Five minutes into my first DJ set with the USO in a war-torn region the Forward Operations Commander came over to pull me off stage. Sweat dripped down her face like tears as she ran over to me, trying to scream over the Army’s PA. I’m a professional, I do this day in and day out. What was the problem?
It turns out there are two rules on a USO tour: don’t ever tell anyone where you went or what you saw, and no cursing. If the bars and brothels of Okinawa and Bangkok are the frat houses of the military world, then the USO (god bless it) is the Campus Activities Board. Even on a big night out on base, you have to stay in uniform, observe a two-drink maximum, and cannot engage in any “provocative dancing.” Basically, the USO is there for wholesome, morale-boosting entertainment—and I was fucking it up.
There is no official list, but thanks to George Carlin, we all know there are seven words you can never say on television—shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Apparently, this applies when you are performing for the troops, too. To be honest, the USO rep did mentioned something about swearing to me early on. Jazzy Jeff went on just before me with a hype-man to rev up the crowd and they had to lecture him. I was a little offended. Did they think that the nice, polite DJ in the tuxedo jacket would get up on the mic in front of all the troops and scream, “Whasssup cocksuckers? Which of you motherfuckers want to get two-drink shitfaced tonight? Let’s get FFFFUCKED up! TITS!”
Louis C.K. was told to “keep it clean,” too, when he did a USO tour. But he was playing in a tent of 15 guys in the middle of Afghanistan. He couldn’t possibly not swear. His strategy was to fake out each base’s USO rep, do the dirtiest set he could, and then get off stage and apologize to the rep that he would never see again.
Unlike Louis, I was fucked. After ten years of playing records, I had stopped actually listening to music. My job, as a DJ, is song selection and transitions. I had no idea which tunes belonged in the swear jar. Besides, this was the military. When my cousin came home from basic training, I knew within minutes that he had mastered all seven of the curse words you can’t say at a USO show.
My cousin came back from Iraq in 2007. Up until then, my daily ritual was to check the paper for the Names of the Dead. Superstition told me that if I looked for my cousin’s name every day I would never find it. It worked, because he managed to return safely to the US, and the first thing he did was come to one of my shows in NYC on New Year's Eve. Seeing him in the flesh again was an experience I don’t expect anyone else to understand.
To spend more time with him, we left New York together and I snuck into the Army barracks in North Carolina, where I spent a week buying drinks for the soldiers who took care of him. The Marines I hung out with all told me that they hadn’t done anything. They felt defeated. Alienated at home and not welcome in the Middle East. I looked them each in the eye, shook their hands, and told them that if they took one bullet out of one gun aimed at my cousin, their mission was a success and they would have a family back East who would love to have them over for Easter. Some of them teared up. The drinks took care of the rest.
I’ve always been against our most recent wars, but since that weekend in North Carolina, I felt compelled to actively support the troops. I cold-called the USO time and time again to volunteer. They never called back. To be fair, they bring thousands of comedians, actors, and country bands. Bob Hope toured during the second World War (admittedly in Ireland, North Africa, and Sicilly) Bing Crosby rocked out in Liberated France. Erol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe went to Korea, Sammy Davis Jr. and John Wayne went to Vietnam, Leno and Steve Martin were in the Persian Gulf for Desert Shield, and Sheryl Crow went to Bosnia in the 90s. So if Skrillex and David Guetta don’t go on USO tours, then you can basically consider me the Sheryl Crow of my generation.
But I bet Sherly Crow didn’t suffer the complications I had with my first set. As soon as they introduced me, my turntables shorted out. They handed me the mic as I was reseting the breaker. I needed to stall.
“This is my first time in the Middle East.” Mild cheering. The temperature was well above a hundred. “Some weather we’re having, huh?” That got a little laugh. “So, uh, who here’s from out of town?” Five long seconds and another murmur of laughter.
I stalled long enough to fix everything. I was finally ready to go. Five aircraft carriers—each capable of holding up to 5,000 servicemembers—had just docked nearby. I knew they needed a song to unite them. And it was in the middle of what I considered to be the perfect song that the captain wanted to tear me off stage.
“No cursing! Captain wants to shut you down! Switch to instrumental house!”
Look, I’m a fucking DJ. I deny requests for a living. They were on me like a bachelorette party demanding “Call Me Maybe.” I thought they meant no cursing on the mic, which I had not done. Unless being corny is a form of profanity.
The captain ran over with sweat pouring down her face and said, “The commander said you were playing something like, ‘motherfucker motherfucker, motherfucker.’”
“What? I don't know any songs that go—” Oh fuck. She was completely right. And I couldn’t even hide behind some kind of artistic integrity. My perfect song for 15,000 soldiers who were willing to give their lives for this country was the joke rap song from SNL, “I’m On a Boat (Bitch)!” I scrambled. My software has a censor button on it that turns the music backwards. So there I was, playing music for the men and women who protect our freedoms, riding the censor button like I was working the 2005 Superbowl.
…Never thought I'd see the day
When a big boat comin my way
Believe me when I say, I f-[cu]ked a mermaid
The crescendo of my artistic gift to the troops was me burning a line that would have otherwise included a boast about fucking a fish. Did I make a huge difference? Probably not. At best my set was an icepack to dull the pain of their homesickness. But in a profession where one in four noncombat deaths are from suicide, a little break can go a long way.
I will always do whatever I can to help the troops because those men and women are real heroes. Going back for your buddies after your transport runs over a cell phone bomb? That’s heroic. Putting your son or daughter on an aircraft carrier, saying goodbye, and not knowing whether you will ever see them alive again? That’s heroic. Joining the military when you are gay and not welcome? That’s heroic. Me? I split my pants while dancing with the troops and played a DJ set of pottymouth music.
Since my USO tour, I’ve started checking the Names of the Dead again. I worry about them all the time. The 2,000th American serviceman died while I was over there. But I’m going to keep going back (or trying) until every one of them comes home.
CUNT TITS MOTHERFUCKER! (I had to say it.) And God bless America!