Saturday, August 6, 2016
Waking the Spirit of a Disco Innovator
Here at disco vinyl we have always celebrated the authors who want to tell the story. The story of our times in the disco era. A very young man named Sam Lefebvre just got his first byline in the N.Y. Times and he did so interviewing one of my close friends Jorge Socarras. So here below I am re-posting what you might have missed in yesterday's New York Times.
On Oct. 9, 1982, the songwriter and producer Patrick Cowley observed the release event for his third solo album, “Mind Warp,” from the mezzanine of the glamorous Galleria event space at the San Francisco Design Center. Mr. Cowley, the disco innovator who spawned hi-NRG — an up-tempo, mechanized strain of dance music calibrated for the peak of the party — wore black patent-leather pants and a matching jacket. The sickly-sweet smell of the inhalant club drug known as poppers wafted up from the dance floor, where gay men dressed in jeans and white T-shirts churned to the album’s breathless pulse. But the revelry belied the grim content of “Mind Warp,” a meditation on the body besieged that Mr. Cowley created while withering from the effects of a mysterious affliction.
Mr. Cowley looked ashen against his stark ensemble, his friend Theresa McGinley recalled in a recent interview, overseeing the party from his wheelchair. The event featured performances by collaborators including the strapping singer Paul Parker and the inimitable androgyne Sylvester. Marty Blecman, Mr. Cowley’s business partner at Megatone Records, later remembered in an oral history of the era, “Tears were streaming down his face, and he said, ‘Those stupid queens, don’t they know?’”
Mr. Cowley died almost exactly a month later from AIDS-related illness at home in the Castro district. He was 32. Mr. Parker’s “Right on Target,” one of Mr. Cowley’s compositions released on Megatone that year, still lingered on the dance charts after hitting No. 1 that summer. In the decades that followed, Mr. Cowley’s influence as a producer was cited by new romantic acts such as Pet Shop Boys and New Order; the critic Peter Shapiro recognized his work with Sylvester for “pretty much [summing] up the entire disco experience.” And in recent years, his profile has assumed a new dimension as listeners and scholars excavate disco’s intersection with gay liberation.
That’s partly because of the belated release of a deep cache of Mr. Cowley’s recordings, first uncovered in 2007, that more than doubles the amount of his available work. And more is coming. In October, “Candida Cosmica,” an EP compiling five songs recorded in the mid-1970s that illuminates Mr. Cowley’s pre-disco collaborations with underground theater ensembles, arrives; and next year, “Afternooners,” a double album collecting some of his final recordings, will be released.
Since 2013, Honey Soundsystem — composed of Josh Cheon, Jacob Sperber, Robert Yang, Jason Kendig and until 2012 Ken Woodard — and Dark Entries Records, the label operated by Mr. Cheon, 35, have issued four compilations of Mr. Cowley’s work. The releases reveal an artist who explored San Francisco’s sexual vanguard for a decade and, exploiting an expressive new palette of synthesized sound, articulated his findings — even as the scene hurtled toward oblivion.
Sexuality and music were inextricable for Mr. Cowley, whose music reflected and later stimulated the rites and environments of gay life in 1970s San Francisco. Fittingly, it was Honey Soundsystem — a gay D.J. collective descended from the dance music scene that Mr. Cowley helped define — that found the neglected reel-to-reels in the Megatone archives. That discovery led to a key trove of corroding tapes in the Van Nuys storage unit of a retired gay pornographer. Mr. Cowley’s formative synthesizer compositions had been set to explicit films in the early 1980s and were rarely heard outside of that context.
“It’s a way to reconnect with an awful but important part of queer history, the onset of AIDS,” said Mr. Sperber, 29. “It’s our responsibility to retell that story, because there’s a generational gap; there are young people getting into these records now, but only so many people who were actually there.”Continue reading the main story
Mr. Cowley arrived on San Francisco dance floors in 1978 with an unauthorized remix, padded with billowing synthesizer additions, of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” the Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte production famous for replacing disco’s orchestral arrangements with all-electronic instrumentation. That he stormed the discothèque on the strength of a decadently elongated bootleg is a bit of poetic justice. Since mainstream disco regularly denied its origins among gay and African-American artists, the remix now seems a coup for the genre’s secret history.
Mr. Cowley, who was born in Buffalo, had moved to California seven years earlier. As his roommate Janice Sukaitis writes in the liner notes to “Candida Cosmica,” he sent postcards adorned with drawings of male genitalia back home to announce that he was gay. At City College of San Francisco, he withdrew into the newly established Electronic Music Lab, which had a set of early, compact analog synthesizers. Electronic music then required patience: conjuring blips and scree from fickle machines, often in laboratory-like settings, and recording them individually to tape before splicing together (hopefully) semi-coherent pieces.
