“I’m Tinkerbell a lot. Rapunzel, too.”
Sydney Schumsky runs a hand over her head as if in explanation of how that could be possible considering that her own hair is closely cropped. “We all wear these nice wigs.” She used to be a barista; now, she works the kids’ party circuit part-time for San Diego Party Rentals. The first time I met Schumsky, long before I knew she was a singer-songwriter and an open-mic regular, she was standing outside of Cosmos in the La Mesa Village dressed as Snow White. Schumsky sometimes appears with the Misters, her two-man backing band. Other times she sings self-accompanied on a ukulele the color of toast. She goes by Sydney Blake. “Since I’ve been playing ukulele,” which she describes as having been a bucket-list thing, “I’ve seen a few more of the regulars showing up with them, too. One of them had this cheesy little ukulele. I said, ‘How much did you pay for that?’ ‘Fifteen dollars,’ he said.”
Sydney Blake, with one of the Misters, plays “because it helps me get out my emotions.”
Schumsky’s music is original and resides in that same indie groove that underscored films like Juno or weekly television night-soaps like The O.C. or Grey’s Anatomy. “I play music because it helps me get out my emotions and it helps me process what I’m going through. Last year, I contemplated suicide. I was in a serous depression.” She talks about having had a boyfriend around that same time who cheated on her (“He was the icing on a shit cake”) and about going to therapy after all was said and done. “They asked me what I liked to do and the answer was music. They said I should try writing music and that I should try performing.” She resisted, at first. “But I felt like myself onstage, like I could get out better what I wanted to say.”
The message was that she was angry at her ex-boyfriend. But there was something else looming in her soul: “I wanted to tell people that there is life after depression.”
Schumsky says she’s been singing since she could talk, that she turned pro in the sixth grade. (“Our chorus group got paid.”) Born in El Cajon, she lives in Jamul now. She’s hit up a few of the other open-mic nights around town but favors the one at Cosmos best “because you’re guaranteed a slot, which isn’t always true at the other open mics. And, it’s a little community. Everybody knows everybody.” Her first time onstage as a singer-songwriter was January 2013. “I was, like, Oh, do I want to do this? I got a time slot and I got up when it was my turn, and I said, ‘Hi. My name is Sydney Blake.’ It wasn’t scary. It was more like good nerves. And it felt nice, telling my story to a room full of strangers.”
Sydney Blake Schumsky performs "After Hours"
Sydney Blake Schumsky performing Velvet Underground's "After Hours," accompanied by Danny Ellis on guitar at the Valhalla High School 2009 Pops Concert.
There’s an EP in the works. One of the songs on it, “Midnight,” is about her time of depression. She eases into a verse: “It’s so damn lonely, what do you do when you can’t see?” She closes her eyes, and the voice comes up a notch and rises above the noise around us. “It’ll be all right, because it’s only midnight.” “Music,” she will say later, “gave me back my life.” She confesses that she would like to make music her prime gig, but the gap between the two (meaning bigger-money shows and a La Mesa coffee shop) seems discouraging and inscrutable. “Practice, practice, practice,” she says. “And put yourself out there.” Which means? “To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know.”
Ever since a singer named Jewel
Cathryn Beeks says San Diego open mics have gotten friendlier.
...broke out of the old Java Joe’s in Poway and went on to staggering success in the mid 1990s, San Diego has gained the image of being a music-industry singer-songwriter farm team. Jewel Kilcher and Steve Poltz and Gregory Page happened a generation prior to many of the current crop of young hopefuls seen around town on most nights. But they surely know about Jason Mraz and his more recent leapfrog to glory from Java Joe’s, along with other contemporary success stories like Tristan Prettyman, and to a more regional extent, local singer-songwriters such as Berkley-Hart, Cathryn Beeks, or Michael Tiernan. Not one performer signed up for stage time at a hometown open mic would mind if the same hand of music-industry providence were to scoop them up and transport them far away to career gold, if only they knew how.
Marian Liebowitz calls open mics a performer’s first reality check.
