Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: The Afterlife of a Saint

staying afloat

Bruce Mailman made a number of changes to the Saint in order to keep it afloat in its sea of controversy. In 1985, Mailman began to sell liquor at the club; though he later opened the disco to heterosexual people on Fridays, attendance at the club still waned dramatically (McEwan, 42). The “ghosts of friends” haunted many members of the New York City gay community (Rist, 18). Most of the crowd that had frequented the Saint were older gay men who had either died from HIV/AIDS or were grappling with the grief of knowing those who had (Rist, 18). Many people avoided the Saint.

The younger crowd that began to populate the Saint didn’t come as often as older members once did because they didn’t have as much money; financial troubles swiftly appeared on the horizon, and Bruce Mailman began to feel that he could only own the Saint “for so long” (Rist, 18). Soon thereafter, the Fillmore East Village Associates Ltd. offered to buy the Saint from Mailman for 6.5 million dollars; by the Saint’s 1987 Halloween Party, the sale of the building had already “passed the point of no return” (qtd. in McEwan).

In 1988, the Saint’s surviving DJs and lighting technicians enlivened the club for the last time. The “Last Party” spanned “three days and three nights,” with Saint regulars attending 30 of the 36 hours (McEwan, 42). Jimmy Ruffin’s song “Hold On To My Love” played near the end of the Last Party; appropriately, the words HOLD ON TO MY LOVE have been stitched onto the bottom of the Saint’s memorial quilt. The words’ ash-colored lettering overlay a thick strip of the same shiny, silver material found elsewhere in the panel.

Jimmy Ruffin’s “Hold On To My Love”

reincarnation

Gay nightlife was “quiet” without the Saint (McEwan, 42). The Paradise Garage and Flamingo dance club had already closed when the Last Party took place, so, when Halloween came around after the Saint’s official closing in April of 1988, Bruce Mailman decided to host a party (McEwan, 42-44). This Halloween Party commenced a series of parties that became known as Saint-at-Large events (McEwan, 44).

Saint-at-Large parties now annually commemorate the four holiest celebrations of the original Saint: Halloween, New Years Eve, the White Party, and Black Party; the White and Black parties are the most popular events of the year (McEwan, 44). This annotation describes the Saint-at-Large’s 2016 Black Party trailer, whose wicked marine imagery elicits awe from the viewer. Further showcasing the living legacy of Bruce Mailman’s inventive artistry is the 1998 poster advertising the Saint-at-Large’s White Party.

Though the Saint-at-Large seeks to “keep the spirit of the original [Saint] alive,” many people have noted that the Saint-at-Large celebrations are mere “shadows” of what the Saint’s parties used to be (Peters, 142). The permanent loss of the euphoric disposition of the Saint’s heyday emphasizes the irretrievable nature of the past. Memories can never be replicated; the Saint will always maintain a “mystique” that is impenetrable even by vigorous research (Peters, 141). Generations now will never learn the liveliness of the original Saint; young gay men will never enjoy the “wonderful playground” that was Bruce Mailman’s very own haven of vices (Peters, 141). Though men still dance beneath dazzling lights and kiss in rhythm with Hi-NRG melodies, they cannot relish the gratification of the hours upon hours men their age spent in the original Saint (Peters, 142). They cannot travel back in time. To Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint, this restraint on any true comprehension of the Saint is lamentable (McEwan, 44). Younger gay generations who never experienced the original Saint “don’t know what it was [or] what they’ve missed” (qtd. in McEwan, 44). The naivete of this generation is astonishing to him given that they are grossly unfamiliar with the brilliant spark of their antecedents (Peters, 143). 

