The Ten Thousand Guys
(From Six Mile Creek Report, 2004)
One of these days, if I practice real hard, I may have the heuvos to do what these boys above are doing, to set up on a street corner or walk into a stanky bar or a hushed coffee shop and sing and play songs or recite words that mean something to me. From having done just a little bit of speaking to small groups of people and from piano adjudications in Catholic school (what a dreadful thing to do to a kid), I appreciate the terror and erosion of self-esteem that can occur when you’re it and everyone watching you has the luxury of consuming your performance like a Big Mac or Friends from the comfort and anonymity of their seats.
I have a real soft spot for performers as a result, and I love to watch anything live, from theatre to poetry recitation to music to buskers trying to part busy shoppers from their loose change by putting balloon giraffes on their heads or wowing us with their grasp of the zip code system.
Time and time again, I’ve come across some performer I’ve never heard of before who’s brilliant, whose sensitivity and skill and presence are so highly developed and whose words or music flow like healing waters. Who the hell are these guys? Why don’t we know about them? “Who are those guys?!?”
Craig and I have an expression that we’re not sure which of us coined: “He/she’s One of the Ten Thousand Guys”. Unfortunately the expression is what it is, gender-wise, and I apologize, being a long-time feminist. I know better, but here we are. In Austin, I was sure Toni Price was One of the Ten Thousand Guys, but she sure as shit ain’t a guy.
This is a useful term for aspiring singers and players and actors and writers. It means the performer is among the multitude (ten thousand strikes an appropriate image) of artists, either making a living or not, or holding down a day job, of whom we’ve never heard, and probably never will, who are better than we’ll ever be. They’re the ones who make us consider selling the D-28 and the ES-335 and giving up for good. They’re the ones that, for some reason or another, the commercial machine hasn’t recognized. They’re the master set from which the ones we finally do hear about will emerge.
Gareth and I walked into Antone’s in Texas after dinner, no cover charge, the place a quarter full, dark, funky, smoky, with giant paintings of Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray on the wall. A succession of blues bands took the stage as we nursed a Lone Star or two. At one point Gar leaned over and asked “I don’t know shit about blues, but are these guys really fuckin’ good?” I had to smile as I told him “They’re some of the Ten Thousand Guys”, and “yes, Gar, these guys are really fuckin’ good.”
Sandy and I saw a gal at a small jazz club recently and I regret I can’t recall her name. She could have been holding her own in New York or Chicago and her piano player was utterly freaking possessed. She covered dozens of classic tunes and the two of them handled all our suggestions from Chet Baker to “do Over the Rainbow like Eva Cassidy” to Gershwin and Monk.
This urge to perform is a precious thing, not just to me, but to all of us and to the diversity and health and evolution of culture. Mass media certainly has an impact on culture that can’t be argued, but all these guys and gals across the country, moving the art forms ahead, taking chances, laying themselves bare in front of us: they’re the compost or the mulch from which our forms mature, grow and evolve, and the places they work in are the incubators for what we’ll hear and see in the future.
Some of you are among The Ten Thousand Guys, and those who were at our place in Boulder last August know what that means and who you are. What that tells me is dancing and acting and singing and playing and ranting belong to us, not MCA or Sony or MTV. We all get to participate. And we should. These art forms are ours, and we shouldn’t abdicate our ownership to Clear Channel or Fox.
After zazen the other day, I realized I’m a link in a Buddhist lineage that stretches back a few thousand years. I quickly wrote down “You have both the opportunity as well as the responsibility to not simply consume or be the beneficiary of this tradition and these practices, but more, to help them evolve and to be a protector of them”. I think the same applies to our literary and musical and theatrical traditions.
As we watch more television and take our cultural cues elsewhere, many of the great small places that have been dedicated to preserving these forms are struggling and dying, and the musicians and performers who need them are moving on. Every town has its tales of the days when such-and-such a club was hot and “who played there before they were big” and how it’s harder to see good live performance anymore.
So I suggest we all have a duty. We need to patronize the small business people who support their little stages and the artists who work on them. We need to pause a minute and listen to the guy on the mall picking Charley Patton on the National steel in the old style. We need to give performers our attention and our cash. We need to pick up the fiddle or the dobro, sing in the car, learn a limerick, start a neighborhood theatre group, do party pieces, make political puppet shows.
We need to pay real close attention, because even today, with everything else distracting us all, there are geniuses among the Ten Thousand Guys.
Wouldn’t it be a shame not to notice?