Dancer-Turned-Producer Chris Njirich on the Highs and Lows of San Francisco Disco

From the DJ History archives: The BearEssense group member shares his memories of Trocadero Transfer, Patrick Cowley and the AIDS epidemic

Chris Njirich first went dancing in the gay clubs and bars of San Francisco in the late 1960s, a time when it was still illegal for two men to dance together in public. Over the course of the next two decades, he watched the dizzying highs and painful lows of San Francisco’s disco scene at close quarters.

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Njirich was a regular dancer at many of San Francisco’s legendary disco-era venues, including the Trocadero Transfer, the EndUp, Circus and Dreamland. He became friends with many of the scene’s leading DJs of the time, including Bobby Viteritti, Michael Lewis and Robbie Leslie. As AIDS began to hit the city, he also started a friendship with Patrick Cowley, who was suffering from the effects of the disease.

DJ History

In early 1982, Njirich took to the studio as part of the White Light Productions team, and he was a member of the group BearEssense, whose San Francisco club hit “The Big Hurt” was created while the AIDS-ravaged disco scene was at its lowest point. In recent years, Njirich has also assisted in the hunt to track down lost Patrick Cowley recordings for release on Dark Entries Records.

Russ Fischella

In 2005, Njirich spoke to DJ History’s Bill Brewster to share his memories of inspiring clubs, unique DJs and the disco records that made San Francisco move.

What’s your background?

I grew up in California in Columbia, in a town near Yosemite. I’m from up in the hills in California. It’s about three hours away from San Francisco nowadays. I moved here by myself when I was 21. I was like many of the people who moved here during the early ’70s, looking to find their life.

Were you influenced by the hippie stuff happening there or the gay scene?

It was more to do with the gay scene.

Was there much interaction between the two?

Oh yes, if it wasn’t for the hippies I don’t think the gay scene would have ever… Actually, that’s not true. The gay scene had taken off in the 1940s from the military bases here. The navy shipyards used to be here, so there used to be a lot of underground – if you wanna call it that – gay bars which were much more dark and hidden away, that people in the military could go to and not get caught. But it was still pretty underground and people had to dress up to get in and it’s not at all like it would be today. So the gay scene was here but the hippies brought it out to the forefront.

Were you involved in the club scene from pretty early on?

Actually, yes. I can’t say that I worked in it, but the first thing I practically went to here other than a bar was what we would’ve called a discotheque back then. In those days we were dancing to things like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and it was really cool.

Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine

There was a place called the Rendezvous. It was upstairs and it was the first one I’d ever been to. It was remarkable, I’ll never forget it. There was a particular dance that everybody did. For the lack of a better word, it was almost like a cha-cha-cha. So one person would follow the other person and they’d go back and forth. It was really cool.

Where was that?

It was on Sutter Street, I think. But then they had a real discotheque that played all kinds of sounds, too, called the Big Basket, which was on Polk and O’Farrell at that point. Now it’s the Mitchell Brothers XXX theatre. Later on, the Big Basket moved down to the North Beach area. But the City Disco really started the gay disco club scene here. Then there was Oil Can Harry’s, Busby’s and In Touch and the EndUp, which is still going.

Which were the key ones and when did they open?

I started coming here in ’68, but didn’t move [to San Francisco] ’til later. We went to the Big Basket and Rendezvous in 1968 and City Disco started in ’73 or ’74, the EndUp was here in ’73 or ’74 and that was a big Sunday place to go to. In fact, that was in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. They had a wet jockey shorts contest and go-go boys. Can you imagine?

I don’t know how they got away with it, but two men could dance together. To actually be able to dance with a man on the floor was something new and exciting.

This was pre-Castro Street, by the way. Polk Street was the Castro Street of the day. All the gay bars were on Polk and we used to have the Halloween parade on Polk. Castro took over from ’74 onwards. Being from the hills, so to speak, I had a different outlook. So while I enjoyed the new freedoms we had here, I still had my roots in a smaller community, so I was never as outrageous as a lot of people around me, but I appreciated that they were.

Do you remember what sort of music they would have been playing around the ’73-’74 time?

