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.
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?"
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.
"I just asked the owners [Dawn and Nick Rizzos] if I could do this, and they said, 'As long as you don't bug the customers,'" Owen says, "and after a month, people were digging it, and then they said, 'Now you have to bring your guitar in to play.' People just expect it. I just do it, have fun, pay rent, write songs. My playing's got a lot better since I've been here because I get to practice seven, eight hours a day. It's all I do."
If nothing else, the bathroom is the wellspring of inspiration for a bluesman: Owen has heard men divorce their wives over the pay telephone near his station, eavesdropped on the drunken fights and tearful apologies offered by men who usually claim their friends dragged them, against their will, to a topless bar.
He has heard men cry on that phone, sobbing and begging for forgiveness. And he has been asked to play, over that phone, for wives and girlfriends on the other end and even for men trying to clinch a business deal.
"I don't really write much about their conversations," Owen says, "but that's only because I've got my own. Like, I'll come in with a song about an old girlfriend and play it for these guys, and they're like, 'Yeah, man. To hell with her!'"
Owen has jammed with Glenn Danzig's guitarist as the diminutive rocker himself stood by and watched approvingly. KISS' Gene Simmons, who stopped in one night to drain his love gun, has also witnessed Owen's skills. The members of Pantera occasionally drop by to play a round of "stump the guitar player," as Owen calls it, and he says a handful of Dallas Cowboys even make their way into the bathroom for impromptu jam sessions, singing old blues songs with Owen during their own private time-outs. Friends will even drop by with their own guitars to jam, and it is not rare for a patron to join in and sing (or slur) a few words.
"What was really neat, though, was the power went out last Friday night," Owen says. "All they had working was the floodlights, so they brought me on stage, and I played in front of a packed house. It was cool, man. The women just sat in the chairs and watched me, and some of them tipped me." Of course, they stuck the money in his boot. "They didn't want to come up on stage and shove it in my pants."
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Owen does have to clean up after the sloppier customers (a bucket and mop are always within reach), but there are, of course, the fringe benefits of working in a gentlemen's club restroom. Beneath the line of toiletries and accessories Owen must bring in every night--the bottles of cologne and deodorant, the cigars and clove cigarettes, the razors and cans of shaving cream, the sticks of gum and breath mints--Owen has taped to the mirror dozens of photos of himself posing with the club's featured performers. In some of the pictures, Owen embraces or even fondles the scantily clad or topless women; in others, he frolics with well-endowed women who wear nothing at all except their vertical smiles. All the pictures are inscribed: "Thanks for loving me"; "We could make beautiful music together"; "Love doing it in the bathroom." And so on.
"Since I don't get a dental plan, I get to take pictures," Owen shrugs.
But this gig is all about knowing the audience: "If I see a thirtysomething guy, I automatically start playing Neil Young, or if I see a group of Mexican-Americans, I hit 'La Bamba,' and I automatically get a tip no matter what, swear to God. A cowboy walks in, and I hit 'Luckenbach, Texas' or Jimmy Buffett or something like that, and you get the guys who want you to play Slayer or Pantera, and you have to do that, too."
At various times throughout the night, the bathroom is literally crammed with guys listening to Owen, who is joined for a while by a friend auditioning for Owen's band. The club's patrons holler their requests, give Owen a hard time, more often than not toss a buck or a 10-spot into the case--or, in one happy instance, a $50 bill right into the guitar itself--that they probably intended to give to Sunny or Holly or Tracy or the imported featured performer. Owen is the added attraction at Caligula, a music scene of one playing to a most captive audience.
"There are several guys who just come in here and hang out," says Trevor Morgan, the club's managers. "They'll say, 'Well, goddamn, I can't believe I'm in a titty bar listenin' to a guy in the bathroom.'