Downtown Archæologies

Honoring Larry Levan

by Anshul

The brochure created by the Ministry of Sound to advertise their tribute night in honour of New York music scene pioneer Lawrence Philpot, more famously known as Larry Levan, is one that clearly highlights the extent of his cultural influence in various areas of New York. The artefact’s cover page is a black and white line drawing of Levan himself holding two clubbers and making them dance created by New York 1980s street culture pop artist Keith Allen Haring. It is important to note that this cover was drawn in a style reminiscent of the advertisements and flyers of the gay discotheque that he was a resident at, Paradise Garage. The inside cover of the brochure has a small recap of Larry Levan’s early life, as well as the legacy that he left behind in New York. It highlights how Levan was born in the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital and spent his young life in Erasmus High School and as an acolyte in St. Phillips Church. Additionally, the recap discusses the way his specific music style allowed him to tell the story of the city to his audience and made the Paradise Garage to a pioneer in music trends and a bridge for cultural and ethnic boundaries. Ultimately, Levan’s work is exemplified in the way that the unique sound that he developed in Paradise Garage, more commonly known as “garage”, has managed to develop into a world-renowned dance music genre in its own right. The rest of the brochure is composed of a description of the various musical contributors to the tribute night hosted by the Ministry of Sound, the admission fees for the guests that may choose to go, as well as the various organizations that the proceeds of the night will go to. The back cover of the brochure has the logos of the various organizations participating in the event and a short message to Larry Levan. Levan got his first professional break when he was asked to DJ at The Continental Baths as a last-minute replacement for the bathhouse’s resident DJ. It was here that Levan began developing the considerable legacy of music that would ultimately define his body of work. The reason this place was extremely important has to do with the fact that the bathhouse held a prominent place amongst members of the gay community. The location’s popularity allowed the place to thrive until they slowly began to lose its gay clientele by 1974 because these individuals felt that the straight people in the bathhouse devalued the community and culture that the LGBT community had built within the place. The brochure’s nod to what would have ultimately been an unimportant footnote in Levan’s musical career is testament to the role that old media and cultural artefacts play in society. The conclusion to Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay … Data + Dirt emphasizes the way that “destructive behaviour [towards cultural artefacts] is attributable, in part, to their desire to obliterate diverse ethnic and religious histories within the region” (Mattern, 149). Without the insight that this cultural brochure provides for its readers when discussing the extent of Levan’s music legacy, one can see how this commitment to The Continental Baths and the meaning that the place had for the LGBT community could be lost. Much like the destruction of certain artefacts in cities caused cities to lose important aspects of their culture and city, losing out on cultural artefacts like this brochure for the Larry Levan tribute night would have caused an integral aspect of New York city culture to be lost. Furthermore, it showcases how even the beginning of Levan’s musical work and his influence in Downtown New York was directly committed towards the promotion and acceptance of the LGBT community. Furthermore, the brochure continues its discussion of Levan’s life by highlighting the way that the garage sound he brought to Paradise Garage two years after the closure of The Continental Baths managed to make the club an immense success. However, Levan’s work also did more than simply improving the economic prospects of the club, instead creating a cultural hotspot on 84 King Street where the club was located. The brochure notes the way that Levan managed to draw record executives, music producers, and artists from all over the world to the Garage due to the way he used music as a storytelling device. This ability that was unique to Levan and his work at the Paradise Garage is a clear example of a site of confusion and entanglement that Mattern describes (Mattern, 155). Specifically, the way that Levan used music as a unique storytelling vehicle to share stories and reach towards the roots of the city they were in directly contradicts the way that the club was able to keep up with new trends and found itself as a pioneer in dance music. Here at this club, through the development and solidification of the “garage” sound that would later become the garage/New York house dance music genre, we see an exemplification of how the city is engaged in perpetual transition. It is important to note that this is not the “simplified, sanitized, and stratified tales of urban development and technological ‘progress’” (Mattern, 156) that Mattern warns against. Instead, the Paradise Garage that Levan presided over is an “urban environment […] characterized by a lot of messy materiality, ‘residual’ media, and different notions of ambient intelligence, sometimes even reflecting competing epistemologies and clashing politics” (Mattern, 156). The legacy of the location is tied to the fight that the LGBT community had to go through and their enduring struggle to this day. Even though the location no longer exists, one can see the way that Levan’s tribute night hosted by the Ministry of Sound contributes its proceeds to both London Lighthouse and Lifebeat, a west London centre for people facing AIDS and HIV and a music industry organization that fights AIDS in New York. The residual media and the enduring legacy that Levan’s music in Paradise Garage continues to promote the LGBT culture and the struggle that they had to go through in the city