Sunday, August 26, 2012


For some people the road isn't paved ahead of them. You have to pay some dues to get anywhere, and I'm currently doing just that. I've had my fair share of awesome gigs as a smalltime musician, playing for appreciative folks that are kind and respectful. It makes it all worth while to perform in front of such an audience, and I don't expect much. But on my level, I typically play in restaurants and little bars where people want to hear cover songs or familiar sing-a-longs, out on the beach where everyone asks for Jimmy Buffet. I aim to please. I am not so prideful that I think I am too cool to play Skynyrd or whatever other shitty song that some drunk person wants to hear. But it wears on you. I'm a songwriter and I want to be appreciated for what I do. Sometimes I get that appreciation and it feels so good. But for every gig that I play in a cool place with a great audience, there are 3-5 gigs in some shit-hole dive bar where the audience could care less. I often wonder why the owners are even paying me to be there. Those days it just seems like work. It will make you jaded, and suck the inspiration straight out of your soul. Sitting in some of the shit holes that I've found myself at, I often wonder, Why the hell am I doing this?  Then I remind myself that I'm just a smalltimer and it comes with the territory.  You know at the same time, there are nights when it can be a very interesting experience in people watching... 

I booked a gig with an agent, a former bartender from another place in which I had played before. "It's kind of a smoky dive" he said in the email, forewarning me of the conditions. I pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store which was a separate section of the same building. "You gotta go in through the back door, you can't get to the bar from here," piped the aggressive, beef-cake bald man behind the register. The throbbing vein in his forehead signaled his distaste. I swung around back and entered through the door with the faded stencils: BAR. My expectations are growing for the quality of the place. 

The mirrored wall, the smoke stained yellow trim, the burnt out Christmas lights, the overly repetitive yard-sale bought Budweiser advertisement posters displaying drink specials that don't exist, the plastic faux wood grain counter tops, the carefully placed half-burnt cigarette on the top of the urinal, the handful of cigarettes floating in the toilet, the vomit-soaked claustrophobic stall, the busted and broken tile with a rusty drain in the middle of the floor, the dark sunken eyes of tired patrons, the thick foggy air, the inebriating haze of Camels and hot breath.

We set up in the corner, and began our usual set: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson.... six songs later with no applause or even an affirmation of our measly existence, Maybe this is a hip-hop crowd? We hit them with Snoop Dogg and the Gorillaz. Nothing... We increased the volume and attempted to swoon them with Rodney Carrington's "Dear Penis". The result: scattered claps from the drunken machismos in the back.

"See Matt, sing a song about penis and you get the clap!" I joked.
"Play Freebird!" "Play Pop that Pussy!" (I think we have their attention now...)
"Sorry, We don't know any Skynryd and we've played all the hip-hop we know." I replied.
"Play Run DMC!" "Play Bitches Aint' Shit!" ....

Engaging this audience seemed regrettable. 

The door flew open and this stocky, latino sanchito walked in huffing and puffing. He marched a lap around the bar cussing into the air and flailing his arms like James Brown's hype-man. Is he rapping? Is he excited about the USF game? Maybe he just won a scratch off ticket? Is he angry or is he excited?Who is he talking to? Upon completion of his bar circumnavigation, he flew out the door with a slam! The music continued...

"I don't know why I came here tonight, I've got a feeling something aint right."

The ripped linoleum exposing iron-stained concrete, the heterogeneous light fixtures, the stale funk of the unwashed floor mats permeating the smoke-filled air, the coasters stacked under the short leg of the table, the clinks and clacks of glasses, the uncomfortably persistent eye contact. 

"It's my birthday will you play me a song?" A young girl asks. Happy to oblige, Matt played the birthday song from 'The League' that goes into uncomfortable detail about the night the parents of the birthday person conceived. It's all about your mom's multiple orgasms and other things that you really don't want to think about, which in turn makes you really regret that you asked for a birthday song in the first place. He never notices when he is offending people. Oh wait, they were too drunk to be offended. In fact, it's actually pretty hilarious, good job Matt.

Sanchito returns! He stampedes through the door como el burro: "¡vete al carajo!"  He howls while beating his chest as he circled the high-top bar headed into the billiards room. The voices melted like wax, shapeless and unidentifiable. The conversations meld with the music into a swell of white noise. We were quiet observers. He approached a girl and tilted his head, towering over her with the posture of a boxer at weigh-in.

The exchange erupted and he threw her against the thin wood panel wall. A nearby woman stepped in and pushed him back slightly, just enough to distract him for a split second. Recovering from her push against the wall, the girl reached for a half-empty rocks glass and beamed it at his face, connecting square in the forehead. He stumbled back, the glass shattered across the floor, finally attracting the attention of the half-drunken security guard, who sluggishly intervened. 
The music continued...

"Is it ok if I go to sleep on the floor? Cause I don't think I can take anymore."

The unfinished high-tops of exposed plywood, the group of 50 somethings playing Golden Tee, the scantily clad tattooed covered harlots, the bearded lonely old salts, the mineral flavored tap water, the hobo selling half dead roses to the stifled relationships and the horny old bastards, the toothless smiler, the peeled off label of an unfinished beer, the smell of whiskey and cigarettes.

"What's a girl like that doing here?"  pointed through the cigarette smoke to a classy blonde with high heels and a purple dress, power strutting through the dive with authority. She sat at the bar and made eye contact with no one. She didn't order a drink. The wolves circled; the first one to make a move came equipped with the hobo's rose. He laid it down on the bar in front of her. No acknowledgement, she pulled her phone from her purse and buried her face in it. He retreated immediately redirecting his focus toward a flashing tv screen. She whispered in the ear of the well-dressed gentlemen on the corner of the bar beside her, and then excused herself to the bathroom. Fifteen seconds in the bathroom and then she was out the door speeding off in her Nissan GT-R. "Ah, the white pony pickup." Matt chuckled. 
The music continued...

"Ain't got no money to spend. Ain't got no time to grow old."

The ring of the last call bell, the shuffling of the crooked backs, the coin flipping for driving responsibilities, the inconsiderate short changed tips, the melted ice of an abandoned cocktail, the stumble to the door, the flirting with strangers and death, the reckless abandonment of logic and reason, the carefully placed half-burnt cigarette on the top of the car, the sweat soaked forehead of the obese man playing arcade photo match and refusing to leave, the long ride home, the twinkling lights over the bay at 3 am, another day in the office of a smalltimer.

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