I remember seven years ago decrying the choice of writing about bars and coffee houses simply because they were so obvious, but I did not count on the ineluctable factor of coffee and rock music as burgeoning buddies. I no longer feel compelled to write prose in coffee shops; I have managed to carve out a room of my own from which to do that. But there is this other thing. As a musician, I can expect my services to be requested at coffee houses as often as twice a year. This can easily, though only partially, be explained by the transition beginning in the 1990s through the present, of more vital, American music (Americana, if you prefer), original and popular as well as substantive. We're now harvesting the fruit of the brilliance born in these venues back in the '60s -- granted, mostly with folk music, but not always. Songs that quickly mutated to political rock anthems, brilliant and durable. The historical lines connect Bob Dylan to Bono and U2 or Dave Van Ronk to Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Buffy St. Marie, Laura Nyro to Jewel, Poltz, Matthews, Morissette -- supply names of your own. Given this cultural petri dish, the coffee house as music venue, it is not surprising that a minstrel at, shall we say, a certain undeniable level of craftsmanship like myself -- a man who once shared a Heineken with Gordon Lightfoot during a soundcheck on "The Wreck of the Pismo DeNudo" or whatever that song was (Lightfoot never noticed my lip raids on his beer possibly because he was trying to remember his own name that night, if you know what I mean) -- that such a minstrel should once again be asked to mount the stage on a Friday night at one of San Diego's premier caffeine-and-music gold mines, the hip and gothy Folk City West.
But, no, I am neither in the business of promoting whatever sorry group happens to need a bass player this Friday night, nor am I into writing public relations copy for any particular joint. Leave it suffice (as Bugs Bunny once phrased it) my mentioning that I will be on a stage of sorts again, in front of an audience (of sorts -- I mean, who knows?), is because the last time I did such a thing was maybe a year ago and in another coffee house. The time before that, another coffee house. As far as my live-performance history goes, 1999 was the last time I played somewhere with a liquor license.
While there seems to be a kind of inevitability to eliminating the booze on the premises, I can't get over the idea that I am still doing it. For several years now, when the occasion arises, I can't help but think, "Aren't I too old for this?" "Is this sad or is it darned plucky of me to get up there with the Fenders and the Epiphones at my age?"
I know, I know, the Rolling Stones and everything. And it really delighted me in a perverse way to see Link Wray kicking an empty Heineken across the Casbah's stage and swinging his ponytail around the collar of his leather jacket at the age of 72 or 73 or whatever he was at the time. Age and rock music are no longer the joke they promised to be and have pretty much officially run out of yuks by now -- but the idea of me doing it again, one more time.. . This must be the last time, I always convince myself. Why? I'm thinking, I'm thinking. Well, house odds, if nothing else. I've had late-stage lymph cancer, a quadruple bypass, I wear a pacemaker and a defibrillator, took my share of heavy drugs, and swallowed enough ethanol over a drinking career to float a six-man dinghy in a small outdoor pool.
Other reasons abound, many of them related to playing a certain type of music at a certain time in history when that music's performance while under the influence of something toxic was de rigueur. Reasons why I should not have survived to do this and questions as to how then it is happening abound as well.
I mean, it's not as if I bit the heads off chickens or did anything else that bizarre while playing in front of people for their pleasure and my payment. It's just that I see the odds as very long indeed that I would be doing something like this on a Friday at this point in my life. Like George Burns, I find the odds long that I'd be anywhere this Friday night, and I'm glad to be wherever it is. But it's not like I'm 101 or whatever George was when he went. I'm 55, but those are like dog years for me, and seven for every regular human person year seems right on the money at my exchange rate.
I tell myself, well, Buddy Blue just died. That's got to be in the back of your mind, and he was only 49. That leads to thoughts of Country Dick, and then the mental list starts scrolling of friends and more friends and musical associates gone from things as diverse as liver cancer to overdoses to heart attacks. And so it is that with each passing year, as I plug in (or not) at a coffee shop and look down at my boots on a stage at this late date, I can look up at some anticipatory faces, feel the flutter of what used to be butterflies in my stomach but now feels like angels of mortality getting my attention, just silently and no matter how sadly, whether it's Friday or Saturday, and say "Thank God."