“When you do shows/And onstage with your people/Ain’t no one your equal.” – A Tribe Called Quest, “Show Business” (1991)
I spent a significant portion of the tail end of 2005 performing at various Los Angeles open mic nights. I read some of the shorter essays from my forthcoming book and passed out fliers for this website, all in an attempt to prove to myself that people would actually sit and listen as I read my own writing. What I learned was that open mic nights are a culture all their own, with several commonplace occurrences that need to be seen to be believed.
Four things we can all agree on (for orientation):
1) Most open mics are weekly (or monthly) and set in bookstores, cafes or art centers.
2) Most have, somewhere, a graying, pot-bellied man named Gary who is the unofficial “patron saint” of the show, the one without whose blood, sweat and tears the event would not happen.
3) Most are anchored by a feature act who may take up to forty-five minutes of stage time.
4) Most of the featured acts are unnaturally weird.
From the Danny Bonaduce clone who breakdanced while he recited poems about masturbation, to the narcoleptic old cat with the combover who thought he was Jesus, to the transvestite white rapper from Pasadena, it seemed as though alarming eccentricities were rewarded in lieu of straightforward craft.
My own performances were generally well received, except for the time I was rushed off the stage in Los Feliz for treading lightly over my three minute time limit. Gary began clapping loudly and barking (!) as I scrambled to finish my story. Dude tried to put me in a headlock while I was on my last sentence. And all this because I was apparently taking time away from the feature, Peré, who wore a long, tan trenchcoat, spoke in a debilitating Valley monotone, and read ten consecutive humorless poems about his urge to strangle his girlfriend.
But at their best, open mics are love. My favorite shows were Wednesday nights at Karma Coffeehouse, where the owner and customers worked hard to cultivate a sense of community. I encountered talented people at every open mic I went to, but at Karma, I was genuinely amazed by the abundance of talent that came through the door. There were gifted singer-songwriters, male and female, who channeled Joni Mitchell and India.Arie and Stephen Stills, all while developing their own individual sound. There’s nothing better than hearing how your work sounds to a room full of strangers, who are supportive, but will not hesitate to start chattering to their friends if you fail to hold their interest.
Most of the people I met were cool. Some were strange. I performed at a Barnes & Noble one Friday night and somehow, stumbled into this conversation:
Lady: (smiling) Your writing is very funny. It’s like David Sedaris.
Me: (already questioning her judgment) Thank you.
Lady: (smiling) Do you know David Sedaris?
Me: Uh, no… I’ve never met him. I really like his writing, though.
Lady: (smiling) Oh, me too. Would you like to meet him?
Me: …Um, sure. Do you know him?
Lady: (frowns) No, I was hoping you’d introduce me.
In Los Angeles, predictably, there are no shortages of open mics. There were others that I intended to make that I didn’t -– as far away as Long Beach –- due to time and distance constraints. I look forward to attending them someday. Although I hope none of them are scams. Like the café/restaurant I visited in Hollywood that charged a two-drink minimum for their open mic night, as well as a minimum $20 charge for credit cards. Unwilling to be bullied into ordering a steak when I really just wanted to read “The Road to Attrition” and get some feedback, I went to their ATM to get some cash. It was broken. So I left.
Overall, my time was well spent and I encourage anyone who feels they have a story to tell (be it singing, poetry or essays like myself) to go to your local open mic night and take a chance. You may discover, as I did, that a certain commentary on obnoxious names that have been given to one’s offspring strikes people in more ways than you ever imagined. It is a harmless way to share the feelings that we relinquished freely as children, then learned to suffocate as adults. Here’s a tip, though: try to work your way up to featured act as soon as possible. There’s nothing worse than getting kicked off the stage by disciples of some chick in a purple headwrap who writes haiku about bologna sandwiches.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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1.11.06 @ 8:57a
This was a fun read - thanks fo reminding me what I love about LA, and what I hate about it.
I remember doing open mics in Boston when I first started at Berklee. I was mildy dismayed to discover that "open mic" meant "open to anyone with a bad habit, bad relationship, bad voice," and usually all three.
That never stopped me from doing my short, squeaky acoustic set of RUSH and Ozzy tunes.
Way to put yourself out there Jason. It takes big stones and a lotta patience.
And a tall glass of whiskey doesn't hurt.
1.11.06 @ 8:59a
Hilarious conversation with that woman. I have a friend who sometiems reads his poetry as these things, but I can't shake the stereotypical hipster coffeehouse image I have. Hearing short stories, or IM-type columns, in such a setting is more appealing to me than poems tho. And the hipster factor is probably lessened as well. I went to a Cody Chestnut concert a few years back and in the middle of it he let some people come up and do their thing. It went on for WAY too long - I paid for Cody, not 50 amateurs - but some of the people were really impressive. It was a bit more like a freestyle blaze rapping kinda thing, but it was pretty cool.
Just remember industry rule #4,080: open mic people are shady.
1.11.06 @ 9:00a
Jeff, I will pay you to come to my house and perform an acoustic RUSH set, but only if "Beneath, Between, Behind" is included.
1.11.06 @ 9:07a
1.11.06 @ 9:26a
A long, long time ago I saw Stephen Wright at Catch a Rising Star and I've never been the same since.
1.11.06 @ 9:43a
Okay Mike - but it'll cost you a low-carb dinner, 4 sheets of premium drywall, and a lint remover that works on siamese cat hair.
I got mixed feelings about the function and the form, and I fully intend to deviate from the norm.
Anyone remember that Mike Meyers movie about a guy who thinks he married an axe murderer? Killer coffeehouse jazz-poetry going on there. Turtlenecks ahoy.
1.11.06 @ 9:44a
I used to emcee the local poetry slam. The "slam mistress", a poet in her own right, ran the slam and was often stuck emceeing too, and unable to read her stuff, so I volunteered to help every so often. Which meant I had to stay for the whole thing, even when I didn't want to sometimes.
But it was a great experience, all the way around. I learned to get up and read my stuff (surprisingly, I get pretty nervous in such an intimate setting, but eventually overcome it) and admired even the freaky people (homeless men doing Vietnam recalls were popular at this thing) for having the courage to put themselves out there.
I think every writer should read aloud to a group as often as they can - there's nothing like seeing the immediate reaction.
1.11.06 @ 9:57a
"So I Married an Axe-Murderer," Jeff. Woman. WO-MAN. It's depictions like that that give me pause.
Don't swallow the poison.
1.11.06 @ 9:58a
I just downloaded your podcast, Jason, and I have to tell you that you sound more poised and confident than anyone else performing on that particular 'cast. The piece was great, and translated beautifully from print to spoken word. Nice work!
1.11.06 @ 10:58a
Thanks for all the love. As I said, I definitely think it's the best thing a writer can do for himself, to get that instant feedback. I may do some more next month.
1.11.06 @ 12:32p
I definitely think it's the best thing a writer can do for himself
When Jason says "best thing," he means "best thing after posting a gallery column to intrepid media for reading, discussion, and critiquing."
By the way, I've had several conversations along those same lines as you and Lady. That one is particularly priceless.
1.18.06 @ 4:27a
Me being a non writer,poet...etc. I cant realate to the harsh realitiess of the open mic experience. But I would suggest ( as you already know) to continue to write and pursue your passion. For everyone who tries to dim your spotlight, there's someone else there who wants it to shine...
Ur sis in Christ,