Posted by: brad – Sep 03, 2013
Who is Cool "Disco" Dan? There are few questions with so many answers - he was a man, he was a movement, he was an icon, he was a beacon of hope in a town racked with some of the worst social problems imaginable - and now he's the subject of a full length documentary produced by former DC local Roger Gastman. Gastman is the former publisher of Swindle mag, a high-profile arts mag that put graffiti in the forefront of minds across america.
But why should anyone be interested in the story of a man who, by many definitions, is no more than a legally insane street vandal? "[Cool "Disco" Dan] was this great capsule of DC in the 80's" said Gastman in a phone interview. "I wanted to learn about [him]." Depicting Dan, and specifically his notorious tag, as an icon at the center of DC's cultural history is exactly what The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan does. This small insane piece of DC culture helps write the city's story, from the civil rights movement of the 60s to the crack epidemic of the 80s, the artistic and musical explosions of the 90s, all the way up to today.
To tell the story of Dan, as Gastman and Director Joseph Pattisall have done, it's necessary to look back at the way DC's modern culture was formed by the turbulence of the 60s, and how the "Chocolate City" became the murder capital of the US in less than 20 years. The documentary traces Dan's early childhood, a story similar to what many kids of his socio-economic status lived through, with a troubled home life magnified by early signs of mental illness. But despite his struggles, Dan found a niche early on, going to "Go-Go" parties--basement shows with live music that helped defined the era.
Go-go plays a huge role in The Legend... Much like Dan's signature, the funky but challenging style, which rarely followed a verse-chorus-verse pattern, never really made it outside the beltway. However, its massive impact on the black DC club culture of the 70s and 80s could not be ignored. Some of the best parts of the film show old footage of these underground parties. People would pass their names scribbled on pieces of paper to the band's frontman, and in a cat-call fashion, names would be hurled out, uplifting the individual or crew that passed the paper. This vocal tag was spread even wider, as the only way people could hear go-go music was through bootleg tapes. In addition to footage of live go-go bands on stage, a number of massive 80's jam-boxes are shown dotting the crowd, recording the shows and helping to expand this incredible subversive culture.
The documentary's examination of go-go music as an outlet for black youth is one of its most memorable segments. It also demonstrates the process by which the music, perhaps inevitably, became part of the fabric of social problems the city faced. By the time Dan came of age, violence and drug abuse were both common at these basement parties, and the entire city struggled under the cold fist of a growing crack epidemic in the shadow of the Capitol.
So how did two white boys from the suburbs end up making a movie about some of the best and worst parts of the District's cultural history? "Race is a factor in everything. Even if there isn't racism, race is still a factor," said director Pattisall. His and Gastman's investment in the story of Cool "Disco" Dan, and their understanding of underground art, helped them acclimate to Dan's old neighborhoods, where they would wander looking for people to speak with about the legendary artist. "In my research I've gone to neighborhoods I shouldn't be in," Gastman said. The mystery behind behind Cool "Disco" Dan also contributed to the ease of coverage for the topic. "People are usually cool and they talk to you... [unless] they think you're cops." When Gastman and Pattisall were able to overcome the understandable trepidations of people who had often been subjugated by white men like themselves, they were able to share their stories, and in so doing, construct a more complete picture of the background and history of Cool "Disco" Dan.
Dan may not seem all that similar to the graffiti artists we think of today--while his art did later evolve into more intricate work, featuring cartoon-like characters and more artistic designs, his simple signature scribbled on a wall is what created his initial fame and has stood the test of time. It was the frequency and consistency of his work that set him apart from other taggers in the District. "The signature itself was art, before the characters," said Gastman. "Even if people didn't know about the characters, it's a known logo, it's a known piece of art in itself. It's a celebrity signature."
The Legend of Cool "Disco" Dan has been shown around the country a few times in the past year. In spite of the story's focus on DC, LA, Boston, and other cities have called for viewings of the doc, leading to a surprisingly warm reception once Gastman and Pattisall took the film on the road. "[The] first time a non-DC auidence had seen it [was] when [it was] shown in LA," Pattisal said. "My hope was it would be interesting to people outside of DC because it's something no one [in other cities] has ever heard about before--go-go music, Cool "Disco" Dan... When people think about stories from DC, people only think about: Capitol Hill and the President, and what happens there. But it translated well."
Now Gastman and Pattisall, in association with Steady Sounds, brings The Legend Of Cool "Disco" Dan to RVA with a free showing for one night only, this Thursday, September 5, at The Byrd Theatre (2908 W. Cary St, in Carytown). Doors open at 7:30, film begins at 8:30. For more info, click here, and check out the trailer below:
By Brad Kutner