All posts by Dana Smith

Author and Entertainer

Abbey Redux

No locked gate at the trailhead here at the Suharo National Park in Tucson.

What part of “He’s a threat to national security…” do you not understand?

Disgust is the automated bot game being foisted upon our citizens. There is a lot of suppression being played so they might tamp down on the outraged and paying attention majority.

We got us a verified Putin puppet boys and girls, men and women, fellow citizens of my country.

You get the benefit of the doubt, I get the benefit of the doubt and he has completely duplicitiously worn his welcome at the no doubt about fresh squeezed for payoff bar of kickbacks and under the table dirty rotten deals.

We’ll attend the womens march in at the state capital in Phoenix on Saturday.

Until then I’ll be hiking here in Tucson, south to Patagonia then north in the Superstitions. I’ll be visiting folk I know that live on a ranch right on the Mexican frontier. I’ll hike out to the fence for look see.

Hope you’ll join me in keeping a close eye on our democracy. Patriots we are right on the edge of risky times our signers of the constitution worried might come to pass.

Long dusty trail in our park

Northwest Scuffing Along Contest

Work took me as far north as Seattle. After I made a turn and put some south backtracking down the Interstate 5. I veered east taking a road along the Cowlitz River. Mount St Helens had been rumbling. An active volcano might be something to see. Rain was predicted as ever to continue without letup.  As the crow flies I was twelve miles north of a volcano I would never see.

Highway 12 would take me over the Cascades to Yakima. My next dates were in Cheney, Pullman and Moscow. On the eastern slope rain, drizzle and fog was forecast to ease up. I transited through brush-steppe country crossing the Columbia River at the Vernita Bridge. Here in a state famous for its lumber was a treeless landscape. Irrigation pivots dotted the rolling barrens. The town of Othello was austere.

I set up for the show at Eastern Washington State College on the lawn in front of the student union building. I drew an audience of three hundred,  a sizable crowd for a no-name, small-time traveling comedy variety entertainer. I caught, built and held the audience. Then there were laughs. Applause points ranged to respectable not more.

My show at Evergreen State in Olympia had been not as big but was more energetic. I am 29 years old. My 60 minutes remained a frustrating work-in-progress. After most of a decade much remained to be done.

After my show a friend waited to say hello. I’d come to know her six years back from shows I played in Fresno. Her family had been a stopover for the small circus I’d traveled with. Striking the rigging, packing, loading, then hanging out, dinner and  an evening of conversation followed. Raised by a family of generous and good natured parents she extended her hospitality. I had a place to shower and sleep.

I had been out on the road one month. The hour long set had been much changed by the hundreds of sidewalk shows in San Francisco. New and better material was the result of the Fishermen’s Wharf experience. Next goal on my infinite to-do-never-finished list was putting my best thirty minutes together.

Mount St. Helens continued making news. US Geological Survey had instruments measuring the mountains bulge. Uncertainty prevailed. The volcano might not erupt at all. Then again there was no predicting how big an eruption there could be. A National Public Radio station from Spokane reported on the unstable volcano daily. I was well over three hundred miles east.

I rolled south by two lane highway atop the Columbia River Plateau. The distinct Palouse began to dominate. Overlarge dunes and hills are planted and dry farmed in wheat. Towns of less than one hundred citizens anchored by silos dot the landscape. The steep contoured landscape required ingenuity to cultivate and harvest. Clever equipment had been invented to take advantage of the fertility found in the regions undulating soils.

A Bay Area friend was studying in Pullman. Her current project included the creation of a series of sculptural pieces inspired by divinity and motherhood. My artist friend identified with my intensity and offbeat show. We were two misfits. Conversation cut to the marrow. I misunderstood the multiplicity of her moods and soul states. I was not nearly so multidimensional. I didn’t know what to make of a feral spirited nature. Intuition laced with impulsive spontaneity frightened me. I was not so unbound. I had emotions where she was emotion. My risk taking appetite was a fraction of my artist friend.