The EndUp for sure was the big disco at that time. I remember in ’75 that Disco-Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes was the big thing. It was Monti Rock III who used to appear on The Johnny Carson Show all the time. Do you know them?

Disco-Tex & His Sex-O-Lettes – Jam Band

Yeah, they were huge in the UK.

But it wasn’t just “Get Dancin’,” the whole album was done like a continuous show. Then you had things like “Honey Bee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” by Gloria Gaynor and a really big one was “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr. Buzzard. The Village People, because it was so pop, was never played in the clubs. I don’t remember hearing “YMCA” in the clubs.

Do you remember the early DJs who played?

Not really. I remember Oil Can Harry’s was one of the big discos and that was on Polk and O’Farrell also. The DJs didn’t have big names then.

Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savanah Band – Cherchez La Femme

When did the Trocadero Transfer open?

It was Friday and Saturday, 17th and 18th March 1977. The poster said, “For the totally new disco experience and ultimate light, sound and space. Spectacular discotheque party with special guests Bountiful Buffets and continental breakfast.”

I still have my membership card. I carry it with me all the time. I didn’t go there until 1980, but I had a heard about it because it was a big deal. I was not as much into disco at that time and moved to LA from Halloween ’78 until Halloween ’79. So at that time, I used to go to the Circus disco and Oil Can Harry’s and Studio One.

Was Studio One a big club?

Yeah, you had to either go upstairs or take an elevator up to the second floor. It had a big dancefloor and incredible bathrooms. The place where you washed your hands had an enormous round fish tank in the centre of it and it was like a big round trough with water that ran. People never knew whether to urinate in it or what!

Circus was a really big disco. It had two rooms and it easily held 1,200 or 1,500 people. When I came to San Francisco I lived in the Russian River for a little while. So we started going to the Trocadero Transfer and that’s when I found out what DJs were all about.

Bobby Viteritti was the man. He was taking all this music and remixing it and doing these incredible things. Not only did you go to this incredible club with incredible lights, where everything was tuned perfectly, but you also had a man up there who was remixing music live so that maybe you’d heard it ten times, but then Bobby remixed it and it was all new and wonderful and even more exciting than ever.

Tell me about your first time at “The Troc.”

You had to be recommended by two people who would write for you so you could gain entrance as a guest one or two times and take a look at it. But you always had to have someone sign for you. It was like belonging to the place. New York was satin and polyester and this was Levi’s and leather. They were there to party and not to be dressed up. There was sexual energy there but it was mainly people who wanted to dance there all night long… on acid!

My first time there I was pretty amazed by it. I had a friend who had introduced me to it. He had also introduced me to Grace Jones, so he was a pretty cool person. He showed me what it was when a DJ “worked” a song, like when Bobby was remixing a song and bringing up the parts that you never really paid attention to before. How the crowd would cheer!

We were a little bit innocent, a lot naughty and always looking for the next piece of meat, but having a good time dancing.

He pointed out the different types of music, how it would start with a slow BPM and go up and then down to morning music after four o’clock. They’d go to slower stuff, more spacey music, sometimes reggae and then they would close about nine or ten. I had never paid attention to how the BPMs would change and that there was a schedule to this. I’d never noticed this because the clubs I’d been going to in LA had only been open until two o’clock.

Describe Bobby’s personality and style.

In the beginning in the Trocadero, you weren’t even allowed to go in the booth. It was locked and there was a gate at the bottom of the stairwell. A few people could go but you really had to be somebody. I’m not saying he was a snob, but he had a job to do.

Also, the lighting was a big part of it. They were tuned exactly to the music and the sound. So he and the light man worked in tandem and it was all put together. It was artistry. He’d be a little bit standoffish. You know if Joan Crawford turned up somewhere people would be all over her and it was the same with him, so he was a little reserved like that. Have you seen the movie Wrecked For Life: The Trip and the Magic of Trocadero Transfer?

Yeah, the guy that did it sent it to me.

I’m in that! I’m Chris in that. I have a dark maroon shirt on. If you ever wanna know about Trocadero, that explains it perfectly. In the United States, in the ’60s when I was first going out, it was illegal for two men to dance together. In the very beginning in gay bars in San Francisco a woman would have to dance between two men or they could be arrested, so the lesbians came in very handy so they could dance between two men.

