Standing in the middle of a tapestry of glitter and swirling neon, the floor beneath me shook my insides like the beginning of a earthquake. My entire body rattled. I remember holding on to my drink as 40 or 50 sweaty bodies bumped and gyrated past me, all wreaking of booze and sweat and amil-nitrate. It was somewhere in the late 1970's and the hottest club in town was The Bistro on the North side of Chicago. I had sneaked in between the Drag Queen Cher, and the lesbian in the military hat. I was barely 18 at the time, and decked out in my favorite teal cocktail dress and my brand new, uber-painful, bright yellow pumps. I planted myself on the edge of the dance floor, sipping my vodka tonic and watching the crowd throw their entire beings into this new music that was changing the world:
It came very quickly, and at it's peak; was shocking, melodic, and trans-formative. The New York club kids discovered it and as it crept from out of the shadows of the underworld of the gay nightlife, it spawned an era of some of the most trivial, mindless and spectacular music I'd ever heard. I was growing up and finding my voice hidden under years of shame and guilt, and the music of my teens was doing the same.
As I stood tapping my foot, a song came on, and the entire room collectively threw their arms up the in the air, and it seemed all at once, everyone on the room took, one, long collective snort. If it wasn't nailed down, it was going up our noses. And then this voice poured out over the speakers, and I stopped tapping, and looked up. I'm not really sure why, I doubt very seriously if the female singer was apt to appear above my head, but there was something in her voice that popped my head towards the Universe. It was very rare that a voice of that quality had been attached to a disco song. Although the disco era had been around for a while, we were still, as a generation, finding our way through it, and since it came from our community, we were still alarmed when it proclaimed. When it shouted. When it explored and changed something. We were still getting used to Us, at the time.
Her name was Donna Summer, and the song was "Dim all The Lights", the first tune she wrote solo. I knew her previous hits, "Bad Girls", "Last Dance", and the strangely erotic "Love to Love You, Baby" (a song that happened entirely by accident).
Apparently, Summer was supposed to be the stand-in voice. The song, which was Donna's idea, was overtly sexual in nature and when producer/friend Giorgio Moroder requested Donna add some moans and groans to the track, the Diva was reticent. She decided to record the track as a demo for another singer, just to see if they could sell it. Eventually the song went certified gold, and sold over 500,000 copies in the US, with Summer as lead vocal, and newly crowned Queen of Disco.
Another of Summer's greatest hits was recorded by the ginormous gifts of La Minnelli, in one of my favorite clips of all time. Liza's career was on fire back then, and everything she did exploded like a house full of dynamite. I don't know if this was really the best idea for her, but it sure makes for one hell of a video. This, for me, actually says more about Donna Summer than it does about Liza Minnelli. Summer's songs became a part of the decade. It defined not only who we were, but what we were feeling at the time. And everyone wanted in on it.
Disco was Gay Music.
Disco was Our music.
Disco was developed and molded and supported by our community, and we laid claim to it. We possessed it and used it as a mouth piece and a bridge. We spoke through it and spoke around it. And as it gained steam, everyone was dancing to it. Everyone in every club with every kind of history, embraced our music and heard our voices and lived, if only for a brief moment, in the middle of our lives. It stood for us, and we knew it. And when mainstream society began to bring it into their houses, when men started to take disco lessons in order to get laid:
We Were Heard.
And Donna Summer was the most popular Queen we had. This was an artist with an incredible gift. A gift that went beyond the pulsating machinery that eventually became the music business. She wrote, she produced, and above all: she sang. Summer, who was never really comfortable with the "Queen of Disco" moniker the world gave her, was really an R&B singer. You can hear it in her music. In the simplest of tunes, even the most modest of melodies become thrilling monuments, or wailing masterpieces when sung by Donna. This is a woman who cared about what moved her. And that was always, always music.
And then, in the 1980's, the plague came and our people began to die. One by one, year by year, and person by person. People in their twenties, from the artists to scientists, began shriveling away and dying. And then Summer became a born again Christian and was accused of saying that AIDS was God's punishment on gay people.
Her career never fully recovered.
She denied the accusation for years afterward, and with time, the wounds healed, and we took her back. Let's be honest, we missed her.
I don't know that Donna was the greatest performer we ever had. I don't know that she was the most charismatic, ingenious and imaginative artist of the 70's. Certainly there was competition to be had. I always felt that Donna was a Singer. Simply that. A singer who never tried to be anything else. She wanted to write and she wanted to sing. There was music that lived deep in her, and even though some of her live performances seem a bit stilted or uneasy, it was all about her instrument. Summer never thought of herself as Meryl Streep. She loved to sing, and that's all she wanted to do. And she did it like no other pop singer of her generation.
I raced to the record store and bought the album that contained that fabulous song I'd heard Summer sing that night at The Bistro. I played it until my parent'e ears bled. I had no idea truly what I was listening to at the time, or how important she'd become, or how huge it really was that she shared her gift with the rest of the world. Before we were shoved back in the closet in the mid eighties, before were shunned again, and blamed again, and pushed back again, for one brief, glitzy, gorgeous, polished, boozed-up, cocaine ridden, sex crazed decade, our music was funneled through the magnificent vocals of one woman. Donna Summer, whether she liked it or not, was the embodiment of the new Gay Movement, and she did it all with class and style, and a voice that was unmistakably hers.
There are very few singers with this much history in their back pocket, and it's a shame her voice was silenced at the tip of her second act. She will be missed.
She was indeed; an Accidental Revolutionary. And I thank her.