Busking—or performing for spare change—is a tradition that dates back to the Roman empire. Today, the Bay Area is bustling with buskers who sport a variety of acts. The Beats and Measures crew will follow some of the Bay Area's most prolific buskers as they traipse the streets and subways in search of the ideal audience: one that pays...
Tamera Chance plays guitar in a San Francisco subway station. Chance has lived off of busking for years, playing BART stations and street corners around the San Francisco peninsula. Photo by Brian Howey.
(We've made a point to make transcripts as accurate to the episodes as possible, nonetheless, transcripts may contain errors.)
Beats and Measures S01E02:
“San Francisco Buskers”
[Beats and Measures signature sound collage]
Brian From Studio to Be…
Chloe This is Beats and Measures
[sound of record needle setting down]
Chapter 1: The music underground...literally
[fade in from record needle: Bart train passes, station announcements sound.]
[Song: The Dance by Adley Penner]
Tamara Chance I started busking-- Jesus, probably about 3 years ago maybe.
Billy Banks When did I start busking? Shit man. 2006.
Tamera I had some unemployment time coming.
Dewayne Oakley It was hard to get work inside a lot.
Billy I had a guitar with me but I didn’t know anything on it.
Tamera Just throw it down, make it happen, no apologies, hope it sounds good.
Dewayne It’s just like any other job you would have, you had to be ready and dressed.
Billy I still remember the first dollar I made from busking.
Tamera I was having a really bad day and I needed to make some money right away.
Billy ...and so this guy came to me and he goes “Hey man, I love that riff” and he gave me a dollar and I was like ‘Oh shit.’
Tamera Like Stevie Ray Vaughan said, if I take care of the music, the music will take care of me.
Billy I’d only make like $5 a day or something like that.
Dewayne I made a good living there for 25 years. It's not that easy, it may look easy but it’s not that easy.
Tamera It’s like being a nun taking a vow, this is what I’m gonna do for awhile.
Chloe Meet guitar player Tamera Chance...
Tamera Can we get a rim shot?
Chloe ...guitarist Billy Banks...
Billy I don’t have a title. Just musician. Artist. Sorry.
Chloe And Dewayne Oakley.
Dewayne Vocalist, bass-violinist, owner of Naki-do Records.
Brian Tamera, Billy, and Dewayne are buskers: musicians who play their hearts out for handouts.
Tamera And god knows, [puts on elderly voice] I have tried to be responsible, but right now I’m just busking.
Chloe Though they each have their own styles and routines, they have this in common: playing music for commuters and tourists.
Brian What you see and hear from the streets and subway stations tells only a sliver of their stories.
Chloe These three San Francisco Bay Area buskers are willing to share the what, how and why of their musical lives.
Brian My name is Brian Howey.
Chloe And I’m Chloe Behrens. You’re listening to Beats and Measures.
Brian A series that explores how music shapes people and people shape history.
Chloe In each episode, we examine a person, group or whole culture through the lens of music.
Brian Like this subculture hidden in plain sight...
Chloe ...the San Francisco Bay Area busking scene.
Chapter 2: The Daily Grind
[Song by Adley Penner]
Brian A “busker” is a performer or artist in a public space. Subway stations, public squares, anywhere they can get an audience. They do this for whatever money listeners toss their way.
Chloe Buskers aren’t just musicians. They can be actors, painters, poets, dancers, acrobats, and magicians, too.
Brian The word “Busker” comes from the Spanish buscar: to search for, or the Italian word buscare: to gain.
Chloe In English, the word first popped up in 1850s Britain.
[Song: Greensleeves performed by Adley Penner]
[Sound of horses clopping on cobblestones, bustle of a market, street criers]
Chloe London was the world’s largest city then… home to many street performers.
Paul So in London they would move from curbstone to curbstone.
Chloe This is Paul Watt.
Paul I’m in the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Chloe We Skyped him from there. Paul’s an ethnomusicologist. He studies the origins of music.
