Remembering David Mancuso and the Loft

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates


When David Mancuso passed away on November 14, 2016, he left behind a legacy that enjoys no obvious precedent. Celebrating the Loft’s 46th anniversary this past February, he oversaw what must surely be the longest-running party in the United States’shistory—and perhaps even the world’s—having hit upon the right combination the night he staged a “Love Saves the Day” Valentine’s party in his downtown home in 1970 and initiated Loft-style parties in Japan and London 16 and 13 years ago, respectively. With all three manifestations rooted in friendship, inclusivity, community, participation, and collective transformation, the host has secured the life-after-death future of the party while demonstrating the effectiveness of a simple vision, the purity of which he never knowingly compromised. In this manner, the Loft has come to offer consistent light to a darkening terrain.

In one of the numerous interviews I conducted with David, I once asked him to explain how he would advise a newcomer to start a party. First, he replied, it’s necessary to have a group of friends that want to get together and dance, because without that there’s no basis for the party. Second, the friends need to find 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 a level of privacy that will enable people to relax. Next, the friends should piece together a simple, clean, and warm sound system that can be played at around 100 dB (so that people’s ears don’t become tired or even damaged). After that, the friends should decorate the room with balloons and a mirror ball, offering a cheap and timeless solution. They should also plan to prepare a spread of healthy food in case dancers become hungry during the course of the night. Finally—and as far as David was concerned, this was really the last thing to put in place—the friends should think of someone to select records that those gathered would want to dance to. Ultimately there could be no room for egos, including his own, if the party was to reach its communal potential.

Also rooted in friendship and the desire to party with freedom in a comfortable, private space, the Loft—as David’s guests came to name the party after it had been running for a few months—didn’t amount to an original moment so much as it pointed to a time when a number of practices, some of them decades’s old, came together in a new combination. The children’s home where David was taken days after his birth imbued him with the idea that families could be extended yet intimate, unified yet different, and precarious yet strong. Sister Alicia, who took care of him, put on a party whenever she was able to, and even went out to buy vinyl to make sure the kids were musically fed. The psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who invited David to his house parties and popularized a philosophy around the psychedelic experience that would inform the way records came to be selected at the Loft, also became a power echo in David’s party scenario. Co-existing with Leary, the civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and the anti-war movements came to manifest themselves in the egalitarian, rainbow coalition, come-as-you-are ethos of the Loft. And the Harlem rent parties of the 20s, in which working-class African Americans put on shindigs in order to raise money to pay the rent, established a template for putting on an intimate private party that could bypass the restrictions of New York City’s widely loathed cabaret licensing regulations. These streams travelled in different directions until February 14, 1970—when they met at 647 Broadway.

The homemade invitations for the February party 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 swapped The Beatles’ gobbledygook with a declaration of universal love. The invitations also reproduced an image of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” which suggested not Sister Alicia nor the children’s home—because David had yet to have his latent memories jogged into revelation—but instead, the chance to escape violence and oppression by entering into a different temporal dimension in which everyone could leave behind their socialised selves and dance until dawn. “Once you walked into the Loft, you were cut off from the outside world,” explained 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 the shindigs had become a weekly affair. Inasmuch as anyone knew about them—and few did, because David didn’t advertise his parties, because they were private—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 and bohemians had thought about living. The artists (and David) moved in, because the district’s old warehouses offered a spectacular space in which to live as well as put on parties, and the inconvenience of having to have one’s kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom hidden from view (in order to avoid the punitive eyes of the city’s building inspectors) turned out to be a nice 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 later), long after the city’s bars and discotheques had closed for the night. “Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft,” remembered David. “It’s a given name and is sacred.”

From the beginning, David constantly sought to improve his sound system, convinced that this would result in a more musical and therefore a more socially transformative party experience. Having begun to invest in audiophile technology, he asked sound engineers to help him build gear, including tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements, so that he could tweak the sound during the course of a party, sending extra shivers down the spines of his guests. Yet by the time the technology had come to dominate discotheque sound, David had concluded that such add-ons were unnecessary with an audiophile set-up and instead headed deeper into the world of esoteric stereo equipment, adding Mark Levinson amplifiers and handcrafted Koetsu cartridges to a set-up that also featured Klipschorn speakers. “I had the tweeters installed to put highs into records that were too muddy but they turned into a monster,” David once said to me. “It was done out of ignorance. I wasn’t aware of Class-A sound, where the sound is more open and everything comes out.”

