Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Last Night a DJ Almost Took His Life

by Dan Cunneen



The first time I spun records in public was at an “open table” night in Seattle at Linda’s Tavern in 1995. I was so clueless that I didn’t even know how to cue a record properly. But with the help of some friends milling about I got a quick lesson. That night I played a mix of vocal jazz, 1960s soul, instrumental exotica and spy soundtrack material. After I had been spinning for about an hour, Linda came over to the tables and told me she had been looking for a DJ like me and asked if I wanted to take a regular weekly slot there. The pay was $20 and all the beer you could drink. Hell yes I did! Within a few months I bought turntables and a mixer for myself and was spinning at other clubs around Seattle using the moniker DJ Diamondan. Eventually I graduated to play corporate parties and weddings.

I was a cocktail DJ, so my strong suit was playing for an audience that was usually sitting and hopefully listening to the music I played. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the crowd at a place like Linda’s was paying attention, but then I would play something like the twangy instrumental version of John Barry’s ”Goldfinger” and a cool-kid would come running up to the tables and ask what it was. “It’s from the Goldfinger soundtrack. But they didn’t use it in the movie.” I always loved turning someone on to a great track and laying down an obscure tidbit of information about it.

Since there was no dancing at my early gigs, I didn’t need to learn how to match beats per minute. I just followed my gut and played whatever I wanted. When I started playing parties and weddings, I had to learn the higher art of the dance DJ and the BPM. DJing a dance party is a skill that I still haven’t mastered and weddings can be especially difficult.

As you may have noticed, the crowd at a wedding is usually a fairly broad mix. Parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, the bride’s hip friends, the groom’s dorky friends, tea-partiers, Al Qaeda – you name it. The wide spectrum of people at a wedding makes it extraordinarily hard to please everybody. One minute grandma will come up and ask for Bobby Vinton and the next thing you know a young dude will come up to the tables and request Notorious B.I.G. Early on I would have politely played ‘Blue Velvet” and "Mo Money Mo Problems," but over time I became less agreeable to requests.

Another important point to make about weddings is the Master of Ceremonies factor. Once I had drunkenly crashed a wedding where the DJ was in complete control of the crowd. Telling cornball jokes and interacting with the guests, the guy had his routine down pat. (For instance, while the groom was removing the garter from his bride’s leg, the DJ played the “Mission Impossible” theme.) Alas, that kind of stuff was not going to happen with me. Announcing that the buffet table was open was as close to an MC as I would get. The couple that hired me for one early wedding gig actually expected me to lead the guests in the Chicken Dance. When that night was through the father of the groom told me he was disappointed with my performance. That was too bad I suppose, but he still had to pay me.

Early on I got most of my gigs through word of mouth. The late 1990s dot-com bubble was an especially fruitful period. One long gone start-up gave me obscene cash to spin for 4 hours at their launch party. A few years back I created an animated Craigslist ad (above) that was good for a several gigs a year. I worded the ad so it would weed out customers that wanted a funny-man or a Top-40 DJ and it usually worked - until last weekend.

I got an email through Craigslist from a woman named Krystal inquiring about my availability for a wedding party. We made the deal and a few weeks before the gig I went to her house to pick up some music that she wanted. I was pretty sure I had underbid the job when she gave me her address in Medina -- a very posh suburb of Seattle that sits on Lake Washington. Medina’s best known residents are Bill Gates and his family. While Krystal and her husband Kenneth didn’t live in digs remotely approaching that of the Gates clan, their house was plenty nice.

I knocked on the door and Krystal appeared. She was a very attractive blonde in her late-twenties, about 5'5”, wearing a tight light colored casual shirt and designer jeans. I followed her up the stairway and into the well appointed living room where she handed me a stack of CDs along with several sheets of paper with specific instructions spelling out what part of the evening the songs should be played.

I have long since stopped spinning vinyl records, so when I got home to load Krystal’s music into my laptop, I was appalled by her musical choices. Jason Mraz, Dave Mathews Band, 3 Doors Down, Nickelback, Colbie Caillat, Jack Johnson. The pathetic catalog of middle-of-the-road-white-bread-shit-pop went on and on. Having done this for a lot of years, I was accustomed to working for people with bad taste, but this list sunk to a new and darker level of musical horror.

The wedding was at a resort winery east of North Bend, Washington called Quickriver. Krystal and Kenneth’s house had hinted that I had underbid for the job and now the Quickriver Winery confirmed it. I pulled up and found a fairly new building set on a top-notch golf course. There were all sorts of late model Mercedes-Benzes, Lexus, and BMWs parked in the lot. The place was dripping with money.

