You Ought to Know: Bob Jensen
For our first "You Ought to Know" of the year, we sent Basement Transmissions' Bob Jensen Flowers - Matt Flowers.
Erie's downtown entertainment and cultural district is spelled out proudly across the overpass on State Street between 14th and 16th streets. But, look around; it's all bars – entertainment and culture for 21 and up. However, if you look close, there's a hole in the wall marked by a large, vicious yet quirky set of teeth painted on the window. That's Basement Transmissions, a radically progressive, innovative, and creative venue for music and art, and it's holed up at 1501 State St. So who's the man behind the mouth? A radically progressive, innovative, and creative man by the name of Robert Jensen.
You meet him once and you'll never forget him. While his hair may be a different color every time you see him, he is a man with a plan. Jensen's look is as eccentric as Warhol, but his presence is as warm as an old friend's. With a spike through his tongue, a small ring through his nose, and some fierce tattoos on his body, Jensen talks thoughtfully yet fundamentally, letting his expressions tell a deeper side of the story.
Somewhere in all the skateboarding, body piercing, and hair dyeing of his younger years, Bob and a group friends found inspiration and hatched an idea. "Basement Transmissions started off in '98 as a basement record label," Bob says in a slow, quiet, reminiscing tone. He proposed a name he felt represented the underground music scene and insinuated the end achievement as airplay. Everyone agreed the name fit like a well-cut suit. But with no venue yet, Bob and his small crew began hosting household art exhibitions – blending music, art, and culture together in one place. Later, he would host weekend-long music and art shows in the very building Basement Transmissions occupies today.
But Bob's younger years were not all music and art shows. At the age of 17 he was considered a quadriplegic after a fight left him with life-altering injuries, his spine damaged at the C3, C4 level – third and fourth cervical – the same level as Superman actor Christopher Reeve's injuries. "A whole group of these 'football player' type kids sort of cornered me… Long story short," Bob says beneath a small sigh, "I was in a fight because a jock didn't like my haircut, so he beat me up and broke my neck. I was completely paralyzed from the neck down."
Over the years Jensen slowly regained mobility – first, with a power wheelchair he controlled with his chin, later with thumb controls; and many years later, he was back on his feet. Today – by miracle – Bob can get around independently, with the intermittent aide of his walker.
"I did some drawings with my teeth," Bob says. "It was pretty cool."
As for the jock, he served one year of community service picking up trash on the side of street. After that, he moved out of town and went on with his life.
But immobility couldn't halt Bob's creativity; in fact, it taught him something important. "One thing my disability has given me as an artist that sets me above and beyond any other artist is patience. After sitting through quadriplegia, from the point where it began to the point where it is now, I really understand time. I can really pass it. I'll just go until the job is done."
Bob went on to earn his undergraduate and master's degree in 2008 from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in metalsmithing and jewelry work. "Walking with my disability, it's like my endurance is endless. You know I walk very slowly, but f—in'-a, man, I'll walk from here to California."
During his time as a student, Jensen explored music and art, perceiving the role of an artist in a whole new way. As a result of his new knowledge, Basement Transmissions had become a kind of "public access record label," with the help of close friend John Johnston "If you want to be on a record label, and you're an artist from Erie that works hard at doing anything, and you want to put your CD out on Basement Transmissions then – well – we don't really give people money, but we do everything in our power to get [your music and art] out there," Bob explains. But BT was bound to transform into something bigger.
In September 2011, Bob and his fiancée took a ride around Erie in hopes to find a new apartment, but what they came back with was 1501 State St., the current location of Basement Transmissions. Having spent first month's rent on BT instead of an apartment, Jensen was left empty-handed and homeless. With nowhere left to go, he and his fiancée set up shop in the second floor, and all the while hosted music shows downstairs. The problem: the venue didn't have heat, and it was now December. "It was really cold… it was so cold," he says in a shivery kind of laugh. But with patience like a warm fire he sat it out a bitter month and half until he raised enough money to move into a modest apartment. Then word spread like a sickness: BT was the new all-age venue in Erie.
According to local Erie promoter Don Frankie in the documentary "Enter the Basement" – that's right, a documentary has already been made about this place – "BT started everything, got all the kids back playing again. There wasn't a place in town for any of the young bands to play."
Today the venue has hosted almost 150 shows since its opening in September 2011.
In all those shows, things started looking up for Jensen. "We started from nothing… [Now] it's almost like real living," he utters, seemingly thankfully, as he stares into his cup of cold coffee.
This isn't to say there's no struggle left. Raking in dough like autumn leaves doesn't happen for an alcohol-free venue. Hard work doesn't always lead to a big house, a shiny new car, or the latest gadgets on the shelf, but Jensen says it's all been worth the struggle. "I work in such a community-based business – I get to see all the positive things in the community. It makes it a lot easier to have a positive outlook. Positivity breeds positivity."
Although he wanted to focus strictly on music and art, he took it upon himself to handle the business end too. "Without people supporting the arts, there is no point in doing it." Art for people's sake seems to be his philosophy. "My main focus is trying to get everyone to work together to make our whole scene a better place." And it's working. "Everyone involved with Basement Transmissions happens to be an artist." All of which is helped by Jensen being a member of Edinboro's stARTup incubator, which allows BT the ability to help with CD duplication, distribution, press, booking, and artwork.
But Jensen isn't done there. In the future, BT will be giving music lessons, art lessons, and have a V.I.P room for birthday parties. What's even better? If kids don't have the money for lessons, they can volunteer their time at the venue in exchange. "I'd like to make our scene a better place by providing an opportunity for kids," he finishes.
That overpass across State Street is a kind of iron stage curtain, presenting to you this Erie gem, and transitioning the 21-and-up entertainment to all-age entertainment. And Bob, if he's not bouncing off the walls with new ideas (Pop-up books, post-apocalyptic short films, and music for his own band, The Jargonauts), he's still down to just kick it with a graphic novel in his hands (Conan probably) and some outlandish world music. Just south of that overpass, Jensen is doing great things for young artists in Erie, his story is inspiring, and he's harvesting this city's potential to make a stronger community all around. "Erie has unlimited potential," he says sincerely.
Matthew Flowers can be contacted at mFlowers@ErieReader.com.