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On any other Wednesday night, U Street Music Hall’s dance floor would not be packed. There would be no cloud of smoke outside the club’s doors, and there certainly would be no line to get through it.
Then again, if it were any other Wednesday night, Steve McPherson’s head wouldn’t be nine days away from being sliced open.
While weaving through the dance floor last week, McPherson—a mainstay of the city’s DJ scene, whose polyglot tastes gravitate toward the 1980s—offered few signs of sickness. The clue was in the hugs: Almost every person McPherson encountered offered an embrace.
McPherson, 39, has a tumor growing inside his left auditory canal, and the crowd was there to help him foot the impending bill. “In the punk rock scene, whenever anyone’s in need, there’s a benefit show,” says McPherson, who has spent more than a decade spinning records as DJ Stereo Faith. “I never thought someone would throw one for me.”
It says something about D.C.’s punk-rock DNA that a ground-level benefit show was the DJ scene’s response to its friend’s illness. And it says something about that scene’s increased dominance over the city’s musical life that the event could come together within a week in a space owned by DJs—including two regular club-packers, Will Eastman and Jesse Tittsworth, and Eric Hilton, who as half of Thievery Corporation is one of D.C.’s most successful electronic artists.
Last spring, McPherson noticed hearing problems in his left ear, and made a sensible assumption—that years of concerts had finally taken their toll in the form of tinnitus. He visited an audiologist to be fitted for custom earplugs. “The audiologist discovered that my right ear was perfect, but my left ear was significantly less than perfect,” McPherson says. “That doesn’t happen with tinnitus.”
His next stop was to an otolaryngologist. The doctor, who specializes in the treatment of ear, nose, and throat disorders, recommended an MRI. “She told me that 99 percent of the time, it comes back negative,” McPherson says.
Turned out McPherson is a member of the 1 percent. On a Friday afternoon in May, his doctor called with his MRI results—a tumor resting on a nerve in his ear was responsible for the hearing loss. It’s too early to know for sure, but the MRI suggests it’s benign.
McPherson researched his options. Noninvasive surgery was out, because doctors warned him the tumor could then return. Another doctor suggested a procedure that would have sacrificed his hearing; McPherson balked. McPherson eventually chose a different procedure, which offers a 60 percent chance of preserving his hearing. He’s psyched about the surgery’s date: Friday the 13th. “When I found out, I was ecstatic,” he says. “Coming from a metal and punk background, that’s a lucky number. It was a sign.”
The cost, however, is high. Even after choosing a neurosurgeon who falls under his insurance coverage—a full-time DJ and occasional paralegal, he has been paying for it out of pocket since the 1990s—McPherson could drop as much as $5,000 on the procedure. Coupled with plane tickets and lodging for him and his mother (he’s being treated at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.), the total bill could reach five figures.
Enter Tittsworth and Eastman. “It’s Stereo Faith. Of course we’ll do fucking anything to help him out,” Tittsworth says. “It’s all about a community doing something for a guy who has helped us all out for years.”
D.C. and Baltimore DJs quickly volunteered for the concert—rapper Tabi Bonney even agreed to spin his first-ever hip-hop set. The benefit, organizers say, surpassed many expectations. With almost 700 attendees cycling through the club—its official capacity is 300—U Street Music Hall was full shortly after midnight. Ed Porter, a Columbia Heights resident who attended the concert, suggested the crowd rivaled the one at U Street Music Hall’s opening night in March.
Maybe this wouldn’t have been possible before this moment—when DJs, some of them former punk rockers, frequently have bigger draws than bands. After all, the city’s alternative DJ scene crowds out most of the city’s rock clubs on weekends—even though the most popular dance nights migrated to a single venue, U Street Music Hall, when it opened.
Or maybe McPherson just has a lot of friends. “This is totally unsurprising. He knows everybody from here to NYC,” Porter says. “He’s ubiquitous. He seems to touch every scene.”
While McPherson hasn’t quite touched every scene, he’s come close, and can easily slip between punk, indie-dance, and hip-hop crowds. He spent his childhood at D.C. punk and hardcore concerts during the ’80s, and returned here in 1996 and split his time between DJ sets and Brace, his punk band. He spins almost every night as Stereo Faith, and hasn’t stopped post-diagnosis. And his friends can be awfully generous: the U Street Music Hall benefit raised almost $7,000 last week.
McPherson will have to avoid the club scene for six months to a year after the surgery—doctor’s orders. Once he’s healthy, he plans to produce music. As for those customized earplugs? “They’ll definitely be my first purchase,” McPherson says. “I can’t wait to buy them. When I do, that’ll mean that I’ll be back to doing my job.”
Photo by Matt Dunn.