“Human beings,” says Felipe Rose,“ are tribalistic. We dance for sorrow. We dance for happiness. We dance together for days and days until we can’t dance anymore. We dance for many reasons — even at funerals.”
For over a year, dancing in a communal setting was something that Rose couldn’t do. The pandemic has been tough for all performers to navigate; for a disco vocalist, dancer, and songwriter like Rose, who first came to fame in the 1970s as the Native American in Village People, it’s been particularly brutal. Disco encourages togetherness: It’s an ecstatic kind of music, made for parties, clubs, and bars and anywhere else where human beings gather and interact. It’s music that elicits a physical response from listeners. Stuck at home in Asbury Park, locked down like the rest of us, this exuberant, gloriously extroverted character was an artist without a channel for self-expression.
“I was in a deep state of depression,” admits Rose. “I could barely get out of bed. I barely ate. I was writing some morbid shit on Facebook. I lost so many friends including Frosty Lawson, my producer of thirty years, who worked with me on all of my Native American music.”
Lawson, who won three Native American Music Awards for his work with Felipe Rose and co-wrote the Cherokee-themed lament “Trail of Tears” with him, didn’t die of COVID-19. Nevertheless, because his passing happened during the height of the pandemic, it was tough for his friends to mourn his passing properly. A devastated Rose rallied and channeled his grief, desire, longing, and pent-up excitement into a song — a disco anthem, naturally — about what he was most determined to do.
“Dance Again” is designed to be a club-floor burner. It’s also surprisingly poignant. Rose sings frankly, forcefully, and in economical couplets, about the challenges of lockdown: the glacial tick of the clock, the feelings of fear and frustration, the pain of distance and desire for intimacy. An aspirational chorus calls the revelers back to the party and invites us all to move — and Rose will deliver that optimistic message in person on August 14, when he’ll headline the fourth annual Fringe Fest Equality Rocks Spectacular at the Jersey City Pride celebration in Van Vorst Park.
“I told Tyler Sarfert and Benny Harrison, my producers, that I don’t want to sound like an old disco has-been,” says Rose. “I want to sound fresh. I want to sound like Post Malone. Auto-Tune? I want a lot of that!”
The beatmakers also brought in powerhouse support singer Ada Dire to complement Rose’s pent-up hedonism with a little heat of her own. The result is a track that radiates classic disco style and energy but one that sounds awfully contemporary, too.
“They took the guy from that era — the disco era — and fast forwarded,” says Rose.
The new single also foregrounds Rose’s lifetime love of dancing — dance as release, dance as communication, dance as a form of cultural conversation — and dance as one of the many languages of the LGBTQ+ community. Rose came to New York City as a teenager to be a dancer: Long before Rose did the YMCA with Village People, he appeared at Lincoln Center with Ballet de Puerto Rico. He was, however, doing a different kind of dancing at The Anvil, a legendary gay club on West 14th Street in Manhattan, when he met Village People impresario Jacques Morali in 1977.
“That’s where he discovered me,” says Rose. “He told me he wanted to ‘do something’ with me. He meant music. Well, at 2:30 in the morning at The Anvil, that implies something else.”
Village People would flirt outrageously with gay imagery for many years, tucking double and triple entendres into pop hits that made Middle America move. Famously, each member of the group dressed as a different butch male archetype: a cowboy, a construction worker, a leather-clad tough, a “hot” cop, a sailor man. Felipe Rose was the Native American in feathers and war paint, and while he wasn’t the lead singer, he might have been the group’s most recognizable member. “Village People,” the debut project, stole the hearts of gay listeners through joyous, party-hungry songs about Fire Island, San Francisco, Hollywood, and, of course, the West Village. The 1978 hit “Macho Man” won the affections of everybody else and cemented the group’s identity. They were multi-ethnic (Rose is himself part Puerto Rican and part Native American); they were playfully provocative and outrageously costumed, they were loads of fun, and they were above all danceable.
But for all the synchronized choreography of the group’s presentation, the real reason that Village People music endures is the sturdiness of the songs themselves. The writers knew how to mint and develop a memorable pop melody, and the performers knew how to sell a hook. Decades later, we’ve still got those choruses stuck in our heads, and that’s a testament to the genuine craft that undergirded the frivolity. Morali, his production partner Henri Belolo, and Village People lead singer Victor Willis wrote songs that were disco to the core, but they also drew from the pop-soul tradition, musical theater and cabaret and the rhythms and landmarks of New York City. Their most famous song was inspired by the McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street. And while Morali liked to party, Rose reminds us that he was a classically trained musician — and that that training informed and sometimes underpinned his writing. (That’s something that Pet Shop Boys exposed on their cover of “Go West,” which teased the chords from Pachelbel’s “Canon” out of the composition.)
“You had to appreciate the juxtaposition of a gay man from France (Morali) and a straight brother (Willis),” says Rose about the Village People’s songwriting team. Disco pitched a big tent: Everybody was invited to the party, and the dance floor was a place of strange and unexpected couplings. Then, as now, an epidemic changed the tenor of popular culture. The permissiveness and relaxed attitude of the late 1970s gave way to the sexual paranoia, suspicion, and cultural re-segregation of the 1980s. Jacques Morali succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses in 1991. Many of Felipe Rose’s friends and musical colleagues were lost to the disease, too.
No two pandemics are the same, and the virus that locked everybody down in 2020 doesn’t share many characteristics with HIV. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has given Rose flashbacks to the worst days of the AIDS crisis, and it’s not hard to understand why. Suspicion and fear, distancing, isolation, alienation from intimacy, fighting, ugly politics and rejection of science: It’s all been painfully familiar. For LGTBQ+ people denied their usual gathering places, the last eighteen months have been particularly hard.
“We’re a family,” says Rose. “We’re the ones who were either kicked out of our homes or left our towns behind. Maybe we don’t have a family, so we make families of our own. We go to the bars and the discos to dance, to find each other and be with each other.”
Rose is no stranger to the clubs of Jersey City. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he lived on York and Grove and ran a recording studio out of a building that was once home to a city bathhouse. Ever in character and ever proud of his heritage, he called the space “Tomahawk.” Though he’s been a Jersey Shore resident for years, he remains connected with Hudson County. He had a kickass 65th birthday party at the Ashford before the pandemic made such things difficult to do. The Pride show is a homecoming: He’ll be singing and dancing in a public park that’s only minutes from his old townhouse.
“If you’ve ever lived in Jersey City,” says Rose, “you know that you’ll forever be part of it.”
4th Annual Fringe Fest Equality Rocks Spectacular
Jersey City Pride
Van Vorst Park
Saturday, August 14
3 to 7 p.m.
Also appearing: Evan Laurence, Lady Clover Honey, Riqi Velez, Cecile Williams, Nikki Horton, Frankie Alday, Tym Moss, Samore Love, Kenny Supremee