Subterranean Rush Hour Blues: Behind the Soundtrack to Your Commute

Cover photo by Mike Koozmin.


You hear them every day. And if you don't hear them — if you've got your ear buds in and someone else's voice in your head — you still see them. Street musicians, or what some people (maybe on the East Coast) call buskers. The idea's been around forever, and certainly in a city once so dedicated to public displays of art, the street musician was even more a fixture of the urban landscape. Now that so many of us carry our own music in our pockets, the musicians seem strangely anachronistic, like ... well, like a cable car running through a city.

But play on they do, mastering their peculiar corners of the culture: a Nintendo savant on accordion, a guitarists playing hundred-year-old tunes, a man who can't abide a band and plays all the instruments himself. You'll be out more this time of year, doing whatever holiday thing you're doing, and they'll be out there too, of course. Unplug yourself and tune in.


Nick Albert

Accordion

Underground train stations, Fisherman's Wharf

The commuter was young. He wore a red cap. He flashed a massive wad of bills. And he probably spent a considerable portion of his youth around the Nintendo Entertainment System.

That would make sense to Nick Albert. The 25-year-old accordion player's repertoire is essentially tunes from 1980s-era Nintendo games. And it seems the kids who amassed coins playing Super Mario Bros. have gone on to amass their fair share in the wider world. The young man in the red cap peeled off a $100 bill and flicked it into the case of the accordionist squeezing out a Mario ditty.

He was long gone by the time Albert realized that he'd been tipped 100 times the going rate. It didn't earn him an extra life. It just paid for another day of this one.

Albert's life isn't so straightforward as those from the games he mines for material. Playing videogame music on a 70-year-old pawnshop accordion, in the subway, is not an end Albert achieved through meticulous planning.

He's only here because his hot dog stand failed.

After years of toiling at minimum-wage jobs, Albert socked away around $3,000. That bought him a foothold in the sausage industry: "I wanted to start my own business. And that's pretty much the smallest scale you can do it." But even small scales come with big costs. Purveyors of dirty-water hot dogs, Albert learned, need to store their wares at commercial kitchens. There's the matter of permitting. There are costs associated with renting refrigerator space, freezer space, and space for your hot dog cart. And hot dogs? Those aren't as inexpensive as Albert thought they'd be. "The hot dog market," he reflects, "is not what you'd expect."

Not unlike most videogames, it ended very quickly for Albert. He chuckles at the memory of rapidly burning through his life savings. "You know, I wasn't really good at running a business."

So, he was back to working at someone else's. Deep-frying potatoes. Sweating in kitchens. And then he wasn't even doing that. The blue-pearl accordion he impulsively bought two years ago after hawking a guitar at a pawnshop has been his sole source of income this year. An epiphany that the music accompanying Mario's aquatic escapades "sounds like an old French waltz" provided him with his hook. He's only game-ready with eight or nine songs: a couple from Mario, a couple from Zelda, and "other stuff that sounds good on an accordion" like "Greensleeves" or "Fur Elise." It's an exclusive playlist. "But most of them are crowd-pleasers."

Not every red-capped man will drop a C-note out of nostalgia for a videogame starring a red-capped man. But it's a rare day that Albert can't amass 10 bucks an hour. This, he surmises, is as good as he's ever done and as good as he can realistically do.

He grew up in Menlo Park and graduated from the elite Menlo-Atherton High School; notable alumni include Bob Weir, Lindsey Buckingham, and Stevie Nicks — but Albert is, all but certainly, the school's first accordion-playing street musician. Life after high school hasn't gone according to plan; that would have required a plan. There were a litany of menial jobs, the hot dog escapade, nights staying in motels, nights crashing on couches, and, now, a house in the Outer Sunset subdivided into six rooms and shared with seven other guys. Rent is $650, a figure likely to induce Mario-like nostalgia for many San Franciscans. One roommate works at a bakery, which is never a bad thing.

The money tossed in Albert's case goes toward keeping his room in that house. And yet, there are rewards greater than amassing coins in this game. Not long ago, an artist knocked out a caricature of the accordionist and presented it in lieu of a tip. This is an experience most $10-an-hour workers do not share.

He's moved around a lot of late. He knows the picture is in a drawer. He just doesn't know where.

But, one of these days, he's gonna find it. And then he's gonna get it framed. Joe Eskenazi


Larry Hunt

Drums

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

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.

But it's not about the looks. If you close your eyes and lose yourself in the rollicking chords of "Cleopatra Rag," it may as well be a century ago. It may as well be sunny and warm. And, if only for a few fleeting moments, the world slows down and worries temporarily cease.

"I'm so happy music like this exists, and I get to play it," says Ventresco. "It really is my whole life." J.E.


Jordan Wilson

Just about everything

Powell Street, Fisherman's Wharf

Close your eyes in the vicinity of the Powell Street cable car turnaround or Fisherman's Wharf, and you'll hear a full band, playing away. Open them, though, and you'll see Jordan Wilson, twitching away.

