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Open Season

A performer's diary charts the brilliant, the bawdy, the baked and the banal among St. Louis open mics

Stagger Inn ... Again, Nov. 21. Rosco Villa onstage: "Fuck you and your beer. This song is called 'Baby, I'm Stoned.'"

Off Broadway, Nov. 27. The house band is wasted and trying to work up another classic rock song with a flute solo. Time is running out everywhere but here.

Cicero's, Dec. 2. By 8 p.m., the tables in the club are taken and the list is full. Our host, Dennis, affable and accommodating to a fault, spins acid jazz and Grateful Dead, but he starts on time with a good cover of "Alberta" and a shaky reading of "Love Minus Zero." Colleen digs deep into a J.J. Cale song, "Cajun Moon," and is followed by Charlie, who bumbles through "I Killed Santa Claus," but he's not nearly as bad-ass as his electrical-taped guitar and sunglasses suggest. The performer is intrigued by what might go through the mind of someone covering Hootie and the Blowfish. If he starts pulling at that thread, he fears, the whole world will unravel.

Venice Café, Dec. 17. A kid named Goat, with pierced lip and fucked-up teeth, takes the performer's guitar and warbles: "My mama was a muff-diver. She looked just like McGyver." The performer is still unsure. He wants to believe open mics tell a story or address an essential question. But he doesn't know the plot and can't make out an answer. Why have these woeful parades survived the passed winds of musical change? Why are they likely to endure when the trend-mongers tell us that all these guys and girls with songs and guitars live in deluded obsolescence? It's a new age: They should get turntables, samplers, beats and bleeps. At least the economic justification of open mics is clear: On an off night, let the clientele jerk off onstage, for all the bar owners care, so long as they buy drinks. But economics never tell the whole story. Open mics endure because they are all too human: From the day we admit our own small existence, we become performers and look for an absolving audience. So they come, with poems and Ovations, not for narcissism or ego affirmation but to dispel the emptiness carried within like a damaged chromosome. It's that damage, that awkward, inchoate tangle of the heart, that riven beauty inside that you may hear in Robert and Cali's harmonies, in Ranger Dave's hammer-ons, in Kim's torrid howl, in Butch's smooth I-IV-V blues, in Chad and Brian's spunky melodies, in Jason and Erin's angst, in Finger's spit, in Billy Foster's deadpan delivery, in Kelly Lea's voice -- it's the end of the night and she's singing to no one now, "I'm too tired to fight, too tired to fuck" -- pulling away from the microphone and raising one last hallelujah of a note to the ceiling, as if it weren't just another open-mic night, as if all of this really does mean something more. And it does.

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