Thanks for Comin’ Out Tonight!

As a musician, performance feeds my soul like no religion could. It breathes life into the dark corners and allows the full flower of my expression to blossom without restraint.

The highlight of my performing career bloomed this past Friday night when I captured the imagination of an audience with my skills in ways that even I had never thought possible.

The gig was at my middle school’s media center for a student talent show. Granted, I’m a teacher there, but with barely any insistence from me, organizers placed me on the bill. It promised to be a night of poetry, song, and dance, but when I saw the line-up I knew that the singer/songwriter abilities of me, “Mr. Dennison” to everyone at school, would be the highlight.

To be sure, the pre-teen contestants had promise (organizers refused to call it a contest, but let’s not kid ourselves). When I signed up, I noticed there would be an a-capella soloist who would sing “Don’t Stop Believing,” a hip-hop trio called BaKfLipZ, and a poet who would recite something called “U Broke My ❤ in 2.”  Scrappy performers all, I was sure, but did they have the drive I had? The passion? Did they have cassette tapes of original power ballads recorded in their basement dating back to 1987? Clearly not.

I decided to sign on to sing accompanied by my acoustic guitar, as it paired best with the library’s intimate environment. After going through my mental catalogue of originals, I went through my actual card catalogue of originals, since it’s alphabetized and therefore easier to find what I want. I didn’t dare sing anything too racy for the audience, which promised to consist of students in the 10- to 12-year-old demo. However, I knew that their parents and grandparents would be there, which got me thinking that perhaps I could expand my choice afterall.

On the night of the performance, I displayed the humility that befits a teacher, but I’ll admit it was a little hard not to strut a bit to my seat when I saw my competition (I mean “fellow artists,” wink-wink). There was a minor glitch when I forgot that middle schoolers haven’t developed a sense of irony. Upon being asked if the giant guitar case I was carrying meant that I was going to play guitar tonight, I glibly responded to my seventh grader, Joey, “No, it’s a gun!” Did you know that libraries have security guards? They do.

As it so happened, I was placed last on the list of 20 performers. Whether that was because they were saving the “best” for that slot was hardly a question, although there were whispers that by 8 o’clock we’d be bumping up against some bedtimes. I scanned the audience for fellow teachers: there was Janice, the science teacher with the overly caffeinated smile. Stan, the music teacher who shook your hand too hard. And then there was my nemesis: Cassandra, the history teacher who thought she was “all that” when she sang the National Anthem (more like butchered it!) at last year’s opening day ceremony. She said she didn’t want to sing it as a duet because she didn’t “understand why” I added lyrics to liven it up. Padding the room were about 40 mop-headed students, eyes glued to their cell phones, no doubt texting that they were at the cultural event of the year, at least locally.

I took in the venue. Clearly, the acoustics were going to be unacceptable. With an 8-foot ceiling of primarily water-stained tiles and the glass of the courtyard bouncing the sound around, I took solace in the fact that the natural ring of my guitar and voice would compensate. The performers were placed in front of a bank of computers, stage left of the reference section, and stage right of the check-out counter. Overall it was a nice space, my only real complaint being the flourescent bulbs. I asked the custodian to turn them off, and he just sort of looked at me in that way that all custodians look at me, as if I’ve recently shot one of their relatives. Clearly, he was not an artist.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” an 8th grader read from an index card. “Thank you for coming to the Tidesdale Middle School Student Talent Show. Please make sure you turn off your cell phones and disable any flash photography, as it could distract our performers this evening. We ask that you do not talk during the performances, and that if you do need to have a conversation that you make your way to the hall between acts. We will begin tonight with a song sung by Jenny Heffernan… Heverman…Heff…”

What an amateur!

The contest started off without much bang. Jenny, a cherubic 7th grader I had in my fourth-period honors English class, sang a predictably “sweet” version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I mean, could you be more safe with your choice? Everything was on key and all that, despite not having any accompaniment, but that’s just a parlor trick and anyone could do it. You’d think, however, that Jenny had just cured cancer by the reception she got. Jesus, people: all that hooting and hollering is just embarrassing.

BaKfLipZ brought a bit more energy to the stage, but their performance was more light than heat, if you know what I mean. Volume does not equal talent, but tell that to Phoebe, Katie, and Katie, whose splits and cartwheels were drowned in a sea of thumpity thump of some pre-recorded popular singer (where’s the copyright security when you need them?). Their routine was cute, but it seemed too rehearsed. I guess spontaneity somehow went the way of the dinosaur, eh, kids?

