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Still Saving The Day: The Most Influential Dance Party In History Turns 50

Written by on February 24, 2020

Balloons are a central feature of every Loft party.

It started somewhat humbly on Saturday, Feb. 14, 1970. Valentine’s Day.

David Mancuso, a 25-year-old upstate-to-New-York transplant, was in need of money to pay the landlord of his downtown Manhattan loft, not yet The Loft, at 647 Broadway. A rent party, in the tradition of Great Migration-era Harlem sessions that involved music, dancing, and a donation to help the host make that month’s ends meet, seemed about right. Especially as Mancuso was well-equipped to throw such an event; even then, he was innately attuned to the ingredients needed to foster the right atmosphere for a good party.

One needed music, of course — Mancuso had been a record collector since his teens, also becoming an accidental hi-fi stereo enthusiast by purchasing his first set of Klipschorn speakers, (handmade, audiophile catnip since 1946) when he was 21. One also needed a nice cross-section of people, enough to turn it into a happening — and having grown up in a Utica orphanage, Mancuso was adept at making connections in whatever milieu he found himself in. Often, that milieu was other private dance parties in people’s homes all over the city, which he thought “more intimate [than bars and clubs] and you would be among friends… get to know people and develop relationships,” as he told author Tim Lawrence many years later. Mancuso was also attracted to the psychedelic crowd of the nearby East Village, where he became friendly with, among others, LSD guru Timothy Leary, whose study groups ingrained in him not only ideas about psychedelic spirituality, but social progress. And contrary to popular history’s later segregation of disco dancers and hippie rock freaks, Mancuso tuned them all in.

The lessons gleaned from his experiences of New York, as well as from childhood memories of the orphanage, where a mother-figure nun named Sister Alicia would entertain the children with balloons, food treats and music, were spinning through Mancuso’s head when 36 invitations for his first party went out. The invites featured an image of Dali’s famous surrealist painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” and the words “Love Saves the Day,” which not only acknowledged the holiday and served as a psychedelic-acronymic code for the spiked punch, but also put forth an idea of simple, emotional uplift, that the times — two months after Altamont, seven months after the Stonewall uprising, with New York in the midst of economic decline, the war in Southeast Asia raging, and the nation increasingly on edge as ’60s idealism receded — practically required.

The Loft subsequently became the rent party celebrated around the world, a launchpad for the musically, ethically and socially progressive wing of DJ and dance culture. It also embodied a hard counterpoint to the popular (and often racist and homophobic) history of disco as hedonistic and formulaic — even as it both presaged its glamorous Studio 54 years, and functioned as one of the disco era’s secret engines of creativity. Half a century later, The Loft retains its mystique, while continuing to feed and foster inquiring younger minds.

David Mancuso, photographed on Oct. 14, 1974 during a meeting with the SoHo Artists' Association in New York.

About 100 people showed up that first night, a blended coterie that became the norm. For $2.50, they were treated to coat-check, food and drinks (no alcohol) and Mancuso playing music — somewhat hesitantly at first, he would recall later, because he thought it would prevent him from mingling with the guests. And yet that night, knowing his friends’ tastes, while also trusting his own intuition for a beat-wise atmosphere — heavy on R&B and soul, as well as psychedelic and boogie-blues grooves — the music began to open up an unexpected energy between the “musical host” (Mancuso despised being called a “DJ”) and the dancing crowd. Soon enough, an osmosis-like psychic space, that Mancuso would later dub a “third ear,” formed, one that made the communication between dancers and host fluid and unspoken. “Someone would approach me to play a record,” Mancuso recounted in Lawrence’s book Love Saves The Day, “and I would already have it in my hand or it would be on the turntable. We would look at each other in recognition.”

“David would always say, ‘I don’t play the music, the music plays me,’ ” his longtime friend, Donna Weiss, told me a few weeks ago. The manner in which the music played Mancuso, through good days and bad, almost until his death in 2016; the central role that the relationship between sound and host played to The Loft, and to the communities that blossomed around it; and why the fruits of that relationship continue to inspire three generations of people who still attend this party (or carry on its legacy globally) — make up one of late 20th century American music’s great magical-realist fables.

