A Simple Answer

A Simple Answer
Court Hoang

Some days are better than others.  Some days are good.  Some days are great.

Then there are the days on which you feel like you might just be wasting your goddamned time trying to make everyone around you happy.  And making yourself miserable.  And unable to make anyone else happy, anyway.  Not really.

That last kind of day is, surprisingly, the kind that keeps me going.  Sometimes it keeps me going in a direction I like: trying to make myself happy instead of jumping through burning hoops of dog shit to keep everyone laughing and applauding.  Sometimes it keeps me going towards that almost mythical ideal: making everyone happy, all the time.

If I could make everyone in the world happy, all the time, then I might just have achieved something worthwhile.

But I can’t.  Last I heard, no one can.

So what keeps you moving towards that ideal?  What makes you think it’s even an ideal at all?  More like a nightmare: you know it isn’t real, but it’s still there.  And something drags you toward it, cursing and screaming and clawing desperately at your own skin just to detach yourself from it.

I played a show at a coffee shop two weeks ago.  I played at a frozen yogurt place last week.  I’m playing at the same coffee shop and then at a wine bar (as half of a duo), back-to-back, this Friday.  The first show at the coffee shop was rescheduled to be an hour earlier than agreed; I was given roughly 30 minutes’ notice.  The show at the yogurt place started late and ran too long, which meant that I missed a rehearsal with another band for which I play bass guitar.  I went to an open mic at the wine bar last night, to promote the show on Friday, which also took longer than expected, forcing me to miss another rehearsal with the same band.  The band is currently voting whether or not to “move on” without me.

The above is not uncommon.  I believe, as I feel I must, that I am to blame.  Perhaps I am doing too much.  Perhaps I am too disorganized.  Perhaps it is all a waste of time.  These thoughts are not uncommon.

The good days become less good.  The great days all but disappear.  I’m left with a growing dread of facing the people in my life to whom I’ve made too many commitments.  The simple answer to the whole dilemma?  Stop making so many commitments to other people.

A simple answer, which I’ve been told often by many people.  Stop trying to please everyone.  Take care of yourself and you can better care for others.

The reason I started writing music was that I needed to.  It was a way to sort out everything that was happening in my head and around me, in the world at large and in my painfully trite, tortured soul.  Self-effacing remarks aside, it was and remains true.  The reason I started performing music was to attain validation for what I was writing, to open the way for someone else to tell me that I was good enough.  That also remains true, though it is no longer the only reason.

The truth is, I really am just naïve and optimistic enough to believe that the music I write and perform can touch the hearts, minds and souls of others.  I want to share it with as many people as possible.  My tagline has become, “I hope my fucked up life can help you with yours.”

When I first moved to Austin, I was looking for a way to make a career out of music.  I was open to any possibilities but I remained aware that nothing could happen unless I put in the work to make it happen.  The most logical path, the path taken by nearly every musician looking to get his or her start in Austin, was to perform at open mics.

The Open Mic (OM) is and, I gather, has for a long time been a way for people already established in the local music scene and owners or managers of venues to hear what’s out there, and to book musicians accordingly.  For these people, the OM is a place of opportunity, a fishing pond from which they can hook and use musicians.  This is a good thing.  It is for many musicians necessary.

The OM is a place of entertainment for the casual listener, who spends his or her time watching, laughing, mocking, tapping feet to, praising, and talking to musicians.  This, too, is a good thing.

But for the musician, the OM is something else entirely.

For the musician, the OM is a sacred space, in which anything can and should be shared.  It may be a personal public confession; it may be an outlet for stress from so-called “real life”; it may be a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be discovered; it may be a community of like-minded artists coming together to support each other and to be supported in turn.

This is a good thing, when the place, the people, the time is right.

My first OM in Austin was at Flipnotics.  Anyone in Austin who has played acoustic music in the last two years — be it folk, country, pop, indie or otherwise — knows about Flipnotics.  Most of them know about the OM there.  Many of them attend, almost religiously, on Thursday nights, watching and listening, marveling at what they see.  The OM at Flipnotics is the closest thing to a place of worship that many of its followers have.  The list is always full, and rarely is anyone afforded more than two pieces to perform, if they are fortunate enough to take the stage at all that night.

There is no sound amplification, which is perhaps the most unique part of this OM.  There are other OMs with no amplification, but none couples the “unplugged” sound with a truly listening-room environment.  To watch a performance there is to be still: moved by it, not moving oneself in opposition of any kind.  There is a kind of peace and fear which I have only ever seen in places of worship.

My first time there, I felt the fear.

I don’t mean stage fright, or butterflies in the stomach.  I mean fear.  The kind of fear that accompanies awe, enrapturing and impossibly silent, roaring within you.

I was 18th on the list, which meant that I had roughly two and a half hours before I would perform.  I watched and I watched and on several occasions I left the room to breathe, and to smoke.  I began to feel powerless, as if my legs were glass, my hands wood, my voice a thin vapor that vanished instantly upon leaving my body.

And suddenly it was my turn.  I was introduced, my name mispronounced, and was asked how to say it.  I muttered something that I don’t think anyone could understand.  I took the stage to polite applause and slowly, clumsily, torturously laid down my guitar in its case, opened it, and put it on.