“You can find an open mic on every night in San Diego. Sometimes two or three a night.” Marian Liebowitz, a classically trained concert clarinetist, teaches courses in professional orientation for performers at San Diego State University and manages a few local acts on the side. “Open mic is an opportunity for novice musicians to try out their music. Even not-so-novice musicians come out sometimes because they love performing. There’s a wide variety [of skill levels], from beginners to seasoned musicians.” The downside of all that, she says, is open-mic performers tend to play in front of an easy audience, meaning, each other. It follows, she says, that they may therefore be spending a lot of time listening to inexperienced musicians. “Open mic is the first step in the reality check: can you find people that like your music? If yes, then good. It’s a place to work out relationships and mistakes. Years spent in a practice room or your bedroom won’t teach you how to interact with an audience.”
“My experience with open mics,” says Cathryn Beeks, who is also host of KPRI’s Homegrown Hour, “has never been favorable. When I first got here in November of 1999, it was right after Jewel and right before Jason.” She and a friend had busked all the way across the country and were surprised to find that San Diego was the hardest nut to crack. “There were only two open mics — Java Joe’s and Lestat’s — and they were very clique-y. Unless you had an in, you didn’t get stage time.” She says that’s why she started ListenLocalSD.com, an online networking opportunity for local singer-songwriters. But times have changed. “Now, open mics are inclusive and they’re everywhere. That’s why I’m getting back into it. I’m going to host an open mic at Winston’s in O.B. on Thursdays, and on the alternate Thursdays, I’ll be hosting another one at the Parkway Bar in La Mesa. Both venues are rotating hosts, and that’s brilliant,” she says. “An open mic is only as good as its host.”
Ron Hill wasn’t very happy
Happy Ron Hill manhandles “House of the Rising Sun.”
...for the first 30 years of his life. “I went to a new-age retreat and they asked me to pick a new name that reflected what I wanted to be. I picked Happy Ron and it stuck.” Apparently, it worked. “I’ve since had 19 years of happiness.” Happy Ron shaves his head bald and walks with a limp. He recently had both hips replaced. He is single. Why? Because it’s tough, he says, being a musician’s wife. “This is my only wife right now,” he says, patting his acoustic guitar. Performing at open mics has had a lot to do with his newfound happiness, he thinks. “It’s the community. It’s the friends. When I was in the hospital, 22 people came to visit; 18 of them were from open mics.”
Hill lives in Pacific Beach. He works as a cashier at Costco, an experience around which he has crafted a song he calls “Terribly Happy”: “I’ve been packing groceries/ for 30 long years/ been looking for ways/ to pack up my tears.”
“Most of my songs are sing-alongs.” He says he hits open mics every night of the week. Tonight, he frets about whether he’ll get onstage soon enough in La Mesa so that he can depart and perform across town in North Park at Queen Bee’s open mic. “I go to Lestat’s on Monday, Queen Bee’s and Cosmos on Tuesday, 710 Beach Club on Wednesday, Rebecca’s on Thursday. There’s two on Friday: the Hart Lounge downtown and the Mystic Water Kava Bar in North Park.” Out of the lot of them, does Happy Ron have a favorite? “Queen Bee’s may be the greatest open mic of all time. It’s a bunch of African-American poets and me. They’re silent and respectful. It’s a poetry open mic. They allow musicians.”
The first time Hill got on a stage was at the Seaside Church of Religious Science in Encinitas. “They had a class in how to sing and how to conquer stage fright. The class leader told me to get up there and sing something.” Happy Ron performed a Beatles song. “She yelled at me to project. The next week, I got up and sang another Beatles song. She yelled at me to stop projecting.”
He hands me one of his CDs. When I ask him what his future hopes for his music are, he says this: “I want to appear as myself in cartoon form on South Park and sing one of my songs.” What are the odds of that happening? “Not good.” He says he’s also tried out for America’s Got Talent five times with no luck. But in 2010, Happy Ron was nominated for Best Local Recording at the San Diego Music Awards. After tonight, if Hill gets stage time at both venues as planned he will have performed 1997 times at local open mics. “Believe it or not, I keep track of that.”
