Deadheads love dates (remember this one? "you know you're a deadhead when your tapes have nothing written on them besides the date"), and we're never at a loss for anniversaries to use as excuses for celebrating the virtues of a particular show. Maybe, given how insular this obsession can be, it comes as a surprise when some other musical anniversary overlaps on one of our own canonized dates. Many rock fans have probably noted that the Dead's legendary 2/14/70 performance at the Fillmore East coincides with the Who's decimation of Leeds University 1000 miles away that same night, but how many deadheads know that the birth of American disco/dance music culture was also happening just across the Bowery, about six blocks away?
I'm no big scholar of dance music or "club culture," but my understanding is that most of what we associate with those general terms -- and I mean everything from Saturday Night Fever, to frat bros throwing their hands in the air at spring break beach parties, to underground raves in abandoned warehouses -- has roots in the innovations and ideals of one particular DJ, a record collector and Buddhist acid cosmonaut named David Mancuso, who lived a few blocks west of the Fillmore East. Right around the time that the Dead were probably plugging in for their late show at 2nd Ave & 6th St, the first guests were arriving at Mancuso's loft on 674 Broadway for a party that had been advertised only by a few hundred invitations with Love Saves the Day printed on them. These parties would eventually become weekly events eventually known simply as "The Loft" and mark one of the beginnings of dance and club culture as we know it today, and Mancuso is regularly credited by pretty much everyone in that scene as the grandfather of the modern-day "underground" club DJ. He still hosts the occasional Loft party, too.
There was, of course, plenty of nightlife where recorded music served as a soundtrack to sell drinks and allow people to seek people, to see and be seen. Mancuso had a different idea: his goal was to create a safe, insulated scene where people could lose their inhibitions in music, immerse themselves in a community of like-minded people, and find a little lysergic transcendence while they did so. As a devoted follower of Timothy Leary, Mancuso had already been hosting get-togethers with friends that were modeled after Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery events, and had been rebuilding his loft apartment into a space for "mixed-media" acid gatherings. Initially, he created home-made 5+ hour tapes of music to accompany the arc of an acid trip, and these began evolving into more serious (and larger) dance parties, particularly as his sound system became more sophisticated. A Buddhist soul-searching hiatus interrupted things for a few years, but when Mancuso returned to New York, he began planning weekly Saturday night/Sunday morning house parties for a larger audience. He mailed out invitations, charged two bucks, forbade alcohol and the sale (but not distribution) of drugs, served free organic food, and became default DJ as he created the soundtrack for the night's revelries, following the same psychedelic arc of slow liftoff > peaking > freakout > re-entry. Or, in the words of Buddhism-via-Leary, “the first Bardo would be very smooth, perfect, calm. The second Bardo would be like a circus. And the third Bardo was about re-entry, so people would go back into the outside world relatively smoothly." Sound familiar? Garcia, in 1984, on the structure of a Dead show: "our second half definitely has a shape which...is partially inspired by the psychedelic experience, like as a waveform: [...] the thing of taking chances and going all to pieces, and then coming back and reassembling."
Another striking thing about Mancuso's parties was the sound. His Klipsch sound system was state of the art and remains famous to this day for its clarity and depth -- apparently, circa 1975, devoted clubbers and fellow DJ's had even started referring to it as "the wall of sound."
disco? Mancuso's invitations always featured this image of Spanky & Our Gang -- seriously
The ballyhoo over disco in the 70's/80's has probably faded from many memories these days, but the word still conjures up a very specific image for most listeners of a certain age. While being the grandfather of the disco DJ may seem a dubious honor to some, remember that in 1970, "disco" as we think of it barely existed. Mancuso was playing a mix of R&B, rock, jazz, latin, African, anything with a beat that would keep the dancers moving. His tastes ranged wide, and Mancuso was famous not only for discovering many records that went on to be classic dance singles, but also for making James Brown and The Beatles sound like a perfect match when played together in the same setting. His Leary-inspired evening structure typically began with a gentle prelude session taking in everything from Tchaikovsky to Ravi Shankar, Sandy Bull, or Pink Floyd. Mancuso stated that his intention was never to actually DJ, but to act as a kind of musical host, keep the vibes right, and establish communion with everyone else in the room. The parties apparently attracted an extremely diverse group of both dancers and cosmonauts, from both gay/straight and male/female crowds and a wide variety of ethnic (predominantly black and hispanic) and socioeconomic backgrounds: Mancuso was committed to making sure cost wouldn't a barrier. Far from the Studio 54 scenesters that we associate with disco now, Mancuso was seeking out his own subculture of fellow heads and creating a small world for them through music, and the world he created has been arguably as influential -- if not more -- than our band from San Francisco who had the same basic idea.
I'd like to think that a few particularly hip heads left the Fillmore East in the wee hours and tumbled over to Mancuso's loft (grabbing some pizza in Cooper Union on the way), but I kind of doubt it. Still, it says something that two epochal gatherings of freaks from very different sides of the streets was happening so closely and simultaneously -- at the very least, like Garcia said at the start of that very long evening, "nothing's weirder than coming to New York."