Performing on the streets of Seattle, usually near Pike Place Market (where they throw the fish for tourists), you could watch Artis play the spoons.
Feel the rhythm with your hands
Steal the rhythm while you can... Spoonman
By the time Soundgarden wrote a song about him, Artis was already a mini-celebrity and a local legend.
"You don't know a single thing I do. Not a single thing."
You see, the Spoonman has ideas. There's music in his head. But he also has principles. He won't play bars. He won't shill for a corporation unless they pass his smell test. And he's willing to live below the poverty line to uphold those principles. Always has been.
So who is the Spoonman? It's hard to tell, but we can piece together the clues. His short term memory is shot, so like Guy Pearce in Memento, he asks me to call and email before our conversations so he remembers.
Artis says he was born in Alaska in 1948, but moved to Seattle with his mom a few months later. He became officially mononymous when he changed his full name to Artis at age 40.
He loathes the idea of being used for someone else's gain - I remind myself that I'm here to tell his story, the story of the greatest and most famous spoon player of all time. The only man who was the subject of a Grammy-winning song that he also performed on. A man whose principles kept him from cashing in.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): When did you learn that Soundgarden was writing a song about you?
Artis the Spoonman: In 1992, they had me do a tweener between them and Melvins. And their manager at the time, Susan Silver, she told me Chris is writing a song, "Spoonman," and would I like to record on it when it's done. And so in '93, almost a year and a half later, they called me and we went in the studio that day and recorded it. Went through four takes and that was that. Two hours. That was the recording session.
It was a flat fee thing - she gave me $1,000. When she paid me she said they were going to try to get the song as the first single off the album, and if they did, would I be interested in doing an MTV thing. So I said, "Sure." So January '94 they asked me if I'd do that, and I met with the director here and went to Long Beach. There's a Navy base there. I hadn't been on a Navy base for 25 years - I was in the Navy 25 years earlier.
We did it there. It was an all day shoot and it was fucking great. I told them to turn it up when we tried to do it. Rocked the house out. It was just great. It was in a Navy base and a big old warehouse. I got $7 grand for that.
Songfacts: When you say a "tweener," does that mean that you play in between sets?
Songfacts: So you had already played to Soundgarden fans before?
Artis: That one time.
Songfacts: What did you think of the song?
Artis: It rocked. Totally rocked. Plus, it was an honor.
Songfacts: What was it like hearing this famous song about yourself?
Artis: You know, it's kind of embarrassing. It's not weird, though. It was an honor. I do believe in luck, but even that's got some science. It wasn't luck for me. I'd been playing already 25 years. When they asked me to do that, I had already done the Letterman show, I'd been to Japan, England, Germany. I was in Australia, Bali, Singapore - I'd been places all over the world performing, I'd been called and paid and brought there to those places and doing national TV and stuff. So it wasn't anything like Soundgarden making the Spoonman. What Soundgarden did was another bump. I'd already gotten a hell of a lot of national coverage and I'd played a lot of national gigs and all over the country.
But that bump was tremendous, a huge honor. Grammy Award-winning song. [Soundgarden won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance for "Spoonman."]
Songfacts: Well, here's the thing that I always wondered: is there anybody else out there that plays the spoons? Did you learn from somebody?
Artis: Well, you always learn from somebody. What you're doing you learned from somebody. My mom bought a pair of musical spoons when I was 10 years old. She bought my sister a pair, as well. I broke mine, took my sister's over. It had to be like 1958.
I played along with records, but I played bongos and sang a whole lot more, but every now and then a Latin tune or a swing tune I'd play. Then at 26 I was living in Fremont in Seattle, on the dole and on unemployment. I was working in a cafe; I pull out the teaspoons, played along with a kickbox, and people liked it. I kept playing - I got fat because people came to see me. I played in the bars next door. One thing led to another and I started busking and I arrived in San Francisco one day, broke, to visit some friends. They invited me to stay, but I didn't have any money, so I went down to Chinatown, pulled out four spoons, played, made $10 bucks and I've been living on that ever since.
Songfacts: How much would you typically make when you were busking?
Artis: Anything from a dime to... I've had so many $100 dollar bills I can't count 'em. I forgot how many. I stopped counting when it was around 10.
Songfacts: Who tends to give you the $100 bills?
