Love Is the Message

The Disco Files 1973?78: New York's Underground, Week by Week BY Vince Aletti, Fran Lebowitz. D.A.P.. Paperback, 474 pages. $35.

The cover of The Disco Files 1973?78: New York's Underground, Week by Week

In a “Talk of the Town” piece from the September 27, 1976, issue of the New Yorker, Jamaica Kincaid recalls a night spent at the Loft, David Mancuso’s legendary invitation-only disco (which was also his home), then at 99 Prince Street, in SoHo. She describes her get-down docent, a Loft habitué: “A man we know named Vince Aletti spends much of his time ‘partying,’ and, as can be imagined, he has a lot of fun. Vince Aletti loves to dance, knows just about all the good current dance songs, and writes a column on discothèque music for a national music-trade magazine. When popular-music critics write uncomplimentary articles about discothèque music, Vince Aletti, in turn, will write articles defending and promoting discothèque music.” There aren’t many quotes from Aletti in Kincaid’s funky fait divers; he’s too busy gyrating to the Bee Gees, Double Exposure, D. C. LaRue, the Emotions, and Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.

Those acts—plus hundreds more, some well known, many now obscure—were covered by Aletti in “Disco File,” a weekly “report on the state of the dance floor” that he wrote for Record World from November 16, 1974, until December 16, 1978. First published in 2009 by and now reissued, The Disco Files 1973–78 collects all of Aletti’s Record World dispatches plus other articles he wrote on the music. They include a September ’73 piece for Rolling Stone, considered to be the first on disco, and an elegant evisceration of disco detractors published in an April ’76 issue of the Village Voice (where Aletti, in addition to being a longtime photography critic, was the art editor from 1994 to 2005). The latter, inspired by Dave Marsh’s Rolling Stone pan of a disco comeback album by Archie Bell & the Drells, of “Tighten Up” fame, lays out Aletti’s pleasingly simple four-on-the-floor philosophy: “But Marsh isn’t ready to get down; even a grudging acknowledgment of several ‘fine dance cuts’ is taken back immediately with the comment that ‘they aren’t anything more than that.’ What more, exactly, do they have to be?”

For Aletti, they need be nothing else. A first-rate disco first-responder, he has catholic tastes, boundless curiosity, and a genial voice. His column from September 20, 1975, reveals the wide range of his interests and discoveries. Aletti opens the piece with his inaugural mention of Donna Summer (many paeans to the First Lady of Love follow over the next three years), whose “Love to Love You Baby” he calls “extraordinary.” In her New Yorker mini-profile, Kincaid notes that “because he was the first person to write about that song and it became a big hit the record company gave Vince Aletti a gold record.” His praise for Summer’s empyreal orgasm anthem surely warranted the reward from Giorgio Moroder’s Oasis Records: “[The song] takes off from a few flimsy ‘Pillow Talk’ style lyrics, delivered with breathy abandon by Summer, who does little else but moan passionately and repeat the title. She fades out regularly as the orchestra wells up, then falls back to reveal her in the throes of even deeper passion as the record builds wave upon wave. It’s deliciously excessive and bound to be one of this year’s great rush records.” The passage typifies Aletti’s prose: He may never reach the heights of disco belletrism found in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (saluted, naturally, in a “Disco File” shortly after the novel’s publication in 1978), but his unadorned style always conveys the thrill of the music. A few paragraphs after his Donna disquisition, Aletti big-ups “Soul Dracula” by the French outfit Hot Blood—his exegesis just one of many examples of his commitment to giving even the most goofy-sounding disco discs (and acts) serious consideration.

Peter Hujar, Two Drag Queens Mugging, Halloween (II), 1978.
Peter Hujar, Two Drag Queens Mugging, Halloween (II), 1978.

“Soul Dracula” is a track on the top-ten playlist submitted that week by Martin Ragusa, a DJ at a Montreal club called Le Tube. The DJ-supplied top-ten lists were a crucial part of “Disco File.” Nearly every column featured four such rosters (late in 1978, Aletti changed the format to three top-fifteen lists). Unsurprisingly, many of the spinning adepts whom Aletti surveys are from New York (and specifically Manhattan). Those Gotham turntable sovereigns and their affiliated duchies appear throughout the collection: not only Mancuso and the Loft but Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage, Tom Savarese and 12 West, Toraino “Tee” Scott and Better Days, Nicky Siano and the Gallery, Richie Kaczor and Studio 54 (more on which in a moment).

Although a November ’76 piece from After Dark—in which Aletti declares that “the real stars of the seventies disco boom aren’t on records, they’re spinning them”—is titled “The Men in the Glass Booth,” he doesn’t neglect women DJs. Several times Aletti solicits the playlists of Sharon White, who spun at Sahara—“Manhattan’s first full-fledged lesbian discotheque,” per Tim Lawrence in his vital 2004 chronicle, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979. For his January 25, 1975, “Disco File,” Aletti incorporates the top-ten list of perhaps his most atypical respondent: the mononymed Suzanne, a selector at the Square Lemon in Queens and “the mother of two children (one of whom burst into the room in the middle of the list-giving and had to be firmly hustled out again), [who] teaches second graders during the week and turns DJ weekend nights.”

