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Donna Summer: Is There Life After Disco?

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A waiter brings Donna her chef's salad. "Oh no," says Donna, calling him back. "I'm sorry. I ... uh ...," she lapses momentarily into German, then catching herself, translates apologetically: "I forgot to tell you. I'm allergic to cheese. Can you take this back?" I've noticed her slip into German two or three times before, so I ask her what America must have seemed like on her return.

"Frightening, to say the least. Even going home to Boston was a shock. People couldn't understand me, a black, speaking German. I didn't really get used to it until last spring when I broke up with my German boyfriend." And California? She looks over her shoulder, peering out through the lead-glass window that frames the Casablanca offices across the street. "California will probably never seem like home to me. Sometimes I get bored riding down the beautiful streets of L.A. I know it sounds crazy, but I just want to go to New York and see people... suffer. I know that there's another kind of world that I don't get to see, that I'm protected from, but I'm aware of it because I grew up there. Sometimes this is like being displaced from the real world."

An uncomfortably tall man in a reindeer-pattern sweater has corralled his friends into the corner of the mirrored room and is sharing his excitement with them. "You know that part in 'Love to Love You Baby' where she starts to fuck the microphone? I got so excited that I was jumping up and down until my little bastard stood up." Flashing a proud smirk, he reaches down and pats the corduroy area between his legs where his "little bastard" is now merrily reposed.

The occasion is the last evening of Donna Summer's first starring engagement at Sahara Tahoe's High Sierra Room, and the place is a waiting room backstage. In spite of this one corner of good cheer, though, the mood among those waiting for the star is reserved. Donna's first show of the evening had been beset by a bizarrely fluctuating sound system and a near-comatose dinner crowd. I'd wondered beforehand why Donna bypassed the usual concert-hall circuit in favor of Tahoe and Las Vegas, but Joyce Bogart informed me that "that's her audience. She draws an audience that's sixty to eighty percent white, ranging up to forty-five years of age, and that means places like Tahoe and Vegas." Donna says it's because she can find "recruits" for her music in those audiences. Tonight, though, there were no recruits to be found, and when Donna came offstage she was almost in tears.

But now when she enters the waiting room from her dressing cubicle, the mood of a half-hour before seems forgotten. Dressed in a short, blue silk kimono and wearing a lovely smile, this is the Donna Summer of her album covers – fully alluring. She begins to circle the room, stopping and chatting animatedly with any unfamiliar face she sees. When she gets to the corner where the happy owner of the "little bastard" waits, he hands her a copy of Once upon a Time for an autograph. "Would you draw something weird on the back?" She complies with a hurried cartoon sketch of a girl in a gown. "Oh, is that you?" he says. "Be sure to draw some big boobs on it, just like yours."

She smiles indulgently. "You mean big butt. I have a big butt."

"Well, you said it, not me," he says, and gives her a squeeze beneath the kimono. She shoots him a glare that could cut marble, but he's oblivious. As she hands him back the album, he leans over and tries to kiss her on the lips. She pulls back for a quick second, then turns and offers her cheek instead. For just the glint of a second I catch a look in her eyes – a look that abides.

An hour later, moments before her last show of the engagement, Donna and three of her sisters, who sing backup for her, stand in the wings, clinging affectionately to each other in a tight prayer circle. "Ladies and Gentlemen," announces an FM-modulated voice, "the High Sierra Room is proud to present the 'First Lady of Love,' "and Donna takes her place center stage, singing Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic," one of her favorite songs. Supported by a full orchestra and a meticulous rhythm sextet, Donna's show de-emphasizes her disco sources in favor of a campier cabaret production. She's a Sophie Tucker on "One of These Days," Judy Garland on "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," and a little like her idol, Josephine Baker, on the intro to "My Man."

But when she gets to "Love to Love You Baby," the disco pulse washes over her, and she comes damn close to copulating with her mike stand, writhing up and down its length with palpable shivers. Judging from the audience's response, this is still the Donna Summer they know best. Suddenly, with only a blink between songs, the pitapat beat becomes "I Feel Love," juxtaposing the erotic with the icelike. Donna dances in angular, jerky motions and her face is a dazed, mechanical mask.

Then, almost as though she finds Giorgio's mesmerizing "popcorn tracks" too confining, she begins to sing, "Feel it!" on the offbeat, gradually transforming the song into a fevered gospel and bolting into a coltish dance. I'm reminded of that moment at the end of Once upon a Time's second side, when, after fifteen minutes of brilliant electronic tension, Cinderella's dream – to be free of the machines – true, signaled by an acoustic piano flourish. The first time I heard that, I thought of Metropolis, Fritz Lang's archetypal science-fiction film about man's revolt against the machines, and its simple maxim: "The mediator between the mind and the machine must be the heart."

Earlier in the week. Donna had said: "I guess I was treated as a novelty type at first, but that was to be expected. I wasn't a hype. It's probably like what Marilyn Monroe must have gone through her whole life, playing the part of a dumb blondie while she was depriving herself of something greater. She couldn't make them believe it, and it killed her as a result. I don't want that to happen to me."

Now, after the encore, Donna stumbles into the wings looking faint and has to be helped into a chair. A stage attendant slips over her face an oxygen mask, kept handy because of Tahoe's high altitude. Sitting there gasping, her big eyes peering over the plastic pocket stuck on her face. Donna looks slightly scared, very tired – and wholly indomitable. But it's a gentle, not a hard look, the look of someone who's just won a tough audience but is waiting for a tougher one. It's the indomitability of someone who abides – not her place, but her time.

This story appeared in the March 23rd, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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