Mr. Cowley and classmates Maurice Tani and Arthur Adcock constructed their own production and recording studio off campus and formed a sound design company, Short Circuit Productions. “Patrick would record a band and add so many synthesizer tracks that, by the end of the day, he’d remove the band,” Mr. Tani said in an interview. “When Patrick wasn’t at the studio, he was at the bathhouses. He was interested in the full spectrum of sex in San Francisco, and music was another way for him participate in those worlds.”
Jorge Socarras recalled how Mr. Cowley — reserved and slight, with sandy blond hair and a literary air — relished initiating him at the Jaguar bookstore, a Castro retailer known for its back-room sex club. Mr. Socarras also remembered that Mr. Cowley admired the elegantly composed gay pornography of filmmaker Wakefield Poole.
“Patrick was all about sexually charged atmospheres, places where rituals could happen,” said Mr. Socarras, whose unreleased collaboration with Mr. Cowley, “Catholic,” emerged in part from an archive belonging to John Hedges. Mr. Hedges assumed control of Megatone after Mr. Blecman died of AIDS-related illness in 1991. “It was about mythologizing, really dramatizing the experience.”
Mr. Cowley also worked with theater troupes White Trash Boom Boom and the Angels of Light, offshoots of the anarchic commune dwellers the Cockettes. Their thrift-store extravagance inspired him as much as the dank leather dens on Folsom Street. “Candida Cosmica” — which Mr. Cowley recorded with singer Candida Royalle, who later achieved fame as a feminist pornographer — includes the tellingly absurd musical theater ditty “The Tomato Song,” written from the perspective of a self-described “tomato cocktail.”
Mr. Cowley’s output from this period — the early to mid-1970s, before his fortuitous meeting with Sylvester — remained largely unknown until the 2013 release of “School Daze.” As with “Muscle Up” (2015) and next year’s “Afternooners,” “School Daze” mostly compiles recordings that quietly appeared in a gay pornographic film of the same name produced by Fox Studio.
The material captures Mr. Cowley’s affinity for synthesizers’ potential not to replicate sounds but to forge new ones. Tracks murmur and thrum or surge and palpitate, flush with bleary murk and melodic curlicues reminiscent of earthen atmosphere and galactic ascent alike. The duality evokes the carnal grit and transformative, escapist role-play that characterized sexual scenarios available to intrepid San Franciscans. As the reintroduced soundtracks illustrate, Mr. Cowley’s music seemed to seek sexual application well before his explicitly lascivious hi-NRG releases of the early 1980s, including “Menergy.”
In 1978, Mr. Cowley’s connection with Sylvester — the former Cockette — yielded epochal singles like “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” which coupled synth rays and the singer’s ecstatic melisma to staggering effect. “Stars,” an album redolent with Mr. Cowley’s playing, consummated Sylvester’s newfound stature with its 1979 release event at the War Memorial Opera House.
But Mr. Cowley’s commercial rise mirrored his physical decline. In 1981, he helped found Megatone and released the solo albums “Menergy” and “Megatron Man.” That November, he arrived for the first time in the hospital, where doctors puzzled over his deterioration. Throughout 1982, he struggled to eat and walk. Nevertheless, propped up with pillows in the studio, Mr. Cowley recorded many of his most popular singles, including Sylvester’s “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” and toiled over “Mind Warp.” Friends called it “the death record.” Its opener, “Tech-no-logical World,” darkly refers to “Dr. Terminus” — “That was him just totally losing faith in the medical system,” Ms. McGinley, his longtime friend, said.
On Oct. 18, 2009, the eve of what would have been Mr. Cowley’s 59th birthday, Honey Soundsystem held its first party to celebrate his life. “It became part of the Honey identity,” Mr. Cheon said. “Playing his music, summoning his spirit.”
For Mr. Cowley’s remaining contemporaries, the revival is painful but vindicating. Mr. Hedges, who recalled the Galleria event as a sort of festive wake for his friend on the mezzanine, was taken aback by Honey Soundsystem’s interest in the archives. To Mr. Hedges, the audience for hi-NRG had been practically eliminated by AIDS. As he remembered, “Watching sales drop — that was us losing our friends.”
Lately, however, Mr. Hedges has heard D.J.s reintegrate Mr. Cowley into their sets: “And on these new systems they’ve got, he sounds even better.”