|Los Angeles, March 19, 2001
TOUCH ME IN THE MORNING: DANCING AT THE DAWN OF A NEW MILLENNIUM
I used to always tell my Dancing Buddy that dancing was my substitute for sex. For the longest time I donít think he really knew what I was talking about. Unlike me, he was very into sex. And while he enjoyed "going out," I certainly donít think he saw the dancefloor as any substitute for the bedroom. And I couldnít really explain or justify my view. I just knew that, for the most part, I could live without sex. But never without dancing. And it seemed to me that the satisfaction I got from the latter, whenever great Music and Energy surged through a dancefloor packed with men, somehow compensated for my relative lack of the former.
Back in the Day, I would never have said that dancing and sex were substitutes. To the contrary, they were most intimately linked. Far and away the best sexual experiences I had, following my "coming out" in San Francisco in 1979, were founded on the dancefloor. Literally. There was Carl, the beautiful boy newly arrived from Washington, D.C., who worked nights at Burger King, but by day was an actual dancer in some San Francisco company. We "hooked up" on the dancefloor at The Stud, my favorite bar, and went back to my place. He was one of my all-time favorite lovers. And then there was Mike, the trucker from Seattle, who I met on the dancefloor at Alfies, my favorite disco. We had some of the tenderest lovemaking I have ever had. In the cab of his truck, parked in the Safeway lot across the street from the Disco.
The sex part for me was often dicey, not at all a sure thing. But the tenderness part always came easy and natural, so long as I was with a guy I really liked. And for me the very best part was spending the night. The part that came after sex. The cuddle. The limbs entwined. His warm breath on the back of my neck. Mine on his. Even when it meant I wasnít going to get a good nightís sleep, it never really mattered. Because it was worth the tradeoff, those hours of feeling the wonder of another man. Feeling his body, his muscles, his arms, his legs and chest. Feeling and hearing his heartbeat. And then waking up together.
In San Francisco in the late 70s and early 80s everyone liked to talk about their "tricks." I never liked that term. Nor did I like that one of the favorite things to say about oneís "tricks" was how pleased you were when they had the good sense to leave when the sex was over. That is, they had not the bad sense to think of spending the night. One of the favorite sources of gay male humor at the time was the predicaments caused by waking up with someone whose name you couldnít remember. But I always remembered. And I still do. And that waking up together, after the alcohol or other substances had worn off, was, I always thought, what it was all about. That shared bed. That shared Morning.
My "coming out" never landed me a boyfriend. Iím not sure I ever had much of what anyone would call a real date. But I did get to "go all the way" - that is, make it to the Morning - with some guys I really liked. And so, my law school years at Berkeley - the very time when all of my peers were becoming focused on their careers and that Era of Greed (also known as The Reagan Years) that was just around the corner - became the time when I learned to Party. To make Love. To Dance. To Kiss.
Kissing was always great, but as time went by, sex became ever more problematic, fraught with emotional perils. I was such a naÔve romantic. And each disappointment, no matter how minor it now seems in hindsight, cut ever so deep. But the Dancefloor always remained a magically safe place. The Dancefloor provided escape. The Dancefloor healed. And then the Dancefloor was the best arena in which to get back on the horse and try again, searching one more time for that Guy. And so it was probably no surprise that it was on the Dancefloor that I would take my biggest risks, open up to the guys I truly wanted. And it was on the Dancefloor that I revealed enough of myself to attract the guys who truly wanted me. And for me, the Bedroom and all that it promised - from rough sex at night to soft tenderness in the Morning - always worked best when fed with that direct flow of Disco Dancefloor Energy.
Little did I know, or did any of us know, that in that great swirl of Energy surrounding our Dancing and our Sex lay an intruder. An Enemy at our Gates. Silently wreaking its havoc. As it happened, my sexual preferences put me in maximum danger in one of the worst places on the planet to be in such danger. And as it happened, in October, 1982, never able to recover from my most traumatic of heartbreaks (a crush on a law school teacher that went south), I decided to pack it in. I left San Francisco and moved in with my Mom back in Orange County, California (which I had fled after graduating high school, some 7 years before). There, safely hiding out behind the Orange Curtain, I figured I could lick my wounds and come up with a new plan. And thus it was, by happenstance really, that I took a time-out from sex. And from dancing. Once again, the two went hand in hand. My moment had been so brief. But I had lost my virginity, had some good sex, had some bad sex, suffered a broken heart and learned some of the lessons of life. I didnít know what the future held. But I figured that for me, at least for the time being, the Party Was Over. And my Disco Days behind me.