By calendar it was May but there were patches of snow persevering in the frigid shadows and chill wind. Rain was here and there in the forecast. A sharp crisp slap in the face wind made performing outdoors uninviting. My friend Susan lived with her mother and the two wanted to help keep my spirits high and my menagerie coddled. The doors to their home were opened. I had my own bathroom and bed. The two had a knack with animals. Thursday I performed in Pullman and the next in Moscow. Both days shows took place against the elements for paltry crowds.

Moscow just east of Pullman had morphed into a regional center for a younger more progressive non-farming population. In 1973 the Moscow Food Co-op was founded. Peace activists and draft resisters immigrated here. After my appearance we walked through downtown. Posters had been hung advertising a weekend crafts fair. We tucked into a tavern. After we found dinner on W. 3rd Street.

A mandolin player I thought I’d recognized appeared from out of the thin cool night air. His face was familiar but I could not place him. The musician towed along another three or four. This was the era of denim, knee high leather boots, crushed velvet vests, tie dye shirts, long haired unshaven men and granny dressed women.

I kept mulling where I had seen this mandolin player before. Where did I know this man from? Where had we seen each other before? How can I travel to furthest reaches of Idaho and end up recognizing a familiar face in the crowd? I had imagined a more remote and far flung world.

After running out of businesses on W. 3rd Street we turned and retraced our steps back on the other side of the street. A wooden arbor covered with thick bare vines was fitted between two old brick buildings. Antique street lights lighted the outdoor space. Patrons sat on benches while four or five played bluegrass.

I placed the mandolin player’s face.

“He set up across the street from where I was doing shows in Fisherman’s Wharf.” I explained to Susan. “He wore whiteface makeup.” This curious wisp of a man would stand still, like a statue, if and when someone stopped all at once he’d fiddle and jig step in front of his open carrying case. After so long he’d halt and freeze, wait and when he judged the moment right he’d resume his strumming and jigging.

I overheard someone call him by his name. His friends called him Crow. Crisscrossing the northwest for some years the itinerant musician played where and when he could find a crowd. He’d made the weekend fair part of his regular stops.

“Crow?” What kind of name is that? Seemed coined in recognition of his style of moving from one place to another. I had been nibbling at an unconventional life where this man seems to have swallowed the same path whole. By my eye the mandolin player seemed to be the lead picker.

Crow had by self determination scratched together a performing life of countercultural success. His non-mainstream incarnation and formula made a big impression. Just getting to Moscow is an achievement. I had thought I was near as could be determined one of the few street performers doing this kind of grassroots traveling and entertainment. All of sudden I find out that I am not the only one out here. I am not the only hot shot one man street act that knows how good the audience in Moscow can be. Crow was doing just fine thank you very much and in fact he had coined an even more inspired nickname and had an even more complex interwoven band of local artists he was working with on his visits here to this out of the way corner of the northwest.

If envy was worth anything then I was now a rich man.

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Cattlemen Association Chaining Pinion Pines

No Such Thing as Free Range

We’re blowing through this decade. I had expected more from time. I got this instead.

Doorbell rings…

“Who’s there?” 

“It’s me, 2020.”

“You mean like perfect vision twenty-twenty?”

“I mean like Mother Nature-Father Time.”

Go away…”

Only going to take about two years.

I’ve got an idea for a new villain. Going to pin some evil doing on cattlemen intent on cutting down more pinion pine trees to make way for more forage for their herds. 

Pine nuts sell for $40 a pound last time I checked. Steak sells for less, when consumed as directed puts users on a path for cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. 

Oldest Trees in the World are Located in Nevada

Got a pretty good rotten no good miserable group of folk that come hell or low water are intent on growing more meat and to do that want to clear out one of the most precious tree’s in the world. 

Range in Nevada is a tangle of confused interests. Government doles out grazing rights. Cattlemen bitch about their allotment. Federal land is in theory about multiple uses. Cattlemen believe otherwise.

