Busking As A Revolutionary Act

Hey gang! I wrote a little article for my friends zine, but here’s an internet version!

Busking as a Revolutionary Act

Playing music has been my primary source of income for the past 18 months. Whether it was in my “home” city of Pittsburgh or traveling, with a band or on my own, on a planned tour or just romping around the country, busking has made me my bread. This is not because I’m skilled to a level that ranks me as a “professional musician”, but more so a willingness to live a lifestyle of “professional bum”. What sustains my human needs more than music are other arguably revolutionary acts, such as dumpster diving, shop lifting, gas jugging, and most of all the profound kindness and altruism of friends and strangers alike. When it comes to providing a service for cold cash, though, an open banjo case on the sidewalk has been my main direct deposit. As far as jobs go, this is a pretty good gig. I’ve traveled around the country, made friends, fell in love, and gained some great stories to tell, all supported by music.

Playing music is one of my favorite parts of being alive, and it can provide a viable income for me. When the desire for commodity goods is out of mind, just being able to make it to the next town, eat, drink, and keep playing is enough for my travel partners and I. Bringing your music to the streets in a literal sense is also a great form of promotion. If you happen to tour with a band, city to city, setting up on the side of the road can bring your band’s music to a much wider and more varied audience. If someone seems interested, and you can tell them about the show in town that night, or offer them a link to your music available online for free. Additionally, when traveling, busking is an ideal way to meet likeminded travelers or street musicians. Having only music in common, I’ve made countless friends across the nation. These friendships form a web of performers, a community of Do-It-Yourself spirited artists wide spread.

Busking also opens an opportunity to present a certain set of ideals to people who would have otherwise never been exposed to them. “Street” culture has the potential to be one of  undermining harmful structures, a revolutionary ideology. Most of the people who toss a dollar in our case would never dream of coming to a punk show, reading a zine, informing themselves about “anti-establishment” ideas, or consider themselves remotely associated with “anarchism”. Through busking, we are placing a certain lifestyle that questions social norms right into the vision of the mass public, bringing it to their attention without their expecting it. Most of the songs we sing on the street are explicitly lyrically anti-capitalist / anti-government / anti-police / anti-money

Your average person walking down the street tends to like the music we are playing, though they would not consciously express themselves to be aligned with the ideas we’re screaming about. Some folks ask where we’re from, some throw a dollar in and move on, some take pictures, some sneer, some heckle, some buy us beer and offer a place to stay the night. Sometimes the police approach and ask “Who’s in charge here?” to which we respond by looking around and responding, “That’s not how this works.”

Regardless of the reaction, we are engaging the public. Sometimes we can relate to total strangers in an instant. Sometimes people scream at us to get a job. Some people laugh, some people smile. I embrace it all, because it’s creating a conversation that wouldn’t have existed before. In certain environments, especially ones with a lot of alcohol

, there’s a possibility of being treated like a circus while street performing. Some people don’t give a shit what you have to say, they see an instrument in your hand, and you become less than human to them. You are there to dance to amuse them. We’ve been screamed at to play Mumford and Sons more times than I can count. It can hurt when someone dangles a $20 bill over your case and tells you to play Wagon Wheel and you grit your teeth and do it because you want that kickdown.

I’ve instilled a rule, however, that my friend Josie brought to my attention. I never want busking to feel like a job. If I catch myself forcing it, I will stop playing. I never want the same chemicals in my brain to associate playing music with the same ones that were firing off when I was stocking shelves at a grocery store three years ago. I am a cis, white, 22 year old male in America, I will be just fine without that $20 bill.

I do realize and acknowledge that my privilege allows me a much bigger opportunity to live this lifestyle than others would have. It’s easy to survive, not get hassled too badly by the cops, and get sympathy from strangers when you’re in my shoes. What I’m attempting, however, is to do what feels right with the privilege that I have.

What feels right is having fun. I’ve been given the opportunity to present a certain philosophy and live a lifestyle that can undermine structures that I find harmful and empower communities that I find important, while having a damn good time. That is an opportunity I will take hold of and see where it takes me. I can do what I love, be dirty, eat trash, and have so much fun. Fun can be a strong form of rebellion.

