Noisey

"The Music Plays Us": Lessons I Learned from David Mancuso

With a friendship that spanned decades, Douglas Sherman was one of the late David Mancuso's earliest and closest disciples.

by Douglas Sherman
Nov 23 2016, 3:35pm

The passing of David Mancuso last week, founder of New York's legendary invite-only party the Loft, sent shockwaves through the city's nightlife community. One of Mancuso's earliest and closest confidents was Douglas Sherman, who went to become musical host of the Loft and later threw his own parties inspired by what he'd learned from Mancuso. From going to the Loft as a teenager, Sherman was exposed to a whole new world of possibilities of what a party could be, as well as what the music played there could represent. As the years went on, Sherman, along with his immediate family, developed a close relationship with Mancuso that spanned decades and witnessed marriages, births, and many unforgettable nights on the dancefloor. Today, Sherman continues to spread Mancuso's sermon, both at the Loft where he regularly mans the turntables, as well as his own party, Joy, which takes influence from his experiences alongside Mancuso. Below, Sherman reflects on his experience of becoming a close friend of David's, as well as imparts some of his learnings from throughout the years. —David Garber


Through a friend I was invited to one of David Mancuso's parties at 99 Prince Street back in 1979. I had the most profound experience at that party; it was nothing like anything I had ever been to. I thought I had a little bit of an idea of what I was doing in reference to being a DJ, and attending parties, but this was a whole different experience for me. I just had to empty my mind and start all over again with what I thought I knew about what records could be played at a party, and the type of experience that could be had on the dancefloor. From the people, to the feeling in the room, it was the introduction to what I later learned as being part of a whole.

I think I may have been maybe 18 or 19 years old when I first went to the Loft and it was all I wanted to do. I continued to do my best to get back into the parties, then eventually I was able to receive a formal invitation. At my first party after getting invited back, I really just wanted to hear every record David would play. I got there then so I could hear that first record he would play as he was still setting up, playing for the folks that worked there. You really were entering someone's home. I didn't really fully appreciate that until much later, but the experience was very different in terms of going into a more commercial club or bar.

Eventually, David just came over and asked me if I would mind helping out. I said, "I couldn't be more happy to do that," and he handed me some balloons. At the time, David had a canopy—a ceiling—of balloons, so he was always taking down balloons that had shrunk or deflated and replacing them. It was always an ongoing thing to add more balloons into the ceiling and among other things they had to be added right before a party. That was kind of my introduction to actually contributing in a very direct way. For me it was just doing balloons, but little did I know that that would evolve into a long, long relationship with David and the the Loft, as well as with balloons, which kind of evolved into larger experience for me.

David with Douglas and his daughter Sarina, under the balloons.

Things tended to always happen from a very organic point with David. I always wanted to be supportive of a party so I would get to the loft and contribute, just to do my part and support whatever was going on at the time. I think around sometime between 1982 and 1984, David moved to a new location further east on 3rd street. At that time the Lower East Side was still a very difficult and challenging area to try to start any kind of business, or just simply to live. He had moved to what was essentially formerly a movie theater and it was a wonderful space. It was actually magical. But in moving there he lost about two-thirds of his following because many people just weren't comfortable with going into that neighborhood.

In that time I always felt like the parties for me just got even better. I continued to help and contribute until I found myself doing additional tasks, helping out with the coat check or whatever else was needed. Sometimes the toilet would overflow, so I'd run up and would be mopping that up. David also needed help with collecting contributions when people arrived, so I'd help with that too. I just found myself doing whatever was necessary to continue to see that the parties would be successful. All of these things in the end were just as important as putting the record on the turntable. That really was the easiest thing with all the other stuff that was part of the experience. It's so easy to be seduced by the turntables and all of the things that go with that which is why I think that it took a lot for David to feel comfortable and trusting of someone in that role, because of how easily people could be seduced by it.

Douglas inflating an eight foot balloon at the Loft.

