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Chicago, Illinois

These Are the Things We Have Always Been Doing

By John Thurgood

So, ten minutes into the bike ride, it starts raining. But really raining. And out of nowhere. Me and Julio, we’re in front of a psychiatric ward when it starts coming down, so we ride over to their metal awning for shelter, but the wind is really thrashing. The awning doesn’t do much to keep us dry, and the over-washed, button-up t-shirt I’m wearing isn’t doing much to cut the wind either.

Standing there, not sure how long this storm is going to last, we try to figure out what to do, when the door to the psych ward opens and a squirrely eyed janitor invites us in. He’s not wearing a uniform, and the only reason I assume he’s the janitor is because he’s holding a walkie-talkie. He leans his whole body into the weight of the door to hold it open. It’s a little weird that he doesn’t just step outside, like he can’t break the threshold or something.

“What about our bikes?” Julio asks.

“Sure, bring ’em in.”

He waves us in, and we follow, struggling to get our bikes through the heavy metal door.

The lobby is bright, and everything—the linoleum, the painted cinder walls, and the cheap ceiling panels—are a sterile white that makes the whole place look stiff and uncomfortable.

“You boys sure did pick a bad time to ride your bikes. You don’t check the weather reports?” The janitor stands with his arms crossed over his chest, a little righteous.

We mumble that we don’t, and I look around at the posters lining the lobby walls. They’re all white poster board with magic maker and glitter. The writing is squiggly and riddled with spelling errors.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“It’s a psychiatric ward for autistic children.” Then he goes into a long argument defending the need for long-term care for autistic children. I had heard about it on This American Life, so I understand where the guy is coming from, and resist the temptation to bring up the TAL episode—I don’t want to sound insensitive. And from the look on the guys face, it doesn’t seem like he gets this opportunity very often. So, I listen while he talks his job up, and glance around the lobby, somewhat disappointed that this scenario hadn’t turned into an H. P. Lovecraft novel but a learning experience, instead. I usually welcome both, equally.

Julio is the first to notice the rain letting up. The janitor is a little disappointed that we have to go. I’m not sure what he had planned, but I guess standing around shooting the shit is better than cleaning up vomit or whatever duties he was avoiding by standing down here talking with us.

Outside, the streets are glistening from the streetlights reflecting off the freshly wet asphalt and shallow puddles. There is still a slight drizzle, but we start riding anyway. We were headed to a show at the Empty Bottle when the rain started, and we are going to miss the first band for sure now—we were already a little late before we got caught up in the storm.

The Strange Boys are playing, a band that I don’t care too much about, but Julio is really into. They add a southern mojo hand to SF’s garage sound that, I guess, really does it for a few people. They’re pretty popular anyway, and I always see their records at Reckless but seem to pass them up for something else every time.

The cool thing about it raining is that when we get to the Bottle, we find a spot to lock-up right in front.

There’s a nice little restaurant next door to the Bottle called Bite Café. I guess it’s ran by the guys at Empty Bottle. But while we’re locking up, the singer from the Ponys comes out, looks around, then goes back inside.

“Hey, that was the dude from the Ponys,” Julio kind of laughs.

“Why didn’t you ask him about CB2?”

Julio works at Crate & Barrel’s sister company, CB2, which is basically a cheaper version of the former. They make dorm room furniture and weird knick-knacks. But, for the past few months, Julio has been trying to get bands to come into their warehouse to play a show. It’s kind of a great idea, but he’s had little luck with it so far.

“Yeah,” Julio says, shrugging, “I haven’t sent them an email about it, but I probably should.”

When we get inside, the first band is already off stage, and the crowd is well into its shift to the bar. Julio offers to buy first drinks, and ten minutes later, he comes back with Old Milwaukee.

The Empty Bottle has been around for a little less than ten years, and before that it was another venue with a different name and owner. But at one point it must have been a store front or someone’s apartment, because the layout of the place is somewhat unconventional. The entrance opens to what I assume was once a living room, where a pool table now sits and a table for merch. Two arcade games are in the corner. That room leads to a hall of disheveled brick with a Mrs. Pacman game and a few doorways to the main room with the stage and bar. It’s an interesting set-up, and they always have some type of whiskey and beer special for five bucks. So, music aside, I would go there anyway.