The “Lofties,” as Weiss, who now (wo)mans the party’s door, calls them, were at it again this past weekend, celebrating the party’s 50th birthday just blocks from where it began so long ago. And though it is often regarded as a fossil of the disco age, The Loft continues to attract people that revere its musical and societal ideals, which remain not only essential but give a crucial perspective on everything from club etiquette and sound design to modern ceremony and identity.

While, at the same time, remaining “nothing but a party.”

“The Loft was amazing in a not-very-technical way,” says Danny Krivit, among the storied New York DJs who has followed Mancuso’s lead since first walking into its legendary 99 Prince St. space in SoHo in 1975. “But it had a killer sound system that didn’t beat you up, and very subtly made you think, ‘Wow. This is the best music.’ ”

That system subscribed to Mancuso’s basic, but rigid, principles of clean, direct audio, quite unlike what you’d find in most clubs. It began with a need for the highest quality components (which by the early 1980s did not only mean Klipschorn speakers, but custom-built turntables and vinyl cartridges made of onyx). It also meant the least amount of gear — no mixers, compressors or equalizers here — to minimize the filtered distance between the records and the listeners’ ears. The technically pristine set-up served unorthodox sonic strategies: As Krivit intimated, the volume was much lower than at most clubs, but also clearer — optimized to match the room’s acoustics, with speaker placements, and the adjustment of the dancers’ own ears, establishing a sonic atmosphere to withstand parties that could last 12-15 hours.

Lastly, and most disconcerting for regular DJ party attendees, was Mancuso’s insistence that the records were not mixed into one another, but that each one was played from beginning to end.

“[At The Loft], even house records are played with intro and outro beats, and are sometimes eight, nine, 10, 11 minutes long,” says Paul Raffaele, who, with partner Barbie Bertisch, publishes the New York music zine Love Injection, DJs their Universal Love party and has been attending The Loft since 2014. “It’s like the track is giving you a big hug. You’re just in the middle of the song, and it wraps around you. And hearing it out of Klipschorns… I heard things like hands going up and down guitar frets, and when a singer opens their mouth to sing before they do.”

“[David] would call it ‘the historical image’, where you could actually ‘see’ everything,” says Chicago DJ and producer Ron Trent, who lived in New York in the 1990s and became friendly with Mancuso through one of his mentors, Robert Williams (himself an original Loftie who moved to Chicago and opened the club, Warehouse — better known as the birthplace of house music). “David’s perspective was trying to get you to walk into … the studio session while they’re making the song.”

The sound quality of The Loft was not the only element that offered both a lived-in comfort and brand new thrills. Mancuso’s song selections were unique to the city’s disco scene, moderating the party’s ebbs and flows with jazz, ambient, and global rhythms. And his introduction of an eclectic collection of peak-time dance records to the New York sound was one of the city’s secret ingredients in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when it was a global clubbing mecca.

Writer and critic Vince Aletti first walked into 647 Broadway in 1971. “I had never experienced anything like The Loft. It was so joyous and celebratory and exciting — and, mainly for me, full of records that I hadn’t heard before. I was already writing about this kind of music — Philly International, Motown, Stax, all the other kinds of Black R&B — but I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard, for instance, First Choice, until I got to The Loft.”

Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy was a recent NYU grad, DJ and syndicated radio producer (and who’d go on to become one of The Loft’s later musical hosts) when she first attended in 1991, at 238 E. 3rd Street, a heroin-infested block of the Lower East Side where Mancuso moved in the 1980s. Murphy became “a girl who fell down the rabbit hole. I walk into this place, and it’s somebody’s home, but the sound system was big and the sound was incredible. The music… I didn’t even know most of it. I had to keep asking people, ‘What’s this song? What’s this song?‘ It was the kind of psychedelic, emotive music I was into, but also a lot of music I’d never been exposed to.”

