It sounded like war in the primate house at Lincoln Park Zoo. The animals were hooting and screaming so loud it made me wonder if they were trying to tell me something. Then suddenly, they quieted, and I could hear the street musician I spotted earlier who was singing and playing the guitar. That was something I didn’t expect to hear at the zoo, so I went over to check him out.
His guitar case was open on the ground in front of him. Inside, there were a couple of crumpled dollars and some loose change. He was dressed in a dark blue sport coat, a light blue shirt, and sported dark glasses. Two pendants, a star and a cross, each hanging from its own necklace, graced the front of his shirt, and he wore a light brown fedora. He reminded me of Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.”
Oblivious to the occasional grunts and screams of the animals behind him, he leaned into his guitar and serenaded passersby with a quiet version of Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.” He sounded pretty good. He had that ephemeral something musicians have got to have- style. Like Bogey. And this guy was the picture of cool as he sat on a park bench, during a beautiful fall day, smiling, singing and having a good time.
After walking around the zoo all day, I was beat and looking forward to chilling out on the bus ride home, but my photographer’s muse, whom I’ll call Pam, wasn’t having it. She whispered in my ear, take this guys picture. I sized him up. He didn’t look like he’d get rattled if a tourist took a few photographs of him. After all, he was an entertainer.
“Naw,” I responded, “just hanging out.”
“Well, it looks like you know what you’re doing,” he said. “I could use some pictures for my promotions.”
Right away, Pam was back in my ear, whispering, see, I told you. Yeah, right; its showtime. There probably wasn’t going to be any money for me with this gig, but you never know. Besides, I was going with the flow here. Anyway, my man takes his performance to another level, and I see that he knows how to put on a show. His voice had a haunting quality, like the sound of a train whistle moaning in the distance in the middle of the night. After I took a few more photographs, I sat down on the bench next him and we eased into a conversation.
He said his name was Joe Costanzo and had been singing his whole life. “Ever since I first heard Elvis on the radio when I was little kid,” he said. “When I heard him, I ran into my mother’s room and asked, who is that?!! (he laughs). Man, I wanted to be Elvis.
“I’ll tell you a secret…deep down, all musicians want to be Elvis, because he was the king, man. But there will never be another Elvis. He was the first, there will never be another first, you know? I think he was surprised himself that destiny had touched him like that. He probably wondered, ‘why me? why did this happen to me and not somebody else?’ I think that’s what made him so insecure.”
He went on to riff about musicians, their music, and whatever else came to mind. He said a black man wrote Don’t Be Cruel. “Oh yeah, his name was Otis Blackwell. He wrote a lot of hits for Elvis. A lot of people don’t know that.”
Joe said the greatest musicians comment on the times in which they live. Like Bob Dylan. He said Dylan was getting too radical. After “Blood on the Tracks” ( his 15th album) he laid low for awhile which was probably a good thing.
I asked him about John Lennon. “He was really something,” said Joe. “He used his own money to put up huge billboards all over the world that said “The War is Over – if you want it (Vietnam). Can you believe it? It happened too, the war ended soon after that.”
Joe was on a roll now and he talked a little about his life as a street musician. “My family; they don’t understand me…why I’m doing this. My sister kind of gets it, but the rest of them don’t approve of my lifestyle. But minstrels are like heroes because they are true to themselves.”
He paused and peered at me through his glasses. “Have you heard Mr. Bo Jangles?” You know, the song Sammy Davis used to sing?’ That’s what that song was about.”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I know the song.”
He gave me a dubious look. He lit a cigarette and took a few puffs then wedged it between the top string and neck of his guitar, near the tuners. As smoke wafted from the cigarette, he leaned into his guitar and began to sing.
“I knew a man Bojangles and he’d dance for you in worn out shoes…”
When he finished the song he lowered his guitar to his lap and looked at me and said, “you see now?” in case I missed it, Joe told me that Bojangles was an artist, and he was going to live up to that no matter what. During the good times and the bad times, after his dog had up and died, after getting thrown in jail, he never stopped dancing.
“He danced a lick across the cell…He grabbed his pants for a better stance, oh he jumped so high and he clicked up his heels
He let go a laugh….”
We locked eyes and he laughed and he said, “yeah, you know; you got that camera like I play this guitar, you get it.”
‘Really, I thought, I can run with you guys? You and Mr. Bojangles? Cool.’ So, I came to the zoo to take pictures of the animals and wound up meeting Joe who introduced me to The Man. Pam took this opportunity to take a bow, she said, who’s your baby?
Joe sung sweetly that October afternoon as I listened to the lyrics of Mr. Bojangles. I heard the sadness in the song, but this time I heard the joy in it too. It was the story of a man who was born to dance and so, he danced.