The Pretender

The Pretender

by Spencer DeVine

He slips on his old black cloth shoes, the dirty ones.  They used to be a darker black when the shoes were new. He doesn’t remember whether he ever had them new. They are black with what could be described as a dusty demeanor.  These shoes had walked and if they could talk they would probably complain about the gross stuff they had stepped in. He has a pair of jeans which started to tear in the crotch from age and use, the lining beginning to fray forming a hole, but if there were pants he didn’t mind getting dirty those would be the ones.  Their color has faded from when he got them; they still fit just the same but are now a pale and lifeless blue.  They used to be too long so the bottom of the pant legs are frayed and torn from being stepped on by the back of his heel, while the front of the cuff is in better condition as it rests upon his old black cloth shoes.  A brown shirt from Tijuana, though he’s never been there, he slips it on and remembers when it used to fit him better but now rides up a bit short on the arms and hugs his neck like a child who doesn’t want daddy to go to work.  One of his socks has a hole in the toe, just big enough for his big toe to break through and poke the inside of his shoe’s tip.

Out of his closet he pulls a relatively old army jacket that definitely doesn’t fit him anymore but he wants to wear it anyway. He can fit it on but can’t button the jacket which has shrunk due to improper care but all he cares about is the image of the ensemble anyways.  He’s not sure where he got the jacket but it is a dark forest green with golden buttons that have remained shiny through all the wear and tear the garment has seen.   The jacket itself seems a veteran of war, tough and weathered, and yet with the gleam of glory past seen in the details and the brightness of the intricate buttons. He moves his arms uncomfortably to fix the weird bunch of cloth in his jacket’s elbow and the grip at his neck.  Then he grabs a pair of scissors and begins to cut into the knees of his jeans, tearing large holes and some smaller holes, because his goal is authenticity, in a way.  He grabs a hat that is solid and deep, one that can stand up and hold money on its own. If you don’t have a proper receptacle then you’ll end up heading home without anything.  He makes his way over to where he keeps his one and only harmonica. He lost the other one on a beach somewhere (although if you’re going to lose your harmonica somewhere, he thought to himself, a beach would be a great place. That way someone else could appreciate it and in a pretty place too.)  The harmonica says “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” on it, although he’s never been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is not sure that he ever will.

He makes his way out of the door of his living space, walks to the nearest Muni stop and takes the train over to Powell with the two dollar bills he wasn’t sure that he had in his wallet but he lucks out.  He makes his way to Powell finds a good spot to sit down where the hole in the crotch of his ripped up pants won’t be exposed and he begins to play “You are my Sunshine.”  In Powell station next to one of the main entrances is a circle with a domed ceiling above it. When standing in the center of this circle each note from the slightly aged harmonica rings out in a clean and crisp echo that amplifies the music and mood. He is a busker today; however, little known fact to all the passerby and muni passengers, this man is a Pretender.

But who is the Pretender really? Is he a teacher, a student, a librarian?  In truth the Pretender could be anyone. Not every busker is homeless, jobless, or hopeless. Some buskers play simply to make an extra buck or two.  In this case though, the Pretender is one man, rather than an amalgam of social statuses and motivations.  The Pretender is a man and he thinks to himself how can you truly know or judge the experiences someone goes through until you yourself have done them This is his mission, to dunk himself into a pond of experience he may not be prepared for.

In his ragged, yet studiously prepared ensemble some would say that the Pretender was an insult to people who busked for cash because they needed it to get by the day, but that was a risk that the Pretender was willing to take in order to really get inside the world of busking.  After all, wasn’t this an opportunity which was available to all? If the Pretender was skilled did he not deserve whatever he got for it? That was questionable. He was not a busker or a musician by trade but rather a musician by hobby and a busker by experiment.    But why the outfit? Why make a conscious attempt to look more ragged? Well simple, he thought it would make him more profit and make for a more successful experience.  It’s the sad world that someone who looks like they need the money will probably be the luckier if they also have the skill to back it up.

He does realize what he is doing and indeed it baffles even him that he has made this test into a reality, playing not only for the validation but also maybe a few dollars.  The Pretender was definitely in a foreign and unique environment to him as he sat in the hall of kings and bards, a simple actor with some musical prose. He felt small in the face of more talented musicians and musicians who needed the financial help honestly more than he did. He didn’t want to take any riches from other buskers in the name of his experiment but he justified himself with various lines and reasons.

A saxophone player walked by his spot, an elderly African-American man with a heavy rain jacket and thick sunglasses. His beard was thin but intimidatingly grey, a sign of age and experience in his craft, and though he was probably crazy the Pretender swore that the man had given him a dirty look through the sunglasses as if to say ‘what do you think you’re doing? You’re not a real busker.’  The man, who slowly passed by with his one glance, carried a case around his shoulder for his saxophone, he carried the gleaming sax in his hands as if he were ready to play at any moment. The case had seen better days; black with weathered latches, the Pretender knew this meant the man was a serious musician. A physically large man, the Sax man seemed hulking and slow and yet carried his instrument with the gentlest touch and care. The man was a herculean figure in his roughness and modesty, and the Pretender found himself stuck in awe.