Paul Any opportunity to talk about busking is a good thing.
Brian Paul’s especially interested in 19th century buskers in London: their daily routines, their favorite playing spots, and the public’s stigma toward them. Turns out, not a lot’s changed.
Paul There are street performers all over the world who make their living or attempt to make their living through busking.
[Old world London noises fade out]
Chloe Most people only see buskers while they’re performing, but their work starts long before you see or hear them.
Brian Here’s Tamera Chance again. She’s from Pacifica, about an hour’s bus ride from the Bay Area Rapid Transit - BART - station she plays in downtown San Francisco.
Tamera In the morning I get my chores done, pickin’ up meds, take care of the dog, put on makeup, look for things that are a bit athletic, tennis shoes, rhythm and blues. Go to the bus stop, Which is ¾ of a mile, thank you. $6.25, $6.50 to get one way to the city. Get off at BART, take care of my business… Vitamin V - Vodka. If I see somebody’s already there I’m like ‘hey how long are you gonna be here?’ Take my time setting up, I’ve got an amp, get it off the cart, open up the toolbox. Then there’s the shot of Vitamin V, maybe a little puff of Vitamin Marijuana, then it’s busking time. Open up the guitar case and do some songs. People put money in my case, I try to give them a nod. Have some kids walking by and I’m gonna play some kid’s songs...
[sound of Tamera playing Twinkle Twinkle in background, fades]
Tamera …play for about an hour and a half, then I’ll probably have to use the restroom. In the BART station, it’s really problematic, gotta break everything down, repack it, get another shot or have another puff, make a couple more bucks and keep going. At the end of the day I take my time breaking down, next BART train 15 minutes. Looking for that last bus to Pacifica, walk past Winter’s, a tavern just down the street, depending on the money I might stop in for a brew. Or 6. And then it’s kind of stumble home, I’m crashing on the couch. Guitar’s ready, my stack is ready, leave it all packed up ready to go back out.
Tamera ...And then away we go with the next day.
Chloe Every day.
Brian Like Tamera does now, street musicians in Victorian London worked long hours.
[Old world London sounds]
[Song Greensleeves by Adley Penner]
Paul There’s lots of accounts of buskers starting from as early as 8 am and working right through ‘til 10 at night.
Brian And they constantly moved around.
Paul Wherever the crowd goes they will follow. If there were races on they would go to a race course.
[Old world London signature sounds fade]
[BART sounds, music enters]
Chloe In San Francisco’s BART stations Billy Banks doesn’t work 14-hour days, but he spends countless hours practicing.
Brian Billy’s musical education starts in his hometown of Waco, Texas. He learns to play his first instrument at age 10.
Billy It was a violin because they had a stupid program...when I was in elementary.
Chloe Later, he plays saxophone and spends a semester in a college music program before dropping out and moving to California.
Billy When I got here around 2004, I got a little toy guitar and then… the first song I learned was Freight Train.
Brian Billy’s style develops as he practices. He teaches himself to finger pick in a classical guitar style.
Billy Now I play like everyday, professional stuff.
Chloe Dewayne Oakley leads his own jazz trio in San Francisco. He’s a veteran of the street music scene there.
Dewayne I’ve been a musician for 45 years, I think.
Chloe Dewayne’s a teenager when his brother, a saxophonist, suggests he play the stand-up bass.
Dewayne “You’re big enough, why don’t you try it?" I’ve been a bass player ever since.
Brian Tamera also starts as a teen when her parents give her a guitar. At first, she plays for herself.
Tamera It’s something I’m doing because it’s catchy and fun and I would get serious later on with my life. Well, it turns out I never did get serious with my life and I still play the guitar and it wasn’t just something that I was going through.
Brian To focus on her act, she sets a daily goal.
Tamera Always having a guitar in my hand. At some point during the day do scales, play a song, stay busy with the guitar.
Chloe Aside from years of practice, buskers have to incorporate strategy into their routines. It’s not just what you play, it’s where you play it.
