Have ukulele, will travel
One Chicoan’s adventures in self-employment
The wake-up call
It came to me one night recently in a flash …
Bags, wake up. This is God here, over.
That woke me up, all right …
“What is it you want from me, oh Lord?” I replied, seriously shaken.
I just looked at the unemployment statistics for Butte County, Bags. I couldn’t believe it. Now, you’re old and fairly useless, and damned lucky you’re still alive, but you must do something about the joblessness, my son, post haste.
“But what can I do?” I implored Him. “I lost my 10-year stupid job a year ago, and the only thing I’m good at is singing and playing songs for people.”
Amen, He said, and poof, He vanished, and everything got very, very quiet.
The business plan
Jesus, I thought, this is serious. I thought and thought about the problem until I couldn’t think about it anymore and gave up. That’s when the insight arrived out of nowhere, whole and complete: Create your own job.
Anyhow, there was nothing left to do. Competing with younger and prettier cyberfolks in today’s depressed job market is like trying to win the lottery: The odds against you are so great, you’d have just as good a chance of winning if you never entered the lottery.
So, why not do what you’re good at, said I to myself, with love and no heavy ambition, and the money ought to follow, right? Thus Chico Uke-O-Gram, a bike messenger service. Send your friend a song.
This may be the simplest and greenest business model ever devised since the child’s lemonade stand. Kids are very cool, and it’s always good to follow their example. In this case, make fun and money at the same time with no bosses, no exploitation, no stress, and never any feeling at all of Thank God it’s Friday.
I started playing guitar and singing when the first Beatles tunes came out on the radio. Naturally, I drove my Catholic/military family crazy.
Years later, out on my own, I played my first gigs at Fogg’s Fish & Chips in Old Town Eureka by the waterfront before they turned that gloomy district into a tourist scene. (They had to do that, of course, after laying waste to all the redwoods and fisheries, to make a quick, shortsighted buck.)
Fogg’s was dark and smoky and crowded with Humboldt County hipsters, and they wrapped the fish and chips in newspaper. I got a little following and a lot of hangovers performing there. I was hung up on Bob Dylan and Van Morrison then and covered mostly their songs, and the crowds dug my interpretations.
Sometimes I’d get an indifferent or hostile audience. That’s how I learned to sing loud. But over the years I developed a better relationship with them. Using music as a weapon took the joy out of it.
A few decades passed, I played here and there when I felt like it, and then not too long ago I got a soprano ukulele. I’d always thought of ukes as toys, till I actually played one. It was amazing to see how all my rock ’n’ roll and folkie stuff translated from guitar to this tiny four-stringed instrument. It was a totally new sound.
Last summer, between job searches, I took the uke with me all over town and Bidwell Park, riding my cruiser bike. The neck of the thing stuck out of my backpack, and the locals got curious. “What is that? A mandolin? A little guitar?” One guy asked if it was a banjo. They didn’t know.
I’d explain the instrument and play a song or two, if they requested it. Most of the time they did, and reacted with a visible twinge of joy, like I’d just handed them a candy bar unexpectedly. A few songs especially were crowd-pleasers, like “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles and “People Are Strange” by the Doors.
I met more people that summer than I’d met in the previous 20 years. I got audiences all over the place, one or two people, even seven or eight sometimes, and all ages. It was different from the usual café gigs, and it pleasantly changed my musical relationship with others again.
Meditating on all this made me feel that this strange Uke-O-Gram thing might actually work.
Something happenin’ here
First, I got a business card. Next—nothing. That’s all I needed—$56 on the credit card. I started handing the thing out all over town: “Chico Uke-O-Gram, bike-messenger service, 864-1604, Send your friend a song.” Very simple, and a picture of a uke on it. The reactions were mostly the same: There’s a 3.5-second delay as the brain struggles to compute Uke-O-Gram, then the “oh yeah” look of comprehension, then a comment, like “Cool!” or “I love it!”
How it might fly
This is how you buy a Uke-O-Gram, more or less. Call me or find me at my office (Peet’s Coffee & Tea downtown). What’s your message to your friend, lover, coworker, or whomever—Happy birthday? Get well? Miss you? Broken heart? Something mystical, or spiritual, heavy, sarcastic, absurd, funny, sad, impertinent?
I show you my song list and help you pick out a tune. I play it for you, and if you like it, I deliver the song along with your card or small gift, or whatever else I can carry on the bike. You can come along too, of course. Oh yeah, you pay me $10, give or take. Satisfaction guaranteed. Yours, your friend’s and mine.
The ancient repertoire
I’m not much of a songwriter, but a pretty accomplished interpreter of songs. My material covers the great singer-songwriters who’ve largely been missing from pop culture these last three decades or more.
I don’t see this as an oldies revival because you can only revive something that’s dead or dying. These songs live on and on. I mean the works of Lennon and McCartney, and especially George Harrison. Bob Dylan, of course. Guys like Neil Young, David Crosby, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Leon Russell, Smokey Robinson, and a couple of obscure artists no one has heard of, like Phil Ochs, the dead folkie protest singer, and the incomparable Bert Jansch, a Scottish-folk guy, still kicking and highly recommended. I’ve also got some Doors, Zombies, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, et al. What’s your pleasure?
I got my first order from a couple who are close friends and neighbors of mine. Does this count? I think it counts. Kat’s birthday was coming up and she informed her mate, Lyle, that he was buying her a Uke-O-Gram for the occasion.