The next band to get on stage is White Fence, which is basically Tim Presley wiggling around with a guitar strapped to his chest. I kind of love it, and so does most everyone in the crowd. He looks like an unkempt businessman that at one point lost his way, and now croons about it.

At one point in the show someone yells out, “What kind of pants are those?”

Presley replies, “They’re Docker’s,” and somehow makes it sound sexy, which pretty much sums-up their whole performance.

White Fence plays their set, and two Old Milwaukees later, the Strange Boys take to the stage.

Julio makes his way up to the front before it gets too crowded, and I follow. While the band is getting ready we position ourselves in front of one of the microphones. I don’t normally like to stand right up front, but Julio is really into the band, so what the hell, I do it anyway.

Ryan Sambol steps up to the mic in front of us, and thanks White Fence and the band before them, then talks a little about his day while tuning his guitar. The crowd starts to fill-in. And then the band opens with “Poem Party.”

The Strange Boys are a little younger than Julio and I, and they’re all strapping young men. When Sambol sings, he takes on a sort of heavy, bedroom glare that I’m sure is meant for the teenage girls swarming the stage and not me and Julio. So, it’s a little weird that we’re standing directly in front of him.

Awkwardness aside, they play a great set, and afterward Julio and I step outside to enjoy an after-show cigarette. On the way out, Julio buys a White Fence cassette tape. It’s of a live show they did in LA. There are only 200 copies, a collectable, but I suspect he bought it only because it was recorded onto a cassette.

He’s holding the tape, looking it over as we walk to our bikes. He says something about the tape being cool, and I agree and take out a cigarette and light it.

He asks me for a cigarette, I give him one, plus my lighter, and we stand there for a while taking in the sweet, humid smell of a summer night in Chicago.

After a few drags, Sambol dashes out of the venue, chasing down the hot tamale guy.  When he walks back, he’s carrying a plastic sack of tamales in one hand and munching on one in the other. We wave him over.

Introductions all around. He no doubt recognizes us as the dudes swarming the stage and pins us as a pair of fanatics.

Sambol takes a bit of tamale, looks at a sliver of pepper dangling from the end and with a full mouth asks, “What do you think that is?”

“Pshh,” Julio says, “that’s not the real tamale guy. Those things are tiny.” He laughs.

“Hey, it’s food, though.” Sambol raises the bag of tamales. “And right now they taste just like I want them to.”

We compliment him on the show and his mild success, and he tells us a little about the tour so far, then Julio breeches the CB2 topic. Julio had emailed someone in the band about it, but judging by the look on Sambol’s face, it was not him.

“Yeah, they said there just wasn’t enough time this time,” Julio says. “But next time you should; for sure, you should definitely stop in.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. We’re playing a show in Milwaukee tomorrow night.” Sambol takes out another tamale. “It sounds fun, though. What is it again? A radio station?”

Julio laughs. “No man, it’s a studio, an artist’s studio for CB2.”

Julio walks around a clear explanation of what CB2 actually is, and Sambol munches on his tamale, obviously confused but willing to listen, probably still thinking we’re fanatics.

Finally, I cut Julio off, and plainly state that CB2 is the sister company of Crate & Barrel. They make dorm room furniture and knick knacks.

Sambol smiles. “So wait a minute. You want us to play at the store?”

“No,” Julio says, “at the studio.”

“You’d be playing for the office, kind of,” I add.

There is an awkward pause.

“Whoa, I thought you guys were a radio station. Whoa, that’s kind of weird.”

“But it’s an interesting space,” Julio adds.

Sambol takes another bit of tamale. “And you guys will be recording this?”

“Sure. We can record it. Maybe arrange something with the corporate office. You guys could be sponsors or something. I’ve been talking to other bands about it. Thee Oh Sees and Sandwiches. I think Sandwiches might do it.”

Sambol thinks it over.

A girl runs over with an album. I see her at shows all the time. When King Khan played she jumped up on stage and made out with him, then did it again, like seven more times. It got weird. Her album has signatures all over it from the rest of the band, and she asks Sambol to sign it.