My Mom has always been my best friend. But I was taxing even her patience. Here, her wonder boy son, her pride and joy, the high school valedictorian, off to Harvard College, off to Berkeley Law School, was now back moping around the house, refusing to take the Bar Exam and instead taking classes at a local junior college in order to continue deferment of what had become a rather substantial portfolio of student loans. For the first time in my life, I was completely lost. From my San Francisco Era I felt seduced and abandoned. Tantalized. Used. Excited. Confused. That most Glorious of Ghettos had so magnificently presented the Promise of everything I thought I had ever wanted. But the Reality always seemed beyond my grasp. And after three years of what we in the law call "best efforts," I was forlorn. School was the thing I had always done best. And the Bay Area seemed (and to me still seems) the choicest of Americaís metropolitan regions. And so I decided to jettison my law degree and head back to Berkeley for a Ph.D. program in American History.
By the time I returned to San Francisco in the Fall of 1983, the landscape had markedly changed. What a year earlier had only been vaguely understood as a bizarre gay cancer was now taking shape as the unmitigated disaster which it was fast becoming. The danger signs were clear enough that I, always very shy about sex to begin with, decided not to jump back in the Pool. And so it was by the luck of the draw that I watched the unfolding nightmare from the sidelines. That is, watched with growing horror the seemingly overnight transformation of the Paradise that was San Francisco in 1979 into the Hiroshima, the Nagasaki, the Auschwitz, that followed. I had left San Francisco to cut my losses. But they could never be cut. Instead they mounted. And I donít think that trauma has ever left me. Because it wasnít just a matter of who ultimately tested HIV Positive or HIV Negative. Or who Lived. Or who Died. It was the scars, the pain, the terror, the horrible, horrible loss. The loss of people. The loss of gay menís lives. The loss of gay menís wonderful talents. But most frightening of all, the potential loss of that community of gay menís hopes and passions and dreams that had built and shaped the vision of our City by the Bay as a kind of modern day, joy-filled Cabaret of Life, a Cabaret that closed up shop once the stormtroopers arrived.
And so at Berkeley I studied gender, politics and popular culture in 20th Century America. In other words, I studied and taught and wrote about the history of that culture in which I no longer felt safe to participate. Politics maintained my connection to the Gay Community, while music videos maintained my connection to Dance Music. But I remained in retirement through the rest of the decade, and even into the early 1990s, when I (disillusioned with academics and desperately needing to start paying off my now ever larger number of student loans) began working at a Beverly Hills entertainment law firm. And it was there, of all places, that the ice somehow began to crack. Starting around early 1993 I began rediscovering dance music. Not just watching it in videos, but really feeling it. But now it was called House. And probably by no coincidence, it was around that same time that I began rediscovering sex. Although now its dangers were of a very different sort.
And some of the old rules applied. Which is to say that once again, I found my best lovers on the Dancefloor. But it was more than that. Because this time around I found that quite apart from the eternal "quest," the Dancefloor supplied a passion and fulfillment all its own. It had its own intoxication, its own seduction, and its own sexual rhythm, which taken together could be every bit as enticing, and ultimately satisfying, as the greatest sex. And in this era of Safe Sex, Dancing provided me with the Safest Sex of all. And thus it was that Dancing, by and large, became my Substitute for Sex. Because when the DJ was truly "on," and shared my musical tastes and passions, Dancing became its own Sex. I could let the DJ and his or her Music make love to me. I could let that wonderful Spirit flow right in and through me. And then, like in all good lovemaking, I could give it back. Back to that wonderful crowd of beautiful men on the Dancefloor. Back to the DJ Booth. Back to the Party. And whenever enough other Dancers were feeling equally Inspired - that is, "In Spirit" - we could make Magic. A Party filled with a Passion and Energy much more intense than can be found in any Back Room. And donít get me wrong. I enjoy the pleasures of the Back Room. But on the Dancefloor I could obtain passions every bit as powerful. And much more filled with Celebration and Joy.
