Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Streets of Baltimore

I went out for lunch today and noticed some strange people on the streets of Baltimore.

First, at the corner of Franklin and Cathedral, I walked by a guy whose entire forehead was tattooed. He was not a member of KISS. He was not a Maori warrior. I mean, how weird is that? How many people have their face tattooed? The only ones I can think of are the homeless rummies from BUMFIGHTS. Or maybe ex-cons with prison tats. Or ex-cons who might end up doing bumfights, like Mike Tyson. Maybe this dude was a former sideshow employee of the Jim Rose Circus, though he looked a far cry from the head-to-toe ink of The Enigma.

Crossing Cathedral Street, I noticed one of the area's several Screaming Men. This one was the guy who walks into upcoming traffic and curses at the drivers to "Get out of my way!"

After these two encounters, I paid little attention to the Muslim lady talking loudly to herself and gesticulating wildly on Mulberry Street.

Then, as I made my way down Park Avenue toward the Big Lot store, I heard two punks taunting me. "Hey pretty boy, going to a fashion show?" I don't think they meant it as a compliment and I was ready to shout back, "Sorry fellas, I'm straight!" but thought better of it. (After all, who would believe me? I look like a cross between Carson Kressley and Martina Navratilova!) I tried to reassure myself that it was just a left-handed compliment to my Old Navy pin-striped pants and Burgundy dress shirt. Looking around as I stepped into the safety of the store, I noticed they were wearing The (very unfashionable) Uniform: XXL white undershirt, baggy relaxed-fit jeans, and Timbs. I will have to remind myself that slovenly = masculine as far as street fashion goes.


Speaking of the streets of Baltimore, I was listening to the Creative Alliance's Megan Hamilton (pictured left) on WTMD the other day driving in to work and I could have sworn I heard her say something about Gram Parsons learning how to play "The Streets of Baltimore" from Charm City cineaste George "Orpheum Cinema" Figgs. WTMD had just played Nora Jones and The Little Willies version of the song originally penned by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard, which has been covered by many artists over the years, even (rather unexpectedly) Coldplay. Gram Parson's classic version appeared on his debut solo album, 1973's GP.

A few days after hearing Megan talk about George Figgs, I ran into George (pictured right) at the library. When I asked him about the GF-GP connection, he said it was true. Gram Parsons learned to play "The Streets of Baltimore" by hearing George Figgs' version when both were in Boston in 1971. Color me impressed! Gypsy George is a true bohemian soul who has partaken in every one of the fine arts, from film and theater to painting and music. He even used to be Jesus Christ (one of his many roles in John Waters' films; he played JC in 1970's Multiple Maniacs) Back in the 60s and early 70s, George was a hippie troubadour playing the coffeehouse scene in New York and Boston. Gram, of course, was no stranger to Boston, having briefly attended Harvard University during his International Submarine Band days. It was while he was in Boston that George appeared on WGTB's "Soundstage" and apparently Gram Parsons heard his version of the song and supposedly even came to see him perform it. (George confessed that he actually learned the song by listening to Bobby Bare's version of it!)

Hearing this story made me think back to Dylan's folkie days in New York City. George Figgs was hanging around the same Village scene those days, as well, when everybody knew everybody else and played the same songs. Some played them better than others. Or got credited for versions they learned from someone else. Like Dylan famously pissing off Dave Van Ronk by recording Ronk's version of "House of the Rising Sun" before Van Ronk got around to recording it. Or Dylan likewise recording "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," a song he learned from Eric von Schmidt (who Dylan credited, at least). Add another to this list of famous students trumping their forgotten teachers: George Figgs.

Related Links:

Facial Tattoos article
Ta Moko: Maori Tattoos (Wikipedia)
Baltimore Screamers
George Figgs' IMDB bio
George Figgs' IMDB filmography


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