Later on, I don’t know how they got away with it, but two men could dance together. Then they repealed the law. I should’ve said that in the beginning, because in the late ’60s and early ’70s to actually be able to dance with a man on the floor was something new and exciting… so we were tempting fate! The music and dancing was an outlet for us to be allowed to be together. It was cool.

What do you think the clubs and the music meant to the gay community? Were they more than just clubs?

Oh, they were definitely more than just clubs. They were a way for men to get together. It was sensual. It was party-oriented. To see a man up in a go-go cage instead of a woman, oh my gosh – I’m glad to be here right now! If you’ve ever watched Tales of the City it was just like that. We were a little bit innocent, a lot naughty and always looking for the next piece of meat, but having a good time dancing.

What was the social class of people at the Troc? Was it like the Saint in New York and quite middle-class?

Exactly. It was like the Saint on the West Coast. The only difference was in the music. We were more electronic. Robbie Leslie said, “Can you believe what they’re playing at Trocadero? They’re playing Nina Hagen’s ‘New York New York’ – we would never be able to play that at the Saint.”

Nina Hagen – New York New York

We played a lot of la-la disco and a lot of electronic disco like Giorgio Moroder, but we really had a tendency to go into the more modern stuff, too, whereas New York would play more of the Philadelphia sound.

When I interviewed Robbie Leslie he said San Francisco was electronic and New York was more soul, especially with the morning stuff.

Yes, that’s right. Sometimes what we’d do is get up around three and turn up freshly showered looking fresh while everyone else was looking sweaty, and dance to the morning music. It was a really cool thing to do.

Do you remember any of the morning music classics?

Oh yeah, I’d have to say one of Bobby’s signature songs and the Trocadero’s signature tune was Ray Martinez’s “Lady Of The Night.” When Bobby played that, it was him telling the boys, “Morning music has started.”

Ray Martinez and Friends – Lady of the Night

By the way, another big song was “Follow Me” by Amanda Lear. Bobby Viteritti remixed it and he made that song. It became Trocadero’s theme song. “Searching” by Change was another and “This Time Baby” by Jackie Moore.

I heard a Bobby Viteritti tape with stuff like Herb Alpert on it.

Yeah, he played “Rise” and “Rotation.” He also championed another tune called “R.E.R.B.” by Shock [Rusty Egan’s group with Tik and Tok]. One of the other things that Bobby did, and other DJs, was to take songs and play them at 45 [RPM] for Hi-NRG and then play them at 33 [RPM] for morning music.

Shock – R.E.R.B


You know “Magnifique” by Magnifique?

Yeah, Bobby remixed it, didn’t he?

Yes. If you turn it over to the instrumental on the single version you can play it at 33 plus eight and it’s incredible morning music. I don’t know if you know “The Big Hurt” by BearEssense. The vocal is really awful, but the instrumental at 33 plus eight is great. And I’m not saying this to plug it, but we produced it! The dub is incredible, very spacey and wonderful.

BearEssense – The Big Hurt (Instrumental at 33 RPM plus eight)

You said stuff like reggae got played. Any examples?

Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Bottle” was one example. In 1980 they played “Pass The Dutchie” and of course Grace Jones. Everything she did got played, as she had a lot of beautiful morning music and she was the patron saint of Trocadero. She came and danced there often. Sandra Bernhard used to come dancing there, too!

What was so special about Bobby Viteritti?

He was able to take a song and remix sections of it that were high points. He’d pick out this little sound in the song and make a big issue of it, re-edit it over and over and really work it. It made the audience go crazy.

For instance, Viola Wills’ “If You Could Read My Mind” was a really big song at Troc. When he played that the crowd would just go insane, and that’s because Bobby would work it and play it over and over again. I noticed he had a method. He would play a lot of big songs, but maybe only three minutes of it. He’d play three of those in a row, and then he would play a long version of something he’d re-edited the heck out of. He would play in sets, meaning he would pick out one sound or one word and play it through the set, echoing it through the set.

Tell me about the I-Beam club.

