Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Things That Really Happened During The Fall of 2012 Part Two: The Hero of the Open Mic


'Great set, man.'
'Thanks.  Buy my shit on iTunes!  I'm living in my van.'


He hid his little brown bag just outside the door and walked into the open mic like a bulldog in heat. “I’m a poet.“ His sleeveless arms swung loosely. “Let me at the mic.” he said. In his mind he was Muhammed Ali about to step into the ring with Joe Louis or George Foreman or one of those guys. He picked up the mic and the room fell into a silent and heavy attention. He swayed, gazing deep into the floor with the mic pressed into his lips. He began to speak…

“yeah. Ah. Yeah”
“Ah. I said.”
“I came from the streets.”
He suddenly looked up. “I need a beat. I can’t do this without a beat.” Everyone stared blankly. “come on, somebody,” he begged. “I need a beat. Can’t somebody give me a beat?”
Finally a bearded young man heeded the call. He said, “I gotcha” and the crowd parted to make way for the Beat Boxer. He took his seat next to the poet and started to beat box a simple groove into a microphone. The Poet resumed his deep downward reverie. We sat entranced in the primal beat box. The Poet spoke:

“yeah. Ah. I said.”
“in the streets. Ah.”
This went on for a long moment until The Beat Boxer stopped and looked up sheepishly at his Poet. “That’s all I got.” His voice was a meekly apologetic wiggle. The poet looked at us all and caved in. 
“I can’t do this.” He said and sputtered out of the room. The Friendly Chap Running the Open Mic smiled unperturbed into the mic. 

“Okay so our 8th performer didn’t show up, so if anybody has anything to to share, you can have this slot. Anybody?”

I was standing meaninglessly in a dark corner next to a lady with a Big Bright Shiny Baby. The Poet blustered back through the door smoking a cigarette. After a moment of silence, he said- “I don’t belong here, do I?”

“Well, it’s a kind of ‘anything goes’ type of place, so you fit in as much as anyone else.” I replied. He surveyed the room. 
“I’m the darkest person in here. Everyone is whiter than me. You’re whiter than me.”
“Let’s put it to the test.” I said, “We’ll compare our arms.”
We put out our arms and sure enough, he was darker than me. But not much.
'You’re right” I conceded. 
“But,” He said, “I’ll bet my ass is whiter than you.”

I laughed. “I’ll take your word for it. Don’t show me!” But before I really knew what was happening, I realized that he was showing me his ass. Not straight on. He dropped down one side of his pants and pulled up his shirt and exposed his left butt cheek. 

“Yep, you’re right again.” I fluttered in nervous laughing. (secretly I thought, “It’s whiter than my arm, but my ass is probably whiter than that.” But I didn’t say it because I was afraid that this conversation would go further.)

“You wanna see again?” He offered. I said no, but he dished it out anyway. I tried to change the subject.  
“Have you lived here for awhile?”
“'Bout a year.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. I had to get my 2 daughters out of the city.”
“What city?”

“Oh! We were just in Brooklyn. I can’t remember the intersection… but we played at the Jalopy Theater. Do you know it?”

And before my eyes, his gaze glazed. His face became stark and devoid of expression. He exhaled a cloud of Parliament in my face and slowly backed away- speaking in a solemn tone: “I can’t smoke in front of a baby.”

He looked horrified as he backed into the door. The Friendly Chap Running the Open Mic said- “Cigarettes have to stay outside!” He looked a little worried- like he was calculating just how he would enforce the rules if he had to.  But The Poet just said “I know.” and vanished into the night. 

Who is the hero of the Open Mic Night? Is it the timid soul longing to burst into the world? Is it the repressed soul critically looking out at the scene and condemning all those acting out? Is it the Friendly Chap with the big smile hanging heavy under the serious eyes? Is it the bearded young Beatboxer? Is it The Poet? Is it the Meaningless Observer in the dark corner? Is it the Big Bright Shiny Baby? Or is it the mic, standing like Zeus on top of Olympus, kissed by every shade of humanity- timid, profane, sweet songstress, gutter punk, praised and cursed, whispered to and screamed at, rich and poor, young and old, all that stuff. It stands with an open face and magnifies impartially. It summoned us all together from the farthest reaches of our scattered worlds, and it stood silently as we dispersed again. It is nothing but what we made it, and it does not judge. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Things That Really Happened During The Fall of 2012 - Part One: Illusions of Grandeur?

I was just in the middle of this story. The story of 5 days ago. I’m in a bar in a valley in the desert and I’m completely fascinated with this incarnate Pagan deity I've just re-encountered. And she’s giving me so much love. I’m feeling small and shy and demented with Molly. Kris is sick and sleeping in the van. We are chatting with a lot of people. I’m standing in front of a speaker that is blasting music so loud I can’t hear myself yell. There’s talk of a desert party. There’s talk of hanging out in someone’s house. It’s 2am, everyone is kicked out of the bar. I don’t care where I go, so long as she’s there. The uncertainty is completely satisfying and I have no expectations. 

‘So…are you doing this for fun or do you have illusions of grandeur?’  He is behind the print counter at Staples.  We need CD covers printed. We are hungry, tired, in a hurry, and very much at his mercy.  His tone is barbed wire coated in customer service.  I do not like his question.  

‘Neither,’ I reply ‘we’re just traveling around playing music.’ 

