The Ark

Whatever floats your boat...

Whenever I enter my BART* station, morning or evening, I’m treated to someone’s musical performance. I can think of more than a dozen musicians or groups who play my BART plaza with regularity. Most of them are pretty decent, some are embarrassingly bad, and a couple of them are superb.

One who falls in the superb category is a man who plays classical guitar. His guitar is almost as beaten up as Willie Nelson’s. He is disheveled, his clothes are very worn, and he doesn’t have a chair and foot stand. Instead he sits in a modified lotus position on the ground with a foot on one thigh to prop the curve of his guitar.

I will sometimes give money to street musicians, but only when they are very good. If they are not good, then I don’t want to encourage people who are just adding to the stress of urban noise. Like the woman who plays folk songs at the bottom of the escalator. She strums three chords out of rhythm while singing at a volume just above a whisper. She is always flat and off-key. I feel embarrassed for her whenever I see her, and I always wonder what her life circumstances are that compel her to pursue that livelihood over paying jobs. She’s been doing it for years.

There’s another guy who plays the street plaza at the BART entrance. He plays an electric guitar with a portable amp, and to a passerby moving quickly within a ten-second range, he sounds a little like Hendrix. That is, if Hendrix had known only four chords and played them over and over again without exploring melody or variation.

There is a band of people who play music of the Andes on authentic instruments. They’re damn good. There’s an old man who looks like a mountaineer who plays slide resonator and sings in the manner of Leon Redbone. It makes me feel happy just to hear him. There’s a young Asian woman who sings old bluegrass songs by the Carter family in a heartbreaking twang as authentic as June Carter’s. She plays ukulele in a way that makes it sound harp-like. And there’s a guy who sings next to the ticket machines, old blues songs reminiscent of Josh White in a mellifluous voice like Lou Rawls'. His voice carries through all three levels of the station and up to the street.

But the classical guitarist plays quietly. He doesn’t plead with his eyes for donations. His guitar case is open and displays shrink-wrapped copies of his self-produced CD for sale. I have often wanted to approach him and show appreciation by buying his CD, but for months, the future of my job has been in doubt. I knew that lay-offs were coming down, and until I knew for sure that I would be spared, I was conserving every dime. Last Thursday, I got the news that I was spared. On Friday, I approached the guitarist.

It was the first time I ever got close to him. His clothes had the sour smell of someone who tries to get several wearings out of them between launderings, and when he started talking to me, I had to step back because he had the bad breath of someone with advanced dental decay. His eyes were bloodshot and rheumy. “Is this you?” I asked, pointing to the CD cover, which showed a slightly younger, cleaner, clear-eyed fellow who'd known better times. “That’s me,” he said.

“You play beautifully,” I told him, “I always appreciate hearing you when you’re here. How much is your CD?” He told me twenty dollars; it was a two-CD set. Kind of stiff, I thought, but hey, I was celebrating the reprieve I’d just gotten on my job. I handed him a twenty and decided to think of it as an investment in the economy.

“There are a lot of other good people who play here,” he said. “Yeah, a lot of bad people too,” I said lightly. “Times are hard. I guess it’s just elevated panhandling for a lot of people.”

“Not really,” he answered. “You’d be surprised. Most of these people who play aren’t doing it for the money,” he said, “They’re doing it for the audience. Like that folk singer girl who plays by the escalator? She just wants people to listen to her. Most of us just want listeners.”

I wondered about that later when I was listening to his CD. His tracks were all original compositions. I Googled him, and I was surprised to learn that although he doesn’t have any commercially released CDs of his own, he is a well-known composer in classical-guitar circles. On YouTube, I came across videos of many other well-known guitarists playing his compositions. And yet he himself was playing for nothing on the floor of the BART station, for anyone who would stop and listen.