First time I went there was also 1980. We went on maybe Friday, instead of Trocadero, or maybe before you went to Trocadero, because it was only open until two. It was a little smaller than the Troc, but very intense and packed. It was very hot. The music tended to be less underground and a little more pop. The DJs still played a lot of the earlier black disco. The DJs there, Michael Garrett and Robbie Kimball, were incredible.

Dreamland was white, Trocadero was black. Dreamland was pretty boys in white tank tops and shorts: the muscle A-crowd.

My favourite thing about the I-Beam was when they opened up for the evening and instead of having the lighting on above they’d only have it on the floor. The beams would go out along the floor. There was a black guy who came who had a peg leg. He was the first guy dancing every night. He was really cool and a great dancer. It was very Hi-NRG. The light show wasn’t as dramatic. There were no mirror balls, but it did have some fun lighting. It was a nice crowd. The Troc, I don’t mean to sell it as only a drug club, but it was a big drug club, where the I-Beam was more drinking.

That was probably more to do with the respective opening hours.

Yeah. Something people would do, though I didn’t do it there, was speed.

What were the main drugs at the Troc?

MDA, which we said stood for “Mustn’t Do It Again” or “Mary, Don’t Ask.” Acid, mushrooms and pot [were also popular]. Then they got into doing a lot of crystal and that’s when things didn’t get as pretty. I was really surprised to find people were sticking needles in their arms. I didn’t know about that.

The I-Beam wasn’t that way, but nonetheless the energy was there and Michael Garrett was great. First thing I heard him play in 1980 was “Super Freak” by Rick James. It was so pop and yet it sounded really good in there. I’d never heard it sound as good. He also played “Walk The Night” by the Skatt Bros. and the crowd went insane. You know how it has this huge slap beat to it? Well, everyone walked round slapping each other to it!

Skatt Bros. – Walk The Night

Unlike Bobby, who played on BPM, Michael Garrett would stick on any BPM. It always worked. You might go from “Walk The Night” to “Music Man” by Revanche. He could mix those two things together, make it work really well and never break anyone’s ankles. He was a person who mixed on cue, so it was straight into the next one and then into the next one and so on. It was less tripped-out than the Troc.

Michael Garrett was just top-notch, but Robbie Kimball was great. He had worked at Trocadero, so he had more of a Troc attitude of mixing BPMs. But at the same time he would mix wonderful things like Grace Jones’ “I’ve Seen That Face (Libertango).” He would play all the gay disco and hi-NRG, but also Michael Jackson songs. It was definitely a little more pop; you’d hear things like “White Wedding” there.

Sylvester once said you can tell a Dreamland [club] guy from a Trocadero guy just by looking at them. What did he mean?

Absolutely. Douglas at the Trocadero used to have this cartoon [on his wall] after Dreamland had closed. In the cartoon, it showed a portly English-looking woman, big pearls, house dress, glasses on a stem, looking at this other person, scrawny in jeans and with a balloon in his hand and a T-shirt and kind of a mess. She’s saying to this other person, “I’m so Dreamland and you’re so, so Trocadero.” That explains it.

Dreamland was white, Trocadero was black. Dreamland was pretty boys in white tank tops and shorts: the muscle A-crowd. Trocadero was the people who wanted to go and dance all night and basically do drugs. Dreamland was definitely the cocaine club and attitude club. It was a great club, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t have that friendliness and you wouldn’t fit in as easily. They went there to be seen rather than be the scene.

Tell me about Robbie Leslie, and how he differed from the other DJs.

Robbie Leslie is the gentleman of disco. He’s a class act. He always came to our older events and he was always dressed in a nice lacrosse pullover shirt or maybe even a suit and tie. His glasses were always right, his hair combed nicely. He was very sweet and very gentlemanly.

Once the Disco Sucks thing happened it made gay people band together for disco even more than they had before. It was our music. It was more energetic.

Was that appearance reflected in the way he DJed?

Absolutely. He was so well-thought-of and still is. Where Bobby would take the crowd and work them to the point of frenzy, Robbie would take them more on a smooth trip with a lot of soul. He’d still work them up in peaks of energy, but keeping them on an even keel.

