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Nashville, TN


Tommy Doyle's, Boston and Screens

Jen Hartry

I actually wrote most of Part 1 of the following (on paper!) on my first trip to Boston, which was what my last post was about. But its content has much more to do with what was flying like bats in my brain on the second trip up, which was to Tommy Doyle’s. You’ll see.


Part 1 – The Good Screen

Boston is beautiful in a drizzly mist. Who knows if it is beautiful in general, and who knows, maybe a drizzly mist could make a pile of trash look beautiful, but since this is my first time to Boston I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and grant it the adjective. I found my way to the venue easily by trading cigarettes to bums for geographical information. They spoke with such a thick Boston accent that I thought they were putting me on. (I had this same idiotic reaction when I went to Ireland for the first time last May: I was stunned to hear that they really do talk like that!)The Megabus ride up was smooth and fine. I experimented with the popular Instagram filters and came up with these….


I’ve been thinking a lot about the two types of modern existence: physical and virtual. The life I’ve got here in my body and mind in the moment, which is ephemeral; and the life of my body image and brain image live on screens, which is in some ways ephemeral and in some ways eternal. Tonight I’ll play a show at [Tommy Doyle’s] in Boston. I have no idea how it will go for my physical existence. I might play well to a large crowd or crappy to a small not-so-crowd. What I do there will certainly affect the people who are physically there: They will either buy a CD or not; they will either come to my next Boston show or not; the booker will either be impressed or not. Of course, physical existence is still necessary and good, and it matters to encounter other physical existences. But what matters more and more of course is my virtual existence. If I play well physically tonight then I will turn into virtual-me through tweets or possible reviews. If there happen to be any physical existences there tonight it will be because I presented them with my virtual existence as a promotion for my “live” physical existence. If people come and like it, well my physical and virtual existences can ride the high together. And if it goes crappy–if there’s no one there, or I can’t stop coughing while singing, say–well, I will feel it in my physical existence, but my virtual self need not take that hit. Instead, I might post this the next day: “Thanks for coming out Boston! What a great night.” And KAPOW, I’ve fooled all physical people who weren’t there that my physical experience was amazing.


Part 2 – The Bad Screen


Gideon Brown is playing at Tommy Doyle’s and he’s good. He has a voice like Michael Buble, but “cooler.” We’re playing in the chilly downstairs bar. There are three other levels above our head, one of which has a much bigger stage in it, and supposedly a band with a bigger draw. The bar is pretty empty, save for three women who’ve come to see Gideon, and a few middle-aged dudes vociferating about fairy tales. (It’s not hard to remember that you’re across the street from Harvard here. Earlier, I heard above the music and drunken crowd a slurring twenty-something man, shout, “I’ll just have to find some literature to back it up!”) It’s a smaller crowd than I had hoped for, but I am feeling like it’ll be a fine show anyway, especially since I am getting $75 for it. But then I look over at the bartender, and I see him looking at that huge TV screen, which is hanging on the wall at the end of the bar closest to where Gideon is playing.


Now, I have been at bars with TVs before, and so have you. And I have to say that there are only two instances in which I do not HATE the TV in the bar: 1- I do not have it when there is a game on, and 2- I do not hate it when I am, for some reason, at the bar alone and I need a place to point my eyes at so that I don’t come off as creepy and so I don’t feel like a loser. Otherwise I hate the TV in the bar, as I’ve caught myself so many times watching the thing for minutes EVEN though there is no sound, and even though I don’t have a damn clue about what’s going on. In essence, I catch myself being sucked in by the light, and especially by the habit of looking at the light, even when what’s being presented in that light–the news, a sitcom, whatever–cannot possibly make any sense to me.True, it is very interesting how attracted we are to that light, but it is also sad and terrifying.


So as Gideon gets into his second song the bartender turns around to check out what’s on the tube. Turns out Gran Torino, that pretty-bad Clint Eastwood movie, is just starting up. He grabs the remote from under the bar, and I am thinking, Good for him, he’s gonna turn it off now that the music has started. But no, instead he turns on the subtitles, sets the remote down, and continues to watch it as Gideon Brown plays his heart out. And I’m thinking, well at least there’s me, and at least there are his friends. But then I look up and all three of his female pals are on looking into their phones. They are four feet away from him and are unabashedly ignoring him! Of course, this is hardly rare. I’ve seen my own wife on her phone while I play. Yet the whole thing stinks, because there is absolutely no appreciation for the live man singing in the corner of the room. The bartender, who is, apart from the soundman, the representative of the venue, purposefully made the TV screen more alluring to look at just as Gideon started up. In other words, the bartender was putting Gideon Brown into a competition with the TV … And this really sucks for him, and it sucks for me too as I realize I’ve been taking notes about the whole mess instead of giving Gideon Brown my attention. (I was taking notes because my virtual self would need them later.)


I don’t know what the moral is here, except that bartenders should turn their TVs off. One thing I did notice, though, is that when I got up to play I felt quite hopeless for my prospect of being paid attention to. And while I was resentful of that hopelessness it also challenged me. I told myself that I’d come many miles for the show and I wasn’t going to let a turned-down bad Clint Eastwood movie ruin my set. And so, instead of just plowing through my set, taking my money and leaving, I told a few stories about myself and about my songs. Nobody was listening to them at first, but eventually they did, and I got some laughs here and there. And I think a few of the people there were listening to me. This made me feel real nice-like. I thought, See, people do really crave connection with other human beings. And sure, I think this is deeply true. “Believe in connection, and the need for connection” might as well be a mantra for the singer songwriter who must compete with a huge flat-screen, and hundreds of tinier screens. It’s just such a terrible thing though, when the venue that booked you to play regards you as being enough of a nuisance that they would rather watch a turned-down shitty movie–and make their patrons fight to keep their attention off of it–than the guy they hired to come entertain and provide connection.