There was Bobby, whose ode to mountains relied a bit too much on slant rhymes for my taste. And there was Letisha who got all fancy with her rendition of “Stand By Me,” what with her friends singing this gospel part that totally manipulated the audience’s emotions. Even Smiley Janice was all teary-eyed. Puh-lease!

I thought I’d be the only one with an original song. I was counting on it, since it was going to be part of my opening “patter”: “These kids are great, aren’t they? None of them can write their own material, however…” It went on like that.

But no: number 15 on the list was Trevor, an 8th grader who also brought an acoustic guitar. His had 12 strings on it, and boy did he look ridiculous trying to fit his hand around the neck. I did this thing where I turned a laugh into a cough, and everyone looked at me in that custodian kind of way. So Trevor did this fake-appreciative thing where he thanked the audience and said he’s going to sing a song he wrote called “Midnight.”

He started with this show-offy maneuver I think they call an arpeggio or some sort of finger-picking thing, then went into this we’ve-heard-it-a-million-times major chord progression: G, D, C or something like that. I was just completely embarrassed for him. I looked at the audience and they’re eating it up like the cafeteria’s Friday special. Like he’s some sort of genius just because he can sing and play at the same time. I wanted to say, “Would it kill you to throw in an A-minor? Do you even know what a diminished chord IS?”

So he had a classic two-verse, then chorus composition, and then he got all fancy and threw in a bridge. Then he actually got the audience singing along with him on the chorus again. Gee, maybe because the song was so BORING that they already knew the chorus? Did snobby Cassandra the history teacher even think of that as she was all swaying back and forth at her table, doing that vibratto thing that’s so phony?

Then the song was over and they all stood up. Can you believe it? I mean, really. Like they’d never seen a 13-year-old sing his own decent, albeit catchy, song before. By now the crowd was starting to dwindle, and after the 19th performer (a poet whose work “Trees” seemed a little derivative of Frost) there were only about 12 people left. It didn’t matter, because the judges — I mean organizers! — were still there, and they were the ones that mattered. I was going to nail this thing with my grand finale, and boy did I ever.

I sat in the wooden chair set up for me in front of the microphone. “Thank you!” I said to the audience’s awed silence. “I want to thank all the kids who tried so hard tonight. As you can see I’m hardly a kid (I paused for their internalized laughter) but I think I’ve got a little something that you’re going to like.”

Striking the first chord (an E-minor, thank you very much), I stood and kicked over the chair. That got them looking up. Then I knocked over the mic with my strumming hand, which gave this wicked feedback that I didn’t even expect, which was totally cool. I walked closer to my fans as I played, and by the way they leaned back I knew I had their attention.

The song was called “When You Never Call I Can’t Return Your Call,” which I wrote after a particularly stormy relationship in college, I think with my roommate. It held up very well after 17 years, and if anything, took on more relevance in these trying times.

“You are a lie! You are a liar! You lie! You are a liar!” I began, in what I called a revese-coda. The song was more freeform jazz than traditional “rock” or “folk” music, but if it reflected any genre, it would have to be “atonal punk.”

“Burning bodies! Rancid squalor!/I’m the phone! You’re the caller!/You never call! You never call! You never call me back!/Sequined disaster! Pit of fiery ambition!/I left a message! I’m the message! You call this living?!”

The moment was breathtaking. They were so physically moved that they grasped the sides of their chairs and wouldn’t even look at me. I had to give a nod to Bobby when I rhymed “slaughter” with “mauler,” and he actually had to leave, he was so choked up by the mutual respect (well, ran out of the room was more like it). He wasn’t the only one. By the second half of the song, only six minutes in, the last children started filing out, some leaving their instruments behind.

But Cassandra stayed. Oh, yes, she wasn’t going to miss this one. I held her gaze until the last chord, which was also an E-minor, and as the echoes of my words “Chest cavity!” echoed against the “Mural of Friendship” behind the audience, I knew that I had won.

They never did technically award anyone anything that night, and I’ve had the last two days to think about it. I just checked my school e-mail from home and there’s a message from the principal for me to see her in her office before homeroom. I’m pretty sure I know what she’s going to say. I just need to put on the humble act when she does.

(C) Will Siss 2011

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