(Does this bathroom make my name look big?)
Anybody that has been reading this site for a while, or anybody that knew me in my previous life, knows that I used to dj. I had a little mini-career for a number of years and was quite pleased with it, for the most part. It afforded me luxuries that I still remember fondly: lots of free time, expendable income, travel, etc.
I still get invited to dj from time to time. On Saturday night I played in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a friend from the Florida/NYC connection, Melanie Moore.
How things usually go when you are invited to perform is that you are given a number of hours to play, usually two or more. In that time you might attempt to create a sense of musical topography, to give the impression that imaginary things are developing, or to keep the energy at a certain level and make sure that the people are dancing and having fun. This is an over-simplification, but usually each dj's time to perform is delineated this way. Sometimes dj's will play in pairs. This is as far as the concept of sharing time is usually taken.
When you are the guest dj you are often given the "peak hours" of the evening. The energy level of the peak of the night must not usually go below a threshold, though different dj's play with a varied degree of intensity and their audiences come to expect that from them. As a general rule, if you are going to decrease the energy level you must increase the interest level. You can play slower but the music must have some other special quality to it to justify doing so, or you will seem flat and dull, the feeling of the night will be one of waning rather than one of increased expectations. Only certain dj's wish to be perceived as flat and dull. Many of them spend their days imagining just the opposite about themselves, and structuring their lives such that others will think and feel likewise.
There is something to be said for feeling like a star. The dj status confers a distinction that is at once both difficult to achieve yet somewhat necessary to project. Those that do it regularly tend to do it well. It's almost as if they were born to do nothing else and there is an air of effortlessness about them that adds to the mystique. With some it is captivating, with others it can be tedious and forced. Much depends on the style of music that is embraced and the persona that is then projected from that. It is a purely subjective exercise, of course, but one in which I spent passing a few decades.
I do not say any of this with malice, or dismissiveness. While at times it can seem laughable there are other times when it is something very special and unique. The true fans of this music rarely disagree on those two distinctions. Conceding acknowledgement of the value of music that one does not care for is a forced application of objectivity. It requires a modicum of understanding. Others can not see it at all, in any of this. It holds no magic for them whatsoever, or it is merely elusive. They can not create an adequate understanding between themselves and those who live for it and (seemingly) nothing else. It seems foreign and possibly dangerous, if not foolish.
Few people, in their daily lives, are often cheered by a group. It is a special and empowering feeling. The world might be a different place if everyone received such occasional recognition and applause. Because what is being applauded is a part of you. It is an accumulation of years of private taste being made public, stylistically and in a moment. Few ever regret having been cheered. People within this subculture are quite desirous of its intoxicating effects. For a working dj there is (hopefully) a sense of being in demand. There is a cool-factor to being in different cities on successive nights. Sleep is cruel, so it is rightfully mocked.
Where am I going with this. I had hoped to write about my night on Saturday...
So, when I arrived in Santa Fe I was told that the format of the night was different, but that I would like it. When I stopped by the club earlier in the day there were several different dj setups lined up next to each other, stretching the length of an extended table: six specialized cd players, two turntables, three dj mixers, all being fed into a more traditional line mixer; then the amps and speakers on the receiving end, circling the dance floor. Right away I realized that this was perhaps a more democratic arrangement than one that I was used to. I told myself not to worry about it too much, that they do this all the time and it works for them. What possible harm could come from it?
I went back to the hotel and tried to sleep. The altitude there is such that I was lethargic but couldn't rest. I tried and I tried. I went and got a little sushi and had a beer. Yes, sushi at an elevation of 7000 feet. I know....
I went back to the hotel and prepared myself for a night's sleep at my usual hour, 8pm. I got into my pajamas and brushed my teeth, crawled back into bed. My friend was supposed to come get me at 9pm. I considered calling her and telling her that I had come down with narcolepsy and wouldn't be able to make it. Why do I get myself into these situations, I asked. There was a can of air that had been given to me and I thought that maybe the combined effects of a double-expresso and a coffee would do the trick. I walked back downstairs to a coffee-house and came back to the room. I read the instructions on the can of air: "breathe"... I felt ready.
I locked the hotel door.
The coffee didn't make much of a dent, but the oxygen surged through my veins and gripped my skull. I was prepared for anything. I felt like Frank Booth huffing on that can but had no Dorothy Vallens to cry at, no thighs to sniff.
I was pacing the downstairs lobby talking to strangers in a new language when the text came. It was time.
We went to the club and got started right away. There was nobody downstairs yet. The arrangement seemed strange at first and I privately wondered if it was going to have to hold all night. When was I going to get a chance to be a star.... But after about an hour it all started to make more sense. There was a feeling of giving over to it, that I could contribute to a thing but not control it.
This must just be the oxygen talking, I told myself. Why do I try new drugs?
But as the night went on and I got more comfortable with the arrangement I started to realize there were charms to it that there would not have been otherwise. Unexpected turns in the direction of the music, some that worked and some that didn't, but all requiring an immediate response. It forced a flexibility on the night that would not have existed otherwise. No tracks were played in their entirety. Bits and clips and pieces, suggestions making up the whole. Hints being completion. Less being more.
To the mind of a normal dj this might sound horrible, antithesis to everything that matters to them: them. But it wasn't horrible at all, it was engaging on several levels. To relinquish that sense of control over the direction of the night actually caused me to try more, and to be more creative in phrasing, to communicate more to those around me, to give away a part of myself. The insularity that a dj spends his time developing suddenly dropped away, useless in new experience.
After all of these years, to be able to see a familiar thing in a new way, was almost shocking to me. It was one of the best nights I've had in a long time, for all of the reasons that I might not have ever guessed on my own. What is said just could be true, that sometimes the simplest lessons in life are the most rewarding, no matter how often we are forced to re-learn them. It's possible, and perhaps even preferable, to contribute but not control.
Surrender. It sounds so easy.