The purgatory of the open mic.
by Dale Nickey
The ad in the Recycler read, “Wanted: Singer/Songwriters, Poets and Artists for Open Mic at the Basement Church. Sign Ups at 07:00 p.m. Sunday Night”
I decided to go and perform at The Basement Church in Echo Park. My twenties were gone. My rock star dreams were gone. I now played music because it was an obsession; like sex, like alcohol or drugs. So I started going out and playing open mics as one would go out for casual sex. It was about satisfying an urge.
I showed up a little early as was my custom. The Basement Church was indeed in a basement, but looked very little like a church. As soon as I walked in the door; a smiling, puffy faced gent wearing a puke colored cardigan sweater walked up to me. He was holding a steaming mug of black coffee. He introduced himself as Deacon Jim and invited me to sit at his table. I accepted his invitation. It was a welcoming environment.
I asked him what slots were available and he said he could fit me in third. I could play fifteen minutes. That suited me fine. If I curtailed my stage banter, I could squeeze in five songs.
I looked around the room and it had a nice dark vibe. There was a small bandstand and two mics. The bandstand was a nice bonus. It added gravitas and drama to a performance. I was disappointed to see they had no stool. The height a stool provides gives you a psychological advantage over the audience. If you sit in chair, you are closer to eye level and the performer/audience dynamic is compromised. I didn’t like playing acoustic gigs standing up, so I would use my old trick of swinging my leg over the back of a chair and play standing up on one leg with one foot resting on the seat of the chair; show them you mean business.
There were four or five performers scattered throughout the room. All were concentrating intently on tuning their acoustic guitars and running through chord changes. Most looked fidgety and nervous, as though their futures depended on what would happen during their fifteen minutes onstage. I sat quietly and chatted with Deacon Jim. He seemed interested in talking to me for some reason. It was then I noticed The Girl. She was sitting at the back of the club with her nylon string guitar; the right side of her face obscured by a curtain of clean, straight, brown hair.
Her side view revealed a straight strong back and a beautiful curvature down to her buttocks. Her hands were thin, long and had a musculature that suggested a life of work. Perfect for guitar. Her arms were slender and toned. She was playing a rudimentary classical piece. It sounded nice. She seemed to have a grace about her that none of the other neophytes in the club possessed. I suddenly wished I had a sketchpad and a talent for drawing.
My meditation was shattered by a blustering, but harmless buffoon who entered from a kitchenette in the back. His name was Roy. He was stocky with thick black hair. Deacon Jim seemed well acquainted with Roy as he sat at our table without invitation. I gathered that Roy was a church elder of some sort. He was one of those people who stared at you a little too hard and a little too long. Deacon Jim cut him off gently and stood up to start the proceedings.
First up was a serious, bearded, long haired kid. He was far more handsome than he was talented and seemed to know it. He sang a James Taylor tune and a Leonard Cohen tune. He also sang a couple of tunes I assumed were original. He stumbled on chords a couple of times and wore a ‘deer in the headlights’ look on his face the entire set.
Next up was a balding, forty-something blues devotee. He had a poorly camouflaged beer gut and played a cheap nylon string guitar. His repertoire was exclusively blues standards; all of which he strummed unimaginatively in first position chords like a folk singer. Midnight Special, Stormy Monday etc…. He had a harmonica strapped around his neck which he played often and badly. I spent his entire set staring into my cup of coffee in solemn prayer that someone would shove that damn harmonica up his ass. The Basement Church.
I was up next. Even though there was nothing on the line I still got that nervous buzz in anticipation of performance. It was a good feeling. Deacon Jim fiddled with my mics while I checked my tuning. I noticed The Girl at the back of the club. She seemed to be looking at me attentively.
I was at the peak of my musical powers. I saw no reason to hold back and played my most challenging and risky songs. Deacon Jim would interject questions and comments between songs. I didn’t mind. He would say, “Good tune, yours?” Once or twice, buffoon Roy would start to blather during a song and Deacon Jim would shush him quietly and efficiently. The Girl’s dark silhouette sat ramrod straight during my whole set and never seemed to move a muscle.
I closed my set to polite, scattered applause. I sat down back at the table with Deacon Jim and Buffoon Roy. Another gent followed me and did an extremely serious set of originals. He strummed way too fast and hard, and sang way too loud. He grimaced, sweated profusely, and his face turned beet red. I guess he thought perspiration might mitigate a surfeit of inspiration. I looked in the direction of The Girl to find she and her guitar had vanished.
I should have left at this point, but something was keeping me there. Buffoon Roy pontificated and swigged coffee. He obviously fancied himself an armchair Socialist. As Roy continued his cartoon tirade I watched The Girl quietly and gracefully take the stage behind him and fuss with her hair and guitar while Deacon Jim attended to her microphones.
