The Adventures Of A Street Musician Part 1"Read Adventures Of A Street Musician Part 2"
by Mickie Zekley © 19951h>
Excerpts from a work in progress. Some parts are completed, some mere sketches. All taken from life. Enjoy the madness of it all!
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"HEY KID DO YOU WANT
When I became 15 years of age I convinced my mom into taking me to Sears Roebucks to buy my first $14.99 guitar, a Silvertone special. Tujunga (my hometown) had one music store with one teacher. I was very excited about learning guitar and signed up for guitar lessons. It was a disappointment to find out that Mr. Myron the teacher couldn't play guitar. He expected me to learn by propping a beginning Mel Bay guitar book on a music stand, telling me to follow the instructions then banging chords out on the piano for me to follow. After 2 lessons I quit and started studying on my own by listening to records and trying to imitate the guitar parts.
TO PLAY THE GUITAR?"
When I was 16 I started teaching guitar. By the time I turned 18 I had 48 students a week and was making great money for a teenager. I spent many nights every week at the Ashgrove, the Garrett, and The Fifth Estate (all noted folk clubs) listening and jamming with many great musicians. I was very lucky to have had the experience of close exposure to David Cohen, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Mance Lipscomb, Sëamus Ennis, Jack Elliott, Canned Heat and many others.
I discovered Irish music when I went to see Rambling Jack Elliott at the Ash Grove. I had never heard of Sëamus Ennis who was the opening act for Ramblin' Jack. Sëamus was supposed to play the Irish Uilleann bagpipes but had a bit to much whiskey and could only manage to play a few tunes on the tinwhistle and sing a few songs. I thought that was amusing but the Irish music didn't truly win my heart till I heard Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan many years later.
Mc Cabes Guitar Shop was located in the front room of the Ashgrove in those days. I always admired the fine old instruments that they had hanging on the wall. One night I noticed a long necked strange looking instrument with a gourd at the base. It turned out to be a Sitar. I thought that it was the greatest thing that I had ever seen.
After much searching around I found Jan Steward who had just brought Ravi Shanker to the United States for the first time. She started giving me some basic instruction on the Sitar that I had just acquired. A great Sitar player Hari Har Rao moved to the States and I studied with him. Finally when I was 19 Ravi Shanker opened his school Kinnara and I became an avid student. I developed a holy admiration for my musical guru.
I was finally invited to Ravi Shanker's home for a reception, I was very nervous about this. A friend sewed me a beautiful Kurta made of the finest unbleached handwoven cloth with intricate appliquéed designs in hand dyed colors to wear this important event. I had great expectations. The reception was held at the masters home in a fancy section of Los Angeles. I walked in to my masters living room only to find him watching baseball and eating and drinking appropriately for this activity with Alla Rahaka and Nodu Mullakh by his side on the couch. At that moment my fantasies were shattered, that my guru was human too. So much for incense and false idols.
"KING OF THE HIPPIES"
The Elysian Park Love-In was quite an event. I played sitar on stage wearing my bejeweled velvet magicians robe just before Jim Morrison and the Doors did their most famous performance. Parachuting hippies, half naked barbarian women in leather, patchouli, incense, peace symbols, beards, long hair, the dusky odor of pot. I was playing guitar and sitar at another Love-In wearing my velvet robe once again and was photographed by a newspaper reporter only to find myself on the front page of the morning paper with the caption "King Of The Hippies". All of a sudden many of the mothers of of my 46 guitar students called with one excuse or another quitting lessons but obviously they did not want the "King Of The Hippies" teaching their kids guitar.
"THE HOG FARM BLUES"
I had a small cabin up a dusty dirt road across the wash and river in Doan Canyon adjoining the Angeles Forest next to Claude Doty' hog farm (yes he actually raised hogs). A group of interesting musicians, artists and wackos rented the mountain top farm from Claude and started the infamous Hog Farm Commune. The royal couple of this marvelous land were Hugh Romney (now Wavy Gravy) and his consort Bonnie. I would go the Farm when ever I could to play music with the diverse and interesting inhabitants. Almost every rock and roller of the late 60s was there one time or another. From the Electric Flag to Mike Bloomfield to Tiny Tim wandering around the hills singing to his gramophone, nestled in his arms. There was always a musical adventure to be had. One morning I slept out on the top of the mountain with a beautiful lady that enchanted me the night before. It was dawn and I was stretching and looking down the hill at the farm house and was amazed to see Paul Foster wearing top hat and tails with ice skates, literally flying through the screen door and into space, taking screen and all with him, sailing off what used to be the back porch before the porch was removed. Ah! one of the many interesting sights at the Hog Farm.
