Sexual Expression and its Subsequent Suppression: Kingdom of a Saint

painting music on a blank cAnvas

After the First Party, the Saint dance club became the “hottest, most exclusive ticket in town,” partly because of its astounding technology. The Saint set “new standards for lighting and sound,” that showcased the truly unique properties of a club with a planetarium inside of it (McEwan, 39). According to Jason McCarthy, the former night manager of the Saint, the planetarium dome of the club “was like a canvas” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). Lights “aimed at the [dome from the] mothership, from the base of the walls and from the catwalk that circled the outside of the dome” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). The effect of the multitude of lights cast onto the dome was breathtaking; splendid stars and psychedelic designs delighted audiences as they danced beneath the large dome. Susan Tomkin, Bruce Mailman’s assistant, states that “being under the dome on the crowded dance floor with the lights and the stars was a spectacular visual experience that if you didn’t have, you’ll never know” (qtd. in McEwan, 40). Tomkin’s declaration demonstrates the impossibility of conveying any true experience of the Saint to a person who has neither seen, felt, heard, nor entered the club. Essentially, without experiencing the Saint firsthand, men and women will never truly know what it meant to dance under the Saint’s dome. 

Image Credit: Saint Promo
Image Credit: Saint Promo
Image Credit: Saint Promo

worship

The Saint aroused a spiritual thrill in its masses. Many have described the disco as a deliverer of near religious rapture. Frank Courson, a management consultant in Manhattan, describes the Saint as a temple (McEwan, 40). Author Jonathan McEwan expounds upon Courson’s claim in his 1994 article entitled “The Saint Goes On.” McEwan explains that the Saint had “four opposing entrances that led to the circular dance floor, an icon of worship (the mirror ball) and even an altar (the DJ booth). The DJ played a liturgy designed to engage the congregation in ritualistic dance” (40). Thus, the Saint seemed to provide the services a traditional church would. Going to the Saint certainly provided experiences that many would call religious; however, devout members of the Saint were not puritan men solely concerned with enjoying the night’s music or getting emotionally stimulated (McEwan, 40). Men chased the high of unreserved worship, which lasted for hours, beginning Saturday night and concluding on the following Sunday afternoon (McEwan, 40). During this time, deliciously “decadent” drug use and sexual pursuits sinfully silhouetted the Saint against its rather innocent namesake (Rist, 18). Author Darrell Yates Rist remembers “a perpetually euphoric storm of orgies in the balcony above the planetarium dome” as well as an “endless fountain of drugs from […] men who themselves were intoxicating” (18). What was saintly about Mailman’s disco was not its innocence, but its absolute embrace of male pleasure.

Stories of the Saint – Chapter 3: The Trip

to be special, to be beloved

Open only on Saturdays and Sundays, the Saint made sure to wow crowds with unique experiences every time they attended the club (McEwan, 40). Former manager of the Saint Joel Teitelbaum notes that on Saturday the staff of the club would “set up art installations or fill the club with balloons and cotton clouds. Then, right after the last dancer left on Sunday afternoon, a crew would remove all traces of the Saturday night party and reset the lights so that Sunday’s would be completely different” (qtd. in McEwan, 40). The continuous production of remarkable art for the promotion and adornment of the Saint gratified members and visitors by making them feel “special” every time they walked into the club (qtd. In Rist, 17). Other discotheques attracted celebrities as famed, esteemed guests, yet at the Saint, “no one looked at other people” (qtd. in Rist, 17). The people themselves “were the stars,” and the Saint devoted every passionate night to its audience so that each person there could receive the best experience possible (qtd. in Rist, 17). Parties at the Saint were planned ahead to an impressive amount of detail;  (McEwan, 40). DJs contained playlists of songs to which they envisioned specific staging cues (such as the descent of the mirror ball, or the appearance of the stars) being enacted. The Saint dance club’s unique holiday schedule also challenged staff members to entertain crowds according to different themes (McEwan, 40)

DJ performances at the Saint also contributed to the club’s dominion of disco. In Brooks Peters’ 1994 article “The Sexual Revolution Mailman Delivered,” Michael Fierman, an esteemed DJ of the Saint, explains that DJs had a responsibility to “make a musical statement” (qtd. in Peters, 140). At the Saint, evenings were given structure by the DJ’s desire to “take the crowd someplace” (qtd. in Peters, 140). Their desire to establish a musical journey developed into a methodological procedure for eliciting various emotions from their audience. First, lighter fare music escalated into Hi-NRG music (now known as EDM or electronic dance music in 2017). Then those Hi-NRG “hard-driving beats” would melt into “melodic morning music,” before concluding with songs later classified as “sleaze” (Weinstein). Sleaze described the swoon of romantic ballads that cascaded from the Saint’s planetarium dome like stardust.

transcendence

Joel Teitelbaum witnessed the transcendent nature of music and dance in the Saint. He states that dancing at the Saint was “a kind of trip […] that started around midnight and didn’t reach its destination until 2:00 the next afternoon” (qtd. in McEwan, 39). The trip that Teitelbaum references symbolizes the ability of the Saint to transport crowds to a spiritually resonant realm. Carol Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of music traditionally played at The Saint (162-163). According to author Jonathan McEwan, songs fitting the club’s “interstellar” theme such as “Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA and “Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone were also “instant Saint standards” (38). 

