Fat Albert’s is one of the longest running open mics in the world. It was founded it 1967 in a church basement on Bloor St. in Toronto, the Bloor Street United Church, where it continued until 2003, run from 1967 to 1996 by the same guys, Ray Peak and his helper, Ed Matthews. It is still running today, but in a different location. I used to attend in the 1970s and the early 1980s, and last night as I was going through some old bits of fiction writing in my hard disks, I discovered this scene I set at Fat Albert’s from a novel that I wrote in 1983, and which was set in late 1982 and early 1983. The novel is about the break up of a relationship for a University of Toronto student, and his girlfriend. It is called, “The Prince.” I thought I would put this little section of – desolate and nasty – writing up on the blog, since it paints this scene from a legendary open mic in Toronto (which is still going now but in a different location), from the point of view of one of the occasional musicians, and open mics have by chance become not just a big thing in my life, but the main subject of this blog. The attitude of this character, of course, is in no way MY attitude today. But it has its historical-sociological interest, perhaps. Also, in researching background just now on Fat Albert’s, I learned the Ray Peak died just four months ago, in his 80s, so it seems right to put this up on the blog, since the “old guy” is depicted herein. What I found amusing in re-reading it after all these years, 32, 33 years later, is that the scene could have depicted attendance at an open mic today. No change! Check it out:
He hadn’t been to Fat Albert’s in years. When he arrived, with his guitar slightly wet from the rain – although most of it was protected by a green garbage bag – there was practically no one in the church basement. Just the old truck driver who’d run the place for almost twenty years every Wednesday night in that same place on Bloor St. The guy’s helper was there too – nice clean-shaven man.
Everything was the same as usual: The coffee and tea dispensers sat on the bureau with cream and a tin of cookies. Beside these necessities was the list for the performers to sign. Bob signed his name beneath two others – how those got there so soon without anyone seeming to be there, he didn’t know. Maybe they were practicing somewhere, hiding in one of the many rooms and alcoves or lost corners of the church. But although his name was third, he knew this didn’t mean he’d sing third: There’d be a draw of numbers at eight o’clock to set the actual order of appearance.
Bob decided to wander into that big room with the piano where he used to go five, six years ago to practice before his set. There was never anyone in that room. He walked past the washroom and heard someone singing…hmm…he used to do that too. The room upstairs was, as usual, empty. He sat on a chair by the window, looking up at the high ceiling, and at the far end of the room, that led into another part of the church. And he wondered why he was here again. Fuck me, I have no desire like most of these people to become a singing star. Follow in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, who used to sing here. I wonder if that girl with the fucking monotone girl folksinger’s fucking boring voice is here still to sing about the fucking lakes and loons? Jesus Christ, nothing more depressing. “I look into the water and see my reflection and the birds fly over my head and fucking drop a load while the wind blows through my hair and the loons sing and I’m so happy to sing about Ontario’s forests and lakes while I live in a fucking dive in the city and pretend I’m a woodsperson and wear my knapsack like I’m going on a fucking hiking journey through the city….” Fuck it. These goddamn folkies. So what the fuck am I doing here? I’ve come to express myself. I’ve come to pour my afflictions out of my heart and lungs onto that poor audience, none of whom are in the least bit interested because they’re all here to see their friends, not me.
He tuned his guitar and sang Bob Dylan’s “You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.” Liz loves the way I sing that. Then he decided the other song he would do would be… “He took you aside and said, ‘You’re not what you used to be’….” I’ll sing it with real feeling because it’s true. And they’ll all dive at my feet and tell me how great I am and that old guy’ll say he wants me to do a feature performance sometime soon. Yeah, yeah.
He looked at his watch and saw it was eight o’clock so he should be back down there to pull a number out of the hat to see when his set would be.
There were now many more people, including a beautiful blonde…like Liz…like this here girl I see is a princess for sure. I can see a princess so clearly now. I never knew what one was before. I can’t believe it. This thin beautiful girl has noticed me. I would leave with her right now. Even if she is a princess…fool….
Bob was disappointed to see that the old guy did not bring the numbers around in a hat or a box, but rather held them between his thumb and index fingers and shuffled them about and offered Bob one, guiding it into his hand. Number thirteen. Fuck. Bad luck. Thirteen out of eighteen…the only consolation is that it could have been worse.
He sat on a table in the back of the room during the whole first part of the evening before the featured act. And during the featured act too. His set, as it turned out, thanks to the old guy, came immediately after the feature. This was magnificent. The great large crowd that was there to see the feature all began to shuffle out when Bob “Folding” was announced, and amongst those leaving also was the princess…damn.
“Thanks…” – he said on the stage to the small remaining audience, mostly of musicians who were to appear after him – “‘Folding’ is probably more appropriate than ‘Holding’ …but…anyway….” And he muttered “There goes the fan club…” to the leaving crowd…. “Well…that’s a good act to follow…I think’ll I’ll just get into some more clichéd stuff here with a song by Bob Dylan….” And he sang the song and ended with some nice applause. What the fuck am I doing up here? Jesus Christ… “Thanks. Well…I have this horrible habit. You see, it seems I write songs about things and a few months after I write them they come true.” (“Right on!” someone yelled.) “Like I wrote this song based on someone and someone else – my girlfriend and someone else – and then a few months later the roles reversed or got juggled around and it sort of…well it wasn’t someone else now it was me. And sort of it wasn’t supposed to happen that way…anyway….” And he shifted on the stool trying to get comfortable and get the microphones correctly positioned in front of the guitar and his voice. He felt awkward on the stool, his ass sticking out over the back…. “I feel like I’m sitting on the toilet….” Did I really say that up here? Fuck me. “He took you aside…”
Applause and he left the stage. The old guy went up and announced the next performer and came back while Bob was putting his coat on, and he said to Bob: “Good set. You handled it well…that’s the worst spot of the night, right after the feature.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Fucking asshole putting me in the worst spot of the night and I was one of the first, if not the first person here. Third name on the list.
He walked out of the church into the rain and passed a group of four people, whom he recognized as being members of the audience who’d seen his set. One of them, a guy in his early thirties, said to Bob: “You’ll kill your guitar that way,” referring to the lack of a case, and the rain.
“Yeah. I want to.”
He wandered along Bloor St. That’s the most self-demeaning thing a guy can do. Going there like that and telling some fucking audience about your personal affairs and playing some fucking self-indulgent song. And then all the fucking reward you get is applause and because of the size of the crowd you can’t fucking tell if they’re just being polite or if they really enjoyed it. And who the fuck cares anyway? They’re all a bunch of musicians who’ve come to play for themselves. Not for other people. But so was I. Except I ain’t a musician. What a fucking stupid thing to do. Back to fucking clowning. I haven’t gone to Fatal Bert’s for years…see what you’ve done Liz. It ain’t true that pain makes the artist. Pain makes you self-indulgent up there…. Fuck it.
At home once again he put his guitar in the corner of the living room where it usually sat, and he dropped down on the couch.