Craig Ventresco

Guitar

Montgomery BART Station

Craig Ventresco and his guitar are a matching set. He's a slightly disheveled 46-year-old in a loose-fitting fleece with the floppy brown hair and overall rumpled appearance of Tom Baker's 1970s-era Doctor Who. His instrument is dark and worn like the Boston Gardens' old parquet floor; the strings erupt out of the headstock, recalling the Guinness Book of World Records photo of the gent with the spiraling fingernails.

They both look as if they've seen better days.

And perhaps that's so. But it's not about the looks. Ventresco perches on a tiny stool at Montgomery Station and begins to play. And it would be immediately apparent, even to his idol Blind Blake, that something special is happening here. Forget looks — Ventresco is a master; that's him strumming the guitar on the soundtrack to the 1994 movie Crumb. Among connoisseurs of old-timey music, this is an achievement akin to playing Woodstock.

And that gnarled old guitar? It's one of several instruments lavished upon him by a ragtime-obsessed Daddy Warbucks who saw him playing a gig and, in short order, dropped tens of thousands of dollars in pricey music shops on Ventresco's behalf. At one point, the hedge-fund baron summoned Ventresco to his home and commanded him to "play me something from 1902." Fair enough.

An envelope containing $800 was tossed across the desk.

Back in the underground, a handful of coins — heavy on the pennies — is tossed into Ventresco's case, an impromptu reward for strumming a tune of the sort that might induce Groucho Marx to dance with Thelma Todd. The guitarist glances up, and grins. A fellow street musician has emptied the contents of his pants pockets into Ventresco's kitty. "You should hold onto this, man," the guitarist tells his admirer. But the transaction goes through.

It's an odd moment in an odd career. After 15 years of daily busking and 10 years of doing anything but, Ventresco is out on the streets again because he needs the money. And yet, he refuses to comport himself in a way that will earn him much.

"I guess there's something wrong with me," he says. Then he smiles. And then he plays another 110-year-old tune you've never heard before and never will again.

The Internet has been a mixed blessing for Ventresco. For collectors of century-old 78 rpm records and even older phonograph cylinders, the World Wide Web has eliminated the need to wander into strange and potentially dangerous people's basements and record their vintage music. So, that's good.

On the other hand, San Francisco's voracious, tech-fueled booms have driven the cost of living into the stratosphere. For those whose chosen profession is collecting and performing obscure tunes appealing to an exceptionally select audience, this bodes poorly — and ensures your fellow esoteric musician pals leave town and don't come back. So, that's bad.

Also, the rise of the Internet has made it damn near impossible to find good deals on records and cylinders at the garage sales of strange and potentially dangerous people who empty out their basements. (Ventresco would like you to know that, if you've got any of these laying around, he's interested. Listening to these old recordings "is what makes me go.")

And yet, Ventresco now feels safe enough to play on the streets again — after foreswearing the practice a decade ago following a pelting with soda cans — largely because of the city's aforementioned tech-driven gentrification and the accompanying increased police presence along the Market Street corridor.

As the city's tides continually turn, Ventresco, it seems, is carried along for the ride.

The musician and his music grow older. The city grows younger and richer. Every day hundreds more affluent young techies who've never heard Joseph Francis Lamb's "Cleopatra Rag" wander past the rumpled guitarist in the corner. And, even though he's dutifully playing that old ditty, they still haven't heard it because they're not listening.

The guitarist shakes his head. If he whittled his playlist down from thousands of ancient unknown songs to a dozen or so standards (or just played "All of Me" ad nauseum) — well, that could be lucrative. Ventresco knows a musician who camped out at the cable car turnaround and did just that; it was a rare day he didn't pocket damn near $300. Even junkie musicians — and, God knows, there was no shortage of them — did what they had to do to earn the cash to get their daily fix.

Ventresco's only addiction, it would seem, is to esoteric music. He can't make himself not play it. If he's not improving every day, if he's not playing the music he thinks is authentic, then why bother? "I don't want to be sitting out here not doing anybody any good. I don't want to be a beggar," he says. "I don't want sympathy money."

And, on this day, he doesn't get any. In fact, he doesn't get much at all. It's a dank and chilly afternoon, and commuters decked out in their once-a-year parkas waddle to and fro. They bury their hands in their pockets. And keep them there.

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8 comments
Samantha Hill
Samantha Hill

I already read this in print last week, Joey, you're late, get on a plane already.

Ruth Gottstein
Ruth Gottstein

I sure wish someone would come and play the accordion for me.

lorenzogempy75
lorenzogempy75

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.

sfdavidkaye2
sfdavidkaye2

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?  

mike3k
mike3k

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.

 
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