Return to Paradise

Posthumous recording celebrates Larry Levan's legacy

Considering the devotion inspired by the late Larry Levan, the resident at New York's Paradise Garage from 1977-87, you'd think he'd cured cancer instead of just playing records. To be sure, some of that myth is deserved; his studio work includes production and/or remixes of classics like the NYC Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" and Instant Funk's "I've Got My Mind Made Up." Nevertheless, Levan's cult centers around his knack for playing the right songs in the right club at the right time to a crowd on the right drugs — a tough claim to substantiate.
The release of Larry Levan: Live at the Paradise Garage (Strut/West End), then, is a major event in good part thanks to how thoroughly it reconstructs its milieu. A double-CD of a 1979 set, Live's booklet (superb period photos, extensive notes) adds perspective to what is basically a collection of enjoyable obscurities. None of its 19 selections could be mistaken for masterpieces — Levan's clumsy weaving together of Jakki's "Sun...Sun...Sun..." and John Gibbs and the U.S. Steel Band's "Trinidad" would be laughed out of a basement party today, and the macho vocals of T-Connection's "At Midnight" are unbearable.
Still, Live is enormously suggestive of Levan's effectiveness. Levan's genius was for making machine-tooled music sound personal: his sudden, forceful mood shifts bulldoze the music's smoothness. At one point, Levan brutally slams Stephanie Mills' springy "Put Your Body in It" into the Crown Heights Affair's pounding Moog showpiece "Dreaming a Dream"; he never loses the beat, but the segue is punk-rock violent. That's nothing, though, compared to the way he drops a Shalamar track just as it's starting to heat up in favor of ... Cher?! It sounds excellent, too — and right there is all the reason you need to believe Levan may have been, if not God, at least Christlike: If making Cher sound good isn't turning water into wine, I don't know what is.
The final song Levan played at the Garage was the O'Jays' "Where Do We Go from Here?"; as disc two trails off on instrumental versions of long-forgotten Chi-Lites and Jermaine Jackson songs, you can almost hear Levan asking himself the same question. Of course, he didn't need to answer it: Two generations' worth of mixmasters have done it for him.