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Joseph E Bird

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performing

Sing me a song of what it could be.

If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Then quit.
No use being a damn fool about it. – W.C. Fields

One of the good times. Matt Thomas accompanying me on the harmonica playing the Ray Lamontagne song, Devil’s in the Jukebox.

It was fun while it lasted.

I’ve spent more than a year pretending to be a musician. It started out with a few covers at the open mic of the local coffee shop. That first time was a disaster and I vowed that not only would I never sing again, but I also swore I wouldn’t even show my face at the coffee shop. But I was at it again the following week.

Yes, it got a little easier after that first time, but as soon as I started to feel comfortable with the whole performing thing, the bombs would follow. But I persevered.

I went to other open mics. I made friends, many of them fantastic singers and songwriters who were nothing but encouraging. They still are and I’m so blessed to have them as friends.

I performed short sets at festivals and other events. And I have written a few songs, words and music. I made progress, for sure.

I knew I didn’t have a great voice, but neither does Bob Dylan. I had hopes that maybe my songwriting would be engaging. Meh. Maybe the covers that I did would provide some level of entertainment. Not so much. I tend to perform songs of artists I like – Wilco, Avett Brothers, Foo Fighters – but are pretty much unknown to my audience. And when I do a Dylan song, it’s always an obscure choice.

One of my new music friends will admit he’s not the most accomplished guitar player but he is enormously entertaining. He bellows old country standards and writes clever songs. And he always has fun, which is contagious. Everybody loves him.

While my expectations were realistic and modest, my musical career has reached the point where the disappointment in my accomplishments has overcome the joy of playing music. As Mr. Fields advised, no use being a damn fool about it.

I find myself taking that advice in other areas of my life, but that’s another story.

For now, I’m going to refocus on writing. No more novels, which can be just as disappointing as music, despite critical acclaim. But I have several ideas for writing about music based on my new awareness of singing, songwriting, and the guts it takes to put yourself out there. Hopefully interesting to my faithful readers, and a little more satisfying for me.

So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

It’s just an E chord. Pretty basic. But I had figured out some embellishments to get the sound of the opening riff of Mrs. Robinson, the Simon and Garfunkle classic from the 60s movie of the same name. It’s a fun song to play. A catchy chorus that people of a certain age will hum and tap their toes to. So that was going to be my first song. My first song ever singing in public by myself.

Just me and my guitar.

That was last week at the local coffee shop.

I plugged in the guitar and tested the mic. A few soft chords to check my tuning and steady my nerves. And then I was off.

The opening riff was good. The intro was good. I got to the chorus, which in this song occurs before the first verse, and sang as I had practiced so many times at home. I was rocking, baby.

But somewhere along the way I missed a chord. Then I forgot a line. But I kept going. It was a little rough but I got through.

The baristas and two of my friends who were there applauded. There weren’t many other people in the coffee shop and most continued to fiddle on their phones or laptops. But it’s a coffee shop and their inattentiveness is to be expected in that kind of venue.

I moved on to the next song. Another upbeat tune, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, I Need Never Get Old. And a chorus with some high notes that requires some projection. I had practiced and was comfortable with those notes. But that night, I didn’t hit them as solidly as I do when I’m at home by myself. But again, I got through.

And then, believe it or not, I sang some Elvis. A Little Less Conversation. If you know the song (or look it up) you know that it’s yet another upbeat song. But I play it slow and easy at first. Kind of cool and moody. Then when I get to the bridge, I turn up the tempo and the volume and end with energy and enthusiasm. That seemed to go over well, in spite of a few less than smooth chord transitions.

But to be honest, those first three songs felt like a wreck.

I took a break and let my friend, Rich, take his shot. He’s new at this, too. He did about like I did but he’s got a good country-style voice, so you could see the promise, despite the fact that he had a little trouble with his three songs.

My turn again.

I slowed it down. Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet. Got through without any major problems, though my vocals were not as strong as they should be. Then Amos Lee, What’s Been Going On. Again, ok, but not my best. And finally, Foo Fighters – yes, the Foo Fighters – Times Like These, the acoustic version. And again, this song requires some projection to reach the high notes. And again, I didn’t quite nail it.

Rich gave it another shot and absolutely killed the last two songs he did.

And that was it.

I left feeling pretty bad about the whole thing.

A couple of people recorded my first song and put a clip on Facebook. After hearing how I slogged through Mrs. Robinson, I knew that this had been a huge mistake. I vowed never to do it again. And not just Mrs. Robinson, but I vowed never to sing in public again. I even decided I couldn’t show my face in the coffee shop.

I found out later that Rich had felt the same way.

A few days passed and I discovered Leonard Cohen singing Dance Me to the End of Love. An old guy like me, singing within himself. Not trying to do too much. I began learning to play it.

A week later, I was ready to try again.

This time I chose songs more suitable for me and my limitations. Me and Bobby McGee was first. Bob Dylan, Most of the Time. Amos Lee, What’s Been Going On? I mangled some chords and lyrics but it didn’t feel as bad as the week before. Then Rich did three or four songs and he didn’t miss a lick.

Then my turn again. Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet. Then the Leonard Cohen song. I missed some lyrics and some chord changes, but overall, the song is too good to do too much damage.

By the time we finished, there was one customer. She applauded politely at the end of every song. Even thanked us for the entertainment.

But here are some truths.

Rich is good because he has a natural singing voice. The more he plays the better he will get.

Joe does not have a natural singing voice, as the video evidence attests. It was fun and I’m glad I did it and I might even give the Leonard Cohen song another shot. But I’m probably done. Yes, cooked like a turkey.

But I’m now in the club of live performers. I did it. I can mark it off the list.

As my good friend Clint Eastwood once told me, a man’s got to know his limitations. But a man also has to have the courage to try.

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