New York City Skyline

About David Mancuso and The Loft (New York City)


By Greg Wilson © 2003.

Club culture is a nowadays a global business, dance music transcending language, translating via rhythm rather than words. Inter-city has become inter-continental where the top DJ’s are concerned and, be it Moscow, Tokyo, New York or Manchester, it’s increasingly a case of have records will travel. Suffice to say that the person who picks and plays the music that people come out to dance to has never been more revered (at least not by so many), with the resultant financial rewards potentially vast and the lifestyle of a pop star thrown in for good measure. No wonder so many young people (and a fair few older ones) aspire to be a DJ!

But it wasn’t always like this. Where there’s an ocean there’s a source, for all roads lead to Rome and what is now internationally mainstream was once inherently underground, evolving in the parties and clubs of New York, the city its adopted son, John Lennon, once described as ‘the new Rome’. Nothing happens by accident, the fates decreed that following the highs and eventual lows of the 60’s, an epoch when events on the West Coast of the US would overshadow the still considerable creative and spiritual expression of the East Coast, that the baton should pass from San Francisco to New York as one decade blended into the next.

‘Love Saves The Day’, an essential new book, which charts the development of New York (and subsequently worldwide) club culture, takes it’s name from a party held on Valentines Day 1970 at the home of David Mancuso, a loft space at 647 Broadway & Bleeker, in NoHo, NYC. This was at a point when the hippie ideal of peace and love lay shattered in the aftermath of Altamont and the Manson murders. The age of innocence was over and, set against the backdrop of the ongoing Vietnam war, the advent of the Seventies, to a large section of young Americans, presented an altogether darker and more foreboding scenario.

Mancuso, a Sixties seeker, like many of his generation, had been profoundly affected by acid guru Timothy Leary, whose ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ mantra had been the sound bite of the summer of love. Leary, along with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, had written ‘The Psychedelic Experience’, a manual for LSD experimentation, which was based on the ancient text, ‘The Tibetan Book Of The Dead’. This became Mancuso’s ‘bible’. It was the same book that had inspired John Lennon to write the epic Beatles track, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, which closed the 1966 album ‘Revolver’, heralding the psychedelic era with its instruction to ‘turn off your mind, relax and float downstream’. What was, until then, only known within underground circles, was about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world in spectacular style, via the spaced-out celebrations of 1967’s ‘Summer Of Love’.

Leary himself saw the Beatles as ‘four evangelists’, describing them as “prototypes of a new race of laughing freemen: revolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mystical power to create a new human species”. During his lectures in ‘67, Leary would hold up The Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album as an endorsement of his vision, and he would also, of course, be one of those present at the Montreal Bed-In where Lennon’s anti-war anthem ‘Give Peace A Chance’ was recorded in 1969.

Mancuso became increasingly involved with Leary, attending his lectures and then his private parties in the West Village HQ of his ‘League For Spiritual Discovery’. These parties, which were ‘more social than serious’, and included food and music, would inspire Mancuso, along with a handful of friends, to experiment with LSD in his own home, using ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ as a guidebook. Following Leary’s lead, music played a central role in these gatherings and Mancuso made eclectic and atmospheric ‘journey tapes’ to accompany the trips, whilst Leary’s advice on ‘set and setting’ would also be closely followed.

People got up and danced from time to time and when this aspect of the experience started to gain momentum, as more guests began to attend, Mancuso improved his sound system and reorganized his space to provide a bigger area for dancing. Invitations were also sent out for bi-monthly get-togethers and, bit-by-bit, the concept behind the Loft parties, as they’d come to be known, began to take shape.

But just as it was all coming together it all fell apart. Mancuso, in accordance with Buddhist principles, relinquished his material belongings to, in effect, follow the way of the monk. Only problem being that there was no monastery for him to retreat to where likeminded people could have helped him on his journey within, so instead he found himself admitted to the psychiatric ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

At this juncture, David Mancuso was probably regarded by the authorities as yet another hippie ‘acid casualty’ who’d taken one trip too many and burnt-out, but fortunately he was made of sterner stuff and came back stronger and wiser for his experience. As any good student of Buddhism knows, in order to find yourself you must first lose yourself.

Not wishing to change the strict no drugs regime he’d been following, he’d initially concealed the pills the doctor gave him under his tongue, before disposing of them in the bathroom, but had finally been caught out and forced to take the anti-psychotic, Thorazine, the effects of which cause a strong dulling of all functions (physical, mental and emotional). Echoing the words of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Mancuso had indeed surrendered to the void until, in his own words: “something finally snapped, and I told myself that this was not where I wanted to go”.

