Over Under Sideways Down
Jonathan Toubin Lives!
Things were going well for New York-based DJ Jonathan Toubin when he checked into the Jupiter Hotel in Portland last Dec. 7.
The 40-year-old former Austinite – one of my best friends since high school – was touring through Oregon with his celebrated Soul Clap & Dance-Off, a vintage R&B sock hop of sorts that had recently earned Toubin a profile in The Wall Street Journal. Another one of his turntable affairs, the maximum rock & soul-themed Shakin' All Over Under Sideways Down, was packing 'em in each week at Home Sweet Home on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
All told, Toubin was averaging 200 appearances a year. A slew of U.S. and European dates awaited in 2012, including an appearance at South by Southwest in March. The next morning, a freak accident changed everything.
Just before 11am, a taxi driver had a diabetic seizure and crashed her cab into Toubin's ground floor room as he slept. First responders rushed to help the driver, not initially realizing Toubin was pinned underneath the cab. Four men managed to lift the car off him while another slowly backed it away. Blood was everywhere, according to grisly scene accounts.
Toubin was rushed to Oregon Health & Human Sciences Hospital in critical condition. News of the accident spread quickly. Toubin's Facebook page swelled with frantic well-wishings from around the world.
I called a mutual friend in Portland who was at the hospital. He said it was horrible: cracked skull, broken ribs, crushed organs. I went to bed that night not knowing if Jonathan would still be alive the next morning.
That weekend, his scheduled gig at Home Sweet Home became the first of many benefits. Here in Austin, friends gathered at the Spider House 29th St. Ballroom to spin singles and commiserate.
As a heavily sedated Toubin endured multiple surgeries, the benefits grew to include big names – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jon Spencer, Margaret Cho. Even X-rated rap pioneer Blowfly recorded a profane get-well video message for him.
Miraculously, Toubin was discharged from the hospital Jan. 13, less than six weeks after the accident. Doctors expected him to remain hospitalized for months, but he was determined to get back to work as soon as possible. By April, he was back on the turntables in New York, spinning at a Jack White gig.
Fun Fun Fun
From the moment he speaks, Toubin's passion for music is indisputable. We met in our school's anti-nuclear war club, but what bonded us was his "Deadheads for Peace" T-shirt. The first time we spoke after the accident, it was a minute of, "Gee, I'm really glad you're still here!" and an hour discussing how disco-era soul man George "Rock Your Baby" McCrae got screwed on royalties.
Unlike music obsessives content to savor lost grooves in precious affinity nodes, Toubin wants to make his soundtrack connective tissue for others.
"The main point of what I try to do is make people feel alive," he says.
Before he could even drive, Toubin was promoting shows in Houston. One of the first was a 1987 benefit where skinheads tried to shout down our nuclear awareness speaker. On weekends, Toubin visited his dad in Austin and saw shows at Antone's that sowed the seeds for Soul Clap.
"Those Antone's blues shows were important for me in high school and college," he stresses. "Particularly the Albert Collins shows and anniversaries with Muddy Waters' band and all of the blues/R&B superstars. Paul Ray's 'Twine Time' show on KUT also hipped me not only to this type of music but the general aesthetic."
When he moved to Austin in 1989 to attend UT, Toubin got a deejay shift on KTSB, the cable FM forerunner to KVRX (see "What's the Frequency, Kenneth," May 11). This led to his first club DJ gig, a short-lived stint at the Back Room – now home to Emo's East – in 1991.
"I think they wanted Alice in Chains but instead got the Dicks and the Meatmen," he laughs.
That was also the year Toubin booked his first unofficial SXSW party. The "showcase" took place on a plywood and cinder block stage in a friend's backyard in Hyde Park. It was also the first performance of our contrarian punk combo, Cheezus. Toubin played guitar while I sang and sprayed cheese spread. Having us open was smart strategy on his part given that police shut down the party midway through the second set.
In four years of playing with Toubin in Cheezus and later Noodle, he booked nearly all the shows. He also made many of the fliers. Then as now, much of his "makeshift and organic" approach to music came from the template of Austin punk godfathers the Big Boys.
