Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
It’s close to 1AM on a recent Saturday morning and I hear myself saying “It’s cold outside but it’s warm in here,” in my smarmiest baritone strip club DJ voice. “And I mean warm in all the right places.”
The three strippers just stare at me like they think I’m a mentally deranged homeless person who wandered in from an open fire exit. One of them manages a smile, but it seems more out of sympathy than an acknowledgment of my DJing awesomeness. There’s no elegant way of extracting yourself from a situation as perfectly awkward and awful as this. I’m not a paying customer; I’m a journalist who’s trespassed on their backstage sanctuary, the only place where strippers don’t have to pretend to be interested in what socially inept 40-something dudes have to say.
I can’t put into words just how weird it is to be in a room with half-naked women with names like Serenity and Isis, who are moments away from walking on a stage and showing their genitals to strangers, and you’re the one who feels like maybe you made some wrong life choices.
I’m at the Admiral Theatre, one of the oldest strip clubs (sorry, “gentlemen’s clubs”) in Chicago. As a middle-aged husband and father, it’s been years since I’ve been at a strip club (sorry, “gentlemen’s club”) at 1AM on a Saturday morning, and I’ve never been in the dressing room of a strip club (sorry, “gentlemen’s club”) trying to impress strippers with my disc-jockey skills. But these opportunities don’t come along every day, and sometimes you gotta make hay while the sun shines.
“Alright then,” I announce, having just realized I’ve failed the audition that was never actually an audition in the first place. “Let’s have fun out there.” I flee the stripper dressing room like I’m being chased by a bouncer, which was probably just moments away from happening anyway.
I’ve never been entirely at ease in strip clubs. I’ve been to dozens, and it’s never as fun as I assume it’s supposed to be. There’s something about a woman who wouldn’t even smile at me on public transportation who’s now grinding her ass into my lap like she’s grating cheese that feels disingenuous and stupid. The only part that’s ever made me smile is the DJ. Of the dozens of strip clubs I’ve visited in my life (and that’s a conservative number), the DJs have always been my lifeline. They’re the sole reminder of what a hilarious parody of seduction the whole strip club experience really is. The “sexy” music, the lights seemingly designed to cause a non-erotic seizure, the patter which never fails to sound like your dad doing a terrible Tim Meadows Ladies Man impression. DJs are the Greek chorus of a strip club’s tragic melodrama.
As it turns out, they also make a pretty decent living. “You can walk with $1500 a night for one shift,” says Dee Simon, a former DJ who worked at several strip clubs in San Francisco for five years during the early ’aughts, using the moniker DJ Dirty Sanchez. “And that’s just at the smaller clubs in California. A Vegas strip club DJ, those guys will walk with like $3000 in a night. It’s crazy.” Simon wrote a book about his experiences, Play Something Dancy, which is filled with details both unsurprising (strip club patrons are gross, strippers do a lot of drugs) and legitimately surprising, like that strip club DJs are occasionally allowed creative freedom.
If the customers weren’t buying lap dances, Simon would punish them with selections from Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond. And if the strippers weren’t tipping him enough (the bulk of his income), he’d reciprocate by playing purposively unsexy songs during their stage shows. “That could be anywhere from Slayer to Gwar to Weird Al Yankovic,” he says. “One of my favorites is the Night at the Roxbury soundtrack. It’s so, so bad. They’d usually flip me off from the stage, but they couldn’t leave cause they’d be fired. So they had to dance to Cannibal Corpse or Motörhead or whatever I was playing.”
Most of Simon’s stories were supposed to be cautionary tales, but they actually made the life of a strip club DJ sound kinda amazing. Not amazing in a way that would appeal to an adult who values things like health insurance and healthy relationships, but amazing in a way that would’ve made the 16-year-old me, a kid as obsessed with making mixtapes as he was looking at naked women, lose his goddamn mind. I could do both those things simultaneously and get paid for it? That could be my job, which is something I did in my bedroom (albeit half of it entirely in my imagination) every night anyway? As Tina Fey would’ve said if she was a horny teenage music nerd, I want to go to there.