The anti–open-mic night
Cliff Keller heads up the San Diego Songwriters Meetup group.
Joe Hall, <a href="http://visionsunltd.com/CMS/">Visions Unlimited</a>
...is held on every fourth Wednesday at Rebecca’s in South Park. (Rebecca’s also hosts traditional open mics Tuesday and Thursday nights.) “We started this because, at the time, there was no group meeting regularly where songwriters could go and meet other songwriters and potential band members,” says Cliff Keller, who heads the San Diego Songwriters Meetup group.
“We’ve been doing this meet-up for about six years. There’s just over 800 members. We just started our [anti–open-mic] showcase 18 months ago. The members were saying that they hated open-mic nights because nobody listens, and they are a pain in the ass. They’d get there, sign up, and then have to wait around for two or four hours to perform.”
Keller’s underlying idea was to foster creativity.
“I like to hear original music, even if it is amateur. But if I have to sit through one more person playing ‘Knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door,’ well, that’s not for me. It’s good for them. They need a place. But at most open mics, if they’re not performing, they go outside and talk and smoke.”
In order to perform at an San Diego Songwriters showcase, you have to be vetted first.
“We pick excellent performers from within our group so the people that walk in will want to stay. We pick performers for our showcases that will draw a following.”
He says attendance generally hovers around 50 to 60.
“We’re taking it to the next level by providing a cohesive backup band.”
Each showcase performer is responsible for supplying the band with downloads of their songs and they are required to bring charts of their originals, too. Keller describes the bulk of San Diego Songwriters’ membership as people that are serious about the craft but aren’t likely to quit their day jobs. “But some of our members are here because they are looking to start a career as a singer-songwriter.”
Keller is a youthful 58. He works as a consultant, says he is semi-retired.
“A couple of bands have been formed in our meet-up group — the Peripherals and Mojave Soul. They’re touring and releasing CDs. We have quite a few members who actually are professional singer-songwriters. For the most part, they were already successful when they joined.”
And then, connection of like minds and interests can intertwine in other ways. For example, Keller met his wife at a meeting, and he knows of more.
“There’s been a lot of couples that have sprung out of this meet-up.”
First up is a woman with Woodstock hair, wearing a woodsy green T-shirt and jeans tucked into short leather boots.
“All these songs are breakup songs, which comes as no surprise.”
The audience laughs. She does a 20-minute set to polite applause, then introduces her final song.
“Back in Seattle, I used to belong to a singer-songwriter book club. We’d all read the same book, then we’d each write a song about it.”
The book they were reading was Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury sci-fi classic. At least I think that’s what she said.
Neuroscientist-cum-songwriter Ashley opts for the anti-open mic night at Rebecca’s in South Park.
Ashley Juavinett performs "Lights"
Ashley Juavinett, frequent open mic performer in San Diego, performs "Lights" by Ellie Goulding.
Next is Ashley Juavinatt, a neuroscience grad student at UCSD. She’s 25 and originally from South Jersey. Juavinatt lives in Hillcrest now. She says she is a veteran of many of the local open mics, Lestat’s for example.
“That one is a big endeavor.”
While the talent level at Lestat’s generally runs high, she says performers have to sign up and wait it out.
“You might not get on until 10 p.m.”
She joined San Diego Songwriters instead. She shows up tonight with CDs for sale, announces her website to the audience: “AshleyJmusic.com.” She resembles a youthful Helen Hunt. For Juavinatt, open mic is a creative outlet and a way to connect with other people. (“I spend all day in a dark room doing science.”) She has been writing songs for more than half of her life.
“I’ve known some open-mic people who were really trying to make it.” Is she? “If this ever turns into something, I’d be okay with that. I think I would. I could do neuroscience for a long time. But I’m only going to be young and attractive for a little while.”
Dave Sheldon waits near Cosmos’ open mic in La Mesa.
Dave Sheldon sits at a table
...outside of Cosmos on a Tuesday night and he smokes. He’s worried about his choice of material for tonight.
“I hope I can do this song right. I just recently learned it. I hope I can remember the freakin’ lyrics.”