Sometimes when business folks walk by in their expensive suits with their $100 haircuts, they look down on us buskers with pity, and we look right back at them with the same feeling. Sometimes someone walks by and watches a song and smiles and says, “you just made my day,” and that is truly revolutionary.

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Oops! I Forgot I Had a WordPress

Hello friends and family. I haven’t posted here in a very long while. However, I’ve got a bunch of new stuff to share.

First of all, I updated the Poetry section of this dear website. I’ve added seven new poems, so check them out if you’re into that sort of thing.

Also, I’ve released another album, and went on tour with my friend and travel companion Chris

Check that album out, and download it here:

This album and tour led to the new musical project that I’ve started with Chris, called Cousin Boneless. Check out the facebook, and look for some new recorded music coming up soon!

I’ll be traveling and romping around the country for a little while, so I won’t be able to access or add to this blog too frequently, but I’ll try to stop in and let the internet world know what I’ve been up to.

I’ll leave you with a new poem. Enjoy:

 

Petty Revolution

 

I’m not sure if I love too much

or hate too much

Care too much

or don’t give two fucks

Stuck in the muck

of this infrastructure

Trapped in a bubble

that I cannot puncture

I’m a punk or a drunk

or a brilliant conductor

depending who you ask

but either way they’re wrong

 

I leave behind scraps

of discarded poetry

in hopes that one day

you’ll find them and know it’s me

Trying to tell you something

that I can’t quite speak

Trying to preach something

I can’t quite conceive

 

There’s a false notion of emotion

when I claim such strict devotion

to a cause that I contradict every day

But it’s easy to justify

by shouting someone else’s line

and tagging a bathroom stall

with an Anarchy sign

New Poem

My roommate gave me a prompt to write a poem from the perspective of a building, and describe the people this was the result:

 

You people are mean to me.

You say I block the scenery.

 

You hold up signs,

cry and whine

as if I’m the one who signed up for this.

 

You’re the ones who built me.

Now you want to guilt me?

 

You think these great fires

will inspire some sympathy?

 

Don’t mock me, don’t try and shock me

with your SWAT teams.

 

Let us not forget who commit to this city.

 

You people are all alike.

You’re all so confused.

 

You’re indifferent and amused

with the abuse you use

to ruin

and then turn around all

frowns and moans to the

creature you’ve nurtured since birth.

 

Now your city is sick and aflame.

Everyone tries to point and blame,

oh, you’re all the same.

 

You claim intelligence, the top of the chain,

then destroy for the hell of it.

 

You were only a faze

and now your blank gaze watches the blaze.

 

Now I stand alone

like a concrete thrown

with no peasants or kings

left to dance about.

You started a fire

and stamped yourself out.

My Experience (Thus Far) in the Pittsburgh D.I.Y. Music Scene

When I moved here, I (pretty much) didn’t know a soul. I transferred colleges to come live in the big city. It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t trapped in the confines of a small and simple suburban town. Now, only one year later I am overjoyed to say that I have numerous, meaningful friendships. Not only have I made a lot of friends, but together we have created and been involved in projects and creative endeavors I could not have imagined this time last year. I’ve met people in the last 12 months that have undoubtedly effected my destiny, and they will forever remain in my memory as the ones responsible for the greatest time in my life (so far).

The reason this chapter in my continuing storybook topples all others, and much of the reason I’ve befriended many good folks, is because of music. That’s a very broad statement, and I might do well in narrowing it down a bit. The Do It Yourself music scene in this Pittsburgh is thriving. It is because of this fact that I’m having such a damn good time.

