The First Time I Heard and Saw Donna Summer
The news of Donna Summer’s death from cancer at the age of 63 shocked me out of my un-routine routine. I went to iTunes and downloaded half a dozen of her hits for use last night while DJing at Hotel Chantelle. Although it is the rockiest of rock nights, with a high probability that everybody in attendance had at one time owned a "Disco Sucks" T-shirt, it felt important to pay respect. At 3am I started mixing disco hits – and every other song was a winner from Donna. The crowd responded. It was "Love to Love You Baby," "Love Hangover", “Bad Girls,” and then Gloria Gaynor’s, "I Will Survive". Diva after diva… and the crowd went wild. The sound of well-produced dance music over a solid club sound system is one of the unique attractions of nightlife. “McArthur Park” was a near-religious experience. They ooo’d and ahhh’d and understood the loss as her voice rang clear.
I first heard “Love to Love You Baby” on my third date with a stewardess back in the mid ‘70s. We were hanging with her stewardess friends at their stewardess apartment when the record was put on. It was put on to turn me on, as I had been missing the hints that my world-weary stewardess was tossing tired of waiting for me to make my move. I caught the eye contact between her and her co-conspirators and understood my job. The 17 minutes of moans in “Love to Love You Baby” was worth a thousand words. After that affair, I retreated to my rock world, aware of Donna Summers’ hit factory but not very interested. Although “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” and her other mega-hits dominated disco – the most fun era in club history – I was a rock and roller and remain so. I was grunge before there was a name for it. I was a punk with ripped jeans and Ramones T’s. Disco was for the bad cologne, the polyester set.
Over the decades, her anthems were heard at parties and disco nights. She was unmistakable, undeniable. Her voice held even the disinterested in awe. Around 1989 I had the Red Zone, a popular club in the West 50s.
We had booked a Donna Summer event where she was to openly apologize for something she had denied even saying. She was quoted as saying "AIDS was a punishment from God for the immoral lifestyles of homosexuals.” She wanted her gay family to rejoin her, rejoice in her. In 1989 we were all losing scores of friends to AIDS-related illnesses. The hideous statement from a diva whose fan base was the gay community was beyond dumb …if it were true. Few believed her denials, and the event was being held to clear the air. ACT-UP disagreed and picketed the event. Donna never left her limo and that was that. Her protestations and lawsuits did little to regain her lost fans.
Over the years, I would hear a track on the radio or at a club and was awed by her talent…her way of hanging every impossible note and underlining every lyric. It was mid-last decade and I was asked if I wanted to see her perform at some corporate affair at Exit, another club in the far west 50s. Owner David Marvisi figured I might want to see her, but no one I called cared, no one wanted to go. I went alone. I stood in the sound booth, 15 feet above and in front of the stage, and waited. I had no expectations. I had no idea what I was going to see.
She came out in complete darkness, singing the intro to “McArthur Park” and I got goose bumps. It was beyond amazing. When the beat came on so did the lights and she was a DIVA, DIVA, DIVA. The corporate suits flocked the stage to see what all their money had paid for. Donna delivered. I welled up with tears. She was an overlooked star playing to an un-hip corporate card-crowd. The crowd should have been queens, hipsters, club kids, and the wonderful instead of the mundane. She gave them her hits and smiled that show-biz smile, but all I could feel was what could have been.
Donna Summer’s death is a stop-the-presses event. I was to tell you about a bunch of things today in detail, but a few lines will now have to do. On May 18th through the 20th, Roseland Ballroom hosts the New York Tattoo Convention. Clayton Paterson, a friend and organizer, was hooking me up with a photo of man-about-town Steve Bonde for a story, but… in short, he was the Stray Cats photographer back in the day and started this tattoo convention stuff in 1998. He wrote a couple of books: Tattoo with an Attitude and Marked for Life. Everybody in the ink community is going – and so am I.
I was also to discuss the end-of-season run of Daniel and Derek Kochs’ unstoppable hit brunch “Day and Night” at Ajna Bar, 25 Little W.12th St. I would also have talked about the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits Center on May 19-22 where you can see all the furniture and fixtures of next year’s clubs in advance.
Lastly, I would have mentioned the piece in yesterday’s NY Times about Justin Ross Lee, international man of controversy. In that, the Times referred to me as "an authority on nightlife.” Now that I am official, I’m going to put down the pen, grab a diet Ginger Ale, and sit back and listen to "Last Dance."