The way he mixed was the way he dressed. Beautifully, I might add. He always looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower and was just about to have a very nice dinner. He did! Whereas Bobby Viteritti would come in a T-shirt and jeans, all cranked up, raring to go. Robbie Leslie came in and his records were all nice and perfect. He was so neat you would expect him to have his records tied up in a nice sash or bow. He’s a great guy.

Did the Disco Sucks movement affect San Francisco in any way?

Heavily. Immediately disco went off the radio – we had disco stations before and they played the sort of stuff you might hear at the Troc. It had a neat effect, because once the Disco Sucks thing happened it made gay people band together for disco even more than they had before. It was our music. It was more energetic. It had more soul. But then you had all this underground music coming out, so the Trocadero went deep underground. You had all this music from Europe and we had them introduced to us at the Trocadero where they all became underground hits. So it was even more special. Instead of playing pop music or radio disco, it became uniquely its own music.

Do you remember the European records that got played?

A lot of Italo disco got played, but then also things like Madonna’s “Everybody” and [Man Parrish’s] “Hip Hop, Be Bop” even.

I was wondering what the effect of Harvey Milk’s assassination and the George Moscone murder had on the gay community.

What it did to the gay community was it united them. I was quite surprised that they took to the streets and burned things down. But did you know that the gay community got together and raised enough money to pay for all the damage they had done? What it did gay-wise was it kind of set us back.

Up until that point San Francisco had a lot of Italian mayors, so the mob charged the bars and the bathhouses for protection, even the Trocadero. As soon as they assassinated Moscone, that stopped, AIDS arrived, the bathhouses closed and all this vileness just came to us.

How did AIDS affect San Francisco?

Heavily. The first person I knew with AIDS was Patrick Cowley. I had a regular day job working for General Motors and I’d work in the clubs at night. I got to spend a couple of years with him before he died. It was amazing when we put out “The Big Hurt” through Moby Dick Records, because within about a year almost everybody had died there, except for about three people. That’s between ten and 20 people.

Everybody at Trocadero, too. You’d read a different obituary every week. You became afraid to open the paper. But what is weird is the shock you would get every time. “I just saw him yesterday and he’s gone.” It really felt like the end of everything. Nothing ever recovered from it and the parties were never quite what they had been before.

Was the closure of the bathhouses a popular move or was there a lot of confusion still about what was happening?

There was a lot of confusion. People were pretty angry about them doing it. When you think about it, in a lot of our minds, even though there was a lot of promiscuity going on there, did we think it would end AIDS? It didn’t. And it didn’t stop the promiscuity, either, because what happened was they just went into the parks. And then of course, they started patrolling the parks. So what they were really trying to curb was sexual activity, but you can’t do that, people are sexual and it’s gonna happen. It changed people’s attitude about the wildness of the sexuality: anything goes, all the time, 24/7.

Patrick Cowley – Sea Hunt

Tell me about Patrick Cowley.

He was a little guy, a pretty wild spirit and very talented. He listened to two things: Giorgio Moroder, obviously, and Quincy Jones. He got a lot of the sound and feeling from both and put it together. All that first album, Megatron Man, was recorded on an eight-track, then they’d bounce that up to 16 or 24.

We used to sit in his bedroom when he was getting sick and he’d show us different things. For instance, one night we were sitting there and he said “I’m doing this thing for Paul [Parker]. It’s gonna make him the biggest male disco star.” Then he played “Do You Wanna Funk.” It was designed for Paul. They gave it to Sylvester.

Patrick Cowley and Sylvester – Do You Wanna Funk

Unfortunately, a lot of the money Megatone was making was going right up their noses. When we first met him [Patrick], at that time everyone was very afraid of AIDS, so the nursing staff were refusing to touch him. So he hadn’t had a bath in a week or two, hadn’t shaved and they’d let him sit in his own mess.

My friend Bob Giudice, who was a medic, said “This is ridiculous,” and went in and gave him a bath, gave him a shave and propped him up. A week later he was out of the hospital. His next album was much darker, though, and it was done when they put him on a lot of heavy medication. He was pretty well tripped-out. Those lyrics were the result of some pretty heavy medications.

This interview took place in May 2005. © DJ History

By Bill Brewster on March 15, 2018

On a different note