Introduction reprinted in Loops, 2, 2010, 85-91.
Introduction and interview published in Italian in Nero, 15, February/March 2008.
Like a soup or a bicycle or Wikipedia, the Loft is an amalgamation of parts that are weak in isolation, but joyful, revelatory and powerful when joined together. The first ingredient is the desire of a group of friends to want to get together and have some fun. The second element is the discovery of a room that has good acoustics and is comfortable for dancing, which means it should have rectangular dimensions, a reasonably high ceiling, a nice wooden floor and the possibility of privacy. The next building block is the sound system, which is most effective when it is simple, clean and warm, and when it isn't pushed more than a fraction above 100 decibels (so that people's ears don't become tired or even damaged). After that, the room should be decorated, with balloons and a mirror ball offering a cheap and timeless solution. And because the party might last a long time, and because some friends might be hungry, a healthy spread of food and drink should also be prepared. Finally ¾ and this really is the last thing to get right, and can only follow once everything else is in place ¾ the friends will need someone to bring along some dance records. After that, it's party time.
All of these parts were assembled at 647 Broadway, in the abandoned NoHo district of New York City, when David Mancuso hosted a Valentine's Day party in his loft in February 1970. That party, which soon became known as the Loft, wasn't so much a moment of inception, or the point from which all subsequent events can be traced, as a moment of synthesis in which a number of practices and experiences, some of which can be traced back to a much earlier period, came together in a new form. The children's home where David was taken straight after he was born suggested that families could be extended yet intimate, unified yet different, and precarious yet strong. Sister Alicia, who took care of David and put on a party with balloons and food and records whenever she got a chance, suggested the Loft from another time and space. The psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who invited David to his house parties and popularised a philosophy around the psychedelic experience that would inform the way Mancuso selected records, was another resonant figure. Co-existing with Leary, the civil rights, the gay liberation, feminist and the anti-war movements of the 1960s were manifest in the egalitarian, come-as-you-are ethos and rainbow coalition demographics of the Loft. And the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s, in which economically underprivileged African American tenants put on evenings to help fend off their landlords, established a template for putting on a private event that didn't require a liquor or cabaret license (and could accordingly run all night because they lay beyond the control of New York's licensing authorities). These streams headed in a multiplicity of directions before meeting at 647 Broadway in February 1970.
The February party didn't have a name, but the homemade invitations carried the line "Love Saves the Day". A short three years after the release of "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds", the coded promise of acid-inspired things to come was easy to unpick for those in the know, although in this instance Beatles gobbledygook was exchanged with a commitment to universal love. The invitations also reproduced an image of Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory", which now looks like another cryptogram, but didn't resemble one at the time because David hadn't yet had his latent childhood memories of Sister Alicia jogged into Technicolor revelation. Of course the image of Dali's melting clocks wasn't simply random: David was offering his guests the chance to escape the violence and oppression of everyday life, and the idea of entering into a different dimension of time, in which everyone could leave behind their socialised selves and dance until dawn, was intended. "Once you walked into the Loft you were cut off from the outside world," says David. "You got into a timeless, mindless state. There was actually a clock in the back room but it only had one hand. It was made out of wood and after a short while it stopped working."
When David's guests left the Valentine's Day party they let him know that they wanted him to put on another one soon, and within a matter of months they had become a weekly affair. Inasmuch as anyone knew about the events ¾ and few did because they were never advertised, being private house parties ¾ they acquired a reputation for being ultra hip, in part because 647 Broadway was situated in the ex-manufacturing district of downtown New York where nobody but a handful of artists, composers, musicians, sculptors, video film makers and dedicated bohemians had thought about living. They moved in because the district's abandoned warehouses offered a spectacular space in which to live, work and socialise, and the inconvenience of having to hide the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom from view (in order to avoid the punitive searches of the city's building inspectors) turned out to be an innovative way to free up space in order to do things that weren't related to cooking, sleeping and washing. Outside, the frisson of transgression was heightened by the fact that there was no street lighting to illuminate the cobbled streets, and because David didn't serve alcohol, he was able to keep his parties going until midday, and sometimes even later, long after the city's bars and discotheques had closed. "Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft," remembers David. "It's a given name and is sacred."
