30 June 2016

Open Mics

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Many singer/songwriters perform for the first time at open mic nights. You know how open mics work, right? You show up at the appointed time, sign up for a slot, and wait around to perform your two songs. Sometimes, you wait around for a long, long time. You’re supposed to pass that time listening to your peers (and, if you’re not too shy, making friends with those you admire or identify as like-minded) and drinking (to grease the wheels for your performance and generate revenue for the bar). It can be fun, or it can be tedious beyond belief. Either way, it’s a rite of passage.

The first time I performed an original song was in the summer of 1993 at the open mic at the now-closed Albion in San Francisco. I have no memory of the song – rest assured, it was not memorable – but I remember walking past Chuck Prophet, who was standing at the bar, on the way to the back room. About a year later, I moved to New York City and – after sussing out the situation for a few months – found The Fast Folk Cafe in Tribeca and The Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village.

The Fast Folk Café was a short-lived experiment on North Moore between Varick and Hudson, across and down from Walker’s, where my childhood friend was a bartender. The Tuesday open mic was an outgrowth of Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriter’s meeting, which met on Mondays: write a song for Monday night, and perform it for the first time on Tuesday. “Fast” folk! It was awhile before I made the Monday-night scene, which became a big part of my life, but I suspected that Jack, Wendy Beckerman, Tim Robinson, and others were kindred spirits.

Jack was the original host of the open mic, perhaps because he was the visionary behind the Fast Folk Musical Magazine, the annual Fast Folk Musical Review at The Bottom Line, and the doomed Fast Folk Café (there was an angry upstairs neighbor who, in addition to complaining through civic channels, would pour water through the ceiling onto the performers). The host’s job is to manage the signup list and introduce each performer as he/she takes the stage; it can be a thankless task, a labor of love, or a career move depending on the circumstances. Some hosts were pure as driven snow, but others were corrupt: they’d sneak their friends into the prime slots, pushing the rank and rile even farther out. Jack, whose go-to line was “next on the hit parade of superstars,” was not a long-term fit for the role, and in fact skedaddled ASAP, leaving the job to a patchwork of volunteers, including – once – me.

Lach hosted the open mic at The Sidewalk Café, at the corner of 6th St. and Avenue A, for years. If Fast Folk was explicitly “folk,” the Sidewalk Cafe offered an alternative: literally, “anti-folk.” Lach and his compatriots played an aggressive brand of acoustic music that was supposedly maligned and even shunned by the mainstream. I don’t mean to make it sound like Dylan at Newport – the “mainstream” folk scene was minuscule, and plenty of people went to both open mics – but there was some kind of dynamic at play.

Lach, who gave me my first real gig, was also responsible for my all-time favorite open mic story, which started when a performer launched into Idiot Wind, the famously angry Bob Dylan song that has eleven verses and clocks in at 7:48 on Blood on the Tracks (“You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”). At the risk of self-seriousness: open mics are not therapy sessions, or school talent shows. And – more practically – since everyone’s waiting around endlessly, it’s not cool to, shall we say, filibuster. If you must express yourself in a certain way, consider presenting an abridged version. That may have been what Lach was thinking when he shut off the sound at the top of the third verse. The guy was NOT happy…but the rest of the room was. After a brief argument, the disappointed Dylan interpreter faded into the night.

Other flashes of memory from those days: ordering two beers at once at The Sidewalk, because signup coincided with the tail end of happy hour. Playing an early slot at Fast Folk, then rushing over to McGovern’s for a competing Tuesday night event. Leaving my own dinner party to play two songs around the corner at Hotel Galvez. The Baggot Inn host who, rather than encouraging a young songwriter, mocked an early effort called “Museum.” The woman with the fancy guitar who, in response to an axe-related compliment, said “thanks Interscope Records” into the mic. If Interscope Records – a major label – was bankrolling her, why was she at an open mic?

There’s no reason to belabor the details of my particular experience, which was typical. I was young, clueless, and petrified; my songs weren’t good; and I tended to forget the words. On the other hand, I experienced playing/singing on stage for the first time; didn’t embarrass myself more than anyone else; found my way into some kind of “scene” and made friends, a bunch of whom are still friends; and generally paid my dues until the open mic appearances turned into 1/2-hour sets at Fast Folk, the Sidewalk Cafe, the Bitter End, and the Hotel Galvez. After that, I moved over to the Living Room – in its original location, on the corner of Ludlow and Stanton – which was my spiritual home until I left New York in 2002.

Most of those who graduate from open mics never go back. Why would you subject yourself to the hassle and tedium when there are other ways to get in front of people? Lately, however, I’ve been thinking of re-testing the waters. There’s one popular open mic in San Francisco that happens monthly, and permits only one song. You have to sign up online, and the slots fill up within minutes. Sounds rough, right? Actually, I’m intrigued: the need for constraints suggests there’s energy there, and probably community. For someone like me, who just wants to make music a bigger part of his life, this open mic could be just what the doctor ordered.

I’m back, as evidenced by this image from the pleasant, orderly KC Turner Presents open mic at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco:

1 Response

  1. This is a really good piece by Bob Hillman. I am so glad he played at the most recent SHHHongwriters Open Mic, and there is a two-way effect: When someone like Bob, who has by all measures transcended the open mic world, supports the open mic by coming and playing, he or she both gets all the benefits of connection with the music community, which can be muted when a performer is touring widely and successfully, and by being at the open mic, the successful performer’s presence can be encouragement to open mic players that they can achieve musical success as well, which is a service to the community. Even the most commercially successful players I know still play at open mics, and that may be attributable to the quality of the open mics, KC Turner’s most prominently, and the supportive nature of the San Francisco Bay Area music community.

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