After he signs, he turns back to us, and after a second says, “Man, that’s a hard sell.”

Apparently it is, so Julio drops the subject, and we talk about Austin for a while, because The Strange Boys are living there right now. Then Sambol heads back into the Bottle, and we unlock our bikes and head over to Estelle’s for burgers and a beer.

Estelle’s is right on the corner of North and Damen, where the two streets cross Milwaukee, The Six Corners. It’s the busiest intersection in Wicker Park, and one of the busiest in the whole city.

I’ve been told by a few people that ten years ago Wicker Park was a rough part of town. There’s a scene from an old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called Red Heat that shows The Six Corners before all the condos and martini bars went in. It was pretty bleak. I interviewed Ron Seymour of Ron Seymour Photography for a project once. His studio has been on that corner since ’88, and he said when he first moved in, he couldn’t walk outside after six. You just didn’t do it. Two friends of his were mugged and killed. One was stabbed and the other was beaten to death. Now, there’s an American Appearal just down from his studio, the first one to open in the Midwest. It stays open until nine. There’s also a Levi’s store, an Urban Outfitters, and a slew of music venues and bars. It basically Chicago’s version of an outdoor mall, and normally I would never go over to that part of town, but Estelle’s is the only place to get a decent burger and a beer past one a.m., so Julio and I lock our bikes up on some scaffolding across the street and go inside and sit at the bar.

My friend Chiara texted me while we were at the show, so I text her back. She’s at Pancho’s in Logan Square. Some friends of hers are in town from Baltimore, and they’re playing a show. She texts back that the show is over, and she’ll meet us at Estelle’s.

The burgers here are probably shipped frozen, but the buns they use are pretty good and the veggies are fresh, and they usually have a good IPA in a can for three or four bucks.

Me and Julio order. Harold and Maude is playing on the TV behind the bar, so we watch that for a while. Julio has never seen it, so I try to explain why the kid is running around with an old lady, but I realize I don’t know what I’m talking about so I just say it’s a good movie and that he should check it out.

It’s a weekday so Estelle’s isn’t all that crowded. There is a group of accountants standing at the bar just down from us, and behind us in a booth is a middle-aged guy with what is most likely a hooker. The rest of the bar is modestly filled with similar folks, bottle-necking as it gets closer to the door.

Chiara shows up while we’re halfway through our burgers, and joins us at the bar. We work together at Nightwood in Pilsen, so we talk about that for a while. Julio is clearly uninterested, and watches the movie.

Chiara moved to Chicago to do a post-back in visual art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her work uses a lot of fabric and three-dimensional shapes. She’s really into embroidery. She also has a bunch of funny tattoos that she refuses to fill-in, like a bandaid and a polar bear among others. They’re all outlines, so it basically looks like she screenprinted her arm with cookie cutters.

We finish eating and decide to head over to the lakefront. Outside, the streets are crowded with lingerers, even though the two a.m. bars let out a half hour ago. Most of them are clutching phones to the sides of their heads, trying to get a hold of something better than just going home, I guess. Taxis are swarming The Six Corners, too. This is their golden hour.  And above everyone’s head, the L clatters up to the Damen stop.

We take North Avenue over to the lake, which we quickly realize is a mistake. North lacks bike lanes, and hasn’t been re-tarred since the fires, or so it seems. The traffic sucks, too, and I almost get hit by a taxis that pulls out in front of me.

We take the North Avenue tunnel under Lake Shore Drive, and ride over to the cement docks. A few kids are swimming off the dock down by the Chess Pavilion, and the water looks really inviting, especially after that bike ride down North. Chiara is clearly thinking about it. Julio is starring off at the John Hancock Building and the wave of skyscrapers looming just a few blocks south. This is a weird part of Chicago, where the lake meets the city. There are two beaches on either side of the docks and up north past the pavilion, Lincoln Park sprawls outward into a grassy preserve.

Swimming off the dock is something I would have done regularly if I had grown up in Chicago—in my underwear, naked, whatever. But now it just seems cheesy. To jump in now would only be forcing a sense of adventure, and I see the same lackluster resignation on the faces of Chiara and Julio.

