Open Season

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

Jan 23, 2002 at 4:00 am
Proposal: To observe open mics and document the mores, habits, and music of this unique cultural formation.

Method: Participatory observation, or "Don't criticize what you can't understand: Whoever walks a mile full of false sympathy walks to the funeral of the whole human race."

Working hypothesis: Open mics offer the most effective means of social control since the demise of public hanging or (at least) since the advent of satellite TV.

Obie's, Sept. 11: On the evening of the Tuesday of the end of innocence, Soulard is pretty much empty. The TV above the bar flashes images: sobbing faces, sober generals, tangled metal. Death counts tick across the bottom of the screen. Kim Voorman begins the night with "All Along the Watchtower." Her voice, desiccated with gravity and emotion, mixes hate with love, anger with confusion, much as Janis, Siouxsie and Grace, in equally volatile times, had done.

Along with Ranger Dave Montgomery and Bryan Hoskins, Voorman has the best voice of any open-mic host in town, and no matter what she sings -- even the zany "Show Us Your Tits" -- she never showboats, never pretends she's doing more (or less) than running a fair and friendly open mic. She draws warmth and attention from Obie's often unruly pot- and shot-plied audience. With a suitcase full of makeshift percussion, she turns most evenings into a free-for-all -- at least until, in a rather Talibanesque move, the owners banned dancing on the bar.

Tonight no one would have danced anyway. The performer sits with his notebook and bourbon and watches a well-grassed, soon-to-be hand-fastened pagan picker named Joe cradle his mandolin and gesture towards the whirlwind of ash and fire spinning on the television. "Don't let this make you a killer!" he calls out. "If you were a pacifist before this happened, you're still a pacifist today." The performer has been attending open mics for more than a year; he can't remember anything quite so brave.

Venice Café, Sept. 24. Being a mirror of life, the open mic depends on fortune. You may arrive early and sign up for a choice spot, only to find that 10 others have called ahead and slotted themselves and their friends. If you get that choice No. 4 on the list, it's just as likely the joint will be dead. Venice host Ranger Dave is a pro: He announces the performers and makes each feel welcome, and if he likes your songs enough, he'll sit in and pick along. He invariably opens with "Why I Don't Know," then on through the Lyle Lovett songbook. It matters not how many times you've heard him do "Family Reserve"; his tenor is unflagging and his bluegrass-honed licks flash and chime. "Drink up, Shriners," he offers after the song. "It's a party."

The Duck Tape Duo have brought their own folding chairs; they sit, deciding to dispense with amplification altogether, much as they've done in their parents' game rooms since they were kids. Barefoot Mike whaps at a tenor guitar (four strings, strung wrong), and Steve thumps along: They rock pretty hard. "Wish I didn't wear another man's shirt," Steve sings. "Please stay and help me stare down at the floor." Inscrutable yet unclear. Their legs keep the beat like pogo sticks: They sound like an old-time 78 going at 7,800 rpm, or maybe if the Everlys cut a Guns N' Roses tribute album -- in other words, it's better than it sounds.

A woman named Wanda is out on the town; she notices the performer scribbling in his notebook. She wants to see, can't make out the words, then demands the pen. Fingers and Butcher, an "entertainment duo" called Helliphino, are midway through a cover: Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." Wanda writes: Adam Sandler on a bad day. Hurts my ears. Some people find it hilarious! Even sing along. "Insane in the Brain!!" But turn it off! There are talented people here in St. Louis, here in Soulard, here on Pestalozzi and Lemp, that are not drunk, who are waiting their turn, their chance to be heard, to be critiqued by strangers who may not know music technically but who know what they like -- who know what their ears find acceptable, find pleasing. That guy before them, Robert [Collins], I felt his music from the vagina and up. Others I felt from the mind down to the soul.

Kennealy's, Sept. 26. The best open mic in St. Louis is a matter of some controversy, and the performer, who has attended as many as anyone, knows no way to resolve the matter. Michael O'Brien and the Dimby Mafia seem concerned with elevating the Shanti's Tuesday-night event to such lofty heights, but perhaps such obsessions are equivalent to declaring the best crackhouse or best sanitarium.

The longest-running open mic is slightly less debatable: The Venice and Molly's are virtual ties. The best sound belongs to Cicero's or Off Broadway. More abstractly, however, the most inviting open mic is Wednesday night at Kennealy's. The stage is small and close to the floor, with thronelike chairs and a laid-back, living-room feel, with pink lights strung sparkling overhead. It's an even bet the audience will listen to more than just their friends play. Host Bryan Hoskins knows and cares enough to tweak the good PA, even if it's just the performer doing another number as slow as a Lava Lamp and nearly as on key.

