Thursday, August 16, 2007

On busking

I recognized a gentleman who used to play fiddle outside my second most recent straight job. He sat in front of us and we got to talking and, being the polite sort who reads Miss Manners each morning with his scone and Peppermint tea, I asked him one of the uncouth questions: "How much do you make in a day?" His answer: more than you'd think.

The man said that, on a good day, when his little fiddle amplifier was working just right and it was warm out and all the stars and ducks had aligned just right, he said he'd make about a hundred bucks. There was one day, he recalled with greedy nostalgia, when he made $160 and, I presume, did a jaunty little dance.

And, sure: it didn't always work out that well. There are any number of tiny calamities that could derail the whole day. A rain storm could end the whole day. A bad burrito could too. And it's not exactly the sort of job that provides dental care and matches your contributions to your 401K.

Of course, this guy was also a damn good fiddler and, really, everyone loves the fiddle. It's like the banjo, except slightly less toothless and slightly more refined. Point is: it's a crowd pleaser. The dirt-encrusted stoner on Haight who's wheezing into a didgeridoo probably has a far different appraisal of pedestrian generosity.

And then there's Atonal. We don't know his name, but we've given him one. Plus, it bears resemblance to another Bay Area wunderkind named Adonal Foyle, who the Warriors just gave 13 million dollars to not play for them next year. That's a good gig if you can get it, which you can't, because you're not a 7 foot tall poet who looks like Shrek. But I digress.

Atonal is a busker and he plays his highly original brand of music at the Civic Center BART station. He is a multi-instrumentalist, a virtuoso in the grand tradition of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Yuri Landman, a man who can transition seamlessly between the clarinet and the ukulele, the viola and the recorder, the harmonica and the...recorder. Granted, this depends on your definition of "instrumentalist," "virtuoso," and "sounds like forty cats dry-heaving in unison." For, you see, Atonal has his own idea of what music sounds like. I've seen him studiously reading music off his music stand with two harmonicas in his mouth. I've seen him playing the same note on the recorder for several minutes with a look of rapture all over his face. I've seen him writing his newest masterpiece on a giant swath of butcherpaper fifteen feet long. He's brilliant. He's unstoppable. He sucks.

But the thing is, he brings me joy. If I happen to catch him playing the clarinet in his usual style (which resembles a drunk man eating a hotdog), I laugh. And you know what? So do most people that pass him. He's like an episode of Married with Children: you know you shouldn't be laughing but you can't help yourself. Let's just hope he doesn't end up in McDonald's commercials like David Faustino did, although being in said commercials proved he wasn't dead, which was nice. It also proved he wasn't funny. But good job Bud. I hope you're paying off your mortgage.

So here's to Atonal. No matter how much that one note he can play sounds like a small animal begging for mercy, he's always completely lost in the music. And that, really, is the important part. I think.

5 comments:

Roxanne said...

Oh my god. You perfectly captured his essence. I love Atonal.

birdmonster said...

I knew you'd enjoy that Roxanne. You don't have to put on the red light.

meine kleine said...

Not a rant, an actual, formulated thought: AHEM. It seems that, in a significant stretch of time, "popular" music has become as nauseatingly infectious as tuberculosis, but goddamn, it's not going away. Fortunately, it's pretty much relative- in liking certain music you willingly conform to a certain identity, I suppose because someone, a musician, seemed to have spoken for you. I try really hard not to judge and look down on current "popular" music, despite my sneaking suspicion that it has hit a cultural nadir. I admire an individual or group of individuals who can manage to escape diatonic normality in pitch, structure, what have you. Today's "hit" appears to have devolved into some kind of bland amalgamation of verse, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, or well, I think bridges are on their way out. Anyway, the real trick is convincing someone's ear that what you have composed is "catchy" when in fact it is abrupt and employs more than one key simultaneously. Hall and Oates would spit on your feet, with good reason. What I think is so enchanting about Mr. Atonal is that, I don't know, emotions aren't uniform and fixed, like a lot of today's "music". When you were poor(er)/less "successful" than you are now, it was like, oh man, girls, boys, drugs, existence, puppies, whatever, were more of a cerebral priority and feelings were easier to come by via a healthy(er) perspective. It's fucked because there is almost no way to not get caught up in the business of it all. He, on the other hand, seems to be living and breathing whatever he's playing, and I'm sure, with a little sampling goodness, someone could turn him into his antithesis. Mmm capitalism. Please keep Timbaland's grubby fingers off of San Francisco's transit system.

Ted said...

Genius. (The post, not Atonal).

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