[Old world London sounds enter]
Brian In old London, buskers were everywhere. Critics complained that they’re on every corner. Paul in Australia says they played local markets, public squares, even in front of people’s houses.
Paul Literally at their front door, there would be people having to step past buskers on the curbside. Wherever the crowd goes they will follow.
[Old world London signature sounds fade, new background song enters]
Chloe Today you probably won’t catch buskers in residential neighborhoods, but Billy tells us the strategy’s basically the same.
Billy You gotta survey the foot traffic and you gotta look at the people. That’s what I do when I first busk a new spot.
Brian Location can be the difference between boom or bust, so in his early days, Dewayne does his research.
Dewayne The tourist industry was booming in San Francisco And I started exploring.
Brian Like a Victorian-era busker, Dewayne follows the foot traffic to Union Square, where he finds--
Dewayne [mystically] Maiden Lane...
Brian --a little alleyway lined with upscale boutiques and restaurants. Tourists come from all over to shop and dine. That makes it an ideal busking spot.
Chloe Just like any day job, it takes practice to get into the groove. Dewayne plays at the top of Maiden Lane for a while until another musician drops him a tip.
Dewayne He suggested to me to come down with him to the restaurant. And I fell in love with it.
Brian The restaurant is the Mocca, an upscale Italian lunch joint with outdoor seating--
Chloe A great spot. I used to busk there!
Brian Dewayne plays his bass there every day.
[Music of Dewayne enters, comes to foreground for a sec, fades]
Chloe Tamera has her own list of haunts.
Tamera I do the Castro sometimes, I do the BART tubes, and I even got some spots in Pacifica.
Chloe Her experience playing in the BART stations tells her--
Tamera There’s a couple of entrances and exits you want to be at more than others.
Brian No matter where they are, the Bay Area or Britain, buskers past and present have to deal with nature.
Paul A lot of it depended on the weather, if it was hot or cold, wet or light.
Tamera Am I on the surface or am I in the BART? It depends on the time and the temperature.
Chloe For Billy, there’s only one place to play his guitar.
Billy Yeah (laughs) It’s a corridor in Civic Center. It changed my life.
Brian The long passageway in that BART station is Billy’s SPOT.
Billy It was like the engineers made it for busking, it’s ethereal, it’s got a crazy-ass acoustics.
[sound of walking down Downtown SF street]
Billy You come down the escalators....
[footsteps going down the escalator, street sounds fade]
Billy ...and you start hearing music right when you’re coming down there...
[Faint sound of guitar playing]
Billy ...and it turns into the corridor so then you walk down a long hallway, that’s about 20, 30 ft...
[sound of guitar grows louder]
Billy ...and you’re into BART.
[Sounds of Billy’s music and BART station]
Brian He learns the best times to be down there.
Billy I take it very serious when people start coming for rush hour.
[Sound of Bart turnstyle and crowds]
Brian As the rush-hour crowds pass by, Billy figures out what catches their ears.
Billy I feel like I’ve learned psychology from busking from everyday people walking by. If you are good and you know what you are doing, which took me years to perfect you can make real money.
Chloe To perfect his sound, Dewayne auditions new players for his act. He goes through a few musicians--
Dewayne --A lot of trumpet players--
Chloe --before recruiting the right team.
Dewayne Constant playing for 4 or 5 hours. It can be grueling.
Brian But this dedication pays off when the listeners hand over their cash.
Dewayne There’s an art to be able to get them to contribute after listening and I began to get a feel for it.
Brian Dewayne makes a living off of his music. He has to.
Dewayne My first wife and I had broken up and my first son he came to stay with me. We had a one-room but I had to feed him, keep him, maintain him. I had to work. That’s how I paid my rent.
Chloe Tamera, Dewayne, and Billy know what they’re doing when they play. For them, busking’s more than music, it’s a job.
Chapter 3: Stigma
Brian But busking isn’t just a job, it’s a tradition that dates back centuries.
