Halfway through degenerate-cum-degenerate Mishka Shubaly’s set, a middle-aged woman in fence-paint-thick lipstick seizes my arm. She drops her weight into me, her fingertips dimpling my bicep and shoves her botox cheek against mine so that our faces are aligned like Cops sitting driver-side to driver-side in an alley. “Please. Please.” Her booze-breath stings the inside of my ear canal as she literally sobs. “Please make him stop. Make him get offstage. It’s awful.”
To be fair, one of the most entertaining parts of a Shubaly set is taking bets on how fast the room will clear and tonight he’s playing the back half of the dinner hour at a pub-grub-and-craft-tap establishment in a California seaside resort town popular with the sort of people even wine snobs generally dislike. But Mishka’s hallmark self-depreciating, pull zero punches, give zero fucks approach to both stage banter and lyrical content tends to thin even the dive-iest of bar crowds and so it’s no surprise when the lady leaves out the back door (though her husband, it is worth noting, stays, chuckling quietly in the corner.)
Tonight’s performance follows the general trajectory that most (initially) well-attended Shubaly shows have taken in my experience. Mishka plugs in one of his eternally disparate, always exquisite vintage electric guitars, coaxes a suitably blaring tube-crackle tone from his amp and eases into his first song, “Am I the Only One Drinking Tonight?” He delivers the dirg-y chorus in his trademark baritone gargle; a few beers are raised, some heads begin to nod along and people politely lower their voices as they order food from the waiter at the bar tables. The tune ends to enthusiastic applause and the banter begins. For most musicians, the banter is secondary to the songs, just a way to fill time while tuning, but for Shubaly it’s usually the opposite. A multi-talented wordsmith, Mishka is not only a musician- he’s also a standup comedian, cult radio personality, a widely published author and a Yale University adjunct and he puts his considerable oratory skill to work in almost equal amounts with his singing most nights.
He wraps up his first five-minute diatribe (which focuses primarily on his intimate and extensive knowledge of illicit substances) with, “People always ask me ‘Mishka, you’ve done all the drugs. What’s the best one?’ And I can tell you, since I have done all the drugs, the best drug is birth control. There’s nothing better than being forty and having zero adult responsibilities.” The audience laughs. “Here’s a song to my unborn child.” He launches into “Your Stupid Dreams,” from his 2015 album Coward’s Path. “Wild Horses on the Jukebox or whatever the hell it was / we were young we were in love we were drunk and on drugs / your mom can say what she wants about how I wasted my time / but I had so much fuckin’ fun burning out at twenty-nine.” A few raised eyebrows, wry smiles and a couple legit fans singing along... “Hey kid hold on to your dreams / your stupid hopeless dreams / you’ll grow meeker and colder as you get weaker and older / making the same money you did when you were seventeen.” People still waiting on their orders begin to look as if they’re just now realizing they’ve made a fatal mistake.
By the time their club sandwiches and artisanal tater-tots arrive, Mishka is discussing the finer points of dating at forty. And while he’s yet to serenade diners with the Rimbaudian descriptions of middle-aged male genitalia that will come in his next song (wherein he will liken his half-hard dick to a white flag of surrender) he’s certainly spent more time than many in the room would likely deem necessary explaining his gifting of a fallen-off big toe-nail in a heart-shaped locket to his much younger girlfriend this past Valentine’s day. “My warranty has expired… my body is a crumbling insane asylum” he concludes as a number of people begin to actively leave.
Still, by the end of the set an encouraging number of die-hards remain- the Stanhope fans, the other bands and a few tables full of drunk, fist-pumping twenty-somethings who seem like they absorbed the “give me speed, spite and strychnine” part (Shubaly’s wonderfully cynical take on Little Feat) and missed the “so… I had to stop drinking” part. It’s this phrase, by far the least concupiscent of the night, delivered with a sense of both Marianas Trench-deep regret and nauseous joy, that leads into the last song of the evening. “I’m never drinking again” lilts the chorus, and, just like the best lullabies, the song’s sleepy, minor melody echoes our collective resolve to somehow outlast the slow fingers of darkness spreading out from beneath our beds.
So why does he do it? What drives a self-described “sober drunk” (who claims to have literally done every drug, alienated nearly every friend and family member and who has now put that hellscape at least physically behind him) to spend most nights up on shithole bar stages resolutely sipping club soda and virtually daring someone to clean his clock over any number of remarks lewd enough to blue the barrel of a navy gun? Why not a pretty, sweet little Martin rather than the jarring jangle of the unaccompanied electric guitar? Why the pinpoint focus on indiscretion after indiscretion, every innuendo taken two dick jokes too far? Why the rollercoaster of alcoholic war stories and near Spanish Inquisition-levels of self flagellation?
Because fucking art, man. What that lady with the Behr Industrial makeup and every other person who walks out in disgust from a Shubaly show misses completely is the fact that art isn’t made to pair with artisanal tater-tots because art isn’t supposed to pair well with anything other than the unbridled, unhinged honesty of its particular purveyor. Art is meant to blow from the weird soul of the artist and the point of art is not, and never should be, to please the audience according to what they think they want; and thus any moment in which the mad witchment of the artist is fully tuned to the consumer needs of any average audience is fortuitous but by no means necessary or even desirable. The glow of a saturday night ukulele jamfest wears thin with the advent of a new work week but a good misting of blood flung from stage enters your capillaries whether you like it or not and when you stick out a Mishka set, he’s fucking IN you forever.
William Blake taught us that worthwhile art attempts the Sublime- that which is dark, massive, unable to be described unless experienced and above all, terrifyingly free of constraint. Mishka Shubaly is sublime, and most of the rest of us are not, and that’s just the way it is. But we resent the honesty, we plead for the storm to be contained, put back in the Reynoldean frame, and we take our food to go when the gale is allowed to rattle into splinters the doors of our cellars. The sublimity of Shubaly haunts audiences because Mishka may be singing about booze, but we’re thinking about bank account; his slackening penis is our social media profile, his glib freedom to worry only about where his pants are reminds us of the closeness of our prison walls and how much we hate them. This is what art is meant to do. And this is why it makes us so very uncomfortable.
“I’m too big for America” Mishka jokes toward the end of his set. He’s right.