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The buskers' life: The street's their stage, our attention their reward
It's a free show, every day. All we have to do is take the headphones out of our ears for a minute, stop, watch and listen.
Seattle Times editor
KATE IS 9 years old, and she's wondering how she ever got herself into this mess.
Be a busker, her violin teacher told her; it's good experience. So here she is, about to make her debut. At Seattle Center, during Folklife, the city's crazy, colorful celebration of sound and eccentricity.
She opens her small, black violin case and sets it in front of her, in anticipation of quarters she hopes will be tossed inside. Tentatively, she raises her bow, takes a deep breath, nods to her mom and begins to play.
On the other side of the Center, away from the bustle of the festival, a 48-year-old man arrives for work. Eido — that's his full name, he'll show you his Washington ID to prove it — is an artist and musician. He plays his electric guitar most days at the same spot in the shadow of the Space Needle.
Eido lives in a tent with his cat, maintaining a "homeless lifestyle," he says, so he can concentrate on his art. Nearly 1,100 of his paintings and drawings and 10 albums worth of songs are cataloged on his website.
"I have people say to me, 'Why don't you get a real job?' " he says. "I think I have a real job."
People hustle past as he plays, most keeping their distance on the wide walkway. A few sit on benches close enough to hear him but far enough away they can pretend not to. On a good day, Eido will make 50 bucks. The longest he'll play is five hours.
"That's the max," he says. "After that, everything goes — the fingers, the brain. Then I just go home. And hope it isn't wet."
Young, old and in between, buskers like Kate and Eido are everywhere in Seattle.
Lucky for us.
They bravely brighten our days by singing, playing their guitars, trombones and accordions, performing magic tricks and puppet shows, making balloons for our kids. Some are professional musicians, others have 9-to-5 jobs and just want a chance to play weekends at neighborhood farmers markets.
It's a free show, every day. All we have to do is take the headphones out of our ears for a minute, stop, watch and listen.
YOU CAN'T SWING an old hippie by the ponytail without hitting a busker at Pike Place Market, Seattle's daily carnival of street performers.
Talented musicians — and a few not-so-talented — play every day at the Market, sharing space with local shoppers, cruise-ship tourists, and food and craft vendors.
But it's not quite the chaotic free-for-all you might think.
Whitney Mongé is an accomplished 26-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist who moved here from Spokane six years ago to pursue her music career. She might just be good enough to follow Brandi Carlile's path from Market busker to pop star.
Mongé, her tattooed arms poking out of a gray sweatshirt, is playing a one-hour set of original songs and covers. As she sings her final tune, the old Creedence Clearwater Revival classic "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" a peculiar-looking little man wearing a funny hat and holding a ukulele stands patiently a few feet behind her.
The song shows off Mongé's soulful voice, her confident guitar playing and a natural charisma. She strums the final chords and is greeted by ... nothing, really, just the sounds of shoppers shuffling past, looking for good deals on purses and rhubarb.
The man with the ukulele, Howlin' Hobbit, a 28-year Market veteran, steps up to the spot Mongé has vacated and sums things up nicely. "Busking: It's not for wimps."
Mongé, then Hobbit, play at one of the 15 approved spots for busking at the Market. Each of the locations is marked with a red musical note painted on the ground, and a number (1 to 4) for the number of performers allowed at the spot. Three spots are particularly sweet — at the North Arcade entrance, where Mongé and Hobbit are playing on this day; at the main entrance under the clock; and on the street in front of Starbucks.
Market buskers pay $30 for an annual performer's permit. Last year, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority issued 400 of them. There's no audition, just some paperwork to fill out and an agreement to play by the rules: no brass instruments, no amplification, for instance. Performers each get an hour; they can also sell their CDs here. For the most part, the buskers do a nice job of policing themselves. There's an annual, public review process to discuss potential changes to the guidelines.
Market managers don't ask the buskers how much money they make; that's their business.
