Dim All the Lights: A Tribute to Donna Summer

Written by

D. A. Powell
Contributor Page

Year

2012

The cabaret decadence of the discotheques revolved around the fracturing of light into granular coruscations across glamorously attired and mesmerizingly unattired bodies. In the disintegrating luster, everyone sparkled for a moment. And the longer the music played, the longer that moment of lambency lasted—the allure of a body accentuated by pulses reiterating the heart's rhythms, the push and pull of breath and blood filling the hollow places inside us. More percussion per inch and more bounce to the ounce, the multi-track sculptures of disco sound wound through the cochlea and down into one's central nervous system, coaxing an echo of limbs and hips to pump and hump casually among a sea of palpitating others. Ritual dance, primal and transitory, a place to perform one's own masque inside a social construct that didn't care for backstory. Disco was here-and-now: a night of carnival release from work, drudgery and abjection. A fantasia where one did not, hallelujah, have to explain.

This place so fractured and wanton where desire landed its gaze on everyone—and falteringly—suited my nomadic upbringing and its wanderlust. I had already gained a lot of sexual experience, though most of it the violent kind various heterosexual men—should that be in quotes?—force upon more vulnerable men in order to dominate them. And it's not like that turned me gay. I would have gotten there anyways on my own. But it forced the flower to open early. Sex was not tied to romance for me; it was more of a favor, like looking the other way when someone steals a grape at the supermarket. I was not remarkably handsome, but I was young, and for many that's a perfectly good substitute. Oh, I could be such a boy for the right occasion, especially if money was being spent on me. And at 17, I looked 14. At 15, I looked 12 and that's about how far we're going back in time to my shift from being had by the Hardy Boys to being had by Take a Number. The gay discotheque was the safe place to be, compared to cruising areas, and it had the music that lifted me into my pleasure body and said swift carnal things in my ear; it offered me a prolonged relationship with a bevy of try-out suitors. The dance was like a trailer for a movie one might never get to see. Me, I often went right to the box office.

It's not like I didn't lie in the dark and imagine a better life. I did. But there were so few dreams that panned out for shiftless young boys from rural towns. I knew men and women who were beaten out of school and out of town. A man who was stabbed to death. People being chased down like animals. It seemed just enough to survive. After that, Reagan and AIDS came. I have no metaphors for what that was like. I got where I got eventually. But, backing up to that stuck runt I was then: the threshold of the bar led to a reasonably safe haven. I learned to cross that threshold. "Love will always find you," sang Donna Summer.

Sleep with the bouncer is a good trick, though it can have repercussions. One should wish to save that for special circumstances. Fake handstamp at the right place usually worked. And easily I glided from one dancefloor to the next. With all the drama that entailed. Some other time on that account. I switched quickly between, "Till the stars fall from my eyes there will always be a you" to "Love is faster than lightning, so grab it while you can." Flicker across your face, that one flash of smile all that's left.

The first part of the evening led to "Last Dance." That was not the last dance, but it was the symbolic emptying from one social setting to the next. If I wasn't already spent to someone along the way, the after party offered the slow side of the album. The lighting changed. Did you know Donna Summer recorded "Love to Love You Baby" in an unlit studio, lying on the floor? I write a lot of those same evenings back into poems. It's hard for me to say anything in prose, because it seems so final.

I rarely got more pleasure out of a lyric as I did with "MacArthur Park." It contains some of the worst metaphors known to civilization. But the full mix of the "MacArthur Park Suite" ran for 17 minutes, 44 seconds. A lot can happen in that time on a dancefloor. The lyrics were inconsequential. What mattered was the sincerity of the performance. Everybody knew Donna Summer wasn't singing about some damned cake. Nor a park that looked like a cake. It was a song about lasting 17 minutes and 44 seconds. Holding someone's attention for the dancefloor equivalent of an eternity. Now I mock nothing about that song. It was as real and permanent as any flesh.