The old man enters the club and finds his place at a small table near the stage, taking a seat opposite an empty chair. He is short, wiry, and diminutive and a little absurd in his black embroidered cowboy shirt and dark pants. His thin face is sheltered by a wide-brimmed hat; beneath a long nose is etched a pencil mustache. The eyes, when they emerge from beneath the hat brim, are narrow and seem pressed into a semi-permanent squint; it might be tempting to call them sad, but for the way they swiftly and piercingly take in their surroundings. They dart to and fro through the club, noting the mostly empty tables and the waning daylight streaming in through a solitary window, before settling on the stage, where the evening’s first performer is ambling toward the microphone.
He is young, almost child-like, with round cheeks and curly close-cropped hair. Dressed in jeans and a coarse denim shirt, clutching a guitar with unclipped strings winding off the tuning pegs like whiskers, he might be mistaken for a roadside ragamuffin, but the grin gives him away, even more than those babyish cheeks do: a grin of knowing impetuousness, a charmer’s grin, a grin that knows luck is on its side, or fate or destiny or whatever you choose to call it. Yet how to account for the contrast between the puckish demeanor and the voice? How does someone barely distinguishable from the average small-town twenty-year-old — for it is apparent to the keen observer that the hardscrabble mannerisms are an affectation, given away with a subliminal wink — sing so forlornly, so emphatically and so unaffectedly of things he could never have experienced? The words he sings are infused with the morality and vision of an Old Testament prophet, strained through the vocabulary of an itinerant brakeman. He chides and insinuates and accuses and finally takes it all back onto himself: Ah, but I was so much older then. Always his voice prowls among the words like a hunter nosing for prey in the rocks, investigating dark corners, overturning and exposing hidden things, ignoring what lies in plain sight. It remakes old sayings and never utters the same word in the same way. Not a conventionally attractive instrument, but one that seems to say, Would I be saying these things, in this way, if they weren’t true?
This performer soon gives way to a new face — and the transformation is shocking. In place of the fresh-faced, Jimmie Rodgers-like troubadour now stands a dandified Mod in a tight-fitting striped suit, a wild nimbus of hair radiating from his head like sunbeams, his sallow face guarded by a pair of dark glasses. But the most noticeable transformation — before he starts to sing, that is — is the Fender Telecaster guitar slung high on his chest. He begins to pick at it tentatively, his long-nailed fingers not quite used to the guitar’s weight and action. From the shadows, he is joined by four other musicians, and this ensemble explodes into a roaring barroom blues, tough and loose and fearless, that batters the walls of the club. The gangly singer steps to the microphone and cuts loose in a voice like a police siren amplified through a Marshall stack; he howls, wails, croons, giggles, moans, an unfathomable conviction undergirding everything and holding it together. The words are as arresting as the voice — in fact, the words don’t seem as though they could be delivered any other way. There are torrents of imagery, as though a hundred years of newspaper headlines, shared memory and tall tales were compressed into some cultural singularity before bursting out again, coalescing into a fractalized landscape where Beethoven, Jack the Ripper and Ezra Pound rub elbows with gamblers, old widows, strutting commanders-in-chief and the unnamed lost and lonely. There is jarring silliness, surprising pathos and mystifying juxtapositions of time and place. And most piercing and memorable is a question, thrown out to the audience like an unanswerable taunt: How does it feel?
The audience who are witness to this onslaught — the club is now packed — are left breathless as the performer rushes off stage, irrepressibly energetic to the last. Now nursing a pale drink, the old man near the stage nods, though the gesture is at least as much in wonder as in approval or sympathy. His attention seems to waver a small degree as the next performer comes up. Less sallow-looking, more contented than his predecessor, this singer leads a lean country ensemble through a series of weird, off-kilter parables that give way to more conventional, even mawkish ballads. The audience is intrigued but not quite with him; a few spectators begin to trickle out. The next performer galvanizes the crowd with searing, heartfelt songs of breakup and loss: If you see her, say hello. After him, as the evening lengthens into deep night, a succession of new singers ascends the stage, each one a bit older than the previous, a bit more undirected and less compelling. There is the Christian singer, at first accommodating and then increasingly strident and condemning; the hopeful ’80s pop star, sounding lost amid reams of dated arrangements; an aging folk-rocker delivering almost willfully inconsequential songs; and, in a strange echo of the day’s first performer, an older man with just an acoustic guitar, scratching out folk songs and ballads with a voice from which nearly all the contours have been shaven away. These are performances without irony, taking each song’s outlandish truths and fanciful occurrences as read. I rode all day and I’ll ride all night and I’ll overtake my lady. Whatever he is channeling, it fails to reach very far — the club has grown mostly empty now, and many of the people still present are lost in conversation, reliving and debating what they have already heard earlier in the evening.
The stage light dims, the last performer shuffles off to scattered applause, and for a long time it seems as though there will be no more music here.
Then the old man rises from his table. He adjusts his hat, fiddles with it some more until it’s nested back in the same spot before he started fussing with it. And then he climbs onto the stage.
He sits at an electric piano. From behind him a lonely electric guitar picks a frail chord on every beat. He leans into the microphone.
I’m walking … through streets that are dead.
The audience, distant at first — they have heard much tonight that either disappointed or baffled them — gradually allow themselves to be taken in, surrendering to the words, and to this music that sounds piped in from some juke-joint of the subconscious, every dive bar anyone ever imagined rolled into a single place. The sound as it unfolds picks up and reconciles most of what was great from everyone who came before on this stage: the snatches of quasi-remembered standards, the competing stories telescoped into one fractured narrative, the unabashed humor, the taint of Biblical judgment and overhanging doom. Your days are numbered and so are mine. The loss within these songs is overwhelming, every turn of a corner revealing another ghost, yet despair never overtakes them — or the singer. The man plays on, crouched behind his keyboard, barreling through one song after another, untwisting each one in new and unexpected directions. The playing has taken on a new meaning, here in the waning minutes of night: the act of performing itself, the perseverance to faithfully deliver these words and these melodies is an ennobling one. The perseverance and devotion are the antidotes to despair. As the set at last winds down — I feel a change comin’ on, and the last part of the day is already gone — the man finally brings his gaze from some indeterminate point in space to rest on the faces turned to him. “Thank you.” And out of nowhere a grin, wicked and impish. And then he’s gone, the final chord still ringing in the air.
The sun has returned to the solitary window overlooking the floor, revealing seats that are nearly full again, with both new listeners and those who have sat here stubbornly for what must feel like ages, accepting the mediocre and the execrable as the occasional, and inevitable, price of the sublime. The stage light once again dims. All that remains is the audience, restive yet still miraculously willing to keep their place as they watch the empty stage for whatever is going to happen next.