oPeNer Part Too

“This is a family show. After my show you’ll all want to go home and start a family.”

North Tour 1980

After four months playing the sidewalk in San Francisco I pulled up stakes and trucked to the Northwest. Instead of fifteen minute shows I’d present my one hour set. Instead of a sidewalk I’d play college campuses. Getting amped up for twenty-five sidewalk shows squeezed into three days was a gut busting iron man competition. I needed a change-up to my routine. The hope was I’d come back from the tour recharged. Sidewalk shows are always uphill at full speed from start to end. Contracted college dates dialed the intensity of a show back. Instead of sprinting I was long distance running. 

I traveled solo with my performing dog, chicken, cat and dozen goldfish. I had a sleeping bunk, cooking gear, suitcase, shave kit, typewriter, prop case and  costume. Under my front seat were a set of chains for my tires in the event I encountered snow or ice. Cooking was done off my tailgate. The price of gas was my mortal enemy.

I was hopping from date to date. My California plates were a tipoff. Provincial types reckoned I must be an infiltrator. Alternately conscious sympathizers saw me as an out of bounds homeboy on the prowl, they recognized the desperado— I was pegged a soul searcher. Six hours from Stockton and I was 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 as simple as sixteen hours of bittersweet lonely silence fueled doubt. I encamped along lakes and rivers. I’d stock up on food, get out of town— sit still. Weekday’s out thirty miles from any population center was all wind whistling through the pine needles. I made small talk with local ranchers. Sometimes a highway crew was repairing a nearby roadway. Most of the week after a show I’d be camped alone.

This road dog veteran 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 rested easier once I settled in for the night. I’d try to finish my chores before sundown then curl up on my bunk with a book.

Once on the road the pace of life will work out best by keeping your wits about you. Getting into the rhythm takes time while you adjust. The idea is to not fixate on the destination. You will want to appreciate all the in-between moments, make each leg of the tour matter, the journey itself is the spacious location, the string of dates becomes a feature length wide screen modern day sprawling epic. It was alternately either all Clint Eastwood as Bronco Billy or Charlie Chaplin out there. Waking up, making cowboy coffee, caring for the animals, getting the truck started, leaving plenty of time to get to the venue for the show, this is how to bring composure to each new crack of dawn. You can’t let emptiness rattle your nerves.

I sought out insider knowledge from incidental conversations about the places I was passing through. If I needed a nap I’d pull off the highway slow roll down a dirt road park beneath a shade tree climb onto my bunk and fall asleep relishing the stillness. 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, be sure to fix a problem before you had a break down.

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 extra checks by mail to my bank back in California. I’d pull off and use a pay phone to get in contact with my answering service operator. 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 my dog Sunshine a thing or two.

I corresponded with clients. Solicitous letters were composed on my Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I kept a calendar with potential appearances marked in pencil. Once a client confirmed I inked the date in with expectation and permanence. In the event a booking was contracted I queried the surrounding communities for more work. Festivals, fairs, schools, libraries, and park and recreation departments were all targets of my mailing campaign. Once I had finished one show I turned my attention to finding an engagement for tomorrow. A sober eyed fiduciary responsibility to keeping the theatrical enterprise afloat filled my day and night. 

This past winter before heading north I went bar hopping and whiskey drinking. I befriended members of the Charlie Musselwhite Band at a down on your suburban luck saloon in Sunnyvale, California. Charlie’s players were moving north with 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 with Charlie’s sidemen. My juggling business amused the vagabond musicians. They were envious of my running a solo entertainment enterprise. Unaware of a variety entertainer’s austere road life they instead traveled by automobiles and stayed in what I imagined were luxurious economy motels. Charlie seemed older than the hills even if he wasn’t. Musselwhite and his band all drank hard. The Chicago trained harmonica bluesman was punching out one-night stands 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 wore on a body  and you’re bound to wear out sooner than later. Charlie eventually stopped his liquor drinking. Sobriety is likely a lot to do with why he’s lived such a long life.

Charlie’s guitar player had quite the way with the ladies. The handsome picker 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. Music making 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.

