The first time I performed in front of a group of people, I thought I might just die. Not out of embarrassment, exactly, but because I was so flipping nervous my legs where shaking. And by shaking I mean making like a bowl of Jell-O resting on a table of Jell-O on a deck made of Jell-O that is part of a a boat made of Jell-O floating in a sea of Jell-O during an 8.9 earthquake just off-shore. I thought I might die because if I tried to take a single step forward I might just fall down, guitar and all, right in front of these people and possibly on top of this one surly-looling fellow in the front, the kind of guy who looks like he might injure someone just passing just a little to close to him.
So no matter how uncomfortable I was, I didn’t move from the waist down. I played my guitar and I sang my little songs and I sweat like only a fat man can sweat when he’s nervous and lo and behold I got through it. I left wondering how Elvis could manage those wicked moves. I wasn’t sure I’d even make it home without falling down.
These days, though, I’ve played for people in public venues a fair number of times. The nerves aren’t really a factor too much. I get a little more anxious when I’m playing my own songs because there’s a strong impulse to want people to like them coupled with an equal impulse to just admit that you’re a horrible songwriter and then tell the audience that you’re playing guitar with a prosthetic arm so that they’ll focus on anything other than the song. But for the most part, it doesn’t really bother me and I certainly don’t get as shaky as I did that first time.
There are exceptions, though. Today my friends and I did a little afternoon show at a local café/hippie-clothing store. As we were setting up, some woman – a customer – asked if we knew any Hanukkah songs.
“No,” I said.
“Oh. Well you know who owns this place, right?”
Well, no I didn’t. I didn’t set up this gig. In fact, this was the second time I’d ever been in the place. So I said, “Uh, no.”
She said, “Oh. Well, they’re Jewish.” And yes, she said that Jewish bit as though it were italicized. I said something like, “Er…” and she sort-of tisked at me.
I said I could probably pull off “I Have a Little Dreidel.” She laughed at my obvious attempt to throw in some token song.
And suddenly I was all Jell-O again and worried that Bill Cosby was in the audience. One of my friends – the one who booked the gig – assured me that they knew what we were going to be playing. I felt like I could at least go through with it, but every single time I sang the word “Christmas” I was horribly aware that I was being flagrantly insensitive to the people who were letting me play in their fine establishment. We can consider that this woman was being kind of a bitch and that softens things a bit, but I still was ridiculously self-conscious the whole time. Trying to play happy Christmas music while wanting to punch a customer in the face isn’t easy.
But I pulled through.
This Thursday we’re bring our Christmas show, as it were, to some local house-party of the non-Kid-and-Play variety. This in and of itself isn’t a big deal, but I saw the guest list the other day and it seems as if half of the university has been invited. It could be a lot of people, which could be fun or could be complete chaos. I don’t do well with chaos.
But more importantly, two members of that guest list are two people whom I respect quite a bit. The kind of people you just hope you don’t say something ridiculous and/or stupid in their presence because they just gravitate with intelligence without being snooty about it. The kind of people who are smart and cool. The kind of people who are capable of deconstructing my performance as I’m performing and then also telling me about what they can tell me about my performance which really about the last thing I need is to think about my performance. Knowing they might be there was incredibly nerve-wracking.
So I emailed one of them with a question about one thing and then packed a subtle question about this event into that same email just so I could find out if, in fact, they’ll be there. Turns out that they will be, which I’m glad I know because if I’d have been standing there playing my guitar and had just seen them in the audience, the show would not, indeed, have gone on. Or, well, maybe it would have, just with immeasurable amounts of my on vomit on my shoes.
Anymore, that’s what makes me nervous: not that there’s an audience but who’s in it. Sometimes I think that Ray Charles didn’t know how lucky he had it.