And best of all, once I came to discover the all-night dance parties, I found that I could also once again feel the special pleasures of a shared and wonderful Morning. Only now it was shared on the Dancefloor. With lots of gorgeous men. And so it was that at the very same time that Progressive House became my favorite late night music - so full of muscle and leather and the seductions of the Dark Knight - so Morning Music - so full of romance and tenderness and the Promise of the Loyal Boyfriend - became, for me, its perfect counterpart. That combination of Sex and Intimacy, so elusive in my personal life, came together so easily on the Dancefloor. My Dancing Buddy recently asked me why I always prefer to have my favorite DJís play second. I explained that when I come onto a dancefloor packed with hot men, I want to hit the crowd banging. I donít need any warm up or foreplay. But I do like to cuddle afterwards. And thatís how I fell in love with Morning Music.
I am never very sure of musical categories, but Morning Music, for me, is Music filled with Heart. Sometimes it is sad, sometimes joyful. It can be Classic Disco, 80ís Pop, or sex club Sleaze. And some of the newer DJís just use uptempo House Classics from the 90s. And that works too. But in all cases, Morning Music is essentially emotional music that takes us back, way back, and fills us up with the emotions triggered by nights of great passion, or the sorrows caused by their all too distant memory. If Progressive Music was my Sex, Morning Music was my Embrace. The Morning Sun streaming into the room. Only now it shined not through a bedroom window, but a cracked exit door at the back of the Club.
But more than that, Morning Music was also the last act in a grand Musical Journey that had grown out of the Plague Years. It seemed to me that the all-night Gay Dance Party became a Musical Metaphor for the Journey which we, as a People, had been taking these last 20 years. A Journey into the Heart of Darkness, but ultimately a Journey of Salvation. The Rhythms of our Music sustaining the Spirit of our Tribe. And no wonder that our greatest songs of Deliverance, the Greatest Hymns of our Morning, almost always featured a Black female vocalist. The hefty, matronly black church lady standing in the last pew or the back row of the gospel choir, belting it out, keeping Hope Alive. Morning Music thus seemed to me an integral part of the Gay Dance Party Journey. And maybe the most important part. Because it was the part that brought us back to the Spirit of that Exuberant Time of Joy and Hope when we first built our Community - the Time that preceded the Epidemic.
When heading to the airport for one of last yearís Saint-at-Large parties, I shared my van ride with an elementary school teacher whose class was reading Peter Pan. When she heard I was flying all the way to New York to attend a dance party, she smiled. And then she told me that in the Peter Pan books the fairies use the word "dancing" as a synonym for happy. "I feel so undancing," will sigh a fairy, when feeling blue. And the Morning Music at the end of a grand Dance Party always reminded me that the Magic and great Redemptive Power of the Dancefloor stemmed from its ability to remind us of a Happier Day, and by the same token, hold out the Promise of Happier Days to Come. And so for me, the great Gay Dance Party Tradition that developed out of those "sleazy" Mornings at the Saint was of a Musical Journey that could take us to a land of lust, demons, passion, conflict and desire, and then ultimately deliver us to a land that was truly, and joyously, Gay.
For me, the year 2000 was a succession of an amazing series of incredible dance parties. Most personally gratifying was the incredible triumph of what I call Progressive Music. Last Fall I made my favorite set of my own mix tapes. I called it Fall Black 2000, devoted to Progressive Music and the all-night Musical Journey for which I believe that Music provides the best locomotion. For Thanksgiving, I went to Miami for my first Miami White Party. Throughout the weekend, the Music was first rate and resolutely Progressive. And in what may be a sign of things to come, it was the Ladies - Susan Morabito and Lydia Prim - who stole the show. Since that time Progressive Music has been making inroads in the L.A. scene. I started 2001 off with very festive parties with local DJs Paulo and Kimberly S. I would call the sound full on smashing Tribal Progressive.