And that’s how I ended up backstage at the Admiral Theatre, making an ass of myself in front of strippers. Luckily, I didn’t have time to loiter in their glitter-and-pasty strewn locker room. I was only passing through, on my way to the sound booth to learn from a master, Lee Bilenda. Lee is 56 years old, and he’s been in the strip club DJ business for going on 23 years.
“I was doing this when we still used cassette tapes,” he tells me. “Back in ‘90s, I had about 19 guys DJing for me. We had light techs. We had stage managers. Prop builders.” These days, it’s just him in a booth, with a sound board, a walkie talkie, and a TV playing ESPN. He works anywhere from three to five nights a weeks, 7PM till 6AM with no breaks. “It’s usually just me alone, drinking Pepsi and smoking Marlboros,” he says. “But they don’t want me to smoke in here anymore, so now it’s just Pepsi.”
No booze for the DJ? Well actually, there’s no alcohol of any sort at the Admiral, because it’s all-nude (or as my wife calls it, “full beaver”) and there’s a law against combining liquor and too much pussy exposure to sexually frustrated single men. Which makes trying to pretend to be a professional DJ apprentice even more difficult. Bilenda is explaining one of the more complicated stage maneuvers he has to choreograph, something called a Texas Rotation — “So Brandi goes from the main stage to what we call the bar stage,” he tells me. “And Roxxy moves over to the VIP stage. And then Anastasia, who’s been dancing at the VIP stage, comes down.”—and I’m nodding and trying to pay attention, but really all I’m looking at is the tiny window facing the stage, where an exceedingly naked and pointy-breasted woman is doing what appears to be Cirque du Soleil kegel exercises.
Luckily, I don’t have his full attention either. He stops every few sentences to cue up a new song, or mutter into his walkie talkie —”Tiffany, got Brigette downstairs? Got Brigette? I need her onstage in two.”—or my personal favorite, the part I find most appealing about his job, other than the music and the getting paid to look at naked women part: the DJ spiel.
“We’ve barely begun to have fun,” he growls into his microphone. “In more ways than one.”
“Some of my best lines are improv,” he tells me. “I try to keep it classy and not get dirty with my sexual innuendos. All the DJs I’ve trained, even going back to my old days, I’d tell them to study the innuendos in songs. I steal so much.”
His formula seems to be rhyming couplets. It’s like Shakespeare, if Shakespeare had written sonnets about woman doing sexual pantomime in exchange for a blizzard of wrinkled dollars.
“Tuck a buck or two. Better yet, tuck a few.”
“And now Candy heads back to the floor to give you a little more.”
Each time he does this, I laugh like it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m not just being polite. It’s all about context. Outside, in the real world, where thin women aren’t as inclined to start a campfire on a stranger’s groin using only their boney asses, his play-by-plays would be ridiculous and borderline creepy. But here, in the polychromatic fake world of female-nudity-as-a-normal-thing, Bilenda is like the voice of God, but less Old Testament and more pro-tits.
“Some of my best lines are improv,” he tells me. “I try to keep it classy and not get dirty with my sexual innuendos. All the DJs I’ve trained, even going back to my old days, I’d tell them to study the innuendos in songs. I steal so much. I’ll take a song and …” He suddenly realizes that the dancer onstage is nearing the end of her set, which has consisted solely of Pink Floyd songs. He taps a few buttons on the sound board and pulls the microphone to his lips. “If you can’t get enough of Paige on stage, you’ll definitely want to bring her to a VIP booth,” he says, his voice lowering to the gravel rumble of his DJ persona. “She knows how to make you … comfortably numb.”
You’ll never guess what Pink Floyd song she was dancing to.