The Pretender composed himself and placed his hat upon the dirty tile floor that had seen what he was sure had been countless spills, feet, and other gross things.  Before he played the Pretender found some loose change in his pocket and dropped it into his own hat.  He had heard that if you already had a little change in your hat that sparks people to drop more, and lets people know you’re busking rather than just putting your hat on the floor for display.  This type of money according to a friendly man the Pretender met on the street was called “The hook.” The Pretender finds it interesting that so much of making money from people involves deception, especially in his case, but not exclusively. He is an island in a sea of islands, isolated and yet not unique.

There’s something to be said about the unique relationship between the entertainer and his audience.  The truth is a lot of people are uncomfortable with buskers, even more so than panhandlers in some cases, because while they may recognize the talent or effort a busker is producing they still find a discomfort in dishing out money.  At least with panhandlers the public can justify that ‘if they were trying harder than I’d give them a dollar,’ but this isn’t always the case with buskers.  It is tough to have people walk by you hurriedly in an attempt to avoid eye contact, which is demoralizing in almost all contexts.    Maybe if they walk by you fast enough the busker would think that they didn’t see them.    People pass by with their eyes down in an attempt to create a cloak of invisibility as they rush to the nearest exit to escape the embarrassing moment.

In reality the experienced performer and even the Pretender himself is aware of the selective ignorance applied by passerby. The Pretender sees bags labeled ‘American Eagle’, ‘Forever 21’, ‘Nordstroms’, and he knows that somewhere in the wallets of the passerby are not one but multiple dollars that lie unused and unshared. The pretender was not a professional musician and had learned every song her knew by ear because he couldn’t afford sheet music. He played a version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which depending on his mood ranged from happy and upbeat to morose and apologetic. Breaking straight from that he passed into “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “When the Saints Go Marching in,” and the Violent Femme’s “Blister In the Sun.” He continued to attempt to play his harmonica on a semi-busy Sunday afternoon, forced to stay in the station by rain, as muni announcements regularly interrupted him projecting that the elevator at Van Ness was broken, to be careful on Muni trains because security cameras weren’t fool proof, and that all riders should watch their steps on what were now sure to be slippery floors.

However, as disheartening as being ignored can be, the Pretender could not contain himself when a dollar was dropped into his hat for the first time. This put a smile on his face and a dollar in his collection.  As he continued to play he was joined by an acoustic guitarist for a section of time and it boosted his revenues even more.  Each dollar that fell was like a shooting star that granted him a wish for a dollar. By the time that he finished he had collected a total of seven dollars, more than the Pretender had ever expected, given the circumstances

Four bagels, seven things at the dollar store, 3.5 muni trips, these were what his money could buy.  To him though this money meant something more, it was success. These were his MVB awards, Most Valuable Busker, although he wasn’t rolling in dough there was emotional value on top of the physical.  After the initial high of actually making money on his experiment he really thought about what his seven dollars meant.

The minimum wage value in San Francisco as of 2011 is $9.92 per hour. After getting $7 for three hours of work, the Pretender had made approximately $ 2.33 per hour.  Perhaps it had been the timing of his performance, but the Pretender saw that with the energy, effort, and skill that busking takes, less than one-third of minimum wage was an unfortunate reward of an unconventional job. On better days people probably made more money, and in different spots. The Pretender knew the risk and consequences of such a hit and miss profession.  If someone had to depend on the money they made from street entertainment alone, the Pretender couldn’t imagine that life could be anything other than extremely tough.  It provided the Pretender with alot that he hadn’t known before, a new perspective on busking and an appreciation for the work and energy put into it.

But who is the Pretender? In this case, I am. The writer becomes the subject and in his journey learns and broadens.  To know more about what one is exploring can take steps deeper than simple research, and I hope that with my own experiences I can shape a comprehensive story.

A Long and Winding Road

Busking has a long and complicated history, longer than any Rush song even. According to author Michael Miller, the first music that was recorded was in Mesopotamia.  The oldest instrument to be found to date was a 35,000 year old bone flute supposedly made from some sort of bird.  It is interesting though, especially to me that music has made the transformation that it has.  Music used to be performed dominantly as a way of religious expression.  During rituals and praising the deities music would be played usually with a speaker singing a song to please the god that they were trying to reach.  While this may show the need to please, it also shows the attempt to perform well in order to receive something in return; no money was involved in this aspect of music.

