There's probably no one in history who hasn't had a moment when they wish they could change careers. One thinks sympathetically, of Boston first-baseman Bill Buckner, whose error in the 1986 World Series was so childish and goofy, it looked like something right out of the Little Rascals. Followed by a trumpet going "wah wah wah."
I imagine, too, Rob Lowe wished he'd become an accountant instead of an actor, after his homemade porn tape got out. Even if it was the first Lowe film any of us had rented in years. And, speaking of tapes, I imagine after Richard Nixon's Oval Office recorded shenanigans got out to the public, he also wished he'd chosen a more dignified career path — like doing bed checks at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch.
Luckily, my embarrassment, which was musical, and morphed into a job change, was not quite so sordid... well, as Nixon's, anyway. Yet I did once have a moment so horrible, that seemed so incredibly endless, Albert Einstein might've gone crazy trying to figure it out. Then again, if he attempted to explain it. Still, it did help me get out of rock 'n' roll, where I was floundering, and into writing, where I am also floundering — but in new and exciting ways.
It happened at Folk City in New York City, once a spot for singularly-untalented folksingers, who did cruel and unspeakable things to songs in the public domain — which is a fancy way of saying they were stolen from slaves. However, after Bob Dylan made his rep with tunes he'd written himself, that all changed.
Now, people got onstage and did their own stuff which, surprising everyone, made the vibe in the club infinitely worse. I mean dramatically, historically worse. It was like going from the era of bare-knuckle fighting back to the Spanish Inquisition. You know how they say that everyone has at least one good book in them? That may be true. What never gets mentioned? They also have about 200 really bad songs.
If I may be immodest for a moment, I was not one of these well-meaning doofuses. In other words, my songs were intentionally funny. So, quite confident, every week, I lined up with 70 other hopefuls at Folk City, waiting for the chance to play my mordantly comic songs. I was sure I was at that point where they were going to anoint me the new "Voice Of His Generation." In fact, I'd done so much research, math and statistical computation, I even knew when it was going to occur. All signs pointed to that Tuesday.
Being let in, I was pleased that I was chosen as number eight. But wondered why, when my named was repeated, lightning didn't crack in the sky and I didn't hear an angelic choir. I wrote it off to seeing too many movies then bought a beer at the bar (from future star Terre Roche, I should add) and sat down at a table, Martin guitar case in hand.
I had recently written two new songs I felt certain would be essential to my imminent coronation. Both were funny-sad tunes that might've gone over well. I'll never know.
After waiting for about 80 minutes, into Folk City walked the king of tragicomic songwriting, Loudon Wainwright III. Dressed in his customary white button-down shirt, chinos and some kind of dark, shapeless shoes, he was seated right in front of the stage. Suddenly nervous, I wondered if they couldn't have put our wittiest songwriter any closer. Like, in my lap.
I'd been working on my two songs all week. One was a nice, normal little number about loving my guitar so much I wanted to have sex with it. The other, "Scarecrow," was a funny-sad number, comparing myself to the the title figure who, instead of frightening birds, scared off anyone who wanted to love me. They were both honed to the bone. The two best tunes I think I'd written to date.
But all I could think of was Wainwright. I'm sure he just came to enjoy a night out at his old haunt and to check out the new breed of singer-songwriters. But that was much too logical for me at the time.
I was imagining Loudon sitting there, with clipboard and pen, like an Olympics' judge getting ready to write down a score for both my move and the degree of difficulty.
My heart began to race and I felt sweat coming from places I didn't even know contained glands. This might have been the mark of someone who was stoked and ready to meet the competition head-on. Or, maybe I was just having a heart attack.
I began to fingerpick the opening to my first song, "I Love My Guitar." But just as I finished the opening and was ready to sing the first verse, I looked at Loudon.
He was simply sitting there, of course. But I was certain he was listening for every unpolished joke, every mixed metaphor, anything that might've, well, stunk. I felt a little like Ronee Blakely in Nashville.
I was so ready to crack-up, that I began to talk. All sorts of unfunny nonsense. I think I even included a bit about my grandmother's chicken farm. Even though she actually lived up on 83rd Street.
When sighing and some hissing became audible, I knew I'd better launch into my song. But, without his so much as making a face, or an obscene gesture, Loudon Wainwright III had totally psyched me out. I fingerpicked. I thought about the opening of my song and launched right into.... "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." Which, despite my condition-could only be improved with a massive blast of thorazine — I knew I hadn't written it.
I next did an old blues number, "Crazy 'Bout An Automobile." And, unless I'd had a previous life as an unknown black man, I hadn't written that one either.
I got through them both, passably, but my chance to play two original tunes, for one of my songwriting heroes, had flapped its long goofy wings and flown out the window.
The only positive aspect to all this? Six minutes had gone by and I hadn't keeled over. So, I could at least cross heart attack off the list.
When I had finished, my name was said again and I walked off the stage with all the pride, erect posture and self-worth of a man who'd just been arrested for selling child pornography. I looked around. Loudon was gone — possibly so he would not be subjected to any more ordinary folk performers. Or possibly to return, armed with a bag of week-old fruit.
Still, I sort of have Wainwright to thank. Though I only had an inkling of it at the time, all these years later, I'm glad I choked that night. I know now, it wasn't my destiny to continue playing music. I didn't really like the life, the crowds, the vibe. And if I couldn't play my own songs in front of a brilliant cult figure, what would I ever do if Neil Young came to a gig. Construct a noose and hang myself onstage?
Not only did Loudon save me from a career of frustration and heartache, but also legal troubles.
The noose thing? Hanging yourself onstage? Alice Cooper had already done that and, I think, copyrighted it. I hear Alice is very litigious. So, if nothing else, I've never been sued. For that and many other reasons, thank you, Mr. Wainwright. Wherever you are.
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