There's considerable difference between a competent songwriter and a talented musician. Having never received formal training in any instrument, and with no ability (or interest in learning) to read music, I must humbly hang my hat on the former hook. But then, I rarely wear hats.
I've been playing the guitar for ten-odd years now, the piano for about three. I can write a pop hook, a finger-picked acoustic ballad or a seven-minute-long minor-chord epic in less than an hour. I can layer those tracks with drum loops, percussive sounds and vocals, then digitally arrange the amalgamation into something resembling a song. I cannot, however, play (just for example) a single Green Day, Nirvana or Dave Matthews Band number with any confidence. Okay, at all.
I've always sort of despised Guy With Guitar. You've seen Guy — sitting in the grassy area of your college campus, strumming around the fire in your friend's back yard, squawking on the stairwell of the party you just decided to leave. Dude's a fucking menace. Needs his attention-craving ass kicked.
Yet here I am at The Elm (5001 East Colfax Avenue) — which is packed from the back bathrooms through the side patio, thanks to a thirteen-team, Tuesday-night Geeks Who Drink competition — drinking a pint of Smithwick's and agreeing to start a happy-hour cover band with my friend Ken. This decision has been a long time coming: Ken played pubs for years with great success back in Baltimore, is anxious to do so again here and has convinced me that I'm the guy for the job. The Guy With Guitar for the job. Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
With any luck, what I've done is sign myself up for free beer once or twice a month. This, at least, has been my major motivation thus far. When I played in touring indie-rock bands, clubs always gave us drink tickets or a bar tab, the value of which cannot be overestimated. I'm imagining a similar arrangement during these hypothetical happy-hour performances: We get our feet wet by offering to play for complimentary pitchers. Should the whole thing take off, we demand free booze and cash. Truckloads of it.
As the pints of Smithwick's keep coming, we discuss song ideas. Ken is a classic-rock guy, preferring standards from the late '60s and '70s. I've got my sights set on avoiding those decades altogether, and instead steer us toward an era in which I actually breathed. I have scribbled some ideas in my notepad; when I pull it from my back pocket and start rattling off song titles, I can't help but notice Ken's furrowed brows.
Me: How about "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," by Cyndi Lauper?
Me: Or any version of "I Think We're Alone Now"?
Me: "One (Is the Loneliest Number)"?
Me: "In the Air Tonight," by Phil Collins?
At this point, Ken warms up a bit, though he has little faith in our ability to pull off "Against All Odds," another Phil Collins song I'm anxious to try acoustically. We eventually find middle ground in Counting Crows (maybe "Long December"?), U2 (definitely "One"), Tom Petty (no "Free Fallin'," I promise) and the possibility of Everclear (I really want to do "Santa Monica"). The next step is to practice and warm up with an open-mike night or two. After that, we'll need to strategically pick bars that will 1) give us free beer (and dump trucks of money) and 2) be nice to us.
We both agree that the Elm might be the perfect spot, though that's not why we met here. The place has a warm, neighborhood-pub feel, lots of moveable tables and comfy wood booths, and a staff with a sense of humor. And judging by the turnout for trivia night, the bar can obviously support canned entertainment.
Even if it is Guy(s) With Guitar(s).