I walk into the dark, smoky bar. It's a full house tonight, and every head turns as I make my way to the front of the room. I pop open my guitar case, brandish a Gibson, and step on stage. I tease the crowd with a little strumming.
"This is the name of a song I wrote last week," I say, my voice crackling into the microphone. "It's untitled. Here we go."
OK, that part is complete bullshit. I would never get onstage with the intent to sing or play any kind of sound-producing contraption. What is it that drives some people to the spotlight, while others (like me) are content to sit in the smoky shadows of a dive and slip inconspicuously into blissful inebriation? Hell if I know. But I do know that going to an open-mic night at Cheers Food and Spirits (941 E. Cypress Creek Rd., Fort Lauderdale) might be the fastest way to find out — or at least to find some people to slip into blissful inebriation with. But c'mon, even Jon Bon Jovi had to play at an open-mic night before he made it big, right?
Ambiance: A sign on the outside wall of Cheers clearly indicated that men in tank tops would not be permitted after 10 p.m. A bar opposed to unconcealed armpit hair? My interest was piqued. I pulled the heavy door open, and every person inside Cheers (yeah, all five of them) turned as though they were expecting someone (Ted Danson, perhaps?). They blinked as the street light poured in and then quickly resumed playing pool and drinking beer. I crossed the dark, scuffed-up wood floor and grabbed a stool at the bar. A quick glance around revealed two pool tables (both marked up with years of rings from beer bottles) and a small, purple-lighted stage nestled in the left corner. An eclectic blend of '80s rock and mainstream pop cycled from the speakers, and before the bartender came over to take my order, she paused to lip-synch the words "Man! I feel like a woman" from the Shania Twain song.
Bartender: If this was going to be the place where everyone knows my name, they were going have to learn it sometime. Fortunately, bartender Jackie learned it well enough to shout it across the bar to ask if I wanted another beer. She was personable and pretty, in a simple black tank top, purple headband, and subtle eye shadow. She told me she had six pets — including a Komodo dragon and a "Chiweenie" (half dachshund, half Chihuahua, and fucking adorable, if the pic she showed me can be believed).
"So, tell me about this place," I said.
"We're a late-night bar," she said. "We're open 'til 4 a.m. every night — after almost all the other bars around close. Tonight's open-mic night — but Rob, the guy who does it, is running late."
"What's been going on tonight?" I asked. "Seems quiet."
"Those people who were in here a minute ago were interesting," Jackie said, referring to an older couple who had been sitting beside me for some time and then had suddenly left. "They were waiting for open-mic night, but the woman said she was going to go home and play Guitar Hero instead."
So instead of performing on an actual guitar for a real audience, she was going to go home and play a plastic one for her cat. Yeah, that'd be my preference too.
Drinks: So no one ever told me pineapple upside-down cake shots (pineapple juice, grenadine, and vodka) were delicious, but Jackie broke the news gently when she bought me one.
"What are we drinking to?" I asked, raising my shot glass.
"You coming back on ladies' night," Jackie said.
"Cheers," I said.
Customers: Jordan, a pretty brunet wearing a white shawl, and Tony, who had a goatee and a thick Swedish accent, came by Cheers to have a hamburger and some beers and shoot pool. They planned to leave well before the microphone opened up.
"Her name is Tara," Tony said when I introduced myself. He turned to Jordan. "And she kind of looks like Tara Reid. But without being drunk all the time." He dissolved into laughter.
"You have no idea," I said, giving my beer a long, hard look. I turned to Jordan and indicated the paperwork she was filling out. "What are you working on?"
"A job application," Jordan got off her barstool and handed the application to Jackie, who headed to the back of the building with it. "I recently quit working at my aunt and uncle's furniture store — I didn't give it my 100 percent. I interviewed at Coyote Ugly. But it was creepy. I wasn't into it."
"What's creepy about Coyote Ugly?" I said. "If the movie can be believed, it's about a bunch of hot chicks who abuse their customers."
"It's not like the movie," Jordan said. "It's a bunch of huge, scary, tattooed girls. Tattoos even on their boobs."
Tattooed tits? Sounds way more enticing than an open-mic night.
Just then, Jackie came back and told Jordan to come back tomorrow if she was serious about the position.
"Coming back?" I asked.
"They want me to work the 6 a.m. shift," she said. "Probably not."
Open mic: As open-mic time approached, more people filtered into the bar, and a friendly buzz lifted the overall mood. The first performer was Justin, a handsome dude with a nice, full voice. He crooned tunes from Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Sublime and rocked out on his acoustic guitar. I noticed that the older couple who had supposedly left to go play Guitar Hero were back in the bar, waiting anxiously.
"You guys here for open-mic night?" I asked Penney (or her artist name, "Pennilynx"), who had cropped gray hair and wore shorts and a visor.
"Yeah," she said. "I'm waiting to go up. I was here last week, and I didn't do well. I had a lot of rum and Coke." She let out a long, warbling noise. "That's what my voice ended up sounding like."
"Yikes," I said. "Hope you're drinking water tonight. What got you into music, anyway?"
"Oh, I was in a band when I was young," she said. "But once a musician, always a musician. My stuff isn't exactly — what's it called? — contemporary? But it's unique." She pulled her CD out of a bag and handed it to me. "I play a bunch of different genres." The CD was titled Deep Thoughts, and it featured a forest and a picture of a lynx on the front of the case.
After Justin, it was Penney's turn, and she looked slightly nervous as she glanced back at her supportive husband. She approached the microphone, plugged in her guitar, and opened a book. She sang "Blue Suede Shoes," an original called "Fort Lauderdale," and one off her album, "The Change." Yeah, some of her lyrics were about as deep as an inflatable kiddie pool, and all the music was in one chord or the other.
She told me she only knew nine chords total — and when I looked skeptical, she retorted: "Well, the song 'Cocaine' only uses two, and look how well that did." Touché.
She strummed along and sang her heart out. At the end of her set, I put down my beer to give loud applause. After all, I couldn't have done even close to that well on stage. Smashing a guitar, like those dudes from the Who, might be fun, but don't expect me to play a single note.
Afterward, I approached Penney. "I sound better on my CD," she said quickly.
"Nah, you were good," I said. "And getting up on stage takes some serious guts — which I personally don't have."
"Yeah, it's scary," she agreed. "But ya gotta start somewhere."
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