[Old world London signature sounds enter]
Chloe Paul, the ethnomusicologist, says buskers are as old as the first cities.
Paul There were probably street musicians or buskers in pre-Roman times.
Brian Then and now, he says, buskers have had to scuffle for respect.
Paul Historically, buskers have been called itinerant musicians and I think the word itinerant is a pejorative term and a word of disrespect.
Chloe The historical record of busking shows up largely in the laws that restrict it.
Brian In 451 BC...
Angry Roman Table VII, Concerning crimes. When anyone publicly abuses another in a loud voice...
Brian Roman decree criminalized open-air shouting or poetry readings that insulted any member of the public....
Angry Roman ...or writes a poem for the purpose of insulting him or rendering him infamous...
Chloe Punishment for this crime was public....
Angry Roman ...he shall be beaten with a rod until he DIES!
Brian For Victorian-era buskers, it wasn’t much easier.
Paul The other rhetoric around noise in the 19th century and less emphasis today is that noise makes people sick and it’s not good for your health. And this was overwhelmingly the case that the music was, more often than not, regarded as noise.
Chloe Public figures in 1800s London argued that buskers were a serious threat to the health of London citizens.
Brian They could file complaints against buskers with the police, but wealthier Londoners found a different way to deal with the noise.
Paul They would pay people to stop playing. They would also pay the buskers to move on. Because that would be more time efficient rather than going to the police station.
Brian This didn’t always work.
Paul Some buskers irritated people because they didn’t move very far. They might move 50 feet or 100 feet rather than move to a completely different spot.
Chloe So a group of London’s wealthy scholars, authors, and other notables moved to ban the lower-class buskers.
Paul There’s this very famous bill that went up before the house of congress in the UK by a guy called Michael Bass, spurred along by Charles Babbage who was for years complaining about the noise in London.
Brian The Bass Act gave police the power to move along or even arrest buskers, and distinguished street music as noise. It drew a solid line between the music aristocratic Londoners enjoyed and the “racket” street musicians made.
Paul It’s very subjective, isn’t it? What’s someone’s noise is somebody else’s sound.
Brian But a lot of Londoners weren’t okay with the Bass Act.
Paul Some of the domestic servants in some houses like the music. There were some people who thought that it was a concern of the privileged upper class who were overstating the problem.
Brian Paul says that for many servants, street musicians were their only access to music. Buskers were like working class, musical heroes.
[Old world London sounds fade, new song enters]
Chloe Street musicians may not have it as bad today, but the stigma lives on.
Paul In most cities there are rules and regulations about where a busker can sing and dance or whatever else they do.
Brian In New York City, performers can’t play amplified music on subway platforms.
Chloe New Orleans street performers are forbidden from playing on Bourbon Street from 8 at night to 6 in the morning, so their acts don’t compete with the local clubs.
Brian Buskers in Santa Monica, California can apply for permits to perform on that beach city’s 3rd Street Promenade, a long pedestrian mall. It costs $37.00, lasts one year, and comes with 35 pages of fine print.
Chloe Applicants must submit 2 Passport-style photos. Once they get the permit, they can play anywhere on the mall… EXCEPT within ten feet of any bus stop, street corner, pedestrian crosswalk, [Chloe begins to fade out] residence, or outer edge of any entrance of any business.
Brian Restrictions on busking vary a lot, so sometimes what is allowed isn’t clear to anyone, including the police.
Billy Banks in San Francisco knows this firsthand.
Billy I’ve been starting to deal with SFPD. Somebody gave them the order to go sweep the hallway for drug dealers and homeless people. And they think that I’m part of that.
Chloe But for the most part, the Bay Area buskers we spoke with say they have it pretty good. Tamera and Dewayne say the cops don’t bother them much.
Brian The place buskers are most likely to run up against restrictions is in Tamera and Billy’s favorite busking spot: the BART stations.
Alicia Trost You need to have a permit and you need to follow the rules of the permit.