Syd recently posted a TEDTalks video in which Dan Pink proposed that creativity is not stimulated by economic reward—something to ponder if one wants to generate innovation in business. I’ve been mulling this over ever since I saw it, and I’ve come to agree with it. In all the cases I can think of where creativity seemed to be motivated by economic reward, it was also rewarded with an audience. Audience, it seems to me, is not incidental to creative output; it’s the prime motivator for it. I know it’s what motivated me to write this blog.

The guitarist’s twenty-dollar CD, by the way, was a bargain.

*BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit

Views: 18

Comment by Pypermarru1 on September 17, 2009 at 6:44pm
Good blog NJ. I can't imagine an assortment of entertainers to choose from each day..sheesh.
At our super walmart we have a vet that plays the violin for money and audience...mostly money ;0)
Comment by BlancheNoE on September 17, 2009 at 7:41pm
I thoroughly enjoyed this blog. If I was loaded (in the monetary sense) I'd drop you a twenty. This reminded me of walking through the streets of New Orleans many moons ago with my step sister. We were in the French Quarter where corners are highly coveted and closely guarded by regular street performers. I was thinking ' man, I could come down here and do nothing but play guitar all day',..just then a fight broke out over one of those coveted corners. Nobody died but it was very scary and ugly. That was the end of my street performer aspirations. I've always wished I could sell my songs to someone else to perform, so with me I guess it's money, wait,..I also want to share my experiences and ideas in the hopes that it will make someone feel less lonely and more ,..uh,..normal?,..or so *I* can feel less lonely and normal?,..okay, so-audience. Hmm,...let's just say I think Steely Dan had it right. Those two guys sold a gazillion records, inspired a couple of generations and never even showed their faces until they were in their 50s, when they did a handful of concerts just fun.
They then slid back into comfortable anonymity. Freakin' brilliant.
Great blog !
Comment by JustAnotherUserName on September 17, 2009 at 9:14pm
We have much the same experience on Venice Beach or in Santa Monica. I wonder why some of these guys aren't wildly famous because they're just so darn good. Heck...some of my FRIENDS are so amazing I can't believe they can't 'make it' professionally. Great blog, Robin!
Comment by NatureJunkie on September 18, 2009 at 6:24pm
@ Pyper: For sure, no matter how much that guitarist says they're doing it for "the audience," you can believe none of 'em ever turn down a donation. (Maybe it's just the snobbiness of the Bay Area, but I've never seen anyone busking at a Super Walmart.)

@ Blanche: It's interesting that you mention the staking of territory because part of the conversation with my guitarist that I didn't report is how hard it is for him to stake his "spot" every day, and how much he resents it if someone else tries to drown him out. So many potential listeners, so few stages. If it helps you feel normal and less lonely, you can always count on me to be in your audience.

@ Ruth: "Heck...some of my FRIENDS are so amazing I can't believe they can't 'make it' professionally." I hear ya, sister. I think we've even got some folks like that here on the Ark.

@ Christine: I'll PM you to let you know which BART station it is. My mother force fed the Carter Family to me and my siblings until we learned to love it. But you'll never catch me playing because believe me, by comparison, I'd make the escalator girl sound like Susan Boyle.
Comment by Cluelesswonder on September 20, 2009 at 3:57pm
I miss riding BART and I miss the Bay Area!!!!!
It is one of the most wonderful places I have ever lived. I miss the street performers and the diverse culture. I love this love this blog NJ...I lived in the Bay Area in the 90's and there was always something to do or see.
I remember hearing the street performers and going into blues bars and just listening. I MISS it so much!!
This blog made my day..Thank you again.
Comment by NatureJunkie on September 21, 2009 at 3:35pm
@ Suze: I agree with you--most people play because they enjoy being enjoyed. Sometimes the Ark and LiveVideo are like virtual street corners for me: I get treated to talented people like you who ask for nothing in return for some great music.

@ Beth: Thank you for your kind words, Beth. There was a fantastic music scene going on in San Francisco's clubs in the 90s. I miss that too. I've been off-and-on working on a video about it; maybe someday I'll actually finish it. ; )


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