Busking goes back to the time of the travelling bard or minstrel, who was not only a musician but also a messenger and a reporter of news. The Bard or Minstrel played a large part in the medieval ages, and although they appeared as early as the sixth century were quite prominent in the fourteenth century.  One such Bard from the fourteenth century was Dafydd Ap Gwilym, considered as one of the most prominent Welsh poets ever. By this point in busking history these bards usually did this travelling and delivering of a message as a profession and dedicated their entire lives to building their stories, their reputation, and their music.  They would usually be hired by some patron who wished to have his legacy recorded or his actions glorified through the power of music. Celtic Bards would form organized groups often times. Their position as the celebrator of public victories and performer of hymns to god often earned them the highest respects and in some cases exempted the medieval bard from taxes and military duty.  In some cases this early yet different form of busking was a thoroughly important part of history. In some cases, such as with the Celtics, the songs of Bards and Minstrels were the only form of recorded history that was created and even that was through the power of the bard’s own memory.  So in a world without bards we wouldn’t have some pieces of history.  While it is important to note that panhandling and busking are not the same activity, busking does have some roots in the history of beggary.

Similar to busking, panhandling also has connections to religion in it’s past.  In many cultures it is considered that he who gives alms to a beggar, who is of worth, for instance a spiritual seeker, is pious and gains a certain degree of positive spiritual energy.  This can be seen in certain Hindu traditions where Sadhus, or spiritual seekers, would beg in order to gain humility towards the universe. In Europe there was an influx of beggars in the late fifteenth century and sixteenth century.  It was around this time that magistrates identified able-bodied persons begging as wrong and often times criminal. The treatment of beggars was harsher than that on outsiders or travelers such as minstrels. They were also hated, mocked, spurned, and isolated, but were not prosecuted in the same light as the panhandlers. The history of beggary is one that is very hard to follow or research as instances of the poor have not thoroughly been recorded throughout history; however, the distinction between panhandling and busking is one that has been in place for centuries. Busking today does not seem to have the same type of societal importance that bards had, at least from the perspective of the hurried and uncharitable crowds which pass buskers by. It is possible that the past attitude towards hating the ‘undeserving’ portion of the poor carries through today towards buskers and panhandlers alike.

Historians have found some possible basis for what we see now as busking.  Though this has been seen in many cultures, the Romans have a history of throwing things at their performers depending on whether they liked them or not. This is also the tradition which spawned the throwing of rotten tomatoes or fruits and vegetables when a performer does a bad job.  However, on the flip side, if the Romans liked the performer and were pleased by his performance they would throw coins and money on the stage, which is getting much closer to the busking that we have today. This is an example of performing in exchange for money based on the goodwill of the audience rather than being hired as a bard was. One historical example that adds to the image of the busker comes from the medieval times in Europe. Back then a merchant who owned a shop would hire a performer to play or entertain in front of their shop, thereby drawing attention to the store and hopefully attracting more customers and revenue.  They also would put the entertainer in places that were public in an attempt to create foot traffic and get more customers to walk by the store’s general area, a less direct form of getting more business.  While this sort of practice happened in Europe supposedly first, it quickly spread to merchants in other countries all over the world.  Up until the 1900s buskers had many different names depending on where they were but were often referred to as minstrels or troubadours.

However, there is also history which reflects the more negative side of busking.  In Rome, some musicians would create tension with the government by using their songs to vocalize social commentary or critique political officials. As a result, one of the first recorded instances of busking caused the implementation of the Laws of the Twelve Tables in 451 BC Rome.  Along with laws that permitted the killing of an ugly baby, and a law saying if a father sold his son three separate times the son would be free, there was a law which prevented what’s known as “Libelli Famosi,” or the composition, publication and circulation of denunciatory words or performances.  It said that making fun of the government with song and art was an act punishable by death.

Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, who served as king of the Franks from 814 to 840 A.D, picked right up where the Romans left off and passed a law which restricted “Histriones and Scurrae and all entertainers without Noble protection from the privilege of justice.” Previously performers had been equal citizens just like everyone else, but with the implementation of this law they were required to have the permission of royal authority to perform or they would not be protected under the law. Later on in 1530 England’s King Henry VIII proved he was not a huge fan of public comment when he required performance permits for “Beggars who could not work, as well as pardoners, fortune tellers, fencers, minstrels and players.”  Apparently if performers did not obey this law put down by the king they would be whipped for two days straight.

Busking made its way to America supposedly in the form of “Medical Shows” which appeared in the 1800s, salesman or traveling vendors selling elixirs and potions to help your health, who would employ entertainment acts to make the audience more likely to buy. During the dark ages in Europe, nearing the tenth century, many circus performers and theatres were shut down or banned from operating. They had only two viable options, depend upon a patron for support, or turn to the marketplace. This is why medicine shows were so intricate with entertainment, because they were often entertainers. After the show they would pass around a hat and that is very similar to the tactic used by many buskers all around the world.   Some historians suggest the circus helped busking circus performers who were not doing a show adapt their acts to more suit a public sidewalk venue.

Even later on in 1887 Great Britain passed a law that street performers who were “cripples, blind men, old men, women, children, sweepers, match girls, sham watermen, fishermen and gardeners” were subjects whom the police should keep an eye on. This was essentially permission to beat the performers with justification because they were “Untrustworthy.”

