By Sophie Astor
It’s a story as old as rock and roll: a boy learns to play the guitar, achieves some success, clashes with the authorities, experiences a political awakening and, finally, organizes a concert to right the wrongs of the world. It’s a bit like what happened to 19-year-old Mitch Owens, who in four short years went from a complete novice to being dubbed the “house guitarist” of Washington Square Park, cutting a swaggering figure with his long hair dyed red and a grunge look straight out of Seattle.
Owens’ high profile perch in Washington Square Park gave him a place on the New York music scene. He has been invited to join local bands like Jade Tourniquet, Non Equator and Sparrow Marrow, and to perform in spaces like the Mercury Lounge. Then, one day in February, police seized Owens’ guitar and slapped him with a $150 fine for playing without a license.
“For us musicians, our instruments are extensions of ourselves,” Owens explained. “They took away a part of me that I never want to be apart from. The cops are trying to steal the soul of the park by going after the music, but we’re not going to give up that easily.
Owens says it’s hard to watch police crack down on amplified music, especially since enforcement is often selective. He believes that park musicians should be free to perform as they see fit.
“The cops told me they didn’t like us because the music draws big crowds,” Owens said. “They don’t understand the dynamics of this park. Instead of fighting, people are dancing. The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
The run-in with the police left Owens disillusioned. He doesn’t feel as safe playing in the park as he used to. But he also strikes back, planning a live musical event, with as many bands as possible, to draw attention to the plight of the musicians. He plans to buy a protest permit for the show, not just to drive home the point, but because it’s cheaper than a music permit.
Washington Square Park was once a haven for Owens. It was there that he cut his teeth as a performer and gained self-confidence. “I think music is Mitch’s biggest outlet,” said Sasha Worms, Mitch’s partner and bandmate Jade Tourniquet. “He had a lot of image issues and social anxiety before, but now he’s flamboyant. I mean, he’s out there playing guitar with his teeth.
From the start, Owens sat with any band that played, from blues musicians to Latin drummers, even though the music was different from his usual shoegaze hard rock sound.
“He’s made a name for himself as Wash’s house guitarist because he’s the most consistent regular guitarist,” said 18-year-old Nikolas Yilmaz, one of Owens’ friends.
Owens’ case was ultimately dismissed and he never had to pay the ticket. It took a little longer to get his guitar back. But even that came with an added bonus. “I played Highway to Hell every time I drove into the 6th Ward because I felt like I was descending into Dante’s Inferno,” Owens said. “But at least my guitar has a cool NYPD evidence sticker that I’ll never take off.”