When his turn comes, Sheldon will perform “Blue Suede Shoes.” If all else fails, could he just make up some words in a pinch? “Yeah, depending on what’s going on in my head.”
It hasn’t been the best week for Sheldon. “My car broke. Fuel pump went. I’m, like, fuck. The cops keep telling me to move it.” Does he comply? “Yeah. 400 yards at a time. I push it.” He’s parked on a hill near Lake Murray. “I did something right for a change.”
Otherwise, even though he’s been camping out in a La Mesa park due to the car malfunction, he’s not missed an open-mic opportunity. “I walk a lot. And I take the trolley and the bus. I got washed out of Eucalyptus Park during the rain, so my ex-girlfriend got me a hotel room for three nights,” the Heritage Inn on Baltimore at Fletcher Parkway. “It’s not a crack house. It’s nice.”
He says he’s looking forward to getting his state and federal disability claims rolling. Then he’ll go to Texas or Nicaragua. “I could live like a president on $1200 a month.”
Sheldon’s been gigging at open-mic nights steadily for about a year, he says. “Before that, it was hit or miss since around 2003. Lately it’s become an addiction — no, more like a hobby. And I play on the street, which is more enjoyable” and is his primary source of income. Why? “Because I’m not playing in front of a bunch of musicians. They hate me. People on the street give me money. I can make a hundred dollars on a good Saturday night.”
He says he busks on La Mesa’s Walk of Stars, a breezeway that connects La Mesa Boulevard to a parking lot.
“It’s right between the Regal and Pete’s Place. People are drunk. They’re easier.” He grins like a Cheshire cat and he stubs out his cigarette.
Dave Sheldon performs "Wagon Wheel"
Dave Sheldon performs Bob Dylan's "Wagon Wheel" on the Walkway of Stars in La Mesa.
He says he likes living in his car and will probably continue to do so even if he came into some money.
“It’s kind of a thing,” he says. “It’s turned me into a man. I can take care of myself. I feel comfortable.”
Except for the time he came down with bronchitis and had to be ambulanced to an emergency room, he says he’s good with his lot in life, even with the variables that austerity presents.
“I went to Lestat’s last night and I didn’t get picked. I was, like, alternate E or something like that. They boil it down to 20 people, and they each get ten minutes. Something like that. I’d have gotten up if somebody bailed, but they never do. I took a trolley to the bus and I walked. I got back here [to La Mesa] around 11 p.m. I played the Walk of Stars and made five bucks.”
On this night at Cosmos there are easily 30 people inside the café and another 20 outside, mingling, smoking, and picking at the strings of guitars. It is a younger and hipper crowd here tonight than two weeks before; young beards and teased blue hair abound and the air is redolent of clove and sweet tobacco. And from the looks of it, mostly male performers. “A real swingin’ dick club, ain’t it?” Dave Sheldon says. Everybody knows everybody, and they coax each other through creation or shattered nerves. This is as much a self-help meeting as it is a gig, and if passersby not into the scene quicken their pace, it only serves to tighten the knit of this assortment of bohemia. Together, in unison, they don’t have to explain themselves to anybody.
Sheldon leaves to bum a potato chip from someone sitting nearby and returns with a small handful.
“It helps get my mind off this,” he says to no one, whatever “this” is. The bluish digital thermometer across the street reads 57 degrees. The music inside stops and Sheldon’s name is called. Without another word, he walks fast into the café where his guitar is resting. The expression on his face is reminiscent of a child being called up to a classroom blackboard by the teacher. Sheldon somehow gets his guitar strap tangled with his purple striped hoodie and it pulls the hood down over his head. He just leaves it where it lands. He stands behind the mic and hard-strums his guitar, mindless of the string-breakage factor. The familiar strains of the Elvis classic float out through the café’s open doors.
We called them hoot nights
“I don’t know when they started calling them ‘open-mic’ nights. We called them ‘hoot’ nights. But we had microphones back then.” Cliff Niman has himself a little laugh, and the sound of it is more like something a songbird would make. “‘Hoot,’” he says, “comes from hootenanny. Those days dissipated. But people still want to sing, and they need a place.”
