Thursday, August 11, 2005

At the end of reading The Fabulous Sylvester, I cried. While riding the bus to work, no less - that's the kind of emotion Joshua Gamson's bio of the disco star and San Francisco legend is imbued with. The portrait Gamson paints of Sylvester is a complete one, warts-and-all but also behind the scenes, behind the drag, behind the stagelights, to tell you who Sylvester was as a person. His death of AIDS in 1988 was a tragedy not just for its fact, but because Sylvester never really got the credit he deserved (and still hasn't) as an out-and-proud gay man performing in the '70s and '80s. he did more than blaze the trail for people like Elton John; Sylvester's sweat is one of its components. Gamson's biography, written with the cooperation of many of Sylvester's family and friends, is a marvel, and a must-read not just for those interested in the man who brought "Mighty Real" to life, but for all of those interested in the story of disco - and the story of gay life in the '70s.

For a more thorough look at disco from beginning to its (never) end, there's Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, by Peter Shapiro. Alongside Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop, this is one of the music-book events of the year. Shapiro, a writer for The Wire (his byline's also appeared in the likes of Spin and Vibe), digs deep to find the sociocultural roots of disco as well as its musical antecedents. The research and theory here are astounding, but the book's also entertaining on a surface level. This book belongs with Chang's, and Simon Reynolds' landmark Energy Flash (a/k/a Generation Ecstasy in the U.S.), on the bookshelves of rhythm lovers everywhere.

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