By Michelle Hiskey
Whitney Houston, Robin Gibb, Donna Summer – some of the most danceable, summery voices are gone now. Disco and its imprint on pop music are becoming more distant.
But in a funkified corner of Atlanta every Saturday, the spirits of disco continue to beat through the shows of Atlanta DJ Romeo Cologne.
Last weekend’s gig at the infamous Clermont Lounge extended his run of 17 years of Saturday nights there – about 800 shows — with a regular crowd of 200 to 300 people. When we spoke a few hours before show time, the topic was staying power.
Even disco haters can appreciate this issue: When music anchors our memories, what happens when the musicians are silenced?
For Cologne, the beauty of any music is its power to resurrect that musician’s spirit. The bittersweet beat bears witness to what was meaningful at the time to both the performer and her listeners. Death becomes an introduction for a younger, curious generation.
“As long as 21-year-olds are minted by discovering the music, I’ll stick with it,” said Cologne, whose birth name is David Pierce. “Every new 21-year-old who listens takes the place of someone who gets tired, gets married or goes into rehab.”
A musician’s passing sets the theme for his next show.
“When Donna Summer died, we dedicated the whole [Saturday] night to her, even her obscure stuff, and we repeated a lot of her songs which we hardly ever do, as a way to honor her,” Cologne said. “We did that for the Beastie Boy [Adam Yauch] too….
“There’s romanticism about dying before your time, before you’ve worn out your welcome or become a cliché. It’s a sad phenomenon that people don’t listen to an artist until they are dead, but Michael Jackson is a perfect example. People were hating on him before he died, but that disappeared when he died.”
The headlines after the passing of Yauch (47), Houston (age 48), Gibb (53), and Summer (63) attracted new faces to Cologne’s funk-tastic Clermont shows. The newcomers weren’t even alive when the hustle was born.
“That’s happened a lot – we’ve converted a lot of them, who have totally come in innocently and left with a whole new perspective on this music,” Cologne said. “Dancing with these songs strings together creates a mental and physical bonding that doesn’t go away.”
Cologne’s funky life story was captured in this great 2011 Creative Loafing profile by Chad Radford. It portrays Cologne’s roots as a drummer in the Athens scene when R.E.M. was coming up, and his epiphany as a curator and missionary for a misunderstood form of music and its offshoots. “An amalgamation of rock and soul, the best of both blended together,” he says of his funk sets. “I have love for all that.”
At 58, Cologne stays young by spinning the music that represents an emotional connection to his youth, and the people in his rural Georgia hometown who showed him love. Cologne says any music that recalls a simpler time is a way to find happiness – especially amid change.
Are these good times or sad times for your music?
Romeo: You wouldn’t notice we are in a recession. People want to get lost in the music when times are bad. They want to get away from their problems. Funk offers a fantasy of positivity and unity, with a hook to dance to. It’s just a vehicle for bringing people together, and that’s what I enjoy.
Has the passing of figures that were part of this music’s history made you feel old?
Romeo: It’s made me realize that I truly honor their work because I was already playing them. I don’t get tired of this music; it’s maybe more important to me the more I play it.
The theatricality is part of the fun.
Romeo: I liked the dancing. It took the lights off the performers and put them on the audience. The audience was elevated from a passive viewer to an active participant. Disco got people to dress up, and the dance floor became a stage and that was a remarkable phenomenon. It was more like couples and ballroom dancing. Everybody can be a star.
But it’s not exactly the same.
Romeo: It’s more freestyle now. They dance by themselves or next to each other. You rarely see couples dancing. But for individuals to dance without qualms is a good thing. There’s more individualism, instead of a male-dominated dance floor where women are acquiescing.
What does the history of this music tell us about Atlanta?
Romeo: Being a disco DJ is subversive for me, because once I play Donna Summer and all the great singers, I start to slip in Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players and Rick James – funk music that is an education for a captive audience. [At the time it was created,] funk was maligned. It was against radio station policy to even say the word “funk.” So the music became segregated, and never got the popularity it deserved. The anti-disco movement was a form of racism, where people were hating on black music and wanted to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I love too. The two Atlantas are in there.
How does this music change how you look at life?
Romeo: It’s put more questions in my mind. There’s this huge catalog of funk music, and so many of these songs should have been No. 1 hits, but they were never even really heart. If presented in the right context, people get this. I want them to discover gems and treasures that they’ve always had, so they’ll maintain it.
Why is it hard for this music to be respected?
Romeo: For the younger generations, it’s more of a cartoon, but that’s because the general public is fed a diet of sound bites and hardly any context or depth to what people have seen or known. At the basic level, we’ve lost a little respect for musicians of the past. When people grow up and have an emotional attachment to music because it represents part of their youth, [younger generations] don’t have that same kind of awareness.
There’s always resistance – no one wants to listen to their parents’ music. I didn’t, either.
How is the music you play on Saturday nights connected to Sunday mornings in Atlanta?
Romeo: CeeLo Green and I have had this conversation many times, that coming out of gospel churches, a singer learns all the vocal licks and dynamics from the heart. It’s hard to have an ego when you come out of that tradition, and what I love about gospel churches is that they haven’t changed. That humility makes them more attractive and less easily dismissed. Very little of gospel music gets much credit, but … the origins of funk and soul music are really in the gospel church. And today, schools aren’t promoting music, but churches still are.
That’s your original connection to funk — through gospel.
Romeo: I grew up in Rome, Ga. in a poor neighborhood, and we would go to the Baptist church on a corner near where we lived. [The African-American congregation] would invite us in and showed us love and let us enjoy their beautiful music. And the food – we never had such great feasts before. We were just white trash rock and roll guys, but they loved me and my brother and it was innocence. I loved that music… and as long as I identify with the ideals of when I was younger, it contributes to my youthfulness. I am probably delusional until I look in the mirror or my birth certificate, because I act younger.
What’s the legacy of this era to pop music today?
Romeo: Having a DJ in a club replaced a cover band, and the DJ was free to play the songs and be a stage persona. That led down a long path to where we are now. There aren’t many musicians anymore [creating dance music]. People putting music out are sampling [earlier songs]. So it’s a closed loop and it’s not sustainable if all you do is reuse what’s been made. It will become a cliché.
You’ve got demographics on your side.
Romeo: The baby boomers are not stepping aside. I hope this next generation is more rebellious than they seem and that they come up with something fantastic [as a musical genre]. But I’m still waiting.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur. She can be reached at email@example.com