Marching to the beat of his own drum

ON THE ROAD—Robbie Gwartney of Thousand Oaks can often be seen playing his drums on weekends in a dirt lot on the side of the road near the corner of Kanan and Agoura. IAN BRADLEY/Acorn Newspapers

ON THE ROAD—Robbie Gwartney of Thousand Oaks can often be seen playing his drums on weekends in a dirt lot on the side of the road near the corner of Kanan and Agoura. IAN BRADLEY/Acorn Newspapers

Frequent commuters through the intersection of Kanan and Agoura roads have probably seen or heard the long-haired man who spends his weekends playing a drum kit that he has set up in a dirt lot known for its Halloween pumpkin and Christmas tree displays.

The one-man concert band faces Kanan Road, and when he’s there, and he’s on, he’s hard to miss. His name is Robbie Gwartney and he’s played drums since he was a young man. The 55-year-old Thousand Oaks resident now spends weekends practicing the instrument as a way to stay productive.

He’s also a recovering alcoholic who will be eight years sober on Valentine’s Day. He’s trying to put his life together after spending 16 years living on the streets.

“I had too much fun, it should be illegal,” Gwartney said. “Whether I make money (from drumming) or not, I’m enjoying my day. I’d rather be here than at home. I’ve been in my apartment for three years, and I live around a bunch of disabled people. It’s sad but true, but none of them really have anything, they just do nothing. It’s depressing to be around there too much.”

He puts out a plastic bucket for passers-by to drop money in. It’s not a high-foot-traffic area, but drivers do occasionally pull over to give him cash, and there are plenty more who honk and shout their support as they cruise past.

Gwartney grew up in Northern California and moved to Arizona with his wife in the 1980s. He said that when their marriage ended he started partying a lot and eventually stopped going to work.

He started hitchhiking, traveling that way for about seven years. In 2002 he ended up in the San Fernando Valley and decided to stay put.

“I (set up) a camp down at the creek in Calabasas and I lived there for years,” Gwartney said. “The sheriffs, everybody knew I lived there. Looking back, I made a lot of friends and people treated me very kindly in Calabasas. About 2007 I ended up getting in trouble and they put me away for a while. I ended up in prison over alcohol. It’s the root of all my problems in my life,” he said.

After he was released, he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Newhope Lutheran Church on Agoura Road and got sober in 2010. He was homeless until 2012, when the sheriff evicted him from his camp at the creek.

In the two years he’d been attending meetings, Gwartney made friends with the staff at the church, so when he showed up with the eviction notice they let him stay on the premises. He lived there for three years, which is how he was reintroduced to the drums.

“It had been 25 years since I touched a drum set. The church had one that I was sneaking on every now and again,” he said. “I made arrangements with the church to let me and a friend play music there. They signed me up for low-income housing in Thousand Oaks, but the waiting list was a mile long. One, two, going on three years and they’re getting discouraged because now I’ve completely taken the place over.”

While he waited for housing to become available, Gwartney bought a used drum kit. He’s on disability and has had multiple surgeries to fix damage to his hands, teeth, nose and an eye that was blinded when he got hit in the head with a pipe.

When he moved into the apartment, he had nowhere to practice, so he decided to set up somewhere outdoors. He said that after living on the streets he’s not bothered by people staring at him.

Gwartney said not getting sober until his 40s makes it hard to move forward because he’s starting so late in life. But now that he’s got a home and surgeries have fixed his face, he wants to find a job.

“I’ve got this zest for life, but I’m paying for bad choices now. I want to make things happen, but at 55 years old it ain’t as easy as 35, 45 even. The next step for me is full-time employment. I’ll sleep on a cot in the back room, that’s how desperately I want to do it. I’ll just be an old man, I’ll live out being old. It’s one day at a time,” he said.

“I’m a professional BMX-motocross racing, house-framing fool that’s done all kinds of stuff in my life. I love to have fun and it’s like the body can’t keep up. It’s hard at 55. Relish your youth, don’t waste time and have fun being young,”