Busking is thought to have come to England through the Gypsies, or Romani people, on their travels along the Mediterranean coast to Spain, and then north through the Atlantic to England.  The gypsies are known as being great story tellers and having a strong art and family based culture among them. Playing for compensation and tips has been recorded in almost every major culture dating back a lifetimes, although the date which busking began cannot be precisely nailed down on one date. The term “busking” has been generally agreed to have appeared in the English language in approximately 1860 in Great Britain.  Perhaps relevant to the discussion the term “buscar” which is possibly a source of the term for busking means “to search” or “to seek.” This has been interpreted as buskers wanting to seek the world for stories, for wealth or fortune, and to search for the next song.  Not a rock-solid theory but it’s one of the best ones that historians can postulate.

In the modern world Panhandling still retains much of the stigma that it possessed in its early incarnations.  In Orlando, Florida the government passed a law that requires panhandlers to require a permit from the police department. Orlando’s ordinance also makes it illegal to panhandle in the commercial core of downtown Orlando, beg within 50 feet of an ATM, disguise themselves or make false statements on their intentions of where to use the money. In May 2010, Boston, Massachusetts, not only became more proactive about preventing panhandling, but even sponsored educational outreach to the community not to give to panhandlers. Although begging has been illegal in the UK since the Vagrancy Act of 1824, the law is not enforced actively by the police.

Today street performers are quite popular in countries such as Japan, and also in Mexico in the form of Mariachi bands which are common in both Mexican culture and American Hollywood popular culture. The United States has a big busker population, although their motivations are all different and vary from commercial reasons to just wanting to have fun and practice. Today busking is a very popular practice, despite the apprehension some of the public may experience towards them.  In some parts of the country busking is not only supported, but is organized into large festivals. Although there is busking festivals all over the world, the United States does have several itself such as the Spring Busker Festival in San Diego in April, the Seattle Folklife festival and the Orlando Fringe Festival in May. Depending on which festival it is they are all organized differently. The Downtown Cobourg Busker and Festival in Cobourg, Canada, fills it’s streets with performers, merchant booths, and face painting in a traditional street festival fashion. Whereas in Certain cities in Ireland including Dublin and Cork they organize a Street Performance World Championship, pitting street performers from all over Ireland against one another. Whether it is through competition, street festival, or provided venues, it is comforting to see that the world is beginning to change its tune towards buskers.

John King II "Street Beats" drummer

Percussion Royalty Doesn’t Skip a Beat

Mondays are his “Coma days”

There is a time of the day around nine o’clock in the morning when everyone is still waking up. The first round of early tourists begins to bustle from Market towards the Ferry building, between artists selling their wares and the rumble of the trolley to Pier 39, also known as ‘tourist heaven’. The group is stopped by a series of bangs, clangs and pops which draw them to the square between city and ferry.

Oye como va

The words rise above the clangs and suddenly the banging pots, cups, and other bits begin to shape around a familiar Carlos Santana rhythm. These are the only words from the song in the percussion presentation, and the guitar is nowhere to be found except in imagination, but the beat of the music seems obviously familiar and powerful. The beats blast out and tie themselves together in a net of memorized and poignant clangs and pops from Santana’s own repertoire. Sounds alone which anyone could recognize, the pang of a pot as it falls in a kitchen sink, the clink of cups in a celebratory cheer, a bucket dropped on the ground by accident, now strung together in a symphony of familiar sounds. Before you see the man you see his throne, what can only be described as a contraption of music.  The Percussion King plays his music on a series of tables and platforms composed of various odds and ends: pipes, pots and pans, buckets that have seen the test of time, rusted old paint cans, tubes and trinkets.  Some of the pieces sit loose and can be moved at will while the vigilant observer can notice the obvious strands of duct tape which hold certain items in place. This is John F King’s busking home “Street Beats.”

I John F. King promise to deliver every single performance with my absolute all.

Behind his throne sits John F. King II, the Drum King. His appearance is slightly misgiving to his true internal talent and name. The King is African-American and isn’t quite scrawny, but is not a large man by any means, perhaps due to a natural hunch developed from his performances. King is 51 but the wear and tear on his body is obvious; his left knee, shaped slightly wrong and a bit off, worn down by his performances.  His Smile, with a small almost unnoticeable gap in the top middle, is wide and bright during performances, but his eyes are tired and his face worn down by years of stress and hardship. But behind those eyes are resilience, an excitement, and a passion through the wear and tear. His limbs in motion seem powerful and precise while moving fluidly and quickly. It is only when he stops that you can notice the chip on his shoulder: his rough and experience-worn hands, his strained legs. Instead of a robe the King Dons a blue Hawaiian shirt with white flowers sprawled over it, and a pair of ill-fitting khaki shorts.  The shirt hangs upon him, slightly too large on his frame but flowing naturally like water around him when in full motion. Instead of a crown the King wears a slightly oversized canvas fisherman’s hat with a chin string which hangs loosely as the hat sits on his head.  A variety of different knick knacks and pins canvas the hat, ranging from “I love SF,” to merely a black and white smiley face on a pin.  The pins on his hat seem to fight for attention, all the messages filled with love for humanity or for San Francisco. The tambourine shoes on his feet are the icing on the cake.  On each foot the King attaches a tambourine shaped to fit on his foot, so that whenever he stomps, the jingle of the instrument makes a clean and crisp ring.  And with his shoes comes a natural bounce that turns the king into almost a living Seismograph. The King’s presence and dress may not seem intimidating at first but he is downright regal.

