THE WAY CLUB culture celebrates its DJs, you'd think those turntable jocks were curing cancer, freeing all political prisoners, and throwing in a side order of fries. Consider the obsessive devotion inspired by Larry Levan, who died of drug-related heart problems in 1992, at age 38. Levan was the resident DJ at New York's Paradise Garage from 1977-87, a tenure club regulars recall with roughly the same ocular glint possessed by those who didn't eat the brown acid at the first Woodstock. Levan's eccentricities are endlessly recounted, from his interrupting peak-hour sets to clean dirty mirror balls to his alleged ability to select specific idle crowd members and get them moving with his next selection.
While it's hard not to maintain a healthy skepticism in the face of such legends, the number of people who testify to Levan's abilities to transform a club floor into a kind of communal utopia also gives pause. That many people can't all be making a story up at the same time. And Levan deserves at least some of his myth, based solely on his studio work: production of the NYC Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" and Gwen Guthrie's "Ain't Nothin' Goin' On But the Rent"; and extended overhauls of Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and Instant Funk's "I've Got My Mind Made Up." Nevertheless, Levan's cult centers on his knack for playing the right songs in the right club at the right time to a crowd on the right drugs--a tough claim to substantiate.
What makes the release of Larry Levan: Live at the Paradise Garage (Strut/West End) a major event is how thoroughly it reconstructs its milieu. A double CD of a set captured on reel-to-reel in 1979, Live's gorgeously designed booklet (superb period photos, extensive notes) adds perspective to what is basically a collection of enjoyable obscurities familiar only to serious discophiles. None of its 19 selections could be mistaken for masterpieces. Moreover, Levan's attempts at weaving Jakki's "Sun...Sun...Sun..." in and out of "Trinidad" by John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Band would get him laughed out of a basement party today. And the macho histrionic vocals of T-Connection's "At Midnight" are unbearable.
Still, Live is a valuable snapshot of its moment, enormously suggestive of how effectively Levan could make his audience hear and respond to music the same way he did. The overall mood here, established by Ashford & Simpson's lush instrumental "Bourgie Bourgie," is disco's infamously willful escapism. But Levan's genius was for making the most machine-tooled pop sound personal: His technical inconsistencies and sudden, forceful mood shifts bulldoze the music's smoothness like Redd Foxx's Fred Sanford crashing a Gerald Ford fundraiser. I'm still not sure I'm hearing things right when Levan, brutally and without warning, slams Stephanie Mills's springy, string-saturated "Put Your Body in It" into The Crown Heights Affair's pounding, demented Moog showpiece "Dreaming a Dream." Levan never loses the beat, but the segue is punk-rock violent.
The second-most effective transition here occurs when Levan drops Shalamar's "Right in the Socket" just as it's starting to heat up in favor of...Cher?! Yes, kids, Cher--a Studio 54 regular, no less. Her "Take Me Home" is a completely opportunistic rip-off of a then-current fad--her specialty--and it sounds absolutely excellent here. Right there is all the reason you need to believe Levan may have been, if not God, at least Christlike: If making Cher sound good isn't turning water into wine...
If anything, though, Live at the Paradise Garage isn't long enough. The final song Levan played at the Garage that night was the O'Jays' "Where Do We Go From Here?"; as disc two trails off on instrumental versions of long-forgotten Chi-Lites and Jermaine Jackson songs, you can almost hear Levan asking himself the same question. I for one would love to know how, on this occasion, he answered it. Of course, he didn't need to: Two generations' worth of mixmasters have done it for him.