Who Is the Spoonman?

artisThere’s only one answer to the question ‘who is the world’s foremost grunge spoon player?’ If you guessed Neil Crombie or Deb “Spoons” Perry, then you are weirdly knowledgeable about flatware percussion.

But, you’d still be wrong.

The correct answer is Seattle’s Artis the Spoonman, who became ever so briefly famous when basically everybody with a goatee and a Washington driver’s license was scoring a record deal.

Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, he clacked all manner of fine silver while accompanying the likes of Frank Zappa, Aerosmith and Phish. He also became one of history’s least likely Grammy winners in 1995. In spite of admiration from industry luminaries and appearances on grand stages around the world, Artis always maintained a quintessentially grunge attitude about selling out.

He has, therefore, remained a street busker his entire life.

Born in Kodiak, Alaska in 1948, Artis moved to the Seattle area with his mother before the age of one. She gifted him his first musical spoons when he was ten years old. He practiced until he broke them, banging along with Latin, swing and Elvis records.

Though Artis would spend some time in the Navy in the ‘60s, as well as a brief stint employed by the U.S. Postal Service, the vast majority of his working life has been dedicated to “playing the bones.”

In an interview from last year, Artis describes his first public performance:

Artis_the_Spoonman_-_1995_-_01“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.”

Starting in 1972, Artis began not only earning a living but also the respect of myriad famous and reputable musicians.  The mohawk-sporting punk spooner was equally comfortable playing for Frank Zappa and sharing the stage with the Seattle Philharmonic.

Artis_the_Spoonman_and_Jim_Page_1993Still, your best bet for seeing Artis would have been Seattle’s tourist-friendly Pike Place Market. There, with all manner of dinner utensil spread out on a blanket, Artis would draw massive crowds with his frenetic performances and original compositions. By his own report, Artis earned generous tips, often in excess of $100 and once even, a check for $2000.

Still, for 20 years, starting in 1974, Artis describes a difficult life on the road, hitchhiking, sleeping under bridges and living in cars.

By the late ’80, he was a well-recognized fixture in the burgeoning northwest scene. He often worked the streets with guitar accompaniment from Jim Page (no, not that Mr. Page).

The Spoonman’s moment of greatest visibility came in 1994, when Chris Cornell invited him to perform on a Soundgarden song of which he was the subject. “Spoonman” became the lead single off of their massively successful record, “Superunknown.” The song resulted in an MTV video and, in 1995, landed a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.

Artis became a cult figure and, as the most recognized spoon player in the world, enjoyed a two-year period of relative fame. He released a ripped-jeans-and-flannel record called Entertain the Entertainers on the small Sapphire label and even garnered Kurt Loder’s attention.

But like Grunge itself, the Spoonman’s peak was short-lived. As time passed, he became more stubbornly resistant to performing in local bars and clubs. Outside of the occasional high-paying art-house engagement, Artis was an unrepentant street performer.

Though he remembers his experience working with Soundgarden (and the resultant success) fondly, he is otherwise a struggling and resentful musician today. By his own report, in a 2006 interview, Artis was living in a windowless Seattle basement for $100 a month.

artis4He explains succinctly, “my finances are fucked” and describes himself as “dysfunctional, bipolar, medicated, angry, and an alcoholic.”

That said, he remains unquestionably the most famous spoon player in the world and, more than that, evidence of the remarkable obscurities that can come to the surface during those rare moments in history when commercial interest and artistic exploration collide.

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2 thoughts on “Who Is the Spoonman?

  1. I was just playing along with some Nirvana and it kept going through my mind the stuff the article above says about my 15 minutes of fame, but relegating it all to Soundgarden and regarding me as an otherwise unknown. Spoonman by Soundgarden was proposed to me in April 1992 (same month I was invited to perform with the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra – You Tube it and the same month I was invited to record for Frank Zappa), recorded in August 1993 and filmed for MTV in early 1994 just before its release, debuting at #1 on Billboard. Certainly a pivotal moment 20 years into ‘Artis the Spoonman’s’ life, having begun in Fremont, Seattle in 1972. The article fails to mention I was invited on to the David Letterman Show in 1990 (You Tube it), a month after performing on David Sanborn’s stellar Night Music program (You Tube it), 5 months after returning from 101/2 months in Australia and SE Asia, having been invited to perform for 2+ months at EXPO 88, the World’s Fair. In 1985 I was an invited guest on nationally broadcast shows in Japan and England. Throughout the 80s I performed with such known musicians, as Frank Zappa, Pete Seeger, kd lang, Country Joe MacDonald, Riders in the Sky, Steve Goodman, John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Jethro Burns, Utah Phillips, Dr. Hook . . .. OK, I’ll stop.

    1. Artis,
      No, don’t stop! Tell us more. Tell us what it was like to play with Frank Zappa and Country Joe. Tell us about going on Letterman and performing with the Seattle Philharmonic (btw, I have seen the latter and it is awesome). And please accept our humble apologies if we understated the scope of your career. No slight intended. Truthfully, I came of age when Soundgarden was blowing up so “Spoonman” always keys into a warm nostalgic place for me. But that was just my experience. I don’t intend to reduce your life’s work to a single moment in time. I’m grateful, honored and humbled that you’ve taken the time to correct and expand our record. And please, seriously, tell us some war stories if you have a minute. If not, no worries. Thank you for this. Truly a thrill to hear from the artist himself. Best to you…

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