Saturday, September 8, 2007


Sometimes you're just floored by something. It doesn't happen often—in fact, the idea of being awestruck seems to hang around too much for the thing itself to arrive unnoticed, and, as with watched pots finally boiling, unnoticedness seems to be a prerequisite to the event. All-too-frequent reports of life-changing books or eye-opening movies or reunited twins or the Virgin Mary popping up on a grilled cheese sandwich cloud our view with the promise of awe, and then we wonder why we don't feel it as much as we think we should. We hear the world is full of glory and so we try to keep on the lookout for it, like little kids stalwartly waiting for Santa or the tooth fairy (I'm using "we" a lot but of course I mean "me"). And then, fortunately, the sheer amount of talking about it and looking for it turns itself to its opposite—by looking everywhere we are looking nowhere; by trying to stay up and see Santa the kid is sure to fall asleep—and that's when it happens.

It must've been Garrison Keillor who set it off for me this time. I was walking down Court Street on my way to the student center to catch a bit of Open Stage Friday, dodging the early drunks and eager party hoppers who were just crowding onto the sidewalk. Usually I pop in my earbuds to catch up on podcasts of news programs while commuting on foot, and even when I stray into something like "News From Lake Wobegon" it's just talk—they don't usually include the songs and skits in the podcast version of A Prarie Home Companion. But this week it was different. Just as I was coming up on college green, old GK started in on the soft strains of a song. He warbled the lyrics in the way only he can—as effortlessly as he speaks—and before long a woman's voice was drawing out a harmony, just barely, on the rising and falling slopes of the lines. A piano and a guitar hid very low in the background, almost indistinguishable from one another, and a violin eased out a few faint notes that never peeked above the horizon. It was music with restraint, from veteran players who knew how to play just enough.

It didn't fit at all with what I was seeing. What would the people on the street think if suddenly my iPod was broadcast out on the street? What would they do with the sound of a sunrise in Minnesota dusting off the smoke and pool chalk in their conversations? Spit it out like bitter beer, I guess.

But this isn't the part at which I was touched. In fact, I was trying my best not to be touched by anyone. Weaving left and right and avoiding eye contact, I was gathering up my pride the way I inevitably do when I'm going to hear live music. I was putting on my "I could do better than this guy" face. No, I was wearing it already. I haven't figured out how to live in a town that revolves, as this one does, around alcohol, and in some ways my iPod has become my defense. And even though Mr. Keillor was inside that armor, he couldn't deliver a fatal blow to my pride. But he must've set up the shot.

I walked into the Front Room coffee shop, pulled out my buds, and quickly found a place alone on the far side of the room. I was just in time to catch some clumsily symbolic line about "wild beasts in Cain's garden" or something like that, sung in two-part harmony by a dude with a fauxhawk, eyes closed, who was cradling his mic between two hands, and his friend, who was fingerpicking cruel, endless E-minors on a guitar. Both were wearing black pants and black shirts with the top two buttons unbuttoned. I was pleased, confident that I could indeed do better than these two kids. It isn't a deliberate thing I do, comparing myself to other performers; I just can't help it. It isn't even that I would do better, that I could do better—it's that I think can see so easily what's wrong with someone's act. I'm a vicious critic. I fault people for talking too much in between songs; for introducing every song with a long tale of love and loss; for declaring the eligibility of members of the band as if women can't help but love a musician; for not varying the constant drone of four chords with a bridge or a truncated refrain or a different instrumentation on the second verse, as if each moment of captured emotion in their opus is too important to pass up, even when a song passes the six-minute mark; for using worn-out metaphors or lines containing any variation of driving all night, walls falling down, or the world not understanding1; for neglecting the performance part of performing while singing not to the audience but to the still-bleeding heart they wear on their sleeve in an attempt to be seen as "sensitive" or "deep" or "poetic," as if others don't have comparable pain and have nothing better to do than admire the "you can't know how I feel" mystique of a young guitarist. In other words, I fault everyone else for everything I used to do. Probably still do. And it isn't like I just figured that out right now as I type. I knew when I walked into the café that the criticisms that would inevitably form in my mind as I watched would incriminate me. And still I sat there through a set of self-important songs by a bad Simon and a lame Garfunkel,2 imagining the way I could walk up, borrow a guitar, and set the room afire with a cover of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" done acoustic with a funky beat and a surprise bridge of "Ice Ice Baby."3