Having battled the ego and returned to tell the tale (‘escaping’ during a field trip to a museum a few weeks after being admitted), he began to put his life back together, staying with a friend and going through a cleaning out process, whilst considering his next moves. Fate lent a hand and he was able to return to his abandoned loft space, where after retrieving his sound system, he decided to start holding regular parties. The fact that drugs played such an important role in the birth of the Disco era is no surprise. LSD and dancing had first come together via the Merry Pranksters and their legendary ‘Acid Tests’ in the mid-60’s, a full-on off-your-face freaked-out festival of sound and light, the prototype Rave, over 20 years before the British Acid House explosion, where the Grateful Dead cut their teeth and psychedelic lightshows were born. Prior to this, Ken Kesey, the chief Prankster had famously taken his Magic Bus across the States, from West Coast to East Coast, meeting up with Leary’s more sedate group at Millbrook, Leary’s original NYC drop-out centre.

Having said this, it’s only now, thanks to ‘Love Saves The Day’, that the Leary / Mancuso connection becomes crucial to our understanding of the origins of dance culture. Other writers have touched on it, but this is the first book to reveal the extent of Leary’s direct influence on Mancuso, and, as such, it’s author, Tim Lawrence, the director of the Music Cultures program at East London University, has unearthed a hugely significant missing link.

Reading about his early Loft parties I was instantly struck by the fact that this didn’t sound like a DJ from over 30 years ago, but a DJ of the future! Two decades on when, following Acid-House, some people began to talk about DJ’s as though they were Shaman, it was clear that they were taking their ecstasy induced euphoria a bit too far! However, if there was anybody worthy of this title it would surely be David Mancuso, who is often described as a somewhat mystical figure, for not only was he playing great music in an environment of heightened sensitivity, but consciously guiding his guests on a journey of self-expression, helping them lose their inhibitions (or personalities) in order to move closer to their essential nature.A major irony is that David Mancuso, one of the most influential DJ’s of all, never even wanted to be a DJ, preferring to be viewed as a ‘musical host’. Remembering how he started out, as a result of his shared love for basically the same music that his friends were into, Mancuso says: “No way did I want to be a disc jockey, I only did it because I used to hang out with these people all the time so I knew what kind of music we liked”. But, once behind the decks, he realised that rather than missing out on verbal contact with his guests, he was now able to communicate, via the music he played, on a completely different level.

As a ‘DJ’, Mancuso was completely unlike anyone else, before or since, and maybe this is the reason that it’s taken so long for his efforts to gain full recognition. Until Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s groundbreaking book ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ was issued in 1999, documenting, for the first time, the history of the DJ, there was precious little in print about his monumental role in shaping this culture that has affected us all in one way or another. His name was always in the frame, alongside a handful of New York’s finest, but his unique contribution has been barely understood, until recently. Tim Lawrence cites the ‘Love Saves The Day’ party as the beginning of dance culture as we now know it. The name, like Leary’s ‘League For Spiritual Discovery’ and Lennon’s ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, included the initials LSD (although Lennon insists that, in his case, this was a complete coincidence, resulting from a drawing his son Julian had brought home from school). There’s no doubting, however, that Mancuso’s party was inspired by lysergic acid diethylamide. There were obviously other major factors in the growth and development of The Loft. As well as Leary’s gatherings, their inspiration came from ‘Mancuso’s favourite form of entertainment’, the rent parties that were held within New York’s black community. The type of people who attended was obviously a key element, with not only black and white, but also gay and straight mixing easily together in an atmosphere devoid of the prejudice of the outside world, giving The Loft a reputation for being a safe haven, where people could be themselves without fear of any negative fallout. Admission, of course, was by invitation only, with no alcohol available on the premises.

The Loft would set the standard for sound reproduction within a party space, Mancuso’s ear for detail and never ending quest for sonic purity ensuring that the fruits of his ongoing endeavours in the pursuit of aural excellence would be subsequently applied at the more serious-minded venues in New York and beyond.

Perhaps the most important aspect of all was the influence of Sister Alicia, a Nun at the orphanage Mancuso had spent the first five years of his life (before eventually being reunited with his Mother). Sister Alicia’s party room, complete with balloons and record player, left a vivid impression on Mancuso’s young mind, and the good Sister’s way with the children would translate directly to his own parties, where people would be encouraged to re-connect to their childhood and, within the sanctuary of the environment he provided become, in a sense, children once more for a few precious hours. Balloons, an essential feature, would come to symbolize this direct link back to Sister Alicia’s inspiration.