After almost an hour, it feels like one of those dates where only you assumed it was a date and the other person is like “Oh, I thought we were just hanging out.” I’ve tried several times to impress Bilenda with my DJ voice, but I don’t think he realizes that’s what I’m doing. “You have all the right moves,” I tell him at one point, but it comes out sounding more like a drunk Wilford Brimley than a top-of-his-game Wolfman Jack. He smiles at me, and then goes right back to his job. He doesn’t push the microphone towards me, giving me a wink and saying, “Show ’em what you got, kid.”
Otherwise, I’m getting a pretty good education in my fantasy second career. Bilenda shows me his rolodex of dancer cards, which have hand-written notes on every stripper’s musical tastes. He keeps a complete inventory on their likes and dislikes, whether they prefer pop or R&B or dubstep. He’s got details on which strippers have a thing for post-OK Computer Radiohead, and who needs to hear LMFAO or Britney Spears before she’s in the aesthetic mood to peel off her g-string. He has notebooks filled with song ideas, including suggestions directly from the girls, which are so extensive that they almost read like personality profiles. And this is how the DJ really does have the best seat in the strip club house. That guy down in the pit getting the $20 lapdance from Raven, he may have her insincere attention, but he has no idea just how much she likes indie British garage rock.
Our conversation takes weird tangents. Bilenda goes from telling me how the Admiral strippers are like his daughters to telling me about his actual daughter, who isn’t a stripper, and his son, who just turned 18 and may be following in his dad’s footsteps someday. “He made his debut in here not long ago,” Bilenda says. “I want to train him to be a DJ. He’s got a great voice. But he’s still a little young. He’d be like a kid in a candy store. He’d last a month.” Next thing I know, I’m telling him about my son. And this leads to talk of babies, and the weird joy of changing diapers and being a dad for the first time, and how fast it all goes and….
Bilenda glances at the stage and his eyes go wide. Something is wrong. He grabs the walkie-talkie in a panic. “Tiffany, is Santana downstairs? I need her onstage! I need her onstage!” Bilenda forgot to cue the next dancer, and now they’re seconds away from an empty stage. But Bilenda soon realizes his mistake. “My bad, my bad,” he shouts into the walkie talkie. “I don’t need her now, I need her next song, next song. Sorry, MTV is in the house, you know how that goes.”
For some reason, we both find this incredibly funny. “I never fuck that up,” he laughs. “You just got me going.”
“I got you going,” I remind him, “on the subject of babies.”
“We’re in a strip club, talking about babies.”
“What the hell is wrong with us?”
I decide to try my pseudo-DJ voice again. “Sorry about the delay, fellas,” I say, pretending to speak into the microphone that’s nowhere near me. “We were just talking about babies. And not the kind you’re thinking of. Somebody … needs a spanking.”
Bilenda seems impressed. Maybe he’s just being nice, but I feel like I’m finally proving my potential as somebody who can make an off-the-cuff sexual pun in a convincing baritone.
“Next up on the mainstage,” I continue, “an impressive pair of teats that any infant would find nutritious and suckle-worthy.”
“You want a part-time, job?” Bilenda asks. “You’ve got a great voice. I’d hire you in a second.”
I wave him off. I’m flattered — and honestly, it’s what I’ve spent my whole night waiting for — but this isn’t the world for me. All I wanted was some acknowledgment that I’m cool enough to be like him, to sit alone in a dark booth surrounded by CDs and pick an appropriate soundtrack for female nudity. The 16-year-old me wants to give him my resumé, but the 43 year old me is acutely aware that it’s 2AM and he wants to be home in bed with his wife watching Seinfeld reruns.
I say my goodbyes to Bilenda, and he fills my pockets with Red Bulls and Admiral-brand bottled water. I’m barely out the door before he’s back on the microphone. “I guess I better get back to doing my job,” he says to the backs of dozens of male heads. “And you know what my job is, don’t you? To get you fallin’ in love. Over and over again.”