The disconnect that exists between the disco generation and the grunge youngsters saddened Bruce Mailman (Peters, 143). Mailman worried that his generation would not get to share its “collective wisdom” with the next generation of queer youth because of the devastation of AIDS (qtd. in Peters, 143). The sense that the “young [gay population] arrived newly born and can’t benefit from anything that went before them” is upsetting to Mailman (qtd. in Peters, 143). For the men and women who emerged out of the disco era and the sexual revolution, it seems the Saint is best appraised in recollection rather than revival (McEwan, 44). For them, nothing can compare to the original Saint and the original high of liberation (McEwan, 44). The freedom of the 70s never included the burden of AIDS now attached to gay identity; Mailman feels that the epidemic has darkened an otherwise beautiful expression of gay sexuality and identity (Peters, 143). He hopes that future gay generations will find the “same freedom [his generation] once had,” otherwise the community will continuously struggle to recover its historical vitality (qtd. in Peters, 143). 

Even if the Saint cannot be relived, its narrative must still be retold. The Saint is not irrelevant, even if, as Frank Courson acknolwedges, there “are entire portions of the city where [the gay community] can be comfortable” (McEwan, 44) The magnetizing majesty of the Saint comforted young gay men and offered them a “safe place” to be themselves and to love their significant others and lovers (McEwan, 44). The Saint shone like a beacon within the gay community, offering shelter and a supportive celebration of patrons’ self-hood that may seem unfit for the currently saturated generation (McEwan, 44). However, even despite the progress of civil rights within the LGBTQ+ community, the dissemination of the Saint’s story is still necessary.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate the club’s extraordinary impact on New York’s gay history. The quilt’s size symbolizes both the magnificent breadth of the physical Saint as well as its metaphorical significance in history. 

The Saint was a sinfully sexual disco that manifested the spiritual realization of an unapologetic existence (Peters). Serenading its customers with the rapturous anthems of a liberated generation, the Saint dance club was emblematic of the entire disco generation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). Primarily, the Saint bestowed a jubilant embrace of unrestrained, open desire upon its gay patrons (“Chapter 4: The Era“). In the Saint, desires and dreams were set free as a hot revolution of self-respect unfastened the binds of closeted men and women and turned them towards self-acceptance and sexual liberation (“Chapter 4: The Era“). The lifetime of the Saint embodies the rise and fall of the gay generation during the 1980s due to the AIDS epidemic by encapsulating both the heroism and vulnerability of New York’s gay community. The Saint’s memorial block fails to communicate the tremendous culture of the Saint, however its archival materials convey the club’s life span well.

As Carol Cooper acknowledges, the lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). However, quite a few of the materials cited in this essay involve direct quotations from the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman. Darrell Yates Rist, Brooks Peters, and Jonathan McEwan are authors whose invaluable articles contain interviews with Bruce Mailman himself as well as interviews of other close associates of the Saint. Though direct experience is the only way one can truly understand disco clubs or feel the true impact of disco music, written narratives still provide a crucial glimpse of the nature of the disco revolution. Without the circulation of firsthand documentation on the Saint, Mailman’s concern that there is no “continuity in the gay population” will come true (Peters, 143). To communicate across generational lines the struggle, liberation, and resilience of the gay community (particularly in New York, U.S.A.), the story of the Saint must be shared, as it both explains the importance of discos to the gay community as well as the role of uninhibited sexuality in the community’s freedom from oppression.

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Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: And So Disco Begins

black RADIO BECOMES BLACK DISCO

In the 1930’s and 1940’s of the United States, white broadcasters owned black radio, and white announcers stifled black music (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). By failing to hire black announcers, white broadcasters deprived black musicality of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159). Radio refused autonomy over the black community’s own musical history. The struggle for authentic space and expression driven by members of the black community 

speak for yourself, be yourself, and create your own context and community, find a space that is your own, embrace your rights to be loud, open, and honest about your identity and your

Image credit: iHeartRadio

Yet, when the WDIA station of Memphis, Tennessee became the first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers,” black DJs began to thrive.

Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music. They became “community leaders” around the nation (Cooper, 159); along with black entrepreneurs, black DJs helped to engender a new culture of music: disco.

diverse disco cults

According to Carol Cooper, the author of “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground,” the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160).

New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). Black entrepreneurs began to transform college frat fundraisers and town rent parties into professional entertainment platforms.

The Manhattan clubs of Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (Cooper, 160). And though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (Cooper, 160). They were diverse.

Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homogeneous in attitude and composition” (Cooper, 160). Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular communities.

Disco “cults” fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161).

The Saint Dance Club is seen by many as the culmination of gay disco.

setting the stage for the saint

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 4: The Era

Bruce Mailman was an entrepreneur based in New York City, U.S.A. who was integral in providing sensual havens for the gay community during the 1970s and 1980s.

In the eras of the Sexual Revolution and of disco culture, Bruce Mailman endeavored to engineer an oasis of open desire and free expression in which gay men could engage.

To do this, Mailman first created the St. Marks Baths, a bathhouse described by author Jonathan McEwan as an “exciting place in which to enjoy the pleasures of the then unhindered sexual revolution” (36). Later, Bruce Mailman founded the Saint disco club, which, to many, came to represent the apotheosis of the disco era.

Saint Dance Club Memorial Block; Image Credit: NAMES Project

The unusually large size of the Saint’s memorial block attempts to communicate its extraordinary impact on New York’s gay history. The quilt’s size symbolizes both the magnificent breadth of the physical Saint as well as its metaphorical significance in history.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 5: The Clubs

Annotated Bibliography Two – Annotation Three

Cooper, Carol. “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground.” Social Text, no. 45 (1995): 159–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/466679.

black radio becomes black disco

Disco emerged out of a struggle for communication and representation.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s United States, “so-called” black radio was owned by white broadcasters, and black music was stifled by white announcers (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). White broadcasters intended to generate profit by attempting to appeal to black audiences, however such attempts were insulting and selfishly motivated by potential monetary gain. Broadcasters exploited black music by depriving it of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159) by failing to hire black announcers.

Image credit: iHeartRadio

The first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers” was the WDIA station located in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. (Cooper, 159). WDIA was the only station at the time that catered to black listeners, so the station was able to charge advertisers higher prices for air time. Soon, broadcaster chains around the nation began to adopt black-formatted radio stations for the sole purpose of achieving a bigger profit. White corporations realized that they could benefit from recruiting black on-air personalities, and so they did. Yet, black disc jockeys became like “community leaders” across the nation (Cooper, 159). Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music.

According to Carol Cooper, the author of this article, the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160). New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). College frat fundraisers and town rent parties demanded a jock “with personality and great music” (Cooper, 160) Once black entrepreneurs advanced this festive design, charging people to attend those functions developed into a professional entertainment platform (160). Manhattan clubs such as Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (160). Yet though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (160). They were diverse.

DIVERSIty, retaliation, CULTS

Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular groups. The Copacabana nightclub was “predominantly Latin,” whereas Disco 2000 attracted Italians; Steve Rubell, the co-owner of Studio 54 described his club as the “white, Hollywood version of Leviticus” (qtd. in Cooper, 160). Yet much of the music played at these various disco nightclubs was “uptempo R&B” (Cooper, 160).

However, when record promoters wanted to test “fresh sounds,” they used DJs to expose “different kinds of listeners simultaneously” to their potential hits (Cooper, 160). Personality jocks with a “fanatical following” could often determine “hit records” within a week based off of their crowds’ feedback (Cooper, 160). Jocks were influential, cultural sculptors whose experimentation and increased technological sophistication continuously encouraged jocks to “live up to the expectations of [the] crowd” (Cooper, 161). Loyal, regular patrons loved, respected, and trusted their jocks. The reliability of a regular crowd inspired a confident desire in male DJs to improve their “sound system, […] technique, and record collection” (Cooper, 161). Yet once city policy limited the number of venues that disc jockeys could perform at, competition for sets in popular clubs surged.

Out of the competition for listeners sprung disco “cults,” whose determinations fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161). The byproduct of politicized jock competition was a “segregation of the disco market by style and demographics;” rather than being “mere happenstance,” such dissociation of the musical market intentionally and “forcibly [changed] the way new music could be presented to the public” (Cooper, 161). Once DJs acquired a steady gig, they sometimes felt pressured to abstain from making any new sound waves. These DJs played “more proven hits and less risky long shots” in order to maintain their job. The musicality of the disc jockey was quickly becoming stifled by the “narrow formatting” being forced upon crowds. Thus, some DJs began to perform as guests during special event nights at various clubs. Without committing to any one steady gig, these jocks were able to continue mixing different types of music and playing to different types of audiences (Cooper, 161).

