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Conversation Pieces XV: The Singer
By: Wayne Brown
The cigarette smoke seems all but drawn to the stage by the spotlights shining down upon it. I sit here in a blue haze surrounded by the effects of secondary smoke. It’s a necessary hazard of my profession…barroom singer. It seems that it is the one constant in my act no matter where I play…smoke. Of course, one of the reasons that it bothers me very little is because I am a smoker myself and likely most of the smoke that surrounds me is coming off the many cigarettes that I burn down during my time here on the stage. Cigarettes, beer, and music mixed with an occasional shot of tequila…that’s about all I know.
I am not a formally-trained musician. I play the guitar by ear and I know the words to most of the songs one way or another. Hell, I should in that I have been singing them now for the better part of twenty years. What started out as a simple hobby soon became a way to make money and now it seems that it now a profession. It’s all I know how to do in life. You can’t see most folks’ assets and talents but mine are on display up here most every night on the stage for all to critique. Some are envious and most, it would seem, are not even curious unless I happen to be performing their favorite song.
Folks wander up to the stage in most every town when I take a break. They invite me down to sit with them and their girlfriends, buy me beer, and make small talk. It’s the same old questions all the time, “How’d you learn to sing like that, man? Did you take guitar lessons? Will you teach me?” I can almost guess what they’ll say before they open their mouth. Then there are the ones who say things like, “Wow, a man with your talent ought to be in Nashville making records!” That’s about what they know about this business. All over this country tonight in some lonely bar somewhere are a whole lot of men and women who “ought to be in Nashville making records.” The truth of the matter is there is just not enough of Nashville to go around.
Actually, I never cease to be amazed at what folks have to say. As I sit there on the stage with my guitar, a smoke and a beer, singing this song and that one, I look about the room and notice that no one is really paying attention to me. They are lost in running their mouths to each other; creating that din of noise which requires me to have a microphone to be heard over their constant buzz. Sometimes I think to myself that I will just turn it off and see if anyone notices. Then I think about how bad it must be to perform in a stadium in front of fifty thousand people who aren’t paying attention and feel relieved that I am only being ignored by a few.
The irony of all of this is that I took up music in order to get noticed. You laugh, but it is true. Sure I had an ear for it and a knack for being able to learn the guitar. But ultimately, I wanted to perform for people; to hold their attention with my musical style and impress them with my talents. That’s what kept me focused and at it for all the years that it took of my youth to hone my skills. And now, I sit here displaying them to a room of people who seem more oblivious to my presence than anything else. Most of them claim to love music but apparently only as a “background” noise for their other pursuits.
I am a word person. I love lyrics. I am intrigued by how the words mesh together to form a single thought and how the thoughts come together to address a subject all in the span of about two minutes time. The whole story; the message; comes through in the lapse of two to three minutes on most songs. Most people don’t think about that but it is quite a feat that a writer can express his or her thoughts so efficiently and effectively to get them across in that short time span. Hell, some writers aren’t capable of that in the full-length of a book.
Of course I like the music too especially on certain songs the way two or three chords come together to make a given sound like the ticking of a clock on the wall. That given sound meshes with the lyrics to create something so unique that one can listen to it over and over without tiring of it. That is what makes music special to me. It makes me sad to stare out across this room and see that message lost on so many that only classify it as a pacifier…background noise for conversation or sex.
Being a performer is much like being a chef. People don’t think about it that way. I hear them say that they would love so much to be a “performer”. I hear others talk of their love of cooking and how they would love to own a restaurant and cook for people. Clueless…that’s what I call it…clueless. People who cook for people and do it well certainly love what they do but what the public misses about it is their self-discipline in terms of their craft; their attention to detail and the discipline to do things the same way over and over. A song is like that to the singer…every little nuance needs to come about the same way every time if the message is to be effectively delivered in the music. Every chord or note needs to be played and heard if the song is to be delivered in the same manner as the chef delivers a mouth-watering meal. In the end, the process is repetitious yet disciplined. Most folks do not have the stomach for that focus and quickly loss their lust for the sport.
“Hey buddy, can you sing ‘Orange Blossom Special’? That’s my favorite Johnny Cash song! Sing it man!” They yell to me between songs. It is as if the audience knows the list of every song I hate to perform and they ask for every one of them by name. It is tough enough to sing really good songs over and over; night after night but to sing the ones that I don’t care for, well, it just ain’t in me. Life is too short to sing songs you don’t like.
I sing particular songs because of their message or their feel. I avoid others because of the same traits. It’s pretty simple. That varies with every performer and their taste. Some like to sing “Me and Bobby Magee”, but I tired of it long after Janis Joplin worked it over. I no longer hold Bobby’s body close to mine in verse. I like a deeper message in which the audience has to listen to get it which is a joke to contemplate given the fact that the audience is caught up in everything but the music.
Eventually, we get to the end of yet another evening. It’s late and my fingers are just a bit raw and tender from the hours of gripping the guitar strings on the various chords. My voice is taking on a rasp from the smoke and liquor and I am generally dog-ass tired. As I finish my last song and turn to put my guitar away, there’s always the guy who wants to hear just one more or the other guy who does not understand why I am quitting so soon. I think about telling them, but then I bite my tongue and just smile. They didn’t choose this profession for me; I did so it is really is not their fault that I am not too pleased with their performance as an audience.
I store my gear and walk over to the bar for one last beer and a tequila chaser. There’s always one of the regular girls there close by or maybe one behind the bar who dreams of going home with the singer. I have to laugh at myself thinking that at one time I was dreaming of going home with these women as well. But, I’ve been home with most of them at one time or another only to wake up the next day as a lonely barroom singer in the bright sunshine of day. No, I’ll just drink my beer and tequila; pack up my gear and get an early start for the next town. It’s all about the discipline; that’s what keeps you going.
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