For those unfamiliar with “Do It Yourself music”, don’t fret. It’s quite easy to understand. D.I.Y. scenes accomplish all of the musical experience (from recording, to venues and lives shows, to touring, booking and promoting, etc.) without all of the undesirable/red tape/pen-and-paper-contract/suits-and-ties/bullshit. It is music for music’s sake, and everyone is on the same team, and everyone helps each other. Instead of big dollar signs motivating the movement, friendship runs this scene. I don’t confine this definition to Pittsburgh’s territory either. From all corners of the map, touring acts come through. Bands play shows in hopes of their music being heard by fresh ears. Bands play in hopes of putting on a good show, so they might sell some merch and create a fan base. Bands play in hopes of having a fun time, because what else is there? Instead of a backstage, there is a living room. Instead of fat paychecks, there are favors and returned favors. Generally, a “Pay What You Can” system is in place, so if you have money to donate to touring acts, it is expected. If you don’t have spare cash, though, you will not be turned away.  I don’t think it takes much explanation to understand that this ideology towards music, or any organization of creative culture, is more authentic, intimate, and desirable than huge corporate-funded concerts in corporate sponsored super-domes.

I’ve been to quite a number of concerts for someone of my age. My Uncle Mike would take me to see our favorite bands since I was in 4th grade. Ever since, I’ve been enamored with live music of any kind. Most of these experiences, however, were at big corporate sponsored venues like the ones I’ve just described. That’s not to say I’ve never spent any time out of the nose-bleed section — I’ve been an intimate lover of the mosh pit for quite some time. But, never before has there been a prominent local music scene in my life is what I’m getting at. Our local library in my hometown hosted a few shows but was eventually made to stop after noise complaints.

I’ve also always been a fan of punk rock. It is my favorite music to see live. That is how punk rock is meant to be enjoyed, live and raw. I’ve had some of the great times seeing NOFX or The Queers or Anti-Flag (and so on) at medium sized venues. However, in the same way that food tastes best when prepared with love by Grandma, Punk Rock is meant to be experienced in close quarters, in a dingy basement. You should come out the show slightly inured, ears ringing, smelling of cheap beer and sweat. Ahh, I thrive off of that feeling. It doesn’t matter if equipment falters or notes are missed. It is about the personal and visceral experience.

Now, enough set-up. Let us go back to page one of this chapter; follow me on my journey, starting with my very first house show. It was about this time last year, on a fateful night in Pittsburgh. A buddy invited me to a party, and said there’d be some bands playing, but I didn’t know much more than that. Some familiar faces were there, a long with many new ones. We mingled around the party until the bands were set up.

The two bands on the bill that night were Dad’s Makin’ Out, and Strudel and Krumpet.  I was not really prepared for what was about to happen. They played raw, real, punk music, in just the style I like it. The crowd moved, sang along, threw each other around. It was intimate, it was punk, it was sweaty, and it was FUN. That night I had my very first taste of a house show. A punk house show. A Pittsburgh punk house show. I was left drooling, and my appetite only grew from there. My love and appreciation for live music had reached a new level. I had, at that moment, realized my all time favorite way to experience music.

I went to a few more house shows that semester, trying to keep my ear to the ground, but the summer came sooner than expected and I returned to the quiet hometown for a final three month period. In terms of creative culture of any kind, the summer was lackluster, but it was enjoyable in terms of fresh air and lack of city bustle. My good friend (and future roommate) Brendan gave me his guitar over the break, and I started messing with a few chords. This became the concentration over the summer. By the end I had written eight original songs. Before returning to the city in the Fall, I played an intimate set in a friend’s basement, in the house that hosted most of that summer’s get togethers. All of my hometown buddies were there, and it was a very nice farewell before I moved to Pittsburgh with more permanence.

