Random Thoughts on Performing at an Open Mic for the First Time

The open-mic host asked if I wanted to sit while I played my song. I declined. I was going to play the guitar standing up. Which, to be fair, is a totally normal thing for guitar players to do who are going to play in front of a crowd.  Except, on that random Monday, I was a guitar player playing the guitar without a guitar strap. Which is tough.

But I was being stubborn. At no point should a guitar be played standing without a strap. But I’ve never been to a concert where someone was sitting. Gaga would not sit. Michael would not have sat. I’m not Michael or Gaga but I honor their legacy when I eat a ham sandwich or play the air guitar on the subway and definitely when I’m going to perform. Sitting was not an option.

It was a mistake.

I didn’t tell the crowd that this was my first time singing my original music in the history of my life. That’s corny. I’m not singing to prove something to myself. I’m trying to entertain. It’s about the people.

I sang a song I wrote in the fall. When You Leave, You Become Lore.  It isn’t a song that I wrote with any intention. Songwriters claim that the best ones come quick. Five minute jobs. The question isn’t why anyone could write a song. It’s more why they’re the ones the universe chooses to release them through. My songs aren’t hits. But they come quick. And I don’t know from where.

But if you knew me, you’d have thought the song was written about Rebecca.

Rebecca is the girlfriend most people knew about least. If I’ve had three girlfriends who mattered, there the best friend girlfriend, the recklessly and tragically aspirational girlfriend… and Rebecca. The mystery only we knew about.

By every objective standard, unlike the other two, we did not belong together. We didn’t even like each other conceptually.  She’s fun. I’m boring. We were simply together because we repeatedly decided to ignore that fact and be together so long as we chose to. We chose to many times, for better or for worse. Our relationship never made sense. Which is why our relationship was never something I’d talk about because it never made sense to me and I wanted to make sense of it.

She’s in somewhere in South America. Doing everything I learned to love her for: stumbling over organic farms and getting super tan on 15 mile hikes and smoking a whole lot of weed. Which makes me happy.  Because I couldn’t imagine her doing anything else.

With her gone, I’ve started thinking about why we’d have stuck together for so long. And no matter what it adds up to,  I can’t thank her enough. And so, unlike the last four years I’ve known her, I’m finally compelled to talk about her.

Everything good in my life in 2014 is because of Rebecca. Had she not lived here, I’d not have come to DC. And all the amazing things that come with that.

Her parents brought me a USB microphone for Christmas. Which is why I recorded my songs. Which made me want to join a songwriting group. Which is why I was singing at this open mic in the first place.

Every morning I’m excited about life in a way I did not and maybe could not have when she was here.  I like her much more now. Which is depressing.  And so if there was ever a time where I felt compelled to talk about her, it’s now.

When You Leave, You Become Lore isn’t about Rebecca and it’s not for Rebecca. But it helps me think about her and remember how grateful I am to her.

My father looks like the dad from Family Matters. Round face. Round body. Bushy mustache.  At no point have I heard him speak or looked at him and found any meaningful resemblance to him. Which has never bothered me and does not bother me know.

If I try to speak like anything, I’d try to speak like Chris Martin of Coldplay or Noel Gallagher of Oasis. Corrine Bailey Rae. I’ve seen so many band interviews and know the cadence of artists from the UK that I can and regularly do mimic their inflections when I speak. I thought that’d come across more in this video. But I was nervous.

Instead I see my father when I see myself. The way I used my hands to speak is the way he’d use his hands if he was chatting up his congregation at his church when I was a kid. Maybe just seeing me with a guitar was the same way it was seeing him with a guitar. For so long, I’d associated the guitar with him and being the nonconformist I was at 11, I didn’t feel compelled to learn it. Now that I play and have learned to really like it, I’ve associated it as a thing that is mine.

But seeing the video, it was like looking at my father. Which I don’t hate or don’t like. I don’t have any real opinion. It’s just an observation.

