It's twenty minutes before the open mike night starts at the Stork Club, and the Oakland bar is packed. Groups of young, shiny people mill around the tables in the large performance room, drinking bottles of Bud and chatting. A warm sense of community pervades the place, radiating out over the assembled masses like the ever-present Christmas lights that decorate the bar.
Girl George, the 57-year-old host of the Stork Club's long-standing Sunday open mike night, wanders back and forth from the sound board to the stage. The stage is a small one, but acres of shiny silver and red reflective bunting give it a glitziness and glamour far exceeding its humble dimensions.
At 9 p.m., the first band is warming up in the wings. The microphones are on and ready, and the audience is jovially filing out the front door to go home. It turns out they had all come for a poetry event that had ended at 8:30.
When Girl George summons the open mike's first performers -- the charmingly rag-tag Bargain Basement Band -- to the stage at 9:15, there is only one person left to watch them.
But Girl George is used to fickle crowds. Back in the early '70s, George was at the heart of the Nashville freak scene, she and her stage partner Arizona Star mixing up a bizarre cocktail of performance art and homegrown rock. In a 1971 issue, British mag Cream called her "the most outlandish act since Tiny Tim." She performed for the inmates at the Tennessee State Penitentiary with old-school Nashville star Faron Young and country outlaw David Allan Coe. A pre-beard Kris Kristofferson wrote songs for her, and she still has postcards from a young Chrissie Hynde asking George to call her soon.
Her performance career didn't end with the '70s. Girl George continued to write songs through the '80s and '90s, blasting life into originals like "Johnny's Got Herpes" and "You Make Me Feel Like a Whore." And she brings the same crazy warmth and energy that powers those songs to the open mike nights. Even if there's only one person there to see it.
The Bargain Basement Band is followed by a Bowie-like Rick Robinson, who is followed by the just-arrived local bluesman Kingfish. When Kingfish sails into the umpteenth verse of a pretty ballad, Girl George cuts him off. "Come on!" she yells from her seat in the back. "Get off! Your songs are too long."
She also shouts encouragement, though, calling out requests, using a canned applause box after particularly good songs. It's a supportive, anything-goes environment that has made George's Sunday-night free-for-alls the destination of choice for East Bay popsters like Thom Moore, Greg Moore, Bart Davenport, and singer-songwriter David Copenhafer.
The younger crowd shows up around 11 p.m., there to drink and play some just-learned covers or try out acoustic reworkings of electric originals. They also come to celebrate Girl George. At some point in every open mike, the host marches up to the stage like a field marshal, drafting Robinson or Copenhafer -- or whomever happens to be standing around with a guitar -- to get up onstage and be her back-up band.
Watching Girl George onstage is like watching a one-woman battle of the bands between Joey Ramone and Kathleen Hanna. Everyone at the open mike knows George's raucous songs; those who don't join her onstage clap from their seats.
It's a strange sight, witnessing formerly soft-spoken open mike performers like Helene and Davenport -- who followed Kingfish with a few lonely covers and heart-melting originals -- tap into their screaming, spastic sides. But that's the inhibition-lowering effect Girl George has on people.
And what started as a normal open mike, by 12:30 turns into a three-ring rock circus. Kingfish, Helene, and Davenport provide rowdy harmonizing as George stalks the stage, screaming her way through the crowd favorite "Everybody's Crazy -- But Me!" Copenhafer provides his guitar accompaniment standing on a chair.
The song ends dramatically, the back-up singers writhing on the stage, knocking over mike stands. Copenhafer plays the song's last chord then loses his balance, smacking his head against a cement beam in the ceiling on his way down to the ground.
It's a command performance, and the audience members -- both of them -- go crazy. Girl George smiles, does a slight bow, and starts cleaning up.
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