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One night nearly eight months after my wife’s death, my teenage son, Paul, asked if I was going to attend an open mic that I had discovered existed in Paris – where I have lived for decades.
“No, I’ve decided that I won’t.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“It’s not so much why as why bother? I’m 50 years old, Paul. I haven’t done anything like that for decades. Why would I do it? What’s the point? I have no pretensions to a career in music.”
Paul, then 17, with disappointment in his voice, and frustration in his eyes, explained the point: “If you go there and sing, who knows, maybe you’ll meet some other musicians who will say something about your songs. Maybe you’ll meet some other people and maybe something will happen. But if you just sit here, you know nothing will happen. And anyway, you just need to get out and meet people.”
That last point struck hard. I sure did need to get out and meet people. I could not live like a monk for the rest of my life as I had been doing since Nathalie’s death. After 24 years of marriage, I’d lost her in a two-year battle with breast cancer.
So I went to the open mic, and since the next day was a school holiday, I took Paul, and my daughter Emily, 15, with me.
I had found the event online, so I knew nothing about it, and I did not particularly like what the name of the venue seemed to promise: Lizard Lounge. What sort of people would attend a “Lizard Lounge?”
The bar was on a narrow street in the Marais, off a square opening to the Rue de Rivoli, in a typical Parisian, stonewalled, vaulted, low ceiling cellar. When it was my turn, the MC took to the mic: “And now,” he said, “we have someone a little older than our usual participants. Let me introduce: Brad.”
Talk about receiving a huge whack in the private parts just before going up to sing! I had not even noticed that this was a twentysomething crowd. I was incapable of seeing the difference between a twentysomething and me. I had not played open mics in nearly 30 years and during that period, time had frozen. In my head, I was the same age as them. But I was older than the audience. Worse, I had just discovered that I was also visibly older. Aging rocker? That was the last label I wanted!
Beside myself, I said into the mic: “Great! So I’m an old guy! All right, well, since I’m an old guy, I’ll start off by singing an old, old, old song. A traditional English song.”
By now close to a hundred people crammed the room, with spectators standing right up close to me. Paul and Emily sat just ahead on my left against a small bar along the stone wall, and I could see them smiling proudly at their Dad sitting there in front of everyone. Yes, I had to do well, I could not let my mental crisis make me blow it.
I began to sing. The more I sang, the messier it all seemed to me. The acoustic guitar clanged out through a cheap old Marshall amplifier high above my head. My voice, coming from the same amp, seemed to emanate from some other universe. I began to think that if all this sounded to the audience the way it did to me, I was putting on a very amateur show.
Within three verses of Raggle Taggle Gypsy, I felt few people were listening. Singing an 18th-century English ballad in a place called the Lizard Lounge to a hip crowd of twentysomethings was not working. With the crowd chatter increasing in volume, I began to feel even more upset, although I would not dream of showing it, and alienating the audience.
My next song was Van Morrison’s Crazy Love. I didn’t even introduce it but I felt better on this one, and I could see that some people in the front rows listened. Most of the talk now came from the bar and the side areas. More applause for Crazy Love, even though, out of a mixture of nervousness and the awkward sitting position in front of the mic, I had severe problems reaching the vital B minor chord.
I jumped immediately into Stand By Me. Everyone knew it, of course, and I was now entering my stride inside the music. I heard the room singing along with me and some of my frustration evaporated. I finished the song, and my set, to a warm round of applause.
“You were great, Dad!” said my daughter with a wide, proud smile. My son also fought through the crowd to tell me that I did well. Despite how awkward I felt, I had, it seemed, achieved one of my goals: I had not let down my kids. They had lost their mother, but they had gained a hip and crazy new dad.
And then I learned what I had gained.
A few minutes later, the scraggly man who ran the event approached me: “Hey, that was really good.”
“Thanks,” I said, pleased but puzzled, as I knew my shortcomings.
“I book musicians into bars and clubs around Paris," he said. "I think you could be a hit. If you’re interested, I could book you in some nights.”
And since that night, while I have not become the rock star I dreamed of in my youth, nor even earned anything beyond small change and free beer, I have developed a new, enriching life playing music wherever I can.
After the tragedy of Nathalie’s death, by choosing life over seclusion, I have learned just how big our gift of life is when we refuse to succumb to despair.
Brad Spurgeon lives in Paris.