Monday, April 03, 2006

Soul-Crushing Coffeeshop Entertainment

Spending all that time in my ancestral homeland of St. Paul has reminded me of the last time I housesat there. I was bored, so I decided to go to a nearby coffeeshop and get some writing stuff done. The place was busy, but I found a table and went to work. Sometimes, when the caffeine hits just right, I can vanish into my notebook for hours and hardly feel my surroundings at all. This afternoon started out like that, but my attention was soon forced to take into account the scrawny, bearded guy putting around on the room’s makeshift stage. Oh hell, I must have thought, they’re not going to have live music, are they? I enjoy a good band as much as anyone else, but (a) not when I’m on a hot streak and (b) not at a coffeeshop. I’ve been exposed to too many Z-list folk mewlers and joy-crushing “roosty” musicians. I feel only dread when I see the inevitable slender, sensitive type mounting the riser at the local cafe. This particular guy was different, though. He lacked the standard-issue acoustic guitar (thought-provoking stickers optional) and instead was wielding a saxophone. This didn’t reassure me, though. If anything, it only enhanced my dread. A lamely strummed Gibson is bad enough, but a nerdy white guy with a saxophone has the potential to be far, far worse.

Call me insensitive if you must, but I wasn’t proved wrong in this case. I set myself to ignoring him–apparently hoping that this would make him disappear–and so I missed him setting up his tape player and his great big speaker. That’s why I was so surprised when he turned it on and flooded the whole place with a horrid noise he must have considered a “beat”. I put it that way because, while it was technically a rhythm, it was really just a computerized banging noise overlaid with whooshy space sounds. It was ridiculous. If you brought it to Milli Vanilli, they’d laugh you out of the recording studio–it was that bad. And it was loud too. Really, really loud. There exists, somewhere in my archives, a piece of legal paper defaced by a long, jagged pen scratch. That gouge represents my shock at this dreadful assault on all us placid espresso-drinkers. Such violent suckness could only derail my creativity, and the guy hadn’t even started to play yet.

I was watching him when he did. He mouthed his reed like it was Marilyn Monroe’s nipple, tilted his head way back, and proceeded to take his audience on a tour of the wretchedest noises his instrument could make. I’ll give it to you in straight-up jazz-snob lingo–this joker made Kenny G look like Coleman Hawkins. My stomach lunges just to write that, but it’s true. His musical approach boiled down to (a) finding a melody so weak it would annoy a 4-year-old if Barney broke it out, (b) repeating it several dozen times, (c) occasionally interjecting an off-key honk in the interests of spontaneity, (d) until his pre-programmed backing track ended. And did I mention how loud he was? Of course, he needed to be if he wanted to be heard over his limp crypto-techno wank, but–seriously–it was like he was trying to strip the paint out of a jet engine.

I couldn’t write under such circumstances. I could only glare. I’m not a total bastard: I don’t assume my needs trump everyone else’s, but this was inexcusable. Eventually, I had to stop looking at him because the absurd “intense man” expressions he was making were causing me no little agitation. Instead, I focused my attention on my fellow patrons, expecting to find offense on every face. The crowd was subtler than me, though, except for the woman with her fingers stuffed in her ears. It appeared that, in general, the crowd was more embarrassed than offended. They gazed sadly into their mugs, they checked their watches, the amended their conversations to include nothing that couldn’t be conveyed by short, shouted phrases. Whenever the guy would finish one of his “songs”, they would clap the claps of the oppressed and unhappy.

He had quite a repertoire. He wasn’t limited to inane, squeaky musical atrocities, he also played ballads. And his approach to romantic material was as sophisticated as the rest of him: to bring the baby-making vibe, he incorporate harp sounds into his canned beats and played the same way as before, only slower. Since he seemed unwilling to hold a note for very long, his sensitive side sort of recalled a majestic wild beast on the veldt of Africa waiting to die after being snakebit. And he didn’t drop the volume a notch, of course. What he lacked in pretty much everything, he made up for in decibels. The impression was not unlike a crazed street person screaming out a thirteen year old’s love poetry on the busiest intersection in Brooklyn.

I couldn’t decide which was worse, his exuberant side or his intimate side. And carefully considering such things was all I could do with his bleats polluting the room. He finished his sad song and played a happy one, then a slow one, then another fast one. It was during this last screechy abomination that one of the baristas, a bookish looking teenager girl, came up and waited beside the stage with a distraught look on her face. When his thumpy honky funk fell silent and his latest squawk trailed off in a bunch of bubbly spit, she spoke up over the Minnesota-nice (a term that can be translated to mean “not genuine”) applause. “Can you please play a little quieter, okay?” she asked and I thought, God bless you, sweet child...

