Sunday, March 25, 2012

Open Mike


My folk-singer phase began, more or less, about the same time everything in my life seemed to be falling apart. My girlfriend and I had begun a series of break-ups and reconciliations that would eventually lead to my utter destruction. I had quit my well-paying paralegal job to try and make it as a free-lance writer -- in other words, I was unemployed. And to complete the trifecta of ignominy, my band, The Charismatics, had split up, leaving me with no outlet  to express my woes.

There was only one thing left to do: Go solo.

I'll never forget my first appearance in front of an audience all by my lonesome. It was at an open mike night at a pub in Cleveland Park called Gallagher's. At the time I only had one or two original songs, so I played a Talking Heads tune called Heaven and Woody Guthrie's Worried Man Blues. I was so nervous, I could barely remember how to form an open G chord. My voice sounded foreign and distant, like the strange croaking of an alien reptile. When I was with the Charismatics, I had played and sung in front of plenty of people, but without the rest of the band there with me, I felt naked, alone and terrified.

But I got through it. Fortunately,  the audience was kind. Most of them were performers, who knew how hard it was to bare your soul onstage. They applauded my effort, if not my talent. When it was over, I felt a tremendous wave of relief and accomplishment. And I couldn't wait to do it again.

As it turns out, I was in pretty good company at Gallagher's. There was a regular group of talented musicians playing there at the time. Many of them were dyed-in-the-wool folkies, who finger-picked their Martins and Gibsons with mellow precision and sang with smooth sincerity. I was kind of a misfit, banging away on a cheap plywood guitar and squawking rockabilly Woody Guthrie songs. But they made me feel welcome, and I became a regular, too.

In those days, the host of Gallagher's open mike was Mary Chapin Carpenter, who was pretty well-known to just about everyone but me. She had a solid voice and opened each session with a few of her Joni Mitchell-esque "confessional" style songs. I didn't really care for her songs that much, but she was an excellent performer. I found out later that she had gotten a record deal and was working on her first album, Hometown Girl. Some of the songs on that album were probably first heard at Gallagher's open mike.

Meanwhile, I was working on my own songs. I was steeping myself in the folk tradition, collecting records by Muddy Waters, Jesse Fuller, Leadbelly and the like. Learning songs from the Alan Lomax collection, reading books about Woody and Dylan and Elvis. I tried writing a few songs for the Charismatics, but I never really had a rock'n'roll voice. I'm not sure what kind of a voice I had, but that's the great thing about folk music: Anybody can sing it.

I started writing a new song every week. Then I would go and play it at Gallagher's. It was a great way to learn the craft, because you really get to know what works and what doesn't when you try it out in front of an audience full of singer-songwriters. But I needed more time on stage. Playing two songs a week just wasn't cutting it. I started looking for other open mike nights. As it turned out, I didn't have far to look.

I lived in a row house in Mount Pleasant that started out as a group of guys with quasi-government jobs who liked to play live rock music down in the basement. One of the reasons I moved in was because they need a drummer to fill out the house band. Over time, the original guys moved out -- on to better paying quasi-government jobs; the band morphed into the Charismatics -- with a much better drummer; and the house became a kind of haven for those who favored 'non-traditional' lifestyles. And most of them worked at a restaurant called Food For Thought.

Food For Thought was an institution that defied institutions. The last hippie, left-wing vegetarian restaurant left standing -- even though nobody I knew who worked there was a hippie, or political, or vegetarian. It was a good place that served good food and had a stage with an open mike night.

I started showing up at FFT every week to try out my new material. The open mike was run by a guy named Phil, aka "Philvis." Philvis was a far cry from Mary Chapin Carpenter. About as far a cry as you could get. Philvis opened up the sessions with a few of his darkly sardonic post-punk tunes, accompanied on his hand-painted electric guitar. The audience was a mix of idealistic proto-yuppies, old guard burnouts and assorted malcontents. There was a whole different set of performers at FFT, not a lot of folkies, some rockers, some poets, some punks, and one pretty crazy homeless guy named Robert Adams who wailed his deranged rants while slashing away on a battered guitar that hadn't been tuned since Jimmy Carter left town. But he was amazing.

I became a regular at FFT, playing my growing repertoire of original modern folk tunes. Eventually, I even got to play regular gigs there. They weren't exactly paid gigs, but you got to pass the hat between sets, so I did make a few bucks here and there. One night, I was playing one of my scathing political protest songs and I saw Martin Sheen sitting at a booth with legendary homeless activist Mitch Snyder. Sheen was playing Snyder in a movie about Snyder's battle with the Reagan administration to create a homeless shelter in an abandoned Federal building. To me that moment kind of captured the essence of FFT. The Hollywood actor and the militant crusader having dinner in the most low-key setting, going almost completely unnoticed by those around them. Between sets, I stopped by their table with my tip basket. It seemed a little weird to be begging for change from Mitch Snyder, a guy who'd spent half the eighties on hunger strikes. On the other hand Sheen was doing alright. He tossed me a couple of bills.

It was while playing at FFT that I started to find my voice as a performer. Part of the experience of playing original songs in front of an audience was discovering exactly who I was as a writer and as a singer. Folk music is about authenticity. I didn't have the talent to fake my way through a song. The only thing I had going for me was honesty. If I could tell the truth in a way that sounded like I actually knew what I was talking about, then maybe I could make a connection with the audience and capture their attention for a minute or two. Playing full sets to an audience that was generally more interested in their stir-fry than the caterwauling emanating from the stage forced me to find out exactly what it was I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

After a while, I added two more open mikes to my agenda, bringing my total to four a week. Every week. With new songs every week. It was a crash course in paying my dues. I learned to play harmonica to add a little showmanship to the program. I was writing, rehearsing and performing all the time. One night, at the Tucson Cantina open mike, I was the only person who showed up to play. I ended up playing the whole night by myself. Eventually, I ran out of songs and started taking requests. I was amazed at how many songs I had learned. I had come a long way since that first night at Gallagher's. I was now totally at home on the stage, playing song after song without a hitch. It was a blast.

Those open mike nights really kept me going through those difficult times. After my relationship ended for good, I tried to stick around DC for a while. But, finally, I had to get out of there. I moved to Brooklyn, where I played at an open mike in an unheated, condemned building on 7th Ave. in Park Slope. The audience would bang coffee cans filled with bottle caps on the tables as a kind of makeshift percussion section. One night Mandy Patinkin showed up and tried to get me to accompany him, but we couldn't get the guitar and piano in tune.

These days I don't get to the open mike as much as I used to. There's one at the Kibitz Room at Canter's Deli on Fairfax, which I've been to a few times. But you only get one song, and it seems like a lot of trouble to go through for that. It's easier just to make a video and put it on YouTube. Which reminds me. I've got a whole bunch of songs piled up and I need to get them recorded. And, who knows, maybe I'll wander down to the Kibitz Room at some point. I'm starting to feel the need for a smelly old mike, a bad PA, and an audience who couldn't care less. There's nothing else like it.

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