As David relentlessly fine-tuned his set-up, the energy at his parties 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,” Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Broadway Loft, once commented in an interview. “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 would pick out long, twisting tracks such as Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl, You Need A Change of Mind” and War’s “City, Country, City,” gutsy, political songs like The Equals’s “Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys” and Willie Hutch’s “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” uplifting, joyful anthems such as Dorothy Morrison’s “Rain” and MSFB’s “Love Is the Message,” and earthy, funky recordings that included James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” Positive, emotional, and transcendental, these and other songs touched the soul and helped forge a community.

The influence of the Loft spread far and wide. At the end of 1972, a Broadway regular opened the Tenth Floor as a Loft-style party for an exclusive, white gay clientele, which in turn led to the opening of Flamingo, which went on to become the most influential venue in the white gay scene. Objecting to the elitist nature of Flamingo’s self-anointed “A-list” dancers, another Loft regular founded 12 West with the idea of creating a more laidback party environment for white gay men. Meanwhile Nicky Siano, another Loft regular, launched his own Loft-style venue called the Gallery that mimicked David’s invitation system, hired his sound engineer, and even borrowed a fair chunk of his crowd when he shut down his party for the summer of 1973. The Soho Place (set up by Richard Long and Mike Stone) and Reade Street (established by Michael Brody) also drew heavily on David’s template. When both of those parties were forced to close, Brody resolved to open the Paradise Garage as an “expanded version of the Loft” and invited Long, considered by many to be New York’s premier sound engineer, to build the sound system. Meanwhile Robert Williams, another Loft regular, opened the Warehouse as yet another Loft-style venue after moving to Chicago. Heading to the Loft, where they danced and bonded, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles went on to become the path breaking DJs at the Garage and the Warehouse, where they forged the outlines of what would later be called garage and house music. Other influential dance figures, including Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian, and David Morales, would look back on the Loft as an inspirational party. In short, the Loft was an incubator.

Like any party host, David had to face some unexpected hitches during his party’s 46-year run. In June of 1974, he moved to 99 Prince Street after city regulators pressured him into leaving his Broadway home. Ten years later, he bought a promising building in Alphabet City, only to see the neighbourhood slide into a virtual civil war. By the time he was forced to vacate a floor he was subletting on Avenue B towards the end of the 90s, things were beginning to look quite grim. But before he was forced to leave Avenue B, David received an invitation to travel to Japan, and although he was reluctant to put on a party outside his home, he ended up travelling on the basis that it could help him purchase the Avenue B space. Unfortunately, the purchase never came to pass. David returned to Japan to put on regular parties with a new friend he made during his initial trip, and he also started to put on parties with friends in London after he approached me and Colleen with the idea while “Love Saves the Day”—the book that charts his influence—was going through production.

As he went about putting on these parties, David stuck to the principles that have driven him from day one: stay faithful to your friends, find a good space for the events, get hold of the best sound equipment available, and smile when people welcome you as a guest. In the process, David drew on the life shaping experience of his orphan childhood to realize a profound philosophical lesson: homes can be built wherever you put down roots and make friends. Returning again and again to Japan and London, David realized 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 hit upon a hall in the East Village that became the new home of the Loft, and though the parties were held on holidays rather than a weekly basis, David was convinced the dance floor that remained was as vibrant and energetic as ever. The fact David didn’t live in the space was a little inconvenient in that, with the help of friends, he had to set up his sound system each time he played, but even though he didn’t sleep in the hall, he was more comfortable in that 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 said. “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 in the area since 1963. My roots are there. My life is connected to the area.” Forging new roots and connections, grandparents started to dance with their grandchildren on the floor of the New York Loft.