This is when it happened. Fauxhawk boy and his mate finished their set and moved off to bask in the praise of their hip friends. The guy running the sound introduced the next act, asking if some guy named Jake was in the house and ready to play. No one responded (perhaps Jake was in the crowd of adorers lavishing praise on Dr. Didactic and his friend?), so without skipping a beat the guy running the show grabbed a guitar, plugged it in, and began strumming an easy E with plenty of air and grit, like hiking boots on a mountain trail. At this point I was imagining the guy looking around the room for volunteers to fill the space, eyes lighting on me, me relunctantly accepting the spotlight after a few feigned refusals, launching into my current favorite of my own songs (ironically one that tells of a guy in a bar trying to work up the guts to talk to a girl), and the group of hangers-on, suddenly realizing what real music was, what real performance was, leaving the boys in black to come sit at my feet. Oh, and the two guys would instantly realize the error of their musical ways and join my entourage as well. But none of that happened. Instead, this is what happened.

The guy, an older gentleman, maybe fifty, with a gray and brown beard and little hair left on top, in a simple black t-shirt and jeans, rolled from that E up to an open A and down again, letting the thirds cut in and out of the chords like sunlight through branches. Then, in a completely unassuming way that allowed the well-wishers of the previous group to go on talking and shuffling around near and in front of the small stage (this guy had actually, cheerfully, asked those two to play two more songs beyond their planned set. He insisted!), he began to sing some simple lyrics over the surprisingly full sound his hands were producing. He sang sideways over the mic, brows arched but eyes closed, head shaking gently as if reading the words off his memory. He sang

Above the dark town
After the sun's gone down
Two vapour trails cross the sky
Catching the day's last slow goodbye
Black skyline looks rich as velvet
Something is shining
Like gold but better
Rumours of glory

It was a Bruce Cockburn song, not even his own. And yet he sang it so real, so purely. I was struck. Not immediately, not fully at first, but gradually, as he interated over again that there was glory around us somewhere. I had the feeling that maybe this guy didn't need me to teach those others a lesson, that he didn't need me to fill the space in the room. When the scheduled act still wasn't there he followed "Rumours of Glory" with "Jesus on the Mainline," a gospel tune that assures you you can "call him up and tell him what you want" at any time. He picked it out with just enough color to keep the simple tune and lyrics interesting without becoming gaudy or distracting. With perfect restraint. When he finished I clapped loudly; I was moved to applaud. Then he dropped the tuning into an open D and did a rendition of Springsteen's "Thunder Road" that packed all the power of the Boss without any backup band and without the need to open up his voice into a full roar. Even on the high notes and at the climax he just reached his voice up and called down the feeling by pure inspiration. The thing was that he was believing the music; he was singing a song, body and soul, audience or no; he was telling the story and it was true. By this time I was speechless—thoughtless I guess. I wasn't constructing my own moment of glory. I was staring in disbelief at all the people who continued to get up and leave throughout this guy's unasked for, unprepared set. Seriously, the room had only about a third of the people by the time he finished. And he didn't take a bow or even look us over to see whether we appreicated what he had just done—the second he finished the song he looked over at Jake, who had since come in with his own group of awaiting admirerers, and welcomed him to the stage.

Was it only me who was hit by what I had seen and heard? Was it the odd combination of Garrison Keillor and my own pride that triggered the event? What all am I supposed to have learned about restraint, in music and in life?

I've really only put these meanings onto the experience in hindsight, by writing it down slowly for the past few hours, trying and deleting and rewriting until I feel the familiar ring of truth. But I haven't felt it quite yet and something tells me I won't find my usual sense completely trustworthy in this case. Maybe there wasn't really a lesson to be learned at all; maybe I merely came face to face with something rare, a rumour of glory. Maybe in looking back so intensely, looking to relive the awe I felt for just one moment more (and I tried, but neither Cockburn's nor Springsteen's original recordings even come close to recreating the feeling), I will once again let my guard down and be surprised by awe all over again.

1The Goo Goo Dolls, once a respectable band with quality hits like "Name" and "Black Balloon," entirely lost my confidence with "Stay With You," a four-minute song that never once rises above the level of high-school cliché.
2Is it just me, or does Simon and Garfunkel grate on the nerves a bit once you realize they were trying too hard and getting too much credit for it? I mean, the sound of silence? I for one am a much bigger fan of an older, chiller Paul Simon.
3Coming to an open mic night near you.

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