In his junior year of high school, my son stopped limiting his guitar playing to his bedroom. He participated in a couple of Open Mic events and not only did the crowd tolerate my newbie rocker kid, they appeared to adore him. He played cover songs like everyone else – Metallica, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, CCR, Nirvana, Ozzy; however, the open mic community discovered that they could call out any musical genre and B. would be able to improvise a fairly well-developed song on-stage while they watched.
(Yup…. that IS a link at the end of that paragraph. If you remember from my About page, I can sometimes be THAT mom. Luckily, it is only one-minute of an improvised piece. And you don’t have to watch. It won’t take away from my post and I won’t have hurt feelings, I promise. 😉 )
B. started going to open mic events every week and every week, the host, the crowd, the other musicians would test him. “Blues.” “Jazz.” “Acid Metal.” They would call out. “80’s rock.” “Grunge.” “Country.” “Classical.” (Enter Beethoven’s 5th, Hall of the Mountain King and Flight of the Bumblebee instead of a purely improvised piece.)
It didn’t take long and other musicians began joining him on stage for this improvisational work. In fact, he got to play with a good number of fairly well-known local musicians – including one of Lori Line’s drummers, Larry Hayes from Lamont Cranston and Doug Molland (brother of Joey Molland, guitarist for Badfinger. If you didn’t hear them back in the day, some of their music was featured in the series finale of Breaking Bad.) Being on a stage, being able to crank his equipment way up, being able to communicate through music, being able to create, to work with other people to create, was pure and absolute joy for B.
He didn’t care who these people were. He didn’t care if they were well-seasoned or just starting out. To him, these people were simply travelers, adventurers, sharing their souls and exploring this world of music just like him. A few people mentioned that they enjoyed but were intimidated by this game. Like his dad and I, B. assumed that this was something people were just saying to be polite, to make him – one of the youngest people there – feel special, to make him want to keep coming back.
One night, a young man came to the door of the Arts Center where the open mic event was taking place. He asked if they needed counter help, a guitar repair person, a handy-man, anything. He was desperate for a job. The Arts Center didn’t have a job to offer him but they offered to let him stay and enjoy the music without paying the cover fee. Perking up, the young man explained that he had gone to an arts high school but that he’d had to sell his guitar. Another musician found a borrowed guitar and added the young man to the list of performers, insisting that he not just watch but participate. He let him know he was to perform right after my son. B. played cover songs and finished his set by improvising a song – like he did every week. It was now expected. B. thanked the crowd and asked them to welcome the young man – the next performer.
The young man thanked the crowd for the opportunity to play and began his first song. He played in a very different way from the other performers. It was as if this borrowed guitar was not really a stringed instrument at all. Rather, it was a drum, a series of drums that happened to also have strings. He knocked, rapped, plucked at that guitar to make the most hauntingly beautiful sounds. If you have ever seen the movie August Rush, you’ll know exactly the style of playing I mean. The crowd was completely silent, absolutely enraptured but the young man stopped in the middle of his song. He looked up, tears in his eyes and a sad smirk on his face.
He stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t …. I can’t do this. I know this isn’t what you guys were…. God, Now I think I’m going to pee my pants.” He handed the guitar to the sound technician and rushed up the stairs to the green room.
B. felt terrible, absolutely terrible for him. He waited a few minutes, handed his guitar to his dad and he went to check on the young man. He didn’t come back down until the event was over and it was time to leave.
In the car on the way home, instead of recapping everything that went well and everything that needed to be adjusted, practiced, explored, investigated, B. was completely silent.
When we got home, I asked him if everything was okay. B hesitated, cleared his throat and said, “I don’t know…. M. Is kind of … well … homeless. … He moved to this area because he has an aunt who lives here. He hoped his aunt would let him move in, but … she only let him stay one night. She turned him away. … Mom, he’s been living on the streets and couch hopping since he was 16. He is probably going to just sleep in the park.”