In my hometown, the summers are always longer than people would often expect. The light lingers until ten o’ clock or later, and it’s not unusual to find oneself at six thinking it was only three in the afternoon. Often on weekends the city turns into a ghost town, as a mass exodus of its people head to cabins on the lakes, but the ones that are left tend to stay outside. Summer is short, and people try to make the most of it.
The music scene thrived this week, just after the longest day in the year. The Island Park Jams, begun every Monday since sometime this spring, began to boom. Last week a large group attended, mostly possessing its common core. Several musicians, going by the names of Yannick, Rezil, and Glen, as well myself and some other regulars were present, although Glen was busy with an errand in Bismarck that day and could not join us. For this reason our instrumental variety suffered, as Glen, a self-proclaimed “instrument hoarder” and one of the most enthusiastic members could not be there to bring half of his orchestra. It was not unusual to see Glen, a tall and skinny kid of twenty-three, who usually wore round glasses and a top hat, lugging no less than a banjo, a guitar, a ukulele, several tambourines, maracas, an entire set of harmonicas, a washboard, a money basket, and an entire washtub at a jam or a street corner.
The three of us present played acoustic guitars, I took rhythm and the others lead, and we were joined by a nice group as the afternoon went on. A bearded young man named Eric, who was a bassist but played a great blues guitar, joined us that day, as did his friend, who played complicated chords I had trouble following, but who was good nonetheless. A young lady showed up with banana bread, and another one listened. A friend of mine from college, who once declared to me of having a dream of “playing in a park band” showed up with her friend, while a fellow from last year, Andrew (a good songwriter) arrived. Jon Hanson, who had spent an awful lot of time trying to embody the sixties in their entirety, brought his own style of music, and played through what looked like either a modified vuvuzela, or a large tub of a wrapping paper that sounded like a fart and made us laugh. The weather was clear and sunny, with about the perfect amount breeze coming through the park and making us all relaxed.
Spectators make up much of the flavor of these events. The pavilion is often sort of a hangout of homeless fellows, and several of them were there. I’m not sure what was going most of the time, as my own back was turned to them, but after two women showed up, I think one of the men got mad and had words with another. A lady eventually came over, curled up in a ball near our feet, and passed out in the middle of the circle. Her sister, who was mute, came by on about the hour to wake her up, but she wasn’t having it. We checked her pulse every once in awhile, and Rezil once had to take his shoes (also her pillow) which she was upset about, but she was fine at the end and got up, although still drunk out of her mind. The two drunk fellows postured with each other, and one sang something in a Native American language, but they made up in the end. Other spectators came and went, and a fellow from Texas listened to the whole thing, prompting me to lead with songs like “Yellow Rose” and “Rose of San Anton.” Mothers and children and “hippies” stopped by, making it a typical summer evening in Island Park in Fargo, before I bid my adieus around eight.
The weekends, by contrast, are not full of the gentle relaxation of sunny evenings, gentle trees, and (generally sober) passerby. College, not in session, leaves the downtown open to people largely in their mid-twenties to thirties, and for a few hours on Friday and Saturday it is their night. Taking my usual spot by Halberstat’s, an upscale clothing store (for this city, at least) I sat on the ledge of a flowerbed. The spot is situated well. To my front lay the Hodo, a popular bar, itself not far from several others. Somewhere two blocks to my right was the Old Broadway, the only “club” downtown, and one most of my friends swore to stay away from, but still generated good foot traffic as people came from or left elsewhere. Other bars littered the area around the corner, and two blocks away Glen traditionally played in a niche outside Dempsey’s, where he likes to catch the smokers as they come out on breaks.
I had played in that spot the August before, but this year had not gone as well. Sometimes this would be expected. Glen and I played in March and April to gusts and numb fingers, and once watched an hour’s work (three dollars) get blown down the street, which we took as a sure a sign as any to leave. Two weeks before, Yannick and I did the rare move of changing a spot after not being able to get some very intoxicated individuals to depart. Usually, I can “bore” them away with long ballads, but this was the sort of inebriation where guys just kept doing the same thing over and over again for hours, and even took a pleasure in harassing the buskers. Joining up with Glen, we then had an unusually bad group of young men. These may be the worst, the college fellows with gelled blond hair, designer shirts, and enough cologne that they smelled like they had rolled in a dead whale. They seemed to target me in particular, but in all honesty, there isn’t much one can do. Alcohol, like any other drug, leaves the streets with grown-up toddlers, it’s just harder to discipline a grownup. Even Yannick, the most gentle and open person I know, got irritated, which prompted Glen to about take off his pants and moon them.
However, this weekend was not like that. Playing only after midnight after a heavy rain, I made one hundred dollars even. One twenty came from a waitress in a bar I used to play in, who thanked me for it but I had never really spoken to her. A few fellows told me the store I played in front of was where Bob Dylan washed dishes. I had heard that was Babb’s Coffeehouse some blocks away, but who knows. I had previously heard (from one of the following bandmembers himself) that Bob Dylan was kicked out of the then local band Bobby Vee and the Shadows because he could only play in the key of “C” on a keyboard. Still someone else told me that was a lie, and Bob just wanted payment. Bob himself just wrote that Fargo was “too constraining” or something, but knowing Dylan being the snake-oil salesman he is, I think the keyboard story was the most accurate. At any rate, I am used to be compared to Bob Dylan, who I’ve grown to hate more with a special loathing over the years, and someone thought that was where he had been at some point.
By Saturday, the crowds were slower, but more generous. A group of musicians came by. One of them was drunk out of his skull, and kept saying something about having no bellybutton. I thought it was a song, and didn’t understand, until he started lifting his shirt to passerby, and there were huge scars and indeed, no bellybutton. His friend said it was Iraq. His name was Ben, and he gave me a twenty. He tried to give me another, and I tried to refuse, but he insisted. He then told me that I should know the two important things in life, which was that life is horrible, but to “truck on” and that nothing is more important than a lady. He said if I became famous to remember his name. His friend was a big bearded guy my age, and liked Neil Young. I let him play a little on my guitar.
My flowerbed had been vomited on and torn up by a large, angry woman by the time I arrived, although she left not long after. I had a lot of the usual requests, such as “Can you play…. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, ect….”. There were long moments of quiet that I would play ballads that not many people wanted to hear. A middle age man kept coming back and listening to me on the bench, disappeared when other people showed up, but returned when they left. He said he just liked listening to me. A lot of people asked for the harp, and I must have played “Don’t Think Twice” at least five or six times that night. Two girls who had never heard it before liked it, as did a Jack Russel mix who stopped by. A fellow sat beside me, lit a joint and offered it to me, but I didn’t want it. I told him to watch for cops, which is my way of saying “Dude, go away” but he said it was just a fine. Obviously, he wasn’t from here. Another fellow thought my case was too empty, yelled, “This is why there is no God!” and gave me a five. It was almost as impressive as the guy who once looked at me, said “This one is for you,” ran up the wall, and did a backflip. The streets were still kicking by two, when the bars officially closed, and I went home.
Many nights are bad and unforgiving, or at best, neutral. The amount of people who are nice usually outweigh the jerks and Philistines, but the weekend was good, and I think summer finally kicked off. My memories already are jumbled, and I have the nagging feeling I missed a lot I wanted to remember. I don’t deny memories of street performing are hard to recall in a lot of ways, even when, like me, one is sober. However, it was a good night.
And that is the state of music in my hometown, on this, June 30th, the first official week of summer.