Tonight he follows Celia, who, when her schedule of inoculating St. Louis against meaningful songwriting permits, may drop in at the Noiseday Hoot or Kennealy's. To her credit, the weapons-grade perkiness of her songs is as genuine as it is jejune. If Shirley Temple had grown up listening to Dar Williams, her press kit might read, "Sonic Zoloft! Better than Cats!"

Why is the performer so bitter? A year spent attending open mics -- jotting and cobbling and trying to find sense -- does not excuse a poisoned heart. Celia is better than Cats, and it's precisely to that genre -- musical theater as serotonin-reuptake inhibitor -- that she belongs.

The performer has had a few beers, but he's certain he would shell out to see Celia play Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. As a local singer/songwriter, however, her talent has yet to catch up to her status as celebrity and mascot. And no, the performer hasn't answered the question he posed at the start of this paragraph.

Frederick's Music Lounge, Sept. 27. The Noiseday Hootenanny hasn't rested on its laurels as the RFT's pick for best open mic a couple of years ago. It's not, or not always, but the communal aspect, the sense of play, is always in play. Of course, that means braving Mrs. C's tuneless "Imagination," or a syllable-chomping original called "Taliban People" ("Are you from outer space?" she asks of the Afghans), or her big hit, "Poop in Peace"; enduring some anonymous strummer singing a patriotic love song to the Statue of Liberty ("Dry your tears and hunt them down in the holes where they live!"); or indulging Dave Simon, who, had he a straw hat and candy-striped pants, could make an honest living performing show tunes on a casino cruise. In song, he advises all not to worry about "little earthquakes" -- tell it to Armenia -- or sings nebulous, hormoneless songs about a girl who wants to live in China, though she (and he) can't find their way out of lily-white pop suburbia. To be fair, the performer thinks -- but why start now? -- "Goodbye California" suggests that Simon may yet write his way out of the flimsy paper sack of his songs.

Barre-chord solos, though, must be stopped. They must be. Doing so, however, would reduce Robert Collins' songs to 45 seconds, which, the performer reflects, might not be a bad thing. All of 25 years old, Robert introduces one number as something he wrote "a long time ago." He's so of his generation, with a Rufus Wainwright T-shirt and dogtags and baggy multipocketed pants, that he's charming -- which is, after all, why anyone attends an open mic: not for the music but to be charmed and appalled by the spectacle of humanity.

Stagger Inn ... Again, Sept. 30. Butch, the Sunday host, is joined by a bongo player and Mike, the Wednesday-night host: Onstage, the trio looks like a reunion for Arlo Guthrie's Group W bench ("Group W's where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the Army after committing your special crime"), and if they make the unfortunate choice of "For What It's Worth," everyone's favorite innocuous protest anthem, they follow with Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad," letter-perfect until brainfreeze. After a wrong version of "Folsom Prison Blues," Mike pulls out a right rendering of Steve Earle's "Fort Worth Blues." The Stagger's open mics, featuring free popcorn, $1.50 pints of Stag, fleet bartenders (if you perform, Charmane might get you a drink on the house) and good sound afford little danger of hearing the same hopefuls (the Chads, the Brians, the Reds, the Catfish, the Roys) who play the same five or six songs every night in Soulard as if punching the clock. You'll hear collegiate posses testing their latest Guitar Center gear -- "I don't know any Collective Soul," a singer replies to a request; "Most people know multiple Collective Soul songs," someone shoots back -- and suburban kids jamming the blues, but the effortless camaraderie of the Stagger makes it all go down easier.

Venice Café, Oct. 1. Guitar Joe, whose guitar is literally disintegrating in front of him, fends off a request for "Pissing on the President," then plays a song about Sept. 11: "The buildings started falling and tears fell from the sky." A drunk woman, in baby T, cut-offs and make-up by tar and nicotine, hoots in the back and waves a longneck in the air. Guitar Joe dedicates "Hoosier Girl" to her, and when the hoosier girl herself bumps and grinds in front of him as he eviscerates her life's story, the audience breaks into the kind of howling laughter they perhaps haven't shared since the 11th.

Shanti, Oct. 2. "War on Terrorism" commemorative T-shirts hang at the back of the bar (only $10), as if to greet the performer on his first visit to the relatively new open mic. Host Michael O'Brien, evincing encyclopedic familiarity with poetry slams from the 48 continental states, enunciates and barks as if to convince the audience that his poems rise above platitudes. Matt Ahern borrows the performer's guitar and moans out, "I won't hold back anybody's hair, I don't care, I don't care." Then, surely, the truest lines anybody will sing that evening or the next: "My guitar was my pleasure, and my songs were my earthly treasure, but all at once they turned to nothing. And I just realized I can't sing."