He started “fooling around with performing,” as he puts it, in the early ’70s.
“There were still a few of the folk houses left. But the musicians had changed. A lot of the singers that became famous, like Jackson Browne, Steve Martin, and Glen Frey, they had stopped coming down here by then.”
Niman is 76. His skin is nearly as translucent as a pearl onion and the hair and beard, both worn long, have gone white. He remembers coffeehouses, now long gone, in the neighborhoods near San Diego State University. “Circe’s, I think, was one of them. They had the Backdoor on campus. In La Mesa, there was the Land of Oden.” There was Drowsy Maggie’s in North Park, he says. And then there was the Candy Company on El Cajon Boulevard in La Mesa, which Niman opened with a friend named Dick Russell in 1967.
“I used to ride motorcycles with him. One day, he said he wanted to open up a coffee shop.”
The two split expenses and took over what had at one time been a candy retailer’s space; hence the name.
One difference between the singer-songwriter scene then and now he says is that today, there is a general lack of anything resembling a political vibe.
“There was a lot of protesting going on because of the folk singers: Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Jack Elliott. Big Mama Thornton, Hoyt Axton, the Dillards, the Sunshine Company,” he recalls, many of whom filtered through the doors of the Candy Company. “Jackson Browne played there. He got ten bucks a night.”
There were more: “Odetta and Judy Henske, but none of them were big then.”
Another effect of modernization: “We didn’t have computers. No computers and cell phones and all that stuff. I don’t know if that’s taken away the interest in hearing live music.”
Once, when the Candy Company tried to go big, Niman and his partner ran into what he describes as the glass ceiling of concert-production politics that existed back then.
“We wanted to rent out the Balboa Theatre and have Judy Collins come down here in the late ’60s. And we got locked out. They wouldn’t do a deal with us. You had to go through Jim Pagni. All the concerts back then were produced by Jim.”
He mentions Lou Curtiss, owner of the vintage vinyl shop Rare Records, and says Curtiss was another promoter who had a lot to do with the folk scene here during the 1960s.
The Candy Company fell victim to a rent increase and closed in 1970.
When Niman sings Jack Tempchin’s split-tempo lament “Diamond Ring” at an open mic, it takes a listener right back to the day when folk was considered to be the music of the counterculture. Niman still hits up as many open mics as he can. He thinks he got his own start in Pacific Beach at a long-gone coffee shop called the Heritage, where a youthful Tom Waits worked the door. Niman learned the craft by watching other coffeehouse performers.
“The guitar I play, it came from a guy that used to come to the Candy Company and play there. He would pawn the guitar when he needed money, and when he got his paycheck he’d go and get it back. Well, he died and his guitar was still in hock. I asked his mother, did she want it? I went down and paid the ticket and then she said, ‘No, I don’t want it after all.’” He smiles at the memory. “It’s got cracks in it, but it sounds good.”
We try to keep it fun.
“We try to keep it fun,” says sound-tech man Louis Brazier of the open mic at Lestat’s in Normal Heights.
Louis Brazier, the sound tech at Lestat’s coffee shop in Normal Heights, is busy plugging in microphones to prepare for what is a highly regarded open mic among local performers.
“It runs off a lottery system. But if we find out that people came from the East Coast or Japan [it happens, he says] then we’ll try to fit them in.”
Brazier and his dog, a black mixed breed, have been part of the fabric of Lestat’s for over a decade. But tonight there is something eerily different about Brazier’s companion animal. It is, in fact, not the same dog. He says his old dog passed in her sleep two weeks ago and he couldn’t stand the loneliness. He found another one that was nearly identical and adopted it.
“Its name is Whisper. Imagine a sound guy with a dog named Whisper.”
Brazier has been known to elevate a fledgling act with potential from the open-mic ranks to a paying slot on a regular show.
“There’s been a few acts right out of the gate that built up a following. Mason James, he started at the open mics.”
Likewise, Brazier fills a few of the slots with established, or near-established, pros. Brazier thinks having a few pros onstage sets a better example for the beginners.
“We’re trying to make a music scene here.”
