Lifetime” (especially when it shares disc space with Five Special's "Why Leave Us Alone," whose synth-bass Eno, Byrne, et al appropriated wholesale) is kin to disco rave-ups of quasi-gospel intensity like Chaka Khan and Womack & Womack. Obscurities (well, to me) like David Joseph's "You Can't Hide (Your Love From Me)" meld Imagination and Tom Tom Club into a permutation that's subdued but no less tinged with hysteria. The appearance of Yaz's “Situation” represents an evolution, not a termination. When a voice like Alison Moyet’s—thick, androgynous, uninhibited—emulated the gospel fervor of Aretha in a British electro setting, there’s no way that a listener could tag it as anonymous. Ditto for Womack & Womack’s “Baby I’m Scared of You,” an obscurity which by any standard should have made every top ten compiled that year (let’s be fair: it was 1984, the gold standard for pop music, during which W & W had lots of competition).
Journey Into Paradise is filled with wonderful juxtapositions like this: quiet revelations that chronicle the evolution of the black gay consciousness before AIDS and crack either kept it in its appointed corner or allowed a tepid reminder like Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” to become a Top Five pop crossover. It’s surely no accident that Change’s “The Glow of Love,” in which Luther Vandross made about as open a declaration of his sexuality as a mainstream audience would allow, is absent, leaving two of their lesser thumpers (“A Lover’s Holiday” and “Paradise”) to elucidate Levan’s unspoken mantra. Take a look at their titles. Meanwhile, Sister Sledge’s Chic Organization-penned and –performed “Lost in Music” makes the point explicitly: “Caught in a trap / No turning back.” Levan understood. He was 38 when he died of heart failure in 1992.