Spin Doctors

Every morning, Mark Levantino, 47, arrives at a small garage wedged between superstores and strip malls on the Boston Post Road in Orange, CT. Inside, sunlight reflects off of the shiny metal instruments that line the walls and dances across the two car jacks that sit on the concrete floor. Most evenings, Mark faces a similar, psychedelic light show as he’s cloaked in the Tinkerbelle glow of the disco ball spinning above the dance floor at Bar, where he moonlights as its resident DJ.

Mark is a heavy-set white guy with kind eyes. He lives for nightfall when he trades auto parts for dance charts and transforms from mechanic to DJ Mechanix. His repairman jumpsuit gives way to a clean shirt, collared and pressed. The grease under his fingernails is undetectable in the dim light of the club. His passion is spinning records, not tires.

Mark spends hours each day on his back, peering about to get an unobstructed glimpse of the undercarriage on the lift above him. At Bar, he sits high above the dance floor in the DJ booth and gazes down at the club crowd. Like the car, it doesn’t stare back.

If a DJ is playing at a nightclub and no one is there to listen, does he make a sound? A block down the street from Bar, Joe Giucastro, a resident DJ at nearby club Alchemy, thin and pale with a five o’clock shadow, can often be found playing House-progressive dance music-for an empty dance floor. Joe-who has spun in Oslo, Montreal, and Benidorm, Spain-earned a gold record in 1993 for remixes of the Grammy-winning, French world music group Deep Forest. Now he watches a foreign couple graze the line where carpet meet parquet, with two half-drained Coronas balancing on the edge of the table that supports the turntables.

On “The DJ List,” a user-generated online ranking system which rates DJs worldwide, Joe and Mark are numbers 100,657 and 37,262, respectively. But the DJs who really matter are the top fifty. They are paid thousands of dollars and shuttled around the world to play long sets at glitzy clubs. Dave Dresden, Connecticut’s legendary success story who now makes music in San Francisco with his collaborator Gabriel, is one of them. On this list, Joe has zero points. Mark has four.

At one time, most DJs were revered as demigods. Even the less-than-famous had street cred and attracted local followings. But today patrons party for booty and booze, not beats. A recognizable blend of top forty hits and timeless throwback jams is the standard soundtrack of mainstream bo�tes.

Unlike the story of these clubbers, the tale of New Haven DJs is sober. Gone are the serious music fans, the ones devoted to the DJ’s art. Clubgoers at Alchemy and Bar are there for the beer and see dance floors as a fun perk. “Very, very seldom do I see more than maybe ten regulars,” says Mark, “And that’s scary.”

The fecund club hub of New York throbs only 90 miles away, the promised land these New Haven DJs someday hope to reach. There, DJ culture persists-tantalizingly close yet still far out of reach of New Haven DJs.

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hen darkness falls on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, Crown Street comes alive. Dim street lamps, clusters of cigarette embers, and the glow of cell phones light the strip while the click-clack of high heels and the call-response banter of party posses reverberates through the night. As midnight fades to morning, the crowd is rowdy and the police are vigilant. Sweaty bodies spill into the streets, slipping from one drink special to the next.

On Thursday night, the kings of New Haven nightlife preside over the city’s dance floors. Nobody cares. A drunk girl gyrates with overt sexuality, balancing a vodka cranberry in one hand, as she sways the other above her head, cocked in a come-hither manner. Her lips don’t miss a word to a song she has heard a thousand times.

Despite the generous array of clubs on Crown, everyone knows which two spots are always packed, the kind of crowded that causes ladies to link arms and guys to sling a finger through their girlfriends’ belt loops. In a city fueled by nightclub glitz, Bar and Alchemy will never close.

The latter, a sprawling, three-level oasis of alcohol, loud music, and strategic lighting cues, boasts the biggest dance floor in Connecticut. It is as close as New Haven gets to a standard New York party club-which is to say, not close enough.

High above the sweaty crowd, is DJ Robert LaFrance, Joe’s colleague. Illuminated by a single strand of Christmas lights and the greenish glow of his equipment, he looks like a mad scientist. His hands move quickly, skillfully, arranging an endless layered mix of pop hits. When he spins around to flip a light switch, a siren goes off and the crowd goes crazy. “My thing is really House music. [This] is kind of cheesy,” he says of the Billboard hip-hop playlist he is asked to play in the main room. “But I’m okay with that.” DJ Rob is not here to educate, but to entertain.

On the upper level of Alchemy is Lounge 215, a 21+ area posing as a V.I.P. room. It has its own bar and boasts a buffet of silver banquet dishes offering rubbery munchies. DJ Joe is there playing House music.

To the pop-listener, the sound is distorted and exotic. A descendant of disco, House music is electric, tripped-out, and airy, with a four by four pulse and driving bassline designed to keep the body in motion. According to DJ Rob, House music generates “a feeling that you can’t really describe.”

If Alchemy aspires to resemble a crowded Paris discotheque, then Bar recalls a jammed Dublin pub. Surrounded by mahogany, exposed brick accents, beer garden-style seating, and an antique pool table, people relax and drink beer. Originally opened as a nightclub in 1991, Bar successfully added pizza ovens and a microbrewery in the mid-’90s. On this particular Thursday there is hardly enough elbow room to bring cup to mouth.

Depending on your vibe, you may avoid or gravitate to Bar’s back room, where DJ Mark supervises a smattering of people on the dance floor below. Of the quarter of the club-goers lounging in the back room, maybe a twentieth are dancing. Compared to the main room at Alchemy, this is tame.

After the hip-hop DJ winds down at the end of Thursday night, Mark begins a house set. The scant dance floor quickly clears. “[Last] night I was called a fucking asshole ten times in the booth,” he says, not altogether unhappy. Even if he is insulted, these are the moments when Mark stood out and was noticed for what he loves: playing House. He and Joe are throwbacks to when being a DJ mattered.