Artis: I wouldn't know who gives them to me when I'm getting tipped on the street. I mean, I've had many. I've had a $2,000 tip. I have a $4,000 check. I've had some tips, brother. Never mind the gigs that came off it, my very first gig came off of this sidewalk. I was asked to play in Riverside, I was playing down in Westwood, Los Angeles.
Songfacts: How did your life change after "Spoonman" became a hit?
Artis: I don't think it did, except that people would know me in other towns. That was great. That was a big thing.
Going through the air terminal - this was before TSA - I'd take out my spoons, and I'd play them and they'd say, "Oh, I know you." As far as the Seattle scene goes, I was, at the very best, on the edge of the grunge thing before we did that project. The scene got more prominent after Kurt [Cobain] died. He died within a month or two of releasing "Spoonman."
Songfacts: You've been performing on the streets of Seattle for quite a while. How has your audience changed over time?
Artis performed with Frank Zappa in 1981, joining him on stage and playing for the crowds queued up before shows. He also makes a cameo on the song "This Is All Wrong" on the 1994 Zappa album Civilization Phaze III.
Artis: More teens were watching after that. My income bumped for two years. No doubt about it. My income for '94 and '95 was definitely a bump from ever before because I had a lot more gigs. It didn't stay that way.
I've never pursued gigs. So people come after me and it's always been that way. The only thing I've pursued was Zappa. But my income bumped and I was gigging a lot more than just playing on the streets.
Songfacts: Where else would you play?
Artis: Folk festivals. For a while there might have been local clubs, but I don't do clubs.
Songfacts: Why wouldn't you play clubs?
Artis: I can't deal.
Artis: Yeah. You know what I'm saying? FUCK THAT. All caps. Because I'm not playing to play. I'm doing a show. There was a period of time for maybe 20 years from the time I was playing in the '70s until well into the '90s where standing ovations were not altogether rare. In '92 I did a symphony piece, Seattle Philharmonic, all blue hairs. 500 blue hairs jumped to their feet after that.
I drank. I did 45 years and I was drinking during all that time at night - I didn't drink during a performance. But playing a bar is insulting. It's fucking insulting. I don't know why anybody plays bars. People ain't there to listen to you. They're grabbing ass, selling dope, drinking. I mean, give me a break. I tell you, I could go off screaming right now just to give you an idea of how I feel. I've never played bars to a great extent, but I quit altogether.
Songfacts: It just seems like there are so many places, not just bars, but even clubs: the Showbox, the Crocodile, the Art Bar, all those places where it seems like you'd be the perfect act.
Artis: For one thing, I've never honed it. I'm good, I put on a good show. I used to. Especially in the '90s and after the Soundgarden thing, I was invited to do tweeners and openers for various acts at, like you say, the Showbox. The first one that comes to mind is Leftover Salmon, but I met them at a folk festival.
I jumped in with Jack Elliot doing an opening for the Jerry Garcia Band once upon a time, but that was at the Keystone Berkeley. That kind of club I've done: they're seated facing the stage. The attention is at the stage. There's an introduction, there's a reason people came to see the show. It's not that I'm against the drinking, but I don't play bars. I just can't do that.
Songfacts: How physically demanding are your performances?
Artis: Well, the best example is looking at me now. Because I am like 20 pounds overweight, I'm depressed most of the time, I haven't played in three years. I don't have a callus on my fingers, can't hold the spoons very well. And I just copped an attitude. I'm famous for playing with everybody you could think of: playing with Zappa, being called out of an audience by Aerosmith to play with them on one of their hardest songs. Playing with people from every genre: Steve Goodman, Vassar Clements, John Hartford, kd lang.
Songfacts: What's this Aerosmith story?
Artis: That's a precious story. I met them once in Tacoma. A friend of mine was that show's promoter, and he introduced me to them backstage. I played for them and it was all delightful - they're pretty cool cats. They were going to hang with me after the show, but they didn't. But you know, I'd be damned if Steven didn't call. I only had an answering service at the time, but he left a message on my service apologizing. Then when they came to town the next time, a year or two later, I finagled my way in and one of the radio crew that were doing a meet and greet walked me in with them. There's Tom and Joey, they both recognized me. It was great. And then I walked up to Steven and I said who I was and he recognized me. During the show he called out, "Is Artis the Spoonman still in the house?"