This “cultural give-and-take” especially thrived in the 1980s, when jocks moved between uptown and downtown gigs, rendering musical excursions upon their crowds through expressions of rock’n’roll, reggaeton, and R&B music (Cooper, 161). Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homoegenous in attitude and composition,” which, to her, is an undeniable falsehood. (Cooper, 160). Music is multidimensional, multi-ethnic, and attractive in different ways to different audiences. In fact, there seemed to exist a “gulf” in musical interest at white and black gay clubs in the 1970s (Cooper, 162). There were also several musical distinctions between the more popular discotheques of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Paradise Garage and the Saint.

The Paradise Garage blasted low-end frequency music, whereas the Saint often played high or mid-range frequencies. According to the Paradise Garage Wikipedia page, three songs made popular through the Garage are “Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys, “Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk, and “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner.

“Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys:

“Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner:

“Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk:

Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of mid to high frequency music, which was traditionally played at The Saint. The following songs are “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan, “Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads, and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions. They give a range of the artistry found at mid to high frequency music.

“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan

“Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads

“Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions

The “densely arranged vocal records” of artists such as Chaka Khan, Talking Heads, and The Emotions were given “a clarity and a […] cerebral jolt unequaled anywhere else” at the Saint when they were articulated through a jock’s musical, technological, and storytelling style. (Cooper, 163). Popular clubs like the Saint, the Paradise Garage, and the Loft did not always play according to their brand though. In order to “pay tribute to their collective dedication to giving their respective patrons a unique musical experience,” these clubs sometimes played music that was usually identified with their so-called rivals (Cooper, 163). Such blatant branding still dictates the complexity of disco styles and genres, showing that the music from this era is not a uniform, indistinguishable mass of sound. Their homage to rival dance clubs additionally shows the aforementioned “cultural give-and-take” of the 80s (Cooper, 161).

female jocks

On page 162, Carol Cooper divulges to the reader that all the jocks she has been discussing, those who had to grapple with narrow formatting and excelled when exposed to a variety of audiences and music, are male.

However, there are two female disc jockeys that “deserve examination,” despite that fact that mainstream media does not consider them worthy of news coverage since they are “neither tragic nor dead” (Cooper, 161). These two black female jocks are Sharon White and Gail King, whose talents at musical instrumentation imbued their passion for the music scene.

Sharon White grew up drumming and specializes in various forms of percussion. Gail King was the lead guitarist of several jazz and funk bands as a teenager.

In college, both women became exposed to disc jockeying through their participation at college radio stations.

When Sharon White wrote to the famed radio disc jockey Allison Steele, the two women swiftly became friends. Steele had been an “idol” to Sharon White, and acted as her mentor as they got to know each other. Eventually, White “drifted into clubs,” hoping to satisfy the “child” in her that had “always wanted an audience” (qtd. in Cooper, 163). To White, “spinning at a club […] was a hundred times better” than doing radio because she could see “500 people reacting to [her] music,” whereas during her nighttime slots on the radio, only a call or two would inform her that anyone was listening (Cooper, 163). Along with her expertise on the drums, White “knew the music,” having grown up listening to and loving artists like the Faces, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix (Cooper, 163). She quickly became extremely influential in the music scene.

12 inch extended single records arrived in the mid-1970s, and they significantly improved the ability of deejays to compose a smooth set with seamless transitions. During this time, Sharon White was perfecting her craft at a lesbian club called the Sahara. There, White caught the interest of several club promoters and sound engineers of the industry alike. As a percussionist and former radio operative, Sharon White possessed a talent for detecting the “sonic nuances” of “densely orchestrated instrumentals and vocal tracks” that only a technical ear could perceive and manipulate to energize crowds (Cooper, 162). Read more about Sharon White here. More sophisticated technology and club sound systems simultaneously began to advance the skill sets of accomplished jocks.