All my love.

John F. King II stands on the square next to the Ferry Building in San Francisco on a Sunday that seems determined to go crazy with the weather and keep everyone second guessing. For what is a beautiful sunny Sunday, the chilly wind passes through and bites the skin like the crack of a whip. But King has been here performing in the square next to the Ferry building practically every weekend for almost five and half years so what is a little wind to him? With a drum and percussion act known as Street Beats he is also known as the Drum King.  The Drum King is dressed strangely for the weather and yet he seems as natural as anyone can be.

A lot of his calm comes from his past because the King remembers his roots. He grew up in Sacramento and has one younger sister.  As a kid he had a drum set before he had his first drum set, grabbing sticks and playing on anything he could get his hands on from pots to washing machines. When he saw the blue metal flake drum set in a store window, he knew this was the drum set for him and begged him mom to get it for him. Christmas was fast approaching and he offered to trade getting lots of presents for the one drum set. History was born.  Ever since the King was 18 he has played professionally, though his career now at 51 has had its ups and downs.

But Street Beats hasn’t always been the claim to fame for the King.  Starting originally in a California band known as “The Sharks,” the King claims to have taken his skill in percussion all over the world: from Hawaii to Japan, Guam, Reno, Philippines, New York City, Vegas, Arizona, Utah, Washington, UK, France, etc… While not rich and famous yet, the King says that he has performed with impressive artists including individual members, not whole lineups, from Cream, Tower of Power, and Sly & the Family Stone. Some of his main influences for his percussion work are James brown, Parliament/ Funkadellic, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Prince. With such a variety of inspirations he had played a multitude of different genres including funk, country, and even metal.

San Francisco residents cant help but drag their heels as they pass by the King so they listen to him for that much longer.  Alex Fuchs, a visitor to San Francisco said it was something he had never seen before.

“It’s alot to handle for a one man band because he’s got drums 360 degrees around him. I mean what a crazy guy and a crazy concept, he’s so wicked.”

Jamie Hickey from the Bristol England-based group Julie Daske, as a drummer himself, found the whole thing to be inspiring.

“He’s an awesome drummer and artist, he’s truly inspired. I’d say he’s one of the best I’ve seen playing on the streets.”

Unfortunately for the King even percussion royalty can be struck by mishap. Before a fateful night in 2006 the King had been working as a professional musician.  Two days after Christmas of that year, coming home from a show the King’s car was burglarized with a river rock and all of his equipment was stolen from him. This included a full five-piece Yamaha drum set, full-sized congas, bongos, Rota toms, Timbales, and even various cowbells.  In the wake of this tragedy and the loss of almost all of the musical tools that he owned, the King found salvation in the form of the contraption.  A friend of his told him: “The Drum is inside of you, it doesn’t matter John what you use it’s the spirit that is in there, it is who you are.”

He made his way over to the Goodwill and the rest is history, this was the start of Street Beats.

All my passion.

Don’t worry, about a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be alright.

Again, one spoken phrase sparks a fire in the minds of a crowd, a bunch of reminiscent and well-meaning tourists orchestrating a song in their minds by means of a percussive conductor, and that is all he needs to bring them on his journey. The King surrounds his land with paper signs on stands, written in sharpie saying things such as “If music be the food to love, play on,” and “Happy 2011, peace and love to all.” The paper signs are held to sandwich boards with binder clips, the sign themselves ripping slightly with wear at the edges showing the sights they’ve seen and the songs they’ve heard, but still spouting the same peaceful messages. On the sidewalk around him are drawings made with chalk, a blue peace sign sits large and bright emanating calm.  For the Spectators there is a frying pan with red and green peppermints inside, mixed equally but contrasting with the dark and dirty steel of the frying pan. Next to it a bucket with a slot in the top which has a large sharpie sign saying “Tips.”  Along with it all, a picture board passively recommending that photograph takers, those recording video, and listeners, should tip, but in no way saying that anyone has to.

“First and foremost, the love keeps me going. I have a genuine desire to bring love, joy, and a good feeling to everyone. I choose this life, it’s not glamorous but I love it and I’m fortunate enough to be able to make enough money to pay my bills with it.”

Over the years though the King has seen people with “opportunities” come and go, offering him false promises and excuses.  The King finds himself surrounded by hordes of cameras, like Brad or Angelina, but not everyone tips or will ever give him recognition for the photo, a small piece of himself taken away. He has seen people promising him footage will go one place, and instead it will be abused and used for profit, none of which the King ever sees. Even worse, in the wake of him finding his identity, copy cats and King-inspired acts pop up through San Francisco quicker than wild fires, and yet almost none of them would mention his existence, much less a source of inspiration.

