Jonathan Toubin, Comeback Kid

Getting back to the business of making people dance

I was working on this story on the F train when a guy sat down next to me and began talking.

"I know this is rude," he said, "but I accidentally looked at your laptop and saw the name Jonathan Toubin. I used to know him for years in Austin, before we both moved up here. I met him at a Paranoids show"—an Austin punk band. "He was their singer. I expected him to be this hostile Iggy Pop type, but he hugged me. He was immediately one of my favorite people in Texas. He knows everybody. He's like Kevin Bacon. I can't think of anybody with a bad word to say about him."

Jonathan Toubin has a gig tonight. Well, of course—except for the five months he was forced to take off after a freak accident nearly killed him in Portland, Oregon, last December, Jonathan Toubin has a gig every night.

Christopher Farber
Christopher Farber

Toubin is bopping around his small Williamsburg flat on a quiet corner near the Metropolitan Avenue stop. Nearby, condos are multiplying like inbred rabbits. You wouldn't know it here, though. As his girlfriend reads in the bedroom, Toubin shows me his latest finds. Here, a rare Redd Foxx side and Hugh Downs narrating the Apollo moon landing in 1969; there, nutso rockabilly from Joe Clay and vintage blues from Earl King—all in superb condition, all on 45 rpm, seven-inch vinyl.

"You ever heard of Crypt Records?" Toubin asks. Crypt is the reissue indie behind the Las Vegas Grind and Back From the Grave series, and its honcho, Tim Warren, has just sent Toubin a funk rarity from 1975, Hayes Ware's "You Got Me Mama" backed with "I Want to Bump," from Chicago's C.J. Records. On the blank sleeve, Warren has written, "Hey, Jonathan, here it is at last. You got to skip the first three seconds on 'You Got Me' because a tiny bit of wax peeled off, but it still works as a floor-packer, and the flip's a blast. Love you man."

Records like this one are Toubin's bread and butter. He plays, in his own words, "rock and soul 45s of the 1950s and 1960s." Sounds easy, right? We've all heard plenty of oldies radio. Except that Toubin refuses to play the hits—not even at weddings, gigs he takes with the understanding that no requests are accepted. "I don't want to not be able to play 'Dancing Queen' by ABBA for Granny," he says. "I love that song. I love Granny. But I don't bring it. It's not what I do."

What he does is make people dance, as surely as a loved-up Berlin resident rocking Ableton Live on a MacBook. As much as obsessive crate digging, Toubin's sets are about acute beat matching (not at all easy with small records that tend to last two minutes before fading out quickly) and rigorously maintained pace. He wants people to move and will stop at nothing to get them there.

"I used to play Arnold Schwarzenegger workout records," he says. "'Up, and left, and'—people would do it, which was amazing. In nightlife [there can be] a cold distance between people. Once you get everyone dancing, and you put the Arnold Schwarzenegger record on, suddenly people become very comfortable."

It's doubtful he'll be pulling out any Arnold for tonight's "highly lucrative" gig, a three-hour fashion party. "They haven't even told me what they want," he says. "Some people want me to do a soul set. I've been invited to go to French people's homes and play French '60s [pop] because I have a specialty for that, too. I never know." A private gig like this one pays a premium, he says. "If it's for something really cool, like a museum or a charity, I'll do it for less than if it's for this type of thing, where I'll sock it to them."

It's not hard to believe: Toubin is a life force. Even when we disagree ("When 15-year-olds take drugs, it doesn't mean it's a lasting musical movement," he says—what, like mod?), he's entirely engaging, seeming to vibrate at a different level while remaining earthbound. He can be entertainingly catty ("People have to play the Smiths everywhere. It's the law"), and he's quick to distance himself from the run of bar DJs in town.

"I hate hearing my mom and brother play the same shit in their cars as New York DJs," he says, revving up. "My brother's playing New Order, which I've been listening to since I was 14. My mom played Lady Gaga. I told them, 'I should get you over there and you can play your MP3s in New York at a hotel.' I always imagined you come here 'cause you want to hear music you can't hear at Chili's in the airport. Go to any art-world event—it's people playing R. Kelly's most famous song. I feel like I'm on a Ukrainian cruise ship in Williamsburg. I went to Daddy's. They had some guy playing all these '90s radio hits. Fine, but I didn't come here for that."

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