Queen Jess Approximately
Image generated by Runway AI
The Queen of Open Mic
Music fiction by Jim Rader
It was open mic night at The Backstreet Cafe, a Cambridge folk venue. As I signed up to play, I spotted newcomer Steve Goodman sitting alone at a back table, a little guy with curly auburn hair. "Hey, c'mon over," he shouted, "I saved a seat for you." We'd hit it off last week at another open mic, Steve wittily defining the folk genre thusly: "There are two kinds of folk music, see? There's Bob Dylan then there's everything else." I edged my way through the small crowd to his table.
"Where's your guitar?" he asked.
"In the shop, the frets are shot. Can I borrow yours?"
"No problem. Just make sure you don't wear down the frets," he jested.
Gruff emcee Phil took the tiny stage. "Alright everybody, quiet! Here's the playing order."
Phil shook a hat full of paper scraps with names on them then pulled one out. "Jess Schick, you go on first."
"Oh no, not her again," Steve moaned, tiny Jess sitting ringside.
Phil read off the rest of the names, all twenty-six of them, Steve and I stuck with lousy slots.
"Well, there you have it," I said. "There is no justice in a random universe."
"How existential," said Steve.
Tiny big-voiced Jess Schick took the stage, her short curly blonde hair shaking as she performed. Steve waxed envious: "Now how can I compete with a voice like that? I just don't have her larynx. She's been on the scene only two weeks, and already she's getting gigs."
"Yeah Steve, but you've got better songs. Stop beating yourself up."
"Yeah, right. You've got a big voice yourself, dude."
"Jesus, just listen to yourself, it's like you're pissing in the wind. If you're gonna worry, worry about your next move. You know, the buzz I got as an open mic emcee has plateaued, so what's my next move? For that matter, what's next for any of us?"
Lost in thought, Steve didn't answer. Jess' two-song set over, she returned to the table she shared with newcomers Mary Routhier and Jerry Pinget. I waved my hand before Steve's staring eyes. "Hey, what's up? Are you having an epiphany? A spontaneous orgasm, maybe?"
"No, King Wise-ass, I see an opportunity" (Steve worked for a Cambridge consulting firm). "I was thinking about that old 'various artists' folk album you told me about."
I laughed. "Yeah, Folksong 1965, those were the good ole days."
"Hey, don't laugh. Here's my brainstorm, real forest-for-the-trees stuff. Suppose a bunch of us underdogs put out our own various artists CD? We could call it Boston Songwriters '97. "
"Steve, all the acts on that old v.a. album already had their own albums out. Folksong '65 was just another promo gambit."
Steve shook his head. "Dude, you're not hearing me. Look, we're all in the same boat. Who's got the thousand bucks to put out her own CD? A group CD is exactly what we all need right now, don't you get it? Mary and Jerry would be into it, maybe even Queen Jess would be into it. Then there's Ken, Kris, Mace, Christian, all solid acts, all regulars at your open mic. And who knows, good ole Jim Barbey might be up for it, too."
"That I doubt, he's neurotic as hell. But rap on, bother, rap on. Details, please."
"Okay, first off, we pitch the idea to everyone I just mentioned. We'll write up a proposal and give them all copies. It'll be a co-op thing, and we'll need at least ten acts to make it work. If we can hook at least five, six acts, word will get out and other acts will want in." Steve smiled mischievously. "Of course, you'll have to spearhead the project because, well, you're taller than me."
"You know what, I feel like I'm in one of those old-time movies where somebody comes up with a crazy idea that maybe isn't so crazy after all."
Steve nominating me to spearhead the project had nothing to do with my height. Over the last year, I'd booked most of the acts he'd mentioned for paid sets at my alternative open mic. We discussed other details such as business meetings, airplay, press, cover art, production values, everything but the kitchen sink, orally drafting our proposal then and there; all we had to do now was write it up. We vowed to avoid hype by pitching the project as a modest grass-roots effort.
