Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On the Mic

Mike Peek is one of the coolest people I know.

He’s sure to quote me on that. And I’ll probably never admit to his face that I wrote it.

The fact remains that, in addition to being an excellent, loyal friend, he’s also a hell of a musician. Over the years, I've spent many an evening with Xs drawn my hand, and then many more without the Xs, crowding the stage at Utica bars to hear him sing and play lead guitar for any given number of bands, including Feedback, April Shroud, and Through The Looking Glass. I’ve felt proud of him, often singing his own original songs, assuming all the stage presence of a rock star.

But we’ll come back to Peek.

Each spring, my high school hosted the “Pops Concert.” Unlike most of the school concerts in which the orchestra or band or choirs would perform, this one was about less structure, less regiment, and more creativity. It’s where garage bands took the stage, and musical theater kids staged single songs from their favorite Broadway shows. I went to my first one in middle school to hear my sister and her boyfriend of the time perform their cover of “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” in the style of Nirvana on their Unplugged album, the boyfriend on vocals and guitar, my sister playing the viola to simulate the accordion part. At the age of 13, I thought it was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

And I knew I wanted to do something like it.

I didn’t perform at the Pops Concert my first three years of high school. I’m not sure how the idea came about, but senior year I ended up getting together with a couple friends of mine, both of whom were far more musically adept than me, and we arranged an act, each of them on guitar, me singing. In retrospect, I can only assume these guys thought the world of me as a friend, because they sure didn’t include me in hopes of bolstering their musical credibility.

For weeks, we practiced Matchbox 20’s “Hang,” and I daresay that their came a point at which I was dangerously close to getting in tune and remembering all of the lyrics. Just the same, we collectively grew concerned about performing such a downer, and through a combination of nerves and knowing my vocals weren’t going to get us a standing ovation, one of the guys dropped out of the act.

So then there were two.

We switched songs, opting for a better-known and more upbeat option from the Matchbox 20 catalog, “3 a.m.”

The night of the show, we got in place to perform in the dark. The way the show was set up, there were about four or five different staging areas in the auditorium. A spotlight would shine on one act. They would perform. That spotlight would turn off and another would shine on the next act, while yet another act took the preceding one’s place.

The spotlight came on. My friend played the opening chords.

I sang.

She says it’s cold outside and she hands me my raincoat
She’s always worried about things like that

I’m not entirely sure why I adopted a southern twang for that performance. The makeshift accent had come and gone in our rehearsals, I guess because the song itself has a country tinge to its pop sound. When I sang the opening lyrics, it didn’t sound to bad to me.

The audience laughed.

Maybe it was the twang. Maybe it was my juxtaposition to so many legitimately talented singers. But all at once, what little trepidation I had coming into performance--say, 20% of my psyche--multiplied to 90% of my thought process. We’d drilled the song enough that I could sing it on autopilot, all the while thinking that every girl I liked, every douchebag who made fun of me in gym class, and for Chrissake my parents were there to hear me get laughed out of the auditorium.

The laughter died down, I like to think it was because I found the key, though it probably had more to do with them realizing I didn’t mean the performance as a joke and having the decency not to laugh in my face. The performance evened out from garbage to unremarkable.

Then came my moment.

All the while we had rehearsed, I toyed with the idea of not just singing, but screaming my way out of the bridge into the final chorus. I hadn’t discussed it with anyone--even my accompanist--and even as the moment approached, I didn’t know if I’d cut my losses and stay even keel or let a rip.

So, yeah, I let a rip.

(For reference, “the moment” arrives at about the 3-minute mark in the original.)

My friend kept strumming his guitar, but the moment even got him laughing, as the audience screamed. It was a seminal moment in the performance--the point at which I let the audience know that even I knew I wasn’t very good, and that I didn’t much care. It was the moment when the audience recognized me as a middling singer with balls of steel.

At the end of the song, the audience applauded. I had survived, and perhaps for that final third of the song, even thrived. Nonetheless, I hung up my proverbial microphone, satisfied and ready to more or less retire from singing.

Don’t get me wrong, because in the years that followed, I sang at summer camp talent shows, karaoke bars, and even a couple open mic nights. But never with a serious musician backing me up; never in a context that mattered.

Then, four years ago, Peek called me on stage.

Peek has written a number of good songs over the years, but in my estimation, none before and none since have touched “Breathe.” It’s an honest piece about an unshakeable, almost inevitable love that just hasn’t quite come together; it’s a piece in which everything right about Peek melodies and Peek lyrics comes together for a song that I daresay wouldn’t sound out of place on mainstream radio anywhere.

I came home for Thanksgiving, and that Black Friday Peek played an acoustic set by himself at a bar in Utica. I came to the show, and before he went on, we half-joked about me joining him to take the lead vocals on my favorite original.

An hour (and three or four beers) later, there I was in front of the crowd, taking a stool next to Peek. I leaned into my mic. “Two things you should all know," I said. "One, I don’t sing. Two, I love this song.”

Peek played guitar, and we sang the lyrics as a duet, harmonizing better than we had any right to for never having sung together before.

Maybe it was the song. Maybe it was the feeling of sharing not just the song, but a story and a feeling and a message with a live audience, and getting to do so with one of my best friends. For whatever combination of factors, those five minutes were sublime--probably the truest and the best five minutes of that whole year.

The audience didn't laugh or boo. They cheered and a handful of individuals even congratulated me on my singing afterward.

But Peek deserved all the credit. He manufactured that moment. And for that, if for no other reason, I'll always remain convinced that he's a pretty cool dude.

1 comment:

  1. Well, that's a lot to take in. I think it had to have been less than four years ago... wasn't it only two? I hope time hasn't gone by that quickly...

    Trust me, we've all had moments like the one you described. I can barely listen to the early stuff I did out of embarrassment and I still feel for those who supported me along the way despite my undeveloped craft. I still feel moments of extreme self-consciousness, but it's more of a job than anything these days, and I miss the description you gave there. I wish I still had something inside of me that felt the way I used to, but when I sing "Breathe" now, I forget the lyrics... it's tragic how far I've slid.

    Maybe someday I'll find it again. But for certain, if you're ever in town again I'm calling you up for a song, whether you like it or not. .