Under Balloons – David Mancuso’s ‘Love Saves the Day’
THE LATE DAVID MANCUSO DISCUSSES HIS SEMINAL NIGHTCLUB THE LOFT, AND ITS INSPIRATIONS
On November 14 this year, rave pioneer David Mancuso died aged 72 at home in Manhattan. Mancuso effectively invented gatherings of like-minded individuals coming together to enjoy a catholic and stimulating mix of dance-oriented music – often under the influence of psychedelic drugs – at his own ‘invitation only party’, The Loft, in New York. The Loft is widely recognised as the inspiration for Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, the rave parties of the late 80s, and the ‘house party’ as we know it today. Boy’s Own associate Andy Thomas interviewed Mancuso for the magazine Shook in 2006, and he’s kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.
Back in the late ‘60s in a loft room on 647 Broadway, a young Timothy Leary disciple and a group of like-minded flower children unwittingly created the blueprint for new York’s disco underground. Beneath a ceiling covered in balloons and streamers, David Mancuso stood before a small Buddha, weaving an eclectic and atmospheric soundtrack – from obscure Latin and African rock, to psychedelic soul and unclassifiable ethereal LP tracks.
It matched the mood and movement of the dancers before him, who defined the melting pot that was cooking up in post-industrial New York. Re-launching his party as ‘Love Will Save the Day’ in 1969 (after a period of Buddhist disownment and a stint in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital) Mancuso and his friends created an environment where freedom and unity were the watchwords, as dancing became communion.
In the early 70s, as word about this unique dance space started to filter through, The Loft became a haven for NYC’s outsider art community. The party’s whole aesthetic, from the refined sound system to the family ethic, became a huge influence on New York’s future DJs and their revered clubs; famous ‘Loft Babies’ included Nicky Siano (The Gallery), Larry Levan (Paradise Garage) and Frankie Knuckles (Chicago’s Warehouse).
Mancuso once claimed that he was “tuning into that natural rhythm, the three billion year old dance.” I just applied it through these artificial means, which were amplifiers and records.”
In an Old Street bar, on the cusp on the release of the first Loft audiophile 12-inch boxed set, I sat down to reason with this most enigmatic yet enlightening of party hosts.
Andy Thomas: You were raised in a children’s home and it’s well documented how the parties run by a nurse there, Sister Alicia, influenced your own. but, going even further back, how important do you think dancing is to human existence?
David Mancuso: “Dance has always been a part of life. Music came before the word and with that came the dance. People have always communicated through dance to tell stories of their ancestors. So I think it has always been going on.”
The word ‘community’ is bandied around a lot in dance music. But with you it does seem to be at the foundation of what you do.
DM: “This actually goes right back to when I was in high school in the 1950s. A lot of music came out that as based around dancing and getting together. You know, The Locomotion, Going to the Go Go. So this idea of dancing and community was there from an early age and very significant to me. It’s always been about sharing music with your friends.
When you first arrived in New York, you were inspired by ‘rent parties’. Why was that?
“I found out that people were raising money to pay their rent through having a party. This was also a very good social environment, and the intimacy of a home environment was there too."
The famous hippy hangout, ‘Electric Circus’, was another party that inspired you. What was it like there?
“The first time I went to Electric Circus was in 1963. The vibe was great, and it was much more diverse than other places. The dancing was freeform and psychedelic.”
What originally drew you to that counterculture?
“The individualism of the people and their lifestyles intrigued me. Basically myself and a lot of my friends felt more comfortable in a situation where we were hanging out with people who were not considered the norm by society. And music acted as a catalyst for all of this.”
Your parties were influenced by the teachings of Timothy Leary. How were you introduced to his writing?
“It was early 1963 and I had already taken about half a dozen trips over the previous six months. I didn’t quite understand what it was all about – but I knew I liked it very much. So, I am sitting in my friend’s living room and there is a book called Psychedelic Experience Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary and Richard Albert. The book spoke about the three bardos [simply put, a term for the suspension of normal life and the ‘ego loss’ that sometimes results] and as my taking of LSD progressed, spiritually I began to understand the journey better.”
Tell us about your early parties.
“These were people I was very comfortable with, and we trusted each other. And that kind of situation developed into one where there might be 100 people around the house. I used to take a trip like a vitamin pill in the morning, as did a lot of people at that time, and there was a lot of intense communication going on. A lot of people knew each other, so if you were tripping or not you were part of the party.”
