Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. For this series, we’ll be featuring each subject from this project in their own words, along with a portrait of them at home.
What was your first experience in a queer nightlife space?
We didn’t call it queer back then. My first time was in 1980. It was a club called Tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. It was a phenomenal feeling because it was the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere. I went with a group of people from my baseball team. I was excited because I knew the club was gay. I wasn’t out at the time. I had a suspicion, but like many, I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Back then, you were afraid to be a lesbian because of preconceived notions about what a lesbian was. You didn’t have all these people who were out in the public eye, the positive role models that there are now. There was the fear of the ‘truck driver syndrome’ back in the ’80s. When I walked in, I was utterly amazed because all of a sudden I felt like I belonged somewhere. Men were with men, women were with women. Everybody on the dance floor had their hands up in the air. There was a lot of joy. I remember saying to my friends, let me get your drinks for you, because I wanted to explore the club more. It was the first time I ever saw a drag queen. It was right around the time Rocky Horror Picture Show came out, which was also something that helped me come out, because it was with drag queens and people who were different. Seeing a drag queen in the club was really exciting because at some level it felt subversive, but that was okay to be subversive. It was okay to be different. It was okay to dress up as the opposite sex. It was okay to like the same sex. So that really gave me a feeling of belonging.
I also wanted to find where the music was coming from. I had to find the DJ, and I figured the DJ was around the dance floor somewhere, but he was upstairs, high up. I remember looking in the DJ booth, this was back in the day where they were on turntables. I stood there and watched for hours. It was so amazing to me how this one person had that kind of control over a dance floor and was playing music that I never heard before in my life. In hindsight, it was disco, but it went beyond “Ring My Bell” and that kind of disco. It was ABBA “Lay Your Love On Me,” The Visitors, Boris Midney, pre-commercialized disco. It was an extraordinary experience.
When did you start becoming involved in queer nightlife in New York, or even in Ohio before you arrived in New York?
That time at Tracks, I noticed the music and wanted to find the DJ. The DJ was controlling the energy, which in turn had an effect on the crowd. I hate to use the word control, but the DJ has an impact on the dance floor by choosing what to play, putting it in a way that is seamless, has a flow and creates a story. I eventually came out, and I found the lesbian bars, but I realized that the men’s bars had music that was more compatible to what I liked. At that time in my life, I thought I’d become a radio DJ. I liked that some of the college stations were more obscure with their music. I was one of the kids who would go to the local record store and spend my lunch money on records. I found out later that radio DJs needed the gift of gab, and they didn’t choose their own songs, a program director did. At college radio stations, DJs chose the songs, but you couldn’t make a living at college stations.
View this post on Instagram
As I started going to gay bars, I paid attention to the DJs. Eventually, I befriended Greg Whitback at a club called Keys. And I asked him if he would teach me to play. He told me, you can sit in my booth, just shut up and listen. Music goes in four-four and if you listen to any music and you count it, it makes sense. And that’s what I did, I hung out in his booth. I didn’t say anything. I just listened and counted.
At the time, I was working at a lesbian bar as a bartender. I bought a sound mixer, bad turntables, 12 records, and I started practicing. Eventually, I asked the owner if he would give me a shot. I wasn’t very popular in the lesbian bar because they want to hear what they knew. I wanted to play what I wanted to hear. I’d go hear DJs in the men’s clubs, and I would hear great music that you didn’t hear on the radio, you didn’t hear at most lesbian bars.
Seeing a drag queen in the club was really exciting because at some level it felt subversive, but that was okay to be subversive. It was okay to be different. It was okay to dress up as the opposite sex. It was okay to like the same sex
Chad, who gave me my first job at the lesbian bar, also owned the men’s bar Isis. He gave me a smaller night there, and then a couple years later, he gave me bigger and better opportunities. He told me I had something and that I should look into playing at a club in New York called The Saint. At that time, around 1984, it was an all-male membership club. I didn’t think they’d hire a woman. He said, “there’s actually a woman playing there by the name of Sharon White.” So I thought if she could do it, why not another? That shows how important it is when somebody breaks down a barrier. If Sharon didn’t, I would have felt I’d have had less of a chance, and I don’t know if I would have moved to New York. I met a friend in New York who was from Cleveland and started visiting to go to The Saint with him. The more I visited, the more I realized that the only way to take DJing to a creative musical level was to move here. I didn’t know where my career would take me, that I’d play in Japan, Australia, Italy, and Amsterdam. I just wanted to be artistically free.
