Here they come: the bedraggled, the hipsters and the homeless. The youth, tattered and torn, collapse cross-legged, hollering out refrains and begging requests. Older folks, suspicious at first, sway in the sun, reluctantly accepting the horns, keys, and synchronized vocals. Tourists, inquisitive about the local “street culture,” O’Neill bags slung over their shoulders, Cappuccinos in hand, living the Santa Cruz experience, hover on the edges of the scene, wanting to participate, but careful not to get too close.
On a warm day, with the breeze blowing from the north, the band Battlehooch peddles its tunes on the corner of Pacific and Soquel Ave. Beautiful music sounds along Pacific Avenue and crowds grow in appreciation.
Scenes like this don’t happen as often as they used to. As a child growing up in Santa Cruz, I would perch atop my father’s shoulders, watching things unfold and bobbing my head to the beat. Santa Cruz used to be bursting with music; a place where musicians from all over would congregate to display their prowess on the street corners and alleys. Sadly, Battlehooch has become an anomaly in a city renowned for creativity, and children these days only rarely get to appreciate free, unexpected music on a hot day. Things have changed – as they tend to do – but bands like Battlehooch are doing what they can to keep some liveliness in our streets.
“When we tour, we play on the street in every city we visit,” said Grant Goodrich, the band’s bass player. He is tall, with disheveled long blond hair tucked underneath a blood-red headband.
Stereotypically, bass players in a band are more of the background personality, holding down the rhythm and letting the others shine. But, as with their music, everyone in the band has a chance to show their chops to the crowd, and in turn they pander to the crowd with jokes, solos and dance moves.
Don’t be fooled – the street isn’t their only venue. They have been playing clubs and private parties for a year in their current configuration and for four years with a different project before that. But the street remains a place, as it has been for so many artists, of experimentation, casual rendition and quick money-making.
“It’s easy to listen to street performing,” Goodrich said after their set. “At shows we’re abrasive and can be hard to listen to, but here we’re able to advertise our show, practice in a new, foreign environment, and help with the cost of gas.”
Imagine if you will, a Downtown Santa Cruz of 25 or 30 years ago, when bands didn’t play to pay for the soaring gas price, but for the accolades and love they received from the community. Tye-dyed hippies and UC Santa Cruz students milled about innocently in an age that was decidedly less regimented. Laws seemed lax, and people relished the freedom of expression and originality in a post-60’s liberal town. Downtown was the cultural hub that catered to any and all that were willing to throw their cares out the window.
Then, in October of 1989, the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit.
Lt. Rick Martinez has been with the Santa Cruz Police department for over 20 years, and for the past few he has been working the Central/Downtown beat.
“Now we have a less organized street music scene,” he said with a slight twang of nostalgia. “The outdoor venue at the Cooper House used to be the scene. I mean it was big over there, now there are no real venues.”
There aren’t any venues, and the street culture of the pre-earthquake era has had a hard time rebuilding itself after the mass devastation of the ’89 quake. But is that it? Surely those inventive hippies and travelers our town is famous for could persevere through a little earthshaking and concrete crumbling.
“Many of the better acts who used to make Santa Cruz one of their regular stops have no reason to bother,” Tom Noddy, more widely known as The Bubble Guy, wrote in an e-mail. “The money isn’t that good and the police are quick to respond if you have a crowd, which is the very definition of success for the good acts.”
Noddy knows the streets of Santa Cruz. He was the head of the Santa Cruz Street Performers Guild for over 20 years, a group that sought to address the downtown merchants and performers as neighbors dealing with various individual problems, and struggled to keep the Santa Cruz street culture alive.
In 1980, 35 street performers got together and organized the Santa Cruz Street Performer Voluntary Guidelines, a set of regulations to ensure proper behavior and maximum comfort for all people involved in the street scene downtown: the performers, the listeners, and the merchants. The guidelines were amended after the ’89 earthquake to accommodate new and previously unforeseen problems.
“A few years back some activist merchants launched a petition and [city council members] Emily Reilly and Ed Porter carried their program through the city government process,” Noddy said. “While literally ignoring the performers pleading to have meetings with merchants, they passed an absurd set of rules that deny performers the status of stake-holders downtown with a say in their situation.”
Those rules include a curbside-only restriction that forces performers to play at the curb, facing the shops, so that the audience now stands in front of the shop windows. In this arrangement, the poorer acts that don’t attract an audience merely sing at the stores and their employees. Also, performers must be “some feet away from every street corner, every kiosk, every outdoor cafe, every ATM machine, and several other features,” according to Noddy.
The rules appear confusing, but, according to Noddy, they “do what they intended at the time that they passed them: they enforce them selectively as the merchants organization intended.”
Noddy added that this is illegal. The case of Goldstein v. Nantucket, in 1979, says that “merchant approval is irreconcilable with First Amendment protection, it is just what the First Amendment forbids.” Santa Cruz, however, is not the same as Nantucket, Mass., so a performer would have to first assert and then prove that this is the intent and/or practice in Santa Cruz and then get it past the local courts and up to a court whose precedent was binding on the locals. A lot of work for a little live music.