I’d say I’ve got a pretty good villain. Stripping trees out of the landscape, cow pies everywhere, stubborn mind’s made-up don’t get in my way or I’ll carve your heart right out of the center of your chest and feed it to the vulture types wearing spurs and kicking an old Ford pickup truck around.

Hard not to laugh and cry at this tragedy of ranching overreach. 

That’s the plan. A comedy with a good rotten no good bottom feeding villainous bunch of free grazers running roughshod over the landscape.

Happy New Year

Tavern and Roadhouse Show Biz Wanderlust

Troy small

Piece of the Seldom Seen Northwest

A moneymaking sidewalk show in Fisherman’s Wharf was one prong of a multiple pronged business plan. After four months playing the pavement I trucked to the Northwest. Instead of fifteen minute shows I’d be presenting my one hour set. Instead of a sidewalk I’d play college campuses.

I traveled solo with my performing dog, chicken, cat and goldfish. I had a sleeping bunk, cooking gear, suitcase, shave kit, typewriter,  costume and set of mechanic’s tools. I cooked off my tailgate. The price of gas was my mortal enemy.

I was hopping from date to date. My California plates were a tip-off. Provincial types reckoned I was an infiltrator. Alternately cognizant citizen’s saw me for the dreamer I was. Six hours from Stockton and I landed in Ashland, Oregon, six hours more and I’m asleep in my bunk in Corvallis.

At the end of any day I might have not spoken to another soul. Touring can be bittersweet lonely. I encamped between dates along lakes and rivers. I’d stock up on supplies get out of town and sit still. Weekday’s out thirty miles from any population center was quiet. I made small talk with local ranchers. Sometimes a highway crew was repairing a nearby roadway. Most days I didn’t see another soul.

I polished the skillful means of being comfortable in my own skin. I had a good bed in my truck and screened windows. I’d wash my pots and pans, brush my teeth. The dog, cat, chicken and goldfish all rested easier once I settled in for the night. I’d try to finish my chores before sundown then curl up on my bunk and read.

Castle Valley

Let’s Get Away From it All

Once you’re out on the road the pace of life takes a few days to get into the rhythm. The idea is to not fixate on your destination. You will want to appreciate all those in-between moments, make peace with each leg, the journey itself becomes a feature length wide screen spectacular. Waking up, making coffee off the tailgate, caring for the animals, getting the truck started, leaving plenty of time to get to where you are going, this is remaining centered and exercising a self respecting sense of composure. You can’t let emptiness rattle your nerves.

I’d learn from incidental conversations about the places I was passing through. If I needed a nap I’d pull off climb onto my bunk and sleep. You want to take the time and make the effort to fill the five gallon jug with spring fed drinking water. I did all my own oil changes, kept my brakes adjusted, greased all the zerk fittings. The idea was to keep ahead of trouble and fix something before you had a breakdown.

I’d play a date and after go to the local bank where the check was drawn. When my wallet was flush I’d send the other checks by mail to my bank back in California. I’d pull off and use a pay phone to check in with my answering service. I’d practice juggling and hand balancing in parks. Product development required staying in shape and coming up with new tricks  I wrote music and lyrics for the ukulele. I tried teaching the dog a thing or two.

I corresponded with clients. Letters were composed on my Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I kept a calendar with potential appearances penciled in, once my client confirmed I inked the date in. Once I had a booking I queried the surrounding communities for more work. Festivals, fairs, schools, libraries, fraternal organizations and park and recreation departments were all targets of my advertising campaign. Once I had taken care of matters related to my immediate survival I would turn my attention to finding an engagement for tomorrow. A sober eyed fiduciary responsibility to keeping the show afloat filled seven days a week.