Thanks to David’s overdue recognition as an underpinning figure in the history of New York dance, it has become easy for partygoers to assume that the Loft has come to resemble a nostalgia trip for the halcyon days of the 70s and early 80s. Since February of 1970, however, David always mixed new and less new, even old, music, and he maintained the mix right to his final turns as a musical host. New faces in Japan and London might have arrived expecting a trip down disco alley, but that’s not what they got with David, because the party never became a fossil. Throughout, David remained committed to selecting records that encouraged the party to grow as a musically radical and diverse community. This sonic tapestry could sometimes sound strange to dancers who had become accustomed to a political climate in which communities were so casually displaced by materialistic individualism and nationalistic war, but the countercultural message was always powerful. “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 following 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 dancers to worship him—even though he never thought of himself as being a DJ, and was resolute in his belief that this kind of attention detracts from the party—David positioned his turntables so that partygoers would see the dance floor, and not the booth, as they entered the room. In a similar move, he also arranged his speakers so they would draw dancers away from the booth and towards the center of the floor. Admittedly in London (much more so than in New York), dancers tended to face David all the same, even though the effect was the equivalent of sitting with one’s back to musicians during a concert. At the end, dancers would applaud him as if in the presence of saviour, when he preferred to see himself as the co-host of a party whose job it was, when positioned behind the turntables, to read the mood of the dance floor. Reinforced by popular culture, which encourages crowds to seek out iconic, authoritative, supernatural leaders, the adulation made David feel deeply uncomfortable. “I’m a background person,” he noted.

Even if utopias can’t be built without a struggle, and can never be complete, the mood at the London parties was thrilling to behold during David’s visits and, in the ultimate test of his anti-ego philosophy, remained powerful after he stopped travelling on doctor’s orders. While some endowed David with a halo, a significant counter-group related to him as a friend, and the continuation of the applause in-between records and at the end of a party—when Colleen Murphy along with Simon Halpin/Guillaume Chottin picked up musical hosting responsibilities—suggested David’s argument that it was directed towards the music rather than him might be correct.

Ultimately, the party revolved around the simple idea of friends and friends of friends wanting to dance together in a comfortable and contained setting, with the music piping through clean, warm audiophile equipment, and a little talc helping participants get into the musical journey. David had indeed started the parties in London through friendship and during his time never once worked with an alternative set-up on the basis that one should stick with one’s friends. These foundations came to define the events. “It’s unbelievable,” one female dancer told me after her first party. “The people here—they make eye contact!”

David was all about contact. When he travelled to London, he was ready to accept a lower fee in order to be able to spend five nights in a hotel, not because he wanted to live it up but because he wanted to be in the city before and after each party so that he could build relationships—relationships that would feed back into the party and through the party back into the cosmos. This way of being imbued the way David related to strangers he’d meet who had nothing to do with the party. Whether we were going into a shop to buy groceries or visiting a hi-fi company to check out equipment or heading to his hotel at the end of a party, he invariably engaged with strangers as if they were all potential friends. He loved the telephone as a form of communication and for a while he was heavily drawn to the connections made possible via the Internet. Ultimately, however, he believed in the higher plane of the party.

Relationships built over a lifetime burst forth in the hours and days that followed David’s passing. Many knew David personally and spoke of him in the warmest possible terms. Others came forward as participants in a party who knew that they had entered into a nurturing environment in which social bonding and transformation were never compromised. It meant that David could live on in the knowledge that he had brought joy and hope to an incalculable number of people. “I don't want to go into the ‘I won’t always be here’ thing, but if I’m not here tomorrow, we now know what to do and what not to do,” he told me during a 2007 interview. That has come to pass as three parties in three cities in three countries in three continents are totally set to carry forward the Loft tradition in its remarkably pure form.

During dark times the Loft provided light and it will continue to do so. David understood the communal underpinnings of the party and its relationship to the universe like nobody else I ever met. Let us hang onto his words, his insights and his practice. In deepest grief, gratitude and joy, David, love is and will remain the message, music is and will remain love, love saves and will continue to save the day. 


This essay is an adaptation of a 2007 article originally written for Placed. The magazine folded before the issue was published. Tim Lawrence is the author of "Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79)," "Hold On to Your Dream: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92," and the newly published "Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83." He is also a founding member of Lucky Cloud Sound System, which started to put on parties with David Mancuso in London in June 2003. 