I ask if they want to jump in anyway. Chiara smiles and nods, and Julio picks up his bike.

“I think I’m gonna head back and drink a few beers,” Julio says.

I try to get him to stay, but he won’t have it, so he takes off and me and Chiara strip down to our skivvies and jump into the frigid depths of Lake Michigan.

The water is dark, and I can’t tell how deep it is. Looking outward, it seems endless, like the ocean, and I start to wonder if there are any Buick-sized catfish or equally large crawdads lurking down by my feet, waiting to pull under an early morning swimmer.

The cold water feels great, and me and Chiara make-out a little as we tread around.

There’s a yellow ladder up the side of the dock, and we use it to climb out. We jump in a few more times, then get dressed. As we gather some sort of plan, a K-9 unit drives by on the bike path. Five minutes earlier, they would have given us tickets or told us to leave. Good timing, I guess.

We head down the bike path and take the tunnel over to Michigan Avenue. There is something strange about swimming in one of great North America lakes, then, right after, riding down the six lane thoroughfare of Chicago’s busiest shopping district. Like I said, it’s a weird part of Chicago.

We ride down to Chiara’s. She lives in Bridgeport, and once we get through downtown we cross over to State Street, take Archer through Chinatown and then end up in her neighborhood. It’s a nice ride, and the streets are empty.

We stash our bikes in Chiara’s basement, and head up to her roof. Some friends of hers gave her a few home brews, so we take a bottle each up with us. The beers turn out to be terrible, but we drink them anyway, and spend the rest of the night up there looking out over the pitched roofs of residential south Chicago, talking and doing whatever until the sun pops up in the east.

Locations in Chicago

Empty Bottle
1035 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
(773) 276-3600
emptybottle.com

Bite Cafe
1039 N. Western Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60622
(773) 395-2483
bitecafechicago.com

Reckless Records
26 N. Broadway
Chicago, Illinois 60657
(773) 404-5080
reckless.com

Estelle’s
2013 W. North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 782-0450
estelleschicago.com

Ronald Seymour Inc.
1625 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 235-0161
ronseymour.com

Pancho’s
2202 N. California Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647
(773) 384-1865
Google Maps

Nightwood
2119 S. Halsted Street
Chicago, Illinois 60608
(312) 526-3385
nightwoodrestaurant.com



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Athens, Greece

Because You Asked Why I came

By Bobby Damore

I met her at the club where she dj’d, a place called the Key Bar. She had some friends with her and I met all of them there. They were nice people. The man in the group insisted that he and I only speak in Greek. I managed to do so only slowly, while Anastasia implored us to give it up. A short girl with an aquiline nose, a thick mess of black hair, and a hipster’s fashion and music sensibilities, she and I attempted sex the night we met, but she had gotten me too drunk and I couldn’t get it up with the condom and all. On this night I was hoping for round two, a second chance, not because I really wanted to have sex with her, but so I could redeem myself and make it so that calling what we did “sex” more accurate. She’s a busy girl, some sort of well-known journalist. Well-known for what, she didn’t tell me.

I hated the bar we were in. Too modern. More to the point, it was too loud and I coudln’t hear anyone talking. Why do they have to turn up the stereo so loud? A few of her friends left, and I saw my opportunity for the three of us to do the same. I suggested we go to a place called Rebetiki Istoria, a bar/cafe where they have live Rebetika music. Rebetika is the blues music of Greece. It’s golden age was the 1920s to the 1950s. Everybody in Greece loves Rebetika, and so they naturally obliged.

