Open Mike Night

Forty years ago, I spent every Monday night at one or another Open Mike Night. These were invariably hosted by some geeky guy in an untucked blue, long-sleeved oxford cloth shirt (sleeves half-rolled); a scraggly, half-long hair with a box filled with cables. He was stage manager, sound technician, and unflagging acoustic enthusiast in a hard rock world, otherwise unemployable. We were all otherwise unemployable then, in between dream and realization, fueled by the inertia of talent, inspiration, and pure delusion. God Bless Us.

"There's a show going down tonight
It's the hottest show in town
Down to that Gypsy Cafe
Where the freeway turns around
Once a week or so you know
These people show up to play
And they're gonna be stars someday
They're gonna be stars someday!"

This morning I heard this guy on the radio who's music evoked those days. Amos Lee says he used to drive an hour to perform at an Open Mike venue in suburban Philly before Blue Note, a jazz label, signed him. Amos is no rookie. He carries his own polish that smells faintly of the stale beer and cigarette smoke-infused shag carpeting that decorates every Open Mike venue and sticks to more than the lining of the performer's guitar case.

Those of us who performed there mostly performed for each other. Some of us mugged for the mike, affecting Dylan, Donovan, Baez, or Buffy Saint Marie. Others closed our eyes to make ourselves invisible and invulnerable. Some had practiced long and hard while still others borrowed a guitar to perform. Someone always revived All Along The Watchtower. One crowd pleaser suffered from what I labeled John Fahey poisoning, finger-picking double time. There were dubious duets, sacrificial solos, soft rock, hard folk, and most everything inbetween.

I was a 'single acoustic artist,' or so my agent labeled me. A click above most in dedication and in skill AND I performed exclusively my own stuff. Never a cover. Rarely a stumble. I practiced a lot, long into the long evenings between.

I was, as Amos Lee labeled them, a jotter. I walked late night streets looking for inspiration, moving to the cadence of my boots, trusting my eyes, returning to try something by ear, then building up the story, the melody, and the hook. Eventually the tune would become performable or not, my inept transcription never withstanding. Never could, never did figure out notation.

Amos Lee reminded me of those sweet, tough days, the days before I learned to play this different-shaped guitar I play for you today. No Gypsy Cafe now. No enthusiastic scraggly half long hair setting the stage. They've outlawed stale cigarette smoke in public places and stale beer has become India Stale Ale. Those old men in short-sleeved dress shirts and straw dress hats no longer smoke sullenly in the back of the bar invaded once each week by kids seeking stars. And those world-weary kids we were, who in the hell even knows where we are now?

Here's to The Last Exit on Brooklyn and the Little Red Rooster, to Clinkerdagger's, The Mordor, and that place they tore down (what was its name?) to build that medical office building. All gone now. Everyone gone.

Here's a link to the sound we were all trying to make back then.

Here

So pleased and inspired to be transported back home again. Thank you Amos Lee!

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