From the beginning, David looked for ways to improve his sound system because he was convinced this would result in a more musical and intense dance floor experience. He began to invest in audiophile technology and asked sound engineers to help him build gear, including tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements, which David would tweak during the course of the party, sending shivers down the spines of revellers. Yet by the time they come to dominate the increasingly popular discotheque scene of the 1970s, David concluded such add-ons interfered unnecessary with his audiophile set-up and resorted to purchasing increasingly esoteric equipment, including Mark Levinson amplifiers and handcrafted Koetsu cartridges, which he combined with his Klipschorn speakers. "I had the tweeters installed to put highs into records that were too muddy but they turned into a monster," explains David. "It was done out of ignorance. I wasn't aware of Class-A sound, where the sound is more open and everything comes out."
Like the space, the legal set-up and the buffet, the sound system was introduced in order to assist the party dynamic, and as David relentlessly fine-tuned his set-up, the dancing became more free flowing and intense. "You could be on the dance floor and the most beautiful woman that you had ever seen in your life would come and dance right on top of you," says Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Loft. "Then the minute you turned around a man that looked just as good would do the same thing. Or you would be sandwiched between the two of them, or between two women, or between two men, and you would feel completely comfortable." Facilitating a sonic trail that was generated by everyone in the room, David picked out long, twisting tracks such as Eddie Kendricks "Girl, You Need A Change of Mind" and War "City, Country, City"; gutsy, political songs like the Equals "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys" and Willie Hutch "Brother's Gonna Work It Out"; uplifting, joyful anthems such as Dorothy Morrison "Rain" and MSFB "Love Is the Message"; and earthy, funky recordings such as James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" and Manu Dibango "Soul Makossa". Positive, emotional and transcendental, these and other songs touched the souls of dancers and helped forge a community.
The influence of the Loft spread far and wide. At the end of 1972 a Broadway regular set up a similarly structured party for an exclusive white gay clientele called the Tenth Floor, which in turn inspired the establishment of Flamingo, the most influential white gay venue of the 1970s. Objecting to the elitist nature of Flamingo's so-called "A-list" dancers, another Loft regular founded 12 West, which was intended to create a more democratic party environment for white gay men. As all of this was unfolding, another Loft regular, Nicky Siano, set up his own Loft-style venue called the Gallery where he mimicked David's invitation system, hired David's sound engineer, and also borrowed a fair chunk of David's dance crowd when the Broadway party closed for the summer of 1973. Richard Long and Mike Stone's SoHo Place along with Michael Brody's Reade Street also drew heavily on David's template. And when both of those parties were forced to close, Brody opened the Paradise Garage, which he positioned as an "expanded version of the Loft", and invited Richard Long, considered by some to be New York's premier sound engineer, to build the sound system. Meanwhile Richard Williams, another Loft regular, moved to Chicago and opened a Loft-style venue called the Warehouse. Having grown up on the dance floor of the Loft, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles went on to become the legendary DJs at the Garage and the Warehouse, where they forged the contours of what would come to be called garage and house music. Other spinners such as Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian and David Morales look back on the Loft as an inspirational setting. The Loft, in other words, was an incubator.
