Call him a rare disco revivalist, San Francisco’s champion of “The Golden Age of Gay” or “The Godfather of Bathhouse Disco.” Or, just call him DJ Bus Station John, that’s his name after all. Currently helming such successful parties as Love Will Fix It, Disco Daddy at the SF Eagle and the long-running (ten years next spring) mother of all sleaze disco parties, Tubesteak Connection, BSJ is one of the most prolific and devoted DJ’s to happen to disco.
DJ Bus Station John comes to Seattle next weekend for the most celebrated gay holiday, Halloween! He spins Friday October 25 at the Seattle Eagle, then Saturday October 26 at Pony for STIFFED!
How did the name “Bus Station John” come about?
I started djing records in 2000 when i was on the cusp of turning 40, after collecting vinyl for 20+ years and working most of my life as a waitress (or as Veda Pierce would say, “a common frump!”). I wanted a name that stood apart from the glut of rather same-y, rave-inspired dj monikers typical of that time (think “DJ Xfinity”), one that not only reflected my passion for old school gay culture & music, but something that was humorous & not self-serious.
There used to be a sex club in San Francisco where you’d call this hotline every week just to hear the grizzled proprietor rasp the latest dirty limerick he’d made up. He also gave details on the location, hours, etc., rhapsodizing that the place had “more action than a bus station john,” a bus station john, of course, being the men’s room at, say, the local Trailways depot, traditionally a place of intrigue where gay men would “make friends.” Thus, “DJ Bus Station John” was born. Little did I know my name would fly right over the heads of most queens under 50, ha ha. The older guys’ eyes gleam knowingly, though, which is good enough for me.
You really take from all areas of the “retro homo” vibe. Do you have any particular favorite eras or artists or producers? Can you give us some examples of staples or “must-plays” in your sets?
A while back somebody dubbed me “the godfather of bathhouse disco.” I’m not precisely sure what that means, but I’ll admit it has a nice ring to it. It’d probably be more accurate to say “bathhouse-era” disco, specializing as I do in dance music from the mid-late ’70’s & early ’80’s. The scope of my sound has expanded a lot over the years; in addition to playing the disco & hi-NRG you would’ve heard in gay bars, discos & bathhouses back in the day, I’ve been digging ever-deeper, excavating a lot of great tracks from a spectrum of other genres from that period—garage, R&B, funk & electro-funk, italo, euro-disco, new- & no-wave, a little bit of very early house, NYC street music—that never got their due either because they were overshadowed by the hits of the day, or simply got lost in the shuffle of time. It feels great to cast a light on them, and seeing people collectively lose it on the dance floor to songs they’ve never heard before is the icing on the cake.
As far as staples or “must-plays,” I generally don’t get too specific as I don’t want to be pigeonholed by a playlist, or a cd, or a soundcloud set, and have people go “oh, that’s what she sounds like.” I don’t want to paint myself into a corner that way. Actually, when people ask me what my favorite artists or songs are, I stare into space & draw a giant blank, really because there’s so much music I love.
I will say that when I first started out, absolutely nobody was playing Patrick Cowley, which was mind-boggling to me since he was so huge in the gay demi-monde, and remains one of the foremost pioneers in electronic dance music. So he was a staple in my repertoire for a long time, along with other innovative producers like Gino Soccio, Bobby “O” & Denis LePage of Lime. Anyone interested in exploring early synthesized dance music should definitely check them all out. Personally, I still love them & include them in my sets on occasion, but thanks to the internets, more djs have discovered & started playing them in the past few years, so I’ve continued to move forward into less familiar terrain.
Let’s talk about “Aunt Charlie’s” and this no cell phone policy? Can you share a little about that?
The “no cell” policy at my clubs liberates people to disconnect from their hand-held electronic devices & connect with each other—and, of course, with the music. We didn’t have no telephone booths on the dance floor back in the day, kids, and we managed to have a fantastic time.
Nightlife was about mystery, magic, finding escape, sex, kindred spirits, and maybe even love. You left the house, and you’d see where the night would take you. Some nights were amazing, more than a few depressing; either way, you lived real life, in the moment, with no electronic distraction in your hand. Being constantly “connected” isn’t natural to our existence. If you need that distraction, maybe don’t leave the house.
How do you feel about queer assimilation and its impact on queer culture and music?
I ask this because we were really innovators in music programming at one point (e.g. people like DJ Bobby Viteritti and West End Records founder Mel Cheren).
A big part of my mission has always been to keep the thread to old school gay culture alive, particularly the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era when gay men were the most artistic, creative, cutting-edge people on the planet. Despite the huge influence we had on the culture-at-large (whether they knew it or not), we moved on a decidedly underground plane, apart from the mainstream—something i miss frankly & profoundly. Yes, I want to have equal rights & to not get bashed—but I don’t want us to be boring. Being outsiders meant freedom to define our own paths in life—it wasn’t about mimicking straight people. Being forced to find our way in the world as non-conformists fueled our creative spirit, and also fostered a real sense of brotherhood. One of the few public places where we could seek—& find—community? A gay disco.
While I can’t re-create what I call the “Golden Age of Gay,” I can channel it, evoking its essence aesthetically through the use of vintage visuals, and, more importantly, by playing the music of the era. I celebrate artists, both known & obscure, who actually have talent, can sing, can play instruments, had the self-discipline to learn their craft, and, serendipitously for everyone, came together to create songs that stand the test of time. I think it’s vital to give people something more substantial than the formulaic sampled, auto-tuned, soul-less monotony that typically passes for dance music today. Look at the resurgence in popularity of Sylvester, Patrick Cowley & Arthur Russell as well as 60’s soul in recent years—it’s testament to the fact that people are hungry for something genuine, something better than what the media & music industry relentlessly foist upon us.
It’s also important to me to create a dynamic where men my age & beyond feel welcome. I think lot of of older guys would like to go out, but have given up because they feel most bars & clubs have nothing to offer them but attitude, ageism & the din and glare of bombastic sound product, which totally makes sense. They’ve had the best—why would they subject themselves to Ke$ha? Ya gotta remember, we’re from a generation where men were men and queens were queens. Our peers, inspirations, idols & role models ranged from Al Parker to Anna Magnani, from Quentin Crisp to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from Divine to Grace Jones—mature, fully-fledged adult human beings. Now we’re supposed to be endlessly fascinated by the bullshit dramas of straight suburban housewives and witless teenage girls? Fuck that. I love giving older guys a reason to come back out, and making spaces where the quality of the music itself encourages inter-generational camaraderie has been super-gratifying.
Do you share your knowledge with any young DJs?
I have a couple of friends in their twenties, budding DJs who have a deep appreciation for the music and are avid retro dance vinyl collectors. I know they feel my influence, and i give them a few pointers now & then, but half the joy of collecting is in the process of discovery, so i don’t say too much (though i might warn them not to waste their money on an exceptionally shitty record….)
What’s on your turntable at home?
Strangely enough I don’t listen to that much music at home, mainly because I want to keep things fresh when I’m playing out. “Wait, she’s sitting on this plethora of riches & doesn’t take advantage of the fact?” OK, now I feel guilty…I better go put on a record.
(questions supplied by Guncle Tony)