“It was obviously one of the delights for most DJs to find something that no one else had found yet,” says Aletti. “That’s the story of Manu Dibango, and ‘Soul Makossa,’ ” a record that Mancuso introduced to the U.S. at The Loft in 1972, where taste-making WBLS program director Frankie Crocker first heard it and put it on the radio. “For me, ‘Soul Makossa’ exemplifies The Loft sound, the kind of record that was perfect for David, perfect for the crowd.”

Aletti was hardly the only person showing up and paying special attention to the music. Early in The Loft’s history, it began attracting a crowd of record aficionados and clubbers who recognized its unique nature. Some, like Steve D’Aquisto, were already popular New York discotheque DJs in the early ’70s. Many more were learning the craft first-hand — even if they may not have recognized it at first.

What began with The Loft memberships of a teenaged Larry Levan (who, in 1977, helped open Paradise Garage, the only New York club to match The Loft for influence), Frankie Knuckles (who, upon moving to Chicago in 1977, became the Godfather of house music) and Nicky Siano (a ’70s superstar DJ at The Gallery and Studio 54) continued well into the ’90s. New York mainstays Danny Krivit and Francois K, Madonna producer Jellybean Benitez, Master at Work Louie Vega, radio and club innovator Tony Humphries and future international superstars Danny Tenaglia and DJ Harvey were just a few of the luminaries who were also Loft regulars.

Admiring DJs carried word of Mancuso’s selections far from New York, sometimes insinuating those sounds into local scenes in unexpected ways. As Chicagoan Ron Trent told me back in 2017, “The term ‘deep house,’ ” now a beloved subgenre of dance music, “was a phrase we used back in the day to describe the music that Frankie [Knuckles] and Ronnie [Hardy, legendary house DJ in the 1980s] were playing, disco and jazz and underground stuff, the non-accessible stuff — an obscure sound, an underground sound. It was a Chicago street term, urban jargon, s*** you don’t hear every day — records that probably David Mancuso was playing at The Loft that Frankie heard as a teenager, and then introduced to Chicago.”

Mancuso’s desire to organize the club DJs, who in the 1970s were the drivers of much of New York’s music innovation, led to the 1975 creation of the New York Record Pool, where DJs could receive (and share) the most up-to-the-moment promotional copies of records. Aletti says that only Mancuso was capable of bringing them together like that: “[The other DJs] respected David for being kind of a rebel, playing whatever he wanted — and sometimes something that they may never play themselves. He wasn’t interested in being famous. He saw it as a sense of the community that was building around music, and he fostered that.”

The primary constituency in The Loft community was, of course, the dancers, who were never in doubt that the music was playing them. Mark Riley was a news radio producer at WLIB who began attending on Broadway, and points out that Mancuso “had a special relationship with the dancers who came to The Loft. David really gravitated toward people who expressed their freedom through dancing.” That freedom was reliant on the comfort of individual expression — or as every woman interviewed for this article said at one point or another, the liberty to dance in peace and not be hit upon, as they were in most every other club environment.

Krivit instantly recognized that the relationship between the host, the music and The Loft’s teeming, flowing, slippery dance-floor — often aided by the use of baby powder on the parquet, to help dancers with their moves — was unusual. The energy was also raised by their shared love for records which were not getting their proper attention in other clubs, but that could turn The Loft upside down. It led Krivit to reassess what a great experience could be.

He remembers playing War’s “City, Country, City” at gigs around town, only to be scolded by the crowd. “It was the first time that happened to me, and it made me have doubts about what I was doing for a bit.” His arrival to 99 Prince St. overwhelmed his senses — and gave him a different perspective: “I heard a song coming on (very low), I couldn’t really tell what it was, but it seemed like everyone around me knew exactly what it was, and all started to run upstairs to the dance floor. By the time I checked my coat and got upstairs I realized it was ‘City, Country, City,’ and it was just getting to the hot part of the song, and people were going crazy with wild, kind of jazz dancing, very progressive and creative, letting loose, whistling, tambourines, making all kinds of noises. I had never heard that kind of response in a club before. Their reactions represented the ultimate freedom. These people were music lovers and enthusiasts way beyond what I ever experienced in a club. I knew that I felt that way, and knew a few friends who felt that way, but I never went to a place full of these people, who as a group would lose it over a song.”