Including Suzanne in the mix—a choice best described as “left field,” to invoke one of Aletti’s favorite (and slightly overused) modifiers—exemplifies his avidity for the music and its ecstatic, liberating potential. That enthusiasm rarely wanes. In approximately two hundred columns, there are probably no more than a dozen instances of the disco despair evidenced in Aletti’s September 6, 1975, dispatch—covering a week he describes as “so dull . . . that not even the arrival of the new LaBelle album [Phoenix, the trio’s follow-up to Nightbirds, their coup de disco from the previous year] could salvage it.” The years covered in The Disco Files span the music’s ascendance (in ’73, disco was primarily, if not exclusively, for what Aletti calls “the hardcore dance crowd—blacks, Latins, gays”) to its crossover appeal (a column in ’75 scrutinizes an op-ed on the Hustle by New York Times super-square William Safire, who hails the line dance for its “studied discipline”) to its market saturation in ’78, the year that the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, which opened in theaters in December ’77, reigned for twenty-four consecutive weeks as the number-one album in the US.

Never a disco elitist, Aletti is elated, not dismayed, by the music’s growing popularity; his December 31, 1977, column illuminates his ecumenicism: “Comfortably past that awkward fad stage when it was always on the defensive, disco was more confident, more relaxed and more creatively expansive than ever. The rise of new wave rock has helped ease the antagonism of the rock audience and its critical establishment toward disco; the resulting mood of peaceful coexistence (approaching mutual appreciation) has tended to open up the pop charts to a wider range of genuine disco records.”

The most hysterical act of hostility toward disco—the grotesque spectacle known as “Disco Demolition Night,” held in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in the summer of 1979—occurred seven months after Aletti stopped writing “Disco File” (Brian Chin succeeded him and wrote the column until 1982). He addresses the incident—elucidating the gay panic that animated so much disco hatred—nearly twenty years after the fact, in an extensive 1998 interview with the editors of The Disco Files. Yet throughout the columns, Aletti remains alert to the nuances of disco as the soundtrack of gay liberation. While praising the sound of the Village People’s “Macho Man,” for example, he nonetheless takes issue with its lyrics: “I find the glorification of macho dubious at best (oppressive at worst, especially in a gay context, which this certainly is).”

The ’98 colloquy is one of two retrospective Q&As; the other, added for the 2018 edition, is a terrific 1990 Voice exchange between Aletti and Fran Lebowitz, a fellow disco devotee (she wrote about the scene occasionally in her Interview column “I Cover the Waterfront”). During their conversation, Lebowitz fondly recalls Studio 54, which opened in 1977 and closed in 1980 and remains, for many, the best-known emblem of the era: “It was very sexy—it was still before AIDS—and there were a lot of cute people there and it was filled with sexual intent, which I think is very important to a successful night. I know a lot of people went there for the drugs but for me . . . it was sex and dancing.” Ever the disco romantic, Aletti, as he makes clear in that ’98 Q&A, hated the place: “I think it was destructive to have a velvet rope. It was completely against the idealism of disco and the community of disco, in the sense that everybody was together.” (Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54, a by-the-numbers documentary about the Ian Schrager–Steve Rubell pleasuredome scheduled for release in October, would have benefited enormously by including either Aletti or Lebowitz among its talking heads.)

A conversation I kept imagining while reading The Disco Files was one between Aletti and art critic and historian Douglas Crimp, whose Before Pictures (2016), a rich, detail-dense memoir of his first decade in Manhattan (1967–77), contains a phenomenal chapter about his own disco days. (Both books also boast beautiful Peter Hujar photographs.) Two white gay men who are almost the exact same age—Crimp was born in 1944, Aletti in ’45—they share an antipathy toward Studio 54 and a love of Esther Phillips’s 1975 disco cover of Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes.” Unlike Aletti, Crimp never went to the Loft, preferring instead the Flamingo (in SoHo) and 12 West (in the far West Village). The “idealism of disco” that Aletti spoke about in ’98 is augmented by these reflections from Crimp: “With disco at its best, dancing is both individual and collective. You might connect with the stranger dancing next to you at a given moment, but it’s not a couples thing; it’s boogie intimacy, which can be very intense and sexy, but it’s usually limited to dancing together for a while before you each dissolve back into the crowd or return to your ‘partner.’ ” Dissolving back into the crowd—just like Aletti at the Loft on the night Jamaica Kincaid took notes.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns. In 2016 she co-curated the film series “Dim All the Lights: Disco and the Movies” at Metrograph in New York City.