My guitar has, at times, felt like a weapon, something with which to defend myself and my very existence.  On this night, it felt like a cheap toy, a pop gun; and I was a small child, waving it around frantically and demanding respect.

And they waited.

I felt their voices, each of them.  I felt their voices calling to me from a distant shore.  Come join us.  There is room for all.  Be free of judgment.  Come.  Be.

And I played.

They loved me.

In performance, it is easy to use that word.  They loved me.  They loved the show.  They ate it up.

But on that night they loved me, as the mother loves the newest-born child; not because it is different, but because it is alive.

I remember many moments that night, nervously introducing myself to other performers.  I approached with a kind of reverence and deference that I thought I had transcended in my transition to adulthood.  I realize now that there will always be a place for those feelings as an adult but they don’t have to instill fear and paralysis, as they did that night.

“Hi, I just wanted to introduce myself.  I’m Court.”

“Hey!  Good to meet you.”

“You, too.  You were really amazing.  Like, it blew my mind.”

Laughter.  “Thanks.  I appreciate that.”

I had so many questions.  How long have you been playing?  Where are you from?  How did you get into this?  I usually got one or two out, and was surprised at how many stock answers I received.  It was a little disheartening, as if I weren’t interesting enough to engage in conversation.  After a few awkward exchanges, one of us made an excuse to go and talk to someone else.

And always, as an afterthought: “It was nice to meet you.”

It’s a strange feeling, having only just heard someone perform and already begun to idolize him or her.  I wondered what it must be like, to be approached by a stranger after a performance, just for the chance to meet you and find out how you got where you were.  As if he were a magician and I were hoping that, just by being around him, I might learn how to make magic.

In retrospect, playing at an OM that’s open to the public really isn’t such a great feat.  After all, I was there, too.  I had performed.

Of course, no one had come over to meet me.

What was that magic, I wondered, that makes a performer so interesting and approachable?  I had come to life on stage but the feeling had dissipated as soon as I stepped off.  I became just another adoring fan.

I had so many questions.

Every OM is different.  The place, the people, the hosts, the day of the week; these things all affect the experience.  I went back to Flipnotics each week for about a month as I continued exploring other venues.  Other coffee shops, bars, even restaurants.  Nothing gave me the same experience as Flipnotics did, though some came closer than others.

After about a month, Flipnotics was too crowded for me, especially with my work schedule – I could never get to the place on time to sign up, and the list filled up very quickly.  I stopped going.

I think another part of the reason that I stopped going was that I felt uncomfortable there.  As if, despite everyone’s welcoming attention, I didn’t belong.  I kept thinking it would get better if I continued to go, but it didn’t.

I continued playing at the other OMs, where I felt more comfortable, perhaps because I felt less inadequate.  I got to know people a little better, started feeling less awkward, and started to ask myself if there really was any difference between any of these musicians and me.

Three months later, I went back to Flipnotics on a whim.  It was a little less crowded, and I was able to play at a more reasonable hour than I used to be able to.  It felt different.  Smaller, maybe.  The fear was gone.

I played, and they loved me.

As I came off the stage, I was approached by a young man, near my age.  He introduced himself, nervously, and asked a couple of questions.

“So, how long have you been in Austin?”

“About 6 months, now.”

“Nice, nice.  Yeah, I’ve only been here a few weeks.”

Silence.

“So do you play anywhere else?” he asked, and it was at that moment that I became aware of just how much this young man wanted to talk to me, to pick my brain.

I rattled off a few names of places I’d played, OMs and regular shows.  He asked me which ones I liked, and I gave some vague answer about how they’re all different and you really just have to try them all and figure out what you like.  I told him Flipnotics was one of my favorites, but that I didn’t come as often as I used to.  I’d become too busy lately.

He interpreted  this to mean that I was playing too many “real” shows, and that OMs weren’t worth my time.  The look of inspiration and envy in his face was all too familiar.

I told him – with a grin that I didn’t believe but that I knew he would – “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.  You just gotta keep at it.”

There were a few other people who wanted to talk to me, and the young man got sort of lost in the shuffle.  I pretended not to notice, but I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty.

After all, I knew what it was like to be the new guy, ignored, alone, and awkward.

Later, I was surprised at how many of my answers must have seemed rather disinterested, the kind of answers that I’d give to just anyone.  I didn’t intend them to be that way, but that’s how they came out.  I imagined that he had felt unwanted, inadequate and boring, as I had once felt in the same room.

The truth is, after a while, music becomes more like a job; and the shows begin to blur together, rarely punctuated by a particular venue, crowd, or performance.  Seeing that young man’s face, I saw a reflection of magic again.  I realized that it was my magic, there in his eyes.  I’d learned my own tricks.

I do not regret treating him the way that I did.  I gave him the only answer that I have found: you write your own answers, and you make your own magic.

We begin to tell ourselves, as we must, that all we really want is to be successful musicians.  For me, that means being able to support myself financially and to get my voice and my message out to as many people as possible.  And, whatever your definition, that success becomes the “It,” the mythical ideal: “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.  You just gotta keep at it.”

I’ve chosen my profession, as much as any of us can choose.  And at some point during the journey, the “It” becomes “success” and stops being “magic.”  Some days it’s impossible to see.  And it’s on these days that I remind myself: you may know how the trick is done, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magic.

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