When I was 18 years of age and Charley Chapman and I took to haunting the pawn shops of Old Town Pasadena trying to find old musical instruments. On one of our old banjo safaris I found a new shop. The sign read "The Catacombs" with an arrow pointing down a flight of stairs going to a basement. We walked down only to be greeted by the walls moving in undulating colors. My friend wanted to leave but I wanted to see what this weirdness was all about. He went to the car and waited.
I found Dr. Henry Hill who had just invented the light show that morning at this unusual shop. I met the proprietor Robert Thomas who was to be my mentor for many years to come.
I had been playing folk music on the guitar for a few years but my knowledge of music was very limited. In Bob's office at the Catacombs were all manner of antique flutes, strange stringed instruments, bagpipes, unusual ethnic drums and much more. Bob had taken on the project of researching and restoring all of these and even more amazing learning to play them all in their traditional style. Bob would take some of his antique instruments to the newly formed Renaissance Faire which was a benefit for the non-profit radio station KPFK. Bob would take an ancient set of bagpipes or a lute out to the Faire, dress up in Elizabethan costume and charm everyone.
I started taking my guitar to the Faire and playing for a few coins in the hat or a plate of fried chicken from a food booth. Bob and I started getting together and playing and I started to learn some of his wonderful music. A young couple, Ernest & Deborah Fischbach were making music at the Faire also with their friend Charles Ewing. They called themselves the A Cid Symphony.
"FAME & FORTUNE"
Lonnie Smith was a great singer. I adored the rich quality of her hearty voice. We spent many months writing songs together. She would write the lyrics and I would fit a folk/jazz melody and guitar accompaniment to it.
We decided that we would "make it" and found a bass player and drummer and put our band together. It was time for our big audition at the Troubadour for Metromedia Records. We looked good and sounded great we were sure that we were just what they wanted. The producer loved us and we felt that we were on our way to the bigtime.
Lonnie and I were called to a meeting with the record company big boys. They told us that they loved our music and wanted to promote us. The only problem was that they wanted us to dress in silly outfits, change the lyrics and the music of our songs, whitewash the band and sign a contract of indentured servitude. I turned 20 years of age and it was good-bye, slimy recording deals, good-bye rock band and good bye LA forever. Go North young man to the green fields, forests and adventures of your dreams.
"DON'T BE LATE FOR SCHOOL"
To become a musician one of course has to go to music school. I rented a shack in the beautiful Valley Of The Moon and prepared for the start of classes at Sonoma State University. I was delighted to find Ethnomusicology classes on Asian music being offered. As it turned out the instructor was not that familiar with Asian music. I ended up giving many of the lectures and helped him prepare most of the curriculum for the course. I became bored quickly and wanted a new experience. It became quite clear that being a music student had nothing to do with playing music. I made a deal to be a full time street musician for a semesters worth of credit if I would write a paper about my experiences. My new career was launched.
The common practice in older times of entertaining in a public place with the hope of donations from the impromptu and hopefully generous audience.
(The Ancient Art Of Street Entertainment)
"WHERE DID THE ESPRESSO GO?"
Joe Moir went on his first busking expedition with the Golden Toad. We decided to haunt the street corners of North Beach with our bagpipes, drums and a belly dancer for a little color. After many hard hours of busking for large crowds of tourists and convincing them that it would give them "Good Karma" if only they would fill our hat with money, we ended up at the Cafe Trieste, a safe harbor of culture, espresso and pastries.
Joe is one of the slowest and inattentive eaters that was ever born. It's amazing that he doesn't starve to death while eating dinner. We were all sitting around and enjoying our meal. Joe was very excited and barely touched his food and was excitedly talking to everyone. Bob Thomas was seated on his left and Elliott Gould on his right. Joe was steeped in a deep and lengthily conversation about the virtues of Bulgarian bagpipes with Bob. Finally he went to take a bite and brought his fork down to an empty plate. While he was gabbing Elliott ate all the food off his plate.
When Joe would come on further Golden Toad adventures he would still eat slowly and not pay attention to his meal but would always sit with both arms wrapped around his plate to fend off the carnivorous hordes.
"DON'T PEE ON THE ALTER"
Grace Cathedral is a noble structure residing high atop Nob Hill. Some how Bill Gilkerson convinced the Bishop to allow our raggle taggle band of street Gypsies to do a performance using the Cathedral as our forum. This was my first performance with the Golden Toad. The show was a costumed extravaganza of music, dance, story and magic from many exotic places. Our mottoes were "We perform the music of your ancestors no matter where they were from." and "Style not quality".