The very next day Steve and I wrote up a three-page proposal in his office. Over the next week or so, we hand-delivered copies at several open mics, two of them "out in the sticks" as Steve put it. Soon after, thirteen acts committed to the first meeting held in Mary Routhier's house. As expected, number thirteen, the long-suffering Jim Barbey, was difficult: "Why do this on such a small scale? Your dreams are too small!"
"Oh, my God," said Jess Schick, on the verge of tears.
"Now look what you've done," I said to Barbey, "you got her all upset."
Fortunately, Barbey dropped out after the first meeting. Three more weekly meetings followed, the second focused on cover art and insert photos, Jess' black and white performance shot so striking I suggested it go on the cover: she stood before a mic, her eyes shut, her mouth wide open, her plain jeans and t-shirt somehow congruent with her trendy hair and impasto lipstick.
"Hey, Jim," said Jess. "I'm glad you like my photo, but it's a group project, remember?"
"Okay, we'll go with Eric's painting then." The third meeting focused on song selection, everyone except Jess brought in demo cassettes. "I want to record a song I just wrote," she announced. "It's called 'Pain Make Love Stronger.'" Though the lyrics struck me as trite, her performance carried the song. At the final meeting, Steve collected the group's checks that would pay for mastering and duplication. Next day, we set up a group bank account.
As several demo songs, including mine, begged for better recordings, and Jess' song had yet to be recorded, Mary Routhier cut a group discount deal with folk engineer Ryan Loesser, who had his home studio in remote Winthrop. As two friends had contributed bass and tambourine parts on my song, and I'd overdubbed a second guitar part, mixing could prove tricky. After my friends split, I stuck around to oversee the mix. "Ryan, is there any way you can bring up the guitar overdub?"
"That one's a big maybe. Let's take a break, you're off the clock for that. Want another coffee?" "No, one more coffee and I'll go through the roof. You got any water?"
"Sure do." The bearded bearish man went into the kitchen, returned with two bottles of Poland Spring. "Ryan, I heard you recorded Jess Schick two days ago: How'd that go?"
"Awful. Oh, she thinks she's it, with that shitbox guitar of hers, no tonality. I offered her my Gibson and she refused. I just don't know how you put up with that wanna-be diva."
"Yes, she does have a self-important air about her. As for her guitar, you're right, it's a hunk o' junk, but she's only a passable guitarist anyhow. She does have a big voice and an image."
"So what? Her lyrics are stupid as hell. 'Pain Make Love Stronger', now what the hell kinda title is that? Get this, Jim, I said, 'Jess, you left the comma out of this title,' and she gets real snippy, 'That's how I want it to look!' So then I said, "It's just gonna look like a printer's error,' and then she gives me this weird fucking stare like I'm bullshit."
"So did her golden locks turn into a bunch of snakes?"
"Ha ha, that's her, alright--- Medusa. Well, I'd hate to be in her shoes should she ever go on the road. That would cut her down to size."
"She's already only four-eleven."
"Ha ha, you score another one. But I bet she's a real firecracker in bed, you know? Yeah, it's always the bitchy ones who go crazy in bed." Ryan licked his lips, his eyes wild.
"Whatever. May I please hear her track? If it captures her live act, that'll work."
Jess' recording wasn't all that bad; a friend's occasional harmony and bongos offset her cheap axe and gave the track a coffeehouse vibe.
Ryan's lascivious "firecracker" descriptor stuck, provoking a vivid sex dream, starring the four-eleven dynamo. In my dark dream Jess talked dirty, got on top, writhing around like a snake, her small breasts firm, pointy, her vagina snug, our sex a humorless, loveless celebration of mutual power. Though the dream didn't recur it still told me I was entitled to sex with Jess as if I were a Hollywood producer who'd given her a starring role. Of the four women on Boston Songwriters '97, only Jess was straight and unattached, and it seemed I'd finally reached a sexual breaking point, like the narrator of grating novelty oldie "Troglodyte": "Gotta find a woman!/ Gotta find a woman!" I wasn't in love with Jess, I wasn't even in lust with Jess, yet I still had to "have" her.