Chloe This is Alicia Trost.
Alicia I’m the communications department manager at BART.
Brian Alicia’s department handles permits for what the Bay Area’s rail system calls “expressive activity.” Alicia You fill out an application and you say what station you want [fading out] what time, and we ask you to say your preference of station locations.
Chloe To play in the stations, buskers have to put in these applications.
Brian The permit’s free, it’s easy to apply for, and Alicia seems easy-going about it.
Alicia We enjoy the buskers. We find it’s part of the Bay Area culture and we know our riders enjoy them also.
Chloe Although she wants buskers to have permits while they play, Alicia says enforcing that rule isn’t a priority for BART police.
Alicia Spending time to harass people singing in the free area, which is allowed, isn’t really worth the police officer’s time, we’d rather have them off doing other things.
Brian None of the buskers we spoke to use the “expressive activity” permit. Only Billy’s gotten hassled for playing in a BART station.
Chloe We wanted to know how BART commuters feel about Bay Area street musicians.
BART passenger 1 It's annoying.
BART passenger 2 I’m ok with it, it’s interesting.
BART passenger 3 It doesn’t really bother me. I don’t usually tip them.
BART passenger 4 I think the authorities should make a point to bar them from coming into the BART train.
BART passenger 5 Some of them are quite good.
BART passenger 6 I think they’re a nuisance.
Brian [on platform] Could you describe how they’re a nuisance?
BART passenger 6 You’re a nuisance, ok? So go away.
Brian Not everyone likes buskers, or people who shove a microphone in their face, but Tamera says some critics take it too far.
Tamera Before I could descend to the platform to get my ticket, on the street some guy picks up a-- one of these fold out metal orange and black striped street signs and just bashes me on the back.Yeah, he just smacked me good!
Chloe Tamera tells us about a night she’s assaulted twice at the Civic Center BART station.
Tamera And then I got down to the platform and this other kid comes up to me!
Brian Tamera’s not having it.
Tamera I’m like, kid, I’m not in the mood for this. And it was actually pretty touch and go, he just grabbed my gear and started to rough me up but then I got rid of him somehow.
Chloe That kind of thing shakes her up, but it doesn’t stop her from busking.
Tamera I’m not gonna put up with that. I know that I look like a big daisy but trust me, this bitch can roar.
Brian That roar can resonate down the long marble-floored, tile walled corridors of the Civic Center station. Billy busks in that corridor, too.
Billy A lot goes down in that hallway, drugs and stuff, I seen all kinds of shit. You used to kind of be able to get away with anything for awhile because there’s nobody down there.
Chloe Even playing a classy place like the Mocca, Dewayne deals with harassment.
Dewayne We had a situation where a person was shooting water from the upper building down at us. Didn’t like the music, didn’t like the noise. He was shooting water and nasty green stuff out of a super gun on where we were. People were eating here.
Brian Another day, Dewayne and his band have a run-in with a homeless man.
Dewayne He was dirty and smelly, had holes in his pants. His genitals were hanging out on the sidewalk. I told him, you’ve got to go. So he starts hollerin' the N-word. Everybody on the block was turning their head.
Chloe Dewayne, Billy, and Tamera all separate themselves from the homeless people who frequent their busking spots. But a lot of people lump them all together. Music historian Paul Watt says this has gone on as long as… street performance.
Paul If you bundle up poverty and people that make a lot of noise and people who harass, it doesn’t paint a particularly bright or rosy picture of some buskers and it’s really unfortunate that that pejorative perception has often persisted unto today.
Brian Buskers tell us their appearance sets them apart from panhandlers. Dewayne and Billy notice the difference.
Dewayne I couldn’t afford to go without looking sharp, looking like I had something together. I would never allow anybody to come to work with me without being clean.
Chloe For our interview, he shows up in a suit.
Dewayne We would go down and buy boutonnieres to make sure that people recognized that this is a job.