But at this very time when the Dancefloor is delivering the Music I like best, something is missing. The Morning. The sweet stuff. The Music that is not a cock that fucks, but that other cock, the one that crows at the start of each new day with a soaring Spirit that Greets the Dawn. That Celebrates the Rising Sun. Because of overdoses, the Miami Beach clubs shut down between 5 and 8 am. That means another raucous party can start at 8:00. But it also means that Drugs have cut the Heart out of our Morning. Throughout the Miami White Party weekend, I heard almost no Classics and almost no Morning Music. Even outside of Miami, the Morning is fast disappearing. Last Fall saw the closing of Icon (formerly Probe) here in Los Angeles, where Mike Duretto was the last of the Old Schoolers, striving gallantly to keep the Spirit of the Morning alive. But for the last year, the LA crowd has steadily moved away. And the Journey has fragmented. There are now a multitude of venues to go hear the latest sounds. And then there are plenty of retro nights: 70ís nights, Funk Nights, High Energy Nights, Disco Nights, and one party that has three different rooms, depending on your taste for 60s, 70s or 80s Music. But the fully integrated Journey is vanishing. Plenty of parties last till 9 or 10 in the morning. But the music never really changes. It just sort of fades out, losing steam at the very moment when it could be offering the Regeneration of a New Day.
For New Yearís Eve 1999, my Dancing Buddy and I spend it with Michael Fierman and Susan Morabito, two Classic Old School Maestros of both the Night and the Morning. We leave at Noon after many hours of dancing and a good 90 minutes of Classic Morning Music. And sure enough, when we exit Octagon, the Sun is Illuminating Manhattan in a way I have never seen before or since. The Entire City is Aglow. Oz.
But for New Yearís Eve 2000, I decide to take a different route. I donít go dancing the night away. Instead, I spend the evening with my Mom. It has been years since I have spent a New Yearís Eve with her. The siren call of the Dancefloor has always been too strong. But I decide that I want to spend this New Yearís Eve, this true start of the New Millennium with my Best Friend, the one who first gave me the Gift of Life, and then, perhaps even more important, showed me what a Wonderful Gift It Is. And so I go to the Virgin Megastore and buy a videotape of one of our favorite movies, West Side Story. The whole time I was growing up, it was my Mom who always voiced a special respect for the talents of Gay Men, particularly the writers and artists, and she recently confirmed to me what I have always suspected: she believes (as I do) that Gay People have a special role to play, a special contribution to make to the Whole. And so it was fitting to greet the New Millennium watching, with my Mom, a movie which is such a masterpiece of gay musical and dancing genius. The CNN footage of the ball dropping in Times Square paled by comparison.
Afterwards, I drove back to my house. Upon arriving home, I felt inspired to go to the turntables and make some mix tapes of some of my favorite Morning Music. I slept a couple of hours, but set my alarm so that I could wake up at Dawn. And make some more tapes just as the Sun was Rising. Then I went to join in the last several hours of James Anderson at the Palace. It was great Progressive Music. Right up to the last note. And so I came home, sat on my porch, and listened to my new Morning Music tapes. Soaking in the Sun of yet another Incredible New Yearís Day.
"How Are You Feeling, Itís a Beautiful Morning?" asks Sweet Sensation. Well, this time around, itís much more than that. Itís the Dawn of our New Millennium. "Tonight Letís all Make Loving, as if it were the Year 2001," implores Orchestra JB. Well, guess what, everybody, 2001 is here. And the New Music is here. And now the question is what we are going to do with it? And in my view, even more importantly, what we are going to do with all that has preceded it?