I only brought two spoons. I didn't bring everything. But I waved the spoons past security and they said, "Go ahead." It was at the Key Arena. I climbed up on the stage on the front, and I went over to Joe Perry's mic. Everybody else sat on the riser and stuck with it, played their asses off to "Something's Gotta Give." It was fucking great.
Songfacts: After a performance, were you exhausted, generally?
Artis: No. I've been pretty fit all these years.
Songfacts: It really looks like you're putting a lot of effort into it.
Artis: I am. I sure the fuck am. I'm a rocker. So it stayed with me till I quit playing, really backed off. Because nobody knows my material. You don't know a single thing I do. Not a single thing. You're calling me because of "Spoonman," and the "Spoonman" is famous; who have you played with? And that's all you know and that's all anybody the hell knows about me. And I've written quite a few songs, a lot. I've got things in my head that are instrumental that don't even include spoons. Nobody even talks to me. Nobody knows a single piece I do. Not a single goddamn song.
I just got fed up. I reached into my pocket, pulled out all the money I was worth, and I just said, "Fuck this." It's just too goddamn long. Then I had to reflect on it, and there's nothing ever to regret about "Spoonman." That's unusually incredible, remarkable. Elvis didn't have a Grammy Award-winning song featuring him about him. Nobody did. Nobody at all. There isn't anybody. Not even that dancer, Bojangles. So it's a huge honor, what's happened to me. But nobody knows me.
Songfacts: Artis, there are some videos on Youtube with you performing for Dairy Queen. Tell me about that.
Artis: Oh, it was just a gig. [Laughs] They called me and flew me to Minneapolis. I didn't like it. I did tell them to have a guitarist on hand, because I don't like playing solo. If they want me to play, better have some musicians there. But that was good. It was fine. That's all it was, a weekend.
Songfacts: Did you do any other corporate gigs?
Artis: No. Never done another advertisement. That's the only ad I ever did. Because when they offered it to me I went online and looked up Dairy Queen. I wouldn't have done anything for like McDonald's. They couldn't pay me enough. I'm not saying I ain't for sale, but Dairy Queen didn't have any grief in their basket, so I went for it.
Songfacts: How are your finances?
Artis: They've always been the same. I've always been below the US poverty level. And I have been in poverty, as well. I just reach into my pocket all the time for empty change. I'm on the dole. How are my finances? Embarrassing, considering you're calling me from across the nation and all the shows I've done, it's embarrassing. It's upsetting, really.
Songfacts: Well, you never seemed to cash in on your notoriety.
Artis: Notoriety or fame?
Songfacts: I guess they mean sort of the same thing to me.
[Artis schools me here, and he's right. Notoriety means being known for an unfavorable act. The word I should have used is Notability.]
Artis: Notoriety's notorious. Notoriety runs hand in hand with infamous.
Songfacts: I did not mean it that way. Let's say your fame.
Artis: I didn't think so. Well, I don't do it. It embarrasses me. I didn't come after you. That would embarrass me. I mean, it's embarrassing enough to be me. Anyone can hear how I accept vanity and I accept arrogance and a lot of weak character traits. I accept them and I have them. I'm not a thief or a bigot, so I can deal with that. But I'm embarrassed to do business. I'd take funds for a show that I said yes to, but I just take what they pay me. I took what they paid me and I didn't have a lawyer or anything.
A "point" is a percentage point of royalties. Artis got a flat fee for performing on "Spoonman" and appearing in the video, which is all he earned directly from the song. If he had negotiated a share of the songwriting royalties, he would have earned far more. His performance is credited on the album (Spoons: Artis The Spoonman), but that is unlikely to generate any payments.
I look back and now it's been 20 years. I have to let go. But if I'd have had half a point I'd still be pulling in three or four digits a quarter.
Songfacts: I understand that. It's just odd for you to say, because from the outsider perspective, there's nothing at all that is embarrassing about you. You're a successful performer, you've done great things.
Artis: It's embarrassing to do business, is really what I'm saying.
Artis: It's embarrassing for me to pursue a show. It's like, "Look at me." I had an agent one time who died after a couple of years. But I quit him. I went back to him, because he was a real nice guy. But he smoked in the office and his office was at home, and he had these three Chihuahuas that were always around the place. And I don't do business over lunch and I don't do business just anywhere. I don't like doing business in somebody's house. I expect an office or a conference room. No disturbances and no other attention. But anyway, I went back to him, but he died.
July 1, 2013.