The bustier was a metallic phosphorescent blue. “Butterfly wings,” I thought, as I fastened the hooks and eyes which closed the back seam. It fit like a second skin. It was fashioned, corset-like, around six lightweight vertical plastic ribs: two in back, two on each side and two in front running from the waistline up over the center of each breast. The gossamer fabric stretched gracefully from rib to rib in a u-shape, and was pulled taught across my cleavage. I viewed myself in the bathroom mirror. All that exposed flesh was crying out for a necklace, but a necklace might knock against the harp, “After all,” I thought, “I don’t want my clothing to interfere with the performance.”
Dress in the “folkie” coffeehouses where Dan, my guitar player, and I were used to playing was not a big deal. Jeans, maybe skirts or long dresses for the women were de rigor. “Sexy” was not ordinarily a word one would choose to describe performers’ garb at these venues. I pulled on my black spandex miniskirt and stepped into a pair of sparkly heels. Dan gave a low whistle.
“Wow, you’re hot!” I smiled back while applying my makeup, “But do I look like a Pop star,” I worried, pinning long ringlets of hair up in back, allowing several curls to fall provocatively along my cheek. At least I wouldn’t be seated, trapped with my harp in-between my legs. Lately, I had begun standing to play, placing the harp atop a wooden box. This gave me freedom of movement, which would really pay off at this particular gig.
Dan and I had been a duo for seven years since we had met, performing with the Hudson River Sloop Singers, a group of performers who raised money to support the environmental work of the Sloop Clearwater. We had played at riverside festivals aboard ships in New York City’s harbor, on the radio, TV, countless Unitarian Church-run coffeehouses, in bars, theaters and house concerts. Dan had the day job; it fell to me to do the booking. We had developed a roster of regular venues to which we added gigs whenever possible. I must have discovered this new club ahead of my folkie colleagues, as I was the first to get a booking. It had not been a hard sell. Following up a few weeks after having sent our promo package, I called the club, “Hi, this is Bobbie Wayne. I mailed you a demo last week and wanted to see if you had a chance to play it yet.”
Kenny: “Yeah, I gave your demo a listen; you guys are good; let me tell you a little about our club. You know we’re a new venue. We’re going for a broad range of performers.” He then proceeded to rattle off all the performers he planned to book, musicians at various degrees of fame. I held the phone to my ear, waiting, planning my pitch.
Kenny: “bla, bla, so and so…and Whitney Houston,”
That got my attention. (Swallowing hard), “So, Kenny, your club is …more of a…Pop venue”?
Let me stop right here before you have a chance to ask, “What on earth made you think that two acoustic musicians performing folk music on harp and guitar would appeal to an audience of Whitney Houston fans”? I have to say honestly that I didn’t.
The cardinal rule in the arts is: if asked whether or not you can do something and there’s a paycheck in it, you say without hesitation, “Yes!” You can work out the details later. Kenny rattled on, enthusiastically mentioning his state-of-the- art sound system. He seemed excited about booking us; we struck a deal.
Dan and I struggled over our set list. I had composed most of our songs and instrumentals. My taste was notoriously eclectic. For example, “You Can’t Find a Bathroom in the City of New York,” was a patter song a’ la Gilbert and Sullivan. At the other extreme was “The Vines,” a dark classical-sounding art song I had written in Russian which would have fit right in at Carnegie Recital Hall. Interspersed with instrumentals were ironic topical songs like, “I’m Gonna Win the Readers Digest Sweepstakes” and “Les Femmes Chausses,” my own version of the high-heel shoe’s history beginning with Cro-Magnon woman. We augmented our shows with songs written by friends like Marcy Boyd’s hilariously racy take on contemporary love-making, “Celibacy,” and Chris Lavin’s “Don’t Ever Call Your Sweetheart by his Name.”
Normally, we would throw only a few of these songs in each set, surrounded by traditional folk music, as harpers were expected to play the beautiful and ancient Celtic Harp repertoire.
Within the relatively conservative world of people who had taken up the Neo-Celtic harp in the 1980’s, I was something of a black sheep; my music beyond the Pale. Now, finally, we were playing for a young sophisticated audience that would appreciate my ironic humor. “We,” I told my reflection with confidence, “Will pull out all the stops.” I batted my eyelashes and vamped, “They will love us!” Dan gave me his blank look.
We loaded the car and drove the short distance from our Nyack, NY apartment to the Garden State Parkway. According to my directions, the club was somewhere near Princeton, “ I hope the traffic won’t be too heavy, “ I fretted; “ A club like this, you know…a large venue with a big sound system…we gotta have a good sound check.” Dan nodded in agreement.
As the sun began to set the traffic’s headlamps became a river of light, each vehicle a boat rushing along, pulled by an unseen current. I leaned my forehead against the car’s window and watched the suburbs streak by, the warmth of streetlights and the cool bluish TV screens alternating in the darkness like the frames of a silent movie. Above the tree line an orange glow obliterated the stars.
Turning off the highway, Dan followed a road which quickly became a two-lane street. Our directions indicated that we should be only blocks from the venue, “This can’t be right,” I said; “They wouldn’t have a club in the middle of a neighborhood.”