She agreed to meet at a big Harvard Square eatery that stood behind a stone-tabled courtyard frequented by chess bums. When we met up by the entrance, she chastely shook hands with me, her hand's skin surprisingly rough, as if she'd toiled for years as a dishwasher. I'd called the one-on-one meeting to discuss her track's flat guitar sound, a false premise as the flaw would likely go right by a local audience presold on acoustic divas, Jess the next Jewel or Sarah MacLachlan.
We sat by a big picture window, a cold cloudy May afternoon, passers-by still in their winter coats. Her face tensed up in anxiety, I nonetheless stuck to my misguided design. Sitting opposite Jess, I lurched forward. "Okay, what this is about, Jess, is---well, Ryan suggested you should overdub his Gibson over your Oscar Schmidt axe, and I agreed. You should also save up for a better guitar, you're not doing yourself justice by playing that hunk of plywood."
"No," she snipped. "I like my guitar."
I smiled smarmily. "Well, now that that's settled, what are you doing Saturday afternoon? I'm going to a cool Fellini movie, Variety Lights, it's playing at the Brattle Theater."
She stared into the vacuum of my eyes, the Medusa stare. I didn't feel hurt or angry, rather caught, guilty. Darn that dream! Suddenly, her condemnatory stare morphed into queenly pity. I dreaded someone of our circle might pop in, but no, that scenario wouldn't matter as I'd avoided making a scene. Her pained face recalling silent movie star Lillian Gish, it was the only time I'd been put down silently, yet I doubted Jess would blab about my "hitting on" her as I'd nipped that in the bud.
She looked out the picture window. "Wow, look at that weird bus." A full-color ad for the musical Les Miserables covered the bus's side.
"Yeah, that is weird."
Now she smiled. "Jim, I heard grew up close to New York. Did you ever go to any musicals?"
"Yeah, a long time ago when I was twelve, thirteen. The whole family went to two flops and one semi-flop. Broadway was in decline at the time, it had run out of good songs."
Jess smiled mischievously. "Can you remember any of the bad songs?"
"Oh yeah. The worst show was A Joyful Noise. A Dylanesque singer-songwriter abandons his small- town folk roots for rock n' roll when he's discovered by a big-time agent who's just passing through. The show closed in one week. Its worst song was 'You're Going To The Top', sung by the agent to the corrupted singer, my father grumbling, 'Oh no, not that old bit!'"
On parting, Jess again shook my hand with her rough-skinned hand, its skin as tightly drawn as that damning Medusa face. What was the story behind these rough hands? Had she been forced to wash hundreds of dishes in an orphanage? Or perhaps she'd survived a fire. Or perhaps... I stopped.
Though Ryan had played cartoony devil-on-my-shoulder, I couldn't blame him. No, my hitting on Jess Schick was nothing but simple desperation, mindlessly grasping at straws.
It was none other than Jess who got the CD bunch a gig in legendary folk venue Club Namaste. I emceed the show, and when her turn came up, she winsomely played off the discrepancy in our heights. Unfortunately, Steve couldn't participate as the native Bostonian had moved to San Francisco, fed up with his hometown's "puritanical bent."
The buzz I got from Boston Songwriters '97 lasted about two months then I was back to gigging twice a month if that. As predicted, Jess was the act marked for stardom by the local deejays and music press, regardless of her shitbox guitar.
Though she never said so much, Jess was visibly moved by my settling for folkie camaraderie. Whenever our paths crossed, she shook hands with me, and we'd talk shop for a bit. On one such occasion, I was desperate for any gig: "Jess, I heard you got a two-set gig at The Casual Cup tonight. I've been having trouble getting in there because I broke one of their decrepit wooden chairs just by sitting on it."
She giggled. "Oh, I'm sorry, that just sounded so funny. Sure, you can play a few songs while I'm on my break."
After my brief set, the Cup's owner gave me her business card.
After Jess got paid, she gave me six dollars. I tried giving the money back to her, but she wouldn't have it.
"No way, dude, you earned it."
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