Like any party host, David has had to face some unexpected hitches during his thirty-eight year journey. In June 1974 he moved into 99 Prince Street after he was pressured into leaving his Broadway home, and ten years later he bought a promising building in Alphabet City, only to see the neighbourhood slide into a virtual civil war instead of receive moneys promised for regeneration. By the time David was forced to leave a space he was subletting on Avenue B towards the end of the 1990s, things were beginning to look inescapably grim. But before he was vacated that particular space, David received invitations to travel first to Japan and then to London. Initially reluctant to put on a party outside his home, David accepted both offer, and although he experienced some problems, he ended up returning to both Japan and London in order to team up with other groups of friends who wanted to put on regular events. As he went about this work, David stuck to the principles that have driven him from day one: be faithful to your friends, find a good space for a party, seek out the best sound equipment available, and say "thank you" when you're invited into someone's home. In the process, David drew on the life shaping experience of his orphan childhood to realise a profound philosophical lesson: homes can be built wherever you put down roots and build relationships. Returning again and again to Japan and London, David realised his own universal vision, which was previously constricted to New York, but has now captured the imagination of partygoers across the globe.
Shortly after making his first trips to Japan and London, David also hit upon a hall in the East Village that has become the new home of the Loft, and although the parties are now held on holidays rather than a weekly basis, David is convinced the dance floor is as vibrant and energetic as ever. The fact David doesn't live in the space is a little inconvenient in that he has to set up his sound system each time he plays, but even though he doesn't sleep in the hall, he's also more comfortable in his current space than any of his previous homes. "It's in the heart of the East Village, which was where I always used to hang out," he says. "I might have lived on Broadway, but for the other five or six days I was in the East Village. This is where I've been hanging out since 1963. My roots are there. My life is connected to the area." Forging new roots and connections, grandparents have started to dance with their grandchildren on the floor of the New York Loft.
Thanks to David's longevity and belated recognition as a seminal figure in the history of New York dance culture, it has become easy for partygoers to assume that the Loft has come to resemble a nostalgia trip for the halcyon days of the 1970s and early 1980s. Since February 1970, however, David has always played a mixture of old and new music, and he continues to mix it up in a similar way to this day. New faces in Japan and London might arrive expecting a trip down disco alley, but that's not what they get, because the party isn't a fossil-like impression of what it used to be. Throughout, David has remained committed to selecting records that encourage the party to grow as a musically radical yet never musically negative community. This sonic tapestry can sometimes sound strange to dancers who have become accustomed to a political climate in which communities are dismantled in favour of materialistic individualism and capitalist-nationalist wars, but the countercultural message is persuasive. "After a while the positive vibe and universal attitude of the music was too much for me, but this moment of hesitation and insecurity only lasted for a few minutes," commented a dancer after one party. "Then all the barriers broke and I reached the other side. Like a child, I stopped caring about what other people might think and reached my essence, through dancing."
Confronted by the tendency of partygoers to worship at his DJing feet, even though he has never considered himself a DJ and is resolute that this kind of attention detracts from the party, David positions the turntables as close to the entrance as possible so that dancers see the floor and not the booth as they enter the room. In a similar move, he also arranges the speakers so they will draw dancers away from the booth and towards the centre of the floor. Yet in London (much more so than in New York) dancers tend to face David, even though the effect is the equivalent of sitting with one's back to the orchestra at a concert. And at the end of these parties dancers applaud as if he's some kind of saviour, when in fact he's a guy who helps put on parties and tries to read the mood of the floor as the "sonic trail" unfolds. Reinforced by a cultural environment that encourages crowds to seek out iconic, authoritative, supernatural leaders, the adulation makes David deeply uncomfortable. "I'm a background person," he says.
Even if utopias can't be built without a struggle, and can never be complete, the mood at all of these parties is thrilling to behold. The floors outside New York might benefit from believing more in themselves, yet much of their applause is directed towards the music, as well as the surprisingly rare joy of being able to dance among friends in an intimate setting. That feeling has come about because, after years of dancing together, people now recognise each other to the extent they are entirely comfortable about welcoming in new faces. "It's unbelievable," said a female dancer who came to her first London party with her two daughters. "The people here ¾ they make eye contact!" Eye contact might not be very fashionable, but then the Loft isn't about fashion. Rather, it's about putting on a party with friends. And because it doesn't follow trends, it's been able to outlast every other party in the ephemeral (yet eternally hopeful) world of dance.
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