…I have to go alone. Probably my least favorite situation- walking into a crowd of people I don’t know; and who all know each other. For the most part I just want to stay in this safe quiet place and go to sleep. But I can’t resist this situation. I follow Zach to the hotel. At some point I am weaving through roundabouts and I realize that I have no idea how to get back where I came from. it’s 3am. 

We met up with Skycaptains at some dive in Red Hook after the Jalopy.  Conversation ran tangent from Springsteen encounters to graphic design, magic buses to Atari, it could have gone on long into the next day but we had to get back up to Harlem, get on the road early the next day.  Fog. Everywhere.  Blocks feel like film strips.  Grainy film speed.  Black and white looking in low lighting.  Blocks of brownstones.  Awnings ripped, ancient advertisements half torn from the sides of storefronts.  Always the black scribble of spray paint across the aluminum truck bays.  Always a quick look over the shoulder.  Just another pile of 50 gallon trash bags awaiting the garbage truck at dawn.  We drive around for 45 minutes looking for a parking spot.  It is 4:12 am. 

After all that, what I wanted to say for so long came out easy.
There’s a peanut butter knife in the book box.
I’d take a swig if there’s any left.
Earlier you told me something
But I wasn’t listening
Just resting in my head and loving your voice.
Over the course of this tornado of experience
The trees and breeze just keep doing their thing.
We took an autumn walk on the pier
The fisherman kept fishing and the night sky was clear.
I’ve been hoping for words for over a year.
The sand sings if you scuttle your feet across
But only here
Only here.
What’s your name?  It was nice to meet you
Hope you’re not offended but I’d rather go inside
I think you’re beautiful but I can’t stay here one more minute
It’s loud and there’s a crowd
And everyone is shouting to be heard.
I prefer fingertips and soft whispers
Or the comfort of a traveling triangle always coming and going
Suspended on the in-betweens and why are you looking at me that way?
What will it be like to die one day?

Everyone is in the hot tub. People are rolling up their pant legs and soaking their feet. I do it too. I’m sitting far away from her- wanting to be closer but don't want to make it known. Everyone is talking about minerals and gemstones and some kind of deposit in the sand that makes everything better. I’m sort of paying attention, not really contributing to anything. But deep down I don’t really care if I fit in or not. I’ve never really fit in, and I’ve had to swallow that my whole life. So when I’m in these situations, I can distance myself from it- not put too much weight on it. Take what it has to offer and discard the rest. Soon I’ll be home again, and this will be a good or bad memory. Just a memory all the same. In that sense it’s just like a dream and it can be enjoyed like a dream experience. Even the awkward parts. 

Are you looking at me?
Do you sense that I’m nervous?
I sang through the chorus
But bungled the verses
Oh no
Am I hiding it well?
Can I keep it from you?
Will you be able to tell?
Oh I hope that you like it
Is this going well?
It was not what I thought I ought to do
Not what I’d do if I’d thought it through

‘I’m a musician too.  I know a lot of musicians and I’ve worked with a lot of people – most of whom I’ve blocked from my Facebook.’ He says.  ‘They work in gas stations now.  All I can say is – Just make sure you have a Plan B.’

We represent something for him – behind his words lie the history of his dream. He reached for it and it burned him. He needed to urgently warn us not to get our hopes up.  He is trying to help, to save us from this thing we all love so much.  He is a preacher and the Staples counter is his pulpit. We are his youthful optimism, and he is our beaten-down cynic.

I woke up today with a ‘POW!’  These songs are clobbering me over the head, wanting to be learned.  It’s not always like that.  I do not take it for granted.  My head is full of you, you in my space, you suffering growing pains, you desperate to get out of town.  Lovers in a booth.  Olive and Orson.  The grass testifies with dew, there is a chill in the air and it’s the first taste of fall, so full of relief and preparation.  There is as close to nobody at the shows as ever.  Spirits are high and sparkly.  Most mornings I am moving before I’ve come into myself and I’m sure the rest of the day reflects that.  I must not forget to sit down and look around.  I’ll see you soon.

We woke up in Motel 6 a few minutes before 11am checkout.  Cold outside, noisy from the man walking walking up and down the narrow lot with a leaf blower.  Pushing the growing pile of brown and yellow in a series of calculated moves, to the corner near the dumpster and up into the patch of wood.  I sat on the opposite curb reading People's History, the chapter about Cherokee removal from Georgia.  A slow and somber mood, load up the van (the back hatch is broken now so one person holds up the heavy gate as others shuffle luggage and gear around), and drive across the busy 4 lane to Meijer.  We are disoriented, exhausted, confused.  Two options - Waffle House or cook at the park.  I was greased out, couldn't handle another shitty cup of coffee or fake packet of jelly.  But the thought of washing week old dishes in the sink of a stale city park bathroom didn't sound much better.  Morale was low.  This was hard.  Two shows left.  1,300 miles.  We split up in a state of agitation.  I stood alone in the produce aisle, near the shiny apples, wondering the hell was going on.  Somehow we all ended back up at the self checkout.  Eggs, trail mix, spinach, cereal, beans.  To the park we go, the leaves are crunchy underfoot, sit in the sun and read, walk around, remember with it's like to be human.  Only an hour drive to Columbus.

I wake up.  In a mouse shit bed.  In a woody 70's mobile trailer.  Push open the screen door, barely held in by weakened magnets.  Hello Rogue River.