An NYT article from 2000 about West End Records founder, Paradise Garage backer, disco legend and dancefloor denizen Mel Cheren, who died on December 7 (I managed to delete a prior post containing this piece). The photo of Mel Cheren showing his Paradise Garage tattoo is from an interview with Undaground Archives.
Paradise Garage, a Gay Club That Forever Changed Night Life
By JON PARELES
Published: June 18, 2000
THE tattoo on Mel Cheren’s left bicep is the logo of the Paradise Garage, the club that occupied 84 King Street in SoHo from 1977 to 1987. In the garden behind his Chelsea apartment is the sign that used to hang over the club’s door: a curly-haired figure with a tambourine halo, along with a disco whistle and an amyl nitrate popper dangling below. A friend salvaged it from a garbage heap after the club closed.
To Mr. Cheren, 67, who has been a promotion man, a record-company owner, a painter, a landlord and a philanthropist, the Paradise Garage was ”the ultimate expression of the whole fabric” of gay night life. With some financial backing from Mr. Cheren, it was created by his business partner and ex-lover Michael Brody just as disco music was heading for its commercial peak, pulling gay culture into the American mainstream.
For Mr. Cheren and many of the club’s other regulars, the Garage’s best years were the culmination of a utopian time for gay men in New York City, when it seemed that the pleasures of dancing, casual sex and recreational drug use could go on forever.
”All now was turned to jollity and game/To luxury and riot, feast and dance,” as John Milton wrote about a different lost paradise. Mr. Cheren wasn’t a musician, producer, disc jockey or club owner; he was a fan who made it his business to get the music heard — ”the guy who put all the pieces together,” he said.
The club is at the center of Mr. Cheren’s autobiography, ”Keep On Dancin’: My Life and the Paradise Garage,” just published by 24 Hours for Life, the nonprofit AIDS relief organization he founded. (It will receive the book’s proceeds.) ”Keep On Dancin’ ” details the makings of modern dance music in a tangle of friendships, aesthetic imperatives, business deals and sexual liaisons. Then, the good times of the late 1970’s unravel with the AIDS epidemic, the decline of disco and his own setbacks. Mr. Cheren will give a reading from the book on Thursday at A Different Light bookstore on West 19th Street, timed to coincide with New York’s Gay Pride Week, June 18 to 25.
He lives in the bright first-floor garden apartment of Colonial House, a bed-and-breakfast that was a dingy single-room-occupancy hotel in Chelsea when Mr. Cheren and Mr. Brody bought it in 1973 for $31,000. An excitable pair of gray schnauzers greet guests. Mr. Cheren’s paintings fill the walls of the living room, some equipped with ultraviolet lights to make their fluorescent paints glow. One is a shimmering vision of New York City as clubland, emblazoned with the names of bygone discotheques. Mr. Cheren wears a silver ring and a belt buckle that used to belong to Larry Levan, who died in 1992; Mr. Levan was the disc jockey who put the Paradise Garage at the forefront of dance music. Mr. Cheren still goes dancing whenever he can.
But he misses the Paradise Garage. It was, as billed, a refurbished garage. It had no air-conditioning or central heating; it didn’t sell alcohol, which meant it could stay open after bar hours, often until noon the next morning. But it had a magnificent sound system that was constantly being improved by Mr. Levan, whose marathon Saturday night sets carried dancers from sweaty exertion to exaltation while gospel-diva voices preached love. The club’s devotees — predominantly black gay men — came to dance, not to drink or pose. Among the countless clubs that have come and gone in New York City, the Paradise Garage is still mourned.
”One important thing that the Garage did, which is not being done today, is to bring together black and white, straight and gay in one place,” Mr. Cheren said. ”When people learn to dance together, they can get along.”
The music Mr. Levan played at the Garage taught a generation of disc jockeys how to work a crowd. It is widely acknowledged as the precursor of house music, the steady-thumping beat that came out of Chicago and now holds sway in clubs around the world. New York City’s two reigning house disc jockeys, Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia, both frequented the Paradise Garage. ”I was a major wallflower in that club, almost every weekend,” Mr. Tenaglia once said. ”My roots are basically set from the Paradise Garage era.”
In London, disc jockeys recently named a style of dance music ”garage” after the club. But Mr. Cheren insists it doesn’t much resemble what was heard at the Paradise Garage.
”House music,” Mr. Cheren said, ”is the Garage on a budget. The music Larry played, like the Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB, was made by orchestras, by live musicians. When the kids in Chicago wanted to start recording, they couldn’t afford that and the computer came into being, so they did it at home and it was stripped down, with no vocals. So it was funkier. House is Garage on a budget, and hip-hop is R&B with baggy pants.”
