LGBT History Month: The AIDS Masterpiece of a Lost Disco Pioneer

It's just a coincidence that LGBT History Month occurs during our culturally appointed Scariest Time of the Year—it’s positioned to coincide with National Coming Out Day (October 11) and to commemorate the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which took place October 14, 1979, not with All Hallow's Eve.

But what a coincidence it is, given the horrors gay and queer people have suffered historically. Directly manmade cruelties like bigotry, discrimination, and attendant violence aside, I can't think of anything scarier than the onset of AIDS in the early ‘80s. Before it was a global epidemic, before it was a cause, before it united gay men and women to save each other and themselves, before there was even a blood test for it, it was a mystery with several names and still more causalities. No matter how much Larry Kramer I read or stories I hear, I will never comprehend the blindsiding tragedy of a community of friends and lovers just dropping dead around each other without explanation. Sick and then gone. It’s terrifying, and I think about it a lot even though I’ll never wrap my head around it.

One of the earliest and most fascinating documents of those early days of despair and mystery is the final album from San Francisco electronic disco producer Patrick Cowley. Cowley was best known for his work with drag queen diva Sylvester—he remixed Sylvester’s signature 1978 song “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” among other collaborations. He also famously re-edited Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” stretching it out for a glorious 16 minutes, and you could say he absorbed a musical aesthetic from that song’s original producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte: like Moroder and Bellotte's Cowley’s disco was highly synthesized and spacey, but not without its individual idiosyncrasies (an obsession with sci-fi sound effects, high velocity BPM, a grinding feel to arpeggiated bass lines).

It was also very sexual and dynamic. Cowley’s 1981 track “Menergy” described the contemporary culture of public sex and cruising (“The boys in the back room / Laughin' it up / Shootin' off energy / The guys in the street talk checkin' you out / Talkin' 'bout / Menergy”) and contained an early example of what would come to be known as a “drop” (the defining feature of contemporary EDM, in which the thumping bass drum returns after a temporary absence). It is also, in my opinion, the best example of a drop, not just because it is particularly exhilarating but because it functions as a climax in a song so sexual. There are three of these drops that build and explode (shooting into the air like…a spaceship) in this song. “Menergy” is multi-orgasmic.

By 1982, Cowley was very, very sick. According to Joshua Gamson’s excellent 2005 Sylvester biography, The Fabulous Sylvester, Cowley directed the engineering of his third and final solo LP, Mind Warp, “while reclining on a couch in the studio. People propped him up by the synthesizer so he could work.” Mind Warp, Gamson writes, was referred to as Cowley’s “death record.”

Even without have read the book, you can tell as much. The first sound that you hear on the album’s opening track, “Tech-No-Logical World,” is a rotted synth fit, slipping in and out of tune. The song continues the futuristic theme of much of Cowley’s catalog, but it's less celebratory and woozier. He's the same musician, but altered. Frequent collaborator Paul Parker, for whom Cowley produced the club classic “Right on Target” that year, sings in his loungey croon of, “Mankind’s splendor spread out far and wide, but the flags of doom unfurl.” The producer's “Megatron Man” is rusting.

From there, the album presents a mutated version of Cowley’s hi-NRG disco – atonal noise reverberates, some songs move with syrup slowness, vocoders babble incompressible and ominous data. The title track is Mind Warp’s most conventionally Cowley track in terms of danceability, but the sparse refrain tells of…mind warping. The album closes on the relatively jubilant “Goin’ Home,” a lift-off “to parts unknown” that nonetheless retains the album’s thematic woozy, out-of-tuneness. It is also a formal goodbye.

