How We’re Coping

This Blues Guitarist Feels Lucky to Have Family, a Pension, and Bacon Bread

Taking a forced break from performing, Norman Sylvester is sharing music and doing push-ups at 74.

By Margaret Seiler April 11, 2020

An Oregon Music Hall of Fame inductee and blues mainstay, Norman Sylvester and his band had regular nights at places like the Spare Room and Clyde’s Prime Rib before COVID-19 ended live music at bars. We check in with the man known as Boogie Cat and ask, “How are you coping?”

When the bars closed in March, it wasn’t just the bartenders and cooks who found themselves out of work. Portland’s gigging musicians were suddenly without a place to play and a regular income. “All my gigs are gone right now,” says “Boogie Cat” Norman Sylvester, who’s played thousands of shows through the decades, and would probably be playing out somewhere tonight if not for the coronavirus closures. We checked in with the Louisiana native and longtime Portlander, now retired from a career as a heavy-duty equipment mechanic on Swan Island (“I worked my way up from the lube pit to the parts room purchasing agent”). He’s writing and sharing music—and trying to watch his weight while supporting his favorite restaurants and living with a cook and baker.

“I’m trying to write some stuff down that’s in my mind. Sometime lyrics in my head will wake me up, just things I need to write down. I posted an “I Believe in You” video last week [on Facebook]. I might post another one, “Keep America Safe.” It’s not about me. It’s about us. We’re all in this thing together. This pandemic is nondiscriminatory. I’ve noticed the unity it’s created ... a whole new feeling in folks. Everybody’s kind of depending on everybody else to stay home and save lives. We’re all bonded in one cause. It’s just like a symphony—everybody’s thinking with the same purpose in mind, working together, pulling together. I wrote a lyric down this morning: we can stand together until we can stand side by side.

“I’m losing money like everybody else. The Waterfront Blues Fest was canceled, I’ve had Good in the Hood canceled. A number of vineyards are canceling. I’m knowing that other musicians and businesses are in the same thing, so I haven’t really tried to do a paid thing online because money’s short everywhere. I have a pension and Social Security. I’ve got musician friends, and that’s what they do for a living, and I know they’ve got to reach out on Venmo or PayPal, and that’s appropriate because that’s what they do full time. I think that’s a wonderful thing that people in the midst of all this have given to the musicians online, people donating to this fund and that fund. I just read an article where some of the pro NBA players are floating some of the salaries at the arenas where the employees were losing jobs. That’s really something, that the nation can come together over this negative pandemic.

“My wife had a happy hour on Zoom last Friday night with friends, a two-and-a-half-hour happy hour, and they were talking and giggling and drinking wine and having a wonderful time. One of them was in Texas, one of her high school friends from Marshall High School back in the day. They were all cheerleaders together. I think families will be doing that for Easter, too. It’s the new normal. It’s the safe thing to do to keep the spike from going up higher.

“Check in on your friends. Text messages don’t work always—you might have to just call them and hear their voice. I can’t imagine living by myself during this time. I’d be freaking out. You’ve got to reach out to those people, the shut-in, the elderly. I’m elderly, I’m 74 years old, but I have my wife here. She’s cooking and baking, and we’re snacking—but I’m exercising! I do push-ups on the stairway, crunches, planks. I got worried and said, ‘Wait a minute, I won’t be able to walk through this door after another 30 days. I better do something really quick! The refrigerator’s really close!’

“We called in an order to Red Lobster. I got the seafood platter with garlic mashed potatoes. It was just a treat. Usually going out is a treat to me anyway. There’s a place near me called Bandini. I get the rosemary chicken ravioli, with the bacon bread, which is kind of like a small pizza but cut in strips. You put that sauce on that bacon bread, you’re in heaven, man. With a glass of wine, you’re good to go.

“Some musicians are doing podcasts and Zoom and PayPal. Bravo to the community for supporting musicians and artists. There’s a plan. I guess the universe has a plan for what’s going on right now. What I see is unity ... little acts of kindness, reaching out and communicating. It’s kind of like the old village used to be back in the day. I come from Louisiana, so I come from the farm and the rural countryside. People were a long ways from each other but they all were together. When somebody was sick, people were bringing food and coming over to do chores. Now we have to stay apart, but it’s bonding people in a new way.”


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