Pearly Shells

Pearly Shells: Open Mic Night


Pearly Shells (Popo-O-Ewa, written by John Kalapana-Leonpobar, sung by Burl Ives

Pearly Shells, from the ocean,
shining in the sun, covering up the shore
When I see them my heart tells me that I love you,

More than all the little pearly shells

For every grain of sand upon the beach,
I got a kiss for you. And I’ve got more left over,
for each star, that twinkles in the blue,
Pearly Shells, from the ocean, shining in the sun,
covering up the shore,
When I see them, My heart tells me that I love you,
More than all the little Pearly Shells

For every grain of sand upon the beach,
I’ve got a kiss for you, and I’ve got more left over,
for each star that twinkles in the blue.
Pearly Shells, from the ocean, shining in the sun, covering up the shore

When I see them, My heart tells me that I love you,
more than all the little Pearly Shells
more than all the little Pearly Shells

Tonight I had one of those nights I just have to tell you about. I drive a 1984 Mercedes Benz that I have affectionately christened “The Bismarck”. He has been sitting in the garage since we came back from a visit to the Land of Cheese and the Green Bay Packers. By the time we returned home on the drive from Wisconsin, the poor Bismarck was making some awful noises, and I have been afraid to drive him for fear of making things worse. This means that for the last four weeks I have been walking everywhere, except when I am with my wife, who drives a working vehicle. I have been afraid of taking the Bismarck to our auto mechanic because I fear that whatever is wrong with him cannot be repaired for a reasonable price (like many old people). After all, he is 27 years old, with 256,000 miles on him, and there is a point where you wonder whether it will be worth the money to keep him alive. His profile reads like mine, except that I am 59 years old with at least 500,000 miles on me –  “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet” they say out west. (And in some bars) As a result, with my usual optimism, I am bracing myself for “The Requiem of The Bismarck”.

I have been severely depressed lately, and having the Bismarck in dry dock has been a strain on my mind. I am worried sick about him and that helps to keep me up at night. But my troubles with the Bismarck are not what I want to talk about.

Because of my depression, accommodations must be made for my behavior. Sometimes I get a bug up the old proverbial bum and do strange things – often at the oddest times. Today was one of those days. After lying around all day looking at the ceiling (after another sleepless night), I suddenly decided to get out of my sick bed and take the Bismarck to meet his destiny. My wife had taken her car to work earlier in the afternoon, so I knew that I would have to walk home after leaving the Bismarck at the auto hospital. That’s no big deal, as it’s only about a two-mile walk, which is the average distance of the walks the dog takes me on. What’s strange about this is that I would never normally go anywhere without my wife’s supervision, and I certainly wouldn’t have taken the Bismarck in by myself. She usually has to do that kind of thing, because I don’t like to deal with people, or with money issues.

Anyway, my intent was to drop off my classic German ride and then walk home, but I had a brainstorm and remembered that tonight was “Open Mic Night” at the bookstore where my wife works. I thought to myself “Why not go there and listen to some music?” I knew our pet-sitter Dan, who is a very talented young musician, was going to play there. So, after saying “Auf Wiedersehn” to the Bismarck, I promptly changed directions from walking east towards home to walking west towards the bookstore. Walking distance between the auto hospital and the bookstore is just under 5 miles, which also happens to be all uphill, with no sidewalks or crosswalks, so I set off at a pace that I knew would get me there by 7:00pm, when the singing (or other performances – they once had a juggler) was supposed to start. I felt I would be lucky that, even with my cane, if I didn’t take a tumble into traffic or get hit by a car it might be an enjoyable evening.

I’d been in the bookstore before while open mike was going on, but never paid much attention to it, as I was there to look for books. This would be the first time I would actually sit down and watch open mic, and what a time it was! I arrived at the bookstore about ten minutes early, so I stood in line (another break from my normal behavior) to buy a cup of coffee before I found a chair to sit in and observe the performances. I purchased a large cup of the bookstore’s special holiday blend “Cinnamon Swirl” coffee, (another break from my normal behavior) which the bookstore purchasing agents must believe will bring Holiday Cheer to anyone who drinks it, or they wouldn’t be offering it. It should have been called “Cinnamon Swill”, because its sickly, sweet taste made my stomach strike back at me with some sweet words of rebuke such as “What the hell are you doing, you idiot?” and “You’ll be sorry later tonight, you stupid son of a so-and-so.” Because of this, I said to my stomach that I would slowly sip my Cinnamon Swirl so as not to make it swallow the sickly sweet swill quickly, thereby bruising my stomach’s sensibilities, settling for the fact that I had to draw out this cup of coffee for the next two hours, or I would pay dearly for it.

 I settled into a comfortable faux leather chair near the front of the “Stage”, so I could experience “Open Mic Night” up close and personal for the first time in my life. The only time I had attended anything similar to this was in Norfolk, Virginia, when my son came home from serving in the Navy in Iraq, and we (the whole family) sat in the hotel bar (because the restaurant was closed) to have a beer and a hamburger. In those days, I was good at having fun, and, as usual, things got quickly out of hand when the Karaoke show got started. But that’s another story. We must concentrate on the subject matter at hand.