I parked my car near the entrance, grabbed a handful of gear and went looking for the event space. I found it right away and also found the event manager, Angela, a short curvaceous woman in her early thirties with a take-charge attitude. As I was loading in the rest of my gear, Angela was overseeing the setup process with an eagle eye, tersely correcting one of her staff’s table settings as I walked by.

Artificially distressed furniture, a stained concrete floor and bad department store art gave the space a schizophrenic Italian villa meets Macy’s feel. It was a small wedding and despite the cheesy décor, it was a deluxe set-up with linen, fine china, real silverware and crystal stemware.

I set up my sound system and then Angela informed me that the ceremony had been moved outside at the new amphitheater (later one of the staff told me excitedly that Three Dog Night were playing there next week). Luckily they had a small auxiliary sound system onsite for me to use. There were about 40 chairs set up in front of an arbor festooned with real flowers. The stage overlooked the 18th green and the lush fairway behind spread out toward a soaring evergreen forest and beyond that, the Cascade Mountains. It looked like a screenshot from the Tiger Woods PGA TOUR video game.

Krystal had asked for some vocal acoustic guitar drivel for the processional music and a Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen song called “Love Walks In” for their post-ceremony exit. I have nothing against Sammy Hagar personally; in fact, I’ve even read his book Red. While Sammy is technically the better singer, I’m still a David Lee Roth guy. Regardless, the fact that they chose a Van Halen song for their wedding fanfare from any era was most troubling. The ceremony went off without a hitch until they waited for me to start the music and I waited for them to start walking off the stage. There were several infinite seconds of awkward silence until I finally pressed “play” and Sammy’s romantic crooning began.

The people-watching at these events is one of the highlights for me, so when the guests sat down to eat it was my opportunity to fill in the blanks to the Krystal and Kenneth back-story. Most of the professional crowd looked predictably well-heeled (I’m guessing Kenneth was in software). I always see at least one hipster couple at any given wedding and this one was no exception. These specimens went with the decade-blending vintage look. 1950s pork pie hat, 80s suit, huge 70s aviators sunglasses, and Chuck Taylors for the bearded dude and a psychedelic 60s dress and clunky Famolare “Get There” shoes for his lady. These fashion anomalies were in the minority however because most of the lily-white crowd dressed “business casual.”

During dinner I played the mix of the crap that Krystal wanted along with some of my own selections like Brubeck’s “Take Five”, “Close Your Eyes” by Doris Day and Andre Previn Woody Allen wife (Soon-Yi Previn‘s actual adopted Dad), “Melt With You” by Nouvelle Vague, ‘Wave” by Jobim, ‘Cherry Blossom Girl” by Air - a cool mix of the old and new and the familiar and obscure that has done me right for 15 years. As I was playing “I Only Have Eyes For You” by the Flamingos, I saw the mother of the bride mouth, “Oh, I love this song” to her daughter and then look at me with big smile. I witnessed one positive response, which meant that there would probably be more. These kinds of moments are huge for a DJ because it means you made a connection. Also, it might erase any negative feelings from my slight musical miscues earlier. However Krystal did not crack a smile, so I assumed things might not be going so well. Was it the music, my errors, or her mom?

As I was spinning, Angela came over to chat. Since it was getting late and the group was so small, we both thought that there probably wouldn’t be much dancing - which was just fine with me. Angela then told me that they wanted me to MC the toast and cake-cutting. Didn’t Krystal read my ad? Diamond Danny don’t play that game. I was on the spot though, so after I got a quick rundown from Angela on who was going to speak, I grabbed the microphone and tried to get the attention of the seated guests.

I’ve spent a lot of time onstage as a musician over the years and while I get excited to perform, I rarely get nervous. This scene was entirely different. I scanned the crowd and became completely aware that I lacked the oblivious overconfidence that the successful wedding DJ or used car salesman possesses. What's more, I think I stood out in this crowd. I’m currently 49 years old, with messy longish graying hair and a semi-ironic mustache. I was wearing a modish Ben Sherman suit with a lavender dress shirt, Beatle-style ankle boots (with a Cuban heel) and a bad-ass purple 1970s Ferrell Reed tie. I think I looked sharp, but I’m pretty sure this group thought I was an old guy with bad hair in a funny looking suit. “Ladies and gentlemen, Marty would like to say a few words, Marty?” I stammered, feeling like a stinky bike messenger in an elevator full of executives.

