An Open-Mic Tour of Seattle

I’ve been writing songs as long as I’ve been playing guitar, which is decades now. But in that time I have almost never performed my songs in public.As someone who has done lots of other performing with no problem, I am deeply, deeply shy about singing my own songs in front of other people.

I’ve decided it’s time for that to change. So, whenever possible, I’m hitting an open mic.

Wednesday: the Hopvine (Capitol Hill)

The guy running it is very friendly, which I appreciate, because I feel like I don’t belong.

The first person to perform is new to town, and he does some a’capella stuff and cracks a few jokes. I promise myself not to crack any jokes when it’s my turn.

A trio of guys does a standard dreary guitar-guy song (of their own, I think) and then an ’80s cover (as a joke). A woman with a good voice and not-too-shabby chord progressions does a cheeky song about partying that goes over pretty well. Some more standard singer-songwriter guys, some uplifting hip-hop, a perky political duo, and, eventually, me.

I plan to avoid the standard singer-songwriter trap and sing something upbeat for a change. I start with a herky-jerky dare I say rockin’ number with esoteric lyrics but a decently hooky chorus.

I regret it immediately. Instead of the dreary guitar guy I am the pretentious alt-rocker, which suddenly feels way worse.

On top of that my voice sounds breathy and off-key and really alien coming through a speaker instead of bouncing off my bedroom walls, the microphone smells like fifteen other people’s mouths, I play more than one wrong chord, I am physically incapable of raising my eyes from the fretboard, my mind races from one observation to another with such pace and intensity the experience is literally a blur.

After finishing my song I ditch the other upbeat original I was going to do and play an ’80s cover (as sincerely as I can).

Tuesday: Bedlam Coffee (Belltown)

The guys running this are nice too. Performers get a free drink, and there aren’t many people here besides performers—of which there are two, including me. If this is standard turnout, I don’t see how Bedlam makes any money on Tuesday.

It starts at 8 o’clock, and the other guy has signed up for 9:30. So I’m first.

Which is fine. I’m ready.

Last week’s lesson: Confidence is convincing. Whatever you do, in fact, is convincing. Act like you don’t belong, and people will think you don’t belong. Act like you know what you’re doing, and people will think you know what you’re doing. I am going to act like I know what I’m doing.

I don’t even say hi or introduce myself, I just start playing. Another upbeat original, extremely catchy and, therefore, I think, well suited for a room of strangers.

I regret it immediately. In the battle between upbeat song and near-empty room, the room wins in a landslide. Rather than valiantly overcoming the vibe I am flamboyantly missing the boat.

Still, I stick with the game plan. Song two is my catchiest and cutest composition ever.

I don’t really enjoy it and the “crowd”—a few more people have trickled in—is impossible to read. They’re all sitting off to one side and not really as though there’s anything like a show going on.

I have been wondering how Kurt Cobain would do at an open mic. Because acting like you belong isn’t the only way to win people over. You can simply not care, and suck real deep into your own thing. When you focus on your own thing honestly and intensely, people often find it really interesting. (Not that you care, though.)

I give it a try. I sing one of my “deeper” compositions. Like the song I did last week, it has esoteric lyrics and a hooky chorus. But this one is a ballad. It’s supposed to be beautiful and sad. A line at the end is blatantly sentimental (“I learned to love and I’ll learn to forget”), so I know I’m going to have to dig pretty deep to pull this off.

I do okay. Maybe I pull it off, I’m not sure.

When I first took the stage the guy told me to do “three or four” songs, so I go ahead and do a fourth. It’s my other torchy ballad, with a chorus that someone with a good voice could really do something with.

Again, I do okay. A couple notes sound quite pretty.

In my own opinion, that is. Does anyone out there agree?

I have no idea. I’m so sucked into my own thing I haven’t a clue what’s going on outside of me.

On the one hand I don’t care. But on the other hand I’m really curious whether or not that’s working.

This means, obviously, I do care, at least a little. But I’m not sure it would actually be a good thing to totally not care and take the audience completely out of the equation. I mean, they’re there, aren’t they? They’re not there to see me, but they’re there. Does it really make sense to ignore the only other people there? If I wanted to do this strictly for myself, why did I leave home?

After me are a poet and a short-story guy. I’m not really into their stuff but I appreciate the variety. A young woman sings some songs, quite well, and a few acts later her friend sings some songs and he has a good voice too. Really good, in fact. Way better than mine, and he also plays guitar better.

And yet his performance has no more discernible impact on the crowd than mine did. This may stem, in part, from his songwriting—his lyrics are, you know, well intentioned but cloying (“we are locked in a prison we made for ourselves,” etc.).

And he may be a little too clever with that guitar. It’s kind of hard to hear a song through all the odd movements and modulations. (Which makes me wonder about my own compositions. I sometimes make deliberately unusual musical choices, and it doesn’t feel like showing off or even doing anything special, it just feels like innocent exploration of what isn’t boring. But from the outside, it’s like “dude, thanks for showing me you can play hard stuff.”)

