"Even if you just went to the club a few times," says Billboard dance-music editor Michael Paoletta, "you experienced something so grand that you are actually looked up to." Over the past few years, as dance music has inched closer to the mainstream, the Paradise Garage, a SoHo nightclub that ran from 1976 to 1987, has assumed the kind of talismanic significance that makes it the Woodstock of serious New York clubgoers.
Unlike Studio 54, with its impassive doormen and stiff social pecking order, the Garage democratized the dance floor. "When Diana Ross came by, things got screwed up and somehow she had to pay to get in," remembers Mel Cheren, who ran the Garage with his lover Michael Brody (who died in 1987) and has just published a memoir called Keep On Dancin': My Life and the Paradise Garage. "But when she left, she said, 'It's truly paradise.' Madonna gave her first major performance there, too. And Grace Jones was like the queen of the Garage."
The real star of the club was its D.J., Larry Levan, who created the template for disco, and later house music, with the soulful, orchestral dance sets he played years earlier at gay bathhouses like the Continental Baths and eventually at the Garage. He challenged his audience, and though he spun the Clash's "Magnificent Seven" and 60-minute synthesizer orchestras like Manuel Göttsching's "E2 -- E4," ultimately the wailing divas and percussive funk of a new double CD from Cheren's West End Records, Larry Levan Live at the Paradise Garage, make a case for Levan as less the avant-garde electronic pioneer and more dance music's answer to R&B. (Levan died of heart-condition complications in 1992.)
Levan's sets inspired the current dance-music scene's Old Guard, including Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia, to take to the decks, and the club has become surprisingly influential with house and hip-hop producers who never even darkened its doors. "I was too young to go to the Garage," says house-music producer and D.J. Armand Van Helden, "but I know that the party was about breaking down barriers between music. And that's what I'm about. So I consider myself 'Garage.' " Hip-hop producer Prince Paul says back in the mid-seventies when "there was no such thing as a hip-hop record," D.J.'s like Afrika Bambaataa "would spin disco records like Taana Gardner's 'Heartbeat' remixed by Levan just for the breakbeats. Everybody killed that record back then."
This summer, tributes to Levan and the Garage have become as common as "ladies drink free" nights: Over the weekend, dancers sweated at packed Levan tributes at "Body & Soul" and the Bronx club the Warehouse; this Wednesday, original Garage D.J.'s David DePino and Joey Llanos will spin at "Little" Louie Vega's "Dance Ritual" party at Vinyl; on Saturday night at Brooklyn club Halcyon, Cheren will read from Keep On Dancin', followed by a set from Nicky Siano, the D.J. who taught Levan how to spin; and later that evening, D.J. Timmy Regisford will present yet another tribute to Levan at "Shelter" at Vinyl. "I think things are coming full circle," says Cheren, adding that he'd like to reopen the club in its original King Street space as a Hard Rock Cafe-inspired "disco diner" with Garage memorabilia -- down to an urn bearing Levan's ashes.