You’d think you could trust a guy named Junkyard Jim Jazz.
Following my absence a weekend, and my reluctance to play as I considered my last performances given (see two posts ago), busking politics have taken hold among the streets of Fargo. Jordan, the seventeen year old who has been playing in the primo territory by Dempsey’s, has inadvertently upset the balance of street musicians everywhere. Now John Bondy, Sarah Bomb, a guy named Dameon (who is very dramatic and wrote posts of barely concealed contempt the time I took a spot before him), Red-Bearded Guy, Unknown But New Banjo Player, Harmonica Guy, Guys Who Occasionally Show up Drunk from Chicago, and New Guy. It’s quite a team of well-known and descriptively detailed rivals. Also, someone in Fargo had the bright idea of placing a piano on the street corner, so anyone could play. I give it two weeks before the college kids come back and it’s destroyed.
However, in that time, several events have unfolded. One, I tried the open mic circuit one last time, and remembered that I indeed disliked it as much as ever, and two, my spot was stolen, so the revenge is necessary.
Junkyard Jim is a guy up from working on the pipelines in Alaska. When I first knew him, it was March and he had a big bushy beard. He was short and soft-spoken, but had gotten out of the penitentiary for something. Mitch is his music buddy. Mitch I had known for awhile. He was a shorter guy about my height, glasses, harmonica, and guitar. He was the sort of person that I got along with okay, and called himself an organic farmer. He would get incensed about GMOs, pesticides, foreign chemicals in food getting in your body, and all sorts of other horrible things. Often after these sorts of rants where he got all wound up, he would try to unwind and ask me if I want to go grab a cigarette and tell me about the benefits of dropping acid. The irony was not lost on me. Once we met up with a band out of Minot at an open mic, who really liked me because I played Woody Guthrie songs and even knew his birthday. Mitch and I chatted with them, and it turns out they were going to a concert in Minnesota in a van that was autographed by Emmylou Harris. I said “No way” but I saw it, clear as day on the back of the seat. The guy who’s van it was said it used to be a taxi in Nashville. So at any rate, Mitch asked where they were staying, and even though it was about two in the morning, they didn’t know. Mitch said “come back to my place” and invited me too, so we went out there. We had organic vegetables, and chicken, and all sorts of stuff that didn’t fill you with pesticides, and the band and I chatted and talked about this or that. They said they were on their way to see the Flaming Lips (whoever they were) and were going to drop a bunch of shrooms, and wanted me to go to too. I said no, and they said I’d regret it. I haven’t yet, although I could give it a few more years. One by one they drank from the beer they had, which, along with other stuff, filled up the back of their entire van (they had a good weekend planned) and were left on couches, floors, and a tent they brought. One of the last guys standing, Mer (yes, short for Meredith) told us about the time he got out of the pen because he tried to import marijuana from Canada. Not like, a few grams, but like something that would fit in a semi. Anyway, he was out now, but he really didn’t like the government. I said my goodbyes about five or six in the morning.
Anyway, Mitch and Jim were the guys who stole my spot.
This was mostly because his “usual” Dempsey’s spot was taken since he had last been there in May (in some sort of altercation, Jim said they broke up, but was not forthcoming on the details). In retaliation, I immediately called Glen, who was downtown that night and offered to play down the street. Glen went all “1930s Lounge Singer” on me, and said he had to save his voice for a gig tomorrow. I met up with my friends Beeber and Paco (they do have real names, but I’d rather be known as hanging out with Beeber and Paco) and I plotted my revenge. Mark, one of the most established musicians in town, had been wanting to play with me, so I would regroup for the Saturday crowd. It was Pride Week, so downtown was buzzing, and the foot traffic was great.
Then, on Saturday, it rained. Fargo had been in a drought, but a slow-moving cell came in and just stayed there from about the hours I had planned on playing. I met Mark anyway, and we went to a bar to wait out the storm. Mark is a tall guy in his thirties who plays the mandolin. He knew about every woman in the bar and I talked to my friend Jim. Jim, a big, bearded truck driver in about his sixties, is about the happiest drunk I know. He always is happy to see me, and he’s a fun guy to talk to. He’s one of the more encouraging people there, although he finishes his sentences with “But I’m an ol’ truck driver, don’t listen to me.” Either way, it’s always good to see him. Mark and I later went to a classy, high end bar, and waited for the rain to stop. It did. We went out and played music.
The crowd was generally friendly. I watch the case more than Mark does, which is good. Mark was pretty entranced by some of the women. I was happy they were there too, but mostly because if one girl stops by, it’s amazing how many men will suddenly become interested in what we are playing, and then give us money to show their wealth and generosity. I think impressing women remains one of the most primitive and basic functions, and it’s always somewhat extraordinary how little things will change. Mark hasn’t realized that street music is one of the worst ways to get phone numbers, or anything else for that matter. It goes like this: If someone likes the music, you play for them. During that time, four or five other men will swoop in, and one or two things will happen: the said lady will enjoy the conversation and leave with them, or be creeped out by the gentleman and leave away from them. To be honest, if there are any young women that flirt with musician himself, it is generally because they have some sort of idea about musicians that we don’t really embody, or they just like the thrill of it. A street musician is basically an interactive painting. A good busker comes to a realization fast: he is part of the scenery, the goal has to be to make money, and that image is everything. At any rate, the crowds were generally nice that night.
Mark is a good enough musician, but he has a weakness. He can harmonize, but not in volume. He sings over, rather than with whoever he is playing with. His mandolin also was really loud, which almost killed me trying to sing over it (street performances do not allow the use of microphones), and he instructed me on rhythm. Although my rhythm was fine, he had a particular style that went fast enough that actually I couldn’t play, or just didn’t want to. Sometimes you have to work with the person with whom you’re playing, as I think there is a bit of a give and take in playing with other people. We made a fair amount in an hour and a half regardless, and went home.
Last year, when I was packing the car for Washington, I predicted that there would be one more good summer before street musicians took over Fargo. Some of it was may be my doing, but I think most of the new street musicians found out about music on their own. Sooner or later, someone is going to be interested in the free money, show up drunk, and just take the bait when some guy who used a Friday night to reaffirm his youth and harass a performer. At some point, there will be police, and the “after-ten no-play-zone” will be enforced. I believe, unfortunately, it’s a matter of time.
However, that is not today, and the season was overall pretty good. I hope, at least, people make way for younger musicians in the future in Fargo. The bars and gig scenes, dominated by the same bands in their thirties, with the same crowds in their thirties, and the absent college students have, I believe stagnated the town musically. That’s why I didn’t find my niche until street music, and I hope when I’ll be replaced, it will be by someone young, at least, who hopefully can use it as an avenue to get somewhere I could not.