Wisconsin Slim: He shook 'em on down then done left town

Posted: Thursday, July 03, 2003

Wisconsin Slim, aka Joel Bergsbaken, moved to Juneau in 1996 with two backpacks and a bicycle.

When he moves to Bellingham, Wash., on July 8 with his girlfriend, Nicole Davidson, he will pack three guitars, some sound equipment and a surfboard into his car.

"Those are the things that I wouldn't barge if you paid me," Slim said.

Slim - a professional linguist and self-made, slide-Delta-blues, one-man band - is leaving town. His final show as a Juneau resident is at 9 p.m. Friday, July 4, at the Imperial Billiard & Bar.

"I enjoyed my time here," Slim said. "The music scene was a big part of what kept me around. The crowds are very supportive, which is great. There are a lot of musicians in town, so there's that camaraderie."

Even in Bellingham and the Interstate 5 corridor, where garage-blues-revivalism is common, Slim's stage act is likely to stand out.

In his solo act, he plays one of two guitars, a 1930 Dobro Resonator or a 1934 National Steel Dobro Resonator. He sets up kick pedals and pounds a metal bucket and a metal trash can sitting down. He plays slide with 916-inch-long chrome deep sockets ground down to fit his finger.

To complete the blues revival sound, he sings through an old telephone headset from the 1930s, jury-rigged with a preamplifier. When he sings, the sound is crackly and distorted, somewhere between a phonograph record and a train conductor's call. He's hoping to find a CB microphone to add extra distortion to his guitars.

Part of Slim's trash-can rhythm section has a spike that drives into the stage, and he sets monitors in front of the makeshift drums to prevent them from moving.

"I can't play the kick pedal the way you would normally play with the balls of your feet," Slim said. "If I did that, my guitar would be bouncing on my lap. I have to keep my heel planted. The muscles on the front of my legs wear out, because I can't use my whole leg."

That poses a singular challenge for Wisconsin Slim. Most Juneau bars want performers to play for the entire night, nearly four hours. Slim plays for about three with three breaks, usually repeating just one song, his traditional arrangement of "John Henry."

Slim's move to Bellingham puts him near family and friends in Seattle and in the middle of a larger community of musicians.

"It's got a lively music scene and a lot of great city stuff without being overwhelmed by the city. It's close to Vancouver and the San Juans and Mount Baker. Also, it's just time for the next stage."

For Slim, the next stage could include studying linguistics in a clinical setting. He spent his first year in Juneau as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, teaching English as a second language to adults. He later found a job with the state, working as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the deaf. He also taught sign language at University of Alaska Southeast.

Neither Slim nor his girlfriend Davidson have jobs down south. But Wisconsin Slim will likely find a niche in Bellingham - a college town of 60,000 notorious for its rowdy, beer-stained rockabilly and garage-rock scene.

"I want to get a feel for the place and get to know who's doing what before I jump in," Slim said. "I don't know if I'll be well-received, because they get a lot of music coming through."

Slim grew up in Appleton, Wis. He taught himself how to play guitar listening to heavy metal - Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. His family moved to Tucson, Ariz., when he was in high school. He started hanging out at record stores, buying "anything that looked like it might be good" and finding a few gems.

"The first blues artist I ever heard on record was Mississippi Fred McDowell, and I loved it," Slim said. "I couldn't understand a word he was saying, but I listened to it over and over again. Now I play more of his songs than anybody. He has the best rhythm - that train rhythm."

Slim played in a handful of Tucson punk bands, including the Fells, who eventually moved to Seattle. He was influenced by Tucson's two-man, destructo-billy combo Doo Rag, one of the first bands he saw play slide guitar.

"These guys were playing open tunings and dropped down and all this picking stuff," Slim said. "I couldn't even touch that. Then I was at a friend's house and they had a slide that they had bought. It came with some common open tunings, and the first one I tried was an Open E. The first notes I heard were right on."

Slim bought his first slide that day and began learning Mississippi Fred McDowell tunes. He bought finger picks for the first time but didn't like to wear them on all three fingers. He preferred to play with picks on his forefinger and thumb.

"I knew I was a hack, because I was supposed to be playing with all three fingers," Slim said. "But at the same time, I liked what I was hearing. Then I saw an old video of Mississippi Fred McDowell, and that was the way he played. If he could do it, I could do it."

Wisconsin Slim, in his current form, was not born until 2000.

Once in Juneau, his initial idea was to find a turntablist to scratch on vinyl and sample rhythms along his old blues. When that didn't work out, he sat in with local drummer Clay Good for a few open mic shows.

Good left town for a summer vacation, and in the meantime, Slim borrowed some old kick pedals and experimented with pounding counter-rhythms on garbage cans. He immediately knew it was the perfect sound. He played a song for local singer and disc jockey Collette Cost using his new one-man, guitar-drums setup. A few weeks later they performed.

"We were kind of dismayed by how people would just ignore bands during the open mic nights at The Alaskan," Slim said. "We said, 'OK, let's go to the Alaskan. I think we'll make people listen.' We played 'Lay My Burden Down' and everyone paid attention."

Wisconsin Slim has one official release - a self-titled 78-rpm album that came out in October 2001. He pressed 100 copies and has about 11 left. They sell for $20. Slim spent $2,500 - all of a permanent fund dividend - on the 10-month project after tracking down a 78 manufacturer in California. The jacket was hand-printed by Susan Lewandowski of Cracked Compass Productions in Seattle.

"One of the big reasons I made a 78 was to tip my hat to these old guys who I've listened to on remastered versions," Slim said. "The opportunity to make a 78 is not going to be around much longer. No one is going to be alive who can do it."

"I'm a local guy who plays in the bar, and I'm not a rock star," he said. "If I'm going to make 100 records, I'm going to make them the way I want to do it."

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