So why wasn’t Battlehooch, whose performance generated a lot of noise and a large crowd, given a cease-and-desist order?
“We don’t give tickets unless we get noise complaints,” Martinez said. “We don’t try and shut down street musicians. We are reactionary and those musicians we do stop are usually in a poor spot and disrupting flow of traffic.”
The police did show up for a brief time in the middle of their set. A hulking officer with a shaved head pulled Goodrich aside for a chat while the audience cried out, “let them play,” “go do something useful,” and “fuck the police.” But Goodrich, as cool as can be, spoke with the officer and returned to the group, drawing hoots and hollers of gratitude from those sitting in the trenches, relishing the scene.
“He just told us that electronic instruments are illegal, but that we could keep going as long as there wasn’t a complaint,” Goodrich said later.
Though many would cite these laws as oppressive, Santa Cruz is actually on par with most of the state in its dealing with street musicians. Battlehooch has been shut down in Santa Monica once and in Portland twice, but generally they don’t get hassled. In fact, playing on the streets has its perks.
“In San Louis Obispo this guy pulls out a wallet with a cop badge then asked us to play a Zappa song and then tipped us 20 bucks. I’m not even sure if he was a cop, but he had the off-duty cop style,” Goodrich said.
Santa Cruz has many local acts as well; there are bluesy guitarists, bluegrass family bands, and classical musicians. Sure the scene isn’t what it once was, but it’s a scene nonetheless.
“Some of the street musicians are jealous, they think I’m stealing their money,” said violinist Erik Schowachert in between sets one sweltering Saturday.
Schowachert plays Vivaldi, Bach, Corelli and Schuman, and he plays them well. He has been playing for 35 years, and was classically trained at the Santa Cruz Symphony and the Cabrillo College Chamber Ensemble.
“You read a sheet of music like the Bible,” Schowachert said between drags from his cigarette.
“There’s no hiding mistakes when you’re playing alone.”
In the world of street musicians, where guitar players are a dime a dozen, Schowachert uses his classical music and violin, which was made in 1871 in a small village outside of Paris, to help him stand out in the crowd. His spot in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz draws a lot of foot traffic, but not a lot of cash. Schowachert says he only plays on weekends, or during the holidays, because it’s the tourists, not the locals, where he makes his real money.
Should he feel bad that people don’t appreciate a trained classical musician, playing for free, on a near-priceless violin? Not really. In 2007 the Washington Post did an experiment at a metro station in Washington D.C. with Joshua Bell, arguably the best classical violinist of our time, playing some of the most elegant classical music ever written on one of the most expensive violins in existence, and he made less money than Schowachert does on a normal day.
In Santa Cruz, unfortunately, there are the musicians that, unlike Joshua Bell or Schowachert, just aren’t any good.
“Send a woman with some money.” This man is barefoot, refuses to be interviewed, and frankly, isn’t any good. He sings softly, luckily, and out of tune next to a bench that is—surprise!—empty. This is the other side of the street scene: the homeless who are trying to make a quick dollar. Some of them are good, others are not.
“The people that go down there to make a buck, but have no skill,” Lt. Martinez said, “they’re my least favorite.”
Not all of the homeless are bad musicians. There used to be a man that would play his guitar in front of Bookshop Santa Cruz, singing “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Wonderful Tonight” while tapping a tambourine with his foot.
I remember another man named CJ Stock who was simply brilliant. He used to sit underneath the parking garage across from Clouds Restaurant, hoping that he wouldn’t be confused for a “sign runner”—one of the multitudes of homeless that panhandle with signs—if he sat away from the melee of Pacific Avenue. I used to sit and watch him play for hours and chat him up at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company when he was on a break.
“I used to work for two hours a day playing my songs and I would pull a hundred dollars easy,” Stock once told me. “Not anymore – last night I made $13.”
Stock had a young daughter who lived with his ex-wife. Every other weekend he would take her out for ice creams or the movies, depending on how much money he had made. I looked for CJ for three months while researching this article, and couldn’t find him anywhere. I hope that he is all right.
I realize that the phrase “used to” has been employed all too often in this piece, but although the nature of downtown’s creative geography has changed, there are still those who take pride in the alley-ways and small, ever-changing venues of concrete. So when you see Battlehooch, or Schowachert, or one of the few blue-grass bands that show up on holiday weekends, or if you’re lucky enough to find CJ or the tambourine man, sit, stay awhile, enjoy the music, bob your head, maybe even dance. And, when you leave, toss them a dollar and a couple words to let them know it meant something.
Once, after a cup of coffee and stories with CJ, he got up to leave, turned back and said, “You have to have pride in your life. I’ll make a pretty sound with the last breath that I take.” It’s that pride as much as the money that keeps the street musicians coming back to Santa Cruz despite the earthquakes, bureaucracy and inevitable tides of change.