By Sophia Astor
It’s a story as old as rock and roll: a boy learns to play guitar, achieves some success, runs afoul of the authorities, experiences a political awakening and, finally, organizes a concert to right the world’s wrongs. That’s kind of what happened to 19-year-old Mitch Owens who, in four short years, went from a complete novice to being dubbed Washington Square Park’s “house guitarist,” 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 in the New York music scene. He was invited to join local bands like Jade Tourniquet, Non Equator, and Sparrow Marrow, and to perform at 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 permit.
“For us musicians, our instruments are extensions of ourselves,” explained Owens. “They took a piece of me away that I never want to be separated from again. The cops are trying to steal the soul away from the park by going after the music, but we’re not going to give up that easily.”
Owens says it’s difficult to watch police crack down on amplified music, especially since enforcement is often selective. He feels that the park’s musicians should be free to play how they want to.
“The cops have told me they don’t like us because music brings large crowds,” said Owens. “They don’t understand the dynamic of this park. Instead of fighting, people are dancing.” The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
The run-in with police has left Owens disillusioned. He doesn’t feel as safe playing in the park as he had. But he’s also striking back, planning a live music event, with as many bands as possible, to call attention to the musicians’ plight. He plans to purchase a protest permit for the show, not only to drive his point home, but because it’s cheaper than a music permit.
Washington Square Park was once a haven for Owens. It’s where he cut his teeth as a performer and where he acquired self-confidence.“I think music is Mitch’s greatest release,” said Sasha Worms, Mitch’s partner and bandmate in Jade Tourniquet. “He had a lot of image and social anxiety issues before, but now he’s flamboyant. I mean—he’s out there playing guitar with his teeth.”
From the start, Owens would sit in with whatever band was playing, from the blues musicians to the Latin drummers, even though the music was different from his usual shoegaze hard rock sound.
“He’s built a name for himself as the house guitarist of Wash because he’s the most consistent regular guitarist out there,” said Nikolas Yilmaz, 18, one of Owens’ friends.
Owens’ case was eventually 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 walked to the 6th precinct because it felt like I was descending into Dante’s Inferno,” said Owens. “But at least my guitar got a cool NYPD evidence sticker that I’m never taking off.”