"Saturday Mass" is what people called Larry Levan's DJ sets at New York's most legendary nightclub, the Paradise Garage. "Larry would preach through his music from the DJ booth, just like a minister or priest does from a pulpit," says DJ and close friend of Levan's David DePino. Levan delivered his sermon each weekend, from the club's opening in 1977 (while it was still in construction) to the day the Garage forever closed its doors in the summer of 1987.
Located, true to its name, in a parking garage on 84 King Street in Manhattan, it was one of the only clubs ever built for a specific DJ. As a venue it was relatively nondescript, but what it lacked in decor it made up for with its much-revered sound system and passionate members. The Garage's legend is synonymous with that of Levan, who was the club's resident DJ in the most literal sense; at one point even living in the building. He treated it with the reverence accorded to a house of worship: repositioning the sound system on the night, stopping his set at 2AM to polish the mirrorballs, and even ensuring that the bins were thoroughly cleaned. All of which seems unthinkable for a DJ today but then the Garage was more than just a club, it was Levan's vision of paradise.
For the Garage's congregation, the private membership policy offered them some sense of sanctuary and ownership. It was one of the few clubs in New York which the gay, and predominantly African-American and Latino, patrons could genuinely call their own. "The Garage was a place for people that were not accepted in society, a place from them to be free, to be who they are," says Victor Rosado, who worked at the club. Even with the momentum of the gay rights movement post-Stonewall, homophobic violence on the streets and police harassment continued largely unabated. "It took a while to build the trust of the gay community," says DePino. Eventually, the gay nights on Friday took off with the already popular Saturdays drawing a more mixed flock.
Rosado, who's carried on the legacy of the Garage through his own DJ career, was one of the select few to be given the opportunity to play at the club by Levan. "It was a complete surprise to me, it was on my birthday. We talked about music before but I definitely did not expect Larry to ask me to DJ like that without any warning," he says. Levan delighted in playing tricks on both his friends and audience, whether by playing the same song over and over for an hour or jolting the dancefloor with a sudden blast of bass. But his signature technique was weaving a narrative from the sentiments and lyrics of the records he played, describing each as a new sentence or paragraph in the stories he was trying to tell over his 12 hour sets.
This Sunday, Rosado, together with DePino, Danny Krivit and Joey Llanos – all of whom DJ'ed at the club – are coming to London's Ministry of Sound for a special reunion event to raise money for two HIV charities: New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis (or GMHC) and the UK's Terrence Higgins Trust. So, we asked Rosado, DePino, Krivit, and the Ministry's own Justin Berkmann – who was inspired by his experiences at the Garage to set up Ministry – to tell us about their memories of the club ahead of this special event.
Victor Rosado: The first time I went down there I waited for hours in the hope that somebody would ask me if I wanted to come in. So I met this guy, we talked, I think he kinda of liked me, and he asked if I'd like to come in and that was the beginning of it all.
Justin Berkmann: I first went down there on a Friday, which unbeknown to me was the straight night. I was the only white guy in the building and I was getting bumped and jostled pretty bad and couldn't understand the hostility towards me. I was just on my way out and this one kid came up and said 'You shouldn't be here tonight but you're welcome to come back tomorrow night'.
Rosado: I got a little bit of the third degree on my first time in the club but they were okay after a while. I think they just gave you a rough time if they'd never seen you before.
Berkmann: After three failed attempts I finally got in on Saturday night [initially, an exclusively gay night]. I was with my friend Jimmy from Los Angeles. He camped it up outrageously at the door, I don't think they bought it but they probably thought 'If they're willing to go to this length then they probably really want to get in.' We started going every week and before you know it we had our membership cards.
Danny Krivit: It was inside a two story trucking garage. You entered by walking up this ramp lit by coloured lights on both sides with a big neon sign of the Paradise Garage logo at the top.
David DePino: It was not glamorous, it was built around the sound first and foremost and also total comfort for its members. There were two lounges you could chill out in and a movie theatre. It even had a cushioned wooden floor so your feet wouldn't get tired because wanted you to stay till the very end.
Berkmann: There was no liquor or bartenders, it was just self-service with bowls of punch. There was also an 80-seat cinema and could go see movies that were out in the cinema at the time. I have no idea how they sorted that. I remember seeing Three Amigos while completely off my tits, I don't think I've ever laughed so much in life. It's a good movie but it was extra funny that night.
DePino: To this day it's still the best sound I've ever heard. People often talk about The Loft having the best sound system, but The Loft had a pretty sound, The Garage was hard-hitting. As the night progressed, as the sound system warmed-up and people filled the room, the acoustics in the room changed. So Larry would tweak the sound throughout the night so everything sounded good all night long. Every once in a while he'd run into the middle of the dancefloor to hear what it sounded like. The next day it had to be EQ'd again because it would sound terrible in a completely empty, dry room.
Rosado: It was massively loud and you could feel the bass pressing on your chest and rippling through the floor. I could not stand directly in front of a speaker, I couldn't take the sound pressure.
