I’ve dabbled in street performance. Sometimes it has been a liberating outlet for pent up rage, and sometimes it sucks. Actually, usually it sucks.
I think the first time I tried it was in St. Paul, Minnesota when I was on a lunch break at music school. I made four dollars in about an hour. I didn’t try again for a while, probably not until after I left Minnesota. But as I started to travel more, I began testing out new cities by playing on the street.
When I reached a town, if I had time to kill, I’d walk around a busy place until I found a spot to stop and play. When you play outside, I thought, no one is safe. Everyone has to hear to me, at least for the amount of time it takes to walk away. You get to see an interesting side of people when they are not willing audience members. Some people look at you like you’re actually crazy, and they’re not entirely wrong. Most people won’t look at you. Some of them go out of their way to not look at you.
Almost a year ago I played in front of a closing Tower Records store in San Francisco. It didn’t matter what I sang or how I moved, people would not stop to listen. Then I realized they all had earbuds in, and were walking to their own soundtrack. I had nothing to offer. I wrote a short song on the street to the people walking by, safe in their own playlists.
I spent part of the summer trying out 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica with Carey Grafmiller on drums. The idea of going to City Hall and paying for a license to perform in public was fascinating to me. The year before we showed up in Times Square with a mike and an amp and were able to play four or five songs before the police told us to leave. With actual permission, we’d be able to play all day, switching spots every two hours in rotation with other performers.
The first time we tried it out was a weekend night. It was packed. Every forty feet there were other performers; folk singers, blues singers, belly dancers, break dancers, dog trainers, balloon artists, clowns, hip hop bands, percussionists, fiddle players, and more folk singers. We had barely pulled our cart off Wilshire when we were greeted by a very friendly Promenade manager named Steve. He asked us if we were new, then explained the guidelines and pointed us to one of the last spots available. He marked us down on his map for the 6PM slot and went on his way.
We set up amidst the chaos and began to play. We were in between two activist groups. On the left, literally, was an animal rights group with a projector screen showing video of bloody carcasses and handing out vegetarian literature. The film was narrated by Corey Feldman. To our right was a church group displaying large poster boards filled with phrases like “Hell is Real,” illustrated monkeys with X’s through them, and photographs of aborted fetuses that were enlarged to show texture. Both groups had microphones, both groups shouted at people walking by. Needless to say, no one who was there to shop wanted to hang around our area and listen to music.
We decided to move before our two hours were up.
I came to find out there were two types of performers who are allowed to be on the Promenade. Artists were in the first category, and they needed to pay the permit fee to perform. The second category was called Free Speech, and under the protection of the First Amendment no permit or fee was required to set up and speak. This was the category of the animal rights group and the church.
I think there has been better usage of the First Amendment. The animal rights group and the church group were basically yelling at people. As good as their intentions were, their method was angry and obnoxious. The artists, myself included, were mostly just trying to do what they love.
The point is not whether the anti-meat people or the church people were right or wrong about their issues, it’s just that they were being so mean about it. I don’t think God or Corey Feldman would be that negative in real life. The point is also not whether the artists (myself included) were any good or fun to watch, just that they were trying to be positive.
One group expressing love, the other expressing hate. One had to pay a fee, one could show up for free.
I’m now living very close to Hollywood Blvd. I have not yet tried going out there and playing for the tourists. I may do it, though, cause I’ve never seen Freddy Krueger or Sponge Bob be anything but nice to people.