Port Townsend musician looks to community for help, inspiration with 'unusual project' — Corrected
Artis the Spoonman hopes to debut a musical piece this spring using a Port Townsend landmark as a stage. — Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News
By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News
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PORT TOWNSEND — A local musician who has performed with Frank Zappa and the band Soundgarden is looking to the community to realize his latest composition, seeking volunteers and a rehearsal space to bring the idea to fruition.
“I want to present an innovative percussion performance for the people of Port Townsend,” said Artis the Spoonman.
“This is a serious, creative, unusual project, and I am so excited to pull this off.”
To get the project off the ground, Artis is looking to recruit 52 volunteers to help with the performance who can commit to spending about 10 hours in rehearsal.
“All factions of society are invited to participate,” he said.
“Anyone over 5 years old, any ethnicity, any gender, any altered ability, and you don't even need to keep a beat, yet,” Artis said.
While he may explain the project if asked directly, Artis won't divulge specific details of the performance “in order to maintain an element of surprise.”
He will disclose that the idea came to him while walking through town and noticing the unique acoustic abilities of a local landmark.
He experimented with the sound but determined that he didn't have enough hands to realize what he heard in his head.
He ordered 52 pair of drum dowels, which arrived this week, and set out to get people interested with a post on his Facebook page.
Aside from the volunteers, he needs a modest place to practice “to accommodate 50 people and have a window or two that open for fresh air.”
There may be a public dress rehearsal in the intended landmark, but that has yet to be decided, as well as whether a permit is needed.
Even so, the performance will be short enough — about five minutes — that by the time it's determined that he is operating outside of the statute, the show will be over.
Once the performance is completed, he'd like to use it to benefit his registered nonprofit, Artis the Spoonman's Soup Fund, which raises funds to support local mental health efforts.
Artis, 65, acknowledges that the project is ambitious and might not actually happen but wants it to be part of his legacy, which includes a biography and audio gathered over 40 years as a performing artist.
He was born in Alaska, never knew his biological father and was adopted by his stepfather, Artis Douglas Barry Alport, but the name meant nothing to him, he said, and he eventually changed it legally to “Artis” alone.
He took music lessons as a child, but they didn't take hold until his mother gave him a set of performing spoons at age 12, he said; he found he had a natural talent.
Since that time, he's performed around the world, mostly as a street musician, something that allowed him to arrive in a town with a quarter and leave in a few days with several hundred dollars — enough to live on.
Artis is in poor health with a multitude of ailments, he said; he lives in a low-income housing facility and is supported by Medicaid and Medicare.
He'd like to complete and publish his book and already has about 30,000 words written but is motivated toward its completion for the benefit of his four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, whom he does not see often, he said.
Aside from having led an interesting life, the desire to write things down comes from the fact that his equally interesting mother did not, he said.
“My mother was a pilot in Alaska in the 1930s. She was a dime-a-dance gal at the Red Dog Saloon,” he recalled.
“She had three of us by two different fathers, but all I had was her spoken word.”
He gained his greatest fame in the 1990s performing with Soundgarden, which wrote a song in his honor and cast him in the video.
He also performed with Aerosmith and Phish, and appeared at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival and on “Late Night with David Letterman” performing on the spoons.
These performances are largely improvised and never the same from one to the next “because I have trouble focusing,” he said.
Much of his life was spent traveling and enjoying random occurrences, such as his relationship with Zappa.
In 1978, he somehow acquired Zappa's home phone number, which he called from a Los Angeles phone booth to see whether Zappa would like to hear him play.
Zappa declined because he was too busy at the time but left the door open.
Artis caught up with him a few years later in Eugene, Ore., and finished the show.
Afterward, he received a verbal invitation to appear with Zappa's band at the New York Palladium a few months later, so he hitchhiked cross-country for a series of performances on Halloween 1981.
He never leveraged these appearances into greater fame. He had a manager for a while but fired him, Artis said, due to the manager's cigarette habit and fondness for small dogs.
Artis said he sometimes feels “embarrassed” about his current plight but feels it keeps his ego in check.
“I've always done exactly what I wanted to do during my entire adult life, even if I had to sleep under a bridge to do it,” he said.
Artis the Spoonman can be contacted at email@example.com, 360-385-5845 or on Facebook as Spoonman Artis.
Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: March 07. 2014 10:26AM