I went to the songwriter’s competition at Relix Variety Theatre, about two blocks from my house in Old North Knoxville. The winner of each Monday moves on to the final round in December. Everyone can keep coming back to try and win. I get to go back if I want.
Joey English won tonight, hands down. I voted for him too. There were 15 very solid acts. Later I walked home with my guitar, asking myself a very good question that I’d like to address for myself as well as anyone reading. ”Buddy, how are you going to lose your neighborhood open mic contest and be serious about this whole idea?”
My readers, I wrestle with how honest to be. Songwriting is funny business. You write a song, and only you know it. Write a good one, still only you can play it. Invite people to listen, maybe they will. Get on a stage, you better be strong. It must be said that I am shy. I used to be terrified, now I only hate it. I dread it all day. But when it’s over I could be Bob Dylan. Even when I bomb. I know I’m supposed to do it, and I’m getting better.
I think I was about 25 before I ever played out by myself. At that point I’d been playing the piano, professionally even, for about 19 years. That’s a long time to get good at one thing, but mentally push something else as far away as possible. For me it was microphones. Give me five keyboards to hide behind and I’d get on stage. 25 is a late start in the music business. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse didn’t go much further.
I’d like to think that 25 was a good age to be writing. All the previous material (either naive or a paraphrased John Lennon) will forever stay lost in notebooks (okay, I go back to them for lines sometimes). At 25 you can at least have gotten a start on some things. Get married, be out of school for a while, maybe buy a house. Doesn’t make a you a rockstar, but you could try Country.
I just walked into my dark house at midnight and sat down the guitar. Ashley is asleep, 27 weeks pregnant, and my dog barked and then came to greet me. That’s a country song right there. People, I know you don’t “lose” a contest just because you didn’t win. I also know that Joey English’s success is independent of and irrelevant to my own. Still, I’ve been waiting and working for a very long time on something that hasn’t happened yet. Moments like these, moments where you test to see if it’s close or not, they make you wonder about the whole idea.
25 was a while ago now. So was the end of my proper resume. I stepped off and chased a muse all over the country, long enough now that it seems secure to be so unstable. It’s uncomfortable. Our reality is a frontier within a neighborhood. This is how two artists make a living: like a campout, in the house they bought when they were 25 but could never do now. Still, I wouldn’t give a song back if New York City had of loved me. I’ve seen Mexico all the way to the bottom through the window of a bus. I recorded and filmed music videos in Mayan jungles where they don’t speak Spanish. On a tortilla budget.
It’s time to sing, though. Otherwise, I’ve written four albums for the archives of obscurity. I can’t hold the attention of a crowded bar, I walk everywhere I go and I don’t have a keyboard anymore. My guitar has a mandolin pickup that feedbacks the bass frequency and my strings are six months old. People ask me how I make a living as an artist. Well it’s easy. I breathe and I find food. Drag home wood. Hire out my back. Had about 9 restaurant gigs. I’ve sold 13 copies of my CD so far. I’ve got half of my mortgage together with half the month gone. I spend the nervous energy at the gym. I spend whats left on acrylic paint and canvas. Then I walk on stage and don’t know where to start really. I don’t like the lights.
I’m going to have to speak up. I’ve got to be heard, although I don’t know how. I’ve wondered about writing commercial songs. I’ve thought about writing a book. All I need is a side hustle, right? At the moment, I really hope a restaurant calls me back about an application because I’m going to need to supplement my album sales come Christmas. Or another option (and why do I get so candid here?) we may rent the house again and check out. Back to the woods, back to Mexico, I don’t know. I don’t mean to run, I just gotta go (something like the words of Joey English). I may have to.
Or, there is always banking and Finance to fall back on. You can tell how suited I am for such work. I’ve often wondered what makes me get on here and say so much. I’m supposed to be cool, save it for the set. Well I don’t go on. Yessir, I take pride that I am a real artist. Busted. I’d love to believe that I’m the guy that cuts off his ear and is posthumously famous after dying of insanity. Risky strategy. But I’ll probably survive it, holding my guitar and staring off with a dazed look on my face. Into the lights.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to the interview questions. ”Tell me, why do you want to be a sushi bar host at Nama?”
I need a job, dude. I’m not asking you, and don’t make me say any more.