Second set: A fight that never was leads to Roxy's
At some point in my mid-30s, I decided that one last run at amateur boxing was a good idea. As the three-fight losing streak to end my “career” illustrated, it was not. Mixed into those final couple of years and bouts was an opportunity that I passed up, but wish I could return to complete.
While working out at the venerable South Broadway Athletic Club, I heard of a fight night coming up at a banquet hall in St. Charles in just a few days. And I could take part. That kind of thing is not a rarity in amateur boxing. Fighters, theoretically, keep themselves in shape year-round. So, when fights come up, you simply cut the weight necessary, through steam baths, long runs, and the complete cut-off of nutrition.
By the time you hit your 30s, though, the motivation to keep to an ascetic lifestyle is harder and harder to find. And because of this, that fight in St. Charles never came off, as I bowed out the day of the fight.
I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared. And truth be told, I looked up information on my opponent, a young, former safety for the Missouri Tigers named Ryan Coyne. The idea of fighting somebody well over a decade younger than me was bad enough, but facing an athlete recently active in Division I sports was a little too much. I gave in to both to my lack of physical readiness and my lack of mental readiness.
Almost a decade later, Ryan Coyne’s a world-ranked light heavyweight, with a professional record of 20-0. Since turning pro in 2006, he’s cut 40 pounds off of his fighting weight, dropping from heavyweight - the class at which he would’ve destroyed me as an amateur - to the leaned-out 177 at which he’s tipping the scales on fight nights today (a number no doubt including the last-second “cut” that might take anywhere between 10-15 pounds off of his frame in the day prior to a bout).
And the point of all this in a music column? Good question.
A few years back, maybe inspired by the work of participatory documentarians like Morgan Spurlock, I offered to fight Coyne. Not in any kind of pro outing; That’d be ridiculous. Instead, I offered this carrot: If Coyne’s camp would give me one, maybe two months, to approximate some kind of fitness, I would serve as a sparring partner for three rounds, the same amount of time we would’ve been granted at the Heart of St. Charles Banquet Center, back in ‘04 or ‘05. Out of this would come some kind of story, for some kind of publication.
I don’t know Ryan Coyne, but radio interviews have made him sound like a reasonable, nice-enough guy. But fighters are interesting cats; if someone dodges you a decade prior, or gets a good punch in on you during a clinch, or talks bad about your momma, or just looks at you funny from across the gym, well ... you remember.
I figured Coyne wouldn’t mind the chance to beat my ass, no matter the year. But discussions never got past his management. Maybe Ryan nixed it, though I suspect his handlers simply thought the idea was stupid. You never know with these things. But I do know that I wanted -- OK, let’s be honest, I still want: those three rounds. I know how they’d go, with Coyne playing executioner to any degree he’d desire. One round and a vicious bodyshot. Doable. A second round headshot, destined for YouTube. Not a problem. Toy with me ‘til the end of round three, before setting off a violent, six-punch, “climb the ladder” combo? Yup. Yup, could happen.
Coyne sorta made me wind up as an emcee at Roxy’s. Really? Yeah, really.
When you can’t line up a good-natured sparring session with a world-class fighter, you start thinking about what you can do. You start combing through the mind for the angles that could be interesting, compelling, challenging. And to be honest, what are stories that can sell, that can cause a little splash, maybe get a little play nationally.
You don’t grow up dreaming of being the emcee/deejay at Roxy’s. But compared to, say, being shot into space or goaltending for Bayern Munchen, there’s a chance that it can happen. A not half-bad chance, considering the attrition the job brings.
And doing the gig, even for a day, gives you an anecdote for a lifetime, should you choose to deal with the baggage that comes along with the conversation. People want to hear the details, but judge you the second they’ve laughed along with you. And, truly, the stories you come away with are mostly funny, or tragic. Let’s call them tragically funny.
So here’s the caveat for the rest of this piece: There’s no prurient stuff here, nothing blue. Quite honestly, that stuff’s being saved for another purpose down the road. This piece is simply intended to discuss the musical components of working inside an East Side dance club; to that degree it certainly fits into the general vibe of this weekly project.
I went in figuring that I’d give the job 10 weeks, enough time to compile information, get out of the experience with enough grist for a story, or even series of stories. To get the stories, I’d write observations down within the cave-like lighting of the club, which I more or less did, though some of those notes were lost in a washing machine accident. (Score: water, one; paper, zero.)
My tenure at Roxy’s didn’t last very long; the irony is that I was offered more shifts, both there and at PT’s Brooklyn. (A truism in life: It’s nice to be wanted. Except when it's not.) On my sixth, eight-hour, Thursday afternoon shift, I snapped, my brain becoming a place of roiling anger, the insurmountable lack of enjoyment in the place turning me into the kind of guy that pops off his cheap bowtie and walks out an hour-and-a-half into shift.
The stimulus? Well, six weeks of complaints. From management. From customers. And more than from anyone, dancers. On my sixth day, the only customer in the room at noon was there to see a specific dancer. He huddled with her; and the remaining staffers -- a bartender, a cocktail server and roughly a half-dozen dancers -- hung out at the bar. Because he was a regular, the actual operation of the place didn’t really kick in.
So, I played the entirety of a San Francisco soul collection from the early ‘70s, which went over not half-badly. Can’t remember what followed, but it was a mix of fun stuff from my iPod, music that could sound good in the middle of the day, during a noon hour stretch, during which no one was making any real money. But when the shift did kick in, with the arrival of a new mark, a dancer named Peyton walked onto stage number one, the club’s center stage. The show was on, no matter whether that new customer was heading stage-side or to the furthest, darkest corner of the club.