Wilson's series of subtle, twitchy movements reveal that he's playing as many as four instruments at once. He built his first musical apparatus straight out of high school, a hodgepodge of drums and guitar that straps to his back — reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke's one-man band in Mary Poppins.

Wilson says he started building one-man-band machines out of a "lack of social skills and a natural skill for music."

"Musicians can just be way too cool sometimes," he says of his need to play every instrument himself, simultaneously. Despite the difficulty of their task, Wilson says it was harder to put together a band than it was to just figure it all out alone.

His second apparatus, built when he was 20 years old, is nicknamed The Squid. A pedal board lets him play drums with his feet. "I play bass guitar with my thumb," he says. "The neck is flipped upside-down, next to the guitar neck." The Squid also incorporates a keyboard, and Wilson sings.

Playing four instruments and singing at the same time seems damn near impossible — until you've seen Wilson do it. "People think it's so impressive, what I do," he says. "As far as the big machine goes, nobody's seen it before. ... But if you're playing guitar, you're not just doing one thing. You have to move your elbow, your shoulder, all the different positions with your fingers, timing, all of that." The Squid, he explains, is "like a more complicated guitar part."

This May, after several Union Square businesses complained about performance volumes, the Board of Supervisors passed new legislation making it easier to cite street performers in the area for noise ordinance violations. Wilson's act uses drums and amplification, two things singled out by the board. "I use a 15-watt amplifier so you can hear the guitars and vocals," Wilson says. "It's probably better for them in the buildings if they can hear all the music, not just the drums."

Wilson was cited under the new ordinance, but was able to get his fine reduced in court. After receiving the ticket, he moved his performance to Fisherman's Wharf. There, the Port of San Francisco issues permits that restrict the decibel level and length of street performances, and performers like Wilson don't have to worry about being ticketed — unless they play without a permit. However, after the initial furor over the board's legislation, Wilson says enforcement dropped off in the Union Square area and he was able to return.

"There's street performers, and we're gonna be out there regardless of whatever law they try to enforce," Wilson says. "We're gonna be out there, and we're gonna be using amplification. The businesses are gonna be there, regardless of us being there or not. Unless we sit down together and talk about it, and maybe make some permit system like they have on the Wharf — the only way to have peace of mind is to communicate."

He says some street performers have discussed suing the city over the legislation, which they say violates their First Amendment rights to free expression.

"I certainly can't successfully do my act out there without amplification," Wilson says. "If we can sit down and create a system together and work on it not as enemies but as companions, Market Street is going to have a lot of cool acts. If this city is welcoming to street performers and supports them, you're going to see a lot of stuff on the street that you would see in a theater." Kate Conger


Kenny Chung

Guitar, Harmonica

Underground train stations

Eric Fournier

Guitar

Underground train stations

Kenny Chung used to have terrible stage fright. It started in fifth grade: He was cast in Schoolhouse Rock! as The Bill. "I'm just a bill, sitting on Capitol Hill," he sings as a reminder. On opening night, he forgot all the words and just froze, staring out at the audience.

"Someone pulled me off and they played the fucking song over the speakers," he remembers. "After that, I had horrible stage fright, horrible anxiety when it came to just talking in front of people."

But now here he is, with a steel guitar and a fistful of harmonicas, playing covers — and some original songs, too — in the Montgomery BART station, and making a living at it. His secret to conquering his anxiety? He just closes his eyes.

Across the station is Eric Fournier, another young man with an acoustic guitar. Like Chung, he says he's earning his living through busking. It's no hobby; it's his day job. He plays in the station five days a week. He's even got regulars; there's a man who often stops by to listen after picking his daughter up from daycare.

"I remember when she was so small she couldn't even walk; she was a baby when I first started busking," Fournier says. "Every time I see him, he always waits with her in the stroller. Now she's getting so big, she walks around and jams and stuff. He always stops, and he always tips me."

Across the station, Chung launches back into one of his money-making covers, a rendition of "The Weight" by Bob Dylan. He admits that he sometimes drags a song out as long as possible: "I kind of feel like a dick to the attendants, because for my songs that will bring in money, I'll repeat verses. I'll drag on that song for another two minutes!" Earlier, someone tipped Fournier with a book about Bob Dylan, but he says Dylan isn't really a role model for him.

As Fournier and Chung play on opposite sides of the station, within earshot of each other, it seems like they're each other's competition. But the two get along just fine. Fournier even tipped Chung off to his favorite spot in the station, a corner that has the entrance on one side and the Muni ticket machines on the other. With commuters rushing down the stairs on his left and lining up to buy tickets on his right, it's the perfect spot to win tips. Whoever arrives first gets to play there.

On his way out of the station, Fournier tips Chung a dollar and says, "Bye, buddy." Chung will stick around for a little while longer — he's trying to save up enough money for a minivan, so he can take his act on tour.

But the mark of a good day isn't necessarily a large tip — although that certainly helps. "Occasionally, I'll get a couple that listens," Chung says. "Occasionally, I'll get a small crowd. And then sometimes — sometimes — they dance." K.C.

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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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