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The Year of the Open Mic Musician/Poet

There was a time in my early 20s when I spent about a year playing my guitar and reading poetry at open mics in the Eugene Oregon area. I say area because I ventured out to a neighboring town called Cottage Grove a couple of times too.

This was a special time in my life dedicated to music and writing. I wasn’t particularly exceptional at either, especially poetry, but the experience was unique and interesting.

There was a studio apartment I lived in close to the University of Oregon campus called apartment 101. Besides being actually the number of the apartment, it also correlates with learning the introduction of life as a young musician. This apartment ended up being a hub for a rag-tag bunch of creative misfits who stayed up late into the night smoking, drinking, and playing music.

While the experience may seem grand and the likes of Jack Kerouac may romanticize similar instances with amazing prose, the actual time was full of questions and consternation— there was a chaotic sense of creative whimsy in the air.

For a loner type from the country, playing in these open mics around town and being social was something out of my comfort zone. Recently getting out of the Air Force, I still wore my black combat boots as part of my stylish ensemble, along with khaki pants, a cozy wool sweater coat, and a black beret worn backward.

The early 2000s were closer to Bob Dylan’s heyday than now, which may have been why I felt the need to play the harmonica and an acoustic guitar. Being in retro counter-culture Eugene, this was a fitting overall getup and one I was sincere in donning.

Taking after my mom’s creative genius I wrote my own songs and made a half-hearted attempt to write some poetry to bemuse the eclectic band of misfits on the campus open mic scene.

All in all, there were about five open mic hot spots I would venture to play at in Eugene, one of which led to an actual gig for a band, which a group of us put together at the height of our conformity. There wasn’t much structure or direction in my efforts, nor in that of the group which haphazardly formed from our outings.

Playing at an open mic is nerve-racking, so I had to get plenty high beforehand. I wasn’t a drinker thankfully, nor did I use any hard drugs, yet Cannabis was a constant. Apartment 101 was a smoked-out den of tunes all throughout the night — the close-by neighbors were our audience unfortunately for them. The sounds and activity did eventually make me and the studio the most popular distractions in the building, which wasn’t always such a good thing.

Being from a musician family this was my right of passage. I had some talent for playing the guitar and writing songs, so I wanted to see how it felt to get out and live as a musician in some measure.

What I found out eventually is that I’m not built to be a performing musician, rather a writer. I was comfortable with performing and being in front of strangers making music, yet it went against something deep inside that I struggled to understand.

Later in life, I realize it wasn’t my destiny to be a performing musician and it also wasn’t something I felt called to do. My interests were elsewhere, yet I needed this time to flush it all out; to see what it was like to put on the musician's hat and play the part.

I much prefer being a writer. In fact, during this time, I was motivated to embarrass myself at these open mics because of my desire to write. See, as a reader of Jack Kerouac at the time, I wanted to live a life worth writing about in the same vein. While others were being responsible and building their lives with college, marriage, and careers, I was preparing for my inevitable life of poverty by being a writer.

Maybe younger people won’t understand this as much, but in the past, even in the early 2000s, wanting to become a writer of autobiographical fiction (or at all) was akin to wanting to live a life of obscurity and poverty — likely until death or near it like Jack Kerouac. The idea was to write from the heart, live an interesting life, and then hope you are recognized at least post-humously. If a writer did make a living writing for magazines or by getting signed on to a publishing house, then they hit the lottery.

This was how I thought about being a writer in my early 20s, reading Hesse, Kesey, Kerouac, and Thoreau. I had it so bad, one of my favorite authors was Robert Walser, who checked himself into a sanatarium in his 30s and spent the rest of his life there. I was the brooding type you could say.

Hence the open mic experience with the band of young college-age misfits. We were going nowhere and were very excited about it. We spent our social time in a cloud of smoke among strange unique sounds. Our thoughts were full of fig-bar fantasies and distracting illusions of youth.

Maybe you can understand why I didn’t want to be a musician after all. While I realize there are some very put-together musicians out there who are disciplined and organized, for the most part, being a musician back then was worse than being a forlorn writer in obscurity.

Without going further into the differences between being a writer vs. a musician, the open mic year was a worthy experiment. It brought together many types of people together, even the son of one of the members of the famous 60s and 70s band Kool & the Gang, or so he said (I believed him).

There was this one homeless drifter in his 30s who called himself nature names, a young lady feminist who worked on fire crews, a young beach bum drifter from southern California, a strange troubled cat who spoke in disbelief, snobby upper-class folks who drank tea, a bald ex-convict who hardly said a word; both black and white, young and old, straight and other, rich and poor, educated and not, Christians and atheist — were all together in apartment 101 in a cloud of smoke with mysterious tunes wafting through the air.

These were all people who I met and got to know from the open mics and living near the campus. Instead of being a loner, as usual, I became open and this is what happened. At one point, it seemed like I was destined for some sort of status in the music scene, but I quietly declined any upward mobility, rather moving away from the chaos back into my comfortable obscurity as an unknown writer of sorts.

The girlfriend I had at the time, found among the open mic crowd, was sent back to her family, after her years of young adult wanderings, and I moved out of the now heavily smoked-out apartment that held so many nights of wonder and awe.

When this year of open mic life started I was getting by with a newspaper route, but this eventually was taken away after I was late too many times from staying up all night. Having to get a day job was the eventual end of the frivolous scene of creative hacks, and soon enough the smoke faded and adulthood became more of a reality.

Two Word Absurd Ablum Cover

The only momento I’ve allowed to carry on from this experience is an album called Two Word Absurd, which I created soon after. The strange sounds of this experimental, instrumental music encapsulate the strange times these were, at least in my mind.

Otherwise, now in my early 40s, I look back on this time and thank God he saved me from such madness. At that time I was an agnostic who didn’t believe in God or the Bible, yet within a few years after this experience through hardships and struggles, I found my way back to God (I had disavowed my Christianity at 19 YOA while in the Air Force).

Essentially, the open mic year was the pinnacle of my worldliness, the climatic point of my unbelief, and the darkest time of my life. The strangest part is I didn’t even know it was dark, although I did suspect we were all crazy and lost in some measure for sure.

In addition to this isolated year of open mic time, I also went to open mics in Bend Oregon and in California preceding this time, and in Portland after. I even found myself singing Bob Dylan songs on the Las Vegas strip before I was told to leave (performing on the streets wasn’t allowed)— one nice lady gave me a couple of dollars for my efforts.

I cherish these experiences even though I’ve grown away from them. It was part of my road to becoming a man, even an artist. While I admit that wasting my young adulthood on seeming dead ends and fruitless ventures wasn’t practical, the journey through these times was ultimately led by my love of the truth and willingness to bypass practical aspirations to find true meaning in my soul. While the meaning found wasn’t something I could have guessed then, it was something that needed the contrast to see clearly.

Just think, every night around America and the world, there are thousands of open mic musicians and poets signing up to share their art with the scant crowds of interested onlookers awaiting who knows what. The journey awaits.

Originally published at Medium Dec. 16, 2022


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