Rollin’ on the River: A Nightmare to RememberBy Stu Chisholm
Veteran DJ encounters unexpected waves
Back when Mobile Beat first started out, there was a regular feature called “DJ Nightmares,” which was later changed to make the feature more inclusive of unusual, “extraordinary” events that may have had a more positive spin. With the classic definition in mind, I thought I’d present my own story of what can only be called a true DJ nightmare…
Hot Town, Summer in the City
With the sun shining and the heat of summer here in earnest as I write this, I’m reminded of the day last summer when I got a last-minute call to spin some tunes on a river boat. It sounded like great fun, so I jumped at the chance. Even better, the gig was a “reunion” tour of Detroit, designed to bring back former residents to relive old Motown memories as well as catch up with the changes the city has gone through. That meant that many famous local celebrities would also be along for the cruise. It sounded like the party of a lifetime!
But wait, not so fast…
The day would turn out to be one of the hottest days of the year. Adding to the misery was the summer humidity that is usually pretty high here in Michigan, but even worse right on the Detroit River. Unloading and parking in downtown Detroit, especially when you have a 24-foot cube truck, is INSANE. It took much longer than planned and my roadie and I sweated far too much. Yet we finally boarded the Detroit Princess with plenty of time to set up, and we had been assured that the boat had its own PA system that runs throughout the ship. All we had to do was tap my console into it and life would be good. In fact, I’d done that very thing on a sister ship in Lansing, so what could go wrong?
As it turned out, a whole lot.
Approaching the stage, the first thing we were confronted by was a setup including two Peavey high-end cabinets and two Gemini bass cabinets, powered by a single Peavey amp unceremoniously lying on the floor. No rack, no road case-nada. When I hooked in my console, the system sounded horrible! The lack of high end made me suspect that the normally rugged Peavey speakers were actually blown, and nothing seemed to be coming from the Gemini cabinets despite their being connected. Oh, and by the way, no “sound through the ship” as promised either. Time to head back to the truck for load #2.
Finally, we were ready to go, happy we’d built in some extra “just-in-case” time. That happiness would be short-lived, though. There was more misery to come!
Big Wheel Keep on Turnin’
The guests all arrived and, as I mentioned, a bunch of Detroit-area radio legends were among them, including Mr. Lee, Robin Seymour, Johnny Ginger and others. I’d prepared a special CD of super-rare Detroit stuff and was all ready to spring it on ‘em. The absolute best items were the last three tracks: a classic commercial for a local car dealership (any old-time Detroiter can sing the “Roy O’Brien” song), a rare Ernie Harwell piece on the Detroit Tiger baseball team, and a classic commercial for Faygo pop (soda, to all you non-Midwesterners), a Michigan original. I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces!
Instead, there was a look of horror on MY face when I found out that somehow-and I really don’t have a CLUE as to how-the disc got damaged! This was just after my changeover to computer-based performance, and I hadn’t had time to rip the disc to one of my hard drives. On inspection, the disc had somehow gotten a nick in the data layer; it looked like torn aluminum foil! (#!@%$!!)
Trying to regain my cool, I told myself that three songs out of over 40,000 would NOT make or break my show. I still had plenty of rarities and local tunes, and nobody would miss a surprise they hadn’t expected in the first place. Everything would be fine. And it would’ve been if that was all that had gone wrong…
It was time for the presentations, so I made a brief introduction and then handed the host my nice Shure wireless mic. I also gave one to the first celebrity to speak. Upon introducing the first celebrity, the host then decided to flick the mic’s “off” button instead of the “mute” button, causing a blast of ear-wax-melting white noise to erupt from the speakers! Of course, everyone looked at you-know-who. (Note to self: Radio guys aren’t any more equipment savvy than a typical best man.)
One fact of shipboard life that nobody ever tells you about is that the electrical power on a boat or ship is not exactly the same as what us landlubbers are used to. It sometimes cuts out or flickers, if only for a split-second. And, of course, it was just enough to reset my CD players. So at one moment a song was playing and everyone was singing along with it, and then-POOF! Dead silence. The entire room full radio vets, celebrities and guests were once again gaping at yours truly. Restarting the song, I’d say something like, “We’ll just consider this the extended version!”
Sigh. I’m sure that these celebrities thought I’d simply caved under the pressure, yet I’d worked with many big names over the years and that simply isn’t an issue for me. Yet that bunch will never know it. I gave away one business card that night…to a guy passing by my home while we were UNLOADING my gear. It would’ve been a complete, classic “sometimes it’s better to just stay home” moment if the rest of the party hadn’t gone well, but everyone seemed to have a good time for the rest of the cruise.
Thinking back over the whole affair, I realized that even after more than 25 years in the business, there were still some things I could’ve done to prevent or minimize some of that night’s gremlins. Going in, I had never felt so prepared for an event in my life, yet my preparations had all centered on the content of my show and not the technical angle. While the weather, power and other issues weren’t any fault of mine, I had violated a standing personal rule by relying on information supplied by the venue (in this case, the ship’s electrical guy), something I never do otherwise. (Another note to self: venue staff members on ships aren’t any more reliable than staff anywhere else!) A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) unit will also be standard equipment when I play on ships from now on.
Next, no matter how credentialed or professional the people you are working with might be, never EVER skip the technical reminders. (In this case, telling the radio guys to NOT turn-off the wireless mics!) Even pros can stand a reminder every now and then, and I’d rather risk seeing a miffed celebrity than a whole roomful of annoyed guests. Lastly, I’ve rid myself of all vestiges of CDs! Any last-minute songs are dropped onto a flash drive, so there are no delicate discs to damage. Thanks to this less-than-stellar event, this DJ and his equipment are much more sea worthy!
Until next time, safe spinnin’!
A mobile DJ since 1979, Stu Chisholm has also been a nightclub DJ in suburban Detroit. He has also done some radio, commercial voice-over work and has even worked a roller skating rink! Stu attended the famous Specs Howard School of Broadcasting and has been a music collector since the age of seven.
Filed Under: Issues from 2008, Profiles
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