The Psychedelic Disco Connection
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY MARCH 2017
It doesn’t take much knowledge of popular culture to know that the psychedelic movement defined much of the ‘60s, whilst the disco movement defined much of the ‘70s. However, most people are completely unaware that there’s a direct link between the two.
The connecting figure is David Mancuso – a man you can place right at the foundations of modern dance culture, dating it exactly to his Love Saves The Day party on Valentines Day 1970, at his Loft space in Manhattan.
It was only when Tim Lawrence wrote the seminal, ‘Love Saves The Day: A History Of American Dance Culture, 1970-1979’ in 2003 that the significance of Mancuso’s legacy started to be recognised. Having read a review copy of the book, Greg Wilson wrote ‘David Mancuso And The Art Of Deejaying Without Deejaying’ as an online piece for Grand Slam – republished on The Loft’s own website – and because the connection unified two huge areas of personal interest, his specific focus and further digging crystallised the psychedelic disco connection and helped in establishing a fuller understanding of how important a figure Mancuso was.
David Mancuso got his first taste of Manhattan in the early ‘60s and moved into the heart of the city from up State soon after. His insatiable appetite for music continued to grow and he was introduced to top-level sound quality, acquiring a set of Klipschorn speakers from Richard Long – a speaker with a focus on perfect sound reproduction, rather than volume.
Mancuso moved to his Loft at 647 Broadway in the NoHo area of Manhattan that had become attractive to artists, with big warehouse spaces and relatively cheap rents. He absorbed as many aspects of the Big Apple’s nightlife culture as he could, going to events across the city, but his favourite haunts were the rent parties that had become a central part of the black nightlife since the turn of the century – privately hosted parties used to raise funds for extortionate rent. The communal atmosphere of these parties appealed much more to Mancuso than the fleeting friendships of the club scene. His time at an orphanage in the first five years of his life had given him a more fluid and extended concept of family.
The psychedelic connection comes into play via Timothy Leary. Having discovered ‘the shortcut to enlightenment’ at the age of twenty, Mancuso soon picked up on Leary’s ‘The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead’ – a handbook for tripping he’d written with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner in the early ‘60s. Mancuso began attending Leary’s lectures and parties, visiting the West Village LSD (League for Spiritual Discovery) and soon began to host his own parties based on Leary’s ideas, which focused on ‘set and setting’ and sought to guide people along their trip with music. Mancuso also began work on an ever-growing Yoga shrine, which became a central feature in his Loft.
Mancuso would programme trip tapes to play at his gatherings, occasionally leading to people getting up and dancing. As time went by, more and more people began attending his bi-monthly parties and the dancing started to move into the fore. Mancuso rearranged his apartment to accommodate the dancers, always reaching for the best in sound quality.
The parties ceased in 1969 however, when Mancuso gave up the material world and went on a journey inwards in search of his essence – he gave away his stereo and ripped his front door off its hinges, whilst quitting drugs, smoking and cooked food. However, staying in the big city, a place where any deviation from the norm is seen as a weakness, he was sectioned. He realised the naivety in trying to relinquish the material in ‘the centre of the capitalistic world’ and escaped from the psychiatric ward at the opportune moment.
Mancuso reacquired his beloved Loft and sound system and after a brief and unfruitful stint trying to put on events in a collective called Coalition, he set about hosting his own parties again, in their fully evolved form – the first of which was his Love Saves the Day, utilising the LSD acronym like Leary’s West Village HQ.
The parties attracted a wide cross-section of the Big Apple and sought to guide the participants on a journey of self-discovery: all clocks and mirrors had been removed to liberate self-awareness and inhibitions, and people were able to sweat out their life troubles in a safe and welcoming space – with many of the crowd being black, Latin and gay, they’d have faced high levels of prejudice and strife throughout the rest of the week. The whole idea was to strip away personality and bring people back to their childhood, Mancuso personally harking back to the parties Sister Alica had put on at his orphanage, filling his apartment with balloons.
With music now a central feature, Mancuso programmed it live, although he preferred to be known as a ‘musical host’ rather than DJ. When programming the music he’d adhere to the three Bardos highlighted in Leary’s psychedelic manual. Mancuso explains in ‘Love Saves The Day’, “The first Bardo would be very smooth, perfect, calm. The second Bardo would be like a circus. And the third Bardo was about re-entry, so people would go back into the outside world relatively smoothly.”
The sacrifices Mancuso had made at the end of the ‘60s fed into his programming, moving away from personal preference and looking to tune into the synergy of the room with his ‘third ear’, matching and juxtaposing records based on theme and feeling rather than BPM. Everything about his approach was meditative and he treated each component of his system as sacred, even down to the turntable cartridges, which had been crafted by a family who used to make samurai swords. Although he was never a mixing DJ, his Loft parties set the template for New York nightlife in the 1970s, influencing clubs like the Paradise Garage, Studio 54 and The Gallery to name a few, whilst almost all of the pivotal New York DJs of the time had formative experiences in the Loft.
Mancuso continued to host his Loft parties through the ‘80s, ‘90s and into the millennium, more recently bringing them to this side of the Atlantic with the help of London-based Loft enthusiasts including Tim Lawrence, Colleen Murphy and Jeremy Gilbert. Mancuso sadly left his mortal coil last year but the response his death received showed promising signs that the significance of his pioneering and mythical work is beginning to be fully acknowledged and documented. He should be remembered as the figure who synthesized the transcendental Eastern philosophy of the psychedelic movement and created the unifying escapism of dance culture, setting the cogs in motion for something that would grow into a seismic global phenomenon.
David Mancuso illustration by Pete Fowler
Article originally printed in the Mindf*ck Operatives’ Manual
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