Tag Archives: Street performer

Chicken on the head

“I know what you’re thinking. What a horrible way for a chicken to have to make a living. Well, there are a lot of chickens working at Safeway and they’re not having half as much fun.”

Word Count 2208…

The Chicken on the Head Routine

Uncle Ray’s playing two trumpets simultaneously was his tour de force sidewalk show closer. Squeezing a drum between his knees, strumming a guitar, tapping his drum with a brush, keeping time with a tambourine taped to his boot, wearing a vintage leather aviators helmet, goggles, playing the same four or five songs for the simple reason that the four or five he played were the songs that paid. The dual trumpet bit was  icing on the cake, a signature bit, always the attention grabber.

The two of us shared the same piece of sidewalk, same days of the week and same hours of the day. As audiences go his people were my people, and mine were his. Ray was a colleague. I knew what he knew. There was mutual respect. Banging out three or four hours on Jefferson Street one more day was to defy the odds.

 When Uncle Ray wasn’t working the pitch on Jefferson Street he was in a club. I never asked his age. Best estimate he was a youthful fifty-something. Ray worked his spot, made his nut, spent the rest of the week playing jazz around town in the clubs. The lanky gentleman was a military veteran, served in Viet Nam. Bald, bearded, Ray as the result of a misaligned jaw spoke with an unique palette induced effect. The busking bugler was well loved, had a lady and a colorfully curtained Volkswagen bus he used for winter stints in Baja. Ray and his lady-friend shared an upscale apartment at the corner of Euclid and Masonic. This was a classy upscale view pad. There was a balcony, parking, floor to ceiling windows. Uncle Ray lived in style afforded to a man capable of his dual trumpet skills.

Word had come down that the San Francisco Police Department had made a sweep of Fisherman’s Wharf. Street acts were arrested in mass. There were no questions asked, no warning given. The police pulled up, handcuffed the so called public nuisance, tossed the riff-raff into the paddy wagon and took the perpetrators downtown. By chance Ray and I both had  the day off. We’d missed all the fun.

Soon enough we’d got word that the orders for the sweep had come from Central Precinct in North Beach. Most know Central Station by its nickname: Keystone. Out on the street rumor was the Captain  wanted it known that until further notice the streets in his precinct were closed to busking. If anyone didn’t get the memo, someone had a problem, thought this was some kind of misunderstand, then the Captain would be more than happy to set the misinformed individual straight on who was actually running the show.

Four of us go down to see the Captain. Took about two seconds for the front-desk duty-officer to size up the four patsies disturbing his peace. Annoyed, but then the Duty Officer was born annoyed, got off his chair double clutched his scowl, then marched us down the hallway  into the precinct Captain’s office.

Seated at his desk with his lieutenant standing at his side the precinct Captain gave the appearance of being absolutely in charge of every square block under his command.

Our Captain  was Italian, suave and groomed to code. Sizing us up wasn’t even tic-tac-toe, the former beat cop had us pegged. We were maybe a troupe of Boy Scouts out on their first field trip. None of the four of us had an prior’s mostly on account of dumb luck. We had not heard gun shots, been in a fist fights or had any experience trying to make nice while cuffing a man twice our size. Our precinct Captain was concerned about pimps, muggers and burglars. Our coming to protest our busking associates being arrested was quaint. All we were doing was wasting his time, he wouldn’t say as much, but all there was for us to do was wait for the Captain’s final  decision to penetrate our thick skulls. We were the piece of his official duties that fell under the heading of community relations. This was the first time for us to try playing the change the Captain’s mind game whereas the Captain hoped it would be his last. The learning curve was steep. He had an edge. He was paid to wait.

Part of the Captain’s job was every now and then while waiting for a group aggrieved citizens to see the light, well he’d have to take a brief moment out of his busy schedule for the purpose of explaining the facts of life in the event certain present individuals in his company might well still be confused about who was actually in charge of the City’s sidewalks. He’d had it much tougher. We were almost fun.

Our Captain had worked his way up the ranks. Starts out in traffic, domestic violence, vagrancy that sort of thing. Later he’s in homicide, sex crimes unit, tactical squad, undercover narcotics investigators—the Captain is busy fighting crime and keeping the peace. The thing to know is that it was an embarrassment for a San Francisco Police Officer to have to go to Fisherman’s wharf and have to crack down on the street performers. Putting a tear eyed street performer in the slammer put the jinx on a cops career. Police work entailed fighting up to no good paroled felons. Sensitive street performers weren’t even clowns.