I would like to think that we will use our talents, our gifts, our genius, to be the Guardians of the Flame, the Elders of our Tribe, sharing and passing down the wisdom of all that we have learned these past twenty-five years. And that means constantly reintegrating the New with the Old, maintaining Tradition as we reinvent it. For me, thatís what Progressive rhythms, like Progressive politics, are all about. The point is not to resist change. To be stuck in Tradition is as deadly as to Abandon it. The point is to use Tradition to create change. And frankly, it may be time to rethink the whole idea of the all-night dance party. Letís be honest. Something is amiss when the message to our young people is that they have to go out from 3 to 9 in the morning in order to get the best music and enjoy the best part of the Party. That is our surest recipe for drug addiction to the worst kind of drugs. At the very least, we need other options. Wonderful Dance Parties that start in the afternoon and end in the evening. Or Wonderful Dance Parties that start at Dawn, that Greet the Morning and end at Dusk. And we certainly cannot expect the promoters to lead the way. My tastes have always drawn me to the Fire Island crowd, but I know that other maestros have developed Other Journeys, Other Mornings. Our Traditions are rich with possibilities.
But there is another path before us. We can abandon Tradition. And instead just seek to make our Parties the hottest Raves in Town. The cutting edge of Music and Fashion. And who knows, maybe a lot of hip straight celebrities will come. Maybe even Madonna. But at the end of the day, something will be lost. And I fear that we may need that something now more than ever. Because, remember that Enemy that was at our Gates? Well, guess what? Heís Back. With a Vengeance.
Several years ago two of our leading Gay commentators - Michelangelo Signorile and Gabriel Rotello - wrote books highly critical of the Circuit. Signorile had a long chapter attacking "the Evangelical Church of the Circuit." I disagreed with those who dismissed these writers as sexual puritans or gay neo-conservatives. Rather, it seemed to me that they were courageous in saying some things that needed to be said. That the cult of muscles was getting out of control. That drug abuse was getting out of control. And that the return of Unsafe Sex spelled trouble (even if that development was unfairly blamed on the Circuit). But both writersí biggest failure, in my view, was not in what they said about the Circuit. But what they overlooked. And what they overlooked was that a Circuit Party is not just a festival of drugs and torsos - for better or for worse, that can be found almost anywhere in the Ghetto on any given night - but, most fundamentally, a Dance Party. And when you talk about the "evangelical" lure of the Circuit, you are talking about the lure of Dancing and Dance Music. And for many Gay Men, that means you are indeed talking about something very close to Religion.
Marx said that history repeats itself. The first time as Tragedy. The second as Farce.
In 1981, a new Republican President, elected with the most reactionary base imaginable, came to power, just as we began facing an Epidemic. It was not a fortuitous combination of events. In the year 2001, a new Republican President, elected with the most reactionary base imaginable, has come to power, just as the evidence is mounting that we are facing a Revival of that Epidemic. I have always felt very secure in my well developed Gay sense of Irony. Yet I am quite sure that I will be at a complete loss to find any elements of Farce if we now make the same mistakes a second time around. Never mind what our very formidable enemies will think. Or do.
And avoiding those mistakes may mean rethinking our Party. Maybe even lowering the Volume a notch or two. But not because our Party is the source of the problem. But because our Party, which has always defined so much of our collective Hopes, Passions and Energies, must be part of the Solution, or at least something that sustains us until we find one. I really donít know the answers. But I am sure that many important clues lie in our Musical Traditions. And that is why I hate to see them vanishing.
I will soon be 44. I have already lived a Life. Or two. And I have a pretty solid collection of Music to meet my needs. So whether I personally continue to find a sex substitute on the Dancefloor is pretty much irrelevant at this point. But what is relevant is asking: as we go forward into this New Millennium, what role will our Parties serve for the New Generation which is now so squarely in the Line of Fire?
I am an unrepentant Drama Queen. So consider the source. But I do believe our Party and our Music are at a crucial Crossroads. And I hope we choose wisely.
And in so choosing, I hope we think about and remember why the Journey came about. How it grew out of the Plague Years and gave rise to the Circuit. How it was fostered by a small group of DJs who knew where we had been. And how the Music of that Journey Healed us, allowing us to march forward without losing hold of our Past. And how one of the most enduring and renewing strengths of that Journey derived not just from the intense passions of the Night, but also from the Power and Glory of a beautifully shared Morning. A shared hope for Tomorrow. A shared celebration in which we collectively remember that no matter how great our travails, the wondrous Gift of Life is a Cause for Joy. For Happiness. And of course, for Dancing!
FALL BLACK 2000