DJ Dave Roberts, who scratched Chicago’s post-punk rock itch for nearly three decades as host of ‘Planet Earth’ night, dead at 64

He’ll be remembered for his taste in music that veered off the pop charts but kept dance floors moving — and also for his remarkable hair.

SHARE DJ Dave Roberts, who scratched Chicago’s post-punk rock itch for nearly three decades as host of ‘Planet Earth’ night, dead at 64
DJ Dave Roberts.

DJ Dave Roberts.

Provided

For Dave Roberts, looking at the dance floor from his deejay booth was like gazing at an aquarium teeming with colorful fish.

Mr. Roberts, a staple of Chicago’s deejay scene since the early 1980s, was best known for hosting Planet Earth, a weekly dance party that began in 1994 and migrated to several clubs — including the now-closed Neo in Lincoln Park — before ending up at the Late Bar in Avondale, which he co-founded in 2009.

“Planet Earth was a New Wave night,” his longtime partner in love and business Kristine Hengl said, referring to the post-punk genre that included bands like The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode and The Clash.

“All of us have our personal lives, family lives, work lives, and then there are third spaces, they’re what fill us, sometimes third spaces are churches, sometimes they are New Wave dance clubs filled with oddballs,” Hengl said. “He made a third space for people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. And he was proud of that.”

Mr. Roberts died Feb. 6 from a bacterial infection that spread to his bloodstream and heart, she said. He was 64.

DJ Dave Roberts along Chicago’s lakefront.

DJ Dave Roberts along Chicago’s lakefront.

Provided

“Dave understood that there was a thriving subculture of people who had grown up loving the weirdo bands of the late 70s and 80s, and they still wanted a place to dance to them,” his friend and promoter Dave Awl wrote in a remembrance of Mr. Roberts.

The son of a World War II veteran who became a civil rights activist and Methodist minister at the Church of Three Crosses in Old Town, Mr. Roberts grew up in the parsonage next to the church.

He fell in love with the English punk scene on a trip to London in 1977.

“I kept noticing flyers for bands I had never heard of. I decided to check out a few of them. It totally changed my life. I saw the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, The Stranglers, The Damned. I am who I am now because of that summer,” Roberts wrote in a Facebook post.

When he returned to Chicago, flyers again guided him, this time it was to La Mere Vipere on Halsted Street in Lincoln Park, the city’s first punk bar. He became friends with the bar’s co-owner, Noe Boudreau, who gave Mr. Roberts a shot in the DJ booth because he liked the mixtapes he made and played at parties.

It opened the door for Mr. Roberts, who was in his 20s and was regularly compensated with free drinks or the occasional $50 bill.

Mr. Roberts helped “fan the first sparks of the Chicago punk scene into a blaze,” Awl said.

Mr. Roberts, a hard worker who reliably showed up on time, became a ubiquitous presence on the club scene.

“He worked at all the main clubs in Chicago, and he was just very known for his hair,” Hengl said. “It was bleached blond and stood straight up.

“Dave’s focus was always the people on the dance floor. Some DJs focused on themselves. It was his passion, but it was a job. He’s responsible for people. To show them a good time, make them feel special.”

Joe Shanahan, founder of Smart Bar and Metro, said Mr. Roberts was always a draw.

“His musical taste was impeccable,” Shanahan said. “Dave knew his crowd. He knew what made people dance and think. He had that smile, a glint in his eyes. And I just always looked at his hair and said, ‘How do you get your hair to do that?’ ”

Hengl said of his hair: “He’d been doing it for so long, he’d get out of the shower and shake it, and it sort of just stood up, like a Chia Pet.”

In an era devoid of streaming platforms like Spotify, Mr. Roberts curated his record collection with care, returning to London yearly to shop.

“He’d tell me, ‘I’m going to London to get records and get shoes,’ ” Hengl said. “At one point, people started going by DJ names, and he hated that. He’d say, ‘I’m DJ Dave Roberts because that’s my name.’ He didn’t have a persona. He was himself.”

Mr. Roberts hosted “Plant Earth” — which evolved into a music video format — until a few weeks before he died.

His favorite place in the world was Wrigley Field. His father, Ernie Banks, Joe Strummer and John Lennon were his heroes.

“He loved this city so much,” Hengl said. “He called the Brown Line the $2.50 tour of Chicago.”

Services have been held. A memorial celebration, open to the public and with no cover charge, will be held at Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. March 4.

His Beatle boots, his hair spray, his comb and a whole lot of New Wave buttons will be on display there.

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