Justin Sayne's Last Ride

The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.
-- Tom Stoppard

It was one of those tragic cliches you'd hope would never come true, the stuff of which movies are made. And were it to come true, you'd never imagine it happening so close to home, so far from Hollywood, in this day and age. But it did, scripted by the pen of fad fate.

Justin Sayne: Lived fast, died young.
Gone at 22.
The Miami Beach Police gave it a cold-blooded paragraph in their report:

Investigation revealed that vehicle #1 was traveling south on Washington Avenue and ran stop sign at an extremely high rate of speed making contact with two large wooden posts which were embedded in the ground causing one to be uprooted and the other to be bent over. Both driver and his passenger were ejected from the vehicle with the passenger receiving critical injuries and the driver expiring instantly on the scene....

From the coded boxes on the front of the report we learn that the vehicle was a 1977 Harley Davidson motorcycle, the "high rate of speed" was 75 miles per hour (in a 30 mph zone), the time was approximately 4:00 a.m. on May 10, and the passenger was eighteen-year-old Delores "Dori" Bracero, Justin Sayne's girlfriend, who has since been treated and released by Mount Sinai Medical Center.

What we don't learn from the paperwork is the driver's blood-alcohol level. Friends who saw him just prior to the accident say there was more than enough juice in him to impair driving, and Dade County Medical Examiner's Office pathologist Dr. Charles Wetli reports a finding of .21, more than double the legal limit for operators of motor vehicles. Wetli adds that Sayne's system was still in the stage of absorbing alcohol, which means Sayne had likely consumed the liquid drug shortly before the time of death.

Nor do we learn from the bloodless facts in the police report that James Justin Smelser, alias Justin Sayne, was one of the best DJs to ever step into a South Beach booth.

To many of his friends, Sayne's death was "no surprise." The wild driving was something they'd "seen him do a thousand times before." They readily recall that "he liked to drive his bike fast" and "he was a bit of a daredevil" and "that was part of his make-up, that was what made him special."

Like James Dean, Sayne was born in Indiana, America's heartland, and he eventually migrated to the East Coast. Before that there was an uncommonly productive period in big, bad Texas, first with friend and co-conspirator Anthony Saulnier at Devotion in Austin, then with another pal, Bobby Stark, at Houston's Tower Theatre and in Dallas at the Level 5 and the Basement. An impressive array of activity for a kid in his teens. But it will be the nights in South Beach for which he'll be remembered most.

Justin Sayne hit the Beach storming more than three years ago and immediately became a ranking player, a key operative in a burgeoning scene. Nightlife impresario Gary James, recognizing the young Sayne's gifts, put him behind the wheels of steel at Industry, Fetish, and Disco Inferno, three of the most legendary one-nighters imaginable. "Justin was always so up, always positive, full of this amazing energy," James says. "And when it came to music, he always made it work. He was one of the most original DJs, artistically honest and off the top."

Old pal and fellow DJ Bobby Stark, who will carry the Disco Inferno banner now, expresses similar recollections. "A lot of people don't realize," he says, "that he was more than just a good DJ. He was creative, he'd come up with concepts. Plus he was the first DJ on South Beach to really mix up the formats. At Industry he'd play everything from Jane's Addiction and Prince to Bob Marley and N.W.A. And he was able to make it all flow." Another member of the Inferno team, Joe Delaney, echoes, "He took incredible chances with his music, and he was never afraid to try new things."

Disco Inferno, staged on Sundays at the Cameo Theatre, was and is a revolutionary creation. Sayne would rattle the crowd with then-taboo acts of yore, such as the Village People or KC and the Sunshine Band, and then quell the novelty with anthems like "Mr. Big Stuff" and "I Will Survive." Crowds ate it up like sonic candy. Even New York City, usually loathe to import a trend, regardless of its merits, took the theme for the Roxy, where it ran for eight months before moving to a relighted Palladium. In fact, Sayne had spun for that packed Manhattan house the very night before his death.

Even in these times of fickle and restless nightcrawling, Disco Inferno continues to grow, with a Chicago expedition scheduled for July and reports of all-time high attendance this past Memorial Day weekend at the Cameo. Perhaps through the moving and shaking at the Disco Infernos around the nation, Justin Sayne, a bright and spirited entertainer, will not be forgotten. His life was a testament to the glories of youth, his death a lesson to those who believe they are invincible. The road is unbiased and unforgiving.

There is no handy epitaph that would be entirely appropriate to mark the tragedy of May 10. He was too young, too talented, and he died too soon - that much is obvious. It could very well be said, as it has been said before, that he died who loved to live. So long, Justin.


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