Michael Ransford opens a cupboard in his kitchen and pulls out a box that jangles when it’s moved. From the box he removes a canvas bag, emblazoned with the logo and autographs of Seattle Americana band Cody Beebe and the Crooks, and the jangling intensifies.
He starts removing one tambourine after another from the bag, each one a different shape and circumference, some made of plastic and others wood, until there are nine forming a circle around him on the floor. Most of the tambourines have been reinforced with tape and nails, and each one has magic marker arrows drawn around the inside rim to denote which side to strike.
There’s a history behind each of them, Ransford explains. This one, its white paint starting to chip around the edges, was purchased in 2001 and was the first one he ever owned (he painted it himself). That one over there was given to him by a fellow concertgoer at BOBfest six years ago when his own tambourine unexpectedly broke.
And here’s his most durable one, still shiny with lacquer, which he caught when Ian Astbury, lead singer of British band the Cult, threw it into the crowd during a show. “I think he aimed it right at me, because all I had to do was put my hand up,” Ransford said, beaming.
If you regularly attend local rock shows or outdoor music festivals, or if you merely pay attention to the rumblings of the zeitgeist, then odds are you know who Ransford is. Odds are even better that you know him simply as the Tambourine Man.
He says he even gets recognized at the grocery store or walking down the street, and he was recently the subject of a video profile by local filmmaker Rachel Cox, in which he lip-synched to a club remix of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Ransford, 59, embodies that dusty aphorism about dancing like no one’s watching, showing up at concerts, seemingly at random, and strutting and grooving like he’s on a light-up floor in the bowels of Studio 54. Depending on the show, he’ll often wield a tambourine, and it’s not unusual for the band that’s playing to supply one for him. He’s adamant that it’s not some kind of look-at-me shtick: Music moves him, he says, and he wants to share the euphoria with everyone around him.
His lanky 6-foot-3 frame and shoulder-length hair ensure Ransford is immediately noticeable, and his typical concert attire – snakeskin boots, polyester dress shirts, skin tight pants that are either ivory white or oil slick black – makes him even more conspicuous. His style is so flashy that it’s almost jarring to see him in a white T-shirt and loose-fitting black pants, sitting on a stool in his living room with a framed portrait of Marilyn Monroe hovering over his shoulder.
Ransford refers to his clothes the way most musicians refer to their amps, cables and instruments – he even calls them his “rock ’n’ roll gear” – and his tambourines function almost as accessories. In discussing his fashion sense, he quotes a lyric from Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”: He’s wearing out things that nobody wears.
Most of his clothes are purchased at vintage boutiques and thrift shops, others (believe it or not) at stores like Hot Topic, and some of them have been hanging in his closet for 20 to 30 years. If something doesn’t quite fit the way he wants, he runs it through his old Singer sewing machine, a gift from his late father.
“I just stretch it, rip it, get some fabric and smack some more into it, whatever it takes to make straight pants bell bottoms or take something with a high waist down to hip huggers,” he said. “The stuff they sell off the rack is just so bland.”
The second of four brothers, Ransford was raised in a devout Catholic family that settled in Moses Lake when he was a teenager, which is when his obsession with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones intensified. He remembers seeing Elton John perform in 1975 and being entranced by Ray Cooper, the percussionist in John’s backing band. “I watched him more than Elton,” Ransford recalled.
He moved to Spokane in 1987 with plans to become a computer programmer, but he wasn’t able to focus on classes as a result of, he says, “getting too high” when he was younger. He’s been self-employed, working as a shrub trimmer and tree pruner, for the past 18 years.
Ransford says he first became involved in Spokane’s music scene in 1989, and he remembers riding his bike or taking the bus downtown to hop from club to club. It’s been a weekly ritual for him ever since.
“I like dance music,” he said, naming Lavoy, Pine League, Psychic Rites and Bruiser as some of his favorite local acts currently performing. “If I hear of a band that plays something danceable – whether it’s pop or rock or electronic or whatever – I’ll go.”
He says he psyches himself up at home before every concert he attends: He thumbs through his extensive vinyl collection, stacked on the floor against one of the living room walls, and blasts rock music from the tall, mismatched speakers standing in the corner. Sometimes, he says, the windowpanes even rattle.
“It’s like a rock band going onstage,” he said. “They have rituals a few hours before, and I have my ritual every time I go out. I can’t let my head interfere with who I’m going to be.”
He’s aware, though, that not everyone is amused by his conduct at concerts, and he says he’s been angrily confronted, called out by perturbed band members and 86’d from certain venues.
“I’m not out to upstage anybody – my goal is to be myself and enjoy the music, to be favorable to the band and not take away their spotlight,” he said. “But some bands get really edgy about it. One band from Seattle didn’t like my dancing – I didn’t even have a tambourine. They just didn’t like my presence, and they wanted me out of there. I hear hecklers all the time, and I’ve been around a lot of haters. Even when I just show up they go, ‘Ugh, he’s here.’
“My reputation precedes me,” he added with a laugh.
Although he admits that drugs and alcohol have derailed him in the past – the threat of relapsing is “always present and I’m aware of it,” he said – Ransford has been continuously sober for four years now, and he defies anyone who needs a bit of liquid courage before stepping out on a dance floor. If anything, he does it for the musical high.
“People want to know why I do what I do out there in public,” he said. “I do it for the love, and because music makes me want to live. I was talking to a musician, and he said, ‘I can relate, because I do it for the love.’ And I said, ‘No, you get paid.’ I do it because it pumps the blood through my heart.
“Musicians say, ‘I am what I am because I get up and I know I can play music.’ Well, I’ve got a stereo.”