Billy I can tell that factors into, like, they might not want to tip me I look pretty well put together for the most part. I don’t have dirt on my face and shit, not like a homeless person, you could just tell they haven’t taken a shower in a long time. I’ve never looked like that.
Chloe But even though he distances himself from homeless people, Billy tells us--
Billy I mean, I’m homeless, I just left my place and I used to be down there. And so I know what it’s like.
Chapter 4: The Back Story
[Old world London signature sounds enter]
Brian When we asked Paul about the life stories of Victorian-era buskers, he didn’t have much to say.
Paul I personally haven't come across any autobiographical writings or any other writings about living conditions or where they lived. We don’t have any substantial literature that I know of, of buskers and their daily life.
[Old world London sounds fade, new song enters]
Chloe The same is true today. Not a lot of people tell buskers’ stories. And those stories are important. There’s more to street musicians than the tunes they play.
Brian Tamera Chance is from...
Tamera Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Brian [in interview] You’re freakin’ kiddin’ me… I grew up in Brandon.
Tamera I wouldn't kid about Siox Falls, S-O DAK.
Chloe [in interview] How did I get trapped in this box with two South Dakotans?
Chloe Tamera grows up in the 1960s, with classic Midwestern politics.
Tamera I could listen to Johnny Cash singing about going to Folsom Prison, but I couldn’t listen to Jimi Hendrix who was a US paratrooper.
Brian That becomes a problem during Tamera’s teenage years, when she realizes that she… is a she.
Chloe She’s raised as a boy, but by the time she’s 20, she’s firm in her identity as a woman. When she tells her parents, they’re convinced it’s just a phase. They don’t know what to do.
Tamera They gave me a guitar, ‘Just give a guitar and they’ll get through this.’
Brian And that’s how Tamera starts playing. She learns the guitar while she tries to work through her ‘phase.’ Turns out, her parents are wrong.
Tamera I came to realize that my own sexuality was something that wasn’t just a phase that I was going through.
Chloe She’s figured this out but her family hasn’t, so she hits the road. She bounces around the US for a while before landing in San Francisco in the late ‘80s. She works as a cocktail waitress at the local watering holes.
Brian When she’s not working at a club, Tamera’s jamming on her guitar or playing gigs at local cafes and open mics. But in the late ‘90s, she hits a wall.
Tamera I was doing a lot of drugs. I was doing crystal then. Not proud of it but I did it.
Chloe For years, Tamera’s life isn’t about music.
Tamera It was really a lack of confidence, and I didn’t go audition, and I still had my guitars, but I would kind of just strum to myself thinking, ‘What a loser. I’m all washed up.’
Brian Trying to get on the wagon, Tamera leaves the bar scene and gets a job at a Safeway grocery store.
Chloe Tamera’s dad built his career at Safeway, so Tamera thinks this may win back some of her parents’ approval.
Tamera I held it down for 6 years but I just couldn’t take it.
Brian Tamera decides that meth and Safeway just aren’t her. So she leaves them behind and picks up her guitar again.
[Song: Live performance by Tamera Chance]
Tamera I thought, ‘I’m gonna take this time and instead of rushing out and getting another job I’m gonna hang out, be a musician.’
Chloe She gets her chops back up, nails down a routine, and takes it to San Francisco’s BART stations, where you’ll find her today.
Brian When Billy shows up in San Francisco from Waco, Texas in 2004, he’s 18 years old.
Billy I was supposed to be here like 2 months vacation or whatever I was like, ‘What am I doing? They have legal weed here, I can’t go home.’ So I got a job there and I started living out of this random hotel.
Chloe Billy makes pizzas at Domino’s. He’s a saxophonist, but he can’t afford a saxophone.
Billy I stopped playing music for 2 or 3 years and it made me want to kill myself.
Chloe The downturns don’t stop there.
Billy I lost my job and I was living in my friend’s car for a week. I remember it got towed when I was inside of it.
Brian Billy moves into a homeless shelter. He’s bored there. That’s when he starts busking.