So once you got to New York, how did you start playing here?
I moved to New York in 1987. I knew I wanted to work at a record store called Vinylmania because that was ‘the’ record store. Everybody shopped there. I thought that’s where I’d probably meet contacts, be able to network, and learn what I needed to know. Right after I moved, I went to the store and saw the owner emptying a truck filled with records. I walked over and said, “My name is Susan Morabito and I want to work here.” And he looked at me and said, “What? Who are you? Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from Cleveland, Ohio.” And he said, “Alright, come in, follow me, write your name down. Come back tomorrow.” I was shocked. I came back the next day and I started working at Vinylmania records, beginning in their mail-order. Everybody shopped there, from Larry Levan to Michael Fierman to Terry Sherman. Judy Russell worked there. Manny Lehman, a DJ who worked there, knew somebody over at the Ice Palace in Cherry Grove on Fire Island. He hooked me up with a gig there. Eventually, I got involved with Michael Fesco’s gigs and got an offer to play The Pavilion in the Pines on Fire Island. I honestly don’t remember a lot of which came first.
What was it like to go play on Fire Island for the first time as a young lesbian from Ohio?
Two years after moving to New York, still feeling intimidated as a young girl from the Midwest, I was invited to play High Tea at the Pavillion for the first time. I passed, I was still too nervous. It was a discerning crowd and I didn’t think I was ready yet. If I didn’t do well, it might hurt, not help. A year later, Bob Howard, who ran the Pavilion at the time, offered me another Tea Dance, which I finally said yes to. Later, under John Whyte, more opportunities came my way. It took another few years to get a Saturday night, I had to earn it. Now I play on Fire Island regularly.
What is it like for you to DJ?
DJing is a spontaneous emotional art form, it’s a give and take. I never know what I’m going to do. I have an idea, depending on the party. I look at that party and what kind of music is appropriate for that mood. I pull records. Now, it’s off my computer. I pull music, maybe 300 songs. Obviously, I’m not going to play 300 songs, but those songs would be appropriate for the event. When I play, I choose the first record and I feed off that. Once the crowd comes in, I’m feeding off them and their response. Their exuberance or lack of exuberance, how I’m sensing them on the dance floor, guides me. Sometimes when they’re really with me, I can get away with anything. If that’s the case, it’s exhilarating and so spontaneous. There are times when everybody has the exact same feeling at once. I’m getting chills just thinking about that because I can’t even articulate that particular feeling. It’s a joy. It’s a thrill. It’s a spiritual moment where everybody is on the same page and it’s just good. It’s warm, it’s safe.
Is there something specific for you about doing this in a queer space versus elsewhere?
I’ve only really played in queer spaces, so that’s hard to say. It doesn’t matter if the crowd is gay. If somebody is feeling my vibe and they’re giving back that energy, I’m going to take that and be creative with my music selection because they’re going with my flow. If I’m going to soar, they’re going to feel that, and I’m going to feel them feeling good. There’s nothing worse than having to think about playing something to get people on the dance floor. I want everybody to be along with my flow.
What is fulfilling for you about being a part of the queer nightlife scene, one that you’ve been in for quite some time?
Well they’re my people. It’s my community. These are the people I grew up with. If we go back to when I first played in lesbian bars in Ohio, and I went into men’s bars, I was with my people, I started there. These are my friends. These are the people who were at the forefront of music at one time, and year after year I have been a part of their dance experience, just like they’ve been a part of mine. We’ve gone through all these different musical changes together. We’ve gone through a lot of social changes together. We’ve gone through the AIDS epidemic together. We’ve lost friends together.
If I’m going to soar, they’re going to feel that, and I’m going to feel them feeling good.
Where are you DJing these days in New York?
It depends on the promoter. I can be in Manhattan or in Brooklyn. I play venues of all sizes.
What are some differences you notice between when you first started out and now?
Back when I was going to The Saint, you couldn’t bring a drink on the dance floor. You couldn’t smoke on the dance floor, you didn’t have cell phones back then. People were more in the moment because they didn’t have those distractions. The dance floor was a safe and sacred space where you would have moments with people you knew and didn’t know. There were people I danced with for years and never knew their names. We had a connection and the language of dance. There’s a sense of safety and magic in that. There’s nothing more frustrating than to turn around and see people taking pictures or having somebody spill a drink on you while dancing. That takes away from the spiritual environment on the dance floor. Those magical moments are everything to me. They’re what I’ve gotten out of the queer community. I’m hoping we can focus on being present with each other today like we used to.