This is a very nice Chico couple I’ve known forever. Lyle works for a charity and Kat works at staying cancer-free after three bouts with that terrible distraction. She’s doing fine now. Years ago, she inspired my shortest short story ever: 30 words …
It Won’t Even Be Dark
My friend Kat had cancer, was maybe dying. I asked what that was like.
“I just worry how much I’ll miss everybody when I’m gone.”
“No, you won’t,” I said.
The birthday gathering was fun. Lyle selected one of my own personal favorite songs for Kat: George Harrison’s “Love Comes to Everyone.”
It’s so true, it can happen to you all,
There, knock and it will open wide,
And it only takes time ’til love
Comes to everyone …
Everyone liked it. And being the first Uke-O-Gram ever on the planet, this one had real soul and meaning.
About the hard-work ethic
Most of us, whether we know it or not, are forever under the spell of the Christian/Nordic/Puritan work ethic, which goes like this: 1. Want to work, 2. Get work, 3. Work hard, 4. Complain frequently and repeat ’til dead.
There are several difficulties here. First, to want something is an involuntary thing. You can’t be commanded to want anything, or to like or love anything, even God. It doesn’t work that way. Second, even with the best of intentions it’s almost impossible to get work when everything’s computerized so that 90 percent of the workforce is already doing 100 percent of the work. And third, work is only hard when you don’t like what you’re doing. Anyhow, even though hard work is held up as an ideal, everyone knows it’s unhealthy because it stresses out the organism and causes all kinds of health and social and psychological problems.
Old Henry David Thoreau figured all this out in the 19th century. In his experiment to live as simply as possible (On Walden Pond), he concluded something like “As for work to do in the world, there isn’t any of any consequence.” (This was way before computers, of course.)
Henry Miller, the 20th-century author, wrote: “Of all the things I may want, I know I don’t want to work.” He talked about dropping out of society in order to live the life of an artist, and how no one pays you to do that, and therefore one has to create his own following. When asked in a radio interview what he did about the general rat-race of society, he said, “I turn my back on it. I cut myself adrift, to the best of my ability.”
The great spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti talked about the problem of working when it’s merely as a means to an end: “Is there not a different approach to work? Is it not possible to be happy and work, rather than to seek happiness in work? When we use work or people as means to an end, then obviously we have no relationship, no communion either with the work or with people; and then we are incapable of love.”
The second Uke-O-Gram
The second Uke-O-Gram ever was booked by a long-time acquaintance of mine, named H.D. (for either “Hot Dog” or “High on Drugs,” no one knows). Recently he broke up with the long-term girlfriend he was nuts about—that is, she dumped him for another guy, his former best friend. H.D. is 30ish and is some kind of craftsman, I think. He’s friendly and outgoing but the awful absence of this woman is always there with him.
She was a redhead, the Celtic kind. H.D. now hopes to find another one like her, not as a substitute or a replacement, but someone to hang out with and care about again.
When he saw my business card he figured a Uke-O-Gram might be a good way to get closer to new lady he’s been wanting to flirt with lately. He’d already bought her a couple of drinks, but so far that hadn’t worked, so he decided to buy her a song and see what happened.
We met at Peet’s Café and looked over my songlist. I asked what kind of tune he had in mind, and he asked did I have any redhead songs. I couldn’t think of any (can you?). He finally settled for a real romantic Smokey Robinson piece: “Ooh Baby, Baby.”
I’m just about at
The end of my rope
But I can’t stop tryin’
I can’t give up hope …
H.D. dispatched me with the song to a bar downtown where he knew his new redhead would be around pre-happy-hour time. He would stealthily slip in behind me and observe the action. He hoped she wouldn’t like me better than him when I sang and played.
I found the lady there, gave her my card, and explained I had a present for her from H.D. She was nice. She had a few friends with her. I sang the Smokey Robinson song for her and the others while H.D. watched unseen from the shadows. She loved the music, especially as a gift from a new friend. I finished, H.D. came over and greeted her, and as they embraced I was out the door with the uke to a vapor trail of applause. My job was done here.
Into the mystic
Going to college and getting a degree is usually seen as a means to getting employed and making a living, but today higher education, like heath care and housing, has become a luxury few non-Republicans can afford. Then there’s the unfortunate reality that even a degree won’t guarantee anyone a job in this era of the Great Recession.
If there’s ever going to be anything like full employment (which the government says is 5 percent unemployment), there will need to be a lot more entrepreneurial things going on, I think.
I was a philosophy major, which is to say a giant pain in the ass. I remember a student kidding one of the professors one time: “Hey, I’ve never seen any jobs for philosophers in the want-ads.”
“Of course not,” retorted the prof. “You have to look under ‘Aristotelian.’”
So now here we are in 2011, trying this strange musical self-employment and writing about it. I don’t know what anyone else should do in the face of joblessness and underemployment, but I’m there with a Uke-O-Gram, if it helps in any way.
God knows what’ll happen. That’s why I call the business an experiment. I hope to get some music students, parties to play at, and so on, but there’s not much ambition in all this. Like, I don’t envision a whole crew of singers and uke-players with a fleet of bicycles, and me sitting in an office smoking a cigar and getting fat off their labor. No, right now I’m thinking more like…
I can sing this song,
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone …
—“Close Your Eyes,”
The key to happiness
Mike Bagwell might be onto something. A new Gallup poll shows that people who don’t like their jobs (“actively disengaged”) are actually more stressed and unhappy than those without jobs at all. And people who love their jobs (“engaged”) are the happiest of all.<style type="text/css"> </style>