This story starts in Starkville, Mississippi, in an ordinary lunch café. I’m having meatloaf, I think, when a woman walks through the door—a woman who looks strangely like the bouzouki-wielding, fast-talking Beth Patterson in New Orleans. (Side note: There are no live music clubs in Starkville, Mississippi.) I stare at her, but she doesn’t stare back. She sits down with other meatloaf consumers, and there’s gentle talk that I’m straining to overhear about the weather and domesticated animals. After a while, I decide to corner this Beth lookalike. Of course, she turns out to be “my” Beth after all, and the next day over coffee in downtown Starkville I learn she’s left New Orleans and is staying in her grandmother’s house on the outskirts of town.
“I don’t think there’s any going back to New Orleans for me,” she says. “I had to leave when I realized the idea of playing music gave me a knot in my stomach. I started associating playing live music with getting abused.”
This led to a conversation about good and bad audience participation and the particular challenges live-music performers face in small clubs; especially solo artists, women, and pretty much all musicians who play on a regular basis in the French Quarter and on Frenchmen Street.
I couldn’t believe some of the things Beth Patterson was telling me. Stalking, bullying, a drunk bar patron who “didn’t mean to” hit her in the face as he was actually just trying to “grab her pussy.” It didn’t take long for her to share other musicians’ stories along with her own, and I realized that as a live-music audience member, I’d failed on many occasions to catch the entirety of a performance. I might have heard the songs, sure, but I never had to face the music like Beth Patterson and so many other artists do on a regular basis.
These are their stories.
Josh Paxton, pianist:
“Many people want to start a conversation with you in the middle of a song, and that’s not something you can do, since you kind of have to pay attention to what you’re playing. You can’t hold that against them, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying. Also, people come by and pat you on the shoulder in the middle of a song. The intention is good, but if you’re not expecting it, it can startle you and you lose your place. So, a public-service message for people who, with only the best intentions, pat musicians on the shoulder (or back, leg, head, etc.) while we’re playing…
Here’s what you seem to be thinking at that moment: ‘Say, that fellow is pretty good! I’ll let him know I think so with a friendly pat on the shoulder as I walk by, which he’ll surely appreciate as an amicable gesture of approval.’ Here’s what you seem to think we’re thinking: ‘Why look, an affable-looking member of the audience is approaching. Hey, they’re giving me a reassuring pat on the shoulder! That must mean they like what I’m playing and are conveying it through the kindness of human touch! Thank you, good sir or madam, for making me feel appreciated with that thoughtful gesture!’ Here’s what we’re probably actually thinking: ‘All right, this song is going well and the band is all together and paying attention to each other and the singer just cued a new section and the drummer is setting up this rhythm and the guitarist played this particular chord so that means I should GAAHHH WHAT THE FUCK IS SUDDENLY TOUCHING ME ON THE SHOULDER…?!?!? Oh! It’s just a person who doesn’t know any better. FUUUCK!! Okay, okay, shake it off, back in the game. Where are we? Which section is this? What was that idea I was starting to develop? Forget it, it’s gone. Just keep going and try not to suck too badly until you get reoriented…’
Men run into different problems than women do. I was on a gig with Debbie [Davis] at Three Muses and she was out in the audience passing the tip jar and she came back flustered. On our break, I asked what had happened, and I’m not a violent person, but if that guy had still been there, I’m not sure I would have been able to restrain myself from beating the shit out of him. He didn’t physically assault her, but he took out three dollars, and said something like, ‘Here’s one for the bass player, one for the guitar player, and one for the piano player—and I’ll have a special tip for you later.’ This is not a unique story; I hear stuff like this all the time from women I work with. What I deal with is more your basic drunken douchebaggery, the utterly non-self-aware people that everybody hates. I can get away with saying something snippy back because I’m not the front man—if I had a microphone, it might endanger my future employment…
The most bizarre career suggestion I ever got was from another musician, an older trad-jazz guy, on one of the riverboats, and it was my first time playing with this guy. He said, ‘You should learn all of these old tunes and learn them on the banjo.’ Let me see—you’re suggesting that I switch both instrument and genres entirely? Like, ‘You do pretty good playing R&B on the piano, but I’d really like to see you play trad jazz on the banjo.’”
Alexandra Scott, singer:
“I’ve been playing my instrument for 33 years. Still, there’s always some guy who wants to tell me that he used to play the guitar and tell me all about it.