What was the importance of these parties being held in your home… the freedom and connections that allowed?
“A lot of these parties back then were in someone’s living room. The nucleus of the parties was being with my friends, listening to music and sharing the moment. So it was the same thing that humans have done for thousands of years – communicating through dance. So, yes, there is a spiritual basis to all of this."
To what extent was The Loft a reaction to what was happening outside?
“You had all these things going on politically, like the civil rights movement, and gay rights, and the anti-war thing. So you’d be marching with a slogan about Vietnam, and that was where a lot of us met. There was a sense of community already, so the aprties were an opportunity to add more energy and other diverse things. It was very primal – coming together to help each other in the dance. I think having an environment where people can be themselves is the only way to go no matter what. It was just… the biggest mix of people.”
What was the mix of people like?
“Back then, it was very diversified. The reason it succeeded was that it really didn’t matter how much money you had. There was no discrimination. So when everyone got together from all these different economic and social groups without any barriers, connections started to be made and you had social progress. When you mix all the different economic groups together and make it affordable to everyone, and do away with the dress codes, everybody is equal. So that made people connect, and the vibrations became much freer.
I was also rebelling against the constraints. For example, if you were gay at the time and wanted to go out dancing, you had to pay more for a drink, and you had to go to places like stonewall, and you had all these laws… the situation was very controlled. I had made a lot of friends from these different environments, who would come to my house to party.”
You had a lot of artistic people attending. How did you ensure the various egos didn’t start to interfere with the harmony?
“The reason people came was to be themselves and party with different people. So, yes we had very famous people who came to the parties but they were just treated the same and no one was bothered by who they were. This was what it was all about – privacy was always respected.”
How important was the invitation side of things when it came to ensuring the right spirit?
“It was absolutely vital to make people feel safe. The first time you came there you had to be invited, so you were already there as a guest of your friends. We even had people who worked as police coming as guests and it was never a problem. I remember one guy was dancing out on the floor with the cop that had arrested him three weeks earlier. That was the kind of situation we created, and why we had to keep it private – so things could happen.”
Also well documented is the attention to sound quality at The Loft. When did you first understand the importance of acoustics?
“That’s a good question. I remember being in the children’s home, climbing out of my bed towards some steps, and hearing these keys. So I’ve always been fascinated by what the keys represent.”
The party ‘as a democratic space’ has always been vital too, right?
“The idea of the turntable and the DJ was for us to play a record and the dancer to be able to become part of that performance. That is what the whole thing was about for me. It was never about one person, but a communal thing. The whole thing grew from a very small nucleus, and whether you were cooking food in the kitchen or putting up the balloons, we were all components of what is was all about – all part of the dance. So it never did centre on any one activity.”
That leads us on the the London parties. Could you talk about the Lucky Cloud team, and the environment they have created for the Light parties to succeed?
“I commend the team in London that they took the step and tried this. It’s not easy to put on a party like this – it takes a lot of work. The right chemistry is there, which is vital. It just feels like I have a party in someone else’s house now.”
After years of being misrepresented by bootleg releases like The Loft Classics series, how does it feel to be finally releasing a record on your own label?
“Myself and Colleen [Murphy, AKA DJ Cosmo] would have done it sooner, and it’s been a real learning experience. I thought it would have taken six months but it’s been two years. This whole thing is not about remixing or re-editing. It’s to make sure the original artist is fully represented, by going back to the initial recording and pressing it properly. The aim is to create a library of music that people already love, but can now hear how it was meant to be. Stan Rickman our engineer [noted for his work on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon] can do that.”
The first release is Alfredo De La Fe’s My Favourite Things. Could you tell me how you came across the B-side though?
“Back in the ‘70s, labels like CBS would compete between each other in the UK and the states. The UK would have better pressings, so we would always buy the imports. We knew we wanted to go to the UK; we told them what we were about and built up the trust. So anyway, they said, “We also have a live version by Tito Puente [a seminal latin percussion jazz ensemble] and we were, like ‘Whoah…’ It was even more intense.”
Finally David, how have you managed to keep all this going for so long?
“I don’t. It keeps itself going. It’s been going on for thousands of years and I am just privileged to be part of this whole dance thing going on around me.”
Originally published in Shook magazine