Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Ballad of Hurricane Jimmy

Familiar music floats through the open windows, beckoning the bustling tourists to step inside. The bar is comfortably dark and shabby, with a concrete floor and a few weary tables and rickety, mismatched chairs. The bar has taps that promise Michelob Light but dispense…well, who really knows? It’s cold, it’s cheap and the out-of-towners and the rowdy Rangers don’t care. The crowd, such that it is, is peppered with a few locals, some friends of the bartender and a couple of gift shop employees trying to sneak a drink on their break. A large black Lab stretches out beneath one table.

Backed into a corner of the former cotton warehouse sits a man with long black curly hair stuffed under a doo-rag, playing guitar and yelling out the windows to passers-by. His drum machine keeps the beat while a baseball game silently plays on the TV behind him. He’s halfway through “Cheeseburger in Paradise” when the crowd’s attention shifts. The guitar player looks over his shoulder as Braves outfielder Otis Nixon climbs the wall and makes a spectacular catch. The singer turns back around, flashes a crooked smile and finishes the song, never missing a lick.

Such is the life of a musician in a bar on River St. Such is the life of Hurricane Jimmy.

Scrambling for gigs, Jimmy plays several sets a week downtown for the tourists, picks up a few shows on Tybee Island in the summer and an occasional trip down to St. Simon’s Island when he’s lucky. He knows that the rent’s due, and he knows what fills the tip jar, so “Come Monday” and “Brown Eyed Girl” are trotted out every set. To feed his pirate persona, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk (And Screw)” and “The Asshole Song” show up so salesmen from Missouri can take a story back to the home office.

Over several years, a half-dozen original songs emerge, mostly derivative of a certain island-hopping, margarita swilling singer, but the songs are often clever (“I’ll be the captain, you’ll be the crew/we’ll get a Boston Whaler with an Evinrude”), sometimes self-serving (the pass the hat tune “Gimme Some Money”) and even includes a blatant attempt to get radio airplay by shilling a local station in the chorus. By and large though, the sets are filled with good-time covers so the tourists can drunkenly sing along, because that’s what keeps the crowds buying beers, and that’s the name of that game.

That’s the life of a working musician. That’s the life of Hurricane Jimmy.

Jimmy is his own boss, and entertaining a crowd, having a good time and partying till dawn is his job description. Playing a gig at Teeple’s in Thunderbolt, running his PA off his van’s battery because the restaurant’s power was out, that’s all part of a day’s work. You don’t play, you don’t get the pay is his mission statement.

Here in the 21st century, the lovable, scruffy musician who plays for tequila shots, tips and the sheer fun of it is an endangered species. His habitat has been replaced with karaoke nights and digital satellite jukeboxes, and there is little hope for his survival.

But once, just once, I wish you could walk into a bar, grab a cold beer and have Hurricane Jimmy tune up his guitar and play you side two of “A-1-A” straight through.

That’s the life.

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