Doug Young Sets a New World Record for Banjo-Playing

| 16 Feb 2015 | 05:37

    On a recent Saturday at the Good/Bad Art Collective in Williamsburg, the usual background of rattling hiphop and tejano music from passing cars was joined by an unfamiliar plunky sound, as Doug Young set the Guinness world record for consecutive hours of banjo playing.

    Young, 27, wore a slight pompadour, slicked back on the sides to meet at a vertical line in the rear, and seemed calm as he passed his 15th hour in a rigid wooden chair. "This is easy," he said. "I've changed my whole lifestyle to prepare for this, so it's not hard. I've been playing the banjo, staying up late, no food, controlling my bowel movements. That one's the key right now," he confided with a slight grimace.

    "I think he really has to go to the bathroom," said Chris Weber, a member of the collective and Young's boss at Gander and White Shipping. Guinness mandates 15-minute breaks every eight hours, and as the timer above Young's head struck 16, he clutched a small bag and dashed upstairs to applause from the hipsters milling about and inspecting the art on the walls.

    The collective started in 1993 in Denton, TX, and quickly became notorious for staging one-night events like "Isolation Chamber," in which three members seesawed for three days, sustained on bread and water, buzzed by an audience-controlled alarm every time they stopped. "I vomited at least a half-dozen times," admitted Weber sheepishly. Many of the members have since relocated to New York, so Good/Bad has had a space in a storefront on S. 1st St. since 1999.

    In a corner stood a half-finished oil painting with the outlines of a few banjo greats, including Earl Scruggs, Bill Keith and Ralph Stanley, and a large blank space near the center of the canvas. Young, back from his break, said, "I started that painting so my friend could paint me in while I played, but he seems to have other ideas. I think he's a little intimidated."

    Young planned to play for 24 hours, the minimum allowed by Guinness for a new record of this sort. Doug Young promotional plastic beer cups confidently anticipated success, with their printed legend "7:00 A.M. May 12 - 7:00 A.M. May 13." There were also small Doug Young circular stickers, with his name circumscribing a skull and crossbones.

    A set list with about 20 songs, Young's complete repertoire, sat on a wooden crate beside him. It included country and bluegrass favorites such as "Cluck Old Hen," "Salty Dog Blues," "Clinch Mountain Backstep" and "Old Joe Clark," but was abandoned after a few run-throughs, around the third hour. By the middle hours, Young was mostly improvising. Occasionally a recognizable riff would emerge out of the constant plucking, but generally the banjo brought out endless rolls and waves of random sound as a pale Young leaned back, crossed his legs and picked with three fingers. His picking fingers were turning green from the metal picks on their tips, but he was suffering no other side effects. The calluses on his left hand were holding up, and he was not in pain.

    His spirits, however, were somewhat subdued. "My biggest battle right now is not physical exertion, but boredom. I'd like to be enjoying myself. All these people are having a good time." A moment later, he muttered darkly, "They're all here waiting for me to fail."

    The last five hours were slow. The remaining spectators played Monopoly and Yahtzee on the floor, while a DVD player was set up so Doug could watch and provide musical accompaniment for Hands on a Hard Body, the Texas documentary in which contestants compete to win a truck by being the last person to take their hands off it.

    At the two-minute mark, Young stood up under the red, white and blue paper bunting and played a little louder as an audience of 11 stood and cheered. With 10 seconds remaining, he asked everyone to quiet down. He finished with a traditional bluegrass flourish, took off his Gold Tone banjo and walked around, shaking everyone's hand and thanking them one by one.

    Young was sanguine about his new world record. "This is a piece of performance art, but it's not the end of it. Usually I do art work that celebrates others' achievements: Evel Knievel's, pirates', heroes'. But now I want to do things that celebrate my own achievement." His first project is to make a series of music boxes that open to reveal a figurine of himself, slowly revolving with instrument in lap, while 24 hours of banjo tinkle in accompaniment.

    "It's about exploiting myself, but in a benevolent way, to make me bigger than I am."