After Mongé finishes playing, she makes way for Howlin' Hobbit and is greeted by an enthusiastic young woman who asks her if she has anything for $5. Mongé tells her she has a nine-song CD for $10, a five-song CD for $5. The woman says she has only $5 and hands it over for the last five-song CD in Mongé's case.
"Girl," she gushes, "if I had 10 dollars, I'd give it to you."
"YOU NAME IT, it's been done here," says David Dickinson, the Market's daystall- and craft-program manager.
Gary Reid is a left-handed guitarist with a prosthetic left leg who drives from Tacoma five or six days a week to sing songs for Jesus and Market visitors.
"I sing good-news music," he says. "The best part of my day is when someone says, 'That's my favorite song.' I don't do breakup songs. I don't do drinking songs. That's just me. But you get everything here. There's a guy who specializes in Southern murder ballads."
Reid arrived at 8 a.m. to sign up for the coveted 10 a.m. spot by Rachel the Pig, near the main entrance. He'll play three or four one-hour sets most days.
He engages a group of young kids, who happily sing along to "Yellow Submarine." On one side, the fish throwers are doing their thing. On the other, two middle-aged women are taking pictures of vegetables as one says to the other, "Can you believe how big their corn is?"
It's a constant battle for attention. Reid, who has been busking at the Market for nearly two years, makes a living at it. He says you've got to keep on top of schedules: when the cruise ships are in, what days the Sounders play. In the slower winter, he says, "you're just scraping by," trying to make the money earned during the summer stretch.
After he wraps up his first set, Reid estimates 75 people took pictures of him. Most didn't tip; still, he says, playing in a prime spot, "it was a good first hour."
In a quieter location, in Post Alley, Rosalynn De Roos, on clarinet, and Stuart Zobel, playing a seven-string acoustic guitar, perform Brazilian music from the 1920s and '30s. They play in a Brazilian jazz band, ChoroLoco, and decided to busk this year because it's good practice. They're not doing it for the money, or the attention, that's for sure.
As they play, diners seated at restaurants across the alley talk and eat. After one song, a man looks up from his taco, and claps. Occasionally, someone walking by will pitch a dollar bill or a few coins into the musicians' cases. Few people stop.
It's a little trickier for the listener here than in the crowded, noisier spots in the Market or on the street, where groups often gather around the performer. Here, you can't really blend into the background. What's a fan of good Brazilian music to do? So many questions.
Is it OK for me to stand right in front of a busker as they play? (Yes.) Can I talk to the busker? (Sure, but don't monopolize their time; they're working, after all.) Should I applaud after a song? (Go ahead, if you liked it.) Can I take a photo? (Yes, but asking permission is nice, and tipping is even nicer.) Speaking of tipping, do I have to? (Well, no, but it'd be a lot cooler if you did.)
Jonny Hahn is one of the Market's stars. He's been playing for 27 years, wheeling his 64-key piano to the corner of Pine Street and Pike Place five days a week, sometimes six. He writes political songs and instrumentals, blending about every style of music there is into something truly original.
In recent years, he has noticed a change in the audience that listens to him while they enjoy the yummy smells wafting from the Cinnamon Works bakery next door.
"Since the explosion of the digital paradigm and reality TV, there has been a dramatic shift in the collective attention span in society," he says. "It just seems to take more to compel people to be interested."
And don't even get him started on cellphone cameras.
"Because everybody has a camera phone now, the most minute thing is something to take a picture of and post on their Facebook page," he says.
Hahn thinks taking photos has diminished the relationship between busker and audience, dehumanizing the connection. Now, he says, he's just another object to be photographed.
NOT ALL OF the action is at Pike Place Market. Buskers play at farmers markets, near the city's universities and colleges, in front of upscale grocery stores, downtown, in Ballard and Fremont, Ravenna and Capitol Hill. Even in the suburbs.
Festivals like Folklife and Bumbershoot give buskers a chance to play for huge crowds.
