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Market Street outside the Old Navy
Larry Hunt — the man affectionately known as "Larry the Drummer" or "Larry Bucket Man" — was not performing outside the Old Navy department store on Market Street last Monday afternoon. But all of his effects were there, piled haphazardly on a stack of milk crates, and strung together with cord. There were big unopened cans of tomatoes, and plastic recycling buckets, and a picture of actor Will Smith looking bright-eyed and mustachioed. A cardboard sign bore Hunt's plea to fans, penned in zig-zaggy blue marker.
"SF/City is banning Bucketman New Generation Band," the sign said. "Got $460.00 ticket for playing. Please help. I play in movie Pursuit Happyness Will Smith." Hunt left his phone number at the bottom, along with an apparently defunct website: LarryBucketman.com.
At 55, Hunt is warm and weathered. He has a wide, crinkly grin and a voice made chalkier by years of eating fire during his performances. He says he first tried eating fire in 1979, after a man in a redneck country bar bet a thousand dollars he couldn't do it. "I was drinking 151 Bacardi straight," Hunt recalls. "I didn't feel any pain until the next day." When he woke up, his mouth was caked in thick, papery sheets. "Like you know how those snakes be shedding their skin," he says. "But I had a thousand dollars, plus $360 for the gig, plus $200 in tips." To top it all off, he had a new trick in his arsenal.
It was certainly an improvement for someone who lived off whatever money got thrown in his can. Raised in Kansas, Hunt taught himself to play drums at age 3 by listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich records. His father ran a shoe shine shop and dry-cleaning business; his grandmother helped mind the store. He has two brothers, one who became a minister, the other a parking attendant. His adopted sister, Juliette Williamson, played bass in the Chicago Brother and Sister Blues Band until the band's singer, Bruce Brooks, bashed her skull in with a hammer and dumped her body by the Hunters Point shipyard.
Hunt says he never knew his mother. "She left when I was born," he says. "My daddy raised me."
After honing his chops in bar bands and gun-for-hire blues gigs, Hunt took a circuitous path to the Bay Area, stopping first in Georgia to play with the Drifters, he says, then picking up work with Oakland guitarist Ronnie Stuart and his Caravan of All Stars band. Hunt wound up penniless in Berkeley in 1983 and began playing drums on the Cal campus, sleeping in frat houses and student co-op basements, and earning just enough to squeak by. Alumni who attended UC Berkeley during his long tenure remember endless performances of "Black Cat," the bristly Janet Jackson rock song that Hunt was evidently trying to perfect. Singing the guitar part at full volume, Hunt made enough noise to drown out the incessant drum circles in the courtyard below.
Administrators in Sproul Hall were not amused. Hunt says that at some point in the '90s, after settling stacks of tickets and noise complaints, he got "driven out of Berkeley," and had to set up shop permanently in downtown San Francisco. But over the years, he became a much better musician. On a good day, he might play nine hours and pull up to $60, enough to supplement his Social Security check and pay for an SRO room in the Tenderloin. He plays a full repertoire of funk and rock songs, usually accompanied by an electric bassist and a tap dancer who can't be relied upon, Hunt says, owing to "relationship problems." ("But when you're whooped," he says, "you're whooped.") Hunt keeps a picture of Will Smith on his bass drum and hangs a stuffed green dinosaur below his ride cymbal, like an oversized ornament. He hands out photographs of himself and Smith — apparently taken after Hunt's Pursuit of Happyness street cameo — to young women who pass by.
"See?" he says, waving a stick for emphasis, and grinning wide enough to reveal a piratical gap tooth. "Now you know who I am."
Hunt has until Christmas to pay a $115 chunk of his $460 citation, or face a 90-day jail sentence. "When I get done with this, I'm suing them for harassment," he grumbles. "They do this to me every year. And I still have to go out there every day to earn enough to pay my phone bill."
By Thursday night, his stack of milk crates hadn't moved; its paper sign and cord wrapping remained unmolested. Hunt and his bassist were playing an upbeat rendition of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" — a song that carried its own hint of irony for anyone who'd read Hunt's heartfelt plea. The tap dancer was shuffling his heels on a square of plywood, and the crackle of Hunt's cymbal was just loud enough to get a homeless woman dancing at the Market and Fourth Street intersection. Passersby threw dollars into a plastic tip jar by the drum set. Things were looking up. Rachel Swan
Craig Ventresco is widely regarded as one of the best guitarists in the world. I used to hear him in the Haight 20 years ago... He was just a kid; he blew everyone's mind. Then he showed up in the New York music scene, years later. He's famous; he plays all over the place. You make him sound like a loser.
You don't know ANYTHING about being a musician, do you, Joe? Your article is INSULTING. But then you're working for, what, pennies a word as an indie hack writer?
I enjoy most street musicians, but I really *HATE* that guy who plays the drums in front of Old Navy, as well as the guy who drums on buckets in front of the ferry building. They're just plain loud & obnoxious and drown out the other musicians that I actually want to hear. I would be very happy to see them gone.