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n 1964, nightclubs were about the music. “Going out” implied dances, sipped cocktails, and artful seduction. At discoth�ques, clubgoers went over the rainbow on LSD and danced the monkey, the frug, and Watusi until the harsh sun rose over Battery Park. In May 1965, “discoth�que” appeared in “Among the New Words” an article in the linguistic journal American Speech. Five years later, the dazzling, decadent heyday of disco began. In New York, the conductor of this movement was not a club proprietor, musical artist, or celebrity. He was a DJ: Francis Grasso, presented by the city with blow jobs and blow.

Even ninety miles away in New Haven, the scene was “pretty intense,” recalls Chris Arnott, Arts Editor for the New Haven Advocate. “There were discoth�ques that were a really big deal…the city had a claim to some real stuff.”

But Joe and Mark grew up on a new sound that had its roots in 1980s Chicago. There, at a club called The Warehouse, House music was coming into its own. The vibrations hit the Big Apple overnight. As young men, Joe and Mark frolicked at notorious NYC hotspots like Paradise Garage and the original Sound Factory. Mark began DJing in 1977, moonlighting at places like NYC’s Fillmore. It was a time when the influence of DJs rivaled that of the radio. “We were at a table at Limelight,” Mark reminisces, “and this is when Madonna had just released ‘Everybody.’ She was at the table with us for about three hours. We had a lot of fun with her.” Back in the 1980s, DJs like Mark and Joe could make Madonna famous.

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hen House made its Connecticut debut in the early ’90s, Joe was attracting wild crowds at Aetna Diner in Hartford. On June 7, 1995, The Hartford Courant credited him with introducing House and techno to Connecticut. With his fresh Chicago sound and an intuitive sense of how to move the crowd, Joe started Riot at the Municipal, a party so popular that it was featured on the cover of the Hartford Advocate in 1989. The headline read “Bringing Down the House: The Municipal Restaurant is home to Riot, Hartford’s new, cutting-edge ‘acid house’ night club.” Riot soon found its own venue. As co-owner and DJ, Joe was a local sensation, getting the crowd off three nights a week and even bringing the after-hours scene back to the floor he rented in his co-owner’s place. He was at the vanguard of a dance craze reminiscent of the legendary disco era. “I suspect that the big difference between the ’90s and now is that there was more spectacle then,” says Arnott. “There were warehouses being rented out for big spectacular dance parties.” People did Ecstasy and danced until dawn. These were the later glory days of dance music.

Soon, Joe began to get noticed outside of Connecticut. He opened Riot New York and Riot Atlanta, and even traveled overseas in 2003 and 2004 to do a series of club tours. “In Spain,” he says, “people would come up and ask me for my autograph.” Europeans still idolize even the unknown DJ.

But back in the States, many DJs lead double lives, find minor success, and then lose it. Three years after international recognition, Joe is back at Alchemy, making a living. DJ Rob has a day job, a wife, and three kids. “My passion is not to sell telecommunications services to large corporations,” he says of his work at AT&T in Farmington, Connecticut. If the DJs go unnoticed by night, then by day they are undetectable.

Joe hopes to achieve notoriety by teaming up with Rob in a production team they call “Rejexx.” The two work out of a spare bedroom in Rob’s house and attempt to do what the big boys do-make music. These days, fame as a DJ depends on music production, which gets you noticed by the industry and courted by musicians and clubs. Joe’s five minutes of fame was next to nothing compared to today’s number one DJ, Tiesto, a true artist who sells millions of records and plays to sold-out stadiums. Rejexx has posted several tracks it produced on its website. The newest, “Do You Want Me?” is described as “featuring syncopated percussion, chopped up female vocals, and an old-school house bassline.” Rob and Joe gave out some demo CDs at a music conference last year and plan to distribute more in the upcoming months. Most of all, Joe wants to see the tracks on vinyl. A CD just goes in a pile, but vinyl says it like the song-with some soul.

Joe has aspirations of starting his own label. Though sometimes withdrawn, he has always made good business decisions and has two gold records to show for it. But fame is fickle, and today, Joe is back spinning in New Haven and Hartford. Like any American dreamer, he wants more.

“Where I want to be, is to do music full time,” says Mark. “I really want to be a DJ worldwide, and I know I can do it. DJing, remixing, producing. Time is so limited.” He says this somewhat mournfully. He is sitting at a table at Bar eating pizza topped with mashed potatoes and bacon and drinking Coca-Cola. Though he’s faced with a half-empty garage and a half-eaten pizza, this middle-aged man with his middle-aged dream is someone you want to believe in.

“Salt and pepper hair and grease in his fingernails,” says Ron LeDuc, a friend of Mark who works the door at Bar, “[But he] fucking gets in there and fucks its up.” LeDuc designs Mark’s business cards, website, and CDs, all of which feature a cartoon logo of a sexpot female mechanic. He is quick to talk Mark up, but not without good reason. In the DJ room, Mechanix mixes sweet beats.

“He’s fucking phenomenal,” LeDuc continues, getting noticeably excited. “He’s so smooth; I’ve seen him spin 2 CDs and a fucking turntable at the same time. Are you kidding me? That’s fucking nuts.”

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t’s true that Joe came closer to fame, but when it comes down to it, he and Mark are two DJs, working one block away from each other and fighting for the same prize. In a city satisfied by a soundtrack to beer, Joe and Mark are underappreciated and anonymous to most. But they will keep their day jobs and keep on spinning. Because when you have a dream and nothing to lose, you go for it. You hand out your business card. Give away CDs. Put contacts on the guest list. You call back. You play on. Anything to get noticed.

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