His future revealed itself to him just off the corner of Lyon and Fulton. Between a Jordanian corner store and a shell of a 3-story Victorian. The apartment was at the bottom of a damp crack of San Francisco housing.
The studio had one room and one window with a view of a wall, but it was new inside, and furnished, though not by Charlie. It had a twin bed, a mini-fridge, a roll-top desk and bright yellow walls. His mother would’ve liked it. It was late, and it was quiet. The homeless monologue could be heard verbatim between the 5 line’s hydraulic brakes.
Another Coors out of the mini-fridge. He held the stereo remote and sat across the bed in darkness—beer wedged between knees, head against the wall—and hit play.
He’d never heard himself sing on a recording before. Or play guitar. When the song would end, he’d play it right back. Four, five, six times over. He chewed tobacco, drank beer, and bit his nails. He listened to himself and the songs he wrote. Over and over.
It was late, and at twenty-two so was he to be taking up music, but he sat there in the stillness, and he knew. He was not made to play baseball as he had once thought. He was made to be a folk singer. He was a natural – sparse and soulful – and soon everyone would agree.
He took a drink and the beer mixed with the tobacco. It was objectively good, and so was the song. The emotion in his voice was natural. All its cracks fit.
Charlie was far from home and now had a secret he liked. He liked it very much, and he wanted to feel that way forever. He’d never feel that way again about a song he wrote.
He knew nothing, and he didn’t know it. It was perfect.
A single tap on the door broke through the solitary bliss. It was the landlord from the apartment above.
“Hey Rick. Want a beer?”
Charlie fetched one from the mini fridge before Rick could decline.
“It’s 3:30 in the morning, man. You gotta to stop playing that song.”
Charlie apologized. The mixture of tobacco and beer had him more than buzzed. “Have a listen. Not through the ceiling.”
Rick took a long drink, then handed the bottle back to Charlie. “I have a pregnant wife and an 14 month old gremlin whose only objective is to ensure I don’t sleep. You know all of this.”
Charlie hit play, and the song started again. The rough live take started up again, and Charlie fixed his stare on Mike.
“That’s me.” He was proud, and smiled. “Rick, that’s me.”
Rick’s face was expressionless. He took the beer back and stared at the stereo. He listened to a couple lines.
“I don’t buy it,” he said, finally, taking another drink.
Charlie couldn’t remember Rick’s last name, but he was betrayed.
Rick went on. “What are you so sad about? Seriously. You’re young. You’re up at 3:30 on a Tuesday. Drunk. Single — single — and no one cares. No one expects anything from you.”
Rick stepped back from the doorway and laughed. It bounced around the narrow, deep walkway.
“You’re not sad, you know. I’m exhausted, but you are not sad. You just feel guilty for being happy. You haven’t realized yet, Charlie, but those songwriters you idolize – I promise you – they are severely fucked-up fuck-ups. We,” Rick waved his finger between Charlie and himself, “we use them. Like hookers, really. We do. We go to them for a few minutes every now and again when we feel sorry for ourselves, and then go back to our happy, manageably fucked-up lives as if nothing happened. You know why? Because nothing happened. We’re OK singing along to Bruno Mars most days, because sadness isn’t as sincere as you think it is.”
The sloppy harmonica ramped up to the second verse. Charlie was drunk, but clear-headed. Keeping his eyes on Rick, he pointed to the stereo.
“This is me.” He pointed up at the ceiling to Rick’s apartment and all it held – pregnant wife, crying baby, and rent checks from tenants with very little money. “That is you.”
Rick shrugged. “For now.”
He walked up the stairs and opened the door to his apartment. “Turn off the music. Please. It’s not bad. It’s just late.” He left the beer on the railing before heading in.
Charlie stopped the song.
The 5 passed through, and silence filled its wake. The homeless monologue had relented. A beautiful city slept beneath the fog.
Then, very quietly, the sound of music, and Charlie whistling along.
I clutched my new guitar in the hull of a ship.
The Hotel Utah is more bar than venue, and not a hotel at all. To the left of the entrance people sit on stools and watch Giants baseball games, oblivious to musicians baring their souls on the stage accessed beneath a ship hull propped above the steps down to the small performance area.