"The Big Boys' embrace of funk and DIY attitude plus kindness and inclusiveness were a big influence on what I do," he acknowledges readily.
Toubin left Austin in 1998. He planned to move to Chicago with local indie act the Hamicks, but New York got in the way. Even now, however, he seems to know every third person on the streets of Austin when he visits. Wallflowers were never well suited to changing culture, and that's precisely what Toubin proposes with Soul Clap.
"I had a problem with many things about mainstream culture and wanted to fight it," he says. "The only difference is that in the past I got off on pissing people I didn't like off, and in the present, I get off showing people that life and music and culture doesn't have to suck."
Toubin started throwing dance parties around New York in 2006 to supplement his record label/website, New York Night Train. Up to that point, NYNT was best known as a repository for all things relating to ex-Gun Club/Cramps guitarist Kid Congo Powers. Toubin spun mostly rock & roll early on, but his wild mix of rare Sixties soul, R&B, and boogaloo 45s struck a nerve.
"For people more accustomed to Northern soul, mod, and rare groove funk-type parties, it was an entirely different approach," he states.
"At that point I was playing records I found on the street, at thrift stores, or a big amazing lot a friend at a junk shop hooked me up with. So there was no snobbery or exclusion – it was just love of this music without any knowledge of how much the records are worth or who played them before. As long as it was full of the frantic energy I was looking for, I dropped it."
Toubin's medium of choice, the 45 rpm single, comes through loud and just shy of unhinged on a club sound system.
"Sixties and Seventies 7-inches are recorded, mastered, and pressed unlike anything before or since," Toubin asserts. "Even on one beaten to hell, the tone is so much richer than later reproductions of the same records. On the good ones, the drums resonate as if they're in the room with you."
Of course, there's more to it than just playing cool music. In order to get people to the floor and keep them there, he relies on his ability to "feel the dancers." From one record to the next, his sets are completely spontaneous.
"I only have two minutes to select, EQ, and cue up a record," explains Toubin. "I cut off the ends of most songs, as they have fades, and sometimes the intros. I also manipulate the pitch. So a good night for me is when nobody notices the volume or the segues and it just builds and they get lost in it."
I Am a DJ
Eight months later, Toubin is still recovering from the accident. He sees physical therapists weekly and does additional work at the gym. He lost almost all the hearing in his left ear and some in the right. As a result, he's had to relearn much of his technique while getting accustomed to working with a hearing aid.
"My first few gigs were well received but technically bad on my end," offers Toubin. "Sort of like when you're in a band and play a crappy show and make lots of mistakes but people love it. At the last few, I've gotten a lot better at using my ears."
Although he's truncated his schedule, Toubin's summer tour is ambitious. So far, he's played North by Northwest in Toronto, Sled Fest in Calgary, and CBGB Fest in New York, to name a few.
Toubin's dance parties continue to evolve. These days, he augments crate digging with the occasional big-ticket purchase. He adds about 100 new records to his repertoire every month to keep the show fresh. As long as they're dancing, this perennial sharp dresser will keep spinning.
"I'm friends with dozens of laptop DJs," Toubin says. "Some of them have the audacity to tell me that what I do is antiquated, but I'm always quick to remind them that a computer could do what they do without them there and that me and my records are irreplaceable. Meanwhile, they're rapidly doing themselves in.
"I'm already starting to see parties and bars with a computer or iPod set up but no DJ. Soon there will be none of them and next there will be none of me. So while I'm aware that I'm destined to lose the war, I may win that battle for the next few years, at least."
Jonathan Toubin's Soul Clap, with supporting sets by Austin's Crack Pipes and a DJ interlude by the Big Boys' Tim Kerr, gets down at Red 7 Saturday, Aug. 4.
A Six-Pack of Soul Clap
"Subway Joe," Joe Bataan
"He's the One That Rings My Bell," Sherri Taylor
"Pitter Patter," Freddy Butler
"Sunshine of Your Love," Ella Fitzgerald
"The Hawg," Eddie Kirk
"Love Bounce," Johnny Cool & the Counts