Opener… Street Theater 1980

This is opening rewritten fragment to longer piece… about 800 words of 9000.

Desk

“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing my bad habits.”

Jefferson Street 1980

One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. Hat is shorthand— by hat I mean stone cold cash you can count out and hold in your hand after a performance. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe life was about running wild and being free. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there were no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your life on. An emergent busker is a dreamer drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

I had been stalling. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long it was now a fresh and unused January of 1980. I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf, it was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak. Streets were empty but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his fateful future on the line.

Making it to the tippy top of the small time sidewalk show  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 one quarter of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing 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 self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.

Raspy voiced, drained emotionally, the unrelenting grinding first day exacted its toll. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was retried and refined. Improvement inched ahead uphill— grudgingly.

Devilstick

A More Present Era Likeness 

In a scalding hot heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated in my head like a broken record. Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next. Children recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer and pleaded to stay to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. Standing in scuffed shoe leather a beat cop ordered that I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced smoking cigarettes. Assorted stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter away calculating the odds of my surviving. 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, civilizations western most outpost, an emphatic continental end of the line— the leading edge of some one of a kind dubious vocational enterprise.

Street theater is first and foremost about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd—  how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day, execution is the 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 you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker or sit back down— life is short.

edited red star

Landscape Lending Library

Road

Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls

Eight weeks was in my rearview mirror. Homeward bound I ate up the last miles of two lane blacktop. Topping off my emptiness pangs, I soaked up the sweeping horizons of blue sky, white clouds, green sage and red soils. Empty high desert sated my last remaining solo thirst to be out in the wide open western rangelands. I broached my worries to ghosts of past touring partners. Max Frobe, Nick Weber and Steve Aveson I invited them into the silence to be here and whisper to my spirit. I praised the hands of all the good souls that had helped me find my way. In another half day of chasing this painted white striped line I would be folded back into my home-ground. My inner affairs were confronted with greater clarity out on the open range. I was unbridled and free to run with all the other wild horses. I could feel the harmonizing link to my wilderness. I was passing through landscapes lending library. I had fended off the demon fear of failure. I had filled my days with purpose. My pickup truck engine hummed. A much sought after next piece of my life puzzle was on the other side of the windshield. Today was good. Tomorrow would be all tap dancing, feather boas and spangled showgirls.

Great Basin One

edited red star

Opener… Street Theater Life

The Small Time Bigger Than You Know

One of the hardest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs, just pure hat and more hat shows. I’m talking about hard cold cash you can count in a hat after a performance. The lightning bolt street performing epiphany struck my not entirely completed journey to adulthood fresh and wild. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, there are no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn 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 orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out. This is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.

Pause

Dealing with it

Galloping across the west this week. To San Francisco Monday in a downpour. Tonight to Burbank and back to Los Angeles Arts District apartment. Thursday to Palm Springs for hiking and soak at Sam’s Family Spa. Friday to Portland to meet our daughters new special guy. Saturday a meeting with street performing photographer Daniel Schulruff.

One liner’s are a daily process. Fragmentary nuggets for upcoming tour. Fort Collins, Colorado will be one stop for a few weeks while I practice my life work. Excited to show up throw it down do some shows self anointed and without asking permission. Street theater at its best.

I’ll bang out three a day for a few weeks. Sharpen the act. Best of all I can get most of this done in the shade out of the sun. Constant exposure to sunlight has not been kind to me after all these years of practicing this art.

In another week I will resume a very consistent workout schedule. Juggling, hand balancing and some cardio. More one liner’s to memorize. Add a few sound effects to closing routine and there you have it you now have a view of backstage.

Forty-seven years later I’m still quite capable of accounting for myself in the fine work that is sidewalk show. Simplicity itself. Pure as snow. Rejuvenating and utterly soul healing for audience and artist. See you out there on the street of dreams…

Slogging Dog Days of Winter

staircase b and w

Uphill Staircase Easement from Winter

I’ve never been a January man. The slog through the dog days of this season is for another kind. I’m from California. We do facelifts, tennis and brunch on the rear sundeck.