That night I would play my own songs in front of an open mic audience. I’d never played in front of people before. I was early—the sun was still shining through the dull green window tint—and I was very concerned someone would steal my new guitar. No one else was down by the stage.
I had a cheeseburger and a beer before the host showed up. He was tall, and there was no demarcation between beard and hair. It was all the same ball of wet fur. He grabbed a beer from the bar and played George Jones through the PA. He unlocked a compartment beside the stage, and started setting up by unrolling a nappy, knockoff Persian rug by foot. He was not careless, but he wasn’t gentle either. Beer, tunes; padlock, rug, kick. It was routine.
I introduced myself and, and in case he didn’t notice the only other dude in the room had a guitar, I told him I was there for the open mic.
“It’s my first time. Just wondering how it works.”
“Cool, cool. What you do is, you sign up. You, ah, you write your name on a piece of paper, and you put it in the hat, then I’ll call the names. Out of the hat.” It was like he was giving driving directions, and the last word of each phrase was emphasized as much as “left” or “right”.
“Cool,” I said. How was that cool? I was not cool. I was the opposite of cool. I was at an open mic on a Monday night. “So where do I sign up?”
He pointed to the emptiness before the stage. “You sign up over there. You put your name in the pitcher. I, ah, I got to set up the stage. I’ll put out the paper and the pitcher after I set up the stage. Then you can put your name in the pitcher.”
“Didn’t mean to keep you, man. Cool.”
“Just don’t put your name in more than once, okay? Don’t. And there’s a five-minute time limit. I cut the mic at 5:01.”
I laughed, but I couldn’t tell if I got his joke, whether or not he was joking at all, or if I was the joke.
The musicians came in like runners in road race. One, then a couple, then before you knew it there was a group of them all at once. They leaned up against the outside of the Utah with guitar cases at their feet and cigarettes in their fingers. Some wore suits, others shorts. T-shirts, cowboy hats, dreads, beards. Tattoos, piercings, holes where piercings once were. Dads, misfits, possible bums. Pretty girls and frumpy girls, and men dressed like girls. Everyone knew each other, of course.
I stayed in the corner. I put my name in the pitcher – once – then returned to my corner. I was focused. I was there to win. There was no explicit competition or prize, but that’s how I understood things. Be better than.
While I had never played my songs for a crowd, I heard my songs, and fear made me critical. The thought someone would call me a phony and leave my embarrassment dangling for all to see pushed me. I knew the songs were good. I wasn’t a very good guitar player, but I could sing, and I could write lyrics that meant something and had a rhythm, and that’s what matters.
A middle-aged guy with a ponytail shelved a violin case on the back of the bench. He tennis shoes were white and his t-shirt was tucked into his jeans. He stood over me for a moment.
“Must have got here early for the corner booth,” he said, scanning the room.
“I just came when website said is started.”
“No show starts on time. You ever play music before?”
“Nope.” Something about those shoes and that tucked in shirt made lying to him seemed pointless. What was I protecting that this guy could take from me?
“Oh, god. Another one of you.” He shook his head, then, took an unattended beer from the next table over. “First times suck – to play and to hear.”
“I’ll try not to bore you.”
“Please bore me. Just don’t stink and keep it short.” He tore the label off the beer as its original owner stood before the now empty table dumbfounded. Only then did Pony Tail actually look at me. “Tell me you’re covering Johnny Cash or something simple.”
“What is the point in doing a cover here?”
“Cover something. Anything. Everything you’ve written at this point is probably terrible. I’m just being honest. When you bomb on a cover, people can at least think of the original.”
“My song’s good.”
“Oh yeah? What’s its about?”
I was going to play “Checking In.” A college buddy from back in South Dakota was sick. He got sick right after we graduated. He was in Houston trying to do grad school and chemo, and I was in California. I was far from the pain and the fear and the metallic taste everything now had. I was given summaries, not daily updates, and I felt guilty. He was far away from his home in Minnesota, and I was far from him while not helping. The distance was the only tangibility my sadness offered. The song pointed out my inability to know what he made to go through, but that I was with him in the sadness. It spoke of no silver lining, just the promise of friendship. It was a sincere song.
I could have said that to Pony Tail stealing beers from fellow musicians, but he didn’t deserve it.
“What are you going to play?” I asked. “You got a hit for us?”