His reactivated label, West End, has just released a two-CD album of Mr. Levan in action, from a disc-jockey set mixed live in 1979. People who go to dance clubs now, where a disc jockey may stretch out a single stark beat for 20 minutes, may be surprised at how much of Mr. Levan’s music uses full-length vocal verses and choruses.
”He tells a whole story in the songs,” Mr. Cheren said. ”And he would talk to you with the music. Once, after we hadn’t been talking, I was dancing under the booth. He played, ‘Gotta Get You Back Into My Life,’ and came down and gave me a hug.”
Mr. Cheren, who grew up in Boston, entered the music business as a sales representative for ABC-Paramount Records in 1959. In the early 1960’s, he began to dabble in painting; he never used a brush, just his fingers. The jazz producer Bob Thiele liked some of the canvases, and Mr. Cheren’s paintings ended up on the covers of albums, including Archie Shepp’s ”Fire Music” and Sonny Rollins’s ”East Broadway Run Down”; he was nominated for Grammy Awards for album art.
After being drafted into the Army, which stationed him in Stuttgart, Germany, Mr. Cheren returned to the music business in 1970, working for a small label, Scepter Records. He started to go dancing at discotheques, getting involved in a club circuit that he has never left. He began to hear rhythm-and-blues songs with a danceable beat: music that would be embraced at gay dance clubs like the Firehouse and the Loft, and that would later be categorized as disco. At Scepter, he became what he calls a ”disco pest,” urging the company to release some of the new dance music.
In 1973, Scepter made a deal for a single, ”We’re on the Right Track,” by Ultra High Frequency (link from Ugly Talented); it owned only that one song. At the time, disc jockeys were playing three-minute 45 r.p.m. singles, and wished they could extend songs somehow. Mr. Cheren convinced Scepter to put an instrumental version of ”We’re on the Right Track” on the B-side of the single. Disc jockeys latched on to it immediately; with two copies of the single, they could add instrumental passages to stretch the song to any length. Soon, the instrumental B-side became standard for dance singles.
But Scepter didn’t have its heart in dance music, and after it shut down in 1976, Mr. Cheren and a partner started West End Music Industries. Its first attempt at a disco hit, ”Sessamato” by Sessa Matto, included a sound effect created by playing a piece of recording tape backward: a scratchy whoosh that soon caught the ear of rappers. It was, Mr. Cheren contends, the first recorded scratch, now a familiar sound created by hip-hop disc jockeys spinning discs in reverse.
Mr. Cheren had a chance to be a partner in the new Paradise Garage, but declined, not wanting to get into business with a former lover. He put up some money for the new club, however, which paid for its sound system. With disco entering its commercial heyday, West End flourished until the early 1980’s, pumping hits onto dance floors like Karen Young’s ”Hot Shot” and two singles by Taana Gardner, ”Work That Body” and the indelible ”Heartbeat,” which sold 800,000 copies and has been repeatedly sampled by hip-hop producers.
If Mr. Levan liked a new song, he’d play it again and again at the Paradise Garage. Radio stations listened to what was being played at the clubs, and a song that made dancers scream on a Saturday night would show up on WBLS on Monday.
But by 1980, a backlash had begun. The music business, having flooded the market with bad disco songs, stopped even mentioning the word ”disco”; radio stations turned to pop and new wave rock, and dance music retreated to the clubs. Mr. Cheren had started smoking PCP (angel dust); West End’s string of hits dried up. And many of his friends grew ill with a disease that had not yet been named — AIDS.
In the late 1980’s, Mr. Cheren’s world crumbled. He handed over his interest in West End to his partner, thinking the company was bankrupt; he successfully litigated to retrieve it in the 1990’s. The Paradise Garage closed in September 1987, two months before Mr. Brody died of AIDS. Mr. Cheren attended funerals for friend after friend. And he helped organize efforts to make sense of the epidemic. Colonial House became the first headquarters for Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
In the late 1980’s, Mr. Cheren started 24 Hours for Life to raise money for AIDS relief from the music business, an effort that remains frustrating. ”After losing so many friends, I’m still here and healthy,” he said.
The former Paradise Garage at 84 King Street is now just a garage again, where Bell Atlantic parks its trucks. Mr. Cheren dreams of turning it into a club, and he nurtures the hope that his book could make it possible.
”If they make a movie of the book,” he said, ”they would need a set. They could buy the building, put it back the way it was and leave it, then turn it over to 24 Hours for Life. Every night of the week would be a different party. Everybody who works there would get paid, but the profits would go to a community chest of charities. And if it happened in New York, it could happen in London, in Tokyo, in Paris. I have Larry Levan’s ashes, and I want to put up a glass enclosure. Like the pope is in the Vatican; Larry’s ashes would be in the Garage.”