Josh Damigo, for example, is on the schedule for tonight.
“We’ve also got a girl coming tonight who is being tutored by Bill Silva’s management group.”
Bill Silva is a concert promoter and artist manager who got his start in San Diego years ago. He handles Jason Mraz, who is known to gig at Lestat’s from time to time.
“Jason will play here if he’s in town when Bushwalla books a show. They’re buddies.”
Happy Ron Hill is here tonight and overhears our conversation.
“Jason Mraz does an open mic up in Encinitas at the E Street Café, I think. He goes there to try new stuff out.”
Hill says he once impersonated the famous singer, sort of.
“At San Diego Music Awards, a girl approached me and she said, ‘Are you Jason Mraz?’ I said yes. So, she calls all her friends over and one of them says, ‘That’s not Jason Mraz.’ And she got mad and she punched me.”
Happy Ron hopes to get a slot in tonight’s lineup, but when host Chad Taggart begins drawing names, Hill’s isn’t one of them. His name will finally get called, but as an alternate, of which there is one for each letter of the alphabet. Ron is alternate Z.
“I think I’ll wander down to the pizza place and drown my tears.”
Brazier thinks about some of the performers who have worked out at Lestat’s open mics in the past and then graduated to some measure of fame.
“Greg Laswell — he’s got two sold-out shows here tomorrow night. He placed a lot of his music on so many TV shows that I had to text him one time and ask if there’s a show he isn’t on.”
There’s Gregory Page, for whom the Lestat’s stage is dedicated, and Tom Brousseau. Anya Marina is another name that comes to Brazier’s mind, the ex-radio deejay-turned-singer-songwriter. “She came out of here, too.”
A six-year-old girl named Jaden in purple fuzzy pants and a Batman T-shirt kicks off the show tonight. She puts her Green Lantern doll down, picks up a microphone, and sings an old Janis Joplin chestnut, “Mercedes Benz.” The three acts that follow her are as different as any I’ve seen at hometown open mics: a hip-hop singer, followed by a backwoods violinist, followed by a pop singer/pianist with a shock of red curls. She does a Jason Mraz cover and wonders out loud if he’d ever been to Lestat’s. “Look on the wall,” someone in the audience says. “Those are all pictures of him on the stage.”
The Blade gets picked for a slot tonight. But his luck at another open mic across town at a North Park dessert shop called Heaven Sent wasn’t so good.
“The manager asked me not to play there anymore. She said my music was too rough and extreme for the venue. I guess it’s always supposed to be mellow and relaxing.”
The Blade is Edward Joseph Dougherty. He’s 39 and he lives downtown at Sixth Avenue and C Street. He’s dressed in the only outfit I’ve ever seen him in: stovepipe black leather hat and matching coat, jeans, and boots. He performs a mix of Black Sabbath–inspired original music on an electric guitar.
“Were my feelings hurt? No, I’ve heard it before. I tried to get booked at the Wine Lover before. The manager just looked at me and said no. He could have at least listened to one song first. That pissed me off.”
Rebecca’s, Thursday Night
22 Kings are onstage. They are the duo of Sandi King and Sam Bybee. They layer rich harmonies together as if the two of them were frosting cupcakes. When they back into a dreamy version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” it heats up as they go and by the time they near the end they have taken it all the way to the altar of boy-band harmony. King has a vibrant neck tat that peeks from under her coat collar whenever she moves.
“We’re leaving on a three-month national tour tomorrow. We thought we’d stop by and have one last hurrah.” 22 Kings has a CD for sale. They seem far better at the game than the father-and-son team before them that continued to lose the one throughout their two-song set (one is the fundamental downbeat of each measure of music) or the performer wearing the sweat-stained cowboy hat who for the life of him could not keep his guitar in tune and instead yelled his way through “All Along the Watchtower.”
I take it that those gathered here are the true warriors of open mic. It’s a cold rain out tonight, and I expected the place to be empty. Instead, the sizeable coffee shop is standing-room-only full.
