Jonathan Toubin, Comeback Kid


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.

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.”

Yet Toubin is no mere snob. “What makes culture is inclusiveness and showing people that the world doesn’t have to be what they see,” he says. His regular Friday night at the Lower East Side bar Home Sweet Home demonstrates that inclusiveness. “You get a bunch of stragglers from the street. Those people are my favorite. I love it when people walk in like, ‘I don’t get it.’ I don’t consider regular people wrong at all.

“I can’t tell you how many times my guests that were collector guys criticized the people for not dancing, saying they just don’t know what anything is,” he continues. “No. It’s never their fault. Even if they don’t really care for it, you should be the guy [who makes them say], ‘I don’t really like Thai food, but this restaurant’s really good.'”

Toubin, who is 40, grew up a radical in conservative Houston, Texas. “I was putting on punk shows in high school for anti-nuclear causes in the hardcore era,” he remembers. At 17, he moved to Austin—home of his beloved Butthole Surfers—to be with his dad. Toubin stayed there nine years, playing guitar and singing in bands like the Paranoids, and making friends with everyone in the scene.

He moved to New York in 1998. Williamsburg became home base, and he joined Grand Mal, who’d signed with Slash, then signed to a ritzy PolyGram distribution deal. “I was getting a check just to be in the band, on retainer,” Toubin says. “All we had to do was go to England every now and then and play gigs.”

By the mid ’00s, Toubin had returned to grad school at CUNY, beginning his American history Ph.D. while living in the East Village. But after a breakup in 2005, he chucked his thesis, returned to Williamsburg, and began playing music (this time with art punks Cause for Applause) and promoting events again.

In 2006, Toubin released a Kid Congo Powers album, Solo Cholo, on his label New York Night Train, which would become Toubin’s umbrella for promoting events and shows with a historically acute bent. Powers’s record-release party, for instance, featured Ian Svenonius, MC Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, “Twin Peaks lady” Julee Cruise, Judah Bauer from Blues Explosion, and Stu Spasm from Lubricated Goat.

“Jonathan knows a lot of people from diverse scenes and understands what connects them and makes them all valuable,” Svenonius wrote in an e-mail. “He has big ideas and a conceptual, artistic understanding of show throwing and event promoting.”

At first, Toubin simply put together bills. “Every time King Khan or Black Lips or Jay Reatard came around, I’d do the after-parties,” he says. “I had a big [mailing] list, so people frequently were getting in touch with me if they were coming to New York: ‘We need someone to put on a last-minute show.’ I could get 300 people the day of.” He started playing records at the events simply because he could. Like a lot of rockers, he’d snickered at DJ culture for years. But he soon began to warm to it.

“Immediately, I realized that every place has a two turntables at the bar,” he says. “I’d play some bar gig, and it would be a crappy night, but the people there that night, I’d see again next week. Not all of them, but the ones who related to it. Once people started offering me stuff, because of economic necessity, I played everything.”

He soon got good at it. “I always quit things right when I was doing well. I told myself: ‘Next time you show success at something, don’t look back. Don’t question. Just do it.’ And it happened to be this weird DJ thing. It wasn’t my life ambition, but ended up being something that I love. I remember a friend saying: ‘Work on your band, your shoes, you love life. Don’t make a big deal about this.'”

Toubin ignored him. “I learned it working at Kinko’s,” he says with a big smile. “I said, ‘I’m going to be the best copy guy.’ I had more fun doing a good job.”

Early last December, Toubin went on a quick West Coast run with Soul Clap, his “bread and butter” night featuring a dance contest with a $100 prize. On December 4, he played San Francisco, followed by L.A. two days later. On December 7, Toubin flew up to Portland, which was to be the final stop before he went back to New York to play his usual local gigs. He checked into the Jupiter Hotel, an old motor inn that, not unlike Toubin’s rock and soul 45s, had been remade into a boutique throwback.

He was still asleep at 11 a.m. when Radio Cab driver Terry Uding was wheeling into the Jupiter’s parking lot. Suddenly, Uding fell into a diabetic seizure and lost control of the vehicle. The taxi ran through the side of the hotel—and into Toubin’s room. The car ran him over; it took several people to remove it from atop him. Blood was everywhere. Bones were broken in his skull, his shoulders, his chest; his liver was punctured, and his lungs were crushed.

Toubin barely survived. He fell into a coma that lasted for a month. Several surgeries were required to fix his lungs. There was instant support from throughout Toubin’s community. His previously booked DJ gigs were turned into benefit shows; proceeds from concerts featuring Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Chain and the Gang and Eleanor Friedberger went to pay hospital bills. When Toubin regained consciousness, he was overwhelmed, both with the outpouring and by the fact that he couldn’t jump back into work. “I really look forward to the day when people don’t look at me and think ‘accident,'” he told The New York Times in May. “I don’t want everybody to see me like that.”

He made an astonishingly swift recovery—the Times reported that his doctors had dubbed him “the miracle guy”—and in April, he began to make unannounced DJ appearances again, first in Portland and then, upon returning home, in New York. “I got a lot of high fives and weird handshakes I don’t understand,” he says of those first appearances. “People were really happy.”

But Toubin wasn’t. He’d lost a good deal of hearing, forcing him to wear two hearing aids, though he keeps his right ear free to EQ when he DJs. Losing step on a craft he’d spent years perfecting—as well as his chronic workaholism—sent him batty for a while.

“Every month for a while, I was making a quota of 100 new records in the repertoire,” he explains. “I don’t want people to get bored, and I don’t want to get bored.” After the accident, though, his confidence wavered: “The big frustration was going out and not being able to achieve the sort of command of the dancefloor that I had. Every week since I’ve been home has been me trying to get back where I was, and it’s working. You get a good ride in life. You just keep doing it, and you keep learning, and keep getting better at that thing.”

Toubin puts on another 45: Angie Hester’s “The Bump Step,” on ABC Records—an r&b disc from 1967, featuring the title chanted by a male vocal group and Hester whispering the names of dances over a vamp flavored with Middle Eastern colors seemingly borrowed from the I Dream of Jeannie theme. It shows its age, but in an alluring way.

“You hear that through a big sound system—if you’re an interesting person, you’d probably go, ‘What the heck just happened?'” says Toubin. “And that’s what I want.”

Jonathan Toubin hosts the 4Knots Music Festival After-Party at Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club on Saturday, July 14.