It’s Not Mud

One of my tourmates at the Texas Blues Bar

One of my tourmates at the Texas Blues Bar, summer of 2002

You walk into the Texas Blues Bar and wonder if you’re gonna have to fight your way out. It’s that kind of joint. Two pool tables to your left, and in front of you is a long bar with twenty or so Texans sitting on barstools. All of them looking at you. It’s a row of mesh-back hats and blue work shirts, but these guys aren’t hipsters wearing thrift store clothes ironically. The work shirts have the right names sewn on the patch. The guys wearing them are wearing them because they stopped at the bar on the way home from work. You can just tell. And even the women around here look tough—not necessarily like they could kick your ass, but not necessarily like they couldn’t, either. But what can you do? Just keep walking like you know what you’re doing.

One of the pool tables is open. A guy is sitting on the stool next to the table. He’s got a pool cue in his hand. He’s looking for a game. It’s a good way to acclimate yourself to the crowd, so you head over there. Put two quarters on the edge of the table. Say to the guy on the stool, “Is this your table?”

He nods.

You say, “Wanna play a game?”

He nods again and stands up. He’s every inch a Texan: cowboy boots, tight blue jeans, camouflage T-shirt, and a fluorescent orange, deer-hunting baseball hat. He’s also about four feet tall. You’re not sure why that matters, but it seems to matter right now. Playing pool with a little guy just seems to make the evening perfect.

You drop the quarters into the slot, release the balls, and start to rack them. The little guy chalks up his pool cue. You say to him, “What are you up to tonight? Just having a beer on the way home from work?”

“Nah, man,” he says in a thick, Texan drawl. “I’m here for some readings. There’s some literature and shit going on here tonight.”

Any apprehension you may have been feeling wanes as soon as he says this. You are, after all, one of the guys reading. Bringing literature and shit. You smile and pull the triangle off the pool balls. “Should be cool,” you say. “Break ‘em.”

The pool game gets underway. The little guy isn’t very good, but can you blame him? He’s four foot tall and the table is three foot tall. Do the math: you’d have to find a pool table four and half feet tall to try to see things from his perspective. He doesn’t seem to care that he’s losing, though. He just wants to talk about punk rock and the bands he’s seen. He doesn’t tell any stories about the bands. He just says the name of the band and asks if you’ve heard of them. Like this:

“I saw NOFX,” he says.

When he doesn’t go on, you say, “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” he says. “You heard of them?”

“Yeah.”

Silence.

He does this several times. Sick of It All. You’ve heard of them. Strung Out. You’ve heard of them. Swingin’ Utters. You’ve heard of them. Lagwagon. You’ve heard of them. No Use for a Name. You’ve heard of them. Big Boys. You’ve heard of them. You stop him here. “Really?” you say. Impressed, because he doesn’t seem old enough to have seen the Big Boys. “You’ve seen them?”

“Nah,” he says. “I was just seeing if you’d heard of them.”

And so two pool games pass, just like that. The little guy has seen just about every band on the Fat Wreck Chords roster. That’s about all you learn about him. Well, that and that he’s damn proud of this accomplishment. And that he’s not very good at pool, but you learned that almost right away.

So you quit playing pool and wander around the Texas Blues Bar. You walk along that long bar. Your two tourmates are drinking at the far end of the bar. Before you make it that far, someone calls out your name. You turn and look. It’s the bartender/booker/manager, Roy. Roy is also your friend. He’s the reason why you’re in Longview, Texas. His shift must’ve just started, because he wasn’t behind the bar the last time you got a drink. You’ve been waiting for him, though, so you could figure out if there’s a drink special for the entertainers: i.e., you. Before you can ask, Roy hands you a Lone Star. You reach for your wallet. He shakes his head. So that’s the drink special: drink; you’re special.

Two guys who are obviously auto mechanics are sitting at the bar between you and Roy. They’ve got dirt and axle grease deep in the wrinkles of their fingers. They smell like hand cleaner. Roy points at you and says to them, “This here’s the guy who does Razorcake.”

“No shit?” says one of the mechanics. He’s wearing an American flag bandanna.

“Well, I’m one of the guys,” you say. “I mean, I don’t put it out by myself.”

“I love that fucking rag,” the bandanna guy says.

“Thanks,” you say.

“Listen, there’s something I want to ask you,” he says. He looks very serious. “Is Ian MacKaye gay?”