People might say, ‘Oh, you’re a girl with a guitar, you should sing a Jewel song!’ Meanwhile, I like The Replacements and Emmylou Harris. Just listen to me for a hot second before you tell me what to do. By and large, I’ve had more great audience participation than bad. I do a lot of unplanned audience participation at my shows, where I’ll do a singalong, like a musical flash mob with singers planted in the audience. It’s so beautiful how live theater brings people together, and people often come up afterward and want to talk.
I actively do a shielding practice every time before I go on stage, where I imagine a safe space for myself. This doesn’t mean I don’t get grabbed or have to enlist the guys in my band to come stand next to me; ‘There’s a close talker here!’ I remember saying after French Quarter Fest when I only got grabbed twice, and how that was a good thing. The worst thing that happened to me in recent memory was a house concert I did where the guy who hosted took all the money I’d made, said ‘I’m going to keep this for you until the morning,’ and then came to give me a kiss goodnight and stuck his tongue between my lips. All the while his family was there—his kids, his wife. I guess he figured I was polite enough that I wasn’t going to make a fuss in his house, as he’d just hosted this house concert for me. If I’d said something, I’d probably hear, ‘But he just did all this stuff for you, you ungrateful wench.’”
Arsène DeLay, singer:
“What I can’t stand is when someone comes in and makes the choice to not be aware. You can’t come in and scream-talk about your vacation while everyone else is listening. Recently, we had a nice, lovely Saturday afternoon at the Spotted Cat with our local and out-of-town regulars and this group of guys comes in, letting the entire bar know what they did on a boat. They were getting the side-eye and when a woman finally said ‘Do you mind?!,’ they started mocking her. That’s when I had to say something.
We have a bad infestation on Frenchmen Street of bachelorette parties that have no manners whatsoever. I call them the Darth Becky type. I was performing at 30/90 recently, and normally I don’t pay them no mind—and try not to automatically roll my eyes—but these women were harassing the bartenders and just being obnoxious. They had these fans and decided to come dance up close by the stage, waving their fans in front of us, being invasive. One woman was trying to jam her fan in between the floorboards to make it stand up so she could take a picture of it, and it didn’t work so she stuck her fan in our tip bucket. That’s when I took it and threw it across the room. She stared at me with her mouth open. It was like Sir Mix-a-Lot: ‘Oh, my God—Becky—look at her butt.’ They were all giving me the evil eye. But, baby, if it goes in the tip bucket and it’s not cash—it’s trash.
Don’t be a Darth Becky, the epitome of the worst kind of white girl there is, incredibly entitled, and then aggravated when someone says something. Darth Becky and Darth Brad, they don’t tip the band, they don’t buy drinks, but they want to be the first to jump on stage and grab the microphone from you. You have to nip that in the bud. I’ve watched people throw acorns in the tip bucket at the [Spotted] Cat, and if you don’t lay down the law in the beginning, people keep going. This is not childcare! And who wants to fish acorns out of their tip jar at the end of the night?”
Antoine Diel, singer and bandleader of the Misfit Power:
“My experience has almost always been a positive one, but I’m fairly welcoming and try to treat the audience the way I want to be treated. Because performing is such an intimate thing, audience members can sometimes overreact. They want to connect—sometimes in a good way and sometimes in not such a good way.
Because I look and sound like I do, people assume I should sing this kind of song or know this kind of experience. They ask, ‘Where are you from?’ which is code for ‘What are you?’ Sometimes I’ll be coy and say I’m from Los Angeles, but I know where they’re headed. The next question is, ‘Where’s your family from?’ People assume I’m Hawaiian or Filipino or Indian, but what does that matter? Are you liking the music? I try to understand that they’re just trying to connect with me somehow, and asking where I’m from is sometimes all they know to ask. Explain, excuse, whatever… Sometimes we forget that what we do makes a connection to them and when they try to connect back to us, we should honor that. Whether they do it eloquently or not.
I have a gig at Buffa’s that’s pretty intimate, and I’ll announce to the audience that I entertain requests. There are certain songs that I do not sing because they don’t touch me, or because the lyrics don’t mean anything to me. But I’m open to any song—I’ll sing Louis Armstrong, Ed Sheeran, Buena Vista Social Club, Sam Cooke—but it must be my expression.
Because I look Hawaiian, maybe, I got a request for ‘Over the Rainbow’—you might have heard it, the Hawaiian version [by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole]. I like the Judy Garland version, so I said ‘Sure’ and sang it my way, but I could see in their faces that that’s not the version they were expecting. After that, people asked, ‘Do you do any Hawaiian music?’ There’s a dissonance in their head as to what my music is supposed to be, like a mental jukebox where they assume I like a certain artist because that’s who they associate me with, or because that’s what they want to hear.”
