Burn Down the Disco
The trajectory of the Limelight Club, housed in the Church of Holy Communion on Sixth Avenue in New York, might serve as a model by which to measure dance club history these recent past years. At the height of rave, living in England, when I had yet to see American land let alone an American club, word of the Limelight drifted east and the place sounded in description like the holiest of all possible holy venues (outside of the Hacienda in Manchester, naturally). Of course, these were different times, when “spiritual” was a word we used without cracking a smile to capture our days of dance. We believed that a sort of communion was passing between us…or maybe it was just the drugs. Either way, we believed in it, and to hear of DJs spreading the vinyl word in a grand, ornate Episcopalian Church centered in New York City, struck me as a nirvana worth one day heading towards.
As it happened, I overshot the Limelight Club by about three thousand miles, and landed in Los Angeles. Luckily I did so at the precise moment rave culture hit the West Coast, and danced my way through a third Summer of Love. The ideal of the Limelight never quite disappeared for me though. I dated a girl in California who’d lived in New York for two years, and sometimes she regaled me with nights lost and found within the thick gothic stone walls at the intersection of Sixth and Twentieth. Later, even as my own summer of dance turned to autumn, I was unable to imagine that my journey through the predominant youth culture of my time would end without a single visit to the Limelight.
And so, at last, it proved.
It’s called Avalon now. I’ve been in New York for three years and I only just arrived, late by more than a decade. Somehow I always imagined that in spite of the many re-vamps and re-launches it’s been through, in spite of the time passed since the days when music held sway with something like a religious fervor, the venue itself, like a castle with walls that talk, would have retained some of its magic. Not a bit of it, alas.
Avalon is utterly devoid of soul, which surely must be a cardinal sin in the setting of a former church—not to mention an improbable accomplishment on the part of the designers. Oh, it doesn’t help that the scene it plays host to is as tired now as the DJ mix compilations it spawned. Still, I attempted to pay respect on a recent Saturday night, when Darren Emerson (formerly of Underworld) and Josh Wink were scheduled to play. Between posing for photos with patrons, Emerson seemed in reasonable fettle at the turntables (comprising three vinyl turntables, additional set-ups for two compact discs, and a sound board possibly borrowed from NASA). His set was equal to the one I last heard from him three years ago—indeed, it may well have been the same set for all I know. Techno, progressive house, call it what you will, long ago hit the wall when it comes to advancement. There’s little progressive about it anymore.
Nonetheless, my intention was to stick around for Wink’s set too—I admire the creativity he brings to the (turn)table—but by then I was too demoralized to care. While there’s no shortage of money being spent at Avalon (all respect due), there has been a direct lack of sensitivity. The lighting gantry may well be state of the art, but the art itself must be in a fairly old state. Sure the spotlights rise and fall and twist and swivel, but they add nothing in the way of atmosphere, nothing in the way of a creative dynamic. As for the (non-)decor, all those endless black walls through labyrinthine passageways, spread across multiple levels of floor? It’s dull and myopic, not chic and mysterious.
If the money has been well spent anywhere (and it has), at least it’s on the sound system. Walk past a bank of speakers by the main dance floor and the hair on your head is lifted by sheer force of bass. The sound is pristine and balanced, and those who spin there must love it. Not that there were any old-school bass-heads dipping their skulls into bins on this night. Nor any old-school kids to be seen period. Which is where the central problem of Avalon arises.
Nostalgia may be the enemy of progress, but it’s all that’s left in clubland now. The lost, the longing, the lonely, on this night they went through the motions without a thread of the old unity—not unless you count a night on the town, too many cocktails and a potential score at the end of the night as unity. It’s far from where this particular dance music culture began, and a pale echo of events that must have transpired here through the years. Perhaps out on the fringes, in a dark, raw space, the spirit of early disco, of warehouse and acid-house breathes on, lies in waiting.
Here in the mainstream, that spirit is long dead.