Monday, September 12, 2011

The Story of Disco

Anyone reading the work of New York magazine reporter Dale Soresley knows his strengths: with a biting wit and a penchant for thorough reporting, he is an expert at illuminating aspects of our culture that once huddled in the dark. Beyond that, his reputation among his fellow journalists is that of the great Confessor. Simply put, no one is better at getting people to talk.

For the better part of a decade, Soresley has been compiling an oral history of the disco era, a tome that has become an all-consuming passion. Whenever I or other colleagues would encounter Dale at some event or function, talk would inevitably turn to the music of the mid-to-late 70's, and some previously-unheard-of figure who was instrumental in bringing this music to the masses. Hard as it may be to believe, the years of blindingly difficult work have finally paid off, and Soresley's Sequined Nights, Dusty Days: the Distention and Demise of the Disco Dynasties is set to be released by Random House on November 15.

Here we present a small slice of the story one of disco's unsung heroes: Mark Devlin, former fixture of the dance music scene and current inmate at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York.

Marty Crandall, bass player for The Prismatics and Flash!: None of it could have happened without Mark Devlin.

Kate Winterley, promoter: "The Disco Don," that's what they called him, "The Disco Don."

Mark Devlin, Owner, Panama Nights: I, you know, I never wanted to be at the forefront of a vanguard of anything. I mean, look at me, I'm just some fat Jew from Nyack with a bad hip and a mortgage. For Chrissakes, I carry around antacid tablets on me at all times! Look, I've got them right here in my breast pocket! Look at them! But I knew a hot thing when I saw it, and let me tell you, I knew that disco music was the hottest thing around!

Ansel Jones, keyboardist for Irma Witherspoon, 1973-1980: Nobody really knew what he did outside of owning Panama Nights, but he must have had some kind of cash flow because that club made no money before the disco era. There were always rumors that he owned some women's apparel warehouse and treated his employees like garbage, but no one really knew.

Karen Childs, singer: There were other clubs in New York at the time that would play disco music, but it was mostly an after-hours sort of thing. Panama Nights was the first place that really catered to the disco crowd, and I think to Mark Devlin's credit, he saw three steps ahead of the game in that there was a huge untapped market for this music as far as the gay and minority audiences were concerned. That's the other thing about Mark, he was always very open-minded, even at that time.

Devlin: I always said, I don't care what you look like or where you're from, if you want to dance and have a good time at my nightclub, you're welcome. Just don't try any funny business!

Winterley: He's such a kind, funny guy, Mark is. People would always talk and say he was affiliated with Murder Inc. or running arms to secret Israeli paramilitary groups, but I didn't believe it for a second and I still don't today. I remember one time, I had this cat that I absolutely loved named Tinkerbell, and one night he got out, and of course I was distraught, running all over the East Village trying to find him. Finally I gave up all hope and I figured I'd pop over to the Panama for a drink. So I walk in, and there's Tinkerbell sitting on the bar with Mark hand-feeding him corned beef! "Your little boyfriend looked pretty hungry," he tells me. Honestly, just the definition of a mensch.

Ace Franklin, guitarist/producer:
I don't even remember the first time I went to Panama Nights. It just seems like something that was always there when I think about that era. Starting in about '76 I guess was when the scene at that place really started to pick up. And of course, it was October when that Karen Childs single was released, "I Can Come When I Wanna."

We cut it in a pretty run-down studio in Brooklyn with a pet store on one side and a Baptist church on the other. The Baptists would holler and yell while we were recording and some of that made it onto the final pressing, which is where the rumor came from that one of the maraca players got in a knife fight and was murdered during the sessions.

Gerry Murphy, owner, Crosstown Records: We were mostly a soul and R&B label before that 45 came out. I have to admit, I did not want to release it. It was Mark Devlin, that rat bastard, he talked me into it. "Gerry," he said, "The kids love this stuff, I've never seen anything like it." He went on and on about how this was going to be bigger than Elvis and the Beatles and all that. I thought he was selling me a bill of goods on account of his nephew was the drummer or something on the track. But I figured, oh well, the label's broke anyway, I'm filing for Chapter Eleven as soon as the year's out, might as well put the thing out. And of course the record took off, Mark was vindicated beyond his wildest dreams, and he suddenly had a captive market for all the coke he was ferrying into New York through the Bahamas.

Devlin: Listen, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I know a hit record when I hear it!

Jones: That was the record where it all came together. You had the funk, and you had the soul, but then you had that four-to-the-floor rhythm on there too, and that just put the whole thing over the edge and made the people lose their minds!

Crandall: People would just go absolutely insane when that record came on. It was an orgiastic display like nothing I'd ever seen.