My week in Arizona cheered my seasonal affective disorder for a week. I’m back here in this paltry excuse for a sunny day. “Get over it…” I’ve tried. My mother said I was incurable.

Much of my living has been made hustling in outdoor venues. When it rains I’m not working. When it blows I’m done. When its cold nobody will stick around. Lousy weather will land this hapless rogue on ropes of the penniless poorhouse of busking fame.

It isn’t so much seasonal affective disorder as rational fungible illiquidity dis-ease. Of course by now I’ve piled together enough symbolic firewood to make my way to one more spring time or three or four. The mood is more habit I can’t quite convince myself to break.

I vanquish the demon moods with joke writing, juggling workouts and leisurely hours idled away perusing possible June routing options. Los Angeles to Albuquerque. Rendezvous with wife and slow roll north through Colorado’s high country. Fort Collins for street shows, Thermopolis for hot springing, Lethbridge of necessity and Edmonton because I want to.

By the time June is here I will be in full denial about the rot gut bottom days of January. I’ll be out in a field singing with the other birds of play. Fingering me for winter gloom by then is like trying to land a punch against Muhammad Ali. It’s all floating, butterflies and bees by then.

trees with no leaves

Walking with the Dead of Winter

My hands are cold. The leafless trees mock me, long underwear and a brisk sail across the bay is meted out as recreational punishment. There is in this corner of my own making. There is no sympathy, no compassion, no shoulder to lean on. Suck it up, this is that famous now you’ve heard so much about, this is earth in all her splendor. Get up off your sorry ass and dance…

bassett hound

Takes One to Know One…

I think I’ll curl up under a blanket and read a book, sip tea wait for dusk and pine for longer days. I only wish others could understand. None of you will. I know. This is seasonal affective solitude. I am left to reckon with this phantom icy demon alone. It is my curse to have been born in California. Only the price of real estate evokes even a glimmer of understanding. This other matter is all nonsense. I know. I will resume my silence now.

edited red star

 

Skyline at Twilight

Women’s March Phoenix, Arizona 2019

Nashville’s famed music district is being dismantled. Nobody can blame anybody. Times haven’t changed but the price of real estate has. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Jazz a favorite idiom frequented by this street act no longer sells. America’s great gift to music exists in the hearts and minds of the musicians. The marketplace not so much.

I am ramping up for shows. If I did not exist the world would have to invent me. I’ve played the parkways and boulevards of America’s greatest cities since 1974.

The gods have tossed sky high real estate, fierce solar radiation, and an ever decreasing value of that famous buck that is supposed to stop here. Dollars do stop but in what quantity and to what useful purpose?

I got my heart set on playing Fort Collins, Colorado. Not now! I’ll arrive and set up shop uninvited. I’ll play as I can as much as I can for a few weeks in June. After I’ll run north with the arrival of summer crossing the border into Canada.

The whole street performing enterprise is scaled to the grass roots. If I can draw a crowd is one thing. If I can keep them until the end is another. Between I play my song, sing my lyric, tickle a few unsuspecting minds with my version of vagabond dreams.

Honesty is our Ultimate Elixir

Andrew Elliott a fine Australian entertainer friend employs the same tactics as I use. We move from place to place landing in the least likely public thoroughfares. Catching a crowd off guard, unprepared…think cultural shock therapy of a kind.

Hit people in the heart. Give a citizen a living example of betting everything. Funny is useful but earnest charm, authenticity and soulful purpose transcends and takes an audience further.

Death in Venice was a movie, hard times falling on Nashville’s music scene is a reality. Street theater, street performing, busking, call it what you will is the ultimate fungible form. I’ll fudge my way into the hearts and minds of the least suspecting.

I’m coming for a thousand clowns and a few thousand altered softened hearts. I’m coming for the better angels and freedom seeking immigrant Russians. I’m coming to alter the fabric of the commons. To bless the youthful dreamers looking for their true path.

As I said if I did not exist they’d have to invent me. I am like Nashville, jazz and the American Musical an indispensable historical artifact of our cultural life.

See you out there.

Author-Entertainer