There is talent and then there is talent. I’ll let you ponder how near or far I’ve come as you take a trip on the wings of this stunning tune… buckle up buttercup…
“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing bad habits.”
Jefferson Street 1980
Coffee and Keyboard
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 street pidgin for money. Conjuring up legal tender from out of the thin blue is the real magic. Motivating someone you have never seen before to open their wallet pluck out a bill and voluntarily hand it over never ceases to be anything less than the biggest pop you’ll ever know. It is a spine tingling page turner with the best ending you’ve ever experienced. A reliable pitch works from here to eternity any time, any day, all year long— she’s always there for you. A sweet pitch where you may go play king’s any day you want is life emancipating.
This lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe the world I wanted to live in 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 unpaid parking ticketed path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your last glimmer of hope on. An emergent busker is a go it alone type 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. Faith in the kindness of strangers is your North Star. 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.
Stalling is what you do when the famous ego induced death spiral—fear of rejection—has you cornered and on the ropes. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long that the present moment was now a fresh unused January 1980. Waking frightened with a stomach tied in knots I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf. What I can remember was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak— Jefferson Street was empty— but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his great expectations 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— the grinding first day exacted the last bead of sweat. 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 uphill— grudgingly.
In a scalding hot-heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated across the pavement like a trumpeting bop infused Miles Davis scorched earth- note perfect- improvised melodic soul-aching out of this world moon shot. Escape velocity sent this one and only into busking orbit. I was a man on a mission.
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. Preschoolers recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer pleaded whining at full lung to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop standing in scuffed shoe leather ordered 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 infinitely-dubious vocational enterprise.
First and foremost street theater is 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 busker’s 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’s or sit back down— life is short.
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.
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.
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.
Banging Another Out
The wanderlust in the heart of a street performer is curiosity writ large across the world. Many buskers remain moored to a city for decades while other acts travel town to town from one place to the next. In summer I preferred roving from the northernmost Canadian cities and as autumn took hold head south and winter in the border towns along the Mexican frontier.
Weather dictates the terms of our doing business. Rain, wind, sun and shade influence our day’s receipts. The 7000’— over one mile high elevation— in Flagstaff, Arizona slows a fleet paced act to another rate of play. A thirty minute set on a stage in the sun with no shade in triple digits? That’s working for a living.
Where Drifting on the Long Dusty Road Ends
A one way trip from San Francisco to La Grande, Oregon (one state north of California) measures seven hundred miles. Most of this distance is traveled across long empty stretches of two lane highway. The towns of Alturas, Lakeport and Burns are drying up. Ranch and farm operations that you’ll see are scattered across the landscape if and where water can be found. Eastern Oregon is mile upon mile of Federal land. By the time you arrive in La Grande, Oregon it occurs to this gypsy showman that had I gone east instead of north I would have been one quarter of the way to New York City by now. That is butt on a seat, eyes out the windshield, foot on the pedal non-stop daydreaming while driving. Myself, I had been ordered to head for the small time.
Castle Valley, Utah My Place…
Much of the experience of drifting the desolate long distance stretches of the American West is dependent upon whether you are comfortable in your own skin. Do you carry a good set of hand tools? Can you swap out a bad water pump for a new one? Have you got the talent to wrangle a blown transmission out from under your truck and slam in a replacement in time to get to the next show? If you know how to keep misery at bay you’ll have a properly inflated spare tire, jack and lug nut wrench all close at hand, ready to go, no questions asked. You change your own oil and filter. You adjust brakes and keep an eye and ear out for mechanical issues before they pull you over on the shoulder of the highway and put your crazy-heart and at-risk-soul in a fix you’ll never repair your way out of. Windshield wipers are in good order, all the lights work and you know how to speak deferentially to the officer of the law as is required. A busker knows how to chain up his rig like right now in the event there is snow. Crossing a high snowbound pass is an opportunity to relish. You might want to keep you day job if bone rattling sleet and snow isn’t your thing.
Excuse for Pity Party Fueled Cold Beer
You’re not just driving to a destination. You are heading to a specific date and time where you will appear as promised. You are the performer and you have agreed to go into business with an event producer. The presenter could be a fair, festival, library or school. There will be a person to meet you. They may or may not have any prior experience, most don’t and the few that do are seldom experienced in booking variety acts in general and variety acts with a street performing background never. Fulfilling the contracts basic promise to perform in a particular place, at a specific time, for an agreed upon interval on a clock is the entire job. Some acts won’t appear without a retainer. A producer’s signature on a contract worked as far as I was concerned. With services rendered and the agreement fulfilled the fee is then paid. Any act worth a salt lick knows what customer satisfaction feels like once that check is handed to you. Walking out to your waiting rig, the show gear loaded up, gas tank pegged full, you fire up your engine, you take off in a cloud of dust rolling eight hours and four hundred miles, there’s no time to waste, you’ll need to be there first thing, opening tomorrow. In four days time you’ll have a hard time remembering where you had been, but never forgetting what you’ve done…. That kind of life out of a show trunk and suitcase, that’s real road doggin’…