In the famously strange outer reaches of Coney Island in New York, where carnival rides have thrived for more than a century and an elephant was once electrocuted for the sake of a “show,” a dark dwelling for bumper cars plays home to a soundsystem that is out of this world.
It was designed and installed in the 1980s by Richard Long, the storied creator of systems for the Paradise Garage and Studio 54, and it has remained active in much the same way since. Under normal circumstances, it soundtracks drive-time for the ride with way more power and finesse than would seem necessary.
This weekend, however, it will crank up and stay humming in celebration of one of the most important and magnanimous of disco’s pioneers.
For his 60th birthday on Saturday, Nicky Siano – a friend and fan of Long’s from back in the day – picked the unlikely spot on Coney Island’s main strip for a party to harken back to legendary nights at the Gallery, the formative disco club that Siano started in 1972. It was there that he first worked with Long, after first hearing his name from David Mancuso of the Loft, on a minor job replacing a couple of speakers. After that, Siano started playing parties at Long’s own loft, which the aspiring soundman had turned into a sort of functioning show room for his loud and sumptuous wares.
“He gave the crowd what it wanted. He put your balls up your ass,” a supporter recalled in Tim Lawrence’s book Loves Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Siano remembers it a little more sensuously. While out recently at a club, he reminisced, “My friend who worked for Richard for a long time said, ‘You know, I feel like this soundsystem is punching me, and Richard’s soundsystem used to make love to me.’ That is the essence of what a good soundsystem can do.”
My friend said, “You know, I feel like this soundsystem is punching me, and Richard’s soundsystem used to make love to me.”
While going over preparations in Coney Island last week, the floor at Eldorado Auto Skooter was clear except for bumper cars parked along the edges and a few wide-eyed admirers musing over the finer points of bass cabinets and tweeter arrays. Siano was there with Dan Prosseda, who works on sound for Eldorado and other rides in the neighborhood. “The Polar Express has a dynamite system,” Siano said of another of Prosseda’s responsibilities. “Larry and I used to ride that and go crazy over the sound.”
The “Larry” there is Larry Levan, with whom Siano used to frequent the Eldorado for shared riding and listening pleasures too. “Larry loved rollercoasters, so he would always bring his friends down here,” Siano said. “We used to come [to the Eldorado], and they would play ‘Love Is the Message’ all the time. The sonics on it were really good for showing off a soundsystem. A lot of people used to come just to hear.”
Having already made his name in the disco scene with his soundsystems for Paradise Garage and Studio 54, Long installed the system at Eldorado at the invitation of its owner, Scott Fitlin, a hobbyist whose interest in sound went well above the level that might be expected for a carnival ride. “He had almost a golden ear,” Prosseda said. Did he ever throw parties back then? “No, strictly bumper cars.”
Richard looked like a super-geek back then: tall, Buddy Holly glasses, introverted, quiet – taking it all in and, then, responding. He was a genius.
Long rose up on the New York soundsystem scene as a competitor of Alex Rosner, who Siano worked with at first in the Gallery era in the ’70s. “Richard looked like a super-geek back then: tall, Buddy Holly glasses, introverted, quiet – taking it all in and, then, responding,” Siano said. “He was a genius.” It was Long who would ultimately be the best in the business, in Siano’s estimation. “Alex’s sound was very polished, like going to the theater. Richard’s sound was funky and down-home, and bass was always a big component.”
His stock rose when he caught the attention of Levan, whose aspirations for the sound at Paradise Garage were more than met by the components that Long conceived and built for the room. “When Larry became so famous, Richard would walk into the booth and it would be like the waters would part for him,” Siano said. “People noticed that.”
In a few years, Long and his cohorts in Richard Long & Associates would outfit some of the city’s most fabled clubs, including Studio 54 – whose system Siano said he liked slightly more because the acoustics of a former theater were better than those of a disused garage.
In any case, Long was the top sound designer until his death in 1986. “Richard outshone Rosner, especially in the club scene,” Siano said. “Alex did St. Patrick’s Cathedral and big concert stuff in Central Park – he had all those accounts, whereas Richard just had the clubs, so he really concentrated on building something that was club-fabulous.”
Carnival-fabulous too, as evidenced by the soundsystem still working beyond its call of duty at Eldorado Auto Skooter. Anybody who wanders around Coney Island on a summer day has the experience of walking by that place, hearing music through the gate, and thinking “Hmm, wow, weird – the sound in there is huge!” But precious few know the history.