Chloe After a few years, he’s able to move into a low-income apartment complex. For nearly a decade, life’s good. He’s got a girlfriend, he’s making money busking, and getting popular at the open mics around town.
Brian Then, he and his girlfriend split.
Billy ...after seven years.
Brian Billy fills that gap with something else.
Billy I started going out to bars every day to look and see if I can not be lonely anymore. That’s kind of what it is actually. That’s the cycle. You start doing that every day.
Chloe In San Francisco’s bar scene, he starts doing cocaine. He spends most of his busking money on booze and drugs instead of rent.
Billy That’s how I lost my place.
Billy I can’t… It’s not even about fun anymore. I can’t go a single minute of the day without thinking about drinking or getting high. I literally don’t know how to function anymore.
Brian On top of that, or maybe because of it, Billy’s health deteriorates, too.
Billy I’ve been in the hospital a hundred times last year.
Brian Billy missed our first two interview dates because painful muscle contractions kept him in bed.
Billy Every muscle in my body was kinda going like [makes guttural noise]. I would wake up going “Ahhhhhh.”
Chloe He also has focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes muscle spasms in his fingers. Drinking and cocaine use can make his symptoms worse.
Brian Billy wants to go to rehab, but he has trouble saving up enough money to pay for it.
Chloe Most afternoons, Billy plays at that corridor in Civic Center BART station.
Brian But in November of 2018, BART shuts down his favorite corridor to make room for a new power transformer.
Billy Uh [pfft]. God I might cry or something. It changed my life. I met so many people down there.
Chloe Billy says he’ll find a new place to play, but he can’t return to his 12-year haunt. As for his future, Billy says nothing is certain.
Billy I put myself in debt spiritually. I gotta work back up. I had goals and now I put myself in debt with my life. But I wanna get back to not doing any of this shit anymore.
Chloe Dewayne Oakley is a pro. He takes his music very seriously.
Dewayne It was musician work. You had to really know what you were doing.
Chloe His musical career starts at home.
Dewayne A little town called Pittsburg, California.
Brian At 19, Dewayne buys his first bass from a pawn shop. You could say he practices religiously.
Dewayne I went to all the local churches and play their choirs and that’s how I got my chops up and got my ear together.
Chloe By the early ’70s, Dewayne outgrows the Pittsburg scene.
Dewayne I want to play with more people so I came to Oakland--
Brian Dewayne makes his living over the next decade as a contract musician playing parties and events with his ensembles. He makes enough to support himself and his wife.
Dewayne Life’s necessities make you work a little harder. It worked out for me.
Chloe In 1985, Dewayne takes his talent overseas to--
Dewayne Japan. I was there for six or seven years in and out of the country getting a visa. I recorded three albums there and made the record label, Naki-Do with a piano player name Naoyuki.
Brian When Dewayne returns in 1991, he finds a very different Oakland.
Dewayne There was not much to do. A lot of the places that I worked at before had closed. A lot of the young people that were my own caliber had left.
Chloe Dwayne heads across the Bay, where he finds the Mocca. That venue becomes his main source of income.
Brian Playing there, he lands some high-profile gigs.
Dewayne We worked for Mayor Brown, did his campaign parties.
Brian That's San Fracisco Mayor, Willie Brown.
Chloe Something about Dewayne sets him apart from a lot of street performers.
Dewayne I could act like everyone else in the workforce. Which was, for a musician, it’s kinda strange.
Brian It’s also why he doesn’t identify with the term “busker.”
Dewayne I always thought that a busker was somebody who could ONLY work on the street. And so I would never want to be in that category. I am not a street-only musician.
Chloe Dewayne puts a ton of work into his music. To him, there’s an important distinction between what he does and what anyone can do. He says “busker” just doesn’t really fit what he is--
Dewayne --A full fledged musician.… I wouldn’t call a busker a musician. That’s just me.
Brian The Mocca shut down in 2015. On a rare occasion, you may catch Dewayne at a San Francisco BART station but you gotta be up early.