Still, the guy is good, and I can tell that he can tell that it doesn’t really matter. To the room, he is basically no different from me.

I conclude that the best Kurt Cobain could do at an open mic—if he were just an anonymous person with a guitar, like the rest of us—would be making a few heads nod.

Same for Freddie Mercury, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, etc. These things are just not set up for greatness. The expectations and the atmosphere are completely opposed to it.

I mean, sure, if an unknown Aretha sang a couple songs at the Bedlam on Tuesday night people would say “damn, she’s good” and “she should have her own band” and whatever. But I don’t think she could never really outshine the context.

Which is: this is a place for wannabes. No matter how good you are, that’s all you’ll ever be in that setting. If you weren’t a wannabe, you wouldn’t be there.

Thursday: Gypsy Cafe (Wallingford)

This place looks and feels like it isn’t in Seattle. It looks bigger on the inside than it does from the outside, and more like a hunting lodge. The typically cramped cafe section gives way to a big woody cavern, with moody lighting and enough space for multiple nooks of tables and sofas.

The clientele, too, is not your average blend of shaggy hipsters and REI intellectuals. There are a few of those, but I almost get the idea that they’re there to scope out the “local color”—oddly shaped roadie-looking guys and long-haired cigarette-seasoned women, all of whom “sit in” on each other’s sets so that sometimes there’s like an actual band up there.

There’s a guy who looks like what British actor John Hurt would look like if he were in a community-theater production of True Grit, and I’m pretty stoked to see what he has to offer.

When I arrive the thing is already underway, the list is full to bursting (i.e., no room for me), and one of these all-star casts of Gypsy Cafe regulars is playing “When Will I Be Loved.” Next up is a middle-aged woman, flying solo, who starts with a nearly unrecognizable version of Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know.” She follows with “High and Dry” by Radiohead, using different chords than Radiohead does, and I wonder if she’s changing the recipe on purpose or flat out doesn’t know how to play these songs. She closes with something I don’t recognize.

I’ve been chatting with a nice lady named Karen, and I ask her if everyone here does covers. She says no. The next guy does “Good Riddance” (Green Day) and “Wonderwall” (Oasis). Even though I’m not on the list, I make myself considerably nervous wondering what I would do if I were on the list—covers or originals? Which covers? Why?

The next guy does some original songs which he says are new and so he might mess them up, and he does. But we are there to catch him. There is no outward indication at all, but you can feel the audience pulling for him—“Don’t worry, keep going”—and when he keeps going and seems to relax, so do we—“Attaboy.”

This is a beautiful thing about open mics. Literally this is what they’re there for, so that you can mess up and it’ll be okay. It’s great.

It’s also miserable. No one wants the audience to “pull for” them. No one wants an “attaboy,” what could be worse? Pearl Jam doesn’t get attaboys.

Open-mic singers need that support, because we’re unseasoned and prone to nerves and mistakes. But at the same time, receiving that support is super embarrassing. It reminds us that we’re wannabes.

Does it just feel miserable, or is it actually miserable? Should bad musicians have a safe space to perform? Which is better for society: rigorous and selective artistic standards, or everyone getting to chase their dream, for as long as they want, no matter how far off the mark they are?

As someone who needs a net to catch me when I’m playing music, I guess I have to say the latter. But man it’s a close call.

Karen, the lady I was talking to, does three songs, with guys on sax, drums, and mandolin helping out. There is a point in the last song where she jams out on a single chord for way longer than necessary. Then I realize it’s a mandolin solo, and the mandolin guy is either unplugged or disastrously low in the mix. He appears to be killing it, however. (His name is Zorp. I met him earlier. He’s very much into the “not caring” thing.)

After that some guys do a Van Morrison song and something else and I decide I’ve scoped out enough local color for one night. I would like to come back and play here, though. I’d like to play at all of these places, over and over, until I’m not so terrified of it. My guess is it will take a while.

When people are there to see and hear you, it’s your job to give them a show. But when you’re at an open mic, I am now utterly certain that courting the audience in any way is doomed to fail. They’re there to catch you, not to respect you. Your only option is to ignore them and do your own thing, for your own sake. If people like it, fine. If they don’t, no loss.

Right as I’m leaving, something catches my eye: cowboy John Hurt is standing in the cafe side of the venue, eyes closed and chin slightly raised, while one of his roadie-looking friends wiggles his hands in the air surrounding John’s body, from head to toe, performing what can only be called some kind of “energy work.”

The best thing is there’s a vivid sense of routine about it, which I think proves they really ­mean it. It’s bracingly well lit here in the cafe area, and there’s nowhere out of the way for a couple of open-mic gladiators to get psyched in private, so they’re just taking it to eleven right here in front of everyone.

I’m impressed. And validated, because I knew this guy was something special. For a moment I think I should stay and watch his set.

But then, no. My bus transfer is running out. And I’ve been to enough of these things to know better. Sad to say, I am pretty sure I caught the best part of his big night.



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