Collective joy: Record Club hits 100

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last seven or eight years thinking about the history of friendship. Writing a book about a friendship circle — a group that even named itself the “Friendly Club” — took me into an extensive (and still growing), multidisciplinary body of literature that explains why and how the category of “friendship” emerged to supplement familial and governmental relationships, how friendship has depended on varying philosophical underpinnings (some basing friendship on likeness, some on difference), and how it relates to various historical transformations, from the emergence of commercial culture to the spread of participatory, democratic politics.

All that time I’ve both benefitted and suffered from a sort of self-consciousness about my participation in friendships and friendship circles of my own, with their own ups and downs, tensions, reconfiguations, likenesses, differences, expansions, contractions — and, not least, their frequent celebrations. From camping to holidays to collective blogging, my friends test me and push me and expand my tastes and experiences and play roles in my life in a more dramatic way than I remember friends playing in my parents’ lives. (Of course that may have had to do with the fact that they had five more children than I do, but still — it’s hard for me to imagine my parents, at my age, caught up in some of the friendly dramas that pepper my life.) Hear that, Robert Putnam? You won’t find any of my friends bowling alone.

For the most part I’ve thought about friendship and friendly association — and sometimes what sociologists would call “voluntary association,” that is, association not obligated by church, family, profession, state, or ethnicity — as serving two principal ends: emotional and intellectual fulfillment. Certainly there are subsidiary benefits, such as professional or political networking. In past centuries, friendship also facilitated informational networking, or the spread of news (and eventually the creation of a “public sphere”), something the Internet does for us today. But if any of these ends outweighed the emotional rewards or motivations, I’d argue that the relationship could hardly still be called friendship.

As much as I’ve mulled over the topic of friendship, I was still pleasantly surprised when I saw, through the window of a local bookstore, that Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Dancing in the Streets, was subtitled “A History of Collective Joy.” Now there was an interesting topic: not simply collectivity or collective action (a topic for labor historians or more straightforward Marxist theorists) but collective joy, ecstasy, carnival, something so far from the rational, Enlightenment forms of friendship I’ve spent so much time thinking about that the book seemed to promise something much, much sexier.

dance, dance, dance

I’m not equipped to provide a full review of the book, but that’s not really what I want to write this week anyway. I am, though, struck by Ehrenreich’s initial premise — that “collective joy” remains to some degree ignored or at least understudied in most Western disciplines, even psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Maybe, she implies, this has to do with a Western distrust of crowds and preference for narcissistic considerations of the individual “self.” (Much of the ecstatic communalism she celebrates — dance in particular — derives from African or pre-Christian pagan traditions.) Whatever the case, she’s set up this book to fill the knowledge gap, “to speak seriously of the largely ignored and perhaps incommunicable thrill of the group deliberately united in joy and exaltation.” And from rock carvings to medieval carnival to rock-n-roll, she plows ahead to do just that.

It’s a story of a cycle of clashing forces: Western “civilization,” on one hand, aims to repress; collective joy, on the other, refuses to stop dancing. The story should sound familiar to New Yorkers: from 1926 to the present, the city has had anti-dancing laws on its books, making it illegal to dance in most Manhattan bars. Though Ehrenreich doesn’t mention this situation, she could have. Drafted in a racist attempt to crack down on mixed-race dance and jazz joints in Harlem, the laws were revived by Giuliani in the 90s as part of his “Quality of Life” initiatives (along with bans on ferrets and jaywalking), which were aimed at instilling a fear of police and raising property values. Various groups are hard at work seeking to repeal the so-called “cabaret laws,” but nonetheless, we may as well be living under the Taliban as far as spontaneous dancing is concerned.

dance, dance, dance

Picking up Ehrenreich’s new book and thumbing through it this weekend set me thinking about a recent celebration I took part in — one that had less to do with my informal friendship circles and more with a very formal, highly structured association — a dance party to mark the 100th meeting of Record Club.