Unfortunately, despite all the liberation the Saint stirred in its gay members, many populations in the queer community never directly received a similar hearty welcome. John Preston recounts that at the Saint there was “a sense of exclusion of those [individuals] who weren’t pretty enough” (qtd. in Peters, 141). Author Brooks Peters states that black people “complained” that they were discriminated against at the Saint because they did not fit the culturally-imposed ‘ideal’ gay man or woman, who were white (141). Peters also notes that “drag queens were definitely not welcome” at the Saint and that lesbians were just “not included” (141). Others steered clear of the Saint by their own volition; the sexual nature of the club was off-putting to them. Critics of the Saint believed that gay liberation should not be equated with promiscuous and anonymous sex, however, others felt that their physical excursions in disco clubs like the Saint were freeing and necessary (Peters). 

The Saint was nevertheless highly influential despite these internal debates.

“Rocket to Your Heart” by LISA

“Trippin’ On The Moon” by Cerrone

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Annotated Bibliography Two – Annotation Four

Weinstein, Steve. “DJ Sharon White Returns to NYC Nightlife For a Celebration 35 Years in the Making | Village Voice.” Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.villagevoice.com/2015/11/17/dj-sharon-white-returns-to-nyc-nightlife-for-a-celebration-35-years-in-the-making/.

born in the 50s, Disc jockey in the 70s

Sharon White was born in 1954. As an adolescent, White grew particularly attached to “British blues rock,” and admired artists such as Led Zeppelin, John Mayall, and the Faces (Cooper, 162). White grew up in Babylon, Long Island, New York, U.S.A and became passionate about drumming and percussion early on in her life. Music beat through her like a lyrical pulse.

Image Credit: Beatport Mixes

Studying drumming at a Manhattan conservatory during college, Sharon White befriended Allison Steele, a widely admired radio DJ for the NYC-based WNEW-FM station, through her own participation in college radio. Through her connection to Allison Steele and her work in radio, White was exposed to the culture of disc jockeying. She became intensely interested in the craft of deejays, and eventually received airtime on the radio after diving into the craft. Achieving radio play precipitated White’s first live disc jockeying gig, which was performed at a bar in Long Island alongside Roy Thode. Thode was a friend and mentor to Sharon who was respected as “one of the great innovators of his craft” (Weinstein).

White’s live gigs only extended so far. In the earlier parts of her career, Sharon White was limited to giving performances in women’s bars. However, despite the subset of venues she was able to perform in, White often explored gay clubs downtown such as 12 West and the Flamingo. Though she was the “only black woman in a sea of white muscle,” White would dance with the grooving crowds for the entire night, possessed by the DJ’s extraordinary music (Weinstein). White was amazed by the way a DJ could “shift the mood [of the audience] with a different tempo or key change” (Weinstein). Sharon White studied as she danced, internally hypothesizing the best method for “‘catching'” a beat from record to record (qtd. in Weinstein). How could she transition between songs without disrupting the music’s rhythm?

At the time, sound equipment and technology was rather “rudimentary.” White remembers in some clubs the screeching feedback of records blasted through low-quality speakers. Additionally, needles on the record player sometimes skipped on records played in clubs when vibrations from the dance floor became too forceful. Yet the mid-1970s brought a number of advancements for the disc jockeys of the world.

DISC jockey in the 70s

The following quotes are from my third annotation for Annotated Bibliography One:

12 inch extended single records “improved the ability of deejays to compose a smooth set with seamless transitions.” Similarly, “more sophisticated technology and club sound systems […] began to advance the skill sets of accomplished jocks.”

“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, 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).”

By the time the Paradise Garage opened in 1977, White had already grown her expertise and experience as a DJ, but she still sought the thrill of the club scene and the musical affairs of other disc jockeys. The Garage more diverse than the other gay clubs White had before attended, with more women and people of color dancing beneath the disco’s lights. Paradise Garage was unique in other ways, too. At the Garage, lead DJ Larry Levan transported crowds on a “musical journey” (Weinstein). Spinning an “eclectic mixing of musical genres,” Levan enthralled audiences until they were “rapt,” or practically oozing at the bliss of his musical theater (Weinstein). Sharon White’s background in musical theory made her all the more appreciative of Levan’s skill.

According to White, the “journey began with David Mancuso at the Loft” (qtd. in Weinstein). One “had to be there from the beginning to hear what was coming,” White continued. Deejay equipment had grown in sophistication throughout the opening of the Loft (1970), the Paradise Garage (1977), and the Saint (1980), able to withstand dance floor vibrations and simulatenously proudce “state of the art” sound.