“Ever heard of The Star-Spangled Banner? I run the violin it through an effects board. Closest I’ve heard to Hendrix’s original, to be honest. I played it at a Giants game last year for 43,000 people.”
A lady from the next table overheard Pony Tail and looked over her shoulder. “Again, Glen?”
Pony Tail left me to remind my newfound savior of the technical merits of his performance.
The host started calling the names and reiterated the rules. If he found your name in the pitcher more then once – end of the list. Firm five minute time limit. By the time he was done, there were 96 people set to perform. Some musicians left after the list went past 50. I drew 9. The host called my name, and I became very nervous very suddenly.
I needed to tune my guitar again immediately. I needed to practice again. All that confidence that brought me to the bar was bleeding out. The pitcher of names was like the loaves and fishes. They would not stop. I ordered another beer, keeping an eye on my guitar from the bar.
The performers started, and I learned a lot of songwriters like talking about their songs more than they like playing them. They like to tune their guitar on stage and tell untested jokes right before they are compelled to tell you when they wrote a song you’ve never heard:
I am so happy to be in this warm place with all of you amazing musicians. I’m going to play a song I wrote a while ago. It’s special song to me. I was living in LA a few years ago, my parents recently divorced, and – you know – it was a dark time. I mean, Bush was still president. Anyway, the song I’m going to play for you is called “The Marriage of Love Discontinued.”
“…it’s called Owl Facing West On Summer Solstice”
“The Breakfast Song”
“It’s just called, ‘Song’. I wrote it, like, 20 minutes ago.”
And every time this routine played out – every time – the crowd of musicians would either laugh, hoot, or hum a depth of approval too great to remain inaudible.
Some of the first performers were okay. One was pretty good, but most were bad. They were objectively bad, and everyone cheered. Musicians would flub the first chord of the song they were performing for an audience and sing out of key. They would forget lyrics and start the song over.
I didn’t get it. What were they applauding? The whistling and clapping—these were not good songs. These were not good performances.
The host walked up to the mic after an old man in a suit finished playing a piano instrumental. It was beautiful. It was also a Philip Glass.
“On deck is Charlie Fischer. Charlie Fischer. Up now…”
I grabbed my new guitar and headed backstage, which was just a long, dank hallway where the bar stashed empty kegs. The duo on stage started their song, and it was very loud in the hallway.
I fished my tuner from my pocket, but was interrupted. She was beautiful.
She wore a denim jacket, a long skirt, and cowboy boots. All the hip, sexy clothes ever made for women were actually made for people like her.
“You have any blow?” she asked.
I could barely hear. Surely, my guitar went out of tune on the way over to the bar. I just wanted to tune my guitar. For once, I didn’t need a beautiful girl in cool clothes talking to me.
“Any blow?” She spoke quickly and quietly.
“Do. You. Have. Any. Cocaine.”
I had never seen cocaine, much less been asked if I had any. I was not cool. I was at an open mic on a Monday night, and was the uncool one at the open mic. It should’ve been obvious to her. Of anyone there, I would be the one who wouldn’t comprehend the world’s most recognizable term for a drug. I shook my head.
“Well, you should.” She walked down the hall, kicked an empty keg to the side, and opened the door to return the sidewalk.
I set the tuner on a light switch and kept tweaking. That fucking b string kept fucking giving me trouble. Sharp, flat, sharp. Then I heard the applause. The host gave another sincere compliment, punctuated with, “That, ah, that was a hell of a song.” He called the next performer on deck, then my name. I paused, letting the guy on deck to shuffle past while making sure he didn’t touch my guitar. I couldn’t tune by ear, especially not on stage for the first time.
Listen. Listen. You’re good. The song’s good, and you’re good. Kill it.
I walked onto the tiny stage, only then noticing the plaster mermaid arching topless over the stage. The mezzanine was within arm’s reach from the stage. I was ready. I just wanted to get into the song and stop noticing new things in the room. I wanted to pull my cap down low, play my song to no one, and get the hell off stage.
The host leaned down and plugged the cable into the guitar. As emasculating a feeling as I’ve ever known. He motioned for me to make sure the input was working. My guitar sounded throughout the room. The host asked if the volume was good.