On the crowded dance floor, the “third ear” could produce a variety of deeply meditative effects, defined by personality and circumstance. For Riley, one singular memory is of focus and unspoken connection: “Once, on Prince St., a girl was next to me dancing. We turned to each other, and we danced for three hours. Straight. No breaks. And when it was done, we both just smiled at each other and went our separate ways.”

For others, it tapped into a collective unconscious. “The music took me somewhere else,” says Cosmo. “I felt open, spiritually receptive. Like I was part of a greater whole.” Recent Lofts have had a similar effect on Barbie Bertisch: “You would transcend yourself and just be part of the collective experience. The Loft is known for having the craziest dancers in New York and yet nobody, nobody, would bump into each other on the dance floor. It was this mass that moved as one.” When journalists Bill Brewster and Frank Boughton asked Mancuso about the propriety at play, he was nonchalant about clarifying the unexplainable: “Sometimes [the oneness lasts] for minutes, sometimes for hours. You just feel good. You have your life energy raised. I can’t have mine raised unless yours is raised. And vice-versa. But each one of us has a role.”

Alex Rosner, now 84, is The Loft’s long-time sound-system engineer (who still tweaks it before every party), but not a dancer. Rosner’s life — which includes a near-miraculous survival of Auschwitz as a child, in no small part due to the power of music — gave him personal insight into The Loft’s metaphysical energy: “The music David played was rhythm and blues with a lot of harmony. When you have harmony, the music creates harmony in the environment. Which explains why in all these years that I attended his parties, I never heard any disharmony among people. In other clubs, there’s some kind of disagreements going on one way or another, but not in David’s place. I think that had to do with the music he chose to play.”

It also had something to do with the people who came to The Loft, returning week after week, party after party, and, despite their differences in sexuality, race, class, gender and, increasingly, age, weaving themselves into the party’s untearable fabric. They were, and are, to use a word coined by musicologist Christopher Small, “musickers,” people who establish “a set of relationships, in the place where [music] is happening, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act [of music creation] lies.” Without them, the party has no purpose.

The community of Loft musickers was founded on a Mancuso principle that Mark Riley called “organic diversity.” Riley is explicit that “David wanted to bring about social progress by having different people from different areas of his own life come together around dancing, around music and around sound.” This has become not only The Loft’s calling card, but a magnet, in many different ways.

“What drew a lot of us to the Loft — and then to the Garage — was the mix of the crowd,” says Aletti. “It was really pretty unique, in terms of gay, straight, Black, white, Latino, this whole really integrated group of people so dedicated to dancing.” Says Riley: “It was something I had been searching for for a very long time. Then, suddenly, it was there, a place where no one was judged.”

A key element in establishing comfort and freedom was The Loft’s invite-only confidentiality, what Krivit calls “membership not for its exclusivity, but for its community.” The child-like party atmosphere (balloons, juice, snacks) and residential setting conveyed a lack of de rigueur nightlife pretentions. Moreover, Mancuso always insisted that “it was not a club,” and that anyone with an invite could come in, even when they had no money. (In fact, written IOUs were accepted at the door, another founding principle, and one that helped him win a long, drawn-out 1975 hearing with the New York City Consumer Affairs department, which tried to make Mancuso apply for a cabaret license by claiming he was running a public party.) The lack of photo or videotaped evidence that, with the exception of modern-day Instagrams of The Loft’s balloon-drop (a party high point), exists to this day, created a relaxed mood for those who wanted their attendance kept private.

In other cases, that privacy provided safety and a feeling of home for the many gay, Black and Latino youth who would show up with friends — future DJs Levan and Knuckles being the most historically notable examples, or at least the best-known ones. Though Mancuso went out of his way to describe the party as mixed and diverse, The Loft was traditionally a queer-heavy, private environment. It was welcoming in a way gay bars and clubs were not. Says Riley, “There were people I met at The Loft, gay, 18-19 years old, who had been thrown out of their houses by their parents, and had, literally, no place else to go. Who didn’t know that they were part of a community that accepted them until they started going to The Loft. When David talked about social progress, that’s what he was talking about, being able to give people a level of freedom they didn’t have otherwise in their lives.”