The musical journey

At the Paradise Garage, the concept of the musical journey emerged; at the Saint, the musical journey evolved into a methodological procedure for stimulating various emotions of the crowds. First, lighter fare music escalated into Hi-NRG (high energy, now known as EDM or electronic dance music in 2017) beats and vibrations. Then those “hard-driving beats” would melt into “melodic morning music,” before concluding with songs later classified as “sleaze” (Weinstein). Sleaze was a swoon of romantic ballads that cascaded from the Saint’s planetarium dome like stardust. Sharon White made a name for herself at the Saint, but that was only after a lucky circumstance propelled her to the club’s DJ booth.

Though invited to join a pre-opening tour for the Saint, Sharon White states that it soon became clear that Bruce Mailman, owner and founder of the Saint, did not want her to occupy the DJ booth. Mailman envisioned the Saint as a male haven; nearly all of the club’s members were male, and female guests had to be pre-approved before attending the night’s festivities. That didn’t stop White from attending Jim Burgess’s last official performance as a DJ. The Saint threw his going-away party in January of 1981, which famously ended in his sudden desertion of the deejay booth.

As the last record Burgess was playing ran out, the crowd turned confused. Burgess had simply “stopped the music, left the DJ booth, got into his Bentley, and left” (Weinstein). People wandered the dance floor, utterly perplexed. The Saint’s coat check then broke down and exacerbated the situation. A manager at the Saint noticed White was in attendance, and commanded her to DJ the crowd. Sharon White asserts that she was “in the right place at the right time” when she instructed a few other staffers at the Saint to go to her home and bring back the bags of records that she had color-coordinated (Weinstein). White played until 1:30pm and caused quite an uproar. Until the Saint’s closing in 1988, Sharon White succeeded as one of the club’s most popular DJs, though she is not cited as a “big” DJ by Bruce Mailman in his interview with the New York Native. Yet she was “big” and her talents attracted the attention of Lenoard Bernstein, a renowned composer and conductor. Bernstein approached White in the booth one night and discussed his pleasured with her adaptations of “a few of [his] pieces” (Weinstein). She “had made a medley of things […] into a dance project,” which her audiences loved. Yet, White didn’t stay local and loyal to the NYC crowds.

After the Saint closed, Sharon White toured clubs in Tokyo, Berlin, even Reykjavík, Iceland where she drummed up the crowd’s energy for the opening of a United Service Organization (USO) center. In Saudi Arabia, Sharon White performed for the king in a burka, yet for the prince, White was able to dress more casually, whose palace he had had transformed into a disco. A London techie organized the sound equipment for White’s later disc jockeying. White states that she “knew him from Fire Island” and that he was on the “down-low” (qtd. in Weinstein). The prince noted that he had three wives, but that everyone at the disco party “knows,” presumably about his sexuality (qtd. in Weinstein).

the next generation

After suffering a horrific trauma in 2000, White escaped to Washington D.C.

There, White played house parties, after-hours bars, and small clubs, where she “learned to open doors and expose [herself] to different types of music” (qtd. in Weinstein). She adopted a mentoring role to younger DJs, just as Allison Steele had once done for her.  found herself mentoring the next generation of DJs. Later, White reconnected with colleagues from the Saint, who stirred up fond memories of New York, and her old home.

Image Credit: Village Voice

Now, the Saint-at-Large seeks to “keep the spirit of the original [Saint] alive” by reviving famed parties and themes from the 80’s Saint. Led by Stephen Pevner, a distant relative of the Saint’s founder, Bruce Mailman, the Saint-at-Large has recreated the Black Party and hosted a 35th anniversary celebration for the Saint called Night People.

The Black Party was a “fetish-themed […] bacchanal” that took place every March at the original Saint. Night People was a party dedicated every night before Thanksgiving at the Saint.

After inviting White to spin at the Black Party, White was then invited to join two other former Saint DJs Michael Fierman and Ryan Smith at the Night People celebration in 2015.

Here is a clip of Sharon White preparing her set:

According to Steve Weinstein, Sharon White had scheduled gigs for 2016, though there is little Internet coverage for them and little recent news. However, at the time that this article was written, White was posting podcasts and staying active with the newest generation of “DJs and clubgoers” (Weinstein).

She maintains an active Twitter page.

a discussion of weinstein’s article

Though this article is not a primary source, or an interview conducted during the 80s in which Sharon White was disc jockeying, it still serves to provide descriptive firsthand accounts of White’s disco experience.

White herself attended, danced in, and frequented renowned disco clubs such as the Saint, the Paradise Garage, and the Loft. Still active as a disc jockey, White engages her past disc jockeying experience with her current maturity in a fresh, fond perspective on her past.

However, one disadvantage to this article is the author’s reliance on the linguistic mode to convey information about a lively, interactive, and sensual era of music history. Steven Weinstein hardly incorporates other modes of communication such as music clips or photographs. Unlike the piece on Meryl Meisler, which at least contains multiple photographs taken in the disco era, there are no photographic or aural forms of historical evidence captured during the 70s and 80s decades.

There is also a lack of sufficient detail to Sharon White’s storytelling, which leaves the reader wanting for more information.

What were the records that White played on her first night disc jockeying at the Saint?

What were White’s favorite songs, or sets as a DJ in the 80s?

What other types of interactions did she have with people in the club scene at the time?