Marty grabbed the mic from me and said, “Hi everyone, I’m Marty Simmons and Ken, uh, sorry, I mean “Kenneth” (Marty made quotation marks with his fingers when he said “Kenneth,” indicating a late in life name-change) has been my best friend for over 20 years.” Marty paced around in circles and told some suitably risqué college stories. One after another a parade of friends and family toasted Kenneth. Curiously. Curiously, not a lot was said about Krystal.

Finally a gorgeous brunette wearing a black dress with a wide scarlet belt around her waist rose to make a toast. It was Belinda, Krystal’s best friend. Belinda’s chaste, yet still sexy dress hung right at her knees, showcasing toned calves that had a slight sheen. Her legs did not look greasy, but they had a soft shine that was most likely the result of some pricey and fragrant lotion. They must have been friends a long time because Belinda went way back to the vault for her tales about the two young friends fighting over Bratz dolls and the time Belinda and Krystal convinced another friend of there's to change her name to “Tubalard.” Nice girls.

The toasts were toasted, the cake was cut and the wait staff began to clear away the dishes. When the party-goers began to migrate to the patio that would serve as the dance-floor just outside the dining room, I started to play more dance material. I was set up in such a way that I couldn’t see most the people dancing outside, so I had to crane my neck around the huge doorway to see what was going on.

By now it was about 10:30 PM and most of the guests had left, leaving the younger and more (and more) inebriated crowd behind. I was playing the usual dance party stuff like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, “Filthy/Gorgeous” by Scissor Sisters, Chic’s “Good Times,” “Sexy Back” by JT, but it wasn’t good enough for Belinda. She tipsily sauntered over to me and asked, “Do you have any Pitbull?” I had never heard of Pitbull before, but I did a quick search on my laptop and found that I actually had three of his tracks. (I went nuts recently and checked out about ten Now That’s What I Call Music CDs from the library so I would have some newer material for times like this.) I cued up a Pitbull tune and continued spinning. Within 10 minutes Belinda was back, this time with her boyfriend, Ryan.

“Do you have and Rihanna or Chris Brown?” Ryan said. Interesting pairing I thought. I may not keep up with the latest hits, but even I knew about Chris Brown beating up Rihanna.

“Uh, I can check,” I replied. I pulled up a track by Chris Brown called “Turn Up the Music”. A minute later a middle-aged woman came storming up to me and asked incredulously, “Are you playing Chris Brown? You know he abuses women, right?” I nodded sympathetically in the affirmative, jerked my head toward Belinda and shrugged my shoulders.

When the distinctive bass line started thumping on Deee Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart,” I heard a howl of joyful recognition from the leftover crowd and the dance floor filled. Within seconds Belinda and Ryan stumbled over. From the foul look on their faces I thought a sewer line had broken. “Do you have anything newer?” Belinda slurred.

“Yeah, you got any Pitbull?” Ryan said.

“He already played Pitbull, babe,” interjected Belinda.

When I heard Belinda say “babe,” I knew where I had seen this couple before. They were “The Two A-Holes” from the Saturday Night Live sketch about a self-absorbed yuppie couple. They were dead ringers. The only difference was that Ryan and Belinda weren’t chewing gum, they were drinking heavily. “Well, you got any Jay Z or 50 Cent?” asked Ryan.

“Uh, sure I do,” I replied. Since I had already played “In Da Club,” I quickly pulled up another 50 Cent song I didn’t recognize called “Say What You Want.” Here’s the first verse:

Yo, niggas be askin me "yo 50 who you got beef wit?
I'm a tell yall niggas who I got beef wit  
I got beef wit any nigga I can't make no money wit  
If I can't make no money wit you, fuck you nigga  
G-Unit nigga, that’s whatsup cause I said that’s whatsup

I started the song and the Two A-Holes went back to the dance floor. Moments later I looked up from my screen and there was Belinda precariously balancing on her high-heels. “We’re okay with black, but not that black,” she said snootily.

With the Two A-Holes shuttling between the dance floor and me in a seemingly unending orbit of musical objection, my stress level was rising considerably. “Okay, what would you like me to play?” I asked, betraying my first overt hint of annoyance.

“Well, how about some 80s dance stuff? That might be good.”

“Oh, I have tons of that,” I said with relief.

“Yeah, I bet you do,” she sputtered back with disdain.

Belinda was rude, but she had a valid point. I was not up on the latest hits that this group clearly wanted. I would think a song like Pink’s “Get the Party Started” was current and then realize it came out in 2001, when Belinda was in middle school. It doesn’t really do any good adding top-40 hits in your collection if you don’t listen and get to know the songs. Not all modern pop is junk of course, but it takes some work to familiarize oneself with material in order to separate the wheat from the crap. This is something I haven’t done enough of in recent years and tonight it really showed.

