I was made aware of police responding to a disturbance at 10th and E Pike Monday night and decided to to get a closer look for myself. One never knows what kinds of photo ops lurk in Capitol Hill’s famed nightlife area.
As I arrived at the the corner nearest Poquitos, I listened to a street musician playing his homemade drum kit before a small but appreciative crowd. I recognized him from some photos I took last summer but had never had the occasion to introduce myself until now. Given CHS’s recent discussions around street drumming, it was a good time to say hello.
35 years old and originally from Rhode Island, Joe has been living in Seattle for about 13 years but has been homeless for the last several. He says that SPD had just paid him a (polite) visit to report a neighbor’s complaint and asked that he finish up by 10 PM. “I’m reliant upon the income I make from playing here 6 nights a week and the 10 PM to 2 AM hours are really the best,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”
I asked how long he’d been playing drums here or if he’d had any problems in the past.
“I’ve been playing here since August and love the vibe. Weekends are the usually best, especially once the bars began to clear out around 1:30 — that’s when the money starts,” he said with a big, happy grin. “It was only recently, though, that someone started calling the cops.”
“I know all the officers up at the East Precinct and think they are great — they care about the people out here and I respect them a lot. They enjoy what I do and tell me so. It’s funny, people just want to control their environment — and in a town where Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana got started? This town is as much about rock and roll as it is about Starbucks and Microsoft.”
Joe also plays the harmonica and a small keyboard at his side. When the energy is just right, he says people spontaneously break into dance and sing along. Other musicians have been known to join in to enhance the energy. He credits his gurus and local musicians Ricky Lynn Johnson and Rick Rude for helping him develop his talents. “It’s because of them,” he says, he now feels confident in sharing those talents with the world.
Still though, the reality of being homeless can be very tough. “It’s hard being on the streets moving from place to place with all this gear. And it’s tough trying to play when drunk or obnoxious people are trying to ruin my show. Once, I even had a lady come at me with a baseball bat a a couple months ago. I’ve struggled a lot out here, but I think it’s also part of becoming an artist — it makes you humble. Sometimes people come up to me without any money but really like what I am doing and say thank you — that means even more to me.”
Joe admits that his past drug use has contributed to his current situation on the streets but says he’s been on the treatment medication Suboxone for a couple years in order to help him kick both heroin and methadone. “I’m going to ween myself off of this too and get off these streets. That’s the plan because being on the streets especially during winters is killing me.”
A car pulls up and a woman gets out to greet him with a hug and smile. It’s his ex-wife with their 7 year old daughter who is hoping dad can come over for a quick hug and a kiss. His face lights up as he dashes over to the waiting car. He returns after a few moments, clearly touched, and explains that he is very lucky to have his ex still in his life. “We’re all really good friends, even my child’s stepdad is a great guy. It takes a load off my mind knowing my daughter is in good hands with them.”
I ask Joe if he has any advice. “Do what you have to do to stay off or get off the streets, really. Stay in school and get a job because being dumb won’t impress me or anyone else. If it’s a good musician you want to become then just do it. Nobody starts off being great. You got to have the passion and drive and be willing to practice 10 hours every day. If your’e not any good after 6 months, it might be time to try something else. That’s what it took for me.”
“I wish that I had found art and music earlier in my life, that I had started drumming sooner,” Joe said. “I’d like this passion of mine to help get me off the streets and into my own (music) studio where I could record and help others do the same. Drumming supports me right now and helps my child — maybe not a lot but even being able to afford a pair of shoes for her is a good thing. Music is my reason to get up every morning and I enjoy doing it — entertaining people. It gives be a sense of pride even though I’m on the streets — it’s my everything.”
Unless the complaints shut him down, you can catch Joe’s performances almost nightly and especially on the weekends in the Pike/Pine corridor near the Comet Tavern.