Open mic night has begun at Javatropolis, and if the song’s chorus is any indication, the delicately pretty teenager onstage just might be singing a heartfelt ballad about . . . Mao Tse-tung.
Okay, so it turns out this particular chorus, at least on this particular Tuesday night, is no indication. The chorus’ repeated phrase actually is “Bil Si Tam,” also the song’s title. It’s definitely not Mao Tse-tung, confirms Geri Micheva, the song’s composer and performer.
To be safe, Geri, who performs as Geri X, writes it down: Bil Si Tam (You’ve Been There). She dots the I’s with X’s, just like every nice little high school sophomore should. And she highlights a single, but wide, stretch of her long brown hair with neon green coloring, just like every nice little high school . . .
Hey, wait a minute. Geri’s not so easily categorized. And really she wouldn’t be hanging out on Tuesday night with this crowd if she was.
Not with Carson. Not with A.J.
And definitely not with Stick.
* * *
Javatropolis Gourmet Coffee House is a small, independent establishment tucked away in North Tampa strip mall that hosts professional musicians on weekends.
While the area abounds with the homogeny of strip malls, chain restaurants and corporate-owned stores, Javatropolis on Tuesdays is an oasis of unpolished, undiluted creativity.
It’s raw, it’s hit and miss, it’s a roller coaster of performances that ranges from inspired and energetic to inscrutable and incoherent.
Sometimes it’s all of those in the same performance. But it’s something different every week, an inconsistency many seem to find refreshing in a neighborhood replete with near-robotic sameness.
Stick, the emcee and featured performer, is a professional musician who lives in Port Richey. He plays several nights a week all over Tampa Bay with his band, The Stick Martin Show. Tuesdays he runs open mic night and performs.
Midway through the evening, Stick is performing Arty’s Song, one of his many originals. He’s working audio controls with his toes, his bare feet emerging from blue jeans full of holes. About 50 people, largely teens and twenty-somethings, are grooving and laughing, as Stick sings: “I can lead the way to ecstasy / Like lesbians on LSD.”
His real name is Chris Martin, and, no, he’s not the Coldplay dude who’s married to Gwyneth Paltrow. You probably figured that out. But Stick did get married about a month ago, shaving his hair down to a Mohawk, he says, “for the wedding pictures.”
How’d that go over with the bride?
“She loves it. She’s punk rock.”
Geri can relate, acknowledging that she changes the colorful streak in her hair on a regular basis. She’s 15 and a sophomore at Blake High School, where she is a guitar major. Bil Si Tam is written in Bulgarian, the language of Geri’s place of birth.
She’s been in America for four years – her family lives in Citrus Park – and she never spoke a word of English until she arrived. Now she speaks it perfectly, with hardly any trace of an accent.
She’s a big draw here, garnering a couple of dozen fans every Tuesday. That’s helped Javatropolis’ bottom line, since it recently instituted a $3 sort-of cover charge. The three bucks goes toward the price of any purchase, helping ensure paying customers aren’t squeezed out by a coffeehouse full of loiterers.
Most of Geri’s songs are soft and quiet, and at any given time her audience is split pretty well in half: 50 percent paying rapt attention, 50 percent jabbering and laughing. That’s what you get when you play open mic night.
“After playing for two or three weeks, you just get used to it,” she says. “Sure, it is kind of rude to talk while someone’s playing, but it doesn’t offend me. Some people come here just to socialize. I have a lot of fun just doing this.”
* * *
It’s not all music on open mic night. Regular performers include The Great Cerlini, a.k.a. Jack Lazzara, a middle-aged gentleman from Carrollwood who bills himself as a “master magician and mind reader.” Suzanne Willett of Tampa often does comedy. Poetry and storytelling also get their due.
A.J. Rollo, 19, does a little bit of everything. The University of South Florida freshman is sporting a huge bushy hairdo that would make Kurt Vonnegut and rock guitarist Slash equally proud. He plays, sings and recites some poems of his own. Tonight he’s wearing the iconic Ramones black T-shirt under an old work shirt he stole from his dad’s closet.
“I should have bongos and a cigarette, but there are laws about that,” A.J. notes at the conclusion of his first poem, which ostensibly was about robots.
The next one’s ostensibly about love songs. As A.J. explains: “This (next) one’s called Love Song, and it’s about people who write love songs and how much they suck.”
Credit Javatropolis for not lowering the censoring hammer on these performers: A few F-bombs drop during A.J.’s act, and while Stick generally performs some of the tamer tunes in his repertoire, even they are filled with subject matter that would make your grandmother blanch.
Unless you’re Stick’s grandmother. We figure she’s punk rock.