More broadly, this disco party served as both a self-governing utopian creative space, the kind poet Hakim Bey would later call a “temporary autonomous zone,” as well as a shelter from the everyday bummers of urban capitalist modernity that sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined a “third place,” a location, after home and work, that is crucial to healthy cities and civic engagement. Mancuso set these ideas to a beat in the privacy of his own home years before rave culture disciples, Burning Man organizers and urban planners began preaching their value.

“People often slagged off disco as an escape,” says Aletti, “but it was an escape in the nicest, smartest, most really useful way. [The Loft] was a rebuilding for so many people who were ground down by their regular lives.”

On a more basic level, The Loft developed as a community that is, in Krivit’s words, “a fairly large group of people that all get it, and relate to each other like a family.” Sometimes literally. Kids are a natural presence at the early part of every Loft party, which now takes place on Sunday evenings of three-day weekends. Just as Mark Riley told me about bringing his daughter when she was an eight year-old, and then as a college graduate, at Sunday’s 50th anniversary party, the kids were scattered throughout the space, some dancing with glow sticks, others crashed out in the corner while parents sashayed the night away.

SoHo residents protest against The Loft on Oct. 15, 1974 in New York.

For many original Lofties, this community seemed to have ended on June 2, 1984, when Mancuso threw his final party at 99 Prince St. (The night is commemorated in artist Martin Beck’s 2016 video installation and book, Last Night.) 99 Prince St. fell because the owner of the building sold it during SoHo’s hyper-gentrification of the ’80s, but Mancuso’s neighbors had railed against him since the very beginning. It’s possible to see The Loft’s history as mirroring Manhattan’s incessant gentrification: from 1984-2003, The Loft’s (and Mancuso’s) story became one of sabbaticals (after 99 Prince St., Mancuso moved for a spell to Woodstock and would not throw regular Loft parties til the early ’90s); of scattered East Village locations (the 238 E. 3rd Street building he bought and lost to a real estate scam); a short stint at 81 Ave. A; a shorter one at 225 Ave. B; parties at 242 E. 14th St. and Union Square’s Marc Ballroom, neither of which were his residencies, and of ever-dwindling crowds. “He didn’t have as large a following in those years turning out for his parties,” Douglas Sherman, a friend of David’s and one of The Loft’s musical hosts the past 20-plus years, told Jeff Mao for an excellent oral history of the party. “[But] there were some great dancers that still continued to attend.” Mancuso had hardly been forgotten around the New York scene, with parties like Krivit, Francois K and Joe Claussell’s Body & Soul and Tim Regisford’s Shelter cut from the cloth originally woven at The Loft. But memories, especially for ensuing generations, were growing shorter.

It was only at the turn of the century that the legend came above ground. With the help of Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, who’d become one of David’s mentee’s during the itinerant East Village years, Mancuso released two compilations of his party’s classics. Meanwhile, two books — Lawrence’s 2003 Love Saves The Day: a History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, an essential deep dive into David’s story and New York’s early disco era; and, to a lesser degree, 1999’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Brewster and Boughton’s crucial history of selectors on both sides of the Atlantic — measured Mancuso’s cultural gravity at a time when DJ culture was exploding out of the American niches to become a musical force. While most of that moment’s evolution in dance music — commercial, sonic, social — didn’t quite fit the story of The Loft, the era did give the party a reboot.

