Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Vintage Articles:
Wanna Dance? Get Wrecked To The Ass! -
by Vito Russo // The Advocate -
August 13, 1975

Continuing with another installment from the Discos! issue of The Advocate with this article from the late writer and activist Vito Russo. Best known perhaps for his landmark work, The Celluloid Closet documenting gay representation in cinema and for being a founding member of both GLAAD and ACT UP, Russo left an indelible mark on the world and particularly in LGBT activism before his passing of AIDS-related complications in 1990. Russo would contribute to the “Disco Scenes” section later in this issue (which will be up soon), but his article here is an interesting window and counterpoint to the inescapable rise of disco—music, culture, and spaces—particularly in the gay community/communities.

Though he says this isn’t a judgement of the music or the experience, it does read as something of a lament. As Russo suggests, the growth of large, impersonal discos seemed to be replacing the more intimate, casual social atmosphere of the neighbourhood bar, where one could still dance, yet, as Russo maintains, have a better chance of actually striking up a conversation or even a friendship. Even I, as a disco enthusiast, all these years later, can relate to much of what he’s saying. Heightened sound and elaborate lighting systems are not necessarily conducive to an atmosphere of elevated sociality. Though there’s something to losing yourself in the massive sensory experience of a large crowd in a large space; reflecting back, pre-pandemic when going out was a relatively regular occurrence, even I tended to prefer smaller, casual venues for dancing (and playing records). Smaller dance-bars also tend to fit within the culture here in Toronto, even today (though I wonder if Russo ever went to The Loft?).

There’s also a certain parallel here to contemporary debates around dating apps and the impact they have on queer communities in urban centres. The argument, particularly for queer men, that apps like Grindr, Scruff etc.. which for all their convenience, are replacing and endangering the hard-fought physical spaces of the bars, clubs and bathhouses has a certain resonance, especially if you are living in a city large enough to have its own “gay village.” Though as Russo intimates here with discos, this is not a trend confined solely to queer people or spaces. The impact feels, however, more immediate and disproportionate. Hard-won and already fewer in number, these are spaces which are not just businesses but bedrocks of community-building. Though this debate will undoubtedly continue; as with any wave of change, there are gains and losses and Russo here captures a moment when discos were signalling a notable shift in gay social life.

Vito Russo left a much bigger legacy than I could ever do justice to, here. Books and documentaries aside, the Making Gay History Podcast has an excellent condensed summary of his life and work, well worth a listen.


Wanna Dance? Get Wrecked to the Ass!
by Vito Russo

So you want to know about discos in New York, eh? Heh, heh, heh. Stay home. I mean it. Years ago, New York used to have what we called dance bars. You could go to one of these places and in front there was usually a bar where people stood around and drank and talked; in the back, or in another room, there was either a juke-box or taped music for dancing. Once in a while, there was even real dancing, like when two people touched each other with some sort of conviction about it. No more.

With one or two quite notable exceptions, the city of a thousand bars and dance palaces has been reduced to a myriad of cruise bars, western bars, leather bars, Joe College bars - you name it, we got it. But we ain’t got rhythm. You see, there was this movie called On The Avenue with Alice Faye and the Ritz Brothers and they sang a song called “We Ain’t Got Rhythm” and … oh what the hell.

Anyway, it’s not easy to go out for an evening’s dancing in New York anymore. With the closing of The Roundtable on 52nd Street, New York lost its last bastion of get-to-know-your-partner. What we have left is discos. Discos. The very word suggests a move away from the emphasis on the people and a move towards the music for its own sake.

When you go dancing in New York now, you either go to the Limelight, where you can be treated to a mixture of straight teenagers from the Bronx looking for fags to beat up, or you can wait until midnight and find a friend who belongs to one of the new wave dance palaces in New York - the afterhours disco.

You do not go straight. You get wrecked to the ass. This way, everything looks good even if it isn’t, and you can dance for seven hours without having to look at your friends. That’s what the colored lights are for. That is also what the quadrophonic sound system is for, keeping you in a state of blessed oblivion until little Sammy Sun comes up and it’s safe to go home and sleep until noon when you can cruise on Christopher Street until it’s time for the discos to open again. You may do this on weekends. During the week you go to your office or place of business and you’re somebody else. That’s why we need the discos; to have a place to be yourself. If that doesn’t make any sense.