Gail King and Sharon White were among the known accomplished jocks. In the 70s, both women were elected to become members of Billboard’s national deejay panel, which “determined the chart position for dance singles” (Cooper, 163). Whereas Sharon White often drafted playlists of songs fitting the “white gay market,” King’s playlist indicated “potential hits among the young black and Latin vanguard of Generation X” (Cooper, 163).

Gail King possessed further expertise in the field of music.

By 1977, King had immersed herself in roller disco, a subculture of disco that was popular among “dating-age” blacks and Hispanics. King formed a rollerskating performance group that toured local skating rinks for “fun and profit” (Cooper, 163). At the roller disco, Gail King was esteemed for her fantastic ability to play to skating and dancing crowds. It was well-known among observers that “it took a particular ear to choose the perfect records for skating” (Cooper, 164). Read more about roller disco here.

After her escapades with the rollerskating performance group, Gail King became the main disc jockey at an upscale black nightclub called the Red Parrot, where she became a powerful influence on mainstream music. As rap and R&B began to converge into the “newjack” movement, hip hop broke into the mainstream media and radio. In the 1980s, scratching deejays, skate-dancers, graffiti artists, and break dancers all pulled from the musical tastes of the previous decade as well as their own creativity to contribute this hip-hop revolution. The Red Parrot attracted an audience of sports, music, fashion, and film celebrities, to whom King mixed the diverse “idioms” of house, reggae, and rap. King’s mixes were often emulated on the local black radio. Because of her work at the Red Parrot, Gail King became a prominent figure in the club scene and music industry.

If King “broke” your record to an audience at the Red Parrot, then your song was likely to receive air time on local radio stations. King became as essential to pulling crowds as the Red Parrot itself, which the club began to resent. After a dispute with the Red Parrot over its decision to add strippers to the night’s entertainment, King retired from her post as a DJ there. During the day, King had been working at a local radio station as an audio-production engineer. The steady, dependable skill set of King’s day job expanded her resume; King favored it over the fickle nature of the club scene. Not even a year after King left the establishment, the Red Parrot fell into a mockery of professionalism of artistry, and eventually closed.

missing firsthand Documentation

On the last pages of her article, Carol Cooper informs the reader of crucial information regarding the documentation of disco history.

A lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). Some of the experts who were present in the disco era are unwilling to write about their experiences. Still, there are influential disc jockeys who “have died without passing on their personal memories of important records and party-moments” (Cooper, 164).

If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). Other contributors to the “early club-underground-like the Loft’s David Mancuso-[…] are notoriously shy and dismissive of latecomers to the scene who think they can understand more than a decade of fanatical allegiance to nightlife by pumping a famous jock for a few hours of colorful anecdotes” (Cooper, 165).  Firsthand experience of the disco generation cannot be “accurately conveyed through the abstract medium of dry print” (Cooper, 165). Direct experience is the only way one can understand disco clubs or feel the true impacts of disco music. Even recordings of the time period in the mediums of radio and video are insufficient. The “interactive immediacy of a dance club” is the superior way to disseminate music and meaning to the public (Cooper, 165).

a discussion of carol cooper’s article

Cooper’s article is scholarly, well-researched, and well-written. Her article has been published with an accredited university, Duke University, and was published in the journal Social Text.

However, one drawback to her article is that I cannot access Cooper’s list of references through this article alone.

Yet, Cooper’s credibility is strong. She informs the reader of critical details and historical timelines one may otherwise never have known.

Cooper describes the selfish motivations of white broadcasters as well as the media’s disregard for female jocks without citing direct evidence of either entity’s personal inspirations. Though she does not give explicit evidence supporting her assertions, any evidence she could use would be hard to consolidate into one article.

Cooper relies on our ingrained cultural knowledge of the history of race and gender in the United States of America to support her claims, causing readers to conceive of the ways cultural prejudice and cultural diversity also played a role in disco’s origins and disco’s life.