The name for the parties came about organically: “Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft. It’s a given name and is sacred”, Mancuso explains.

These all-night events became a regular occurrence (for a number of years on a weekly basis) and, throughout the coming decade, would be attended by pretty much every DJ of note in the Big Apple. It was almost a rites of passage for the great and the good of the New York club scene and, although Mancuso was a total one-off in his approach, his influence rubbed off on pretty much everyone, to varying degrees, eventually spreading beyond New York to places where, at the time, the name David Mancuso meant nothing, including a small seaside town on Merseyside called New Brighton, where I myself was starting out as a DJ and would often play a classic oldie called ‘Soul Makossa’ by Manu Dibango, one of a number of tunes I’ve since realised was first played at The Loft, having been ‘discovered’ by its musical host.

Apart from ‘Soul Makossa’, Loft classics between 1970-73 included Barrabas ‘Woman’, Beginning Of The End ‘Funky Nassau’, The Equals ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’, Eddie Kendricks ‘Girl You Need A Change Of Mind’ and War ‘City, Country, City’. It’s interesting to note that a number of records associated with Kool Herc, who was busy originating Hip Hop elsewhere in the city, like Babe Ruth’s ‘The Mexican’ and James Brown’s ‘Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose’, were also favourites with Mancuso’s audience. Although the majority of music played at The Loft was by black artists, tracks including Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by The Beatles, would also feature, illustrating the diversity of records played in this Proto-Disco era.

Mancuso structured the party into three stages or, to use the term from ‘The Tibetan Book Of The Dead’, three Bardos (Leary had applied this to his LSD sessions): “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”, he explains in ‘Love Saves The Day’.

Neither clocks nor mirrors were a feature of The Loft. The exclusion of clocks emphasized the ‘outside of time’ perception experienced by people under the influence of acid. Within the intensity of the party all that mattered was the here and now, and in this way the dancers were encouraged to take off the masks of their everyday lives and express their primal (or childlike) selves. Having no mirrors meant that people wouldn’t catch a glimpse of their openness and begin to feel self-conscious. Everything possible was done to cultivate an atmosphere of uninhibited unity amongst those in attendance.

Although it’s most intense period was during the 70’s, David Mancuso has continued to host his Loft parties throughout the 80’s and 90’s and on into the new millennium. Moving with the times, he’s now spreading the vibes worldwide, and in November 2003 I experienced his London Loft gathering. No longer an all-nighter, beginning instead at around 4pm on a Sunday afternoon and continuing for the next seven hours or so, it was a wonderful event, organized by Tim Lawrence (with Colleen Murphy, Nikki Lucas and Jeremy Gilbert), which gave a further insight into this remarkable non-DJ. Stood behind the decks for the full duration, Mancuso didn’t mix, but played his records in their entirety, respectfully acknowledging that this is the way that the artists (or remixers) intended them to be heard. Furthermore he didn’t use headphones, yet there was nothing disjointed in his presentation and the whole day flowed in a way that gave the illusion of being almost effortless. The level of the music was also refreshing, for, unlike most DJ’s, who equate the quality of the sound system with how loud they can pump it up, Mancuso goes for clarity rather than volume.

I’ve no doubt that as time goes on more and more DJ’s will use a diluted version of the Mancuso approach as the blueprint for a new way of deejaying, even though it dates back over thirty years. I say diluted because it’s unlikely that many DJ’s would want to subject themselves to the type of personal and spiritual upheaval that Mancuso did before he started playing records to an audience. For it was this hollowing out process that makes David Mancuso worthy of the term ‘unique’, enabling him not only to play records, but to channel them into a carefully constructed environment, which operates totally on his own terms (and in accordance with his countercultural values and principles).

Furthermore, he continues to leave a deep and lasting impression on those who attend his parties, as one of the people I shared the day with in London testified the following week: “Enjoying and experiencing David Mancuso’s music and magic was a wonderful trip, and I keep going over and over it in my head…he took me out of myself and allowed me to be with the best part of my, and everybody else’s spirit, for a brief moment in time”.

Times may have changed, but the message remains the same. Love saves the day. Tim Lawrence’s book, ‘Love Saves The Day - A History Of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79’, is published by Duke University Press.

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