“I just want to take a moment to say it’s good that we do this, read poetry,” announces Carson Cox at the beginning of his act. “I think the real problem with poetry (at present is the TV show) Def Poetry Jam. I mean, I like a lot of people on it. I like Ani DiFranco. I like Mos Def. But it’s not real poetry.”
Carson is 18, a recent transplant to Carrollwood and a guy who frowns a little at a characterization of his look as Ryan Adams crossed with Crispin Glover. Adams is a little pretentious, Carson says, adding that people have suggested a resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.
Sorry, can’t see Carson hanging off an iceberg. But we’ll buy a cross between Glover and DiCaprio.
“I’ll be yelling a lot and projecting,” Carson warns at the beginning of a poem. “It’s untitled, so if anyone wants to name it, now’s a good time.”
“Cheese Weasel!” someone shouts from the crowd.
And so, Cheese Weasel it is.
* * *
Carson follows with a few more songs, talks about a few recordings he’s made: “I hate my vocals more every time I hear them. So that’s a good thing.”
A.J. calls out to his buddy: “Do the crazy song with the weird chords!”
Geri prefers one of Carson’s sweeter tunes. “Geri wins,” Carson allows, not surprisingly. Geri’s pretty much the living embodiment of the word adorable. With the streaked hair she’s highly reminiscent of Anna Paquin as Rogue in the X-Men movies. Which makes sense, since Stick’s jeans look like they’ve gone 10 rounds with Wolverine.
“I get all dressed up to kiss you, you won’t even say my name,” Carson sings, and 10 feet away at the front of the audience, Geri sings along, quietly. Carson continues: “I said I’d never hurt you, but I guess I never wrote it down.”
Stick, wearing a powder-blue “Stick Martin Show” T-shirt, kicks off his set in a somewhat more exuberant fashion.
“Prepare yourself mentally and physically for an old-school journey,” he commands, soon blasting through his original tune Marvin Gaye:
“Sometimes I feel like I can sing like Marvin Gaye / Sometimes I feel I could get down just like James Brown / I sit and I wonder how my body can take this / I drop more s– than a one-armed waitress.”
Stick is brilliantly charismatic and his solo show alone is a nonstop blast – funny, smart, energetic. He only plays a few songs, though, because there are more performers to come. He kicks off a little On the Road Again with “This one’s for you, Willie,” and wonders aloud: “Can you imagine if Willie Nelson were president? It would be a whole lot nicer country.”
Next up is another original, a pirate song, The Tale of Captain McNail. He plays this one just with the acoustic guitar:
“Oh, you raped and you pillaged, you burned down my village / You killed all my family and friends / And I sing this song, for it will not belong / ‘Til I kill you and have my revenge.”
He kicks off Fox News Blues with an inquiry to yours truly: “You’re not with Fox News, are you?” (Thankfully, no.) The song almost entirely entails shouting “Bill O’Reilly,” which Stick does in call-and-response with the crowd. A.J. and Carson alone are screaming “Bill O’Reilly” loud enough to make Ludacris run for cover.
* * *
“I pity whoever’s next,” Stick says, semiapologizing for covering the microphone with spittle. He follows with a joke about the popularity of emo music: ” . . . all this emu music came into fashion. I don’t know about the emu . . . ”
He follows with covers of Beck’s Satan Gave Me a Taco and the Queen/David Bowie classic Under Pressure, for which Geri gets the snap/clap audience participation right, while A.J. and Carson apparently just formed opposable thumbs yesterday.
Stick bows out with the joking comment, “This is just a bunch of crap here. The band is the real thing.”
A few more acts follow, including a guy named Trevor, whose I Like Pants poem – “Sometimes I feel sad for ants, ‘cuz they can’t wear pants” – alone could make Charles Bukowski turn to the bottle. And he’s been dead for a decade.
Stick tries to knock out a quick tune with A.J., but the latter’s chord knowledge is a touch lacking. Stick explains the aborted attempt to the crowd: “I go (to A.J.), “It’s G to C.’ He says, “I can’t do C! It’s gonna be A!’ ”
Open mic night comes to a close soon after. The coffeehouse closes, the performers lingering outside, some to smoke, some to chat, most to do both. Most of them will be back next Tuesday, to do it all over again.
For most it’s a healthy, nurturing environment where they can express their creativity. It’s a well-managed but informal atmosphere to work on and improve their material.
And for others, it’s just a reason to maintain good hygiene.
As Carson notes during his act: “I washed my hair for the first time in a week.”
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[By Rick Gershman. Originally published March 2005 in the St. Petersburg Times, which holds the copyright.]