Charley Silkwood led his band last week during the final song of the night: a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” His audience did not clump together, looking up in admiration as they swayed to the smooth, rolling tunes pumping out of his speakers. No one demanded he reappear on stage for an encore. In fact, he had no stage and no real band – just himself, his custom-made Brian Moore guitar and a section of a sidewalk outside the Foggy Bottom Metro station.
Four days a week Chuck, or “Charley Silkwood,” goes to work in the park nestled between the GW Hospital and Ross Hall. He plays guitar for seven straight hours with his “virtual band,” a compilation of MIDI files he mixes himself, and passers-by drop money into his case.
Although crowds generally don’t form around this Franconia, Va., resident, those hustling to the Metro terminal or waiting to hop on a bus turn their heads as they pass by.
During his “Beast of Burden” performance, Charley casually strolled around the sidewalk, feeling the music and mingling with his audience. Those around couldn’t help but acknowledge his presence, and as they passed a quizzical glance in Charley’s direction, they seemed to slow their pace.
Charley said “Beast of Burden” is the “essence” of what he likes to play on the street because of its beautiful, rolling rhythm. He firmly believes that each note he plays is much more than a tone.
“There’s something transcendental about really good music,” he said. “When I play, it’s not notes. It’s like little lightening bolts (and) each note screams in it’s own little way. I think really good musicians understand that.”
And Charley considers himself a really good musician, even one of the best undiscovered guitarists around. He improvised a few tumbling notes and chords to demonstrate the sensation music can create.
“See, each note hits you like a little bolt,” he said as he played, curling his fingers and pursing his lips as if the notes really were electric.
Charley has been a regular at the Foggy Bottom Metro for the last three months, but his life has not always revolved around his guitar. He covers his graying hair, which he pulls back into a loose ponytail, with a Vietnam War veteran’s hat and a red and yellow service ribbon pinned to the front of it. His service in the Navy is more than a distant memory, for it also marks his formative years and introduction to classic rock moguls like Jimmy Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin.
Stationed at the Navy base in Norfolk, Va. from age 18 to 20, Charley attended rock shows from big names that passed through the nearby Hampton Coliseum.
“I saw Led Zeppelin on their first American show (in 1969) at Hampton Coliseum. I was standing 20 feet away from Jimmy Page. Those are my hardcore influences,” Charley said.
Charley also has a college education and worked in the high-tech business as a proposals manager for WorldCom, where he earned $50 an hour until he was laid off two years ago. Then while working a few odd jobs as a carpentry assistant, he began working on some construction at the new GW Hospital site, where he now performs.
“I thought someday I’d want to come play music down here at Foggy Bottom. It’s a beautiful spot,” he said.
Sick of struggling through his temporary work, he quit carpentry and returned to the area outside the hospital three months ago. This time he replaced the drills for his guitar, a Gibson Les Paul copy that he says is “lighter and prettier.” He no longer wears the three-piece suit, and his work attire consists of blue jeans, black muscle shirts and his grown-out beard and mustache. Rather than earning the $50 an hour he made at Worldcom, he makes $50 a day at Foggy Bottom, $75 at best.
“Bruce Springstein’s known for playing four-hour concerts like he’s superhuman or something. Try playing seven hours,” he said referring to his long workdays. “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”
Since Charley is a one-man act, he relies on technology to fill in as his band mates. He uses MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) files to mix original tracks and covers of songs that he can “play against” with his own guitar. It’s a technology he said he wishes he had 20 years ago. For lack of a better term, he compares this style to Karaoke, but he prefers to call his style, “Music Minus One.”
“I wish I could get a band to play like this all the time,” Charley said. “But virtually all musicians are just a bunch of drunks.”
Although Charley’s played in bands throughout his life, he said they generally end up failing. “I didn’t fit into a narrow box they wanted me to fit into, and after a while I just said, ‘(Expletive) you.'”
The metro station has provided exposure unrivalled by other venues. In his three months he’s met people who have booked him for parties and asked him to play guitar on albums.
Charley doesn’t foresee packing up his guitar anytime in the near future, nor does he foresee leaving his full-time post at Foggy Bottom. He said he feels like he’s reaching his musical prime now that he’s entered his fifties. He also doesn’t give up hope of one day getting discovered. Some of his greatest influences didn’t reach fame until their sixties.
“When I was 18 or 20 and in the Navy, I thought I wouldn’t get into music. Guitar players are a dime a dozen,” he said.
He began to zip up his guitar in its case, but paused a moment and searched through his selection of MIDI files. He stopped at a track in the middle of his CD and threw his guitar strap over his left shoulder. The instrumental of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” came on, and Charley jumped in with his guitar.
“You know this song? It’s Marvin Gaye, ‘Sexual Healing.’ Excellent song,” he said, and continued to play.