Walter Durkacz is an extraordinary human being. He tells me this in the course of our interview, and you don’t find me disagreeing. In the movie business — a place Walter tells me that he wants to be — the real players are often quiet participants, while other less brainy but maybe more brawny folk tend to get all the credit. Take Gone with the Wind for instance, most people know its mega stars Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland and even Hattie McDaniel. But these were all just interchangeable hired guns, and so many others might have done just as well. The heavy lifting was done by the far lesser known (at least these days) producer David O. Selznick and the director Victor Fleming. How many of you knew Victor Fleming’s name? Yet, in that same year, 1939, Victor also directed The Wizard of Oz, so you really should know him. Walter Durkacz is that kind of player. If you take the time to read this, you will see a list of names and places that Walter made happen, and you will be impressed and wonder how come you’ve never heard of him. Although he is very quiet (unless you speak to him), Walter is making moves.
You were a DJ at clubs like Danceteria and The World, and I would go as far as saying that you were a teacher and not just DJ. Yeah, without trying to be egotistical, I certainly consider myself one of the pioneers of the skill. I certainly didn’t have the notoriety that a lot of the other DJs had, but that had to do with the nature of the way I carried myself. I’ve been playing records for a long time, and I’ve always been very versatile in terms of what I liked and in terms of understanding a lot of different kinds of music. A lot of that came from my family background and from people I met at places I visited all over the world. The reason I really became a DJ, in terms of big influence, was because of my brother-in-law who was a collector of doo-wop 45s. I got to hear a lot of this amazing music and to this day, some of my favorite music — which I still play if I occasionally spin records — is old soul ballads and doo-wop. My favorite two things are probably old soul ballads and old soul instrumentals.
How did you get your start DJing? When I was a kid, there were these 21-and-under places that we could go to, and they would play a mixture of funk and rock music. When I turned 16, I was able to go to places called The Zodiac and 2001, which held about 1,000 people. I used to go there all the time, and the DJ used to play this one record that I loved dancing to, so once, maybe I was drunk enough from the cheap wine and I decided to go to the DJ and find out what that record was. He went through his records and pulls out this seven-inch, and says “You got a dollar?” and he sold me the record. It was from a band called The Trick, the song was called “Free as a Bird,” and the label said Made in America. So that was kind of my in, the fact that he sold me this record for $1. As weeks passed I used to go up there and I eventually befriended him, and then he got me my first job when I was 16, as a DJ in a nightclub in Pittsburgh. Then somewhere around the blackout and the Yankees winning the World Series, I made it to New York and started DJing here.
What places have you DJed at in New York? People don’t usually know this about me, but I actually moved to New York to be in the fashion business, and I’ve actually worked at several places like Paul Stuart. I was even an assistant shoe buyer at Bloomingdale’s for a quick moment, but after I took the Bloomingdale’s job I got really fed up with wearing a suit and tie every day, so I decided to go back to DJing or something music-related. But I worked at Ice Palace while I was still going to school, and later I got a job at the Mudd Club.
Where did you end up after the Mudd Club? I went to the Rock Lounge, which was Howard Stein’s place, and from there I went to Danceteria, which obviously was a long haul. During that time at Danceteria, I got taken to Paris with a guy named Peter Smith, who was a doorman. A French magazine called Actuelle brought us over there, and that was actually the first time I got into booking bands because while I was a DJ there, they asked me if I wanted to bring some bands from New York, and I did. Then eventually I booked some English bands and even African bands, since that was a big influence in France at the time. It lasted about eight months, and then I DJed in Berlin and did a record in Berlin with a woman named Christiana F., who is a very famous German personality.
So then you made the jump from Europe to New York again? Yeah, after that I went back to New York, and we opened up the Pyramid Club, so I did that and Danceteria at the same time. I eventually left Danceteria when someone fell down the elevator shaft, and that’s when I went to The World as a DJ.
You’re known as a DJ but also as a great booker of acts. Are you still booking acts? Yeah, after The World shut down, I didn’t really know what to do, and I had done some booking in Paris, so I ended up doing booking at a club that actually wasn’t looking to book a lot of bands. I got approached by a Grateful Dead-head who wanted to open a hippie club in Manhattan called Wetlands Preserve, and I did it because it was a change. I decided to help them out, and from there I really went to booking clubs seven nights a week. I’ve always had a lot of bands around me, even as a DJ in Danceteria — Madonna, the Beastie Boys, and a lot of these people came around us and hung out.
Tell me about the talent you’ve run into at Danceteria. Well, that was a special time in the early 80s, growing up with all of the graffiti legends and all of these musicians like the Beastie Boys who became my friends — I went to their weddings, etc. It’s always a nice thing when you see your friends do very well for themselves. Madonna was one of them too, but Madonna and I never really got along. She basically came on the scene when I was in Europe, so that’s when she met and got involved with the other DJs at Danceteria, like Mark Kamins. For some reason we just never really spoke that much, but it was probably more because of me.
What was it like working at Wetlands after being a DJ? At Wetlands we ended up doing something that had never really been done in New York, and for me it was a new thing also, because I was coming from the club scene. I was used to soul music, and all of a sudden I’m throwing parties for this Grateful Dead hippie owner, who wanted to do all of these things and I had never even been to a Grateful Dead concert. I was a purist in terms of being a DJ because any DJ would tell you that they don’t like playing with bands. I was never a huge fan of bands, so it was ironic that I ended up making my living by booking them. When I was a hardcore DJ, a band would come on, they would ruin your night, and you’d have to start all over. But Wetlands became much more than just a Grateful Dead club — hip-hop, reggae, world music, and a lot of punk bands became big there also.
How did Wetlands evolve? At some point people became enamored with the club and the sort of music that we were booking there, and it became quite a famous place. Maybe not to a lot of people who read this blog, but the main thing about Wetlands is that some of the biggest bands came out of that club, and I feel like I helped to develop them. Bands like Dave Matthews, Phish, Hootie and the Blowfish, a lot of these jam-bands, like Blues Traveler came out of there. I left after six years there because the bands had become bigger than the place, and the owner was reluctant to move to a bigger capacity, so I moved on. After it closed down, it got inducted in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and to me that’s a feather in my cap. From Wetlands, I went to booking Joe’s Pub and a few other places here and there like The Ritz and Central Park Summerstage.
What are you doing right now? I still primarily book concerts at places like Hiro, Joe’s Pub, and a few different places. At this point a lot of people know me, so I can call most people and they’ll open their house for me, which I’m grateful for and I don’t take advantage of it. I’m also an investor in La Esquina, and I have a couple other nightclub ideas … I’m thinking of a opening a Japanese noodle shop, but in terms of my passion I’m looking to make movies.
What kind of movies are you going to make? I have about six current projects, and they’re all different types of movies. I’m looking to be a producer, so I’d use some of my own ideas that have been developed, and I’ll bring people on the help me write the scripts, etc. The idea is for me is to find the money and hire directors to create the ideas that I have in terms of what I think could be popular in movie theaters.
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