"Do you play disco?"
This is not a question one typically expects to hear from a massage therapist. "Have you been working out more?" or perhaps, "How did you get this bite mark on your shoulder?" but not a music-programming inquiry. But my massage therapist knows I'm not just another hunk of knotted muscle and flab but a DJ, too.
Grunting in the affirmative, I listened as he explained that another client of his was trying to unload some old records. They had belonged to a friend of said client; the friend had moved back to New York after getting sick in the mid-1980s. Though the owner had intended to send for the vinyl, he passed away before he could do so, and the records had been gathering dust ever since. If I was willing to haul the lot away, the collection's caretaker would let me have them for next to nothing.
So it was that I found myself in a stranger's home on a Saturday afternoon, sifting through two cartons of musty 12-inch singles and LPs. I didn't strike the mother lode of valuable rarities, but I appreciated the current owner's desire to get rid of the damn things, so we struck a deal. I wrote a check to his favorite AIDS charity and walked off with a hundred-plus records—and a new anthropological project.
What could I divine from the original owner—let's call him Rafael—from his music? I knew from talking to his friend that Rafael's passion for disco (or "cha cha," as he called it) was so overpowering that when the DJ spun a song he loved, his eyes would roll back and he would literally convulse on the dance floor. His ecstatic writhing apparently got him barred from several Seattle clubs. But I wanted to learn more and set to summoning his spirit by spinning the grooves he'd lovingly collected.
One thing was immediately obvious: Raphael was gay. Very, very gay. Hence the 12 vintage Barbra Streisand albums. So I started my investigation by plopping Streisand's What About Today? ("dedicated to the young people who push against indifference, show down mediocrity, demand a better future, and who write and sing the songs of today") on the turntable. I was greeted with the most execrable rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends" imaginable. Lennon and McCartney can withstand a lot, but not Fanny Brice shtick. Perhaps Rafael's taste wasn't so flawless.
As promised, the bulk of what I'd acquired was disco. But for every title I recognized, like C'est Chic or the Emotions' Rejoice, there were half a dozen I didn't. Were it not for Rafael's passing, I might never have discovered the propulsive brilliance of Brainstorm's "Hot for You," or my new favorite song, the Four Tops-esque "My Baby's Got E.S.P." by Four Below Zero.
I began to notice that the majority of the dance records were from 1979, the year disco tanked as a mainstream phenomenon. But clearly, it was more than a fad for Rafael. Because not only did he have hard-to-find classics like The Glow of Love by Change and X(infinity)Multiples by Yellow Magic Orchestra, but he also wrote notes on the labels of specific 12-inches. In loopy, schoolgirl handwriting, long-dead Raphael let me know that he thought Eddie Johns' cover of "I Put a Spell on You" was best enjoyed with "headphones & poppers" and the James Brown oddity "Just Wanna Make You Dance" by the J.B.'s featuring Maxxi was "somebody's anthem—not me!"
But what to make of the rest? Did Rafael actually play along with the Music Minus One discs of Bach, Hadyn, and Handel pieces recorded sans piano soloist? What attracted him to classic rock LPs like Shades of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd's Animals, and Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young with Crazy Horse? Did he go into convulsions over "Cinnamon Girl," too, or were they just props to put out when his straight older brother dropped by? Regardless, it was clear his love of music didn't begin and end with the boogie and Barbra. Hence the platters of flamenco guitar and—oh my—flute music by Andes Indians.
When I brought home these records, I thought I'd just condense the best bits into a 74-minute disco mix CD; instead, I feel like I'm building the gay Bride of Frankenstein in my living room. Raphael might have been a dizzy disco queen, but the fact that he'd highlighted the tracks "Car Crash, Screaming Tires" and "Tray of Dishes Crashing" on a copy of Sound Effects, Volume 2 is just one of countless clues that there was much more to his character, too. I'm sorry we never met in person, but I'm enjoying getting acquainted with Raphael nevertheless . . . even if the Streisand stash did go straight in the Goodwill pile. "People" may be somebody's anthem, but not me.