According to one account, disco was born on Valentine’s Day, 1970, in New York City. It certainly couldn’t have come at a better time. Nixon had been president for a little over a year; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and the unrest of the ’60s had settled in like a hangover’s dull throb. Some groups had it worse than others: In New York, it was still illegal for two men to dance together, and while the Stonewall Riots of the previous year had helped kick a nascent gay-rights movement into gear, undercover cops were still busting gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in dimly lit bars.
So you can understand why a young, bearded bohemian named David Mancuso wrote “Love Saves the Day” on invitations announcing a private party at his home, a loft in a former warehouse in a deserted corner of lower Manhattan. A little positive energy was needed. A safe space was sorely needed—space to dance, space to socialize, and space simply to be oneself. (“Love Saves the Day” might also have been a way of hinting at the mystery ingredient in the punchbowl, but what world-changing musical event hasn’t come with its own social lubricant?)
Mancuso’s private party eventually became a regular shindig, known simply as the Loft. Its trappings became legendary: the scores of multicolored balloons hugging the ceiling and bobbing along the floor; the sumptuous fruit spread; the Klipschorn speakers, so clear that listeners heard details in records they’d never noticed before. Two elements above all were paramount: the mixed crowd—a joyfully nonhierarchical sampling of sexualities, genders, ethnicities, and social classes—and the music, chosen and sequenced according to Mancuso’s own impeccable instincts.
And while it wasn’t a club, by any stretch of the imagination—for one thing, the Loft remained a members’-only event, and strictly BYOB—in its focus on the music and the crowd, its attempt to carve out a refuge from the pressures of the outside world, the Loft established the blueprint for the discotheque and the modern nightclub. That’s not to say that many modern clubs live up to the example set by the Loft; most don’t. (As Mancuso himself told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013, “For me the core [idea behind the Loft] is about social progress. How much social progress can there be when you’re in a situation that is repressive? You won’t get much social progress in a nightclub”; for Mancuso, the non-profit motive was crucial to preserving a venue’s liberatory potential.)
Mancuso didn’t call himself a DJ; he preferred to be known as a “musical host,” and somewhere along the line, he even stopped blending his transitions, simply letting each song play out in full before starting the next one. But the open-mindedness of his selections helped establish disco, at least before it codified into an oonce-oonce beat, as a zone of possibility rather than a narrowly defined genre, and that message continues to resonate with DJs today. This Spotify playlist gathers more than 100 songs that Mancuso played at the Loft: deep, ecstatic funk (War’s “Me and Baby Brother,” The J.B.’s’ “Gimme Some More”), African funk (Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” a song Mancuso popularized), classic soul (Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”), house music (Fingers Inc.’s “Mystery of Love”), even folk-rock (Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”). No playlist can replicate the way he played the music, though, juxtaposing songs to play up their lyrical themes, or building intensity as the party crept toward dawn.
In Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, Tim Lawrence asks various New York DJs who came in Mancuso’s wake if they had ever danced at the Loft. “Time and again,” he writes, “they would describe Mancuso as their most important influence, a musical messiah who also happened to resemble Jesus Christ.”
That messiah died on November 14, 2016, after a protracted illness, at the age of 72. It seems a cruel irony that he should leave us now, precisely when safe spaces, both real and metaphorical, suddenly feel more necessary than ever, their survival even more precarious. His followers can only hope that love might save the day once more.