After a decades-long hiatus, photographer Peter Simon is back to putting together a playlist that’s designed to get people onto the dance floor. He’s a long way from the New York City club on 57th Street where he used to DJ during the off-season in the 1980s, but his new Throwback Thursday gig at the Ritz will do just fine for now.
“It’s healthy to go out with other people and dance, no matter what age you are,” Mr. Simon, 70, told the Times during a conversation at his Vineyard Haven gallery last week. “I thought, as we age on the Vineyard, there’s less and less recreation for our age group, unless you like to play bingo. There’s no fun to be had in a party atmosphere if you’re over 50, so I thought I’d try it again.”
Besides, he said, he’s currently cancer-free after a Stage 4 lung cancer diagnosis a few years ago. Right now his attitude is, “Do the things you love to do.”
After genetic testing, the doctors found out it was a type of lung cancer that nonsmokers get that can be targeted with specific chemotherapy.
“Not the first round, though,” he explained. “The first round was as bad as you hear it is. My hair fell out, I felt like I was walking in the middle of molasses.”
The cancer diagnosis was a surprise, he said; he wasn’t a smoker, and said he thought to himself at first, Why me? “Then I figured, well, I’ve led a good life, blah, blah, blah.”
After he took the medicine designed to combat his type of cancer, the tumor shrank, and now he has a CT scan every four months as a precaution. “It’s still looming somewhere out there,” Mr. Simon said.
Going through the experience made him think about what he could do in the present.
“I’d say I love music as much as I love photography,” he said. “Growing up, I always thought I’d be a DJ on the radio. I was in college, for the college radio station, and I always loved making dance tapes for friends. We’d have parties in my hippie commune in Vermont … dance bashes, and I’d always program the music. So, I thought, Do the thing you love to do.”
His first foray into DJing on the Island was at the Hot Tin Roof in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
“For the first five years of the Hot Tin Roof, it was the place to go,” Mr. Simon said. “There were a lot of celebrities, but people really from all walks of life. My sister [Carly] was part owner, and first-class bands would come through, and the Vineyard hadn’t seen such a thing. We were the boomer generation, coming into our middle ages. We were out to party. There was a lot of cocaine on the periphery, but I stayed away from that. I certainly smoked a lot of weed. There were bands on the weekends, and a DJ two or three nights a week.”
There were always certain songs that would flood the dance floor, Mr. Simon said, and he loved watching that happen.“‘We are Family’ by Sister Sledge, ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones. But then I’d play some Elvis and Aretha Franklin,” he remembered. “I’d play three songs in a genre and then go into another. It was a time when the Police and Talking Heads were starting out … it was the whole gamut.”
Mr. Simon continued playing records at clubs in Cambridge, Providence, and New York, but then he developed tinnitus, and the ringing in his ears became unbearable. “I had to stop immediately, or it would’ve gotten worse,” Mr. Simon said. “It sounds like one of those old televisions with the tubes when it’s warming up.”
He stopped DJing for many years afterward, he said. But after a couple of recent birthday parties at the Barn, Bowl and Bistro where he constructed a playlist just like in the old days, people told him they missed listening to his music.
He approached Ritz owner Larkin Stallings, who agreed to give the DJ idea a shot. Mr. Simon follows the regular Thursday-night band, the Edbury All-Stars, who begin around 7:30 pm and finish around 9:30.
For a recovering alcoholic, playing music in a bar doesn’t sound like a wise idea, but Mr. Simon said he’s lost his desire for alcohol, and it really doesn’t bother him to be there. “Most people just drink enough to have a good time,” he said. “Once you get used to being sober, you remember how shitty you felt when you were drinking all the time, and you don’t want to go back there.
“I’m aware I have to watch myself, but fortunately I don’t have the desire. Playing dance music where you can’t have liquor … the two just don’t go together. I wish I could drink normally, stop at one or two, but alcoholics tend to lose their sense of boundaries. And then you can’t stop and that’s scary.”
As for his playlist, Mr. Simon said he’d be open to playing newer music, along with classic dance tunes and reggae. “I drew up a playlist,” he said. “I only play music that has an upbeat message. I stay away from negative or violent songs, songs with bad vibes. I consider what I’m playing very carefully.”
He said he hopes Thursday nights catch on, and people of all ages come out to dance.
“I just hope everyone can look forward to meeting people when they come out,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be single nowadays. I’d love for everybody to get out and create new relationships and spread a community spirit.”
Peter Simon plays dance music and more on Thursday nights starting at around 9:30 at the Ritz in Oak Bluffs. He’ll be playing his songs Thanksgiving night, in case you want to dance off some of that pumpkin pie.
On Peter’s playlist:
“Respect,” Aretha Franklin
“Uptown Funk,” Mark Ronson with Bruno Mars
“Jammin’,” Bob Marley
“Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison
“Sugar Magnolia,” Grateful Dead
“De Do Do Do De Da Da Da,” Third World
“Tom’s Diner,” Suzanne Vega
“Train in Vain,” the Clash
“Mockingbird,” Carly Simon and James Taylor
“Back to the Island,” Toots Hibbert
“Take Me to the River,” Al Green
“Day Tripper,” the Beatles
“Dancing with Myself,” Billy Idol