Also consider the lyrics of “They Came at Night,” which explicitly continues the theme of the preceding instrumental track, “Invasion.” Its lyrics describe invaders that arrive is “familiar form” only to “change their shape” and reside “inside your mind” permanently:

They came at night
They all arrived
In form familiar to the eye
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness
They came at night
Impatiently
They waited there to steal the seed
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness

Invasion
The voice behind your eyes
Invasion
Intruders from the sky

The moment came
They changed their shape
They made their move on a human race
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness
They came at night
The spinal tap
They disappeared
And closed the gap
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness

They came at night
But wouldn’t go
The only trace a
Greenish glow
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness
They came at night
They came to stay
Inside your mind
By the break of day
Uh oh! Uh Oh! Beware of darkness

Were Cowley not sick, were a plague not incubating, “They Came at Night” might come off as just another paranoid horror disco track like Cerrone’s “Supernature” or Easy Going's "Fear." But it's impossible not to read “They Came at Night” as an AIDS analogy given the context it was created in. It’s impossible not to read the whole of Mind Warp as the earliest full musical statement on this invasion and takeover of the human body. The politics of disco were largely inherent (for an excellent exploration of this, see Alice Echols' Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture). By merely meditating on a disease that no one cared about, that no one of power would talk about (including New York mayor Ed Koch and President Ronald Reagan, who didn't so much utter the word "AIDS" in public until 1987), Cowley's disco was more political than most.

Mind Warp is not album about death, but about dying, and its unpleasantness is essential to its message. It is a tough listen, almost devoid of the joy prevalent in Cowley’s work that came before it. Though it did well on Billboard’s Dance/Disco Top 80, it’s hard to imagine anyone dancing to it today, and in fact the Cowley tracks that do endure are ones that came earlier. (One of the musical highlights of my year so far, incidentally, was getting to hear “Menergy” on the gorgeous, liquid sound system of Output in Williamsburg, when Horse Meat Disco played there Memorial Day weekend.)

Mind Warp was released in October of 1982. Cowley died November 12, 1982, 24 days after his 32nd birthday. He was among the first public figures to die of AIDS.

Cowley is a tragic figure for succumbing to AIDS so early. He is, in my opinion, not remembered thoroughly enough—he deserves his own biography, a biopic, a shrine. (Earlier this month, Dark Entries and Honey Soundsystem released School Daze, a collection of less club-oriented Cowley outtakes. So at least there’s that.) He does have one thing, though, that only an elite group can claim: a legendary story that reads like a tall tale, but that I, for one, want to believe is the god’s honest. This comes from Gamson’s The Fabulous Sylvester, too. The setting is early 1982 at the U.C. Medical Center, where Cowley has been admitted for pneumonia:

Sylvester visited him regularly at the hospital, to “read my Bible and just be with him.” Doctors were calling his disease GRID, for gay-related immune deficiency, which a lot of people just called the gay cancer. Whatever his illness was, Patrick wasn’t getting better; his family came out to San Francisco from Buffalo, since it looked as if he had reached his end. Patrick was screaming that he wanted to be unplugged, and his parents were considering the request. Then Sylvester walked in.

Marty Blecman [who ran record label Megatone with Cowley] sent him to “tell and promise Patrick anything just to give him some hope or something to live for.” Sylvester held Patrick’s hand and simply refused to take no for an answer. He told Patrick that everyone was waiting on them to do another project together, and that he would just have to try harder. “I’m not having it anymore,” he said. “Get your ass up out of bed so we can go to work.” Patrick was released from the hospital a few days later.

When Patrick left the hospital, he went to stay with his best friend Paul Parker (whose dance hit “Right on Target” he had written and produced), and Paul’s boyfriend, Ken Crivello. Their apartment was up several flights, so Paul would throw Patrick on his back and walk up the seventy-two steps. Paul and Ken nursed Patrick from eighty pounds back up to around a hundred and ten. When he was well enough, Sylvester stopped by to pick him up and bring him over to Megatone, also known as Marty Blecman’s house, on his moped. Patrick was like Lazarus with a scarf. They went to work.

The song they produced was one of the defining hits of either of their catalogs, “Do You Wanna Funk,” an international hit that received domestic exposure via Eddie Murphy’s Trading Places. The song doesn’t contain a trace of the decayed Mind Warp sound or paranoia. It is a straight-forwardly joyful sexual come-on via electronic disco.

There is more than one way to write an AIDS song. Cowley’s last days were rich and more varied than most people’s entire careers.