Dewayne That’s a 4am job because the train starts running around 6 from Oakland to SF.
Chloe Maiden Lane may be quiet these days, but Dewayne’s still making tunes.
[sound of Dewayne playing, fades]
Chapter 5: Self Reflection & Conclusion
[Song by Adley Penner]
Chloe That brings us to, well, us. Brian and me.
Brian We were two broke musicians living on the road. We met over ten years ago, under a bridge in Chicago. I played guitar. Chloe sang and kept rhythm on a washboard.
Chloe We busked together a lot - and learned a lot - that summer.
Brian People can be jerks. And it can be tough to make money. I’ve been lumped in with beggars, screamed at to get a job, kicked, spit on, been paid to shut up.
Chloe My busking days were mostly positive. After I moved to the Bay Area, busking paid my rent.
[Audio of Chloe busking St James Infirmary]
Chloe It was my career--my life--for six years. Looking back, it was one of the most carefree times of my life. I miss that.
Brian Because of what we’ve done, it’s hard for us to be objective about buskers. We believe their presence offers something important for us all: a break from the daily slog.
Chloe Urban life piles on speed, bent-over hours on our phones, endless to-do lists. It’s easy to get bogged down and closed off from each other.
Brian Taking a moment out of your busy day to stop and listen to a street performer can be an opportunity to make a meaningful connection in a superficial world.
Chloe Love ‘em or hate ‘em, buskers add character to the grey concrete and dull metal of the the BART stations. Take it from someone who’s studied ‘em… Busker historian Paul Watt.
Paul ...Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s also in the ear of the beholder.
[Song by Adley Penner]
Brian Tamera can’t afford a place of her own yet, so she couch-surfs with friends. She works seasonal jobs around town, and busks to fill the gaps.
Chloe You can catch her act at Montgomery BART station in San Francisco, or in front of the Pacifica Safeway.
Tamera I don’t really consider myself down on my luck. I don’t feel it, I feel I have guitar, will travel, and can always make money.
Brian Billy still doesn’t have his own place. But he has a new girlfriend, Kym. Billy stays with her most nights, and they seem really happy together.
Chloe Even though his favorite corridor is gone. You can still catch him at Civic Center BART station.
Brian Billy’s saving up for a rehab program in Northern California. He says he’ll go as soon as he has the cash.
Billy Then I need to get into low-income housing situations and start applying.
Chloe Beyond that, Billy doesn’t have a plan.
Billy That’s the way it’s always been since I got here so it’s, like, nothing new whatever [laughs].
Brian Dewayne has two grown kids, who live on their own.
Dewayne Daughter just had a little boy. He’s getting big.
Brian Dewayne lives with his wife in their Richmond apartment.
Chloe His trio plays at local farmer’s markets and at The Small Wonder cafe in Oakland on Friday nights.
Dewayne I’m able to do my music business. I’m able to rehearse, I’m able to practice. I’m able to write. I can do pretty much what I set my mind to do. Because I’m working and life is beautiful.
[Song by Adley Penner]
Brian Thanks for listening. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to our podcast channel and leave us a rating while you're at it.
Chloe Don't forget to follow us on social media, @beatsandmeasure.
Brian Beats and Measures is a production of Studio To Be in Oakland, CA.
Chloe Executive producers are Joaquin Alvarado, Ken Ikeda, and Kristin Belden.
Brian Edited by Cheryl Devall
Chloe William Sammons is our sound engineer
Brian Thanks to Dewayne Oakley, Billy Banks, Tamera Chance, and local busker, Adley Penner for providing music for this episode. Check out Adley's band, Bicicletas Por la Paz at bicicletasporlapaz.com.
Chloe Special thanks to Kristina Loring, and to Jason Lawrence and Robin Rapuzzi for their busking expertise. And to our angry Roman, Raja Weisse.
Chloe Adley Penner takes us away with “The Robots Dream”
[Song: The Robot's Dream by Adley Penner]