Flush with Fame

Guitarist Patrick Owen's career is in the toilet--and he couldn't be happier

Patrick Owen sits on his stool, gently cradling his acoustic guitar in his long fingers. Running through an impressive rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Owen plucks and pulls at the instrument's strings, bending them until they almost break. Though it's early in the night, his audience still thin in numbers, Owen has already worked up a sweat. His long black hair sticks to his forehead, which is wrinkled in the bluesman's grimace.

He plays the first few bars, pacing himself and enjoying the sound. Then, almost without losing his place, Owen reaches for an aerosol can sitting next to him. He presses the button on top, holding the can away from his precious instrument.

Psssssssssssst.
Without looking up from his guitar, Owen releases the air-freshening spray for a few seconds, filling the room with the canned smell of daisies and rain showers. Then he goes back to his guitar and begins singing, growling and biting off his words and...Flushhhhhhhhhh.

The man occupying the stall just a few feet from Owen's perch has finished his business. He emerges to wash his hands, then sticks around to hear a few more bars of the song. As he leaves, he throws a dollar into Owen's open guitar case.

"Thanks, man," Owen nods.
"Make sure the lights don't go off when you're in here by yourself," the man offers as he walks out the door. Owen laughs, then finishes the song with a flurry of notes.

"I usually have incense burning, but I forgot some tonight," he says by way of apology, "but, man, you should be in here when they puke. Then it smells bad and sounds bad, but I'll just make up songs." He plays a fast Lightnin' Hopkins-styled riff: Yeah, you're puking. Aw, how's it feel to puke now?

Welcome to the men's bathroom at Caligula XXI, the Northwest Highway topless bar where 30-year-old Owen holds what has to be described as the crappiest gig in town for a musician--although crappy in only the most literal sense of the word. For four years, Owen has played his guitar for the most attentive of audiences in the most unlikely of venues, entertaining men while they stand at the urinals and sit (or, on a bad night, kneel) at the toilets. Owen--or his partner Ted Levin, who's in a band called Glow and fills in for Owen on off days--provides the nightly soundtrack for flush and flatulence, taking by surprise those men who only venture into the john for a brief pit stop before getting back to the real business at hand.

A guitarist in the john is a topless-bar gimmick for sure. But Owen is a genuinely gifted musician who learned the blues as a teen-ager from his father, studied classical guitar for two years at the University of North Texas, and played with a handful of unknown bands around the area. He's a veritable human jukebox who knows at least bits and pieces of thousands of songs and is ready to take requests at a customer's command.

Want to hear Alice in Chains or the Toadies? No problem. Jimi Hendrix? Owen does a wonderful "Little Wing." T-Bone Walker? Owen can play and sing "Stormy Monday Blues" like an old pro. Led Zeppelin? Which song? Django Reinhardt? Owen has his classical flamenco down to a fiery-fast stroke. Lynyrd Skynyrd? Owen will play "That Smell" (and why not?).

During one Friday night, a young, clean-cut kid no older than college age and sporting a half-shaven head wanders into the men's room and asks for a Stone Temple Pilots song. Owen happily fills the request by launching into an acoustic rendition of "Plush." When Owen is done, the kid tosses some money into a hat perched on the counter.

"Thanks, man," he offers the guitarist. "When I come back, maybe some Pearl Jam?"

"Sure."
Half an hour later, the kid returns, and sure enough, Owen once more complies with a solicitation. Owen is the very definition of a crowd-pleaser, even if the crowd consists of one man in between lap dances.

Every now and then, Owen will even play one of his own songs, which he has recorded for a demo tape under the name Idiot Boy.

"My parents are really proud," he says, laughing, "but as long as I'm happy and as long as I'm making music, they don't care."

Owen has held this gig at Caligula since 1991, since he moved from barback--cleaning up behind the bartenders and washing glasses--to bathroom valet and found he was bored reading books between doling out towels, providing cologne, and mopping up an occasional mess. He at first used the money to pay his college tuition (he graduated from UNT with a sociology degree in 1994), then to pay rent.

"I was a good barback, but I'd rather work in the bathroom," Owen says. Plus, it's a pretty good gig: Owen figures he can pull down anywhere from $100 to $300 a night, depending on how busy he is and how willing the patrons are to stick around in the bathroom when the main entertainment is just outside his door.

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