It was a long walk from Psyrri to Exarcheia, but we had much to talk about. Anastasia was interested in why I would want to be in Greece, not just because of the economy crumbling but in general. In her mind, Greece was just about the last place anyone would want to live and she regretted passing up her own opportunity to leave it. Her questions were not merely inquisitive; they had an edge to them, a sharp edge that cut me and got my attention. Her questions were imploring and critical – I at once felt an urge to answer her genuinely and an urge to curse her for her insolence. I told her many times already that I was here following my musical dreams, but whereas this would be enough for your average person, even if they didn’t think it was worth it, it wasn’t enough for her. This was her opportunity to proclaim to an outsider all of her grievances against her mother country, the place that nurtured her growth and betrayed her trust. The place that built in her a sense that maybe Greece could be a respectable country finally, and then used that same sense to beat her in the face. Perhaps there was also a humanitarian bent to her screaming. Maybe she was actually worried that I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Certainly, I didn’t know everything before coming, but I knew it would be hard and that’s really the most important thing I needed to know. I mostly brushed her off, figuring that her business as a journalist would turn anybody into a void of negativity. Every one of Anastasia’s friends was more understanding of why I came and what I was doing even if they agreed with Anastasia’s criticisms of Greece, but she was out to prove to me that I had made a mistake.

Her friend asked me what I thought of the air in Athens. I remarked that I thought it had improved since eight years ago, because I remembered the mucus in my nose turning black and this time around that wasn’t happening. He said that his job was to study the air quality in Athens and that it may actually be worse, since if you can see the pollution in your nose, then that means it’s big enough to be filtered. But if you can’t, then it may actually be entering your lungs.

All well and good, I already knew that Athens was a smoke choked city halfway on fire with anarchists, heroin addicts, and mobster politicians. In fact, that’s the only environment where Rebetika truly made any sense and I very simply was on a mission to become a part of the music I was in love with.

We arrived at the club very early, 9pm, and it was empty. Not even the band had shown up. It was only the waitress. The place was very pretty from the outside. It was an old building, blue and in an ornate, neo-classical style, which isn’t very common in Athens anymore but a little more common in Exarcheia. There is one wooden sign next to the door which says “Rebetiki Istoria” but other than that there is no trace of the existence of good times, drinking, dancing, music, or smoking within. If the police still cared to shut down places like this, they could very easily walk right by it and not see it. Within, the walls were old and stained, but continued in this ornate style, as if there would be a meeting of dignitaries or holy men, only they’d have to be from hell or something. Pictures and paintings covered the walls. Paintings depicting scenes from Rebetika songs. A man in a suit walks in on another man sleeping in his bed and takes out his pistol. His mother and his wife, presumably, try to stop him by giving him alcohol. Other pictures have guys in suits partying in hell, or partying in some tavern, or smoking on a mountain, or smoking with lots of girls, or smoking in hell. One painting depicts the Nazi Occupation. Another depicts the lost Greek homelands of Asia Minor, where my grandfather was born and where many of these musicians were from. The photos were old pictures of all the greats and all the legends of old times. All the people who basically created modern Greek music, enshrined in their own personal club, where the songs they wrote would continue to be deified by ever new generations of venerators and imitators. There were no windows. The club was obviously formerly an abode, since there were rooms that had the doors taken off to open up the space. Many small tables were crammed next to each other. The place had the smell of constant smoke, as if it would always smell like a club. Indeed, this felt like the place I was looking for.

We sat in a corner and I changed the subject. We went back into trying to teach me Greek by only speaking Greek. I forget what we were talking about. They asked me to play my bouzouki before the band showed up and so I did. I played songs until customers began to arrive and then the guy with us decided to leave. They were thoroughly impressed, not only that someone from Texas could be so interested in the music, but that they’d be so good at playing it. The waitress had overheard me playing and told the band about me after they showed up. I was called into the back room to meet them, with Anastasia giving me a not so gentle push to go and meet my dreams. Of course, there was no way of knowing if I was going to meet my dreams.

The band consisted of lively characters, casually dressed in modern attire, subdued dark colors, jeans, ribbed, tight shirts, gruff and full of cigarettes and booze. They smiled the smile of pranksters, tricksters. Someone had already taught me the word psonyara, which means a person who thinks they’re much better than they actually are. They had the smile of a psonyara, someone with attitude, people who think they’re hot shit. They looked upon me with a kind of tired, over it, been there look and quickly brushed me off – if they even noticed me. The head of the band, also the owner of the club, beckoned me to come.

In Greek:

“Give me your bouzouki!”

“No!”

(laughter)

“I’ll play you a song first.”