“I would say that I am the most photographed artist in all of SF, I’m photographed just as much as Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge. I wish somebody would have the guts to give acknowledgement. Basically what they want to do is take advantage of the performer and use him without ever giving him credit and it’s really wrong. This is my art, it’s not like it’s my car stereo. It’s my art, this is my soul, and you’re stealing my soul.”

All my energy.

The King prepares for his coronation as he straps on his shoes, ruffles his Hawaiian shirt, fixes his fisherman’s hat, picks a song on his mp3 player to jam to, and grabs the worn out and taped up drumsticks he currently owns.  And then, without warning, the show has begun for the delightfully surprised tourists on their way to and from trips to the Ferry building and Pier 39. With his drumsticks The King shows the true musician that he really is, his eyes locking onto one of the numerous pots, buckets, or pans and tapping them with a “rat a tat tat” which rings throughout the square and into the ears of observers.  If one takes a moment and merely watches the King at work in his music his movements seem almost comical; his long limbs at some points flail like an octopus from one instrument to the next and his frame becomes hunched and twisting in an effort to reach whatever instrument is needed. However when one listens to the product of the King’s campaign it becomes obvious that the man is a percussion genie.

“What everyone wants to do is label based on what they perceive to be true. I’m not just a bucket drummer; I am a musician and an artist. I am not just banging buckets, I am making music.”

And make music he does. The pings of chimes and the clang of buckets ring through the square and attract small crowds at a time, but dancing and cheering crowds.  Though the King is fond of his younger fans because they are the ones he says he can trust.

“Little kids are brutally honest. They don’t have enough experience to be prejudiced. They take everything on face value. If you’re great they’ll let you know and start dancing but if you suck they’ll also let you know. The street is very honest. My friends ask me ‘John how hard is busking’ and I say it’s hard, you have to try harder because nobody paid to see your band play there.”

This I promise you.

The King plays five days a week at various events and spots throughout California, including fairs and festivals. Ever since last year his home town of Sacramento started to host opportunities to perform previously denied to buskers.  Depending on the event he can play for 4-8 hours straight. The King’s long history of work and energetically physical performances show in his details: the crooked knee, the baggy eyes, the yellowish ear plug which sits in his left ear because he is losing it’s hearing from playing percussion professionally since age 18. His work is tough. He has no health care, and his strife doesn’t seem to be noticed by the average tourist.

“Everybody loves the drummer who comes to entertain with his whole heart and his whole soul but when he needs his busted knee fixed where is everyone then?

The King found himself stretched out on a gurney at one point, struck down by a combination of heat exhaustion, dehydration, and physical wear and tear. He lay on the gurney looking at the white ceiling of the ambulance and thinking to himself: ‘I’m almost killing myself to bring entertainment,” and yet he continues to play on schedule, making sure to stay hydrated, because to stop doing what he loves on the street would be the equivalent of murder.

“I think street performance and art is extremely important and enriches our community. Not everyone has money to present art in the expensive art gallery so they take it to the sidewalk.

My Friends, Fans, audience, my community.

The King presents music that is completely improvised and live, with the intention of putting forward a positive message to people who hear his music. You won’t see him perform without a smile, which blazes white even in the highest physical points of his act, which he strives to make very physical and inviting. He said to flowing spectators “Get loose SF, you in the Sunday streets. Ride a bike, walk around, do something active in this beautiful city.” He plays for the people, beats harder the more people dance, and always does his best to say thank you when he sees someone drop a tip into his bucket.  But even the King is a regular person and has to worry about the problems of regular life. At one point after a song he started murmuring “No way,” “I can’t f’ing believe this” at which point he dropped his tambourine shoes, running apparently to his red jeep across the street which now had a traffic cop parked next to it. His carriage didn’t end up being the one ticketed but it did help show that he is just a man. He is a man of ingenuity, tenacity, and energy but also experience, hardship and accomplishment. He works his five-day week to keep a manageable income and by the end of a weekend of moving all over the place needs to pass out for a while.

Thank you for coming to my show.

Mondays are his “coma days”.

Ripped up jean knee of a downward shot

Pretender's ripped up knee of his jeans

I woke up hungry

After my first attempt at busking I wasn’t impressed with my efforts. I didn’t know what it was really like to busk, some of these performers depended upon this money to eat and travel, this was it.  And so I made my mind up: I would take the next step and dip more than my big toe into the experience pool.

I decided that I would go out for two days and play on the streets for money, pulling more than the three-hour experiment that I had pulled in the first place, a valuable experience but all in all hardly very tough.  This time I was determined to find something that made my experience closer to the reality that sometimes that the money you make on the streets is all that you have. I would bus myself out to downtown San Francisco, and from there I would only eat or travel with the money that I made, without the presence of safety nets. If I didn’t have $2 I would walk back to campus housing, if I didn’t make enough for food I wouldn’t eat, simply put.