Given the 1980s green light, I put on “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz and that seemed to hold the Two A-Holes off. Then I took a chance and played “Friday Night” by Lily Allen. While I knew it wouldn’t be familiar to this crowd, I thought the ska influenced and hook-laden track would keep them happy. No such luck. Within seconds Belinda was back and then Krystal popped her head around the corner, shook her head at Belinda and then made a slicing motion with her finger across her throat. What’s worse, I could see that the dance floor had emptied. I was spinning along, playing a great set of dance music for a full floor and then I picked a song that fell as flat as Keith Urban performing at Juggalo gathering.

Now Ryan had taken out his iPhone and began suggesting songs. “Uh, let’s see, babe. What about some Usher or Ne-Yo?”

“No, I don’t want to hear that,” she said with her evermore drunker head turning toward my computer screen, “What about s’more Pitbull?” I searched for Pitbull again and when she saw the three tracks she said, “Seriously? Is that all the Pitbull you have? I mean, he has like, 20 number ones.”

I looked at Belinda and realized that she was in full blackout mode. I knew she wouldn’t remember talking to me in five minutes, let alone tomorrow. I was sorely tempted to hurl some cutting insult at her, but that wouldn’t have been nice. Besides, she wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

As I was hunched over the screen, I could feel Belinda bending down and teetering next to me. I briefly whipped my eyes in her direction and saw that she was looking at me with her lip curled in disgust. I’ve had beautiful women look at me like that before of course, but not while I was DJing.

I was not of this world. The moneyed, professional, go-getting, competitive world of the filthy gorgeous achiever was not my home. I was an intruder in their midst and the revulsion on Belinda’s face laid it all bare. But the road ran both ways of course. For me, what at first sight had been a vision of feminine loveliness was now transformed into a drunken, hideous aging cheerleader hag and Pitbull fanatic.

By now I was desperately watching the clock, praying that my shit-faced tormenters would finally give up and head back to their room so I could pack up and flee. Angela wanted out too. She and her staff made no secret of cleaning up the space in preparation for their own departure. It was 11:30 when Angela came over and told me to play three more songs because the shuttle busses had to stop running at midnight. Ah, sweet salvation is in sight.

Typically I play a more down-tempo track at the end of the evening to indicate things are winding down and tonight I chose a song by the guy that played the sweet piano licks on Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, Floyd Cramer. The track was called “Mumble Jumble” from his Last Date album. Within moments Belinda was back. “What are you doing? We can’t dance to this!”

“Well, Angela told me to play three more songs and this is the third one.”

Belinda called for Angela who was across the room and said, “Do we really have to stop? Kenneth is a really good tipper.”

“Oh, you can go longer, no problem!” Angela replied - making it sound like it was I who dropped the turd in their punchbowl.

At that point I seriously considered shutting down the sound system and getting the hell out of there. All kinds of negative thoughts were bouncing around my head. What the fuck am I doing here with these people? I’m almost 50 and I’m a DJing a wedding? Have I no shred of dignity left? I wish I were dead. But I hadn’t been paid yet and I figured that since I had made it this far, I might as well endure the torturous Belinda-boarding until the bitter end.

Finally the shuttle bus schedule dictated the end of the festivities and I began to tear down my gear. I still had to find Krystal or Kenneth to get paid though. I knew I had turned out to be a big disappointment in their eyes, so I was tense when I tapped on Krystal’s shoulder. “Uh, Krystal…”

“Oh, you need to get paid. I’ll find Kenneth,” she said impatiently. After a bit of searching Kenneth came over with a checkbook in his hand and a great deal of booze in his belly. Krystal grabbed it from him and filled out the check, leaving the signature line blank. When she handed the checkbook to her new husband, he drunkenly looked at the mostly filled-out check and said, “What? It’s done, right?”

“Sign it, Ken!”

Kenneth signed the check (no tip) and I slunk away to clear away the rest of my gear. I have been hired for plenty of gigs after getting a recommendation from the staff at an event space, but I knew that definitely wasn’t going to happen tonight, so I skipped my customary pleasant goodbyes to the hosts and staff and got the hell out of Quickriver.

On the long drive back to Seattle I vowed to be even more diligent about screening clients, no matter how much money was involved. The stress just wasn’t worth it. The next day I got a call from a guy that was throwing a 50th birthday party for his wife at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Club in Kirkland. When he told me that his wife wanted to hear a lot of 80s New Wave music, a deal was soon struck.

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