The first time he went to an open mic it was at the bar inside the student union at his college. His best friend, also a Dylan fan, had implored him to go, if only to egg him on. But instead, Wally brought his own guitar and harmonica, and a neck brace for it which he’d fashioned using a rubber band and a coat hanger.
The guitar was an old beat up Takamine (he used to joke that if you didn’t have your own guitar, you could “Take-a-mine!” It rarely gleaned a laugh but he repeated it incessantly just the same.)
It was a cold night and Mike had not brought his gloves, so by the time they got to the student union, he had to spend some time warming his hands over the radiator in back. Wally went into the main room and found a table in the corner where there was room to stow the guitar cases. He walked up to the front of the house and asked how he could sign up – a young woman pointed to the corner of the bar and said that the list was over there. Wally went over to the bar where he saw that the list had lines and numbers on it, specifying start and finish times. Apparently everyone had 15 minutes, not more. So he signed himself up for an early slot, and Mike for one a bit later in the evening, figuring that Mike being the more accomplished player of the two, would want to play when the real talent got started.
Then he bought two beers, and went back to the table.
Mike came out a few minutes later and Wally told him about their set times, and the two of them tucked in to drink their beers and work on their song lists.
Both of them planned to play Dylan tunes – but different ones, the only point of contention being “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” which they both wanted to play. Years later, looking back, Wally thought that the best solution would have been for them to team up on the song, but instead they argued about it and it took a few beers before Wally gave in and just decided to do a short set.
As the first performers played their songs, Wally got braver. He thought that he was better than most of the others and by the time he took the stage himself, he’d gained some confidence and that went over well with the crowd. He’d never sung into a microphone before and he improvised some business around how strange it was and how he hoped they’d bear with him – but it was a good mic with a big sweet spot and he found it pretty quick. He started to play Blowin in the Wind, but when he reached the first harmonica break, his instrument popped out from between the rubber bands, landing in a pitcher of beer on one of the front tables. Wally sagely suggested that the table “tip” him the pitcher so he could fish it out, but the dark haired woman sitting there poured herself a beer then reached in to retrieve it for him. She said that if he sang good enough, she might just give him a glass, but only after his set.
Wally took off his harmonica holder and set it down on the floor beside him. Working with the moment he launched into a talking blues riff and proceeded to improvise a song about losing his harp and having an angel give it back to him. The audience went right with him and soon, he was making up all sorts of crazy verses. When he reached the end of his set, the bartender sauntered up and said keep going – Wally flushed and realized he’d been hamming it up – Mike was at the back of the room at their table, alternately laughing at Wally’s patter, and looking pissed off – Wally finally settled in, put his harmonica back in place and did a few of the Dylan covers he’d originally planned on, but interpolating new lyrics about what he was seeing in the crowd that night.
When he finished, again to thunderous applause, he went back to his table, where the woman with the dark hair had relocated, bringing not only a fresh pitcher of beer, but also a round of shots.
Mike went up and did his set, which was passable, but with nothing like the response Wally had received. When he was finished, he put his guitar in its case and stalked off on his own, leaving the bar and hailing a cab before Wally could even say “good job” to him. After that, they never jammed together again.
I wish I could tell you that Wally had a quick rise to fame after that night – but the fact is that when he went back the following week, he was practiced and smooth and the cute awkwardness that he’d used so well the previous week was gone. His second set at an open mic was flat and disappointing to him and it took nearly a year for him to get over that and to understand why it had happened.
By that time, he was a much more accomplished player and had written a very tight group of twelve songs that became the core of his first album, but that is another story altogether.
The most aside from the difficult but crucial lessons that came from those early performances, the best thing that happened to Wally after that first open mic is Suzanne – the dark haired woman. They started dating later that year and when he finally began playing out again, she began to represent him as his booking agent. When he got back to open mics, she went with him, always working the angles and helping him to start making money from his music.
Almost fifty years have passed, and Wally and Suzanne have been married for half of that. They have three children, all of them singers and songwriters themselves. Suzanne is now the family agent.