Can’t believe I ended up in our local Guitar-o-rama at the weekly Guitarmeggedon or King of the Blues contest which is this rock version of American Idol. So there were all these guys sitting on stools – not in rows, but in this chaotic sort of non-arrangement like they gave each newcomer a stool and he was on his own… some clustered, some in audience siberia…all with their cases and leather jackets and cords and pedals and crap lying around. Up front on this stage thing is an arrangement of amplifiers, so the contestant can pick. I sit down in the back and listen to this longhaired store-manager give a speech about how they will be evaluated on musical ability, skill, understanding of blues, and originality. The panel consists of the Grand-Prize Winner last year who is kind of a young Stevie-Ray with Clairol hair, a middle-aged barely recognizable songwriter who maybe opened for Jackson Browne in 1973, and an older local blues guy who has actually played with some of the originals before they died.
So like Guitar karaoke, they get to pick their backing tracks, and here they go—first up an old fat guy who looks like he has been out maybe twice in the past year, and is nervous as all hell and can’t seem to uncurl his fingers which stay stuck in this one lick which he kind of repeats—inside out, upside down, until you start to think his fingers are cramped and the whole thing is excruciating. Basically, the canned accompaniment blows him away. Everybody applauds politely and this one wiry kid in the front has his guitar out and is practicing and playing along and anxious like a young racehorse and gaining confidence. Next up is a young cute kid who I am rooting for but unfortunately he is pretty amateur and the balls of these people to think they can win a contest when they are hardly much more than 2-year guitar owners…. But he is cute, and has some little moves…
Next guy up is old again—like maybe 50, chewing gum like mad, plays along with a sort of Van Halen boogie which he both overtakes and undertakes—has a few chops, basically gets points for effort and the balls to wear leather pants at his age which must be at least 25 years old and he can still fit in. Gets applause because he is from Bayonne. The proverbial armpit of the US.
Next guy is young and fat and you can almost smell that he hasn’t done the laundry in months. Sucks and makes that Hendrix face with the eyes closed like he is getting off on his own incompetent clumsy music. A Mirror practicer.
The funniest part is—when they introduce these guys, they list their influences which are like Jeff Beck, Stevie, Jimi, Eric, B.B., etc… and then they let out this absolute amateur bad version of sequenced cliché’s that every bargain-priced book and info-mercial teaches, and which might be amusing if the contestant was a chimpanzee.
Next—a guy dressed up like a Texas rodeo…opens his mouth and he is like from Kurdistan or somewhere and at first I think it is an Allie G imitation and a shtick but no, he is for real. He does one lick, then keeps it going, then loses the time, the rhythm, the progression—but walks—actually walks down the little stage step toward the audience like he was prepped by the American Idol people. I had to cough over a laugh.
Next—ah, finally a guy who can play—actually uses melody, has vibrato, doesn’t just play finger exercises—actually has the guitar sing a little… almost gives you a vibe. Has a brand new lame guitar, but definitely a contender in this context.
Next a guy with studs all over his jacket, like how 80’s can you get, and a hat which falls off during his performance… and these lame cliché decals you buy at the Korean stands on St. Marks’, his pants falling down…gets up with like tons of old pedals and a spaghetti mess of cords.. but this one great looking girl who I was hoping would be a contestant—no, she is actually holding his guitar while he takes endless minutes untangling and plugging in. Then he starts, and it is like a Johnny Thunders contest now—like the guy is saying—Blues? Well check THIS out!
Loud, distorted, and BAD. Then the guy actually starts playing behind his head, and has his eyes closed because really he looks nervous which is really lame for punk blues.
Did I mention—the first fat guy who was nervous has to hold his ears for everyone since number 3, which I hope the judges are noting on their scoresheets. Okay, it IS loud, and each contestant gets progressively louder, but who will admit it. Because it is not the loudness, it is the lousiness.
And after the pseudo-punk guy plays, you almost feel sorry for him, because he doesn’t have the Sid Vicious FUCK YOU thing, actually looks kind of shy… BUT who cares, because the guy’s girlfriend, as he struggles off the one-step stage with all his crap which for the life of us, we don’t know what it did for him…the girl, with this perfect haircut, gives him this absolute look of adoration and pride like a mother at her new baby, and he doesn’t need a contest. Or a guitar. He has something no one in that room has. Even the cute guy, who tried to make a subtle pass at her, was ignored, and is now watching in disbelief, because the guy is pimply, has dirty hair, a shapeless body and zero talent.
Last guy is the wiry guy from the front who has been working out on the fingerboard and I know exactly what he is going to do—be a wired-up Johnny Winter-esque whiz of run-on clichés and arpeggios played at wired-guy speed, because this is the guy who gets straight A’s in school and excels at everything he can memorize. He’ll get a good mark, mostly because of the slim pickings, and the guys in the store are impressed. And he looks like he has a good job somewhere and will spend most money there, or already is a good customer. Originality? It was like a poetry contest with the poets reciting the alphabet forward and backward—no message, no feeling—but he had down the passionate moves—moving up and down , bobbing his head back and forth with the closed eyes, etc…Eric Clapton in a zipfile.
And the thing that killed …in between these guys, they’d play a tune or two from the masters—John Lee, Bo Diddley, Muddy, B.B.,… and in one measure, you’d chill out—like a palate cleanser between courses at a fast-food contest. And I wanted to scream out… LISTEN to THIS, you guys—in 1/100th of the notes—one single measure—even one note—just blew them all away. And made the whole thing ridiculous. Made them all look not just bad but ridiculous.
So was the store making a judgment? Were they trying to make them look stupid? Guilt them into spending tons of money on instructional dvds and pedals which will add ketchup to the stale frozen musical fries they are cooking up? Like most of life, we the poor schmucks don’t get 99 percent of the material the Cosmic Comedians are doling out.
But on my way out of the store, I noticed there was a big sale on the textbook all the local colleges are now using in Music 101… the one that starts with Medieval Monks and goes all the way through to John Cage and Hendrix…with 8 cds and all the accessories. And the 2007 version, instead of the usual title ‘MUSIC’… or occasionallly ‘Listening to Music’ for the Music Appreciation courses… is now just called ‘LISTENING’ because obviously the editors have been to these contests and have heard their students who now buy and own more instruments than were produced in 7 decades previously…
If any of these guys would ask.. because they’re all standing around waiting for the official tabulation—even the guy who held his ears—because they all think they might be the winner…if any of them would ask, would it even be useful to say anything.. because obviously they were not LISTENING… not before, not during, not after. Not to blues, not to themselves, not to each other…they were too busy playing.
Is there any originality left in the world? How can anyone judge anyone else when no one is listening or even has a concept. I step out into the street. On one block alone I am passed by 5 versions of guitar-players, or at least guitar-owners; 4 out of 5 with a complimentary version of a mate. I stop for a slice on the way home. Another ‘Original’ Ray’s.