Today it’s a sixty-something guy in the coffee shop. He’s set up a small portable stereo, and he has an electric guitar and a trumpet. He puts in a CD, and then he sits back on his little stool and accompanies the CD, sometimes on guitar, sometimes, god help us all, on the trumpet.
If he were singing, it would be called “karaoke,” which is a Japanese word that, loosely translated, means, “No talent, no problem.” I don’t know the word, in Japanese or any other language, for what this guy is doing. Perhaps there’s no need to name it: let’s just call it yet another step toward the end of civilization as I thought I knew it.
He’s committing the ultimate sin, of course: he’s playing along to “mood music,” that easy-listening, light-jazz milieu created to justify the existence of the likes of Kenny G and John Tesh. “Adult contemporary,” some would call it. I think it was Norm Macdonald who was hosting Weekend Update when Kenny G released a Christmas album some years ago, and Norm said it better than I could ever hope to: “Happy birthday, Jesus – hope you like crap.”
I’ve felt the noose of live amateur music tightening of late. At my favorite local bar, where it has not been uncommon to find me seated seven nights out of seven, it is a rare evening indeed that some at best half-talented two-chord strummer isn’t perched on the stage trying to outsmart the lousy brick-and-basement acoustics by – of course – playing and singing louder. Genius.
The week begins, as it almost certainly must, with Open Mic Monday. The regulars include an anxiety-ridden young woman who – and you’d never guess this in a million years – has a wild preoccupation with the deep and heartfelt musical stylings of Alanis Morissette. Some nights the Colby kid who thinks he’s witty because he sprinkles his lyrics with lots of tasty f-bombs shows up with his sidekick the human beatbox – they’re crowd favorites, as you might imagine. Here’s the thing, all you human beatboxes out there: unless you invented it (and all but one of you did not), cut it out. It’s fucking asinine. Let’s see, who else? Ah, yes, there’s always at least one muscled dude who glares malevolently at his guitar (presumably because he fears it will give away his dirty secret – he can’t play!) and sings everything, from Bob Seger to Tom Petty, as interpreted by Creed. Creed – music for meatheads who love music for meatheads. But, hey, it’s not all bad: we also have a local singer-songwriter type who always brings with him quite a distinguished following of twitchy, unemployed cigarette-bummers. I’m sure his day-job as a coke dealer has nothing to do with the fact that he has an entourage. Just listen to his songs, man. Sometimes he wants to jump so high he touches the sky. Imagine wanting to do that! He also has a special fondness for his lady’s beautiful eyes. I’ve never seen her, but I’m sure I’ll recognize her when I do – I hear she has beautiful eyes. How could I miss her?
Which brings us to Tuesday. In this particular race to the bottom, it is admittedly a tough ballot, but I’d have to say Tuesday night is by far the worst of many bad options. The evening starts, any time between four and six, with a wrinkled little “blues man” who plays, without fail, the same old blues songs, the same old way, week after week for the dinner crowd. The little man can play, it’s true, but I challenge you, right now, to spend one night a week for the next four years listening to the same performance as though on a loop, and then tell me how it’s a good thing. The only variation comes on those occasions when the little man gets a bit deep in his cups and pauses between songs to tell everyone how much he loves them. Oh, man, that’s the real stuff right there. That’s old school blues. But wait, it gets . . . more! After nine o’clock, a collection of mismatched true amateurs wheel in their instruments, and from nine until closing time, they blow the bricks out of the walls with – wait for it – the same songs, played the same way, week in and week out. In a sense, it’s a masterful feat. If they cut the volume forty percent, it would very nearly be almost tolerable.
Once upon a time (meaning until about two months ago) Wednesday was the one guaranteed bastion of freedom from auditory offense. And then Acoustic Wednesday was born. It’s fairly telling that, thus far, the highlight of Acoustic Wednesday was the night some of the letters feel from the marquee, leaving an announcement for “AC U TIC WE.” I would quite possibly pay money to see ACUTIC WE. I bet they play rippin’ ska. Alas, it was an optical delusion, and Acoustic Wednesday happened as expected. The most endearing quality of Acoustic Wednesday is that it is, in fact, a showcase for one lucky performer from – you guessed it – Open Mic Monday. That’s right, folks, if four ballsy, deeply personal renditions of Alanis Morissette’s top hits wasn’t enough for you day before yesterday, pull up a barstool and strap yourself in, because now the songbook is open for business. Regrets – you’ll have a few.
I must confess Thursday holds a special place in my heart. The evening begins with a rousing round of trivia (questions composed by yours truly, not because I’m the smartest guy in town – I am, but that’s not the reason – but because I have the most free time). Thirty questions are asked of all the teams, words are consistently mispronounced by our beloved emcee (I confess, sometimes I’ll throw in one because I know he’ll botch it, and it will make me giggle), there’s some grumbling and complaining (one woman tried to convince me tin isn’t an element – I thought I was going to have to punch her in the husband), and the pot usually goes to a team comprised of roughly eighteen people (they barely break even, but so what – if you don’t like it, go find more friends). And when the dust settles and two-thirds of the bar empties out, karaoke begins.
