The Metronome Diary 

Joining The Love Parade, Vol. 2

There are a couple reasons your average techno enthusiast can be excused for not knowing about the Bench and Bar. Firstly, the gay bar in downtown Oakland doesn't play much techno. Its speakers, light shows, and goodly-sized dance floor are usually occupied by drag shows, Latino cowboy nights, and lesbian variety acts.

Secondly, the bar is all but undetectable to the naked eye. In keeping with the grand tradition of neighbors such as the Ruby Room and the Oakland Museum, the Bench and Bar blends into its urban surroundings to the point of invisibility.

Tuesdays, though, have slowly been putting the Bench and Bar--and Oakland in general--on the electronic music map. On that night, the bar becomes the Mad Hatter, a haven for East Bay electronica with an egalitarian twist: each Mad Hatter bill includes a DJ plucked at random from a group of hopeful vinyl geeks who have dropped their names in a hat.

It's a democratizing element that brings out crowds of hopeful DJs with record crates and friends in tow. The open, anything-goes spirit makes for supportive crowds, the kind eager to hear strangers spin records in public for their first or second time.

And me? I've come to hear elephants fucking.

It all goes back to an offhand comment made by house DJ Dave "Hyper D" Richardson when I asked him, mystified, what screw-ups in electronic music sounded like. In my dozen or so wide-eyed forays into house music, I'd never once heard a flubbed cue or a bad mix. Everything just pounced and flowed, all night long, and I was starting to get suspicious that DJs went through those acrobatics with the faders, knobs, and pitch control levers to help camouflage the fact that a monkey could do their job.

Richardson disagreed. "A bad mistake sounds like two elephants having sex in an elevator," he said, touches of some dark memory shading his laughter.

Three months had passed since then, though, and I still hadn't heard anything resembling rutting pachyderms. It was starting to make the critic in me uneasy. If I couldn't recognize a flaw, how could I appreciate flawlessness? I needed lows to better be able to assess the highs. I needed a benchmark. And that's what I was doing at the Bench and Bar at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. Waiting for an elephant to be pulled from a hat.

The night's first DJ to be chosen--they end up drawing three--is Josh "Swoops" Berg. Berg looks like he's in his mid-twenties, and he plays a now-flagging, now-speedy type of house music that keeps the dance floor mostly empty. Toward the end of his set he mis-drops some Village People bit into the mix and I perk up at the caterwaul, but it turns it the whole thing was intentional and the music fills smoothly around it.

The next lucky DJ is even more adept, unfortunately, and I wander dispiritedly out front to find Berg. He's talking with Jen Tung, one of Mad Hatter's organizers.

"That was a good set," I offer, trying not to sound like an ambulance chaser. "But, umm, what does it sound like if it's...bad?" Berg smiles the same haunted smile I recognize from talking with Richardson. "Like shoes in the dryer," he says. "Like ten shoes in the dryer," adds Tung. I feel myself getting excited. "Does that, uh, happen very often?" I ask, keeping the rising hope out of my voice. Tung pauses. "It's happened... two or three times here that I can think of." Two or three times. In the nine months that they've been running the club.

I walk back in and watch the DJ. I'm totally confused. Either all these house music DJs--from 111 Minna Street to the Fillmore to the Bench and Bar--are equally good or equally bad. And I can't, for the life of me, figure out which is which.

On the walk to my car, a garbage truck pulls out of an alley with a clamorous, arrhythmic rumble. Its gears ratchet upwards, and the lurching engine almost stalls, then fires, and drops again. Something screeches in the back hydraulics, and I wonder if that's it--maybe that's the sound of one hundred shoes in the dryer, maybe that's the stampede of enormous, loving animals trapped in very small spaces. I take it all in, sated somehow, as the truck makes its slow way to the lake.


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