Now, I was in Los Angeles for two weeks, and although they can really and truly have it, and I mean all of it (the mellowness, the sunshine, Taco Bells and the police) it does have something New York doesn’t. It has places like Cabaret, After Dark and Studio One where you can watch a nice show; a magnificent dance floor the size of a gymnasium in which they have installed a scale model of Saturn (the planet) which expels fog over the dance floor; a jewelry shop; five bars; assorted nooks and crannies. Now, we don’t have that over here. No matter, though, because with all those facilities, people don’t look at each other once. They get there at midnight, dance until 2AM and go sit in Drake’s, The Louisiana Purchase, Arthur J’s or Theodore’s Cafe. Then they go home. For all the communication that goes on, they might as well be in an after-hours disco in New York.

The very concept of disco has somehow destroyed our ability to be people with each other. I’m not judging the music or the experience, It’s an experience, to be sure. Too much of one, though. It becomes, after a time, the only experience, and the loudness of the music destroys any possibility of verbal contact. In Studio One, they are now doing a dance which I thought I couldn’t learn until I realized that the reason I have having trouble was that it’s a routine. Do any of you know what a routine is? It used to be a nice little dance that people all did together with pre-planned steps and everyone would laugh and giggle and link arms and stuff. It was a lot of fun partially because it gave us a sense of community and mostly because six or seven people could do it as a group at a party. They have now turned it into the ultimate conformist exercise. At Studio One no less than 500 people were doing it in unison last week and every face was a total blank. Don’t think, don’t laugh, don’t react, don’t touch, don’t smile. Just keep counting and try to make the entire dance floor move as one person. Hey gang … we are not one person. We are many and we are all different. Or is it just safer that way?

My mind rebels against this dance for a reason. It was fun when we danced like that in our neighborhood dance bar. If a stranger was at the bar we’d yell, “Hey, c’mere, we’ll teach you this dance” and after a while he’d be our friend. Or if he didn’t want to, we’d talk anyway. It was nice, I think - more human, also.

The large discos which have replaced our neighbourhood bars have made factories (Studio One used to be one) out of our meeting places. The new product is oblivion. It makes one wonder what people are dancing their asses off to escape from. This is not a gay trip. It’s a people trip. Everyone is doing it. At least in New York you can invite people to your house for a few relaxing hours, but in L.A., everyone lives so far away from each other, they almost have to meet in these places. When they get there it’s too noisy to talk. No wonder everyone is friends with everyone else in L.A. - they never got a chance to know each other, and who can hate a total stranger?

Please understand: I am not doing an anti-Los Angeles trip. I explore the same situation in New York, but I think here it’s escapable. You can still go down to Greenwich Village and spend a night at Peter Rabbit where someone will come up to you and say, “Excuse me, would you like to dance?” and you can look into his eyes for awhile. Sure, I like to go to a disco occasionally. But I’d rather dance ■

vintage articles: exclusive supremes interview - by christopher stone // the advocate - august 13, 1975 (sunday march 21, 2021)
in defense of disco by richard dyer (tuesday march 13, 2008)

wikipedia - vito russo
making gay history - the podcast: episode 10 - vito russo
goodreads - the celluloid closet: homosexuality in the movies by vito russo
the act up historical archive: why we fight by vito russo
uw press - celluloid activist: the life and times of vito russo by michael schiavi
vito: a new documentary by jeffrey schwarz

forgotten new york: 10th street (april 19, 2020)
forgotten new york: holland hotel (january 25, 2019)
one archives: studio one - clubs & discotheques: roundtable (151 e. 50th street between lexington and 3rd avenue, new york) (web archive) - clubs & discotheques: limelight (91 7th avenue s., greenwich village, new york) (web archive) - clubs & discotheques: cabaret (beverly boulevard, west hollywood) (web archive) - clubs & discotheques: after dark (beverly boulevard & la cienega, los angeles) (web archive)


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