“It’s actually a perfect night for this,” says a performer in a chair behind me. He says he is number 17 in the lineup. What number are we on now? I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “Three? Four? I’m glad I don’t have to follow them,” he nods toward 22 Kings. “It is bad enough that I have to follow the guy in the ball cap with his daughter in his lap. He’s pretty good too.”
Dave Sheldon is here and so are Happy Ron and a few more familiar faces from the open-mic circuit. Sheldon seems perturbed and edgy and guarded behind his aviator sunglasses. With his backpack and bedroll strapped to his guitar case, he looks to be the subject of one of those old Walker Evans black-and-whites of Southern poverty. He makes his way out without speaking. In a few minutes, I see his hunched figure ambling to the bus stop.
Happy Ron, on the other hand, is burning with energy and is vociferous about it. His comments are loud but seem well taken by the various performers. When it is his turn to get up on the broad sweep of green stage and take his turn at the mic, he man-handles “House of the Rising Sun” into submission. He follows that with an original I’ve heard him play at each of the open mics I’ve seen him perform at so far: “Terribly Happy,” his Costco lament.
A silver-headed man with a trim beard and a yellow 12-string takes the stage next. When he sound-checks, his guitar blasts the house.
“Why did you do that?” he hollers at the sound guy. “I didn’t do that.” This goes back and forth. Finally, apparently happy with the sound levels, he launches into an open-tuned raga that features intricate finger-picking and Rebecca’s suddenly becomes a coffee joint in Laurel Canyon from somewhere in the late 1960s. A woman with straight, long hair completes the picture by twirling slowly in the corner by the water urn. Big applause at the end: his tantrum has been forgiven. A woman and a muscular dude both squeeze into the living-room chair opposite Number 17. They share a turkey sandwich and when they finish, they begin making out.
“About 80 percent of the people here tonight are not regulars,” Number 17 tells me, meaning the performers.
One of only two women who will perform tonight is introduced as a former Cosmos barista, and when she gets up and starts singing, she is good — really good. I ask Number 17 if all open mics are male-dominated. He says they are, with the exception of Lestat’s.
“I’m playing there on the 19th, with Eliza Rickman and Captain of t/AM.” His first such gig? “No. I’ve played a show there before.” For actual money? “I got seven dollars. There were about five people there, I think.”
Number 17 goes on at 9:15. He does a couple of well-constructed originals with clean, intricate turns, about the vagaries of dating. The house has emptied considerably. Such is the nature of open-mic night: most performers pack up and leave after their slots. The couple across the way has graduated to heavy petting. When Number 17 comes back to his seat, the man disconnects from his date momentarily and looks up and congratulates the performance. “I can’t play a note of music,” he says. “That’s why I come here. To hear you guys.”
Stephan is Number 17’s real name.
“I also go by Sub-Niche. I like the way it sounds, and nobody else was using it. It’s an actual marketing term. I Googled it.”
He works for General Atomics as mechanical designer by day. He is part of an R&D structural design group. They build drones. Would he leave all that behind if his music took off? Yes.
“Anybody who plays music hopes they can be discovered, and that’s the terrifying part. I’m just a working guy. I sit behind a desk. I got bitten by the bug, and I decided I needed to get out and play. It would be a cool thing to be discovered and to tour and do shows and have albums.” Does Sub-Niche have a CD for sale? “Not yet.” He admits that it would be hard to leave the snug harbor of his life, though.
“I have a mortgage and bills. All walks of life come to open-mic nights. There are people here tonight who are homeless.”
Sub-Niche played piano as a child, trumpet later.
“I went to college for music, but I changed my mind. To be honest, I just don’t think I have that X factor.” I ask him what he thinks the X factor is. “Unwavering self-belief.” He doesn’t have that? “I don’t think so. But to be honest, I’ve only been playing and writing music for about the last three years. This coincided with having my own house — no shared apartment walls. And, my girlfriend moved out.” I express condolences.
“Maybe you shouldn’t put that part in the story,” he says. “About the girlfriend.”
But if your girlfriend hadn’t flown the coop, I offer, would Sub-Niche be doing music today? Not likely. If anything, he owes her a thank-you card.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess you’re right.”