Anyone trying to fathom the eccentric wonders of Clarence Greenwood's life and music should probably start with his guitar. When most people learn the instrument, they tune it to something called standard tuning and strum all six strings. Not Greenwood. He ditched the bottom E string because he just wasn't playing it, and then tuned another, the B string, to B-flat. This is a little like going to work without a shirt: You can do it, but it will complicate your life in unexpected ways, and it will freak out a lot of your colleagues.
For Greenwood, this strange tuning has long limited the number of people he could play with, since it requires sophistication to translate the obscure language his guitar speaks. But he really wasn't trying to be difficult.
"At the time, I didn't know it was wrong," he says, sitting at the dining table in his Brooklyn apartment. "It just sounded right and the chords I would use sounded better that way. And I just started making up my own chords."
That's Greenwood for you: highly inventive, utterly earnest and a little peculiar, singing and speaking a patois of his own creation. For years, that patois has been heard only by regulars at small Washington music venues like the Velvet Lounge, the Black Cat and the Metro Cafe, and the fortunate handful who showed up at open-mike nights in places like the now-closed Food for Thought on Connecticut Avenue. Greenwood, as it happens, was raised in Washington and worked here for years, scrounging up rent money by scalping tickets at events around town, until he decamped to New York in late 1999 just before landing a major-label deal with DreamWorks Records.
But tomorrow this intense, soft-spoken underdog hero of D.C.'s music scene is finally going coast-to-coast. The self-titled debut by Citizen Cope -- it's his stage name, not the name of his band -- will turn Greenwood into an artist of national stature. Though it's only January, here's a prediction that doesn't take much guts: "Citizen Cope" will stand as one of the best albums of 2002. He is the city's most soulful export since Marvin Gaye.