David Mancuso's art of parties

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates

David Mancuso outside Prince Street Loft, New York, 1988. Photo by Pat Bates


Disco historian Tim Lawrence, author of Love Saves The Day, remembers the late party purist's selection policy at parties in New York, London and Sapporo

David Mancuso made an incomparably profound contribution to the development of contemporary party culture. His vision was the simplest one he or anyone who knew him could imagine, and it inspired many. Yet as the culture stretched out his vision of the role of music within party culture went through turns and somersaults, a number of which took it to the point where it was barely recognisable to Mancuso. In ways that could seem dogmatic yet ultimately resonate as being profoundly ethical, insightful and even mystical, he barely wavered from his original vision during an unprecedented run that dates back to Valentine’s Day 1970. Inevitably he made some false turns as he made his way, yet any deviation only led him back to a path already established. When he passed away a week ago he left a legacy that was almost monk-like in its purity.

Mancuso’s musical philosophy placed music as a central component in a universe that in essence amounts to an unfolding party. Shaped through experiences that ranged from growing up in a children’s home to participating in the kaleidoscopic energies of the countercultural movement, he began to host private parties that combined the Harlem rent party tradition, audiophile stereo equipment, Timothy Leary’s LSD gatherings and downtown loft living with music capable of providing a form of life energy to enable his social gatherings to go further in their journey towards communal-transcendental transformation. Not even Francis Grasso, whose work at The Sanctuary paralleled Mancuso’s early efforts, was this far advanced. And Mancuso was only just starting out.

Prior to Mancuso, DJs were paid to “work the bar”, or whip crowds into a hurried frenzy before “killing the floor” with a slow number that contained the subliminal lyrics “It’s time to drink now”. There was no conversation, no flow. But Mancuso went about his work in the privacy of his own home, not a public space, and with alcohol set aside for the kind of stimulant whose initials inspired him to write “Love Saves the Day” on invitations to his February 1970 gathering, he was able to select music in relation to the energy of his dancing guests. The result amounted to a form of collective, democratic, participatory, improvised music making that was rooted in antiphonal conversation rather than virtuoso monologue. The practice of dancing to pre-recorded music had taken a great leap forward and there could be no shuffling back.

From that night onwards, Mancuso introduced an improbably wide range of sounds into the New York City party scene, with selections such as War’s “City, Country, City” , Chicago’s “I’m A Man” , Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need A Change Of Mind” and Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” becoming elements in a sonic tapestry that wove in Latin, African, rock, gospel, breakbeat and even country while prioritising explorative records that reached dramatic crescendos. The discovery that long records enabled the party to enter into a deeper socio-psychic plane spearheaded a collective desire that culminated in the innovation of the 12" single. Meanwhile Mancuso placed records on the turntable according to the signs and signals of his dancing guests, conscious that a ‘third ear’ combining the consciousness of everyone gathered would ultimate lead to a journey that loosely followed the three bardos of intensity outlined by Leary in his notes on the acid experience.

The practice of mixing between two records – a technique pioneered by Grasso at the Sanctuary – seemed somewhat insignificant within the context of The Loft, as guests came to name Mancuso’s parties. Instead Mancuso remained more interested in the way records could be knitted together according to instrumental signatures, lyrical themes, production values and energy patterns to form an unfolding journey that by the early 1980s could last for up to 18 hours. The means of segueing from one record to another was just a technical matter that shouldn’t become more important than the music itself.

Mancuso related to music within an ethical framework that sought to bring social progress to the world, albeit on a local level. He co-founded the first record pool, the New York City Record Pool, in order to help his peers receive free copies of records to play/promote without record company support. He refused to play bootlegs on the basis that the original artists wouldn’t get their share of the sale. He declined to speak of his music selections or his playlists, preferring to attribute everything to the collective endeavour of The Loft. When asked about his approach to playing records, he’d wonder about the premise of the question because the truth of the matter was he couldn’t even play a musical instrument. He kept sound levels to 100dB because anything louder might damage the ears of one of his guests, and why would he want to harm someone entering a social situation?