Artis the Spoonman, who has been busking in Seattle and all over the world for 40 years, played at Folklife this spring. It was a rare stage set for Artis, who combined philosophy, poetry, original songs and a little spoon playing in an entertaining half-hour show, performing as Toothless Jake.
Afterward, he shook hands with fans, hugged old friends, sold CDs, DVDs. And talked busking.
Artis, now 64 and living in Port Townsend, used to play 300 shows annually but estimates he's done fewer than 20 in the past year. He's played with Aerosmith, Frank Zappa, the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and, of course, Soundgarden, which immortalized him in the 1994 song "Spoonman."
"I've had some sweet gigs, but a lot of them didn't pay," he says.
What did pay — sometimes well, usually not — was busking.
"It's probably the most difficult form of entertainment there is," he says. "To be successful, you've got to entertain people. It doesn't matter what you're doing; I played spoons and got away with it."
Artis says there have been more $100 tips than he can remember, and a fan gave him $2,000 once at the Oregon Country Fair. But days like that were the exception. He says he lived outside for 20 years.
As Artis tells stories, buskers nearby carry on the tradition. Magicians. Jugglers. Mimes. Bluegrass pickers and tuba players.
Says Artis, "It's the purest, most honorable form of music there is."
SEATTLE'S STREET performers owe a debt to Jim Page, the godfather of Seattle busking, a 63-year-old troubadour and political activist who fought City Hall and won in 1974.
Page, who had moved to Seattle from California three years earlier, was strumming his guitar and singing near the Market when a motorcycle cop told him to stop playing.
"He asked me if I had a permit," Page recalls. "I said I didn't. He told me I couldn't play unless I had one. I told him I'd get one.
"He said, 'You can't, you're not blind,' and rode off."
Buskers had been working the Market since the 1960s, but not without being hassled. According to Seattle law at the time, you couldn't busk if you didn't have a permit. And you couldn't get a permit unless you were handicapped.
Page stirred up media interest and took his case to the City Council and the mayor. After talking his way onto the agenda for a council meeting, he plastered posters around town advertising a free Jim Page concert at City Hall. He sang his protest at a packed council meeting, a song he wrote for the occasion titled "Now's the Time For Talking," and persuaded the city to change the law. Buskers were free to busk. Later, the Market developed its system of permits and rules.
(Another legal battle was fought at Seattle Center, where the city claimed buskers were vendors and couldn't play without permits. Balloon artist "Magic Mike" Berger eventually won that lengthy case, in 2009, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city's attempts to regulate buskers at the Center violated free speech and were unconstitutional. Buskers can play at Seattle Center, but cannot sell products.)
Page doesn't play the Market much now, preferring festivals, coffee shops and farmers markets. But he has a performer's permit again this year and was at a spot on the street recently, expertly playing his Martin guitar, singing his original songs.
Between singing and greeting fans, Page described a busker's role at the Market, working with store owners and vendors, trying to draw a crowd but not stopping traffic, being a good neighbor, avoiding doorways.
"That's part of the adventure of busking, living in the cracks," he says. "But there's beauty in the cracks. There are beautiful places to celebrate. You can make theater out of the cracks."
Page offers this advice for young buskers, in kind of a Woody Guthrie meets Mr. Miyagi style:
"Don't expect too much, but don't expect too little. It is what it is, it will do what it will do."
He says there will be days you'll make $100, other days you'll make nothing.
"These people are passing by in the middle of their lives, and they didn't expect you to be there," he says. "Don't take anything personally. And don't do it for the money."
SO HOW DID Kate, our rookie busker, do at Folklife?
She played like you'd expect a nervous 9-year-old to play, missing a few notes here and there. But she gained confidence and seemed to enjoy the experience. She thanked those who contributed a total of $16.32 during her 45-minute set.
Really, I thought it went pretty well. I might be biased, though, being her dad.
I asked her, as she packed up, what she thought of busking.
"It's fun," she said. "And scary."
Yeah, that's about the size of it. Let's go get an elephant ear.
Bill Reader is The Seattle Times deputy sports editor. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.