Berkmann: For me the sound was the be all and end all. It was the philosophy behind it I think that made it so great. Richard Long and Levan were constantly trying to improve it by tuning and retuning. Rather than EQing the system, they EQ'd the room. So they took the whole concept of a sound system and turned it on its head by fitting the room around the sounds rather than the other way.
Rosado: Larry was always doing something to the system. He was like mad scientist constantly experimenting to try make things better.
Rosado: Saturday nights was a little more go for your gun, he had some records that he'd play on a Saturday that which very gay-friendly. Friday was a little more mainstream, where as Saturday was sky's the limit.
DePino: Through your night, you might get to the dancefloor for two or three songs then go to the back rooms and talk with your friends, watch a movie maybe and then socialise some more. Everything wasn't about dancing, it was about the whole experience.
Rosado: It was an outlet, it was a place to go to find peace. It felt like Larry was talking to you through the music, and his messages were very clear, and he would flow from one message to another – that was really potent. That was as close to a religious experience as it comes I think.
DePino: I've always said that people came to the Garage, but it was Larry that took them to Paradise. That moment of ecstasy could come after five or six records, or two, but when it hit you it was like 'Oh… my… god'. Excuse my language, but it's like when a man masturbates [laughs] and gets to achieve what he's trying to achieve… some people describe it as a religious experience, for others it's sensual. And there were times when his sermon felt was speaking right to you, perhaps you'd broken up with your boyfriend and he was playing 4 or 5 songs about being done wrong. If Larry was in a bad mood… oh boy, if he was in love then music was beautiful, if he was angry the music was hard.
Berkmann: He was someone who was telling a story, it wasn't about which record sounded good mixed with this one, it was about creating a narrative through the sentiment and lyrics of the records themselves. So he'd tell a story with a beginning, middle and end and then the music would come off, everyone would clap and he'd start another one. It's totally alien to what DJing is today.
Rosado: He had the biggest balls and he wasn't afraid to show them [laughs]. He wouldn't take any shit from anyone. He didn't fucking care what the owners thought or said, he didn't care what anyone thought or said, he was going to do what we wanted always. And if that meant clashing two records together or playing the same song over and over, then he'd do that.
Berkmann: He was an absolute prankster, he loved to wind people up and a very funny guy. When he DJ'd at the Ministry [after the Garage closed] he played CeCe Peniston's "Finally" for 45 minutes on loop. That demonstrates what the man was about, he wound up the crowd by playing one bloody record for 45 minutes and then when he mixed it out for something else everyone went 'Finally' and that was the punchline. All that just for that 10 second payoff.
Rosado: He was a master of manipulation. People came wanting to be manipulated by him. As Larry use to say, 'They want me to fuck them, so I better do a good job' [laughs]. And sometimes people felt that way literally too, they would scream 'I want to have your babies' from the dancefloor when he played certain records, you know.
DePino: But also it was very strategic, he would adapt to the response he was getting. Like he was playing a game of chess with the dancefloor: 'Ohh you just made that move, well wait till you hear what I'm about to do next.' Moments like those, Larry would have the biggest grin on his face because the dancefloor was challenging him and he knew they were waiting for a response.
DJing at the Garage
Krivit: Larry would just casually announce it to me: 'I'm going to go down and dance, play a few records, okay?'
Rosado: It was like he gave me the controls to a plane and I could have crashed and burned – but thank god I didn't. When I played my first record and crowd screamed, the energy was so much I had to step away from the decks because I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.
DePino: I fell into by accident. I worked at the Garage and I started putting on records on for Larry if he was running late and the room accepted me doing it because I worked there and I was Larry's friend. I was respectful, if I was playing the first two or three hours I knew it was just to warm the crowd up and I wouldn't play the records I knew Larry would.
Berkmann: I brought him over to Ministry because his club and, he himself, inspired me to build my own club. So I wanted his stamp of authority, it was my dream to get him to play. He was only suppose to stay for a weekend, instead he arrived eight days late and stayed three months.
What made it special
DePino: All dance clubs are an escape I think and the Garage was too. You didn't go to the Garage dressed up to the nines, to pick-up a guy or girl, you went in your jeans and you even brought a spare pair of clothes to change for when you got sweaty – there was even dressing rooms. It was all about getting your dance on. So everyone was welcome, you could have been 18 or 80, black or white, asian or hispanic, straight or gay, there were people in wheelchairs too. If you came to have fun that's all that matter.
Rosado: It was home, a safe haven and that shared experience brought us altogether. There were gay people, there were straight people, drag queens, white, black, asian. It was a melting pot. They all came to express themselves.
DePino: Friday nights took time to build because it took a while for word to spread that it was a safe place for gay people and it took a while before people realised the cops weren't going to bust the club. The gay community had to be more cautious, they never knew what to expect. But when it caught on it was like walking through the looking glass into a world of acceptance, a world where people didn't judge.
All four DJs will be performing at A Night In Paradise this Sunday at Ministry of Sound to raise money for two HIV charities, the Terrence Higgins Trust and Gay Men's Health Crisis. You can buy tickets here.
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