On a random day during a random year in my early life, let’s say 7, my father, the musical anchor of my house, attempted to teach me the classic Christian hymn Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending. The song is as its title suggests: old school, majestic, angelic. It is hard to sing.  It belongs in cathedrals, not random living rooms with LEGO blocks scattered around. It belongs to those channeling their inner Groban, not Ken Griffey Jr on their SEGA Genesis.

My father, however, insisted on us practicing this song.  I’d never been a singer. Never had I suggested I wanted to be one. Over and over we sang until, suddenly, my mother, who unknowingly gave me her  average to below-average singing voice, decided to fake throw tomatoes at me. She called my sister down as we sang and she proceeded to throw fake tomatoes at me too. We kept singing and my mother kept throwing. She had good aim.

There are moments in a childhood that just stick. For reasons no one would have imagined at the time they sticking. But they do. That’s one. I don’t sing in front of other people. I don’t have a good singing voice. These are facts.

At my songwriting group, I sing. And it’s a mortifying experience. I want to shrivel when I do it.

Which in a weird way, is why I decided to sing at all. At 25, I’m too nihilist to really get too crazy sad or happy about things. Life is okay. I’m relaxed in a way where everything is replaceable and thus not worth getting worked up about either way. I’ve no reputation to maintain so I can be as shameless as I want.

But I hate singing. Which is why it’s kinda cool. It’s one of the few things I’d want to do that makes me want to cry.

My roommate Sydney is black. Which I love. She isn’t passive aggressive. She isn’t Angry Black Woman but you don’t have to second guess what she says when she says anything. She came with me to the open-mic.

I didn’t ask her what she thought of my performance. Because normal people don’t really say what they think. Even Sydney would keep her thoughts to herself. I didn’t want to put her in a situation to lie. Nor should they. I tell everyone: if your friend is artistic, keep your tomatoes to yourself.

Four days later, I sat eating breakfast with her boyfriend, Jarrett. Jarrett is a chill dude. I assumed he gave no damns about my song. Which I liked. But he randomly mentioned the show.

“Rob, Sydney said you weren’t that bad! And trust me, if she did think so she’d have said so. ‘Yaknow, I like Rob, but…..’”

Finally. Feedback I can believe in.

When I first started playing, something didn’t sound right. Maybe I was gripping the chords too tightly but everything sounded muted. I wanted to quit but I didn’t. But that’s why I went through the first measure. Twice.

At three minutes, there’s a natural pause in the song where I go from the verses to a sort of variation on the choruses. I took that moment readjust myself and my strapless guitar. It looks more fluid outside of during that actual song. Which, to be honest, is pretty embarrassing. Amateur.

The singing of the song didn’t feel like it was taking forever. It just felt like it was a total trainwreck. There were so many things I needed to think about: How to sing into the mic? How can I move around and not look stiff? When can I look into the audience? Why am I staring at my hand? Why do I sound so shitty?

In the moments I sang, I thought the performance was a total fucking disaster. I would have left the stage in a panic during if I’d been any lesser of a man. That’s not entirely a realistic option but it’s more of an option than you’d think. It felt like I was in a moment where there was no solution. The disaster would have to be completed to its inevitable end.  I didn’t know how to keep going and I didn’t know why I would or should. My guitar was falling. My song sounded shitty as fuck. It wasn’t good.

And then my guitar dropped again. Jesus.

I looked up at the crowd and found the eyes of a random person. She had a cute face.  But even more striking, it was kind. She delivered me a smile. Entirely warm. Entirely friendly. She seemed intrigued by what was happening.  I smiled back at her (Which you can see at the 3rd minute)  It was entirely surprising and entirely everything I needed. Honestly, after that moment, it really wasn’t that bad. Not good. Not Gaga. But okay.

Emily gave me a birthday slice for my birthday. This stranger gave me a smile. 2014 is the year of people being nice to me for reasons they can’t be explained. Which is why I love it. Those moments make cake and birthdays and singing worth it.

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