The jazz molester squinted at her like she had just asked him to drink bat shit. Then a ugly smirk darkened his ugly face and he said, in the most smug tone I have ever heard, “It’s a saxophone, honey, it doesn’t do quiet.”

I’m serious. The prick actually said that. What a prick. Putting aside the fact that, if you possess a little special added ingredient called “talent”, the saxophone does indeed “do quiet”, you need to earn that kind of arrogance. John Coltrane could get away with saying that, Joe Henderson could get away with saying that, Wayne Shorter could get away with saying that, the late Jackie McLean could get away with saying that, but–and here’s the real interesting thing–they almost certainly wouldn’t. They were all, by most accounts, pleasant and modest men. They were also geniuses. They knew that bringing music to an audience is one of the most sacred duties there is and that ego should never get in the way of it. All this clown could do was blow flat farts and he had the nerve to be an asshole about it. Maybe he was just having a bad night, true, but some things shouldn't be forgiven. You don’t take out your incompetence on a sixteen year old. I’m sorry, but that’s just weak.

The kid had moxie, though. She just said, “Boss says you’ve got to be quieter, though,” and went away, shrugging at someone I couldn’t see. Before this drama, I had decided to leave. I had reconsidered this. I wanted to see how this would going to play out.

The horn cornholer was momentarily shaken up by the staff’s assault on his brilliance. He muttered to himself for awhile before firing up another specimen of his unholy art. While he was squeezing his eyes shut and furrowing his brow in imitation of a committed musician, an older gentleman appeared in the room. He gave off the “manager” vibe, and he stood there with his arms folded over his chest and his Birkenstocked-foot tapping on the floor. The song gave out in a by-now familiar eruption of awfulness and the man wasted no time, “Hey, man,” he boomed, “I’m sorry, but you’re playing too loud, man.”

The saxophone fucker let out a great, aggrieved sigh. He was weary of the sorry quibbles coming from us mere mortals. His voice dripping with repugnant self-regard, he said, “This is the way I play, man...”

“Well, then, just play quieter,” the manager commanded as he stormed off.

“Whatever,” the sub-muzak suck icon grumbled and then he launched into another tune. As expected, his foghorn assault didn’t abate even a little. If anything, it got worse. The manager came striding right back and when the latest wooly mammoth of sound had finally been slaughtered, he took off the “cool coffeeshop-running-guy” gloves. Or at least one of them.

“Man, you have to turn it down or get off the stage. Because we can’t be having this...”

At this, a confederate in the now-dwindled audience revealed herself. “Oh, leave him alone, he’s playing his music!” she screeched. She was maybe in her late thirties, sort of hippyish, and it seemed to me that she had the mind problem that afflicts a lot of artsy-types. The “don’t stifle anyone’s creativity” disease, which forces otherwise reasonable people to believe that expression itself is righteous, and that a performer importuning others with his or her art is under no obligation to express themselves well. Instead, it is the responsibility of that artist’s victims to adapt themselves to the shaman in the room. This is a dumb goddamn notion, but not necessarily rare. Especially at coffeeshops.

The manager stuttered out something, but he woman had already thrown herself into the “defender of the poor artiste” role. “It’s not bothering anyone!” she boldly projected, before turning to one of the eight people who hadn’t left yet, “Hey, you! Is it too loud for you?”

That person mumbled out something midwestern and noncommittal and then the woman went around the room, challenging everyone: “Is it too loud for you? How about for you? What about you, miss?”

I was excited for it to be my turn. When she got to me, I gave her my cheeriest smile and said, in a voice meant to be heard by all the handful of non-deafened people around me, “For me it’s not so much that it’s loud, no...” I began, and then I turned to the guy on stage, who was idly fingering his instrument and said, “It’s just that it’s so fucking terrible!”

The woman gave me a dirty look before abandoning this bad-musician-defending strategy. She whined something about how they had invited him to play and now they should just leave the poor man alone and let him play because it’s so rude to invite someone to play and then have the nerve to tell them how to play and on and on and on. It got so bad the wanker on stage himself had to interrupt and say, “I’ve only got like two songs left. Can I just play two more songs?”

The manager said, “Yeah, only two though, man. And then you’re out of here...”

“Fine,” said the appalling saxist and he hit the “play” button on his penultimate backup track. As he began to warble and squeal again, it was clear that his momentum had been quashed. There was a deflated quality to his appalling musicianship, a spirit of despairing self-realization that, intriguingly enough, made him a lot more tolerable. Not that they were good, mind you, but they at least had something. Something intangible and small, but something regardless. Or maybe I was just happy because he was going to stop soon. Come to think of it, that seems more likely.

But still, listening to his final shrieks, I almost felt bad for the guy.

“Almost” being the key word there, I think.