 All settled in, and ready for some good entertainment, I waited for the show to begin. First up was a guy named Joe, who introduced himself as the “Bookstore’s Representative and Host for Tonight’s Festivities.” He then whipped out his guitar and started to play a few things to get the ball rolling. Now Joe is a nice guy – I’ve met him before – and he’s an aging hippie with curly gray hair who I believe never really left the sixties. His set consisted of songs from the Jefferson Airplane, once considered a “psychedelic rock” band. He explained that he had chosen for tonight’s selection some tunes from their album “Surrealistic Pillow”, which was a blockbuster in its age, and put the Airplane on the rock map. I liked his selections, and have that album, so things were looking up right from the start. You’ve always got me in your corner if you are singing fifty-year-old rock songs with an acoustic guitar.

He sang two songs, I believe, from that album, although it was hard to recognize them as songs, let along Jefferson Airplane pieces. Bless his heart, Joe loves music, and obviously is a frustrated musician, but he can’t sing a lick, and his guitar playing is somewhat short of someone who’s been playing guitar almost all his life. (Or so he said) I believe he sang a James Taylor song next, but wouldn’t have recognized it as such if I had the sheet music in my hand. By this time the crowd was getting restless, as it was comprised mostly of expectant performers, and Joe seemed to drone on and on, taking up all the time. I cannot for the life of me remember his fourth song, as my attention wandered through the crowd; the older lady walking around the bookstore with her hands firmly planted over her ears, the middle-aged white guy with tassels on his loafers “reading” George Bush’s “Memoir as Fantasy”, the three giggly Googlers gossiping at the table behind me and texting their teenaged lovers, and the fat femme fatale filling out the faux leather furniture fondling her Richard Castle novel “Naked Heat”. Finally, Joe finished his gig, and my attention turned back to the next performance, by Mack and Jack.

Mack and Jack both had guitars, and they also had a third person with them, their “percussionist”, who held what looked like a beanbag and one maraca. Mack, to be kind, didn’t present himself too well in my opinion. For starters, his partner Jack is about fifteen years younger, blond and handsome, while Mack has longish, curly salt and pepper hair and brown rimmed, thick glasses. He was wearing an oversized tee shirt that made him look like a fifty-year-old, postmenopausal woman.

All I know is that I don’t seem to recall if they ever introduced the names of the songs they sang. Mack had kind of a bad night, in that he kept breaking his guitar strings, leaving his young partner to carry the load while he replaced the broken strings, and then broke them again. He played the rest of the set, on a guitar with almost no strings, and as a result the music suffered a bit. All Mack needed was the big red nose, and I could have laughed; instead I was embarrassed for him. It takes a lot of courage for a man to stand up in front of a crowd and play the guitar and sing, especially when he has no strings left on his guitar.

Next up was Brad, a big guy who must stand about six-feet four or six. With his balding head and his dark goatee he, for some reason, made me think of the Russian Mafia, but of course that’s ridiculous. What would the Russian Mafia be doing singing folk songs at “Open Mic Night” in a bookstore? Anyway, at this point, I have to say that I want to pass my condolences on to Gordon Lightfoot, who is one of the all-time great folksingers and songwriters ever to live. I just witnessed Brad murder, with malice aforethought, Mr. Lightfoot’s classic song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. This song is so well written and sung by Mr. Lightfoot that no singer anywhere should ever attempt to sing it, as the courageous pretender can only look and sound like a fool compared to the original. Well, Brad, the courageous pretender, proudly and with great zeal mutilated, mangled, destroyed, bludgeoned, and wantonly slaughtered this classic song. Brad – who bellowed the song out at the top of his lungs, lost the entire nuance, the pathos, even the melody of the song. Someone, somewhere should ring some bells in honor of Brad, who had the brass to believe his bellowing brought tears of sorrow and understanding to the crowd. However, I give him an A+ for his enthusiasm and courage. I was told he attends every open mic session the bookstore holds, so he must love what he’s doing. You have to admire that in a man. When he finished his version of the song, I took the opportunity to leave my seat and walk to the restroom, which is way in the back of the store. Even in the restroom, I could hear Brad bellowing like a bull moose who just found himself face-to-face with Sarah Palin, and dawdled getting back to my seat. Thankfully, he was just finishing performing his last selection, and I had time to swill more Cinnamon Swirl down to my stomach.

Finally, we came to the point in the program that I walked almost five miles to see; Dan was going to play. I described Dan earlier as our pet-sitter, but that isn’t totally fair. He is a young man who has been working at the bookstore with my wife for some time now, and has become not only a friend of hers, but of mine also. I could tell you stories of how kind he has been to my wife, but I won’t, because that’s between him and her. I have become a fan of his music, but more than that I admire his commitment to pursue his dream. And he IS talented; skilled at the guitar, has a very good singing voice, and has the courage to perform his own music. Because he is young and pursuing his dream, he is in another space than the other performers. The other performers go to open mics because they love to make music. Maybe at one time they tried to pursue their dream and just didn’t have the talent, or maybe they didn’t pursue music for music’s sake – they just liked to play the guitar and sing – whatever the reason, Dan was by far the youngest performer of the night, and also the one that quieted the crowd so they could hear his performance. Even Mr. Tassels put George Bush aside, the teenage texters stopped giggling, Naked Heat put her Richard Castle book down for a moment, and even the lady with her hands glued to her ears removed them to listen for a while.