blowout

Glamour and Glory of the Biz

I had met members of Charlie Musselwhite’s band at a bar in the Bay Area. The players were moving north with the spring. I’d pulled into Eugene and so was the band. Tacoma same thing. Between sets I’d drink beer, shoot pool and small talk to Charlie’s sidemen. My juggling business and touring amused the vagabond musicians. They were envious of the simplicity of my running a solo entertainment enterprise. They traveled by automobiles and stayed in economy motels. Charlie seemed older than the hills even if he wasn’t. Musselwhite and his band all drank hard. The Chicago harmonica bluesman was punching out one night stands  up and down the west coast trying to keep food on the table and a roof over his head. Charlie’s band was rarely asleep before dawn. You could be a blues player, do all that drinking, smoking cigarettes, skirt chasing tom catting but that was hard on a body  and you’re bound to wear out sooner than later. Charlie eventually stopped drinking. Sobriety is a lot to do with why he’s still alive today.

Charlie’s guitar player had quite the way with the ladies. He had two or four aching to be his one and only. He’d come and gone through Tacoma enough to have made some sort of lasting memories with his throng of heartthrobs. He’d tried taking one on the road. Hard as he tried the guitar player couldn’t make that kind of arrangement stick. Guitar playing seems to be more soulful when powered by heartbreak, two-timing and everlasting unfaithfulness. Charlie’s band was versed far more completely in all of these matters than some upstart one man variety show act. Even a better than fair looking comedy juggler was no match when going up against a quartet of rhythm and blues infused Don Juan’s.

Edited Red Star

Street Street and Repeat Street

Self Portrait for Blog

Player in Disguise… 

On slower day’s a tighter circle is the coin-of-the-realm. Street performers and audiences fit glove to hand. Squeeze the experience tight. Empty space along the perimeter of a circle is a deal-breaker. Street performers plug leaks with live bodies. Success depends on persuasion, stand here not there, the seasoned showman knows what to do.

Blurring the focus, blow a line, miss a trick and like that minds wander, the entire enterprise is put at risk, an audience sees through the framework, becomes aware of the underlying engineering.

Subterfuge, veiling— are the stealth tools of the busking arts. Lighthearted crowd gathering is in fact audacity camouflaged. Stopping people is a make or break business carried out in full view with an undetectable touch. Technique requires concealment— you can level with your audience later, once you’ve won them over, once you’ve proven your worth, now that you are their keepsake. Great acts mate temporary intimacy to the delicate present moment.Blog Me and Me Alone

Another More Transparent Version…

A wise to ways street urchin can look at a sidewalk and predict down to the last Lincoln Head copper one-cent piece how much they’ll earn. Unless the show goes off the rails, good or bad, one way or another they will have converted an otherwise stingy group into a generous free-spending bunch who’ll be unfolding their wallets, moving forward prepared to toss a buck, five or twenty-five cent piece into the hat.

Sidewalk ‘been arounds’ are problem solvers, lived to tell, and know how to steer the experience on the track of the tried and true final destination. This is the practical craft mixed within the mind of a compulsive personality. Enterprise matters but the presentation of a profitable show is foremost. Buskers have only so much time, so much energy. A street show is in some sense a curated list of livewire fixes to prior money-reducing performance errors.

The Dude

A Card in the Deck…

If the new material work’s the busker makes more, if the untested bit doesn’t land the take will be less. Acts stumble onto repeatable nuggets. One guess, one experiment, one positive result after another working by feel, listening by ear and discerning mind to that revelatory moment when critical mass achieves its aim. A veteran busker knows everything there is to know about escape velocity. Laughter is involuntary, applause is synchronous; the experience is irresistible, here and now, unfolded skillfully into the present moment.

The larger goal of a thirty minute show is constructed piece by piece from the fifteen minute act. The whole project is a painstaking perilous journey to the center of a wanna-be-performer’s muster. Weathering a tough day on a sidewalk is a transitory tragic rear ending example of doggedness.