The precinct Captain gestures with the wave of his hand, “Take a seat.” He closes a file on his desk. “You want a glass of water?” None of us are thirsty. “Coffee?”

 The Captain pushes his chair back. On the wall behind him are photographs of the many very important people he has posed with over the course of his years of service. There are pictures with Willie Brown, Herb Caen, Joe Alioto, Tony Bennett, Turk Murphy and Vince Guaraldi. All the famous fat cats were mounted behind the precinct Captain in neat black and white eight by tens.

Smiling with an ever so slight brooding undercurrent he attempts to explain the situation. “My Lieutenant here, I had asked if he would take me for a drive through Fisherman’s Wharf.” The Captains cadence had a slight lilt, a bit of a rhythmic hop, skip and a jump. He continued, “Merchants had come to us with concerns, they had some complaints about street performers. Merchants said things were getting out of hand, that the police were going to have to do what they have to do to take back control of our public thoroughfares.” Our Captain smiling and seeming relaxed looked sympathetically toward his assembled quorum. “I told my Lieutenant I wanted to see the situation for myself- with my own eyes. I mean I like street performers—who doesn’t like street performers? Everybody likes to see street performers. And so with an open mind my Lieutenant and I, the two of us, we go for a drive in my precinct. Get it? My precinct. I got the wharf, North Beach, Chinatown and a piece of the Financial District under my watch. I’d rather be sitting on Telegraph Hill drinking scotch and watching sunset, buy even a Captain can’t always get what he wants. You see, this is a part of the City I have been put in charge of, it falls on me to do what I have to do to protect and defend this part of town. Day and night, three hundred and sixty five days of the year— what happens out there on my streets is on me. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”

The Lieutenant nods his head affirmatively having not heard truer words or a more coherent explanation of how the world works according to the San Francisco Police Department.

I think one of us tried mustering the courage to get a word in edgewise. The Captain raised his hand,  “hold your horses,” he said, “wait just a minute, you’ll get your turn.” The Captain would let us speak just as soon as he has had time to complete his thought.

Our dapper Captain his shirt pressed, badge polished, possessed a swarthy olive complexion that displayed patches of enthusiastic fits of red as his circulation increased. Nobody could not notice pitch black hair and the touch of grey at his temples. “It is a beautiful day. Fisherman’s Wharf is packed. People visiting the City, pedestrians are trying to walk down the sidewalk. Now, first thing I notice is this musician. He’s got a guitar, guitar case in front of him, someone is going to break their neck tripping over the thing but never mind our musician is playing music. I like music, my lieutenant likes music— everybody loves music, who doesn’t love music?” He wasn’t asking a question. “But, the musician is playing music in a doorway, and this is a doorway to the entrance of a business, a business I might add that pays business taxes for the pleasure of being engaged in commerce here in this great city. Now, this musician he’s blocking the door and people cannot get in and cannot get out of this establishment on account of the musician and his crowd blocking the doorway because of his playing music. You get the picture? This is something I do not like to see,  even though I love music as much as anyone, who doesn’t love music?” He plays cool again and wants to make another point. “So, we continue driving down the street. I’m a little upset, you’d be upset, but you’re not me, thank god for that, so I tell my lieutenant that let’s continue, let’s continue to keep an open mind, let’s go down the street and take a look at any further situations. Me and my lieutenant, we want the big picture, we want to know what’s going on. I mean the point I’m trying to make is that I have an open mind, maybe I do not understand, maybe there might be a simple explanation for the circumstances of the musician having to locate in a doorway. I don’t know. So far nobody has been able to explain these things to me. Let’s keep going, let’s find out what else there is to see. So, we drive a little further and we see a mime. OK? He is miming. I ask the Lieutenant to stop so we may enjoy his show. I don’t know. He thinks he’s funny, the mime is miming as I said and I guess, best anyone can tell, his act is supposed to mock people walking by while he is standing still. Then, when someone walks by he starts moving and he starts imitating people that are trying to walk by, to me it was more like he was mocking the pedestrians trying to pass by, he was making fun of the visitors that have come to our city, in my opinion he is insulting these people. I’d go so far as to say he was victimizing these innocent. He was not my idea of funny. Nothing about his act appealed to me. All I can tell you is that I am disheartened by what I see. Isn’t that right Lieutenant?”