You almost say, “I don’t know. I never tried to fuck him.” But you stop yourself. No need to be a smart ass. The only problem is, if you don’t give a smart ass answer, you don’t have an answer at all. It’s never occurred to you to wonder whether or not Ian MacKaye might be gay. So you stick with, “I don’t know. Why?”

“Just wondering,” the guy says.

Roy tells you that the reading will start at around nine o’clock. It’s seven now. Roy assures you that everyone in the bar is there to see you guys read. There are also a couple of bands playing. The order is: reader, band, reader, band, reader. You’ve done enough shows to know that this is a recipe for disaster. But you don’t say anything, because you trust Roy and also because you seem to be in a place where the rules of the rest of the world don’t apply. So you just go with it.

sean_col_28

My tourmates dancing at the Blues Bar.

 

Nine o’clock rolls around. The Texas Blues Bar is packed and everyone’s drunk. There’s a room to the right of the bar that you didn’t see when you first walked in. It looks exactly like a two-car garage—big and open, concrete floors, no windows. The only thing missing is the garage door. This is where you’ll perform.

The poet you’re on tour with starts things off. It’s tough. There’s no stage. The first band’s equipment is set up behind him. And, even though the bar’s packed, only about a dozen people walk over to see the poet. He starts his act. You’ve seen him go through this ten times on the previous ten nights. You started the tour in Boston and have made it all the way down and around to here. You know word for word what he’s gonna say, how he’s gonna say it, when the crowd will laugh, when the poet will have the crowd hooked. Only, tonight, again, rules are off. He’s not getting the easy laughs. No one’s walking over from the bar to check him out. In fact, the crowd in this room is starting to thin. The poet cuts his set short.

This doesn’t bode well for you. You don’t read poetry. You have that going for you. But you do read short stories. Or, at least, you tell them. And the shortest of the short stories takes ten minutes to tell. If things go badly, you’re still stuck up there for ten minutes. And ten minutes can be forever when you’re bombing. You try to tell yourself that a lot of people here know Razorcake, so it may be better for you. But you know where Razorcake sells, and how many copies. The numbers just don’t add up. Still, you remember that you’re in a strange place. Rules don’t apply. Just ride it.

The band gets started. The lead singer is wearing a coveralls and a cowboy hat. He’s that weird kind of hybrid that you’ve been seeing all night: too punk to be a shitkicker, too shitkicker to be a punk. And that’s exactly what the music sounds like. And that’s exactly how the crowd looks. It’s a perfect fit. So perfect you get swept up in it. You get out onto that concrete floor and dance. Why not? Burn off some nervous energy. Get a good sweat going. Bounce into some Texans. Have fun.

Before you know it, the band’s done and you’re up.

Here you go. Bringing the literature and shit. Forty or fifty shitkicking punks are looking at you. You look back at them. It’s too late to wonder how it’s all gonna go now because it’s all going. You introduce yourself and tell a lame joke and someone to your left laughs like hell. You look at who’s laughing. It’s the little guy you played pool with. Game on.

You start to tell a story about working construction when you were a kid. It’s a more-or-less true story. You changed things to make it better, but you’ve told it so many times that you can’t remember what you changed and what’s real. The story is blue collar and it’s funny and sad. And so is the crowd. They seem to be digging it. They stay to listen, tipping Lone Stars, smiling, laughing sometimes when you don’t even expect it. The little guy is to your right with a big ol’ grin on his face. And you get to one part of the story. This is the hook. This is what you’re hoping will connect with the people around you. It’s the part where the narrator is hitting on a girl. He’s spent the day busting open a septic tank. He rubs the back of his head and finds a chunk of mud. You tell them that. The room goes silent. “Then,” you say into a sea of big eyes staring at you, “very slowly, I realized…”

And the first shout goes out. It’s the geeky chick who’s been hitting on every dude in the bar that night. She yells out, “No you didn’t!”

“Oh I did,” you tell her. “I realized…”

“Oh shit,” the little guy starts yelling. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”

“Tell it,” someone else screams. And suddenly you feel like you have a tent revival on your hands. They’re waiting for the punch line—hollering out encouragement, seeing what’s coming, even—and you can’t deliver it. Not yet. It’s all too right. The energy is too good. You have to feel it for a few seconds, at least.