The only limits that were given by the church in the use of the facility were that no one was allowed to pee on the alter. As a publicity stunt Bill put up his hot air balloon in the parking lot of the church and unsuccessfully tried to get the Bishop to go up in it.
The show was magnificent! The lights went out and twelve robed and hooded monks carrying large racks of elk horns materialized to the throbbing boom of Deborah's bass drum and the ancient sound of the Abbot Bromley's Horn Dance being played by Cathie Whitesides on the fiddle with light provided by eight hooded torch bearers.
Torchy our fire eater and magician after putting flaming torches in his mouth would fill his mouth with white gas and blow it out across a lighted torch. This would send a fireball out into space. He managed to mildly set the first 4 rows of audience on fire when blowing this giant fire ball.
The whole troop of 42 Toads gathered together to close the evening with our Tibetan ritual orchestra. Joe and Bob Playing the 6' long Tibetan Horn (Dong) and Bob changing to the eerie Tibetan shawm to the accompaniment of drums, bells, Kangling horns
It was my first Dickensian Christmas. Cait and I signed on at the brand new "Charles Dickens Christmas Faire" to exhibit (and hopefully sell) the stained glass trinkets that we made. We were also hired to play music with the Golden Toad now in the form of "The New Bristol Ceili Band". Bob Thomas saw a picture in an old book c1880 of the original "Bristol Ceili Band" so we outfitted ourselves with costumes and instruments to match. Top hats and tails were the order of the day. Bagpipes, clarinets, fiddles, fife and of course drummers made for a raucous sound.
Our first objective was to find lodging in San Francisco for one month. The logical place for a cheap room in those days was Haight Ashbury. We walked South up Clayton street from Panhandle Park and found a sign, "Room for rent. No dog, No crow, No Horn". We figured that the bagpipes weren't a horn and rented it. We didn't realize that the room came with built in roommates until we turned the kitchen light on the middle of the night to see the new cockroach wallpaper disappear back into the wall.
The Dickens Faire provided more great adventures than business. It was as if there was a quarantine sign on the front door of the event because no one came. We all had a great time selling to the other craftsman and playing music for ourselves.
Cait's clothes had reached the stage of being rags. She desperately needed some new warm clothes. About a year earlier we found a Turkish import store and had purchased many Turkish drums (dumbeks) at a very good price. When people from our audiences would ask "where did you get those beautiful drums" we would say "I would be glad to sell you this one". They were a good seller and we made a good profit. It was time for another drum so off to the import store we went.
The shop owner was unpacking a new shipment direct from Turkey including some beautiful white sherling sheepskin coats. Cait instantly fell in love with the coats. I asked Myra how much she would sell a coat to one of her " very good customers". She said that business had been slow and that she would be delighted to sell us a coat for $40. What a great deal!
Next stop North Beach to buy Cait a warm blouse. While she was looking at clothes I noticed the store keeper admiring her new coat. I struck up a conversation and asked him if he wanted to buy a coat. I quoted him $80 and he said that he wanted to buy three. One quick trip across town for some more coats and we made $120 (a blessing because we were broke). We went back to the import store and bought more coats with our profits and made even more money selling them to our friends at the Faire. It was just before Christmas and we started selling coats on the street in the morning before the Faire opened.
Then disaster struck, our importer friend ran out of coats. We were very disappointed because we were making (in our minds) a fortune. She showed us some beautiful handloomed, hand embroidered clothes that she also had brought back from Turkey. So we took some around to the stores that bought our coats and to the Faire and back to the good old street. The clothing turned out to be more popular than the coats. Through this chance event we finally had plenty of money and a new career to boot.
A few months prior to the Faire we had Elliott (the Golden Toad's drummer who Will Spires once said in frustration to "Is a barnacle a ship. Is a drummer a musician." and his dancer wife Leslie over for dinner. Cait had baked a beautiful chocolate cake for a party the next day. Elliott sat next to the cake and kept running his finger through the frosting and licking his fingers. I asked him to stop many times because he was ruining the cake. Eventually my patience ran out and I picked up the cake and smashed it into Elliott's face. Elliott said "Zekley I'll get you someday when you least expect it".
We were still performing at "Dickinsian Madness" and I was in my usual attire of top hat and tails. We had just finished a tune when someone in the band asked if they could see my fife when the world went chocolate creme. There I was dressed in my best, on stage and covered with (quite good) chocolate creme pie.
years after the first "Dick" we were having a Golden Toad concert at the beautiful Presbyterian church in Mendocino. We were all encamped at Bill Gilkerson and Kerstin's "Swedish Paradise" an idyllic hideaway in the primeval northwestern redwood rainforest. Lory Stark (Gilkerson's delightful ex-wife) our combination Belly Dancer and Opera Singer got up very early the morning of the show and set to work giggling and making the 2 most beautiful pies ever created. Both Bill and John Patterson (our ballet dancer) had been a bit hard to deal with miserable company for a few days, we all felt like burying them in an anthill.