Darcy Malone, singer and bandleader of Darcy Malone & The Tangle:
“I’ve always gotten interesting messages from random Rads fans, asking about my dad [Dave Malone, guitarist in the Radiators] or telling me they remember me as a child—but nothing really personal, until lately. Since last year, I’ve lost over 60 pounds. At the same time, the band has gotten more successful. And all of a sudden I’ve started getting either really inspiring comments and people asking for advice, which is great—but also negative posts on social media from what seem like ghost profiles. On our band page, someone said, ‘Not only can you not sing, but a microphone doesn’t replace a Twinkie—you should have stuck with the Twinkies.’ And someone, one of my own friends and family—since they got it from my personal page—took a screenshot of me and said, ‘Not only are you a fat-ass, you’re a big fat liar.’ And this is someone close to me who went through the trouble of creating a fake profile just to say this. It kind of breaks your soul for a second.
It’s weird being in a band with five guys where this never happens to them; it only happens to me. The guys get comments like, ‘Hey Chris, your guitar playing is really cool’ or ‘Nice drum kit.’ I get creepy messages, sexual stuff; people talking about my body. Sometimes advice. Women love to tell me what I should wear on stage, what would look good on me for my body type, how I should move and dance. The guys tell me I should make myself less available, that I shouldn’t go out into the audience after a gig and just hug everyone, but I don’t want to change who I am for anyone.
My band is not a cover band. We play original music that we create. Something that really peeves me off is that every time I get off stage I have at least five people come up to me—including people close to me—and say, ‘You really need to do more Tina Turner stuff’ or ‘more Janis Joplin.’ They don’t realize that when they tell me that I need to do more other people’s music—not my music—it’s insulting.”
Jeff Greenberg, pianist and bandleader of Snake and the Charmers:
“Every performer has some song that drives them crazy, and for me, it’s ‘Piano Man.’ People think they’re so clever—like they’re the first person who ever thought of requesting that song. This guy came up to me, squeezing a dollar bill so tightly, I swear I could hear George Washington scream. ‘Play ‘Piano Man.’’ I told him I didn’t know it, so he quickly pulled his hand back, with the dollar bill.
It’s almost funny when people make requests that aren’t anywhere close to what you play. I play old New Orleans blues and boogie-woogie and someone will walk up to me and ask for Prince, Madonna.
It’s hard to be a piano player in clubs in New Orleans because the piano is often shoved up against the wall, so you’re playing to the wall, and even if you’re talking to the audience, you don’t know if they’re responding unless you turn around. I’ve thought of putting up motorcycle mirrors on the piano, just so I can see. Sometimes you’re playing in a bar and they’ve got 17 TVs all tuned to different games and the only time you hear applause is when the teams score.”
Meschiya Lake, singer and bandleader of Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns:
“Usually people are enthusiastic and extremely kind, but some people think they’re buying a piece of you for the dollar they put in the tip bucket. They’ll behave towards a performer in a way they’d never do with a man or woman on the street. Meanwhile, you’re at work and you’ve got your game face on and you’re more apt to smile and move on rather than say something. There was this lady, we’d just finished a gig in Montreal and she had given me this dress, this very ill-fitting dress, and she started following me and the band around, from gig to gig, and after. We finally had to tell her she couldn’t come with us to where we were going and she got so mad. People construct this idea of you, of who you are, and when their idea doesn’t match reality, they get mad at you! She was so mad at me.
Then there was this guy who brought me costume jewelry and had helicopters. He wanted to take me out on a helicopter to a nice dinner, and I tried to brush him off, but he kept coming, staring from the back of the room. He didn’t get super angry, thankfully.
I guess it’s idolatry—they see you perform and go, ‘I’m in love!’—that’s the other side of the coin, but it’s still the same coin.
My first gig back after I had my baby—six weeks after—I was just coming off stage at the [Spotted] Cat and an overweight middle-aged man goes, ‘Great show. You’re a bit heavy, but you’ll lose that.’ What? Some people actually think they’re trying to help: ‘If you’d wear sexier clothes, you’d be more successful.’ Huh? They’re so sure they’re entitled to say something like that. If you don’t respond the way they want, they’ll go, ‘Who do you think you are? I was just trying to help you!’ And then there’s that great word—‘Diva.’”