At some point I found myself being asked to help with playing records but it was a very organic type of thing of where I was asked if I could help here, there, whatever. I became very close to the entire experience; I knew the records well because I loved to dance and that's essentially how I started at the Loft, just coming simply to dance. I'd come with a change of clothes because some of these were 14-hour parties. David would start at midnight and some of the best parties wouldn't end until 4PM on Sunday afternoon. By that time, some of my friends and I were soaked. We came to realize we had to come with a change of clothes because if it was cold outside, you didn't want to go out there all wet.

I think the idea of the Loft in terms of the musical side of things was this idea of transitions. David would refer to it as "the Bardos," which is kind of a loose reference to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's about the transitions we go from in our conscious state to a sleeping state, to different states and death and so on, in terms of a musical approach. I guess there was his idea of transitions [at the loft] taking things from calm to circus and then re-entry, which then takes all at some point. So in terms of the musical arc, David had a very profound way of using his musical sensibility and how he would achieve that arc, and how it would affect people on the receiving end—inspiring people to respond in terms of dance.

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I think what also was very important was the sense of freedom at the Loft. It's like when you're looking at yourself in the mirror at home alone, and you start doing things that you might otherwise be embarrassed doing if there was somebody in the room looking at you. We didn't make fun of each other, and there were always some really good dancers there. But there were also others who weren't, and they shouldn't feel any less inhibited by it to dance and be free, to express themselves based on how the music might inspire them. I think that was really, really important for David and in part why we ask that people don't take pictures on the dance floor. There was just a certain kind of idea that this area is kind of sacred, and it's for you to be free and not feel inhibited or shy about breaking out of what otherwise might be a comfort zone for many people to remain in. David tried to create a place where people felt safe—not just safe in a physical sense but also in a menta, in our minds. That's important in terms of how you might open up on a dance floor.

David had a profound effect on people on a number of levels, so I think in the end it really transcends the more immediate, easy thing that people seem to connect with, this concept of a DJ. That's why it always comes back to an expression he said to me so many times that I didn't really get it in the beginning. He would "say the music plays us." I think that's just the simplest way to put it. I think what we all tried to do was honor the music that we played, and because in in the end, we're more like technicians standing on the shoulders of giants, trying to honor and allow their expression to be heard the way it was intended.

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I really don't consider myself as having a DJ career, but I love music. I love to play records, and once I began to get into that stream of music that David opened up for me, it just continued. It wasn't until one point where David needed someone to cover in his absence that I found myself assisting him that regard. But it was never thought as "DJing," it was actually kind of a scary responsibility at the time to take on because he does use very high end equipment. It's very sensitive stuff and to me all the high-end turntables and speakers were all really are symbolic of the whole idea of the fragile nature of relationships of life and death. I think there was a lot of kind of zen like stuff going on there without realizing it at the time, and without really being able to intellectualize or process it. If I were to think about DJing in a material sense, then I don't think David would have asked me to fill in for him in that role. David certainly was not one to want to promote that particular type of DJ culture, or any one type. It's like how Bruce Lee always had this idea that there really is no one of fighting. I don't want to associate The Loft with something violent because David was a passive person and anti-violent. But, like how Bruce Lee was able to integrate other things like philosophy, physical training and discipline, with what was fighting, David was able to with playing music.

I think that more than anything he was just the gentlest and kindest person for me that I will ever know. I'm only grateful for the patience and kindness that he showed me, and all I can do is hope to honor that and continue in that spirit in terms of how I live my life. In terms of going forward, I think that that's as important, if not more important, than the parties itself. The parties are a catalyst for delivering some of that idea of love as a message and I think there is one thing aside from "the music plays us," and that is that love is a message. I think that's what a lot of people felt with David. He left quite a legacy. For me, it's also all the personal memories I'll have with him that I'm going to miss, but also that i'm grateful for.

As-told-to David Garber.