(laughter)

“No, first you give us your bouzouki!”

I pulled out my bouzouki to start playing and the lead bouzoukist in the band reached over and snatched it from me. Everyone in the group hunched over it inspecting every last inch. They poked, prodded, placed ears over things, plucked and pulled and played a few notes.

“It’s crap,” said the lead.

“Let him play and then we’ll see,” replied the owner. “Play us your best song.”

I took a seat and played a song called “Markos the Jack-of-All-Trades”, a song where a man and a woman are arguing. She acuses him of evading his marriage vows because he’s been chasing other women. He claims he’s been too busy working all these jobs this whole time to be able to find the time to marry her. It’s the song I know the best because it was the first Rebetika song I ever learned. I used to get stoned and listen to the 78 rpm recording over and over because of it’s hypnotic, pulsing rhythm and the way the singers sound like they’re dogs barking ready to pounce, but somehow eloquently, like nobility. I escaped into the world of the song, performed the opening melody and began to sing the first line.

“Okay that’s enough. Stop now.”

“Huh?”

“Stop playing. You’re good. You’re very good. Come tomorrow evening between 9 and 9:30 to perform with us, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Nice to meet you. We have to go on stage now.”

The “stage” was just a space cut into the wall in the next room. It had the effect of bringing the experience right to your table since they were on the same leve as everyone else. I appreciated this set-up, since you could clearly participate with the performers as they played. The next day would be my first public performance in Greece. I returned to my table and told Anastasia what happened. She became very excited for me. The band took their seats and she and I began to make out hard and solid for what seemed like ten minutes or so. This was definitely a high point in the life of any musician anywhere, to get the job and get the girl in the same night. Her lips tasted like victory, or white wine. I’m not sure since I was too drunk at this point. I don’t see the difference between victory and wine anyway.

The place was full, packed. The music was not loud, but the people were. It was very lively. The crowd was mostly young, with some people of all ages filling in the rest. There was a group of people who moved from England to some island back in the 60s to start their own school for the islanders who didn’t have one. They professed their love of Greece and Greek music when Anastasia predictably questioned their motives for deciding to live in Greece. They gestured to the lively and boisterous crowd, getting hammered and joyously yelling, singing and dancing all over the place as their reason for staying. Anastasia admitted that having fun is the one thing Greek people tend to be good at. In fact, it was the reason why she didn’t take the job offer in New York, because she knew this doesn’t exist in America. Songs about crime and living as a bohemian, with intricate melodies, stirring poetry, dark themes, high passion, driving rhythms that shake your bones; Rebetika is the siren call of Greece, if I may use a gratuitously overused Greek metaphor. In this case, it may be true though. The music I love has brought me to a Greece teetering on financial and economic ruin, a Greece on it’s way down after so many years on it’s way up. I really had no way of knowing if I was jumping into my dreams or into my ruin. The bouzouki, sqeaking it’s woody, spring loaded twang, distracted me from any thoughts of utter ruin. I had a strange sense of being at home, like everyone here could be my best friend for the night if I simply spoke with them.

Before we left, she reminded me of how evil and terrible Greek people are, that I should be careful of these people who have invited me into their band. She said they will do terrible, horrible things to me. I told her that all artists are terrible people and that she should fucking relax for god’s sake.

I walked her home. The air was cool and we were both ripped. It was a long walk that took us by a large park. We had lots of time to talk about “us” and what “we” were as a couple. She told me that her boyfriend of many years had recently dumped her because, apparently, he thinks she’s too negative. “Hmm, how could he have gotten that idea?” She told me to lay down the rules for her. She asked me, “What are the rules, so that I don’t hurt you?” I should have told her not to ask such ridiculous questions because I’d lay down some rules if I had to. Instead, I told her not to do the exact thing that I knew she was going to do. “Don’t tell me you like me and want to be with me, but then never meet up with me again.” She promised she wouldn’t and then she said that she had to go home alone. I didn’t see her again for a few weeks.