Burned by the previous decade, Mancuso had softened a few aspects about set and setting. In 2003, with his core musickers in tow, he began throwing the party regularly once more in an East Village banquet hall with pristine acoustics — and which was once more packed to the rafters this past Sunday night. Mancuso had also, for the first time, started traveling to play records outside New York and the States, actively seeding The Loft’s ideas and ideals to like-minded people throughout the world. In London, he helped found what’s come to be known as Lucky Cloud Soundsystem, with Murphy (who had moved to England in the early aughts), Lawrence (who is based there) and Jeremy Gilbert, with Iain Mackie as an engineer. In Sapporo, Japan, Mancuso was introduced to Satoru Ogawa, the proprietor of a well-regarded audiophile club called Precious Hall, agreeing to come back if sound specifications were improved — at which point Ogawa created a replica of the 99 Prince St. sound system and took David (and the fully built-out system) on the road in Japan.

The prospect of passing on his accumulated knowledge excited Mancuso. He had begun instructing an Italian sound aficionado, Giancarlo Bianchi, about what equipment to purchase, with an eye towards a Roman Loft. “He told me, ‘I think I can give birth to another one,’ ” says Murphy. But bad health forced Mancuso to stop traveling in 2012, and Bianchi’s Last Note, with Murphy as a guest musical host, launched without him.

“People in New York sometimes think, ‘Oh it’s only about New York,’ ” sighs Cosmo. “It’s not, it’s about the world. He made so many relationships and connections, and the most magical part is these communities. These are really beautiful and enriching, where people from all different backgrounds come together for a common sense of purpose; to laugh, to dance, to be joined together through music.”

Before Mancuso stepped away from playing the part of musical host in New York — I last saw him play records at The Loft sometime early in the Obama administration — the party’s influences were again on the rise all around the city. Direct lineage played out in the form of Francois K’s Deep Space and Danny Krivit’s 718 Sessions, both featuring New York veterans combining classic ideas and new music; and in Joy, a house party helmed by Loft musical host Douglas Sherman, along with Takaye Nagase, Yuji Kawasaki and Nari Oshiro, which is among the best formal/informal underground Brooklyn gatherings. Psychedelic disco revivalists found their cues too: The early DFA — before the LCD Soundsystem phenomenon swallowed them whole — and No Ordinary Monkey parties were wild private bashes, while the Dope Jams crew was pumping out house music through Klipschorns in the basement of their Brooklyn record store (before gentrification drove them upstate). The Mister Saturday Night/Mister Sunday parties have been building a community and promoting community values via eclectic music since 2006 (first all over Brooklyn, and more recently at their Ridgewood location, Nowadays). Meanwhile, overseas, the anything-goes aesthetics of Glasgow duo/party Optimo, has kept one foot in The Loft’s experimental nature.

Musical experimentalism is no longer among The Loft’s central tenets. Sonic progress is a constant conversation between first-generation Lofties and those who’ve joined over the past two decades (forever newbies); but that musical tension feeds the current party’s energy in exciting ways — especially on the dance-floor. You could see it again on Sunday, when the party expanded by at least 50% (a second ballroom was wired to handle the anniversary overflow).

A poster featuring David Mancuso, taken during The Loft's 50th Anniversary party held Feb. 16, 2020 in Manhattan.

As the youngsters celebrated disco classics by The Whispers and Donald Byrd as hard as the older heads got gritty to Level 42 and Shalamar and a Tower of Power groove that sounded like a jazz-house remix, which soundtracked the glorious purple and peach balloon drop.

Three-and-a-half years after David Mancuso’s passing, with The Loft community stronger than ever, forming new roots, the warmth of its legacy has taken on a new hue. And the question of how to make your own space, while saluting that which came before, is now at the core of projects like Barbie Bertisch and Paul Raffaele’s Love Injection zine and Universal Love party.

“We’re just really reverent people and we just geek out about history,” Paul says when I ask him about learning from The Loft on how to balance the past, present and future. “A lot of the people coming to our party are actually young. We don’t know them. Imagine when you realize the kind of responsibility you have to play, say, MFSB’s ‘Love is The Message,’ for the first time ever for a human that’s really getting into this experience. Doesn’t know what it’s about, but is feeling it and is into it. That needs to always happen. It needs to be a part of the party. So I feel a responsibility for keeping this stuff alive. When you see someone clearly in ecstasy and they leave the party and they tell you that they had the best night ever — that’s more important to us than anything else.” Love Saves the Day. And it will again.

 


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