Frederick's Music Lounge, Oct. 4, 2001. Long-haired country rocker Johnny Fox is MIA. Red takes over, signs up the crowd and mounts the stage dressed in a wife-beater and beach slacks. Red's a regular, as ubiquitous at Obie's and Fred's as the performer himself, and though his Steve Earle covers pass muster, he dawdles, either preternaturally jovial or stoned as a bat, doing his hit-in-his-own-mind "(La, La, La) Sodomy," which provides ample evidence that the paranoia documented in Reefer Madness may, in fact, have scientific merit. Regardless, the performer isn't sure whether the deprivation of American penal institutions should be considered a yukety-yuk matter --at least not by anyone other than the chronically baked. The performer, however, is forgetting this is Noiseday Hootenanny, and taste -- as perhaps it should -- plays second fiddle to fiddle-faddle, craft to sweat, music to noise.

The earliest open mics in America can be traced back to two sources: the spontaneous testifying of early Protestant churches and the unscripted jamming of parlor get-togethers. The hootenannies of the folk revival made those gatherings more public and political, and they in turn evolved into beatnik poetry readings, which collapsed back into modern day sing-outs. Claude Lévi-Strauss might have traced it all back further, finding a root in the savage binaries of our ancestors, those gatherings around a totem or fire (the microphone), taking in hallucinogens (cherry bombs and Apple Pucker and PBR) and relaying the kind of stories (jokes, drippy love songs, ghetto-syncopated poems, brain-dead noodling) that hallucinogens alone inspire or make bearable. But such genuinely free zones for the savage storyteller in all of us have dwindled. We share our tales with friends or in chat rooms, but it's not the same. Talk shows are too structured or distasteful to be truly democratic, and street singers need permits. So it falls to this favorite whipping boy of critics to maintain that communally shared, unpredictable space of storytelling. You get what you pay for, however, and democracy isn't always a friend of the arts.

Cicero's, Oct. 7. Open mic at jam-band central has frightened the performer, but he's come, waiting his turn, drinking his wine, while fresh-faced Alex and Mike noodle, pretty as they please: Mike strums a cycle of five chords, and Alex tinkers along through no fewer than four time changes in the same jam, which raises an obvious problem for the noodler if not for the stickler for compositional coherence. Anna does "Dice Swinging," a personal favorite of hers about her friend's '82 Camry, "'cause I really like that car." Ani DiFranco isn't dead, but she's been reborn in the body of a 21-year-old dressed as if grunge were just taking off, beating the bejebus out of her guitar and singing about all the things disaffected middle-class Anglo virgins might sing about while joyriding in a Camry.

Obie's, Oct. 9. Chad and Brian's manager, an enthusiastic Peppermint Patty of a girl named Lauren, finds the performer, babbling and stoned, at his table, and wants to know something. "I can tell you're not a huge fan of Chad and Brian," she says, serious as a spore. "As their manager, I'd like to know why." The performer is convinced his own opinions mean as much as bathroom graffiti, but if she wants to know, she need look no further, he explains, than the words of Joe Cartoon's Frog in the Blender: "No balls."

Beatle Bob shows up once a month or so and joins the room in rapping on pickle buckets and tables. We are all small fish in the shot glass of the open mic, and though some would gladly leap over the rim to flop on the floor till death, most are content to keep circling and drifting, because there's not much else to do on a Tuesday and it beats sitting at home watching some liar on TV. Obie's resident tabby has the right idea: She scurries in, pawing a field mouse, and the performer rescues the creature, which had hidden in the crevice of the sole of some kid's Air Jordans. Songs, melodies, open-mic nights -- they're like that sometimes, field mice trembling in a shoe, waiting to be squished or saved.

Kennealy's, Oct. 10. Tonight Mike Flynn's falsetto, the definition of either ethereal or soft, sounds as if he's cooing a kitten out of tree; still, he's not so slick that he doesn't slide out of the chair -- at least not completely. "You're my validation," he repeats some 15 times, without irony. Kelly Fisher, in her cowgirl boots and chewing gum, follows with semiprofessional sunshine, or perhaps a dead-on imitation of a cheerleader auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, which probably says more about the performer's short and sordid high-school liaisons than it does about this debutante strummer. Then Catfish (whose delay fetish makes overly long songs seem interminable), then Billy Foster (whose stand-up misogyny, the performer must admit, is often hysterical) and John Deer (who satirizes cover bands and seems to think he's written a better song than "Sweet Home Alabama"), and then Chad and Brian -- again. Perhaps the performer is merely jealous: blond borderline-legals are videotaping the folk-pop duo's set -- again. In full possession of, to quote Elvis Costello, the "Fuck Me I'm Sensitive" style of singer/songwritering, Chad and Brian mean no harm. But one can only take so much whining about girlfriends.