From the club’s 6,500-deep, computerized playlist, I dropped “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads. A classic track, under any circumstance. Peyton looked up at me with an expression of complete bewilderment and irritation. “What is this shit?” she shouted, at a volume that was enough to show me up to the entire room.
Within the next two songs, I packed my CD cases, pocketed my iPod, began undoing my uniform, clocked out and apologized to the “director,” whom I only met that day, my third manager in only six weeks at the club. I broke it down quick enough to wave to Peyton before the end of her set and with that I broke out into the daylight of summery Thursday.
I felt strangely free and alive, driving across the river on a sunny afternoon to O’Connell’s Pub, another dark (but much more welcoming club), where I requested a beer-and-a-shot before ordering lunch.
It was a short stint, but an educational one. With six musical lessons learned.
THE SIX LESSONS OF DEEJAYING FOR DANCERS
Rock That Mic Like You Mean It: My personal opening day was also opening day for the 2011 Cardinals. Which meant a slow afternoon until the game ended, at which point, things started popping. In those moments when energy’s at a low ebb, you’re reminded that you’re not officially the deejay; you’re the emcee. And all the cliches that come with that role are pretty much true, as you cheer on the scene with tired chestnuts like dancers taking “stage two, my personal party stage.”
As painful as it might sound to chirp like a carnival barker for eight-hours, it’s much easier to simply get into character. Ride the wave. Bite the bullet. Insert the cliche of your choice, but keep the music bumping and the conversation stupid; and you’ll have half a chance of making it through the shift.
Economic Theory 101: Time is Money: Emceeing at this particular club meant earning service-industry minimum wage, though you were expected to make decent tips, which are paid to the dancers and then to you, at a suggested, but seldom met, 10 percent clip. To make them happy (and to induce them to kick something like that 10 percent) you play music they like. (The below entry proves why that’s a problem.) But you’re also on hand to be the room’s sheriff, along with the two doormen, one inside and one out; if something happens, with a high-up view of the room, you’re likeliest to spot trouble first, anyway.
An awkward responsibility is that you take customers’ money when they buy private dance wristbands for $5, as well as a $2 per song fee. There’s little in life to prepare you for the moment when you’re supposed to walk up to somebody, after their half-hour backroom session to collect $10 for the five extra songs they enjoyed. This also irritates the dancers, who usually are the ones to kick in the cash. Guaranteed, now, is that they will not tip you and will badmouth you at every turn.
So, that’s a portion of the gig you let slide ... unless that performer’s already on your nerves, at which point enforcement’s a must. It’s a delicate balance on how a dollar bill moves around a grindhouse, with that bill tearing into a hundred small pieces before your very eyes.
Young People Like Hip-Hop, Old People Like Rock’n’Roll: If most dancers had their way, they’d have you spin nothing but Wiz Kalifa, Birdman, Ludacris, or anything featuring Nicky Minaj, Usher or Drake. The club manager, the “director,” though will remind you that the 50-year-white-guys who make up the audience wanna hear pre-1990 Rolling Stones and not much else.
Like the great debates of our time, you’re supposed to pick a side. But I could never choose just chocolate or peanut butter, so the sets reflected enough diversity to keep everybody mostly happy. Sorta. Kinda. Not really. Actually, everybody just wanted to hear what they wanted to hear, and they’re free in expressing that opinion. Music critics, every last one of them.
There’s This Awesome Pop Music Out There That You Don’t Know and That’s For Sale, Cheap!: It’ll stay a closely guarded secret, but a top-notch deejay in town told me of a place to score massive amounts of music for next-to-nothing, discs loaded with hit music of the last 30-years, compiled on easily marked CD-Rs with up to two-dozen titles a CD. Priced at $2 per, or three for $5, you can leave the shop with, let’s say,, 15 discs and about 300 songs for $15. Funny enough, some of this stuff wound up sticking with me and a lifelong disregard for modern pop started to shift, enough to appreciate a pinch of Swizz Beats and DJ Khaled into the daily mix.
You might like to know where this emporium is and I’d like to tell you, but ... I’m not gonna! Sorry!
The Perfect Club Song is Three-Minutes-30 Seconds: And it might just be “Never Too Late” by Three Days Grace. It’s mid-tempo and, while it rocks, it’s vaguely inoffensive, thanks to that acoustic guitar intro and generally mushy lyrical content. It’s also three-minutes-and-30-seconds, which is about exactly the perfect song length. Multiply 3:32 by three and dancer’s set is up in under a dozen minutes With the music breaks between every set, allowing performers to rotate onto stages, you can figure on a 13- or 14-minute rotation, just enough time to keep things fresh, those wristbands moving and those complaints minimal.
Your Mash-Ups Mean Nothing, Your Self-Expression’s A Foolish Illusion: The worst thing you can do while in the employ of a strip club is think that anyone’s there to hear your record collection, or your clever wordplay on what’s happening in the room. Maybe “Burning Down the House” was idiosyncratic after all, too old school. And by week three, my frequent, on-microphone declaration (“Welcome to Brooklyn, Illinois, the world’s happiest place!”) had stopped getting random laughs and was just becoming a reminder that it’s not that; it’s far from that. It’s a town that you might walk into thinking that you can find that surefire, sellable masterpiece. And it takes you a year to even get some of it on the page, with a story that doesn’t feature anything resembling that perfect happy (or even profound) ending. It just ends.