He was hunkered over himself, and held his guitar in such a way that you’d have thought he would’ve hidden behind it if he could just make himself small enough. It almost worked. He carried himself onstage like he’d been doing it for years, a broken apology, an “I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me to be,” stance that didn’t manage to apologize in the least for what he was about ready to do to us. What the music was going to do, to him, and to anyone within a quite substantial earshot.
It was a cheap stage, but there’d been decent money invested in the sound. One mic, a good one, stage center, a half-dozen boards angled against the brick wall at the back to reflect the sound. The lights were what they had to be, no more. They pointed at the stage, away from the folding chairs swaddled in winter coats left by folks who didn’t want to sit down yet. Or maybe they did, but kept being caught up in the kind of conversations that make up small town crowds, where everybody knows everybody but maybe aren’t always quite sure what everybody’s wives or husbands or children’s names are. You call everybody honey and, when you smile and say how great it is to see them, you’ve got to get together more often, it feels real.
All the smokers had red noses from having to go outside, not like in the old days when this room would have been gray with it and all of us warm. We talked about that like we were complaining, but we weren’t. They were selling beer and wine in plastic cups, but there wasn’t much of a line. Somebody’d set up a table with coffee too, and brownies for sale in little sandwich bags. You could be mistaken for feeling that we were gathering to hear a community chorus, instead of the man whose music had been called a chunk of wood in a pile of plastic, and who’s been compared to Levon Helm, Townes Van Zandt, and Robert Johnson.
The first act had been a set-up for him, a teenaged songwriter whose parents drove her to the show, and whose songs were driving, lyrical, percussive and catchy. Her voice caught and held as she lay down each song for us, almost shrugging them off, the “You might not get it, but here’s what I think,” of a hard worn road musician. Like the quiet student who would break her professor’s heart. “What a beautiful boy…” You could already see it, even before she sang, “I was just 22, just out of school.” We settled in comfortably as she introduced the next song by explaining that she’d written it, bored, in a Civics class. She sounded like Eva Cassidy singing John Prine covers. Anyway, she was easy to like, and we were grateful. Some of us thought about slipping out during the break, making it an early night. It had been, for some of us, a long enough day already, and no one expected what would happen next.
He slunk on stage, still wearing the knitted hat that stood up over his head like a loose sock. He grinned weirdly at the fellow introducing him, and clutched at his guitar. He had squatty crooked fingers that were all just about the same length, so that each hand was more like a mitt or a paw. I was sitting front row, and whenever I looked up his eyes were looking clean through me, so I looked at his hands a lot. They were strumming hard at the guitar, even though he was talking about this and that all the while. One left for a minute to tear off the hat, which fell someplace and stayed there. The guitar didn’t stop. It was just warming up.
A minute or so later, after a mumbled introduction having to do with proctology and Nashville, he launched into the most hair-raising blues wail that I’ve heard from a living man. His fingers on the strings were a fleshy blur, and the music tore out of his chest with such a violence that his mouth couldn’t keep up with it. He’d been facing us, sideways, on a little metal folding chair just like ours, but he kicked his legs so that it rocked back and forth like an old man’s porch chair. He sang like an Old Testament prophet warning of oblivion and testifying to the power of light. He was Jeremiah beneath a streetlight, Amos on a folding chair. Like Moses, he’d almost rather do anything but be here.
One of the things you forget about prophets is how obscure they are in their own time. “This here’n like those little fish sticks you frying em up at Silvers, they slip out of your fry basket, you ain’t never gonna catch up with em. Now what was I talking about? Well.” And then another contraction would strike, and he’d be doubled over with music again. A silver spray blistered the guitar just beneath his chin. I’ll show you how to drink the rain.
You forget, when you hear this kind of music on an mp3, how it got born. You forget that to get born into being, it had to come into being through the vast expanse of not being; that of everything that is possible, almost nothing actually gets through that place; that what is is always – for lack of a better word – a miracle. What the fuck ever. Hundreds of years of shouting cratered the air, and we all fell in. Whenever we tried to applaud, he shut us up with an oblique look. We shut up. We sat still in our seats, not noticing that we needed to pee. We held the empty cups we’d bought so tight that we could feel them start to crack, but we weren’t quite ready to set them down anyplace. He rendered the beauty of an ordinary day, about putting on your britches one leg at a time, and rendered it like a captured flag, our standard borne like Elijah, carried up into the gates of heaven before our very eyes. Rendering, from reddere, means to give back; fat is rendered from bone. It’s not a gentle process.
Outside it still wasn’t snowing. We stood around afterward, breathing smoke. People said it’d been a good show, but they weren’t looking at each other when they said it. We talked about the girl singer, how good she was. You could tell that we were all quietly hoping she’d find her way out of music, and that this was somehow like rooting for her. Cars were pulling out onto the street, one by one. You could hear their radios even through their rolled-up windows.