View this post on Instagram
Hi Susan. It’s so great to catch up with you. I’d love to begin by reflecting on the start of the pandemic. How was early lockdown for you? And how did that affect your career as a DJ?
Being a full-time DJ entails a lot of work at home. It’s not just going into a club and playing music, there’s record shopping, edits, production, dealing with contracts, promoters, and sound technicians. It can be an isolated job. I’m used to being home during the week and working on my computer. My daily routine was the same, aside from not being able to play in the clubs or see friends. DJing, you’re in the booth alone, and yet you’re sharing the experience with hundreds or thousands of people at that moment. That’s the part that gives me life, and Not having that felt awful. I found myself becoming lethargic. This article called it ‘languishing.’ That feeling where you’re not quite depressed, but you’re not as motivated as you used to be because you don’t feel like you have a purpose. I felt my purpose was gone.
We’ve gone through all these different musical changes together. We’ve gone through a lot of social changes together. We’ve gone through the AIDS epidemic together. We’ve lost friends together.
I was a little ambivalent about getting into the digital shows. One of the reasons why I hesitated was because I’m such a spontaneous, emotional DJ. I feed off a crowd. When I first played virtually, I didn’t have that same feeling. But people seemed really excited and that meant a lot to me. I did a couple more digital shows for other promoters at clubs and started figuring out how to use Zoom and Twitch. People were very generous with their love, and writing comments in the chat. That gives you a sense of where the crowd is, and that makes all the difference in the world. When somebody is getting into it, that helps get you into it.
I think there was such a need at the start of the pandemic that DJs filled by bringing people together by playing live virtual sets.
People expressed just that–thank you so much for doing this, it’s really filling a void. When I have space in my schedule, I might still do them because there are still people that aren’t going out for their own reasons. Another thing virtual shows do is bring people together from different parts of the country who like to be together. I started to enjoy them because they gave me the opportunity to play records I love that I don’t get enough opportunities to play in the clubs. For example, I love my down-trip. I love the journey down from 120 beats per minute. Unfortunately in the clubs, that’s something I don’t get a chance to do often. When it’s virtual, I can do it for hours. Twenty years ago, that trip was a part of gay dance culture, and virtual sets give me an opportunity to share that with people who appreciate it as much as I do.
I’d love to hear some of the highlights from your virtual sets over the last year. I know you did a White Party with Joe D’Espinosa that many people loved.
Joe is just a dream to work with. He brought a lot to the table and I learned a lot from him. We played a Saint at Large White Party together in 1999. Joe played the first part, and I played the second. It was a wonderful experience. When I thought about what I wanted to do in February, I thought a White Party would be a perfect way to bring that crowd together and do the party on that same exact day. Joe was the perfect person for that. It had the appropriate musical vibe for the time we were in.
View this post on Instagram
Which is what you need in the winter in general, especially during the pandemic.
Exactly. And in conjunction with our friendship, we brought the history of doing it together over twenty years ago. Joe came over, and Matthew Tully hosted it virtually and did visuals for us. Joe played the first two hours, and I played the second two. People were still in the room at full force so we played back and forth for maybe four additional hours, it was so fun.
I also did an Equinox party with Palo who was in LA. That was another party I used to produce in the ’90s through 2004. I did a virtual party with Peter Napoli. He came over too and we called it Metro Sound Card. I ended up enjoying the virtual thing way more than I thought.
It was so fun to tune into some of your sets. It was fun to see an elder generation of queer folks come together for them. I appreciated the history, and how you created space for people who love your music and know each other, and for others to come and discover your music too. What was it like for you being able to play in-person again this summer?
This summer I played Atlanta, Provincetown, and Fire Island. Here in New York, I played an after-hours party which was really fun. We started at maybe 5am on Pride Sunday. It was hot in the venue but everyone was really feeding off the music.
What I really loved was the closing party of Pines Party weekend on Fire Island. It was absolutely amazing, maybe even one of the best sets I’ve ever played. You know it’s on point when they are talking about it in a positive way and comments get back to you whether from friends, acquaintances, texts, and posts. I took the crowd on a musical journey without missing a beat. It was very progressive with a smattering of some recognizable classics. There were points when the room was working and everybody became one. You could feel that and see it in their faces. People were smiling, hands up in the air, hugging. It was one of those nights that will be in people’s memories, including mine, for a long time. This fall, I look forward to playing more parties in New York like my friend Raf Kuhn’s party Ultramaroon, and to travel around to other cities too.♦