Working-Class Heroes

Who would endure anonymity, uncertainty, and unhappy lovers to make a scant living? Freelance musicians, that's who.

They practice for years to get their chops "like hamburger." They build up a string of weeklies to support themselves, becoming gig whores for anyone who pays for their services. On weekends they do double- or triple-hits and rush out of town for afternoon casuals at private parties and small cafes. They have to be ready to perform "anything, anywhere, any fuckin' time," according to multi-instrumentalist Ed Ivey. They live solely on their music, earning barely enough to survive; they're not famous and probably never will be. They're the Bay Area's freelance musicians, the guys (and some gals) who back up your favorite singer/songwriter, fill out the local R&B quartet, and complement the latest salsa combo.

None of these players started out planning to take this unusual route to a career in music. Some of them clung to the typical teenage rock star fantasy, while others toiled obscurely in odd jobs. All of them discovered, at some point, that they possessed the ability and desire to play many different kinds of music -- often with strangers and usually at a moment's notice. And that San Francisco, with its legions of singer/songwriters, genre-specific bands, and clubs, offered constant demand for their skills.

"[In the '80s] I was in a punk rock band when I was 23, 24, playing with all the great San Francisco bands like the Dead Kennedys and Verbal Abuse," says Ivey, who currently plays bass, tuba, and guitar for the Faraway Brothers and Eric McFadden, among others. "We were part of that scene, and that scene rejected the common perception of success in the music business. We were punk rockers and we didn't have to know how to play our instruments." At the time, freelancing was the furthest thing from Ivey's mind.

Joe Kyle: From chopping meat to practicing his chops.
Joe Kyle: From chopping meat to practicing his chops.
Joe Kyle: From chopping meat to practicing his chops.
Joe Kyle: From chopping meat to practicing his chops.


Joe Kyle performs with the Waybacks

Friday, June 15, at 9:30 p.m.

Plough & Stars, 116 Clement (at Second Avenue), S.F.

Tickets are $4


The Waybacks

Saturday, June 16, at 8 p.m.

San Francisco Free Folk Festival, Roosevelt High School, 460 Arguello (at Geary), S.F.

Admission is free


Michael Rinta plays with Brass Monkey

Saturday, June 23, at 9:45 p.m.

Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck (at Ashby), Berkeley

Tickets are $6


Related Stories

More About

After the punk scene withered away, Ivey moved back to El Paso, Texas, where he worked as a newspaper reporter. Then, in 1992, he got a call for a gig as a bass player and moved back to San Francisco. "At first I did some really weird jobs. I sold cars, I was a private investigator's assistant, I worked in a parking garage. But slowly, surely, I started meeting people [who played music]."

On the other hand, Joe Kyle had been working as a chef at various San Francisco restaurants for 15 years when he found his calling as a stand-up bass player. (He now plays regularly with the Hot Club of San Francisco, Paparoux, and the Waybacks.) "The summer of '94 was the last time I had a steady job," he says. "I quit my job at the Slow Club to go on vacation, and that was the turning point. I had a steady gig with the Blue Room Boys at Radio Valencia and I was starting to work with the Trailer Park Rangers. I had some jazz gigs here and there and I just took a broad leap of faith and decided I was tired of cooking.

"It took a while," he adds. "I was pretty broke and desperate for the first six or eight months of not having a day job. But after a year, I was gigging about 30 to 35 gigs a month. I was a bit of a gig whore, taking anything that would come my way just because of the novelty factor. It was exciting to me to think that people would actually call me and want me to come play bass for them and pay me money."

However, if a freelancer plays 20 times a month at between $30 and $100 per show (with the occasional brief tour or exceptionally lucrative gig), he can make barely $20,000 a year, which isn't much in modern-day San Francisco. "If you averaged it out through the year," says Ivey, "I'm making less than a schoolteacher at S.F. Unified, for sure."

Because of financial worries, many starting freelancers overbook themselves, which can lead to the cardinal sin of missing gigs.

"It's Thursday night, about 8:30," says Ivey, describing an all-too-typical situation. "You're sipping a Bud, watching TV, the phone rings. "Hey, hello, Ed, where the fuck are you, man? This is Joe Blow, I'm in Mendocino at the wedding,'" says Ivey. "You forgot about your gig. You're fucked. You're a clown, and that guy probably won't want to call you back."

"One of my weak points is bookkeeping," continues Ivey, pointing out the supreme importance of good business sense for the freelancer. "I have a hard time keeping track of what's on my calendar. It probably hasn't happened to me in two years, but at least once a year in those days you'd get that call. And it would always be somewhere where you couldn't just jump in your truck and make it there."

But bad bookkeeping and shoddy scheduling aren't the only reasons for missing gigs. As everyone knows, music and drugs go together like California and sunshine.

Michael Rinta, a trombone player for numerous bands, nearly lost his career to the seedier side of the music scene. During the mid-'90s he formed the salsa band Avancé with Santana's timbales player, Karl Perazzo. "It was very successful, and I was doing a lot of coke," he says. "I was also acting very irresponsibly. I was double-booking gigs. I wasn't showing up and I was lying and telling them I was in jail -- that was my big lie that I used to tell people, and actually I'd be in Reno playing with somebody else. And [Perazzo] just said, "Hey, you can't be doing this, you need to take a break for a while.' And that was very painful for me, because I was a founding member of the band."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Around The Web

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
San Francisco Event Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.