"People put stuff in your drinks,” said Angela, a topless dancer with Jagger lips and Parton breasts. “It happened to me once. It wasn’t enough to knock me out, but I could tell something happened.”
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said DJ James Call. “They’re not gonna get [the dancers] out of here.”
In his 17 years at Pure Platinum [formerly Dirty Dan’s], Call has negotiated abusive patrons, nervous dancers, and changes in musical tastes.
“When I first started, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Bob Seger were huge,” said Call about the most popular topless tunes of 1983. “Prince and Madonna have always been big.”
Today Call plays metal. On CDs. But it wasn’t always that way. From 1978 to 1985 he played keyboards in the Penetrators, the proto-punk band that helped to create the San Diego alternative music scene.
“We were thinking that heavy metal was dirtbag, over-the-hill dinosaur rock. We thought we were the Next Big Thing. We played a gig with what was then Mickey Ratt [later Ratt]. They made fun of us for being punk rock new wavers, and we made fun of them for being a heavy metal hair band. Here was San Diego saying we were the Next Big Thing, but they went on to get huge.”
At Pure Platinum, Call has outlasted countless dancers and other DJs.
“Some things have changed and some haven’t. It used to be there were four girls during the day and maybe ten at night. Now those numbers have tripled.”
The dancers perform in rotation, each performing to two songs at a time. “I call them girls. I know it’s not terribly PC, but nobody seems to worry about it around here.”
Call plays “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees as one of his so-called break songs. A break song fills time between dancers. “I’m stretching tonight. It’s because it’s Easter. If somebody has any kind of family, they are going to be with them on Easter and not be here.”
Call looks busy even on this slow night. “Dancers come in and pick the songs, or they leave it up to me. Some don’t know the artist or even the song title. I have to guess. Some of the girls are more musically astute.”
One of those would be Emily, who brought in a CD by the late singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley. “I listen to a lot of different music. I am the only dancer I know of [who dances to] Jeff Buckley. I idolize him. He’s incredible.” Emily also works at a high school and goes to college. “I do this to help pay for school.”
Call says some of the dancers need to understand that “guy music” works best in a strip club. “Sometime I’ll try and talk a dancer out of doing a particular song. If you have a room full of people who are all hopped up after Tupac and Old Dirty Bastard, you probably don’t want to follow it with Sarah McLachlan.… I remember one dancer who always wanted to [dance to] Joni Mitchell. The guys started looking around and getting real antsy.”
After 17 years of helping young ladies take it off, I ask Call what’s number one on the Topless Top 40.
“ ‘Dream Weaver,’ maybe,” he said of the 1975 hit by Gary Wright.
“Aerosmith is probably the group that has lasted the longest, getting the most plays year in and year out with songs like ‘Dream On,’ ‘Walk This Way,’ ‘Come Together,’ and ‘Back in the Saddle.’ ”
I ask Call if the ultimate burlesque song, “The Stripper” by David Rose, ever gets played.
“It happens. I played it more in the last year than in the previous eight years.”
Call tells me that in the early ’80s Bob Seger, Adam Ant, Howard Jones, and Culture Club were big. “In the mid-’80s you had your heavy metal Spandex bands like Poison, Guns N’ Roses, and Mötley Crüe. In the late ’80s Lisa Lisa and C+C Music Factory was big.… We also had Goth chicks who would bring in Cocteau Twins, Joy Division, and Sisters of Mercy. The management would have problems with them. The girls were too dark for them. But my observation is the guys loved them. The [Goth strippers] were made up to the max. They looked like real live porn actresses. In the ’90s Green Day, Rancid, and Offspring came on strong. Sublime is still big here.”
Call uses jivey Top 40 jockspeak when he turns on his mike at Pure Platinum.
“There were periods of time when the business wasn’t what management wanted it to be. And there was pressure from the top to bring things up. Every once in a while they take a hard look at what the DJs are doing and think maybe they can change business by firing a DJ or getting [DJs] to arouse the audience and talk loud to encourage them to clap and make noise. I’ve been through several of those things. The way I sound now is an amalgam of all that. I’m on autopilot now. I don’t think of what I’m gonna say. Sometimes I feel like there’s an energy in the room and I try to play off of that. Other times it’s like I’m treading water.”
He knows that patrons don’t come to Pure Platinum to see James Call.
“It’s never about what I’m saying. I look at it as filler between songs. Some DJs talk a lot, tell jokes, and try to be clever. It’s my impression that all that is ignored. If you’re really a great comedian, maybe you can pull that off, but our guests are not here for comedy. DJing at a topless bar is a unique experience. It’s not like being a DJ on the radio or in dance clubs.”
As Angela does the splits in a cloud of CO2, I ask Call who is in charge of the fog machine.
“I am. The only reason I just gave it to her is because she asked for it. A certain percentage of customers are annoyed by it, so I try to avoid it as much as I can.… I think one reason I have lasted is because I have been able to finesse the dancers. I can work with them and not be grating on them. There are a wide variety of women who do this. Being able to get along is important. A dancer puts up enough with the customers. If you have to put up with a DJ on top of that, it really drags it down. I like to think that I’m a genial personality, and I don’t ruffle feathers too bad.”