Year of the Open Mic

I’ve forgotten the words.

I look out at the fifteen or so faces, studiously avoiding my gaze, ranged along the sides of the railroad car-shaped space, and panic sets in. My mind has taken off on a space walk and is floating in the void, gazing down on the spinning planet far below. Slowly, surely, I will it to begin the process of re-entry — zooming in, Google Earth-style, on North America, the East Coast, New York City, Brooklyn, Williamsburg, then through the carnival light-studded door of Pete’s Candy Store, through the front bar and into the back room, where the weekly open mic session is in full swing and I am onstage, humming and strumming as I wait for the fugitive lyrics to return.

It makes no sense. Although I’m late to the performing game, I’ve been doing it for over a year now, and I’ve sung in front of much more intimidating audiences, under much more challenging conditions. I’ve serenaded movie stars on a borrowed classical guitar; I’ve broken a string during a crowded club gig and finished the set acapella; I’ve competed with a riotous birthday party taking place in front of the stage. Yet nothing makes me as nervous, or mistake-prone, as the anything-goes environment of Pete’s: a place where you could show up, scratch your fingernails down a chalkboard for five minutes, and be guaranteed a polite round of applause.

*****

It’s been a few months now since I took leave of my senses. Which is to say, since I quit my job to devote myself to writing, recording and performing my own music. The writing part comes easy: song ideas surface like daydreams and the hours fly by as I pace up and down my apartment, worrying away at chords, melodies, lyrics. Recording — with a Swiss-German, Brooklyn-based producer who used to front a cult hair-metal band — is the most fun I’ve had in years, and seems blessed by a spirit of serendipity. (An absent-minded whistle became the hook that transformed one track; the sound of rain on the studio roof became a dreamy coda to another.)

Playing live is an entirely different proposition. Getting up on stage is nerve-racking enough; getting up solo, to accompany yourself singing your own compositions, ups the ante a good bit. Add the sensation of hearing your voice through a P.A. system — akin to catching your reflection in a fun-house mirror — and the whole experience becomes, to borrow a term from a copy editor I once worked with, colon-plaiting. How to get better at this? Ask any professional and they’ll tell you: the only way to practice performing is by doing it. Which is why, every Sunday at a quarter to five, I push through those spangled doors and join the regular cast of characters milling around the front bar of Pete’s.

*****

Of the few forums in the city where anyone is free to get up and do their thing, Pete’s is one of the longest-running and most inviting. That’s partly thanks to the venue — the narrow back room, with a string of dressing-room lights forming a Blue Velvet-esque arch above the stage, is both cool and comfortable. But it’s mostly due to Graham, our immensely affable master of ceremonies.

Equal parts rocker, college professor, talk show-host, and therapist, Graham pulls up outside Pete’s every Sunday in a beaten-up Plymouth Barracuda and ambles into the bar as if it were full of his best, oldest friends in all the world. Wearing a battered tweed jacket inherited from his dad, with half-moon glasses pushed up onto a mop of shoulder-length hair, he works the room dispensing greetings, jokes and encouragement and then gets down to the all-important first order of business: the sign-up list.

The passing around of that list, which will determine the order in which we get to play, is a fraught moment. The “sweet slots” are roughly from numbers five through ten: if you go before then, you face more pressure in terms of warming up the room and will have a smaller crowd, since most people drift in later. Land in slot ten or higher and you run into mounting audience fatigue as well as the dreaded specter of the “single song cut-off.” (If too many people are still waiting to play as the 8:00pm deadline looms, your song ration is cut back from two to one: all that anxious waiting for only half the exposure.)

So when Graham places the clipboard on the bar, a very particular kind of rustle animates the room. Each of us really, really wants one of those good slots; but, given the evening’s determined vibe of mutual support and encouragement, nobody wants to seem pushy. Cue a lot of deliberately unhurried sidling across the floor, polite jostling, and gentle tapping on shoulders, all masking a palpable sense of suppressed competition. The old age pensioners at an English village jumble sale would make mincemeat of this crowd.

And with that we amble into the back room, where the games begin in earnest.

*****

You know that scene toward the end of Chinatown, when Faye Dunaway is being slapped across the face by Jack Nicholson, who’s trying to pin down the nature of her relationship to a mysterious young woman? “My sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter,” says the distraught Dunaway who, having been raped by her father, has been raising the offspring of that union in secret.

On a bad night, that’s how playing at Pete’s can make you feel — slapped back and forth, unable to figure out how you fit in. Some young, charismatic, budding star will get up and sing a perfectly crafted tune in a haunting voice, accompanying themselves with world-class guitar picking, and you think, “What am I doing here? I don’t deserve to be in the same room with this person. I should give up this nonsense.” Then the next act will peel off his top, don a papier-maché coxcomb headdress, and start slapping out rhythms on his naked, heavily tattoed torso. And you think, “What am I doing here? I don’t deserve to be in the same room with this person. I should give up this nonsense.”

Oddly, despite the serious talent in evidence, it’s the fringe characters who leave the strongest impression. It’s easy to roll your eyes at a ham-fisted protest rant (“Guantanamo / Has got to go!”), or a song that falters to a dead stop half-way through (“I’m sorry, I thought I had the lyrics on my phone, but I must have deleted them”), or a bass guitar solo that lasts for eight minutes and thirty-two seconds (“I have CDs if you want to hear more!”). But you can’t not be charmed by the regulars who show up every week and just keep plugging away, doing their thing.