Winterley: Oh God, they would cry, throw up, the works. I witnessed all sorts of ecstatic, painful bodily contortions when that song came on. I mean you had people showing up to the club with canes and hastily improvised whips! We had to call the fire department so many times that they finally stopped even showing up. It was great!

Childs: I knew that we had something huge going before "I Can Come When I Wanna" was even released, but I was not prepared for the reception to that record. I had grown men, gay and straight, throwing themselves at my feet, calling me their "lover bitch." I have no idea how that got started.

Crandall: It was a lyric in the song, right? "Tell me where to make it itch/You can call me lover bitch."

Winterley: Karen claimed for years that the lyric was misheard. It hardly mattered, though. The disco era had begun!

Murphy: Pretty soon I had Mark coming into my office every two weeks with some new act he had pulled up from the depths of obscurity. I had my doubts each and every time, but each and every time we hit a home run.

Peter Crindle, singer for Flash!: The first time I met Mark was at my job at Nussbaum's Deli. He used to get these huge sandwich orders, I mean like a hundred sandwiches, at least twice a week. One day he says to me, "I like the way your nose goes with your face." He invited me to some party at a warehouse in TriBeCa, and I felt pretty weird about the whole thing, but Mr. Nussbaum, he said, "Petey, what are you, a moron? He keeps this place running! Get your skinny ass over there!"

Winterley: I'll never forget when Mark introduced me to Peter Crindle. We were in the middle of this raging party at Richard Berenson's loft and Mark strides up to me with this kid who looks like he just walked off the starting line-up of my father's high school basketball team. We shake hands and he says, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Winterley," totally sincere and everything. I almost died. Two days later Mark had him in the studio.

Crandall: We cut the first Flash! single in about the space of an afternoon. It was "Fire Sale," with "Soap and Water" as the b-side. Mark realized pretty early on that as long as you could grab some musicians from the neighborhood and teach them the basic disco backbeat, you could make hit records for cheap. But he knew the song had to be memorable. I had brought in some little numbers I'd been working on at home, and Mark seized on this phrase I had jotted down, "your love is like a fire sale," just some stupid shit. But he built it up into this crazy production, with sirens and clanging bells and even some fake crackling flame noises way down in the mix. He refuses to take credit for it, but he wrote the hook on that thing, which is all anyone remembers now anyway. He was doing rails of blow at a miraculous rate.

Murphy: "I Can Come When I Wanna" was a smash in all the clubs, but "Fire Sale" was the first track to get radio play. It even cracked the pop charts. It helped that their singer looked like your average all-American guy, even if Mark had him done up in a checker-patterned velour tuxedo half the time.

Crindle: The whole thing was just crazy, and so totally unexpected. We even got to go on "Express 4-5-6"!

Murphy: "Express 4-5-6" was this New York dance program, basically a two-bit "Soul Train." It was hosted by this old fossil, Bensonhurst Freeman. The guy had been around since the jazz era and just kind of hung on. He's still alive to this day! He hosts a radio show where he never plays music and just talks for three hours straight about the drop-outs hanging around in front of the corner store in his neighborhood. Anyway, we went on the show and it was a disaster.

Devlin: It was categorically not a disaster. Gerry thinks it's Pearl Harbor if everything doesn't go exactly as planned.

Crandall: Some fairweather moral crusaders got wind that disco was "gay music" and decided to picket the studio before Flash! went on. They shouted down the producers, the camera operators, everybody. I'm not going to repeat the things they said.

Devlin: "Faggot" and "queer" and every variation you could think of. They poured a can of blue paint on Terry Terrell, the keyboard player. I just missed getting hit in the face with a full beer bottle. It was quite a scene!

Winterley: Somehow they managed to break down the studio doors during the actual performance and throw paint all over the set and make a big show of smashing the Crosstown 45s in full view of the cameras. The show aired live so everyone from Newark to Great South Bay saw it happen. Some poor young thing got up on the bandstand with a sign that said "SODOMITE" and a big arrow pointing at Marty. The audience just kept right on dancing, and pretty soon I realized they thought it was part of the act! It was the saddest thing having to listen to Marty afterward on the payphone with his dad, explaining to him yes things were fine with Stacy and no he wasn't a fag.

Devlin: That week we sold more copies of "Fire Sale" than we had in its entire run up to that point.

Murphy: Listen to me, here I am bitching when really, we had it pretty damn good back then. Better than we were gonna have it, anyway. And that's probably why you detect a hint of, shall we say, a caustic tone: I know about everything that happened later. You have to remember, this is before the bust and the mansion fire and the Noriega thing. So it's easy for me to feel bitter now. But I have to admit, those were the salad days.

Sequined Nights, Dusty Days will be available on Amazon and at all major retailers. Watch for Dale Soresley's feature in the upcoming issue of New York about a continental breakfast based on the life of Katy Perry.

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