Record Club is, at this point, something of an East Village institution, though it’s inspired similar groups in Chicago, LA, and DC. Since 1998, the club has met monthly, giving members and their guests the chance to listen to songs selected by each of the evening’s participants. At the end of the night you burn a compilation of everything played. Though Record Club creates a very genial environment, it’s sometimes accused of being a little stodgy, rule-bound, even anal: you sit still, reverently, listening to each song as it plays. You listen to each “DJ” explain why he or she brought each song. You don’t talk over the music, and you certainly don’t dance. Some of the songs, indeed, would be 100% undanceable, and much dance music would be monotonous, even excruciating, if divorced from its intended context and listened to in rapt silence. Stodgy or not, it’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve been part of since moving to New York.

I’ve attended Record Club since 2002, as a member since 2004. My friend Sacha first invited me. Sacha is anything but stodgy; she’s also an East Village institution and purveyor of collective joy in her own right. We met her through our daughter, Anna, who attended an afterschool group Sacha ran for several years. She’d pick up a gaggle of second graders from Anna’s school and take them to museums, parks, classic films, or just to her apartment, where she’d teach them to sew and knit and think critically while they watched reruns of I Love Lucy. In warmer weather she’d even take them to Coney Island and run with them in the waves. Having just moved to the city — right in time to witness 9/11 up close — we were comforted by Sacha’s association with Anna: here was someone who brought joy to living in what must have seemed to our kids like a frightening new place.

At some point along the way we actually became friends with Sacha, though, which gave us access to her worlds — to a great bar on First Avenue where she worked, to Record Club, and especially to her holiday party, which feels like a modern incarnation of a ritual carried on in New York neighborhoods for a century or more, hearkening back at least to rent parties in Harlem. Each December, Sach fills her railroad-style apartment with as many people as will fit. Every space is crowded, from the talkative kitchen in the back to the hallways full of people coming and going to the bathroom, to the living room with its swirling dance floor. Sacha’s tastes run toward classic country and hot jazz, music from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, songs ideal for skipping rope, sock hopping, and swingin’. When a particularly fever-pitched song ends, the crowd bursts into spontaneous applause. Near midnight, Sacha places a holiday pudding on the center of the floor — it’s a Welsh pudding, filled with raisins, made from her Granny’s recipe — and pours a stream of flaming booze over its top, her hip cocked. The crowd digs in. It’s good luck if you find money in your slice.

Sacha’s annual party and the Record Club she introduced me to seem to draw on and produce different energies: one festive and physical, the other silent and cerebral. But the continuity between them is what makes something like a Record Club Dance Party actually work. To celebrate the club’s 100th meeting, we rented out the back room of a bar on Avenue C. Each of the club’s current four core members (myself included) was responsible for listening to 25 of the 100 compilation CDs and culling from them the “danceable” songs. Out of my 25 discs, I came up with only two hours of music I thought people would be willing to dance to, but it was a surprisingly solid two hours, and I was only responsible to DJ for half that time, so I went into the evening feeling confident about my playlist.

About 50 or 60 people turned out total. The room was large enough to have accomodated more. Not everyone participated in the illegal dancing, but enough did to keep the floor relatively full the whole night through.

My favorite dancer, and one of the most exuberant, was also one of my guests — my daughter Anna. She’d been a visitor to Record Club at one of its annual “family” gatherings, where members bring their kids. (She’d been the first, and only, person to play Michael Jackson.) Anna likes to cut the rug, and so with the bar owner’s permission, she came for the party’s early hours.

She danced with Sacha:

sach and anna

With Linda (who provided these lovely photos):

linda and anna

Even with her moms and pops:

steph and anna

anna and bryan

Record Club members danced with TGW editors:

who's that bearded man on the left?

And TGW editors danced in a row:

lined up

As they say in the smalltown newspapers, a good time was had by all.

