My Brilliant Masterpiece

All the Casanovas open with some killer line.

I stick my foot into my mouth every single time.

If I were a great artist, I would use my expertise,

Turn this foolish scene into my brilliant masterpiece. — Don Conoscenti

That’s the chorus of a song by a singer-songwriter I stumbled upon while trying to think of something to say to a girl in a music club in Kentucky.

In the midst of wishing I knew what to say, I listened to this troubadour with a whole song about wishing he could know what to say.

Sometimes music is like that. It finds us when we need it; it fills the prescription. It comforts us by saying: At least some obscure folk singer-songwriter who lives out of a minivan can relate to me.

I was so overwhelmed by the sentiment and timing that, uncharacteristically, I’m willing to forgive the attempted rhyme of “line” with “time.” I do this only because Mr. Conoscenti belongs to that tiny minority of lyricists (especially folk singers) who uses the subjunctive: If I were a great artist, not “was.”

In case you’re ever on my bad side, it’s handy to know that correct use of the subjunctive will afford you a lot of slack.

Do what you will, but tell me: “If I were a better girlfriend, I wouldn’t have stolen your car, sold your cats and slept with your best friend” and most everything will be forgiven.

Anyhow, this song was about talking to girls, or more to the point, not talking. Being “frozen in their lights” as an earlier verse goes. I can relate all too well.

I go to a bar and all my wit, worldly experience and education instantly deteriorates into those POV shots in “The Terminator.” Suddenly, I’m scanning my database for a response. And unlike that title character, I come up with nothing. There’s a short-circuit. The CPU crashes. I’m not programmed for this. I’ve failed in my mission to become a player, or a futuristic murdering robot-turned-governor.

What gets me is knowing — or at least believing — that someone else in this situation would know what to say and do. All those Casanovas opening with their killer lines and closing with a phone number wile I’m left just fingering the Chex mix.

But if I were a great artist….

I’d love to be Cary Grant, James Bond — who am I kidding? I’d settle for Jimmy Fallon on a good day. (I can be foppish yet aloof, can’t I?)

I’d love to display ease and mastery of a social situation — especially one that has potential to result in meeting the love of my life (or at least the love of my evening).

Honestly, maybe I’m too hard on myself. Didn’t James Bond have his awkward teen years? Just once, wasn’t he unable to screw up his courage? Didn’t he ever say: “Bond, James Blond — I mean Bond! Oy, listen to me! I sound like such a shmuck.”

They don’t show those scenes in the movies though, do they? Instead, James Bond taunts me with his perfect swagger, perfect hair, and perfect women. I tell you: I’m beginning to think he may be a fictional character.

But back to the reality of the barroom, where I hope to craft my masterpiece. Let’s assume for a moment that a bar can be where art can happen, that The Cat & Fiddle is a canvas.

Art is risk and a great risk demands an occasional spectacular nosedive. Not every attempted Picasso is, well, a Picasso. Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” Spielberg’s “1941,” Prince’s “Black Album,” Bochco’s “CopRock,” America’s 43rd president. These are all necessary stumbles that made future work even better.

And even with a bona fide masterpiece, surely there are drafts, sketches, revisions, rough cuts. Even Jackson Pollock didn’t get the drips right the first time.

I want to keep these artworks in mind the next time I approach a woman awkwardly. I must remember: Like any artist, to make something beautiful, I have to be willing to get ugly. I’m going to get paint in my hair, fast-spinning clay under my fingernails, paper cuts, carpal-tunnel, welding burns. I’m going to have to put up with editors and critics and bachelorettes who just don’t get me.

It’s the cost of doing business, and if you keep going, you get to something ultimately more valuable than the phone number of a girl at a music club in Kentucky, or the song you keep in her honor.

By the way, don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Conoscenti — most people outside of his immediate family haven’t. If you want to learn more, visit, or else join me on my next road trip across the desert. Just don’t blame me when you realize the doors are locked and you’re miles from nowhere as I’m singing folk songs with the subtle nuances of an air raid siren.

People in passing cars must think this a foolish scene, but I know better: It’s my brilliant masterpiece.

Keith van Straaten is a writer and performer who hosts “What’s My Line? — Live on Stage” Wednesdays in Los Angeles. For more information, visit