She was nervous, but game. She played that simple classical piece she was working on earlier. She was obviously taking lessons and practicing. She froze a couple of times, but took the piece to completion. The poorly lit stage added allure to her looks. The curtain of straight, brown, clean hair effectively cut her face in half. The half I could see was lightly made up with strong and pretty features. She surprised us by terminating her performance after one song. Deacon Jim gallantly asked her to sit at our table and play another. She said, “The only other tune I know is ‘Ten Thousand Miles’ and I barely know it.” Deacon Jim helpfully said, “I’m sure Dale could wing it on guitar”.
She sat down. She was sitting between Buffoon Roy and Deacon. She had a flinching posture when sitting at the table. I watched her hands on guitar while she ran through Ten Thousand Miles. It was a typical minimalist folk song. I picked up the chords and she sang the song in a sweet, pleasant – if slightly amateurish – falsetto. I caught her shooting a couple of glances at me. She was pretty, in her late twenties and had a smoking hot hippy body and brains. However, the curtain of hair over the right half of her face seemed to have a purpose. She was covering a scar. A made a point of not staring. She seemed shy and pensive enough.
Buffoon Roy was blathering about art and the disappearance of the friendly neighborhood bar. He complained how you couldn’t walk into a bar anymore for conversation and fellowship. He said every bar in town was either a strip bar or a gay bar. I silently wondered how he would know. At the first appropriate pause, I bent over to put away my guitar and made my excuses to go. The Girl immediately mentioned to Deacon Jim that it was getting late and she had to go to school in the morning. Deacon Jim said something unintelligible. Then, Buffoon Roy blustered, “well…I could take you home, it’s on the way!” Deacon Jim ignored Roy and turned to me and said, “You’re going back to The Valley right?” I said that I was.
“Fine, I’m sure Dale wouldn’t mind taking you home Gail”. I looked at Gail and told her I was fine with giving her a ride home. At that point she smiled and started putting her guitar away to leave. Buffoon Roy looked defeated. Deacon Jim took a self-satisfied slurp from his coffee mug, happy with his handiwork.
I offered to carry her guitar if she would negotiate the door. She walked on my right side as we approached the car. She stood well back when I opened the car door for her. All her movements seemed choreographed to shield her scar from my view. Fate even conspired to only show me her unblemished left side as she sat beside me in the passenger’s seat on the ride home.
We talked. She told me of her love for classical guitar. She also asked me what I was doing playing at the Basement Church. She told me I should be famous.
She lived in up in the foothills near The Church. I couldn’t tell if the neighborhood was ‘funky but chic’ or old and poor. Her apartment occupied the entire second floor of an older building. It probably started out life as a nice two story house that hard economics had morphed into a split level duplex.
She invited me up for a cup of tea and I accepted without hesitation. I carried our guitars as she walked up the stairs ahead of me. This allowed me a discreet examination of her body from the rear and it was exquisite. Her slim, shapely body was housed in skin tight jeans and a leotard top. I doubt men stared at that scar on her face for long.
We entered the apartment and it immediately felt comfortable. I guessed it was built in the 40’s or early 50’s. The most noticeable feature was the hardwood floors that were common to the era. Gail had wisely decorated the apartment sparsely to maximize the esthetics of the wood. Clearly she was not rich and there was no money to waste on ephemera. However, this was the eighties, when it was still possible for those not rich to live in scruffy dignity.
She bounced around the apartment cheerfully and purposefully. I leaned in the kitchen door way while she prepared our tea. She kept her back to me while she performed her kitchen duties. She interrupted her task only to look at me over her left shoulder to reveal her pretty and alluring profile. The stove was a vintage 50’s model reminiscent of our old family stove that first educated me to the pain of fire.
She chatted about school and casually took my hand to show me the view from her apartment. The view was from an empty spare room at the back of the apartment. There were faux French double door windows that opened to a view of a thicket of trees and a small ravine. A very green, lush and (I assumed) dangerous piece of inner-city vegetation. We held hands. My arousal was immediate and sustained. She was proud of the humble but soulful niche she had carved for herself. Clearly she enjoyed my company. At the same time, she did not seem solicitous. She produced a joint and we smoked and chatted amiably and easily.
I finished my tea and it was time for me to go. She stood up and faced me square for the first time. I could see the scarring on the right side of her face was more severe than I thought. I moved closer and I could see through the curtain of hair that her cheekbone was missing; a sunken crater in its place. She was covering more than a scar. Her face was tragically disfigured. I did not hesitate. I put my hand gently on her shoulder and softly kissed her beautiful left cheek. Her body relaxed and her posture was welcoming. It was then I could see the sadness in her smile.
I thought about staying the night. I arrogantly assumed I could do so and her disfigurement did not repel me in the least. I know Gail would have been an amazing lover. However, I couldn’t love and leave her so cruelly. I was better than that. Or maybe I was just too shallow to shoulder the inevitable burden of stares and questions from family and friends. Maybe it was a little of both. Regardless, I made my excuses and left.
I knew I would never see or speak to her again. But, I thought about her every second of my drive back to the Valley. I solemnly prayed for the safety and happiness of The Girl from The Basement Church.