I go a little easier on karaoke than you might imagine. Sue, the karaoke mistress, is a friend, and she has a fine voice. Beyond that, karaoke in its purest form is essentially harmless. Sadly, in practice it is rarely pure. Just as a rolling stone gathers no moss, an open microphone, almost without exception, gathers no talent. Add to that the fact that the range of songs generally runs between those you’ve heard a thousand times and those you wish you’d never heard once, and what you have is a recipe for lasting bad memories. The Japanese invented sushi and sake, and I praise them no end for it; they also invented hara-kiri and kamikazes (the suicide planes, probably not the cocktail): somewhere in between falls karaoke. They are a boldly inconsistent people, are they not?
Which brings us to the weekend. I can’t quibble with live music on Friday and Saturday nights – people have slaved away all week, give them something different to look forward to when the work week ends. It is a mixed bag, though, to say the least. There’s the white hip-hop duo who bring with them their little gaggle of low-rent gangstah thugs, and those tend to be nights when you’d rather be humping your own leg. There’s also the spunky and oddly orange-hued woman who prances around the stage singing girl-pop from the eighties and nineties to the accompaniment of a much older dude (nudge-nudge) on guitar and synthesizer. In that environment she is slightly more out of place than a thong on your grandmother. But she does have a “wind-machine.” That’s pretty cool because, you know, she has long hair.
Some call me too critical, too judgmental, or just plain mean. “Hey, man,” they say, “these people are getting up there and doing something. You should applaud them for trying.” I will not, sir. Because, minus the repeated use of the word “too,” you’re absolutely correct: I am being critical, and I am being judgmental, and when I’ve had way way more than enough, yep, I’m going to be mean. Because if you’re going to perform publicly, the public has both a right and a responsibility to be critical, to pass judgment. It isn’t your space, it’s our space, and if you’re going to fill it with your music, I am going to respond with my estimation of your efforts. Ultimately, this is a question of entitlement: just because you learned to play three chords on your acoustic guitar, that doesn’t entitle you to the expectation that I’m going to clap my hands and say, “Good job, Cody!” Just because you’ve written a couple dozen songs that do nothing more than rearrange canned, obvious sentiments, that doesn’t make you a musical genius, not even by local standards. And how sad is it that a guy who shares hard drugs with his misfit “posse” fails to connect the dots? Dude, they don’t care about your music. They just love you for your endless supply of drugs. No, that’s not sad at all.
What appears to be a lasting (and potentially devastating) effect of the information age is that we’ve evolved, by and large, into a culture that has become convinced we need constant stimuli. Forget the question of whether we can simply enjoy the silence – good luck even finding it. You can’t even put gas in your car without encountering a mini television screen broadcasting headline news. Are you fucking kidding me?
An interesting (and perhaps equally self-defeating) side-effect of the ubiquity of blaring sounds and flashing images to keep us entertained is the post-narcissist expectation that we all deserve attention. In a certain context I have no problem with this – hell, I post on Facebook quite regularly, and I write a blog. Clearly I want attention too. But I keep it where it belongs: on the interweb, where the millions of other web users can simply choose to ignore me if they wish. I don’t occupy a bench in the small tree-lined park in my little city’s downtown and pound out one remarkable turd of a song after another on my ratty acoustic, determinedly feigning indifference to the question of whether anyone’s listening. Of course we’re listening, Cody: you’re making loud sounds in a public space. Those of us with ears can’t help but listen. And not for nothing, but even the squirrels are contemplating puncturing their eardrums with ice picks.
For a time I gave these modern-day minstrels the benefit of the doubt – by which I mean I was willing to wait, a while at least, for one or more of them to impress me. I wanted to witness a moment that wasn’t so obviously and painfully derivative. If you’re going to take Whitman’s advice and sound your barbaric yawp, make sure it’s your barbaric yawp, and not some flaccid, overwrought impression of somebody else who has gone before. Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but nobody ever admired a sycophant.
Fair’s fair, and I’m a guy who is generally willing to put his money roughly in the vicinity of where his mouth is, and that is why, starting today, I am going to wander the streets and bars and restaurants and coffee shops and hair salons and insurance agencies and knickknack shops with my ubiquitous notebook in hand, and I will walk up to acquaintances and strangers unbidden and read to them selections from my own work. I simply can not wait to see the white sweet light of appreciation in their eyes.
Right now, the Chuck Mangione/Pat Metheny wannabe is glaring at me as I sit here with my headphones on, not fifteen feet away from where he’s imitating art. As luck would have it, the triple-A battery in my headphones has died, so the noise-canceling feature is out, but no matter, I’ll just turn up the volume. Because I’m listening to the Afghan Whigs, my friend. Love or hate Greg Dulli as you will, but there’s no mistaking the fact that, for good or ill, he’s felt every word he’s written, every note he’s conjured. Mangione-Metheny over there prefers music for the imperturbable. It’s doubtful he’d feel anything short of me pulling a Bluto Blutarsky and smashing his ax into a thousand merciful shards around his head. And if this really is, as I’ve suggested, the end of civilization as we know it, would that be so wrong?