It was getting near showtime and we were next-door to the church getting ready when Lory let Bill and John each have a pie in the face. The rest of us got secondary fallout when they threw the pie scraps at us.
Joe Moir a rather (we thought) straight woodwind and brass repairman from Santa Rosa had been recruited to play clarinet with the band. Joe lived in a 1930's bungalow with his wife and 2 children and assorted broken antique cars and tubas. Joe had halfway run off with the "Gypsies" (us) and was devoting more energy to learning the Bulgarian Gaida (bagpipe) and playing with the Golden Toad than his normal existence of playing oboe and clarinet with the Santa Rosa Symphony and fixing instruments. Joe got a beautiful Gaida but the goatskin bag had worn out and was leaky. He decided to make his own new bag in the traditional manner. He cured a goat hide in rock salt in his garage. This Gaida had a beautiful carving of a goat's head on the chanter stock. Joe tied the bag on with the hair on the outside. He didn't do a good job of curing the hide and when he played it, it really looked and stank like a rancid billy goat under his arm. We all called it Hairy Gaida made by "The Park Your Carcass Bagpipe Works".
Every year Joe would go with his wife and kids to Christmas dinner at his in-laws. Inevitably his father in-law would ask him to play some Christmas music. Joe would take out his beautiful 18th century boxwood clarinet and play some Mozart or some old Christmas favorites. The whole family was seated around the table for dinner and the patriarch asked Joe for the traditional music but this year Joe took out the love of his life Hairy Gaida, blew it up and held forth. Joe's sister in-law smelled the stench of the dead goat and realized that Joe was blowing into it complete with its carved head and bleating sound and impromptly threw up all over the Christmas turkey. When I heard this story I thought that Joe's domestic life might be on shaky ground
Marcia was staying with us in Cockroach Heaven for a few days when out of the blue she said that she wanted to call Joe (who she just met) and ask if she could be his apprentice instrument repair person and if she could use our telephone to call him. She told him that she really wanted to learn his trade and would cook for him in exchange. After the phone call Marcia said that Joe sounded interested. She said jokingly that she they would have to get bunk beds.To everyone's surprise (including Marcia's) Joe arrived in 2 hours with suitcase in hand and talked Marcia into running off with him. Joe never went back to his family.
Many years later Cait, I, Bob Thomas, Jody Levy and the Notorious Joe and Marcia took a trip to Jody's father's vacation trailer at Lake Havasu. We stopped for breakfast at Sambo's. Bob asked if he could have his eggs poached but to make sure that they were not over or under done. Joe turned to us complaining how picky we were. Then he ordered telling the waitress that he wanted his pancakes teddy bear brown.
On arriving at Jody's dad's sheet metal chalet we found 3 bedrooms 2 with double beds one with bunkbeds. Remembering Marcia's statement years prior we made Joe and Marcia take the bunkbeds.
"THE DICKENS YOU SAY"
San Francisco's Christmas shopping season was in full swing and I was trying to make a living by playing the bagpipes on the street. The Charles Dickens Xmas Faire was being held at the Cannery and I got a hired as a piper. The gig consisted of playing bagpipe duets with George Dawson, accompanied by Cait Reed on the field drum, while standing on an old horse drawn dray wagon in front of the Faire to attract a crowd (the pipe music could be heard for at least 2 city blocks even with lots of traffic noise) and then to try to get the audience to come into the Faire.
We approached our performances a little differently than our employers intended. It was a fantastic opportunity for busking. Having our very own stage on Fisherman's wharf and being paid to panhandle the crowd was a miracle.
About the third day of the Faire the Proprietor, Ron Patterson came out front to see how his musical shills were doing, at the same moment that I was trying to convince the crowd to fill our hat with money. I glanced over to my right and saw Ron in his burgundy, Dickensian velvet suit and top hat rushing towards us. I instantly realized that "the jig was up".
The only thing I could think of was to quickly hand Ron the hat before he could say anything to stop us and loudly announce to the crowd of about 100 people that our friend was going to come around to collect donations. He looked at me in horror then looked at the crowd watching him, shrugged his shoulders and walked around passing our hat. It was obvious that he was very frustrated because we were emptying the crowds pockets before he got a chance to and worst of all that he was helping us.