Why is the performer here? Why does he feel an inarticulate kinship with even those he can't abide? After so many nights in the lonesome bodies of acoustic cutaways, after so many songs no one, least of all the performer, will recall, after so much witnessing of insensate, ignored music and poetry -- for who is he to say what is and is not music and poetry -- criticism, objection, slander and praise mean far less than a voice and a guitar, endeavoring something -- what? some birth? -- to connect or to share, and yes, like the performer -- three-whiskey-oiled and, like the rest, alone -- flailing, struggling and redeemed by the poignantly pathetic fact of the attempt itself.

That is the gig. That's all. As he often does, Bryan Hoskins closes the night with "In the Pines," the ferocity channeled from Cobain's unplugged version but not alien to Leadbelly's -- takes him past his Buckley obsession into a state where he makes of his larynx a vehicle to slash, spit, burn and puke some truth through the din.

Shanti, Oct. 16. Michael O'Brien propagandizes for Dimby Productions (the titular sponsor of this gig, even though they haven't the capital for a microphone that sounds a bit better than shit): "Repeat after me. Dimby! [pause] Rocks!" At the bar, the burnouts, slate-haired drunks and sodden ex-hippies ignore him. "Come on! I want to hear you. Dimby! [Pause] Rocks! Dimby! [Pause] Rocks!" Clever. Set up a barely serviceable PA and use the performances of unpaid artists to promote the agenda of your own scene. If only the performer had thought of that -- he wouldn't be playing open mics at all!

Stagger Inn ... Again, Oct. 21. Driving home from Edwardsville, the performer sees a sign outside a church: "Does the truth witness for or against you?"

Molly's, Oct. 29. T-Bone, in fedora and Shaft shades, hosts the Monday-night sessions, laying down the tough guitar lines and slurry syllables of "The Twist" and "Mustang Sally." His band is crackerjack and misused. Exactly what sense is made by a parade of introverted white guys with acoustic guitars following a blues band? The bartender's only answer is to lift up her leg to show a tattoo and an arthritic condition. The crowd wears motorcycle chaps and scowls. A couple gets up and tackles "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." The hoosiers in back erupt at the start of "Gold Dust Woman" -- "Yeah! Whoo! Stevie!" -- and then everybody, the performer included, sings along to "Me and Bobbie McGee." Together they put to the test the theory that nothing can ruin a good song. Should future generations wish to understand the soul of Soulard, they need look no further, grim as it may be, than this sing-along. The singer lights into Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis," as T-Bone yammers at the bar, but when she gets to the line "'Are you a Christian, child?' And I said, 'Ma'am, I am tonight,'" the human secrets of performance are made achingly apparent. The last sad note fades -- the singer may have been waiting all her life for that note -- and nobody much notices.

Venice Café, Oct. 29. Eric reads a chapter from his novel, barely audible, but the performer follows the protagonist -- a fat, drunk loser -- through an existential crisis that culminates in an encounter with a refrigerator and the following truth: "He found no beer." Erin and Jason, dressed to express in matching black leather coats and turtlenecks, follow Eric with poems. Erin, quiet and recondite, packs a pipe with African Queen tobacco, puffs like a philosopher uncle and then just reads -- without bellowing, berating or imitating some unearned hipster jive. Jason follows her, dodging and bouncing at the mic, reading an homage to the Monday-night drunks gathered in the junkyard cornucopia of the Venice, with bluesy syncopation and hallucinations of grace triggered by lust and liquor. Tonight he sounds like the best poet in Soulard.

Off Broadway, Oct. 30. Under the year-old ownership of Joe Telle and Connie Garcia, Off Broadway now hosts an "open jam" each Tuesday; the sign at the entrance reads "4 p.m.-12 a.m.," but things rarely get rolling till after 8. The joint is empty, but the host -- a solid, jazz-trained drummer -- keeps a stoned sense of humor. Some pickers sit in with Barb, who stabs at her keyboard through another Fleetwood Mac tune, then straps on an electric guitar for an autobiographical tale of a skank and her libido. She doesn't miss the melody so much as she curdles it. The performer ponders whether it's better to laugh or leave before she does "Landslide."

Obie's, Nov. 20. Helliphino, as they always do, end the night at 1 a.m. Finger's eyes are bugging out. Butcher lays back, like a samurai silently contemplating how he will kill, legs akimbo, never missing a string, never breaking rhythmic stride -- it's pretty, the performer thinks -- no matter that Fingers has begun freaking and gesticulating and foaming like an electrocution. The tune? "3 A.M." by Matchbox 20, a version that decimates and mocks and redeems every accursed truth the pretty-boy pop song never told -- at least until Fingers starts squealing on the floor like a stuck pig, and it's beautiful and frightening and unlike anything the performer has ever been subjected to before. Like Jerry Lee before them, Helliphino is dragging the audience to hell with them -- only this time, the crowd is laughing at the horrid pleasantness of the descent. They're shaking their butts, too.

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.