Much though not everything we danced to could be categorized loosely as rock and roll. According to Ehrenreich, the “rock rebellion” was foremost a “revolt of the audience,” an unwillingness to abide by genteel codes of audience behavior. Reserved seating, an expectation of silence, retrictions on food: these things may have made theatergoing more pleasant for some over the course of the nineteenth century, but they’ve also sapped such events of much of their vitality: “Utterly missing from the audience’s new role was any kind of muscular involvement beyond the occasional applause.” And yet the decrease in audience participation required serious amounts of physical restraint. Rock and roll put an end to that repression — for a couple decades, at least. Unfortunately, though, Ehrenreich’s descriptions could apply to most indie rock audiences in the 90s, when the indifferent slacker pose required concertgoers to stand solemnly with a beer, nod along perhaps, but certainly never show emotion in response to a performance.

Perhaps that’s why so little indie rock made it onto our final playlists for the Record Club dance party. One of my most thrilling songs of the night, in fact, was the least rock-oriented. Linda played it just before I left: a Neapolitan folk opera track recorded in the 70s (and recently plagiarized by OOIOO), which builds from a steady chant and beat into fullblown tribal madness. We howled when it finished.

But the song of the night — as it so often has been for me of late — was Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” with its reassurance that mom and dad are alright, even if they’re acting a little weird. My friend and fellow core club member Derick had played it back in December 2003, but I got to include it on my dance party playlist. Singing the chorus in unison, the folks on the dance floor were celebrating, in Ehrenreich’s words, “the miracle of our simultaneous existence.” In the words of Cheap Trick, though, we surrendered, surrendered, but refused to give ourselves away.

24 responses to “Collective joy: Record Club hits 100”

  1. Trixie Honeycups says:

    oh bryan,
    i am so thrilled to know that you were behind the turntable when “surrender” played. i will never hear that song again without thinking warmly of you.
    great post.

  2. Lilly says:

    You Know Bryan…I have been lurking for some time here at TGW (it’s even on my toolbar!). I just need to say a few things. I think you seem to be excruciatingly smart. I also notice you most often (if not always?) comment on other peoples writing in a supportive/positive manner. You are no snob. Basically, from this distance you do seem to live life well. You should be proud.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Lilly – Bryan Waterman is the greatest. I could say more, but that pretty much sums it up.

  4. Tim Wager says:

    Bryan and Stephanie, that’s one hip and funky daughter you’ve got! The hat, the skirt, the exuberant self-expression through dance – she’s got it goin’ on!

    Also, I love how this post (as many of yours do) deftly brings together an examination of your own life with the socio-cultural criticism of other authors, without being forced or simplistic. That you pull it off without lapsing into being self-centered or solipsistic is a delight and a marvel.

    P.S. Dave, your beard is lookin’ tight!

  5. Lisa Tremain says:

    #2: Lilly, Bryan is the “Pops” of the GW too, but nothing can beat his fine sheparding of two lovely, dancing daughters.

    On my first visit to NY a few years ago, I was spelunking around by myself and happened upon a little bar on Houston. The DJ was great. “Why isn’t anyone dancing?” I asked a guy at the bar. He told me about the no dancing law in NY. And I was like, WTF?

  6. Beth W. says:

    Great thought provoking writing! On the topic of community and dancing, I went to the Seattle Folklife Festival a few years ago at the Seattle Center. I had thought that it would be like the Oregon County Fair but it was more urban. No one dressed like a butterfly purely for a the joy of skipping about in the woods, sprinkling glitter, dancing in all of his or her butterfly glory. Hippies are free that way.

    Anyway, a friend and I were sitting at one stage near the drum circle listening to a string of various acts including a group of Rock-a-Billy bands. They had their Rock a bilily groupies, dressed appropriately, standing next to the stage. Just standing. No dancing for those fans. But the dirty hippies came by and did they ever dance. They danced with joy. And the rock a billy fans stood and made faces at the dirty hippie dancers. And the rock a billy bands made fun of the hippies and their smelly armpits and their drum circle.

    I was intrigued and saddened to watch this clashing of sub-cultures. I heard on the radio this weekend that people innately believe that their own sub-culture or way of living is the best. But really when we’re dancing, shouldn’t we all just get along?

  7. Ruben Mancillas says:

    did anybody get their Kiss records out?