Robby Hecht, singer-songwriter:
“I had this guy, and he might have been 85, suggest I do an entire show of James Taylor covers. He thought I sounded like James Taylor—‘this is what you need to do.’ It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Really, the last person you want to cover is the person you sound like—then you’re a tribute band, basically. Maybe he just thought it would be easy for me, and I think he meant it as a compliment, but what I heard was, ‘I’d rather hear someone else’s songs coming out of you.’ Basically, he was telling me that I wasn’t good enough. Of course, if I did the James Taylor cover show, the guy would say, ‘That was my idea.’ People want to inject themselves into your story and be part of your journey. They like your show, but feel that it could be improved. ‘I have this idea for you; this is how you should change.’ ‘You should talk more about the origin of the songs you play,’ or, ‘You talk too much, you should just play your songs.’
Playing folk music is tough when people start drinking, especially in New Orleans. Some decide they’ll be the performer and you’ll be their straight man—you’re the serious person who makes their jokes funny. Often, people decide that I’ve been heavily influenced by someone they think I sound like. ‘You’ve been heavily influenced by José González.’ Huh…?”
Beth Patterson, singer and instrumentalist:
“The first time I was ever groped on a gig I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. It was in Lafayette and it was a band I was in with my mom and this man, after a gig, gave me a hug and then he reached under and cupped my butt, grabbed it and gave me a good slap. ‘I like butts’—that was his justification. There was no particular event that made me leave New Orleans in 2013. The year before I left the Quarter, I was setting up for a gig and someone left a cup of pee next to my tip jar. I’ve been swung at; I’ve had people jump up on stage trying to grab the microphone out of my hands; I’ve had people try to pull my instrument out of my hands while I’ve been playing; I’ve had things thrown at me and been followed out to my car; I’ve had people scream threats at me from the audience—things they’re going to do to me, sexually, without my consent. A lot of this I’ve had to handle on my own.
A guy can say ‘Shut the fuck up, man!’ and stand up for himself. When a woman is half that aggressive, she’s a ‘diva.’ So I have to make it passive-aggressive. Smile right at them: ‘Hey, I thought I’d told you to wait in the truck!’ or something like that. For a long time I didn’t drink on stage because I had to stay alert, and be ready.
I have my own psychological survival methods and one I strongly recommend is to keep a warm and fuzzy file; whenever you get a nice note on Facebook or passed up to you on stage, or a nice e-mail, keep it all in a file and when you have one of those days, it really helps.
Playing Irish music, I also get the people who are Irisher-than-thou. It’s funny, I was playing a St. Patrick’s Day gig, and had just finished singing this song in Gaelic and immediately after, this woman came up and said, ‘Do you play any traditional songs, like ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling?’—which isn’t traditional; it’s an American parlor song. You sort of have to go, ‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.’”
Later on, Beth Patterson adds two new entries to the dictionary. They are:
Prodoucher: that guy who tells you how you should have mixed your record (and suggests that you go back and redo it with your copious disposable income). Not to be confused with Geekqualizer: that stranger who runs up to the stage and keeps trying to fix your mix (sometimes even suggesting that you use state-of-the-art condenser mics on your dive-bar gig).
P.H. Fred, singer-songwriter and educator:
“I had this person bullying me, saying stuff like, ‘I hear you won’t play in New Orleans anymore—good riddance,’ or, ‘You sound like a goat being sodomized.’ Which is funny: How does he know what a sodomized goat sounds like? Did he sodomize a goat?
I’ve received anonymous messages asking me to kill myself. I really don’t need people to tell me I suck. I can tell myself that! This guy said, ‘Don’t come back to Banks Street Bar!’ He told me I was banned from the bar where he works—and he’s a bar back. Meanwhile, I’m getting called to work with Marianne Faithfull; I’m getting called internationally to write with Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.
I was a standup comedian for years and years, but losing my mom and my house in Katrina, I didn’t feel funny anymore. The best experience I ever had with an audience was a year after Katrina, at the Manship Theatre [in Baton Rouge]. We called it New Orleans North and the show was ‘The Adventures of Blue Tarp and Black Mold.’ This woman in the audience had not smiled or laughed in a year, and we were able to help her with that. Also, there was this woman who must be in her mid-twenties now who tracked me down—I’d taught her back in 2003—and she wanted to thank me. Said I’d saved her life because she was overweight and bullied and I’d said that it was okay to be weird, okay to be goofy and funny. When you hear something like that, it eclipses all the bullshit. There’s a lot of non-douches out there, if you know what I mean.
My last suicide attempt was in 2009. I overdosed and literally woke up dead in a hospital. My suicide note was a song; it became my closing song, and I get a lot of response when I play it. Now, when someone tells me, ‘You should kill yourself,’ I say, ‘I’ve done that before, and I’m back.’”