But the seconds pass and you tell them, “I realized: that’s not mud.” The room goes nuts. This part of the story isn’t even that funny. At one reading on this tour, a girl even said, “Awww,” when you said this line. Like she felt sorry for you. Not these Texans, though. They hoot and holler. The little guy even slaps his fluorescent orange hat against his knee. Goddamn.

You keep going. You finish your story and someone even gives you an “Amen.” Amen.

 

Forty-five minutes later, after the second band has played and your second tourmate is halfway through his set, half of the room suddenly clears out. You have no idea why. Your tourmate is giving a hell of a reading. You’re enjoying it, and you’ve heard this stuff for ten days straight. Later, you’ll find out there was a fight in the parking lot. You’ll learn that one of the fighters broke the other fighter’s leg. You’ll spend a few hours wondering how someone breaks someone else’s leg in a fight. Spinning toe hold? Before all that, though, you’ll just kick back at your merch table and watch the room clear and be happy to watch your tourmate bring his literature and shit. You don’t need to see the latest spectacle. You’ve already gotten what you came for.

 

Author’s note: This is the seventh chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #28.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Edinburgh

I went to the UK a couple of months ago, but I didn’t get around to uploading any pictures to my computer until today.  Of all the things I saw over there, this guy in an Edinburgh park was the most curious.

Man in Edinburgh Park

I walked for another fifty yards or so, then saw this juggler.  I wonder if the two are connected.

Edinburgh Juggler

Reading with James Jay

I did my first reading from Madhouse Fog on April 25.  It was kind of a pre-release event.  James Jay joined me in this reading.  It must have been somewhere between the twentieth and fiftieth time I’ve done a reading with him.  For various reasons, each one seems different.

When did I first do a reading with James Jay?  I don’t know.  It probably would’ve been back in Flagstaff, somewhere around late 1994 and early 1995.  I seem to remember a basement space called the Difference Machine hosting some readings.  Did we team up there?  Was it at that other weird art space near the brewery on Beaver Street?  Our first reading together could’ve been either, neither, or both.

James Jay teamed up with me when I did a Drinks for the Little Guy reading at Bookman’s in Flagstaff in 1999.  Or maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he just booked the reading and rustled up the crowd.  I know we did Bookman’s together when Glue & Ink Rebellion came out.  I read with him at the book release events for both of his books.  He joined me on a West Coast tour to support my short story collection Barney’s Crew.

We’ve teamed up to do readings in packed theaters for big time events, in empty record stores and sweaty art galleries and the most crowded bookstore in Seattle one summer night nearly a decade ago.

This time, he joined me in the science lecture hall on the campus of CSUCI.  He was more of the big time guy than me, even though I was the one with the new book.  My students had been studying his collection The Journeymen in their writing class.  They’d spent several hours discussing his poems.  They’d written essays on his work.  Now, they were seeing him live.

I couldn’t pick a better writer to be upstaged by.

Montreal

barneys_crew_cover_womanOn some nights, you just know you’re going to bomb.  If you’re lucky, someone’s there to record it.

Mickey Hess went first.  He couldn’t buy a laugh in that overheated art gallery.  And his story was funnier than the one I was planning on reading.  Joe Meno went second.  He met a wall of apathy.  And his story was more heartfelt than the one I was planning on reading.  I knew the signs.

I’d done so many readings at this point that I knew exactly how to react: read the shortest of my stories and call it a night.  For some reason, I didn’t follow that very simple advice.  Maybe it was the swampy Montreal summer heat making me ornery.  Maybe it was something about the crowd.  They were too urban, too hip for a rogue like me.  Maybe I just felt like lingering over a long story.  Who knows.

Anyway, in the face of the hostile crowd, I picked the longest story in my repertoire, and I read it nice and slowly.  Eighteen minutes, all told.  And the owner of the art gallery recorded it.  Slapped it up on the web for anyone to hear.

Last night, I was thinking about bummer readings and this night in Montreal in 2005 came to mind.  I knew that the art gallery owner had posted this sucker online.  I wondered if it was still there.  A quick Google search revealed that it is.  So, if you’re interested, you’re welcome to listen to a hot and awkward live reading of my short story “The Last Days at Fulton County Stadium” from the collection Barney’s Crew.  Just click the link below.

Sean_Carswell_Last Days at Fulton County Stadium

Minneapolis

TWG_tour_poster_MinneapolisAfter I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.