In Memoriam 1. People
The Foundations Of House LIVE event wrapped up last weekend. It’s only the first of hopefully many and we got some wonderful feedback. No doubt in the coming weeks there’ll be some posts about that part of the projects output. However, one thing about the performance is particularly important for this post. The final image of the show as people left was a 5 meter high wall covered in a projection of just a handful of the people most important to house music and disco’s development. The result is this, the first of three posts that seek to understand what part memory and legacy has in the music.
I recently had the pleasure to stumble across one of the most beautiful blogs on the internet. Everard St. Mark’s site “Tamborine Or Machine” runs with the subtitle “A Disco Reliquary”. Ostensibly a digital memorial, the blog sees Evan sifting through the memorabilia left to him by a friend who sadly passed away from his battle with AIDS. It’s wonderfully curated and explained in gorgeously intricate detail with a level of emotional reflection rarely seen in the tumbling maras of digital noise and opinion bandied around blog sites.
Everard’s blog, and the recent untimely death of Avicii, has left me wondering about what part legacy and remembrance has the history of a scene. There is clearly a deep level of personal loss, especially in Everard’s’s case, and to Avicii’s family. But there’s a tendency to see the death of an individual in a scene, either superstar DJ or simple dancer/aficionado, as an end point; a point after which they become no longer active in proceedings. But I don’t believe that’s true, although we may often conceptualise it as such. What part do these ghosts play in the forward momentum of the music and the scene? Knuckles is especially held up as some beacon that still guides house today. He’s constantly invoked as a force that connects and legitimises the output of many. It’s arguable Knuckles is as influential in death as he was in life. I’d certainly agree these individuals are somehow hallowed emotional ground, but should we “use” their memories. Many names cast long shadows that influence and steer the direction musical investigation in dance music still. What part does loss and memory play in dance music?
The Jimmy Castor sample often invoked in classic dance DJ sets springs to mind “what we’re gonna do right here is go back… way back… back into time”. We like to remember or at the very least pretend we remember some halcyon time. L-vis 1990’s “Do You Remember” is a prime example of the fetishism for a classic form of house music. There’s a desperation or a cry for a return to old values, and particularly the values of certain individuals. And with it comes an odd slightly melancholic nostalgia. These voices of those past resonate around the music still. Interview snippets, samples, even the titles of some remixes hark back to those that’ve been lost along the way.
To commemorate and, I suppose, sanctify the memory of Frankie Knuckles, Chicago city officials renamed the street that once held the hallowed Warehouse club location as “Frankie Knuckles Way”. King Street in Manhattan, home of the Paradise Garage, was renamed “Larry Levan Way” (but only for a weekend if memory serves). I find myself asking, what’s the point? Does it actually add anything? Does it tell us anything beyond the fact these individuals were important in some way? The Warehouse and the Paradise Garage have been summarily torn down in the name of progress. The sign might as well say “something happened here, but wasn’t important enough to be saved for posterity”.
And beyond the obvious names like Knuckles and Levan who’re at least vaguely recognisable to those with a passing understanding of dance music, how do the less well known individuals get remembered? Francis Grasso is all but forgotten, yet was as essential as Knuckles, and realistically has a more important legacy. How should we be remembering these people? If you’ve not read Last Night A Dj Saved My Life or Love Saves The Day you’ll be asking who the hell they are! One of the issues comes from agendas of those writing and retelling the history. That is in no way to malign Brewster or Lawrence, who should be essential reading for any music fan. But the dreadful Pump Up The Volume never even mentions Grasso. Nor did BBC4’s laudable attempt with Once Upon A Time In NYC.
Richie Kaczor was instrumental in breaking the 12” single as a format. Forgotten. Almost entirely.
Everard’s blog dedicated to his friend is perhaps the best example of commemoration I’ve found. Entirely closed except for comments, it stands as a digital monument to someone we’ll never know personally. The title “A Disco Reliquary” is absolutely fitting and perfect for the site. It makes me wonder just how many people like Everard’s friend there were, and how many memories go unrecorded and obscured by time and the echoes of the AIDS crisis. But at least we have his blog as a shining example of how to best commemorate.
So how are we supposed to remember and commemorate? A blue plaque? A renamed street? A cocktail at the local bar? A disco cenotaph would be a beautiful thing. There’s a message that needs to be spread about contribution and commitment but I have no idea how to make that happen. There’s no easy answer here. At least with the other two parts of this mini-series on commemoration (places and records) there are ways and means to preserve and/or highlight. But the idea of a person is so nebulous. I suppose Everard’s blog is a great way to start. Personal remembrances are as valid as any other way of commemorating. It might even be easier to commemorate the normal person, even if they are extraordinary to you. A personal relationship may be the way that we can remember.
Maybe we can follow Everard’s example? Digital collections of work and remembrances. When Mancuso passed away Spotify created a pretty accurate Love Saves The Day playlist. These small contributions do spread a message. And comparatively, I’m sure I get more value from a playlist that I would from a sentence on a blue plaque. And given their legacy is a musical one, playlists feel very much so like a connection to a past we can’t really ever access. Maybe also places like this website might help to spread a message or at least flag up persons from history who are of note and should be more recognised.
It’s a challenge that should face the whole dance music community. I’m reminded of the AIDS quilt memorial in the Castro curated by the NAMES project. A physical object that stands as both memorial and site of mourning. Just something. Something to help us not forget. Because we are forgetting. We are forgetting because of sloppy journalism, sensationalism, and retconned historical canons courtesy of the cowboys at places like boiler room.
A disco cenotaph. I wonder how much a slab of granite costs…