In order to take the party deeper and higher, Mancuso devoted much of his life to the perfection of The Loft’s sound system. He introduced audiophile stereo components from the get-go, and by the late 1970s had established the core element of a system that included Klipschorn speakers, Mark Levinson amplifiers and Koetsu cartridges. Early into The Loft’s run he also hired sound engineers Alex Rosner and Richard Long to respectively design tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements that enabled him to give records a frequency injection at key moments in the party, yet he ditched the kind of innovations that later became a major feature of discotheque sound system design aftter concluding that music was perfectly capable of speaking for itself when channelled through a sufficiently accurate system.

Such was his faith in the emancipatory power of music, Mancuso even removed the mixer from his set-up in the early 1980s, finally convinced that such equipment introduced unnecessary stages in the electronic circuit that lay between the needle and the loudspeaker. Why only go 97 per cent of the way up a mountain when you can reach the summit, Mancuso once asked me. Ultimately he came to believe that the system’s sole purpose was to reproduce the original recording as precisely as possible so that the music would “play us”.

From the very beginning through to the very end Mancuso thought of himself as a musical host rather than a DJ. His reasoning was simple. Whereas DJs usually operated as for-hire freelancers who entertained crowds by deploying a set of technical skills, Mancuso was the host of an entire party, an entire environment, with music just one of his responsibilities. Indeed he lacked the technical skills that most DJs could draw on, didn’t get paid for his work, and didn’t even see himself as an entertainer. Rather, he compared himself to the host of a rent party who in less developed settings turned to a record player tucked away in the corner of the room in order to give guests something to dance to. And while the peerless clarity of his sound system threatened to bestow authority upon Mancuso, he remained firm in his mind that the newfound power of music confirmed his humble place in the universe. As he told me in an interview conducted in 2007:

“I’m just part of the vibration. I’m very uncomfortable when I’m put on a pedestal. Sometimes in this particular business it comes down to the DJ, who sometimes does some kind of performance and wants to be on the stage. That’s not me. I don’t want attention I want to feel a sense of camaraderie and I’m doing things on so many levels that, whether it’s the sound or whatever, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a DJ. I don’t want to be categorised or become anything. I just want to be. There’s a technical role to play and I understand the responsibilities, but for me it’s very minimal. There are so many things that make this worthwhile and make it what it is. And there’s a lot of potential. It can go really high.”

Save for the creation of the New York City Record Pool, Mancuso remained remarkably focused on his own parties, perhaps because the countercultural movement’s wider aspiration to change the world had in many regards ended in disappointment, with state repression playing a significant part. Yet the power of his parties attracted a dedicated crowd of dancers as well as a significant number of discotheque DJs, who’d head to The Loft once they were done for the night, and although each step only amounted to a baby step, by the end of the decade it would be possible to cite The Loft as the most influential party of its era. Many of the most influential party spaces – private parties such as The Tenth Floor, The Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, The Soho Place, Reade Street, The Paradise Garage and The Warehouse – were modelled directly or vicariously on The Loft. Meanwhile many of the most influential DJs and remixers of the period – Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Nicky Siano, François Kevorkian, David Morales, Tony Humphries – absorbed the “Love Saves the Day” vibes as they headed to The Loft on a regular basis. Even if he sometimes wondered about the way his model was adapted in some situations, especially when exclusionary policies crept in, Mancuso was largely happy for the message to spread. It’s like a good joint, he once told me, you pass it around.

Mancuso’s belief in the centrality of the party versus the musical host/DJ received its ultimate test when he was unable to play at a party himself. The first time this happened in London, where he had started to co-host events with myself, Colleen Murphy and Jeremy Gilbert, Colleen was able to step in seamlessly. The parties in London as well as Sapporo, Japan, also continued with barely a hiccup when a doctor suggested to David that he stop travelling internationally a few years later. Around this time David had started to effect an incremental, monk-like withdrawal from his own parties. The result is that, at the time of his passing, David had overseen the creation of three Loft parties in three cities that had been running for 46, 16 and 13 years respectively and were all set to continue along the purist lines he had maintained for a lifetime. He had fulfilled the dream of being able to disappear in the middle of a beautiful party.

As he told me in an interview: “I don't want to go into the ‘I won’t always be here’ thing, but if I’m not here tomorrow, we now know what to do and what not to do.”

Lucky Cloud Sound System party in London. Photo by Tim Lawrence

Lucky Cloud Sound System party in London. Photo by Tim Lawrence

The article can be accessed here (online) or here (pdf)