Returning to Pittsburgh, I was a college drop out, but had found a place to call home in the South Side Slopes. A great group of friends and I rented a house together. This has been an important transition and a landmark in my life, that I’ve touched on in writing of the past. Right away, we had talked about hosting shows, playing music, and fostering a creative community of some type. I was also hopeful to start playing my solo musical project from the summer around the city. After being away from a music scene for a long summer, I was eager to go out and start seeing more shows. I’m not sure if it was because my eyes had finally been opened up to it, or because the scene picked up in full swing over summer, but it seemed like the scene was jolted alive, and there was a sudden rush of life in Pittsburgh. There were shows nearly every night, either at someone’s house or a D.I.Y. venue. I started to become familiar with each venue, each with their own unique touch and feeling. 222 hosted a lot of the bigger named acts that came through town, like Bomb the Music Industry!, Paul Beribeau and Dads. The Vatican’t is an incredibly accessible house venue with some of the friendliest and easy going people as hosts. Roboto always has cool art exhibits in the front room, (and Spak is right across the street). These are only a few of the hosting venues of the ever expanding list of amazing shows I’ve been to in the last few months.

After a relatively short amount of time, I felt I’d become good chums with the crew that hosted/supported/frequented/and head bobbed at these shows. Everyone is an equal and everyone is your friend is this environment. The crowd that such a lovely scene brings is very accepting and fun to be around. The “ scene snobbishness” or “pretentious” attitude that is some times associated with “rock-n-rollers” and their “cliques” is completely debunked here, at least from what I’ve experienced. Not to mention, all of these new people I was meeting and befriending were very talented, musically or otherwise. Many of them I only talked to after I’d seen them perform.

That is, after all, what it is all about and on top of all this exciting other stuff in my life I was (and continue to be) exposed to new music, either local our touring.  Entire genres and sub-genres were introduced to me. People were doing things, musically, that I didn’t realize could be done. It is almost difficult to take in the amount of talent and creativity that is playing out right in front of me. To people who have grown up around a music scene, I may come off as childishly giddy. Understand, though, that I’ve never been a part of something so continually stimulating, exciting, and FUN. So yes, I am childishly giddy.

After expressing to some people that I wanted to start hosting shows at my house, or play my music at these shows I was frequently going to, nearly everyone pointed me in the direction of Dylan Bahney. I saw Unraveler play, and we chatted a few times and were instantly buddies. I don’t want to meet the person who could dislike Dylan. Right away Dylan helped me out in putting together a show at my house, and he continues to help me (without exaggeration) live out my dreams.

When I was told about the line up at our first house show, I was pleasantly surprised that Matt Pless would be playing. I saw Matt open for Ramshackle Glory over the summer, and admired his music. Now, a musician who was frequently played on my ipod would be playing the maiden show at our humble abode.

When the night came, we all prepared and set up. The weather gave us a little trouble (as it always seems to do) but overall it was a good turn out, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Hanging out with Matt before was a fun time, and after the show we had a nice little fire in the back yard. We all passed the guitar around and played songs and I made for a kind of “pinch yourself” moment. I feel like I’ve had a lot of those recently.

We’ve continued to have shows here, and more and more people are finding out about the space. Though it may be slightly biased, I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, and people seem to be having fun at our place, which is all I care about. We’ve had a few incidents here and there with drunkenness and the neighbors and such, but everything has gone pretty smoothly so far (I’m knocking on wood, don’t worry).

Each show brings something new. A new crowd, new music, new friends. Like I said, those “pinch yourself” moments have been coming more and more frequently. I come to reality sometimes, finding myself watching ever-talented people play amazing music that I’m hearing for the first time in my own basement, surrounded by good friends or people who I may have just met but I know will be friends in the future. It is amazing. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself that it’s real, it’s happening now, and it won’t be happening forever.

Whether it is totally new names like Soul Low or the Disappearing Man introducing sweet new music to my ear-holes, dance fests with Happy Lives, Endless Mike playing songs everyone can sing along to, or local punk sweat fests (a repeat of that fateful 1st house show) with Dad’s Makin’ Out and Strudel and Krumpet, they’ve all happened at my house. And we’re just getting started.

I’m just now beginning to understand the magical journey that is the D.I.Y. music scene. We’re stealing the rule book of how music communities, venues, and tours are put together, and burning it.  Although I might not have any experience elsewhere, I think Pittsburgh knows how to have a good time. I can feel something serious building in this city. Anyone who has seen the scene recently can agree that something special is happening in Pittsburgh right now, and I’m living it.