Always be on the move in front of a crowd. Buskers are linguistically kinesiological. Slapstick and pratfall illustrate the foibles of the common man. There is a high minded purpose to the lowbrow comic art. Do things an audience can see. You may trick a mind by word but there is something profitably superior about what must be confessed to the priest. The visual appeal works every time; seeing is believing. You don’t have to talk anyone into anything, they can bare witness with the naked eye —Come along, this way—

Edited Red Star

Sidewalk Show Exposé

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Ghirardelli Square circa 2001

Street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes 4, 4 turns into 8; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Survivors of this hustle have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd and how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt and perform to live another day, execution is whole enchilada. Wily buskers got this one word— “survival” tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real or sit back down, life is short.

Home field advantage is a term of art meaning playing the same space. Fine tuning the act is having a plan when the chimes to the courtyard clock ring. The sharpest tacks in the hunt for an audience can preplan then unload the perfectly timed zinger. Play your hand swift and sure, be on your toes, don’t get caught, stay loose, fresh, act quick while you possess the advantage of surprise. Time is of the essence.

Street performers are premeditated—  Glance around, count bodies— are they older, younger, can you smell the money in the crowd? Intuit mood, develop a game theory— come to the arena of street with a launch strategy. When starting a show make damn sure that you start your show. Is it a slow build or a quick start? Does it feel like you are pulling teeth? Are you slaying? Killing? Shooting fish in a barrel? Time tested material displays prowess. Audiences find a performer’s deft grip reassuring. Your job is to be dead certain they’re buying what you’re selling.

Buskers know the score, the headlines, front page, chess puzzle and constant disappointment of not being listed in the entertainment section. The winners in our world are lauded, the rest is fodder for the comic cannons. What’s the same, what’s different, what’s going on? Maybe it isn’t the size of your audience but it is the type. Maybe there are more children, more teens, or elderly. Read and react. If you can’t figure people out, you’re having an off day, out of rhythm? Pack it in. Do yourself and everyone else a favor, go to the tanning salon.

Offseason I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Each day I set out to do ten sets, and depending upon flow and energy settled on at least 8. The real trick was squeezing the 8 shows into an efficient 3 hour work day. You try shorter, try longer but the best money was earned nailing the finale before the fifteen minute mark.

Blog Post Pic One

Closer was a Jack Russell Terrier 

With tourist season in full swing from Memorial Day to Labor Day the sidewalk performers worked full time— 5 or 6 days on, 1 or 2 off. Strike while the iron is hot. By the end of that first summer I’d cranked out five-hundred shows. Once peak season ended I dialed back to 3 days per week again. I’d squirreled away more than half my summers take. I’d nurse my nest egg, make ends meet, and if I’d survived take another run at the big bucks next summer. Sidewalk showmanship is all about staying in the big game of betting everything or going broke trying.

Edited Red Star

Sidewalk Show

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Winnipeg 1987

One of the hardest hand to mouth games ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany struck fresh and wild. Destitution and insolvency are bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there are no lucky breaks or easy streets on this path— you can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a tangled soul drowning in a world insisting on obedience. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Life on Easy Street is over. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, that you’re at risk of drowning in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

in the round

Small Crowd

Since 1972 I had been stalling. I’d put off the day so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf on a overcast cool dry morning. Crazy early sunrise. The streets were empty but for the sounds of mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and one tentative soul preparing to put his future on the line.

To make it to the top of the small time  I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too little. All in from start to finale was not one second more than fifteen minute journey to glorious acclaim or agonizing defeat. I jiggered the running order, discarded one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about owning every inch of the concrete self proclaimed stage. This is the coliseum. You are an entertainment warrior.

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A Lifetime of Playing with Fire

Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day had taken a toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered ever so slightly is retried, polished and refined. Improvement inches ahead grudgingly.

Like that the weekend zipped by, three days work reverberated like a broken record in my head. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat set fire to my withering courage. Youngsters charmed with wonder in their eyes wanting to see what happened next. They recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised within the busker and begged their parents to stay for the end. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop wearing out his shoe leather ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. The other assorted stubborn misfits and survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own work had not even a spare moment to fritter away. My peers didn’t need to know, they knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick. Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed frontier, western civilizations western most outpost, an end of the line– the leading edge of a new possibility.

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