Dan played his own compositions, confidently and with feeling and emotion. One could feel the difference in the crowd; as they were hearing Dan sing they were actually feeling something. What I don’t know, because I believe Dan’s stuff is over the head of most of the people there (remember, a lot of them were performers themselves) because it is intelligent, melodic, and performed with a seasoned confidence that belies his young looks. He was by far the best performer of the evening; even if you were unbiased, which I admit I’m not, you would agree with me. He also garnered the loudest applause of the night when he finished.

What is it about Italian men and gold chains? Has there ever been an Italian male that doesn’t wear at least one? Are they born that way? I only ask because the next performer was Tony, who had at least one gold chain on his wrist, and one around his neck. Tony looked liked Dustin Hoffman as Ratso “That’s me walkin’ here” Rizzo in the film “Midnight Cowboy”. I liked him immediately. He started his set with a composition of his own, that he wrote when he was in college (many years ago). It must have been during the era of “The Graduate”, because it sure sounded of Paul Simon’s influence from that period. It was a good song, sung with passion and confidence. His next selection was a song that was always one of my favorites, called “Kathy’s Song” by; you guessed it, Simon and Garfunkle. He did a nice job with that one too. I don’t remember his last two songs, because my mind started to wander, and it was getting late. I also knew that soon I would have to swill down the rest of that Cinnamon Swirl, or waste $2.49.

Next up was Stanley. He played and sang like a Republican Congressman, with button down collared shirt, sharply pressed and creased slacks, and penny loafers. He also had a John Boehner haircut. After about thirty seconds, I couldn’t stand to watch a middle-aged conservative sing folk songs, and drifted off into a reverie of my own, thinking, “What would Peter, Paul and Mary think of this travesty?” or that Pete Seeger would roll over in his grave (even though he isn’t dead yet).

A piece of advice – never give a guitar to a button-down conservative – it can only result in one of two things – huge embarrassment on the part of the audience, or huge embarrassment for the performer. For one thing, you can’t shoot anyone with a guitar, not even your hunting buddy or an “illegal” immigrant. For another thing, the guitar is a universal symbol of liberalism and protest, a relic from the sixties when all the hippies almost brought this country down by protesting the War in Vietnam, and singing about peace, love, social justice and other things totally alien to even the most moderate conservative. I was bracing myself for Stanley to pull out his pocket edition of the US Constitution, entertaining us by showing how cleverly he put the Constitution to music.

It then occurred to me that his first choice should be “Pearly Shells”, a song written back in the decades of glory for the conservatives; a song representative of the mindless pap most “performers” were putting out in those days. No social strife, no racial problems, no poverty, nothing that represented the reality of the real America. Their real America was all white, all Christian, and all middle-class. Everything in America was just fine. In truth, I don’t remember a thing he sang; whatever it was, it sounded so bland it just melted into the beige walls of the bookstore. At least he didn’t cry like John Boehner, the Speaker of the House.

At last, we came to the last performer of the night – Roger, an aging man, with male pattern baldness and a goatee, all white as snow. He was interesting to watch, because he was the only performer to sit on a stool and sing. He sang “Autumn Leaves” to what I assume was his own arrangement, and I thought it was pretty good. He has a guitar playing style that has a little Spanish influence in it, and I began to watch his hands as he played his guitar. They were soft and white, kind of like a priest’s hands would be, and his guitar playing reflected his hands. At times you could hardly hear the guitar, like he had to practice in a secret location very quietly – which carried over into his performance. His next rendition was “California Dreamin’’, also his own arrangement, and also sung pretty well. Unfortunately, Roger ended his set with a medley of two Beatles songs, sung at too high a pitch for his voice; and the songs did not match his personality or stage presence, but I give him credit for trying. After a nice round of applause, Open Mic Night was over.

Oh, I almost forgot! There was only one disturbing moment during the entire evening: The crowd didn’t like the group called “The Oswald Family”, and turned ugly – they stormed the stage, wrested away their instruments, and tried to inflict bodily harm on the performers – especially the lead singer.

Later, after the bookstore personnel stopped the melee and restored order, the audience – to a member – said they could not take the group’s medley selection of “The Carpenter’s Love Songs” any longer – and felt they had to do something to stop it before their “heads exploded”.

I had survived my first (and probably last) open mic night. The garbage receptacle swallowed up my “Cinnamon Swirl” and I was on my way home.

I have to say that I admire all the people who performed tonight. It is obvious they all have worked very hard practicing for their time in the spotlight – and they do it for free. Whether they were any good or not doesn’t matter to me. What I find impressive is that they all love their music, and are willing to present it in person to perfect strangers; which is something I could never do.

Even though all the performances were not all great, to me they were all like Pearly Shells from the ocean, shining in the sun.

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