A few days later George showed up late for a performance with yet another one of his incredible "you wouldn't believe what happened to me" tales. This time he supposedly was busking in full Highland regalia near the cable car turnaround at Powell & Market when his pipes stopped working. His only choice was to head to the local Scottish import store to get some new reeds. Before he could get through the front door of the shop a fellow in a fancy dress suit grabbed him by the arm and demanded that George play the pipes for him. George said that he couldn't play right now because his reed was broken. The fellow reached into his pocket and came out with a $100 bill, tore it in two, gave half to George, told him to blow up his pipes in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel at 10:00am the next morning and play the "Cock Of The North". The fellow then turned around and walked away before George could say a word.
George arrived at the Fairmont promptly at 10:00am and looking for the man that accosted him yesterday but he was no where in sight. Quite afraid of what might happen to him, George pulled out his pipes and blew them up. Within 10 seconds he was descended on by numerous bell captains and desk clerks trying to stop him from playing. Before they could silence the piper the mysterious gentleman arrived, and waved off the hotel staff who disappeared instantly. George played for an hour then was treated to 2 orders of Eggs Benedict and handed the other half of the $100 bill. Shortly thereafter George showed up late at the Faire with this (yet another) unbelievable story.
By the next day I forgot about George's story, which I felt was yet another figment of Georges fertile and amazing imagination. We were once again standing on the wagon trying to convince the crowd to pay the piper then maybe come into the Faire when a Chauffeured limousine pulled up in front of us. Out stepped George's mythical character with a package wrapped in beautiful Highland tartan material. He walked directly up to the wagon and handed it to George. Wrapped in the material was a beautiful "Brian Boru" keyed bagpipe chanter. Evidently George's benefactor went to the Scottish shop and asked what the piper wanted for Christmas. The man got back in his Limousine and drove off leaving Cait and I staring at each other in disbelief and George smirking.
A wealth of experiences can become yours by playing bagpipes on the street. It was a perfect day for Busking (the ancient art of turning music into gold) at the cable car turn around by the Cannery. A large crowd had gathered around me and a waterfall of coins were filling my hat. I noticed an orange robed, shaven-headed follower of Hare Krishna on the edge of my audience trying to sell incense and otherwise annoy my benefactors. My patience ended after he chased away half of the crowd I decided that it was time for action. I blew up the pipes and marched straight at him. When I got close he ran down the street and the crowd started to cheer. I chased him for two blocks while playing old war marchs.
Smoke Dawson was playing pipes in downtown San Francisco and thought that he had finally reached a new peak in his playing. The music was great. He played with his eyes closed and was sure that people were filling his hat with vast sums of money. When he ended his tune he opened his eyes just in time to see a gang of children running down the street and dropping coins that they liberated from his hat. He never played on the street with eyes closed again.
Bob Thomas and Don Brown were regulars on Telegraph avenue in Berkeley playing some type of bagpipe and Don's gigantic bass drum. One day they noticed a large crowd gathering and thought they could do very well busking the crowd. Bob tuned his pipes and they proceeded towards the crowd only to be tear-gassed during this free speech movement rally. Don made quite a sight running down the street with his bass drum.
I was busking at the Cannery as a bagpipe duo with Lisa Emmons, alias "Delicia Toad Feathers" the delightful and diminuitive 4'8" lady bagpiper. An annoying young man started to try and get Lisa's attention and flirt with her while she was playing. When she wouldn't stop and acknowledge him he kept on hasseling her and eventually reached out to touch her bagpipes. Lisa and I were playing a sprightly duet of the Rakes Of Mallow at that moment and without missing a beat she kicked him squarley in the shins and layed him flat out rolling on the ground without missing a beat and went on playing.
Us Toadies were the first real Buskers on the streets of San Francisco in modern times. One of my favorite places to busk with the bagpipes was across the street from Ghiradelli Square. It was great fun! Large crowds would gather, fill my hat and dance all along the sidewalk. It felt good to bring a little magic into their lives (and mine too).
Some months after I had been using this area as my stage various craftspeople started to bring their trinkets around and tried to sell them to my crowd and did very well.
Many years later I went back to play on the same street on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The sidewalk was covered with a solid row of crafts booths. It was hard to find a place to play. I finally found my spot and blew up the pipes for "old times sake" but was immediately descended upon by an irate "craftsperson" (he was selling plastic earrings direct from Korea) and told to stop playing because I was ruining his business. So much for sentimentality.
Lark Camp A Celebration Of World Music And Dance
Mickie & Elizabeth Performance Webpage
Zekley Family Band Performance Webpage
Mendocino English Country Dance Webpage
© 1995 Mickie Zekley