The Lieutenant rubber faced, also Italian frowns in agreement with his precinct Captain.

“I ask my Lieutenant to go ahead, let’s keep going, let’s see what else we can see. We drive a little further until I see this crowd of pedestrians, and they are spilling out off the sidewalk onto the roadway, as they cannot get around, their egress is completely impeded. There was an unsafe situation right there before my very eyes. Someone could get hurt. Pedestrians belong on sidewalks not spilling out on the street. I ask the Lieutenant to stop. We are discussing the unsafe situation we are witnessing. I don’t even know what this street performer is even supposed to be doing. This entertainer he’s saying something to the crowd. We cannot make out what he has on his mind, it is impossible for us to see there are so many people between us and this street performer.” The Captain’s voice rises. “Then, next thing I know this street performer, he is up in the air balancing on some kind of gizmo he lights up some torches, we got an open fire on my sidewalks, we got a violation right there, and then this street performer I don’t know where it even came from but he puts a live chicken on top of his head and then so help me God this completely out of control individual starts fire juggling for the crowd.”

The Captain looking down mindlessly thumbing the file on his desk lost in thought. It was a moment before he could find the words. “One thing I will never allow is for anyone to come into my neighborhood and think for one second they can get away with lighting three fire torches and then juggle those torches while balancing a chicken on his head.”

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

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.

2005D 015

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.

Edited Red Star

Micro Mini Street Riff

 

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Stopping for Nothing

Buskers have to keep the experience growing. An audience will notice this increase. Success depends upon demonstrating that the performance is getting better right before their eyes. Emotions intensify, the number of people watching is larger, a trustable decorum arises, we can laugh, we become more and more confident that this is worth the time and that waiting to see what happens at the end, the unexpected surprise will be worth being interrupted. Buskers start with nothing, then like that appears something that is perishable, delicate, barely existent, an audience can see from out of the blue there is an accumulating phantom energy and it is getting bigger. The pace begins at tempo, rhythm is steady, this is boilerplate, comedy is timing, starting at one rate and speeding up to the final rate, a show nearing a finale moves quicker. That was good but this next bits even better. A street show can’t go back. Get off on the right foot then you’ll run without losing your breath to an emotional summit that will motivate an audience to come forward after your best trick and drop a tip into the hat.

Edited Red Star

April 16,’18 Street Scene

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Veteran Working the Craft in Red Deer, Alberta Canada

I was there when the scenes exploded. The artists medium was variety entertainment. The venue was street. Street was the canvas of choice. Indoor ticketed facilities had been a dead end for decades. Like wildfire the spreading news of variety acts turning a good buck out on a sidewalk drew in more and more talent willing to give the thing a try.

We were busy tipping the carts over, ignoring convention, abandoning restrictions and jumping on the bandwagon. Fern bars and fire juggling were in this era synonymous with this new thing emerging.

Standup comedy was a rocket ship. European cities were fertile ground for the impromptu showman. Summers in Western Europe and winter in Thailand.

We didn’t know how good we were. Nobody had gone from street to stardom yet and maybe nobody would make it all the way to the tippy top of the highest rung of the ladder. Robin Williams played street shortly. He’d gotten picked up from his open microphone appearances at the hole in the wall comedy clubs in San Francisco. The Other Café and Holy City Zoo was the location. Prior he’d worked the steps of the New York City Public Library and briefly appeared at The Cannery in San Francisco.

But, there were others who you know. Robert Shields of Shields and Yarnell, Michael Davis who worked Sugar Babies and A Whitney Brown who was a big deal at Saturday Night Live. All came from the street and all made millions of dollars working at the highest levels of the entertainment industry.

They all had that intangible creative anxiousness. Awkward offstage and on fire when on. Many of us made up the scenes that these talents emerged from. All of us working with some blend of talent and passion and trying our best to keep up, to fit in, to raise the bar, to maybe catch a break and ride along up the ladder. Some of us felt street was a creative end in itself. We were part of a scene that peeled back one more layer of uptightness that had been the hallmark of the previous decade. More tomorrow…

Edited Red Star