I found my jeans that had the giant holes in the knees, which as I wore them more and more both seemed more ridiculous, but also less awkward for me. The hole near the seam of the Jeans near the crotch still was there but that was the price to pay for effective costuming.  However, I wore those clothes in an attempt to embody a life, rather than mock one.  I pulled on my tight, worn-out army jacket, my dusty shoes, and found the bowler hat which I would use to hold money in.  The hat was black but slightly faded, almost fancy if it didn’t seem like I had been stuck in an attic.  My regular harmonica was missing and I found two alternatives, a beat up harmonica with slightly dirty fake silver with small dents and simply the logo ‘blues harmonica,” and also a large red funky harmonica, shiny, but also dented to hell.  Neither one worked all that well but it wasn’t like I had a choice at this point, I had already made myself a promise to go through with the experience.

My friend Andrew, the Guitar man, decided that he would take the same risk as me and split our spoils.  He grabbed his acoustic guitar and met me at Powell station at 10:30 a.m.  The building seemed sparse, even for a Saturday nearing lunch.  The room smelled slightly of garbage although I could not pinpoint quite where it came from. The absence of people made the echo of our footsteps ring throughout the station.  We wouldn’t start here though, on a bustling Saturday afternoon all the action would be outside.  The sun ceremoniously blasted it’s way down onto the sidewalk, it was hot as an oven out there, or perhaps I’m just not a sun fan.  And yet when we would pass through the shade the chill made me shiver and rub my arms to keep warm. I was pretty sure that God had decided to screw with me through the weather forecast. Our first choice of spot was right next to a bus stop, a tree, and a green, tin, trash can. This of course did not help the smell but it seemed like a good spot.  We played everything from covers, to improv songs about people passing by, Andrew strumming on his guitar in varying degrees of force, I taking turns switching between harmonicas to give the current one a break.  In the first 45 minutes we made 35 cents.  This is when the feeling sunk into the pits of our stomachs that perhaps we had bitten off more than we could chew on this one, or maybe that was just the hunger talking.  A man named Tim who looked exactly like a trendy George Lucas in a blue plaid shirt and well-fitting jeans stopped by and told us he appreciated what we were doing.  This was the closest we would ever get to getting words of encouragement from George Lucas so we ran with it.

Our spot became a center around which other performers seemed to find themselves attracted. To our left at the Cable Car turnaround a pair of African-American tap dancers had set up a basic boom box and a crate which they had for money.  Both men were fairly slim and unassuming, with white tank tops, one of the men in a black du rag, the other in a dark baseball cap with a symbol I couldn’t make out.  But when the music played their feet moved like lightning and their bodies like energy morphed and twisted with every tap tap tap tap that hit the pavement and manhole cover they performed around.  We found ourselves distracted from even our own performance by the skill these men possessed.  I felt bad, not only because I felt like I wasn’t as talented as them, hadn’t put in as much work as them, and couldn’t draw a crowd like them, but I was damn hungry and there was no way we were going to make any money standing next to these guys. As if on cue, behind us was a man who John King, the man who played on pots, pans, and other unconventional items, had told me about, the guy he said had stolen the idea of his set up and popularity, the drummer from the movie “Pursuit of Happiness.”

Stolen idea or not, he was too loud even from across the street for Andrew and I to pull off anything significant so we made our way up the trail of the Cable Car and found ourselves in front of a Starbucks.  However, this home was soon interrupted by a man who claimed this spot was his and that he was panhandling just around the corner. He was African-American; he had long, dirty dreads and a heavy brown jacket which wasn’t even close to fitting him. Even though his hair was dark he had a beard which showed traces of gray and age.  His teeth were prominent in their decay, like aged ivory they had grown yellow, with brown near the gums. I could tell because when he would talk loud enough his lips would pull back and expose the troubled teeth.  We made our way across the street and planted ourselves in front of an H&M. It was now 11:45 a.m. and to our names we had only $1.35, hardly enough to eat.  There’s a point where your hunger sort of subsides and lies dormant, but then at random moments will pang with hunger. My stomach lay dormant but waiting for the opportunity to speak.  We played and played, offering to the crowd any song, of any genre, real or imaginary, but the most common response was a smirk and an awkward passing as the tourists rushed with their shopping bags.

It was around noon that Andrew and I were met by our savior of the day, a saint of buskers everywhere, Patricia.  Patricia was in her mid 30’s and was soon to be married to Jason, the love of her life.  She and her girlfriends made their way out to the city to live it up and shop for the highly anticipated May wedding. Patricia was a healthy woman, not thin as a rail but also not overweight. She was a woman with shape and glow which made her stand out from a crowd, long dirty blonde hair which fell over her bright white sweater with “Patricia loves Jason: May 21st, 2011” Embroidered in pink silk on the back.  We played a song about her upcoming wedding, and improving some lyrics about Patricia and her future husband to the squeals of joy from the group of women.  In the end they thanked us; Patricia pulled out a $10 bill and dropped it into our hat before they walked away. We were both shocked as the sun beat down on my face which was no longer protected by a hat, but it was ok, the hat had a purpose now.

