DJ Paul V. is now a mainstay in the Los Angeles and Silver Lake queer/mixed nightlife scene, but he says that his 37-year career spinning records began as “a complete accident.”
At 18, he took a volunteer job answering request lines for radio station WCOZ in Boston. About eight months later, the station partnered with a local club that was switching from disco to rock-and-roll. “They needed someone to do Monday nights, so the station asked me, ‘do you want to DJ?’ And I said, ‘Uh… okay.’”
He knew how to cue up a record, but that was about it. He taught himself everything else he needed. As he puts it, it was “a trial by fire.”
Paul – whose “non-DJ” name is Paul Vitagliano – went on to become assistant music director at WCOZ, and eventually went on to work at several other stations and clubs in Boston – shifting, along the way, from mainstream rock to new wave and alternative music. It was at this point that his newfound career became a sort of calling.
“I’ve been gay and out since I was 19, but I always felt like I was on the fringe. The music that was being played in the gay clubs at the time didn’t appeal to me at all. I thought, ‘If I can be the guy who offers an alternative to the mainstream for the gay community – because I know there are a lot of other ‘misfits’ like me – then I’m going to do it.’”
Eventually, his success in the Boston club scene led to a job as a promoter with Warner Brothers Records, bringing him to Los Angeles – where he spent years working with some of the biggest bands in alternative music. The move was something of a culture shock.
“I went from being kind of a big fish to being barely a goldfish,” he says.
Eager to indulge his passion for DJing in his new home city, he teamed with best friend “Mr. Dan” Der Kacz to create club events that would help them build their names.
“We were really naïve. All the things that we did failed miserably – but Mr. Dan and I decided to try one last time, and if the club we came up with didn’t take off within 6 months, it would be the last one we would do. So Dan came up with the name ‘Dragstrip 66’ – and the idea was to create a monthly theme that was a touchstone for people to dress in drag. And by the third month, it exploded.”
Vitagliano says Dragstrip took off partly because of timing. “We launched it in January of 1993 – ten days before Bill Clinton was sworn in. The pendulum was swinging from 12 years of Reagan and Bush to this guy who mentioned gay people in his speeches and seemed like he was really going to have our backs, or at least try.”
There was also the turning tide of the AIDS crisis.
“In our first few years, our friends were still dying – it was still a very hard time. And then about 3 or 4 years in, the HIV “cocktail” happened, and people who thought they were living a death sentence suddenly weren’t going to die anymore. They wanted a place to go, where they were accepted, where they could go to dance, and be free, and celebrate – and we provided that place.”
Dragstrip 66 became a monthly epicenter of queer cultural nightlife for eleven years at Rudolpho’s in Silver Lake, and ran – more sporadically – for an additional nine at The Echo in Echo Park before saying goodbye at a 20th anniversary celebration in 2013. Shortly before that event, Vitagliano was approached by Phil Scanlon, a patron, who said he wanted to make a documentary about the club. DJ Paul V., who had already had a similar notion (along with hundreds of hours of video footage from the club’s two-decade run), agreed, and they filmed the final installment.
“Dragstrip 66: The Frockumentary” is still a work in progress, but Vitagliano is eager to get it out there because he thinks it provides an important historical record – a reflection of the spirit of activism which seems to be at the core of his work.
“I believe in the idea that everybody stands on the shoulders of those who came before them. We stood on the shoulders of the Cockettes, John Waters, the Radical Faeries, ACT UP – Dragstrip was kind of like all those things in a blender,” he says.
“Now we have ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and ‘Pose’ on TV,” he continues. “But when we started the club even the gay community was not accepting of drag, it was very segregated. At Dragstrip, we identified as a gay club – but everyone was welcome.”
He goes on to add, “There are 20-year-old queer kids out there who feel completely free to go out and be whoever they want to be, and it’s wonderful. But they need to know that there was a community before them that was brave – because it was radical to go out in drag. That took balls.”
As important as it has been to him – he says, “it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of” – Dragstrip 66 has not been Vitagliano’s only achievement. He’s also hosted legendary hotspots like Spit LA (at The Faultline) and Bootie LA (at The Echoplex), and frequently DJs at high profile concerts from artists like LCD Soundsystem and Lorde as well as at events for organizations like Outfest, Project Angel Food, and The Trevor Project. He has frequently been heard on the airwaves, too, currently with his “Neon Noise” mix show, which streams Saturday nights from 9 p.m. – midnight on The Independent FM.
There’s also his monthly ’80s themed residency at Akbar, which will close out Pride month on June 29 with a special “Totally Gay Eighties” night.
He says, “It’s a full-circle moment. I remember back in ’85, getting the import 12 inch of ‘You Spin Me ‘Round (Like a Record),’ and watching the crowd go crazy the first time I played it. Multiply that by ‘How Soon Is Now?’ by the Smiths, ‘A Little Respect’ by Erasure, anything off the first few records by Soft Cell – it’s amazing to look at all these artists from early in the eighties who were out and queer, way before it was safe to do that. I played that music when it came out, but it’s all still so contemporary now. I want the 20-somethings who come to Akbar to dance, who can be free and gay, to realize how many gay people shaped the soundtrack to their lives. I want to have an amazing dance party, but also to have a celebratory acknowledgment, with love and respect and awareness.”
“And if people my age want to come out and dance too, I’ll be thrilled.”
DJ Paul V. presents the “TOTALLY GAY 80’s: LGBTQ DANCE PARTY” on June 29 from 10 p.m.-2 a.m. at Akbar (4356 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake). No cover. For more information on the party, visit here. Also, check out DJ Paul V. at BornThisWayBlog.com.