The First Time I Got Paid to Play
Meredith Cushing and I met when we were eight years old, at summer camp on the Oregon Coast. We were friends immediately, but camp ends and life goes on.
Years passed and we met again in middle school, Meredith having to bus across town to get to this particular campus. I was already taking guitar lessons and Meredith was learning piano. We became best friends then, spending all our free time together – watching movies, gossiping, playing music. In high school we would cut class and go play guitars in the parks. She taught me how to sing harmony.
When we were 19, we moved in together, in a house on 12th & Alberta in Northeast Portland with our other best friend Caitlin. We each paid $300 a month and finally felt like grownups, even though we still couldn’t buy beer. Meredith and I had both been writing songs for a while and now we were singing them together. After many terrible ideas for a band name (The Uncommon Green was one that I remember), we settled on calling ourselves The Gypsy Moths, after an invasive species of European descent. Perfect!
We put on our cutest clothes and a little makeup and ventured down to the Snake & Weasel bar – which isn’t there anymore – to play at their open mic. The place was dark, with a low stage and a decent sound system. There were all sorts of actual professional musicians playing the Monday open mic. We got up on that stage and sang. I’m sure our performance was a little short on polish, but it felt great anyway.
Jon Self was running the open mic at the time. He was a fantastic guitar player who had been in an accident and had to re-learn how to play guitar, so he’d taught himself all sorts of interesting techniques. For some reason, Jon saw promise in us and made sure we felt welcome to come back the next week. We became Monday night regulars and were thrilled when we were offered a gig opening for a touring act.
When the Snake & Weasel closed down, that whole scene was moved to a bar downtown called Burlingame Pizza. The open mic at their newly dubbed Burlingame Acoustic Room became a hotspot for all the folky musicians in town. The pizza was great, the sound system was on point, and the boys behind the bar would always give us beers even though we still weren’t 21.
One special night, Meredith and I played with the impeccable Anne Weiss and Juliet Wyers. There was a $5 cover and the place was packed. At the end of the night, the door person gave me a huge roll of cash, mostly singles. It was heavy in my hand. We went into the green room to count it, and were stoked to find $75! Meredith and I looked at each other like we had just gotten away with bank robbery. I walked around the rest of the night clutching that wad of bills in the pocket of my vest.
After that night, we both quit our jobs to play music full time. I’ve never looked back. Sometimes, when the planets align and I wind up making only seventy five whole dollars at a gig, it makes me think about that night when I felt I had conquered the world.