  8. bryan says:

    wow. you guys sure are nice.

    i’m glad i dragged a couple lurkers out for comments. i love it when that happens. thanks for saying such nice things and, beth, for the bit about the hippies and rockabillies. you would think that the rockabilly groupies would have been interested in dancing, wouldn’t you? i do think that dancing should simply allow people to get along. a couple years back, though, when we went to the !!! dance party at mercury (where the whole theme was to get the indie kids on the dancefloor) some people were really indignant at losing their precious personal space to dancing. one chick even kicked me in the back.

    tim and lisa: thanks for noting that anna was really the star here. she does amaze me (as does her sister–and as does their ma). i was wondering if anyone would note how damn TALL she has become. i have this creeping suspicion she will outgrow me. i know i’ve already gushed, but i was trying to figure out how to link to this downtown express news story to showcase another of her many sides–the sporty one. so thanks for providing my excuse.

    ruben: literally, or metaphorically? you know, either way, that line has made me cry more than once. that’s how i realized i had switched perspectives listening to the song. i’m no longer the narrator/kid. i’m one of the weird parents, rocking and rolling on the couch.

  9. Stephanie Wells says:

    Collective joy indeed: Bryan has spread the love to the west coast by starting a chapter here, launching us into that joy in our first meeting and then letting us jump out of the nest on our own. We are so filled with joy at every meeting that after only five or six, we’ve already planned Record Club Sleepaway Camp in April. Record Club: Everyone should have one, and we thank you Bryan for ours!!

  10. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Not only that but one of our guests, Sara Lov, had to start her own record club after the fun and excitement of attending ours–which, of course, was all thanks to Bryan getting us started in the first place… A lovely post, by the way, bw.

  11. Joele says:

    I am so glad to know that you are still dancing Bryan. Back in the day you were by far the best and it is so nice to see your beautiful daughter following in your footsteps. Thanks for letting me lurk here and know that my old bud is doing great.

  12. Hooray. I’ve even dragged out a lurker I know from a past life. Joele, it’s nice of you to remind me how much dancing meant back in the post-punk, pre-indie ’80s, especially for those of us cooped up in small towns. What a nice stress reliever dancing could be, especially when you could bribe a DJ into playing something decent. I just saw Saturday Night Fever in the end (which ends with an amazing riff on friendship, actually) and was struck by how much the portrait of Bay Ridge reminds me of life in a small town, even though it’s technically part of NYC. I’m glad to know some old friends are hanging around this place. best–bw

  13. PB says:

    She is TALL, and sparky, and lovely, a true mix of mom and dad.

    I really enjoyed this post Bryan, I think so much about this dancing/ joy phenom in my work culture. We will be opening a store, working a million housrs with all the accompanying perfectionism and drama, everyone will be flat-out tired, grumpy ordinary strangers and then suddenly, the vodka comes out, the music starts and we dance like lovers and zealots. Like the last 10 days never happened or led to this moment or both. Old people, young, gay, straight, all backgrounds, polyester blah and trendy funk, all together, all grinding like the worst part of the second Matrix movie. I see it happen time after time, region after region. Very strange, very cool and a core part of why some of us stay so long.

    As for the post and your greatness–yeah, pretty much what they said, ditto here, long time fan. xox

  14. Linda says:

    Bryan, I really enjoyed your post. The Record Club 100 Dance Party started out as one of the worst days of the year for me but ended up one of the best and I think that is mostly due to what you refer to as “collective joy”. About an hour before the party my brother called and we got into a terrible fight — the kind that makes you scream and cry and want to change your name and move to another planet. I dragged myself to the party because I felt obligated as a co-host.

    I initially started dancing because Anna looked like she was having so much fun. But before I knew it I had been dancing for hours, through Derick’s DJ mix, then Sacha’s, then yours and finally my own. The disco dancing, the rock and rolling, the tribal whomping completely changed my outlook on life. By the end of the night I could only think about what an amazing life I have here in New York. This collection of friends had come together to celebrate Record Club and all the amazing music that has been played over the years and all the interesting people who have brought the music to play. It was a truly joyful experience. As I put my fractured hip and my broken feet into a cab I could only think that dancing is good for the soul.