The next night when I showed up, there was no one except the owner and the waitress. There was a small stereo playing old recordings. The waitress sat smoking, dressed in all black, her curly Greek afro guided the wafting cigarette smoke to escape. The owner was sitting with his bouzouki and his whiskey. He very gentlemanly invited me in and sat me down next to him. He knew no English, and my Greek was still pretty bad so we just focused on playing music. The way it works in a Rebetika band is, whoever starts playing a song, everyone else just joins in if they know it. This is how it works during practice, while working on stage, or just hanging out. Somebody thinks of a song, and without saying anything starts playing it. At this point, nobody else is allowed to butt in and try to take over with a song they thought of. They must wait until the song is over and begin playing it immediately if they wish to play it. It’s an interesting form of etiquette. I find it both fair and liberating to have a small set of simple rules designed to keep people from playing over each other. If no one can play along with your song, then you stop and another song is selected. If no one knows the words, the song is skipped. No computers are consulted at any time. No Youtube, no online song databases. That’s all done in your private time because “the ones who wrote the songs and played other people’s songs back then had everything memorized” and that’s the level of skill and quality everyone is aiming for. The owner was impressed with my repertoire of some of the most obscure songs written by the most popular artists. I was in awe, simply because I had never been in the prescence of a bouzouki player who’s style and repertoire I respected so much, having a dearth of bouzouki players in America. His notes were harsh and present, they vibrated the air in front of my face. His age had done his skills well. His voice was in a traditional cantada style, which was a nice element. We went on like that until the lead bouzouki player showed up. The other guys in the group called him simply “the fat guy” even though by American standards he just had a large belly. The three of us played a few songs together but I had a feeling this man considered me an unwanted addition. They began to discuss the issue of me after I played a few songs for the fat guy. I didn’t understand most of it, but I think I got the gist of their argument. The fat guy was not on my side. He was coming up with excuses of why I couldn’t join. The main excuse was that my repertoire was too small. The owner insisted that I could easily learn all the songs they play if I keep coming back every day. He insisted that my style and skill was unique and good enough to be a positive addition. Yet this was unconvincing for the fat guy. At a later time, the waitress would tell me her suspicions that he was indeed blocking my access to the group because he knew I was better than him. It was a nice thing for the waitress to say to me and I choose to believe this because it is so flattering and because the guy was just generally a dick. He would stare at me while he was playing. He’d stare directly into my eyes with this look that said, “See, I’m better than you! Look what I can do, can you do this?”

Now, I’m not the kind of guy that cares to dethrone people who are that invested in their position. What would working with him have been like? I didn’t want to know.

Three other guys showed up which was a relief. They were much more lively and their styles were much more to my liking than that of the fat guy. One was young, and he expertly played some of the most difficult pieces in all of Rebetika. He was quiet and nervous but spoke English, so I got to know him best. Another was a guitarist. His strings were of nylon, which I hate. There’s no brute power in nylon. Nylon is for soft music that flitters. Rebetika is not soft music, even when it is fun, there is something terribly serious about this fun they have, as if it could be the last time they ever have fun. Nylon strings cannot convey this. Also, his style was unremarkable. But the third guy, an older gentleman, like the owner, was the king of the evening. He led us all. He took control of the entire affair and led us to a path of enrichment. He annointed us with his powerful singing voice, made me burst out laughing with some ridiculous move he pulled on the bouzouki. He was a clown, but one who could best us all at our own game. He was very fun to perform with.

Customers began to show up. It was a quiet night, it being a Sunday. The audience were silent and attentive. I had the chance to whip out a few obscure masterpieces that I save for the right moment to impress people and succeeded in doing so, but mostly I was in over my head. The fat guy was right about my small repertoire. But this was really a great honor, a night I will probably remember for a long time. When the night was over, the owner even paid me. It wasn’t much, 10 euros, but I took it as a token of appreciation, and as an endearment.

There were no girls for me on this night. But I walked out of Rebetiki Istoria with something far more important.

Locations in Athens

Key Bar
37  Praxitelous St.
Athens, Greece 10560
(+30) 210 32 30 380
Keybar.gr

Rebetiki Istoria
Ippokratous 181
Athens, Greece 11472
(+30) 210 64 24 937
rebetiki.istoria@gmail.com