Ridin' the wheels of steel

Why don't you smile now; A Slim's chance.

Last week, my friends and I bought an audio mixer for a pal's birthday, which we presented to him at dinner. We made him open the gift while he was in the restaurant -- remember how much you hated that as a kid? -- which led to some unexpected attention from the staff. "Hey, do you spin?" the busboy asked. Not to be outdone, the maitre d' sauntered over. "That's not a bad mixer -- I've got a better one, but he's got that one," he said, gesturing toward the busboy. Thus ensued a discussion about what kinds of music the workers spin, leaving us wondering exactly what the difference is between progressive house and progressive trance.

The interaction reminded me of a woman I'd met recently who had told me she'd realized that all her friends had become DJs. This isn't huge news, considering that the electronica revolution and DJs like Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers have made the turntable a star. But the sheer volume of deck jockeys today isastounding. Any day now, I expect to see a homeless guy with a sign that says, "Will scratch (more than my ass) for food." As Guitar Center General Manager Jeff McArg eloquently puts it, "From '78 to '85, everyone wanted to be Eddie Van Halen; now everyone wants to be QBert."

Over the past three years, sales of guitars at McArg's SOMA store have plateaued, while turntables and mixers have gone "through the roof." "It's brought in a whole new crowd," he admits. In the spirit of this new turntable populism comes "Smile," a DJ night held at the Hush Hush Lounge on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Begun a year ago by Neil Martinson and Megan Hickey, "Smile" is one of the few places around town where you can hear old-school pop music spun by unpretentious folks. "We're all just record collectors," Martinson says in describing his DJ crew, which now also includes April Rose and Lou Suarez.

"Our idea originally was to play good vibes, '70s rock, pop, and soul," Martinson says via phone from his S.F. home. Over time, and as "Smile" moved from the Beauty Bar to the Hush Hush in March of this year, the DJs refined their concept. "We don't play just the obvious hits; we find the songs that slip through the cracks." Attempting to separate themselves from the wealth of kitsch-loving vinyl hounds, Martinson says their sound is "esoteric pop -- not campy psych by people who dig Kojak. We want to play beautiful songs." Asked to list some of the groups he spins, Martinson reels off the Raspberries, Queen, the Kinks, the 5th Dimension, Os Mutantes, the Small Faces, and Gilbert O'Sullivan -- a nice range, to be sure.

Since August, "Smile" has also hosted bands. So far, the club night has featured San Diego's Bubblegum and bell-bottom act Teacher's Pet, East Bay folk-surrealists the Moore Brothers, and S.F. bucolic jangle outfit the Gentlekin (which also plays Cafe Du Nord on Sunday, Dec. 16). This Sunday at 9 p.m., Oakland's the Cuts deliver a set of messy garage rock -- with no turntable or mixer in sight. Tickets are $3; call 241-9944.

Maybe they can put some of those nice beams in front of the stage On Nov. 29, Joel Selvin put a long-rumbling rumor to rest when he reported in the Chronicle that a Slim's-related group was buying the Great American Music Hall. (We're hoping he'll tackle the one about John Ashcroft being the love child of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover next.) Selvin wrote that Frank Caufield, a longtime partner in Slim's, had gathered a passel of investors and planned to take over the revered nightclub before Dec. 31. Slim's General Manager Dawn Holiday seemed to think the deal was a foregone conclusion, as she discussed keeping the booking policy as is. But according to Luke Helm -- consultant for the Diablo Management Group, which is overseeing the sale of assets from Riffage, the defunct dot-com that technically still owns the Great American -- Selvin may have jumped the gun.

"We have reached a tentative agreement in basic terms, but there are still many details that must go through before we close," Helm says via phone from his Walnut Creek office. When asked about the article's suggestion of a Jan. 1 switch in management, Helm says emphatically, "That is not a possibility. I don't think the Chronicle gave it the weight that it deserves. The deal is far from done; there's lots of work left to do." Helm does admit that Diablo is talking exclusively with the Slim's group at this time, and he hopes they'll have something hammered out in three months. Perhaps by then Selvin can find out whether Britney's boobs are real or Mam-orex.

 
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