The Grammy-winning guitarist, record producer and co-founder of Chic spent much of the ‘70s absorbing the sounds of New York City night clubs before making disco hits of his own like “Le Freak” and “Good Times.” Now, Rodgers reflects on the importance of dance clubs as a safe haven for all in the wake of the Orlando, Fla., mass shooting, which left 49 victims dead at the gay nightclub Pulse early Sunday morning.
I remember the first time I lost myself in a club as if it were yesterday. I was with my girlfriend at the time, and we were mainly into jazz—she worked at a popular jazz club in New York City, I was a jazz guitar player. I don’t actually know the name of the club, but I know that the DJ was spinning Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” and the music didn’t stop. In all my life, I had never heard that. A composition always came to an end. A song on the jukebox stops. But the DJ had the ability to segue from one song to the next, and it was a continuous sound of music. It was the most amazing thing ever.
My second realization: even though this club was in our community, these were people from outside of our community who traveled here to party. That meant that this was either a cool spot or a safe haven for them. I didn’t quite analyze it so thoroughly because we were just having so much fun learning the dances that they were doing—they were doing the Hustle. When my girlfriend and I stumbled into that first club, we would have been the outsiders. We were the jazzers who wouldn’t have fit in normally, but we fit in right away. There was not even an ounce of resistance. This was one of the most important characteristics of the disco movement. It was so inclusive. You never felt uncomfortable. No matter the label, whether it was a gay disco or a hardcore Italian disco with tough guys, you’d still be welcome.
People were drawn to clubs because they were real. That’s why so many dance records have the word release in them. We live our lives on edge. We’re always aware of our surroundings. We’re always aware of the dos and the don’ts that society puts on us. Now, when you go into a club, there may be some dos and don’ts, but they are pretty damn fluid! At the time I started clubbing, you could buy drinks at age 18 because the Vietnam War and the draft was still happening. You could imagine that clubs were pretty loose. You could relax. You could release. You could forget about your surroundings. You could forget about the statement society forces you to make in your personal life, and you could make a new one. You could come up with your own definition and find your own sense of style. There were certain stereotypes in the gay community and the disco community that could normally make you feel handcuffed or restricted, but here it felt free. It gave me a new palette to write with.
I was working on a song last night that was sympathetic to the incident that just happened in Orlando. When I was younger—I grew up during the Vietnam War—we had this concept of places that were safe. If you were a black person, there were certain neighborhoods you didn’t go to. If you were a hippie, there were neighborhoods you didn’t go to otherwise bikers would beat you up. It was called liberated territories. That’s what I started writing about: the concept of liberated territory.
I had been thinking of Christina Grimmie, the woman from The Voice who had been shot. I heard she was giving love to fans and welcoming people with open arms. Then a few hours later I heard about the incredible tragedy at Pulse—and it was in the same city. Clubs were liberated territories, too. There’s nothing in life that you do that’s celebratory that doesn’t include music. We always had those places that were special. I used to live in subways. My cousin used to live in subway tunnels. For some people, it feels safer to live on the streets, so you find your liberated territory. You find a space that feels like your space. Sometimes you walk into a club, and it’s just your spot. You can tell right away. It feels better and better, and you come back the next weekend and the next. There are places that just feel like home to you.