I stood there in the middle of a cavernous college student center with my acoustic guitar, singing songs for GLBT pride week. Some students were scurrying off to classes while three or four lingered around the pride week information tables. No one was listening to me until I got to my song “Menstrual Tango.” A few people turned around … “Did she just say ‘menstrual’?” Then a couple of very tall drag queens slowly danced across the floor, dipping and swaying in an exaggerated tango. At last, someone was paying attention. After the song, everyone returned to whatever they were doing as if some cop had swept in and thundered, “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here.”
In over 25 years of touring I’ve had my share of weird gigs. I’m not the only one. My friend Julie Nicolay, a horn player, performed for a Junior Miss pageant in 1977 when she was a college student. She arrived early to practice and went to the green room located in a musty basement. She was horrified to find that it was packed with overly made-up little girls sporting big hair and surrounded by their hovering mamas. Someone asked what she had in the case. When they found out one of the mothers came over, thrust a twenty dollar bill in her face and demanded, “Play ‘Happy Birthday’ for my little girl.” Encouraged by the twenty – it would buy a lot of peanut butter for this college student – or maybe just overcome by the hairspray fumes, she dutifully played the tune.
Cellist Margaret Kelly did a gig with an orchestra playing for kids. The first two rows decided they’d see how many rubber bands they could shoot into the f-hole of her cello. Rock bands complain about sleazy clubs where they play behind chicken wire. They’ve never faced an audience of ten year olds.
Folk singer Trish Williams remembered a performance with others in the 70’s where a brick was heaved through an open window. Fortunately, they were in the middle of singing a song called “Working Woman” for which they’d donned hard hats.
That reminds me of a gig I did in Portland in the early nineties. An anti-gay law was up for vote so there’d been the threat of violence around town. The gig was at an MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), a church known for acceptance of GLBT folks. During my show we heard a big crash from outside. I saw eyes fly open and a few turned heads but I just kept playing. I figured if I was going to go out I might as well do it singing “Menstrual Tango.” Fortunately, nothing else happened but it was real hard to get that audience to laugh.
I was feeling pretty confident at a gig-in-the-round in Nashville because I’d just performed “I Wanna Be a Straight Guy” and they liked it – maybe they didn’t hear the line where I come out – so for my last number I launched into a snarky song about our esteemed president (at the time) Mr. George W. The boos started behind me about halfway through the song and grew until it got a little scary. This was the South, after all, and some of those people owned guns. Fortunately, I could see little pockets of support all around the room so I continued on. Afterward, the performer next to me grinned and said under her breath, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t open with that song?”
My friend Paula talked about the time her thrash band played a graduation party. When one of the female partiers winked at a large dude with a mohawk, all hell broke loose – apparently her drunken redneck boyfriend did not appreciate that she’d batted her eyes at another guy, especially an African American. The resulting melee drew the cops. Paula had to throw her drums over a fence to get away.
Another musician, Shannon, told me about a gig opening for The Butchies and Gretchen Phillips that happened not long after 9/11. The cops shut down the show and closed off nearby streets because protesters outside had left noise shakers filled with rocks and pebbles that looked like white powder. Shannon had to lug her gear blocks away to her car.
It’s not just musicians who have strange gigs. Bellydancers are sometimes asked to do weird stuff because people don’t understand what they do. Maybe they should hand out cards that say “1. No, I don’t strip, 2. Yes, what I do is work and you should pay me.” A friend of mine, Amara, was once asked to surprise a doctor. She hid in a room, covered by a blanket, pretending to be a patient. I can only imagine the look of surprise when said patient jumped off the table, uncovered a beaded bra and skirt and began to dance. Another time, at a jewelry store, she pretended to be a customer looking at engagement rings. When the guy beside her asked what she liked – meaning the rings, of course – she responded with “I like to dance.” She then removed her cover-up, revealing a costume – I guess bellydancers do take off some clothing — and shimmied around the room. I hope she had a sure-fire way to identify the guy she was supposed to surprise.
Here’s a video of Amara doing a normal gig. I guess she didn’t tape the one done in the doctor’s office.
Performers, tell us about your weirdest gig. Bonus points if it includes the cops, a beaded bra or hard hats.
Amara is also a wonderful photographer. She took the photo of me at the top of this post. Check out her work here.
Thanks to my Facebook friends who contributed to this blog – Julie Nicolay, Margaret Kelly, Trish Williams, Paula, Shannon and Amara.