  15. wow linda. i had no idea you’d had a bad day — you were in such a great mood! your enthusiasm for the event is what made me want to make it work in the first place. and thanks again for including the folk opera! i probably wouldn’t even have thought to include it! but it’s one of the things — along with amazing friends — that really made the night for me.

  16. Marleyfan says:

    Bryan Waterman (and his girls) Rocks! You’ve certainly done it again. You always amaze me with your ability to tie-in seemingly eclectic subjects within the same article, and pull it off so smoothly. Well done.
    P.S.- I think we’re all secretly jealous of your Record Club…

  17. WW says:

    Such a great post. I, too, marveled at Anna, and wish I could’ve seen her make that shot in the b-ball game. To someone standing tall in Iowa, they would’ve heard “Surrender” loud in stereo, coming from both coasts; this weekend my west coast fun club got together to play Guitar Hero. Do you know this video game? It’s basically air guitar karaoke. Post pizza, post catching up, rain drizzling outside, we each took our turn becoming rock-god avatars. “Surrender” was by far the most popular and best played song the whole nite, such that we abandoned the video screen and sang along. These good folk are my closest pals in LA, people I have known for 12 1/2 (!) years, since I got off the bus and planted two feet in this silly town. We shook our heads and feet in synch and sometimes out of synch to the music – it really didn’t matter as we have given ourselves over to each other in creating this family.

    The next am, this great article by Mark Oppenheimer appeared, and true to what you and Ehrenreich say, once dancing started on this conservative Christian campus, it could not be stopped. Like NYC, this college had banned all dance. But soon, an avid swing-ologist taught a few classes off-campus and the need to dance ripped through campus like a tornado and finally, there was no cover. The school board surrendered to the collective joy the students demanded. Perhaps in NYC the jaywalking ferrets will also unite and get the city a-rump-shakin’.

    How can we not dance?

  18. Tim Wager says:

    Hey, somebody should make a movie outta that John Brown U. story. Get Scott Rudin on the phone! He’s bound to want to recover somehow from last week’s loss.

    Wait, they already *did* make that movie. Re-make, anyone?

    Honestly, though, you can’t dance at all in NYC? What about cotillion? What about weddings?

    I love WW’s last line here, akin as it is to “How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?” or “Are we not men?”

  19. Stephanie Wells says:

    Or Yeats: How can we tell the dancer from the dance?

  20. Lisa Tremain says:

    Or: We are Devo.

  21. sj says:

    Bryan, it took me ’til now to read and respond!! what a beautiful piece, i even got a little teared up there xx
    you and your family, and our extended family that is record club are just pure LOVE!!
    x
    kisses and hugs
    sacha
    ps just also read and enjoyed your bit on the bath house – we gotta go there togehter some day and have cold brews on the deck xx

  22. Scott Godfrey says:

    Bryan, I just realized that I never commented on this post. Thank you for spreading the record club love out here. We’re still going strong and gearing up for our sixth meeting.

    For me, the club has really meant a re-awakening of interest in finding and listening to new music. Thanks.

  23. Michelle says:

    Umm excuse me but I have somewhat of an ownership here. My grammar may suck, my spelling may not be up to par but when Bryan talks and refers to friendship…….HELLO…..he’s talking of me…… music, love ,children, it all….belongs to pizza, coke and the lost boys. Okay so we like ;Some where in Time and Echo and the Bunny men but we shared a sapce in our youth. I love you Bryan……my Darth Vadar……my: I stole the stop sign in front of the police station friend. I’m old…but I’d still clepto with you any day!

  24. bryan says:

    I love how this post about recent friendships (the second half of my life) has dragged out responses from early friends (the first half). Don’t worry, Michelle, I’m so old that I don’t recall all your references. Pizza, coke, The Lost Boys, and Echo and the Bunnymen I get, of course, as well as the “clepto” habit — but Darth Vader? That’s one’s lost on me. Should I be asking for clarification in public?

    Nice to hear from you.