“Yep, good.” I wasn’t hearing myself speak, but the sound of my voice filling a room around. This wasn’t like recording in a bedroom. There was no, “let me start that again.” This time I would sing, and it would go out into a room. It would go into people’s ears, and into their brains, and aside from indifference, they would have one of two thoughts: Who is this guy? or Who is this guy?
I had practiced the song at least a hundred times that week, but I realized I was about to perform it for the first time. I hadn’t known there was a difference until that moment.
But my song was good. You’re good. Kill it. I was ready. The host was not.
“I almost forgot.” The host cleared the three steps in one stride. “This is Charlie’s first time. First. Time.”
With my tuned guitar between us, he wrapped his arms around me. He rested his beard on the top of my head. He hummed, squeezed a little tighter, and held me a little longer. I am not a hugger of strangers.
He pushed me back and looked down at my eyes. “No matter what, don’t apologize.”
“Don’t aplogize!” the crowd echoed.
The host returned to his seat and stared at me. Everyone stared. This shouldn’t have taken me by surprise, but it did. I began to play. I said nothing before playing. There would be no introduction.
Are you okay
Man, are you all right on tonight of all of the nights
So far way from the people you love the most
And the people who love you
I use the word “love” twice in the first four lines?
Well I know that I know just enough to know
That I don’t know a damn thing about the things you’re going through
I just wanted to say with all of my love
I will be there for you
Eh, that’s corny, and not even true.
Well I feel so stupid
Like a broken record
Telling you the same things everybody else does
You’ll be fine and you will win
A broken record is cliché. And you’ve never told him he’ll win. You just sing about it.
And we can start all over again
But you and I know better
Are you fucking kidding me? Nothing hard has ever happened to you. Nothing. Now a friend’s in trouble and you’re in this bar singing about it. You do not know better.
Well I know that I know just enough to know
That I don’t know a damn thing about the things you’re going through
You’ve never asked him how it feels. You just liked the rhythm of that line, so you used it. You don’t know, because you’re here. If you wanted to know you’d stop right now and drive to Houston. Right now. You don’t want to know. You want sing about not knowing and then have a dip while he waits for his next round of chemo. You are not a friend. You are a selfish asshole.
The internal monologue faded halfway through the second verse. I had to remember the next line. In its absence I found something that remains one of the purest beauties I’ve ever experienced.
There is a silence that settles around a musician when he plays acoustic guitar by himself. It is acknowledged by everything in its presence. Cooks will not call out an order in the kitchen. Chairs will not creak. The loudest of idiots holds his breath. There is nothing like a bar listening to a guy singing his song.
I finished my song, pressing my fingers on the fret to hold that last chord pure. The crowd shouted and whistled, and the host kindly questioned that this was my first time to the crowd. I was embarrassed and guilty and relieved. I felt like what I thought a songwriter should feel at that moment, and by that measure I felt good.
Someone even bought me beer.
Pony Tail and his electric violin took the stage later in the evening. It was one of those modern violins. Soulless with no wood and some polycarbonate frame in the shape of a violin. He played as if he were a bullfighter, moving dramatically across the tiny stage while playing Hendrix’s F You version of the Star-Spangled Banner.
I leaned into the lady who’d given him shit about the song earlier in the evening.
“I don’t get it,” I said with a laugh.
She kept her eyes on the stage. “What’s there to get?”
“What’s the point of playing this?”
“It’s an open mic. Because he wants to. Once a week he wants to play the National Anthem and tell strangers he played it at baseball game. What’s wrong with that?”
I didn’t have an answer.
“It takes guts,” she said. “To get up in front of people and play on a stage. It takes a lot of guts. So just listen and applaud him for that.”
I was an asshole for the second time that night, so I shut up and did what I was told. Pony Tail stretched out the “Home of the brave” finally for all it was worth, which then descended into feedback and distortion that was far too big for the ship hull likeness we occupied. The noise transitioned into another song. A transition from the Star Spangled Banner into any song is pretty obvious, feedback or not, and the music stopped suddenly.
The host jumped back onto stage. “Five minute limit, Glen. Give it up for Glen, everyone. Have you played that one before?”
Another beer sounded good. People were just starting to get loose, but that’s how I wanted the night to end on that – the host cutting Pony Tail off. I grabbed my guitar, walked up the stairs and out of the hull, and went ashore. I had class the next night, and I needed to find a job.