Have you ever walked into the Travis? It's one giant flash-bang, a sensory blitz of polished stone, metal pillars, and wall-to-wall mirrored glass, which when paired with the club's retina-shattering strobes, imparts a sense of infinite dimension. One 360 look around, and you feel like an insignificant speck, a small nothing at the center of a dark, neon-lit desert spanning a thousand miles in every direction.
If the Travis isn't the most effective escape from reality that Dallas has to offer, it's very close. In the belly of this beast, inside a universe onto itself, you feel liberated from the rest of the city. Tonight, I arrived later than expected, but I made it in time for the big-bang, in time for Frankie Knuckles.
Who is Frankie Knuckles? He invented house music. In the early '80s, and highly influenced by the disco experiments of Giorgio Moroder, Knuckles began toying with editing techniques on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. These experiments resulted in a hyper-repetitive disco mutation, whose trademark sound would later be called house music--a term derived from the Chicago nightclub, The Warehouse, where knuckles DJed from 1979 to 1983. The point being: he's a big deal.
In house music genius is often displayed in subtleties--in micro-adjustments and nuanced innovations - but on this night, the difference between Frankie Knuckles and the other DJs is obvious to everyone. The changeover was imperceptible, but the change - from those before him to Frankie Knuckles himself - was enormous. The sounds went from black-and-white to color. This dissonance in pedigree felt cataclysmic, like the difference between a fire and a fire ant. Even in its infancy, Knuckle's performance rendered the former a hollow set of minor noises. Musical sameness was displaced by a circus of energy and depth, all anchored in a solid bedrock of 126 BPM.
In full force, Knuckles' sound was huge, the kind of big that makes a mockery out of your smallness. There were rhythms that altered the course of your breathing, bass thumps that fashioned a drum out of your chest. Shaken by the speakers, hairs stood on end. Frankie Knuckles' old-school flair and well grooved chops made the new guard of EDM/house-pseuds sound like dry beans rattling around in a rusty tin can. Under his command, behind a glowing red control panel, songs twisted into wonderful and strange new shapes. These Frankenstein tracks were stylistically surreal: melodies became mechanistic trances, tensions intensified, distended until the eventual release felt orgasmic. Every detail of every song was pristine, injected with hyper-real textures and the timbre of unreal acoustic environments.
You often hear people talk about the golden age of house music in religious terms. Now I know why. The oversexed, quasi-spiritual energy on the dancefloor Friday night was palpable. The scene was like the insides of an atomic reactor, a hungry frenzy feeding itself, always on the brink of colossal eruption. And when the beats dropped and the hooks hit, that eruption came, and went, and came and went a dozen times, like a series of tremors rocking the crowd. There was an emotional intensity coursing through the audience. I have never seen so many happy faces in a dance club.
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I don't know what song it was, and I don't know what time it was, but the night had a noticeable plateau. The edges of my perception seemed to blur, things were going slower, things were much more clear. The Travis' needling lights were streaming through a glass chandelier fixed on the ceiling, refracting the beams into a splintering array of alien colors. It was like having the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind land right in your lap. The room was filled with that stale, cotton-candy smell of a fog machine. There was a woman on every dance pole, a drink in every hand.
Veiled in darkness, visible only by flashes of pink light and his luminescent million-dollar smile, Frankie and his practiced hands were turning people into machines. The patrons became sweating, drinking, dancing robots. In this moment, even more people spilled onto the dancefloor, helpless to an infectious, tension-building vortex of hurtling grooves and disembodied vocals. In this space the world seemed to have no purpose at all apart from the production of pleasure, and the blissful escape it provided. The night - the music, the lights, the energy, the glitz - was an all-consuming sensory experience, a welcoming black hole of temporary hedonism in which to throw your every worry and every care. Suddenly the decision to remain sober for the night seemed like a terrible judgment call.
Then, without warning, it all just became way too much. It was if a giant sugar-crash hit the crowd. The music remained steady, but the audience, weakened by exhaustion and mild dehydration, noticeably thinned. Frankie Knuckles, and his relentless pace, outlasted the Friday night crowd at the Travis. I, too, was a casualty of this odd phenomenon. An hour and half in and I was spent. The hammering intensity of Knuckles gauntlet had beaten me into submission. Tired, hungry, thirsty and a touch dizzy, I looked around and could see the thoughts written on everyone's faces; they too seemed to recognize what had just happened, could tell what the man they call "The Godfather of House Music" had just achieved. For a night, on his first visit to Dallas, Frankie Knuckles made house music sound like the future again.