Like the septuagenarian who peers out through coke-bottle glasses and, in a thin, oddly child-like voice, serenades us with vaguely creepy love songs (“’Cos you’re a woman, and your neck is so white”) that elicit whoops from the hipster contingent.

Like the self-proclaimed devout N.P.R. listener who plays the electric dulcimer and announces, “This song is about my unrequited love for my cat.” (“Don’t want to lock you in, don’t want to lock you out.”)

Or like the public school janitor who, to protest the premature setting-up of holiday installations around the city, sings a medley of Christmas carols in a random sequence over one continuously strummed G chord. (“Wait, wait!” he says, about to step off the stage: “I forgot Jingle Bells!”).

Then there are the one-offs, who show up from all over with stories and set-up lines that form a crazy quilt of alienation, aspiration and attitude. The man who announces “I just got out of Rikers, and while I was in there I wrote over 6,000 songs, all on your dime!” The guy who drives all the way down from Maine one weekend to sing “a song about my shitty job.” The Texan redhead who intones, “This one is about my ex-boyfriend; it’s called Assholio.” The retired ad exec, visiting from Wisconsin, who stops by to read a poem inspired by the Great Gatsby (“I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie or read the book, but it doesn’t end well”). The white rapper who lets us know that he also has “a Masters degree in Library Science.” And the cute Parisienne who implores us all to watch her act, then spends the rest of the night outside smoking, surrounded by a coterie of admirers.

It’s Graham, though, who pulls all this together into a spectacle that feels guided, curated, and infused with his own brand of scruffy charm. He’s an intelligent and conscientious host, lacing his banter with references to politics and history and drawing on a vast store of trivia as he introduces each guest (“You tune to 144hz? You know the guy who came up with that standard was a Nazi, right? Never mind, let’s give him a big hand anyway, folks!”). He gently chides dawdlers (“Whaddya mean, you forgot your pick? You remembered your dragon costume, for Chrissakes!”). He diligently tweaks the P.A. to coax the best sound out of each act (even when that sound is of someone impersonating a whale song). He cajoles multiple rounds of applause out of us. And he dishes out heartfelt consolation to those who get lukewarm responses (“Yeah, the clapping always gets a little flabby around this time of night. It’s not a lack of love.”) Most importantly, he keeps things moving. The half-moon glasses are flicked down from his forehead, he squints at the clipboard (“Let’s see, who’s next in our cavalcade of stars?”), and… it’s me. I’m up.

*****

This time, I think, as I stride up the narrow gauntlet to the stage, I’m going to nail it. I’m going to relax, enjoy myself, connect with the crowd, and get more than my usual ration of polite applause. Tonight I’m going to wring a few whoops out of this bunch.

I run through my opening chords, try to make eye contact with as many people as I can, and then… it’s like a kind of vertigo, a great shearing sensation as the ground gives way beneath my feet. The words are gone, and in their place come a series of unbidden, unhurried observations, like a hand of cards being deliberately laid out on a table: that the song is about a couple who are constantly fighting; that it’s based on a relationship that ended twenty years ago; that the epic feuds which eventually did us in took place a few blocks away, in pre-hipster Williamsburg; that I’ve been mostly single ever since; that if I’d been able to defuse those spats, instead of letting them fester, things might have worked out differently. That tonight I could have been sitting at my family dinner table, enveloped in a cozy domestic glow, instead of stood on stage, an unemployed middle-aged bachelor having a public panic attack.

Then again: those fights. They had become a ritual for us, conducted according to a strict set of protocols and, by the end, underpinned by a weary sense of going through the motions. The last one took place in the kitchen, breaking the 48-hour silence that had ensued after a disagreement about how long to linger at a party. This wasn’t working, I said. Perhaps we should think about taking a break. She turned, opened a cabinet that held a collection of antique china inherited from her grandmother, and pulled out the plates one by one, letting each drop to the floor and smash into pieces at her feet.

And with that, I’m back in action, leaning into the mic:

If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it by the book

You smash some dishes, I’ll give you my angriest look

Call all your friends, tell them I’m up to my old tricks

I’ll pitch a fit, give the door a couple of kicks

With a hey-ho, whaddya you know?

With a hey-ho, this is how it goes

For the twenty-first time, it appears we’re calling a truce

I’m tired of yelling, and you look like you’re out of juice

You tell me you want me, you want me to come back for more

Tonight we can make up, tomorrow we’ll go back to war

With a hey-ho, whaddya you say?

With a hey-ho, is this the only way?

Have a drink, have another, have a third, have a fourth, have a fifth

It’s the sixth or the seventh that’ll really give you a lift

Be afraid, be afraid, be afraid of Virginia Woolf

’Cause here comes a session that’s all set to blow off the roof

With a hey-ho, tra la la

With a hey-ho, this time we went too far

I finish the song and hit the final chord, to a desultory round of clapping. No whoops. I get a beer from the bar, resume my seat and dutifully listen to the remaining acts, then head out the door with my guitar over my shoulder and walk down Lorimer Steet in the gathering gloom.

Next week, I tell myself, I’ll nail it.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.