Going to church with Reverend Bertie Pearson and EpiscoDisco
SUPER EGO Ever since Jack handed down the Key to the Wiggly Worm in 1987, dance music has flaunted its spiritual side. Sure, disco was about transcending the physical bonds of quotidian slavery, Parliamentary funk probed the cosmogenic recesses of inner space, and early electro froze out any organic interference with its ethereal pings and pongs. But house was "a feeling," a "spiritual thing," a "soul thing." And techno explicitly mobilized the restless ghosts in Detroit's rapidly antiquating machines. Merely read the titles of techno originator Derrick May's late 1980s output — "Beyond the Dance," "The Beginning," "Strings of Life" — for the gist of that genre's ectochromosomal blueprint.
Upping the metaphysical has led to some notable clubby excesses — think sage-smoked rave prayer circles, jungle and tribal house's witch doctor shenanigans, the gamma states of trance, or whatever the hell Burning Man thinks it's doing. For the better part of this decade, "ultra lounges" had to feature a giant golden Buddha somewhere on the property or risk excommunication from the Eternal Congregation of Bachelorettes. And how many times did some of us (me) find ourselves, after a crazed and filthy weekend, on the EndUp dance floor on a Sunday afternoon in the 1990s, twitching to a gospel house choir shrieking about the power of salvation through The Lord. (Answer: 42.)
Still, everyone calls their favorite club "church" because that's where they go on the regular to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. So you'd think a club night in an actual church — let alone one in Grace Cathedral called EpiscoDisco — would be the ultimate theological expression of this nightlife strain. Not so, says Bertie Pearson, the young Episcopal priest, longtime club fixture, and on-point DJ who launched the electro-centric monthly last February. "We're not out to convert anyone, or try to 'bring youth into the fold,' or anything like that," he tells me. "The Episcopal church isn't really about proselytizing, anyway — all paths to God are equally effective, and we're more concerned with keeping our community fed and sheltered. We just wanted to open up this amazing space on a night when there wasn't much happening here and have a great party."
EpiscoDisco, with its heady mix of spiffed-up nightlife glitterati, up-to-the minute live acts and DJs, and edgy art installations curated by Paradise Now, offers a perfectly relevant and reverent early evening club experience — even without the cavernous gothic grandeur of Grace echoing every furtive stiletto-clack of the otherwise irreligious. (Pearson says he always wanted to be an Episcopal priest because the faith "appealed to all sides of me: social, spiritual, philosophical, artistic, intellectual ... and now the nightlife side, apparently.") Yet you are, indeed, in a spectacular candle-lit cathedral, navigating the vaulted apse with your plastic-cupped Chablis, gazing at luminous gold-flecked icons of MLK Jr. and John Donne, tracing the gorgeous meditative labyrinth etched in the nave's marble flooring.
And despite the party-priest's protestations about keeping his intentions earthbound, you can't help but get lifted in a club-spiritual way. Upon entering Grace's AIDS Interfaith Chapel, EpiscoDiscopalians are greeted by ultimate club kid Keith Haring's wondrous "Life of Christ" triptych altarpiece. A panel of the AIDS Quilt memorializes Grace preachers who passed away from the disease and the "Book of Names" lists Bay Area victims. Given that some of the most exciting recent nightlife trends have been about exhuming the music and fashion buried by AIDS, the chapel offers a celebratory connection to the other side.