Unfortunately when you are on a $10 budget for two people your options for sustenance are limited. I found out that I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to eat healthy on a busker’s salary, or at least a busker of our level.  Perhaps if we were more practiced it would be less of a problem, but hypotheticals aside we went to Burger King. Dollar burgers are the savior of the poor man, and each bite tasted as it were a bite of success, a bite of recognition, and a bite of a job well done.  All in all we would end up eating that day were six burgers each, sharing a large coke, and a large water bottle which kept us hydrated, mostly.

The rest of the day proved to be slightly more successful than our first hour had been. We switched from music to a comedic bit of “the loudest mimes in the world,” which proved to be a favorite for the passing trolleys which would stop right in front of us and get a good minute of yelling mimes before they made their way up the hill.  It’s sort of a strange concept to think that your picture is on the internet, or in somebody’s photo album as a memory that you will never remember.  But that is one of the dangers of performing in public, there is no way to guarantee that anything you do won’t be legally recorded and posted on the internet or on someone’s phone.

My face would end up getting burned because I didn’t have my hat on, I didn’t think that part of the plan out completely.  Another problem which proved how unprepared we were, was the wind. As the afternoon passed on the wind picked up and the shade became more prominent. We sat in the shade of the H&M we had set up at again, and we performed in the cold. The wind became stronger and money would sometimes find its way out of the hat and begin to blow down the street. We never lost money this way but we lost time, especially when the whole hat blew over in the wind and a good six bucks went floating around Powell.  In our final hour we were joined by two girls who had heard yelling and became intrigued.  One of the girls named Christa was a visitor from Portland who lived in emergency housing in San Francisco and was a singer working on her own album. She was a feisty girl with a piercing below her lip and bright blonde-dyed hair which drew a lot of attention to her when she sang. Her clothes were nothing too controversial or worth mentioning, blue jeans, White blouse and black jacket over that. Her voice had a Smokey and smooth tone which inspired us to play actual music again and in the end got us one or two dollars.

We made our way down into the Powell station and looked for the spot where we had initially played, beneath the dome of echoing sound. However, we found a girl across from the spot who was not quite in the good spot but close enough. Her name was Kathy and she was a flower girl if I ever saw one.  She had long brown hair which contained several dreads with multicolored beads, and then by her right temple sat a small arrangement of purple and yellow flowers.  Her dress was a long and flowing dress with flowers over it, which seemed to me what I would call a hippie dress. Her voice boomed and carried, although we knew it wasn’t the best spot she could be playing in. We agreed we would let her keep the area, because there is an unspoken respect between buskers. Sure we could have invaded her space but if we did that than what would keep someone from invading ours, it’s sort of the unspoken ‘golden rule’ of busking.  Instead of taking our ground we let her know where the better spot was for acoustics, helped her move her stuff, and then were on our way.

At 6 p.m. Andrew had to go and meet his girlfriend at her work so we slipped in a dinner of three cheeseburgers and we parted our ways. All in all for the day we made just over $20, which was a complete success and enough to both eat a decent amount and travel home, and then back to downtown the next day.  My muscles were sore from holding up my harmonica all day, my feet were sore from standing all day, and my face was slightly sunburned but overall I felt like I had learned a lot that I hadn’t the first time I done it. I had experienced the honor system, done a work day of busking met with limited success, and I survived on what I made. I made my way home and passed out immediately.

The next day I woke up at 5:45 to make my way to the Embarcadero to do an interview with John King. After the interview I began to feel the effects of the previous day’s work in combination with the sleep deprivation and hunger I was experiencing.   I felt like the energy and inspiration were directly sapped from me. I was dizzy, tired, hungry, and overall I felt like I was pretty well empty on life energy.  To make things worse both of my harmonicas began to malfunction that morning.  Andrew never answered his phone that morning, and in fact I did not hear from him until after I had ended busking for the day when I saw him in person.  Without a functioning instrument or a partner to bounce ideas off, and with my energy at an all-time low, I then attempted the “loudest mime in the world act.”  Perhaps it was the Sunday crowd, my malfunctioning instruments, the lack of a partner, or the fact that my low energy spoiled my delivery, but my results were sub par at best and I ended up only making around $2 in six hours of work. In the face of a chill wind and the worst I’d felt in weeks I took my $2  and made my way home, where I made a sandwich, signifying the end of my experiment.

The second day served as the worst combination of circumstances, but in the end all they proved to be were excuses.  Nobody can control circumstances in the real world and this experiment showed that to me.  When everything goes right and you get lucky you can have a great day of busking and go home happy, but the flip side is equally as possible.  The profession is an uncertain one. As a job it has a fluctuating pay check that is undependable at best.  I learned more about busking in these two days though than I ever knew before, and I can empathize a little more than I could before with the performers who make this their whole world. As a final message, the next time you find yourself passing a musician on the street who you actually like, don’t be afraid to drop in a dollar, they might need it even more than you do.