Coming along. This will be another one of those 'story stubs'. More figuring out a character than a true arc. I'll wrap it up next week.
I start counting the names on the wall. There are probably close to fifty years worth of autographs up here. Most are written in marker or ballpoint pen. There are a couple scrawled out in nail polish and lipstick. One signature is almost certainly written in mustard. At least I hope that’s mustard. I stop counting at forty seven and start looking for names I recognize. Most are completely Indecipherable. I stop trying to read them and start looking for empty spaces. Some small patch of wall that I can write in later.
I check my tie knot again cinching it slightly tighter to my collar. Suit is clean, shoes are shiny. Fly check. Fly is up. Good.
I resist the urge to hum my set list. These dressing rooms are pretty close together and the walls might as well be made from cardboard. Better safe than sorry.
I do a quick spin in this Ikea office chair, pushing off with my heels and tipping my head back. I take in all five oddly angled walls of the space in a radial blur. The dressing room is tiny, but a comfortable sort of close.
There. Right there. That might be a good spot for a signature. Yeah, that little blank space beside the lamp. That will work. Later though. It would be bad luck to sign the wall before a show.
Three gentle raps on the door. I almost miss the knock. The stage manager says something I can’t make out, so I yank out my earbuds and and toss them on the weathered chair in the corner. She repeats herself and I hear my name and “two minutes”.
“Thank you” I fire back reflexively keeping my voice as flat as possible. I hear her march off quickly, she’s dealing with some crisis or other. Seems like it might be something about lighting. I fix my attention on that small empty space on the wall.
I rub my hands together and blow warm breath between them. It isn’t cold in the dressing room, but I shake off a rising shiver. I used to keep count of my shows. I often think I should have jotted them all down. Like a diary or something. I didn’t, and now the time and place of all my past engagements is completely lost to me. I would ask my accountant, but so many of the smaller joints pay in cash and sometimes stuff just doesn’t get claimed. This feeling though, is exactly the same as my first performance. I can recall that much. The chilling tension between my shoulder blades. The anxiety and a sort of low level dread. I tell myself that I have become better at shaking those feelings off, but I also know that is a complete lie. I’m still terrified.
I stand quickly, shake my arms from my shoulders down to my fingertips, stretch my lips a few times, and step over to the door. One long slow breath in and out. I reach for the door handle and walk through.
There is only one long curving hallway in this theatre. A nice change. Some of the the older rooms, as old as this place, can be downright labyrinthine. I have my suspicions that one of the theatres moved a few walls around to cover up a particularly heinous crime at one point. A few of the people who worked there thought the same. Makes it an absolute mess to navigate.
I’m about halfway to the stage when they start playing off the last act, a joke telling juggler. The music rises, The Entertainer, and my whole world just sort of ghosts out. I’m usually on guard for this sort of thing. It’s like a million tiny bells all struck at once. It fades quickly, but I have to stop in my tracks and close my eyes for a second. There are two stage crew that see me stop in the hall. On up by the curtain and one back a few feet. They don’t really think much of it. One of them saw a well known actress vomit only a few feet from here recently. Not really information I wanted to know. I’m not going to give her another vomit story though. After a quick head shake, I start forward again. Two minutes is two minutes and I don’t like to miss curtain times.
I keep my set list in my pocket. Sort of a security blanket. I always write them, but the last time I actually looked at one was in England, and that was only because I didn’t remember the words to that Pet Shop Boys song. Well, that, and I was completely off my ass. I’m surprised I could read my own writing, let alone sing.
No banter. No introductions. I leave my guitar on the stand. Stone sober, I take a deep breath. I plant my feet and break straight into Jolene.
This does two things. First, I could sing that song in my sleep. I go on autopilot for the next couple of minutes while I adjust to the room. I close my eyes and lean into the song. Second, this is a little bit of psychological warfare. Almost everyone in the audience knows the song. Of course there are those three guys in a booth near the back that have no clue, but most of the audience start singing along in their heads. What they aren’t used to is hearing it sung by a baritone. This means that the most common memory rising to the surface is just Dolly Parton singing. That I can deal with. You can think of it as a sort of psychic counter measure.
If Jolene was the first punch, Creep is the follow up. This one gets me the age of the room and gets the crowd used to hearing my voice. I mostly get echos of music videos and a smattering of dorm room ceilings. Nothing unexpected. Where Jolene is fast with no breaks, Creep is breathy with drawn out pauses between lyrics. Lots of space to acclimate.
I’ve tried a lot of these combinations in the past, fast song with slow, old with new, classic with cult hit. These two are my current openers.
Listening to covers isn’t why any of these people came to my show tonight. They came to hear about themselves.
At one point in the past I would come out and start to improv cold. I would pick up my guitar and just start singing to Joel the plumber about his day and how much he loves Kirk, his dog. I would leave out how he loves the dog more than he loves his girlfriend, and how she felt the same. Kirk must have been a real great dog.
Some folks didn’t get off as lucky. That girl in boston where I sang in a sweet country twang that if she hated working for her mother so much she should probably just “mosey off into the sunset”. Or the Guy in Ottawa who I agreed with in metal ballad form that he probably was partly responsible for his friends overdose. The cat Lady in Portage la Prairie. The veteran I made cry in Dayton.
I was also half in the bag for most of that time. Wake up to the radio. Drink. Muzak at the grocery store. Drink. Barry Manilow on at the coffee shop. Drink. The constant low level hum of other people's memories had gotten pretty unbearable. Then the Ipod came out. Dozens of hours of Buddy Rich drumming pumped straight into my ears. Probably saved my life.
Now I find that if I warm up the crowd a bit, and give myself a chance to ease into it, I can give these people the light fun time they are looking for without dredging up too many rough thoughts.