After moving to Dallas three years ago, Jay Knox found himself in the worst-case scenario — living out of his van. His home, which most days can be found parked off Elm Street in Deep Ellum, is painted blue and covered with stars. He’s played in cities from Washington to Atlanta and Miami, but Knox has come to accept his niche as a street performer.
“I don’t do it for the money,” Knox says with a shrug. Despite making decent money on the streets of Deep Ellum, the artist admits, “I just want somewhere to make music. Sometimes I’ll just be playing without a jar or anything, and someone will walk up and hand me a $20 bill. People are really good to me.”
With a style like his, the man cannot be missed. Knox's braided, head-banging blue hair can be seen from blocks away, and his guitar rings out an unexpected sound, unlike what you’d expect from his colorful clothing. A self-proclaimed metal head, Knox plays J-pop and K-pop inspired beats mixed with a distinct metal born from his lifelong adoration of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.
“I got into metal music when I was in high school,” Knox recalls. “One day, a guy I met randomly gave me an MP3 player, and all the music on it was metal. I thought, ‘What is this?’ I had never heard a guitar like that before. But I loved it. I fell in love with metal from there.”
Knox's love for music makes him unmissable in any crowd, and for that, he’ll play on the streets by day and sleep in his van by the river at night. Living a life like this, though, takes a toll on the artist, and Knox spends many of his days in the same state of discontent that plagues tons of homeless people across the nation.
“I cry every day,” he admits without shame. “There’s nowhere to go during the day. I need AC in my car. I need a generator. I’m just lucky that people help me out, and that I have somewhere I can play, even if it’s on the street.”
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Living off a diet consisting primarily of the "2 for $2.50" double cheeseburgers and fries from McDonald’s, Knox’s struggle reflects that of many striving street artists. Despite the common respect from Deep Ellum’s local musicians, the binary nature of street performance is marked by both appreciation and open disdain. Knox says he feels the latter comes from both passersby and security personnel, who occasionally remind him that street performing can be soul-crushing.
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“It pisses me off when people come by calling me Jimi Hendrix or Travis Scott, ‘cause that’s not my style at all,” Knox says, reflecting on some of the hardships that come by being a street performer.
“The security in Deep Ellum gives me a lot of trouble too," he continues. "I try to stay out of my hot car and play guitar, but when I try to play during the day, the security literally goes out of their way to ask owners if I’m being disruptive so they can get me out of there.”
Whether it’s an unfavorable audience, aggressive security or bad weather, the struggle of giving free entertainment just in the hopes of bringing someone inspiration or pleasure can be tolling. But being out there “teaches you something about yourself,” says Knox, who says he finds contentment in the music, people and anecdotes that he experiences on the streets.
“I was singing a song and it was Fronz from Attila,” Knox says as his eyes light up, while remembering one of the more gratifying moments he had in street performance. “This guy walked up and told me he knows the lead singer. He pulled out his phone and started Facetiming the lead vocalist in the band and had Christopher Fronzak texting me. I used to pray to this man.”