“Well, here’s the street,” Dan announced; “Right…here.” He turned into the parking lot of an alarmingly Gothic-shaped building. Ignition off, we sat silently in the darkness letting reality set in. The night was filled with the chirping of late summer’s crickets. I squared my shoulders, pulled my miniskirt lower on my thighs and opened the car door. I had on a light jacket but the night air felt chilly on my inadequately-covered body. Dan unloaded the instruments and our gear while I went inside what was undeniably both Kenny’s “club” and an Episcopal church. Lights were on only in the basement so we lugged everything down the stairs.
I entered a long meeting-room filled with rows of metal folding chairs. Bookshelves lined a wall. At one end, was a kitchen; a pulpit stood at the other. There was no stage in sight. I could not imagine Whitney Houston playing here, “Oh hi,” said a man popping his head through the doorway. He was juggling several microphone stands. This was Kenny. With the greatest difficulty he began to set up his sound system: three microphones, a small soundboard and a couple of speakers. The sound man was, of course, Kenny himself. I drew a long breath.
Celtic harps are difficult instruments to amplify, even with the best equipment. I stuck my pick-up on the harp’s soundboard, knowing there was always the possibility of it popping off if I bumped its wire. Having a pickup permanently installed was not within the bounds of my budget. Neither could I afford a headset mike; I always had to use the club’s mike.
This, too, was problematic, as the stand would be in the way of my arms. I needed a boom, to hold the vocal mike. Not designed for harps, this mike could easily be hit while reaching for my bass strings.
The harp, on top of its box, presented a visual challenge. Leaning against my right shoulder, it partially blocked my view of the audience. To simultaneously see both the strings and Dan, on my right, I had to turn my face without going off-mike.
Kenny’s equipment did not include monitors, which we needed to hear each other properly. Despite his lack of equipment, Kenny was struggling to set up what he had. People began arriving while he dashed from one end of the hall to the other fiddling with switches and wires. I watched, openmouthed, still wearing my jacket, “Who knows,” I told Dan, “This close to the City the audience COULD actually be…uh…edgy…right”? Dan was staring at the ceiling, looking for an escape hatch. Just then we heard Kenny (who was also the club’s MC) announce us.
“Take off your jacket,” hissed Dan. We gaily entered through the kitchen door, making our way up the center isle past rows of nattily dressed silver-haired people. (Polite throat-clearing). I discreetly tried yanking my bustier higher and my skirt lower. Lifting my harp onto its box I turned, smiling my most appealing smile. We launched into a flashy tango.
Spotlights make most stages overly warm, but we were in a chilly basement, lit by recessed ceiling lights. The audience wisely wore wool sport coats, slacks and turtle-neck sweaters, “Can they see my fingers trembling?” I wondered; “Nope. Their eyes are too busy alternating between my neckline and hemline.” (Genteel applause at the tango’s ending).
“OK, so Kenny lied through his teeth about this being a Pop venue,” I thought wildly as I introduced the next song. “So what if they weren’t used to our repertoire?” I tuned a few strings which had gone flat in the damp basement air. Dan and I began a satirical song about unrequited love. I sensed through the unspoken connection that goes on between performers on-stage that Dan was sharing my rising sense of panic. From the bemused faces of the audience, we knew it would be a rough evening.
“We have to,” I thought, “Either grin ‘em down, or abruptly change our set and wing it, playing traditional pieces we haven’t practiced.” The second song came to an end. (More lukewarm applause.) Introducing the third piece, I simultaneously muttered to Dan “This isn’t working…we’re holding back. We gotta ramp it up”!
I had written a rap song called, “Don’t Eat Your Own Species.” In past shows it always drew cheers and applause. As I tore into it, my body rocking with the beat, the harp began bouncing off of my bustier like a person on a trampoline. It gained velocity with each bounce, lurching aggressively toward the audience. I could feel my spandex miniskirt inching its way up my thighs. Each time the harp rocked back toward my body I snatched at the skirt’s hem with my right hand, causing the harp to wobble dangerously atop the box on which it stood. I tried getting a grip on the harp’s fore-pillar.
WHACK!! My elbow hit the mike with a loud bang. The audience rose from their seats like a wave but was too polite to make a break for it. Perhaps they were waiting to see what would happen next. They settled back down, wary and wide-eyed. As my movements became increasingly frantic, I grinned harder, through gritted teeth, trying to appear in control of my bouncing harp and my wardrobe, “This is like playing harp atop a galloping stallion where I’ve lost both the reins and the stirrups,” I thought as I struggled. I was dimly aware of Dan on my right grimly banging out the rhythm on guitar. (What a trooper!) We dared not make eye contact.
SCREECH!!! The microphones’ feedback caused our audience to wince and clap their hands over their ears. Dan kept signing to Kenny to turn the volume down but Kenny had his own agenda. No sooner would we start another tune than Kenny would manipulate the soundboard, throwing off our balance in the speakers. Mercifully, at the intermission, while Kenny was busy selling refreshments from the kitchen Dan un-plugged the sound system.
After hastily conferring, Dan and I played a “folkie” second set, full of tried and true oldies, Irish harp tunes and sing-alongs, which we performed to our relieved, if now-reduced, audience. The harp stood squarely on the floor; I played sitting on a chair, gripping my instrument in-between my knees, wearing a jacket over my bustier. We did not use any sound equipment.
No one complained of our not being a Pop act. All the Whitney Houston fans had probably gone home.