A Night at the Goat
Like most of the stories that amaze us, this one too you'll swear was made up. I was a wingman. In my younger, single days, that meant trying to be charming to the friend of whoever my roommate was trying to woo. In present time, it means accompanying my wife, a mother of two "back to school mom", on a Creative Writing Field Trip assignment.
The assignment was simple enough. Find any venue where writers, poets, essayists etc., read their own material. Attend a performance and critique the works. After scouring the local papers and surfing the net for potential locations, process of elimination left us with "The Dancing Goat." It was close to home and fit in well with our babysitter's schedule (the latter making the selection a slam dunk).
The Dancing Goat was in reality the local version of today's ever trendy tea and coffee house. They had a tiny stage and on Wednesday's offered an Open Mike Night. We were told that most participants in the Open Mike format were budding singer songwriters but there were usually several poetry readings and short stories told as well. Reminding you that I was the wingman on this expedition, my only concern was the menu. I saw individual pan pizzas on The Goat's website, so I figured I could kill a couple hours even in a worst case scenario.
We got there at 7:30 PM for the 8:00 PM start. The place was small and dimly lit with couches everywhere surrounding a tiny stage. There were several individuals, duos, and groupings each strumming, bongo-ing, and otherwise prepping for their performance. My first reality check was their ages. I'm not sure what I expected, but I'm quite sure they didn't expect to see the likes of me and the missus in the slowly growing crowd. Anyway we grabbed a good seat (being the one of the few thinking it was important to get there early, this was not a problem), ordered a pizza and pannini, and waited.
It was at this point my curiosity became aroused and I was suddenly interested in something other than my pizza. Several of the artists preparing to perform had guitars. Having grown up with no exposure to any instruments or any hint of musical aptitude, I was struck with an odd impulse 6 months earlier. I wanted to learn to play guitar. As an adult, no one was going to make me take those boring lessons before getting my own guitar. So with AMEX in hand, I bought a nice acoustic as well as a beginner's electric guitar kit. I can honestly say after 6 months my motivation had not waned (and my wife and kids will painfully attest to that). Considering I can't read a lick of music and there's ample evidence of being tone deaf, I practiced hard and became reasonably proficient at playing a few chords and butchering my way through some pop songs of today and yesteryear. Tonight I figured I'd be able to see up close and personal some guys and gals with some real ability do what I've sometimes dreamed, put together words and music. If not so dramatic, at least I'd see how they moved their fingers so damn fast.
With a sense of purpose I sat up awaited the show. With pen and pad in hand, my wife was oblivious to my psyche. Several performers went up. Some solo. Some groups. Some guys. Some girls. I was enthralled watching the performers. Some were certainly more talented than others, but they were all passionate, and that seemed to come across easily. We had noticed earlier some postcard flyers advertising Pete Neville and Ryan Morgan. We now heard them introduced. They set up on stage with 3 of their friends. Before performing they were a bit loud and seemed arrogant. I thought at them time if I was 20 and had some musical talent, I'd be a bit loud and arrogant as well. For 20 minutes, these guys performed some of their own material, most with Pete singing and Ryan on guitar. The apparent ease at which they stood in front of an audience and performed amazed me. I knew immediately I'd be up until the wee hours that night making my fingers bleed trying simply to play a clean C Major chord. After their second song, they asked on stage and introduced Jeremy. Jeremy did not strike me as someone with an appreciation for music. So much for impressions. He played lead guitar for the next 2 songs and if you closed your eyes and listened, you'd be hard pressed not to think of Clapton or the like.
What started out as me sacrificing for a greater good (wingman) had morphed into an itch that needed a scratch. I recommitted myself to playing a clean C Major chord, and forced myself to work on the 15 or so other chords I had dabbled with. For the six months I had been teaching myself guitar, I had about 5 songs I could work my way through start to finish. No double neck guitars needed or Van Halen solos, but 5 and 6 chord songs that if you listen carefully enough and use your imagination, you just might recognize.
The following Wednesday, having secreted the guitar in the trunk of my car when the house was empty, I played my flimsy dinner meeting excuse to the missus and embarked on a mission to conquer a fear and fulfill a dream. I arrived promptly at The Goat at 7.30 PM and quickly put my name on the list before my legs locked up and my nerves exploded. The usuals were rehearsing quietly, warming up their voice, tuning their guitar, actually looking like they were enjoying themselves. All my head could conjure was, C Major, D, A minor, GPink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". 4 chords in all with most of the lyrics repeating. If I could concentrate and keep my tempo, I might be able to hack out the chords while still forming the words with my mouth. I managed it in my basement, which is where I wished I was when I heard my name called. The MC took pity and announced me as a beginner and for everyone to "be gentle". So as not to add the possibility of "technical difficulties", I left the electric guitar at home and opted for the acoustic, tuning it with the electric tuner included in the beginner's kit I'm sure no real musician would be caught dead with.
I simultaneously twanged the first note and nearly fell off the stool. There were a few chuckles and even a couple encouraging claps. I apologized and started over. So as to make it sound like a real performance, get my rhythm, and make it seem I knew what I was doing, I played through a verse of the song instrumental only. This type of repetition would help be become a better guitar player; nothing however would likely improve my very limited voice. When I hit the first C Chord and uttered "So, so you think you can tell", I wanted to hide. I forced myself to play slowly so as to ease the transition between chords as well as prevent my vocals from accelerating to sound like the proverbial 45 record being played at 78 RPM.
I won't lie and say after that the music flowed and the crowd roared. I did make it though the first verse to the instrumental transition. My fingers were almost remembering on their own where to go. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. At that same time I had an acute awareness. An awareness I would normally get after the fact when it would do me no good. This is a chance to grasp the moment, put myself out there, have an adventure. Not just get something done, check it off the list, and say I tried. Hundreds of times I've told myself the opportunities to truly experiment in life will become much fewer and far between as I get older. Hang gliding, Everest, motorcycling cross country are likely not happening. Playing music for an audience is on my plate right now. Savor it. As if on their own accord, my legs stretched out and I stood up in front of MY audience. I opted for another instrumental only verse to extend my performance. The couple times I made furtive glances away from the guitar neck to the audience, I swear I saw a few heads bobbing to the music.
Being so absorbed in the moment and about to begin the song's final verse, I hadn't notice Ryan, Pete and Jeremy settle in behind me. Ryan and Jeremy each had guitars that I'm sure had special names. Pete had just set himself in front of a mike. I began playing the final verse "How I wish, How I wish you were here" I heard my guitar playing and my voice singing, but in the background I heard the rhythm of the other guitars and Pete's voice harmonizing so it seemed I was actually carrying a tune. I looked back at them and got one simultaneous, straight faced nod to continue.
The final lines of the song were my moment of glory. It was the rarest of occurrences when at a moment of peak pleasure; time actually seemed to slow down. Madison Square Garden, the Meadowlands, the Dancing Goat. It didn't matter. I was a performer and I "had them feeling all right...". Almost in a daze I shook the guys' hands and walked off the stage. The ride home reminiscent of a time when I couldn't really recall how I got home. As I walked in the door with my guitar in hand and my cover blown, I was struck with the most precious moment. Being where I most love to be now, without the slightest hint of missing something somewhere else.