There are currently around two dozen recurring open mic events around town, including at Navajo Live, Java Joe’s, Midnight Jack’s Echo Room, Capri Blue, Spacebar Café, Pal Joey’s, the Merrow, 1st Street Bar, and Mr. Peabody’s. But not everyone is welcomed to the stage with open arms. Especially not songwriters.
“Today, I was told that my songs are driving the customers out,” says Puttin’ on the Fritz frontman Fritz Jensen, who has been playing solo at open mics for around a year. “The bartender told me people ask when I’m playing and avoid the bar until my show is done. Which is kind of odd, because no one knows when I’m going to play until I put my name on the list. But she swore to me I have diminished the profits of the bar by singing my songs. They quoted one song as being particularly irritating one of my biggest songs, 'Liquor Store Next Door.' It's impossible to think everyone's going to like you or what you're doing when you're performing. I don't enjoy every artist.”
It should be noted Jensen has over a quarter century of local stage experience, having played hundreds of gigs with the long-lived band Collage Menage, performing everywhere from San Diego Comic-Con to Jack Murphy Stadium.
“I’m not claiming to be the greatest artist, but I come with full heart. My songs are not offensive…I come in with my songs rehearsed. I have other original compositions, but you can’t teach that [to other open mic musicians] on the spot. Which was a second complaint, that I have a limited list of songs, since I’m an original artist and refuse to play others’ music…would Picasso color in a coloring book? Would Mozart do karaoke?”
Happy Ron Hill has played original music at over a thousand open mics, but still recalls his terrifying first. “A group of people that we didn’t know were getting bent out of shape, because the show was starting late. One of them pointed straight at me and said, ‘We paid good money to be here, you get up there and sing something!’”
Happy Ron Hill, "If You're Bored in San Diego (It's Your Fault!)"
Some performers never do earn their audience’s support, like the guy Hill recalls from Cosmos coffee shop. “His name was Beats Of Hearts, without the vowels, He showed up a couple of times in a sombrero, a ski mask that he never took off, a beating red electronic heart on his chest, an American flag draped over his butt, and purple gloves. One time, he sang a song, in front of kids, where the chorus went ‘Fucking pain, fucking me, fucking pain, it’s really unfair fucking pain,’ and on the second ‘fuck.’ someone in the audience screamed in pain.”
Longtime Lestat's host Isaac Cheong offers a view from his side of the open mic. “My colleagues and I toil weekly in near anonymity as the guy or gal who makes sure the people can hear you, keeps track of who’s playing when, and gets to hear the litany of complaints about how they need to play that night, even though they showed up two hours late for the signup because their girlfriend’s cousin is in town, or how I should cut the EQ a few dB at 4KHz because it’s too sibilant.”
“Or how someone needs to take 20 minutes to set up their laser light show, for a ten minute set.”
Jensen says his own favorite place to play is the open mic at the Eagles Lounge in Santee. There's also Rockin' Al's Circus at the Landing on Main Street in El Cajon. However, "Al recently suffered a heart attack and is not doing very well. As well as the bartender from that event, it's now been transferred to other days. We're trying to continue the event with co-hosts until Rockin' Al gets better."
For his part, Jensen says he does his best to roll with whatever punches are dealt him, whether by unhappy patrons, hard-to-please venue owners, or even fellow open mic performers. "More often than not, many people get up there and perform a poorly rehearsed song, including the host. I come in rehearsed and play my songs the best I can. It's just hard [to be criticized], because I do a very happy jovial show, and for someone to be offended in any way is hard."
He acknowledges that open mics wouldn't even exist were it not for the need to shore up a venue's bottom line, with the least possible expenditure. "Just like every musician who plays in a bar, it doesn't matter what you're doing, as long as you sell booze. Maybe I should drink more. Or provide rounds of drinks for everyone. Then I could suck more."