Where to start? We decided to go to Venice Beach and see what it was like to busk there. First though we did a driving tour of the neighborhood where Burt spent most of his formative years. Despite the obvious differences in environs between NJ and southern CA, it was apparent to both of us that we had grown up in similar socio-economic situations. Here is how I see it: We both grew up in working class neighborhoods surrounded by more affluent neighbors. There used to be easy access to streams and woods. The beach was close. I think NJ was about 10 years behind CA in the cultural shifts of the 50s-70s so that accounts for our age differences.
We followed the Garmin GPS to Venice Beach and payed $9 to park. We could have parked free on the street, but our instruments were in the truck and we wanted to check the place out before we decided if we wanted to play. We walked north past the paddle tennis and basketball and weight lifting scenes. The paddle tennis looked incredibly fun. The mini-tennis courts were packed. I think Burt and I could be a threat to each other in doubles.
There was a barker trying to lure people in to see a freak show. I’ve always thought I would want to go if I had the chance but today I didn’t have the stomach for it. I’m not sure if it was the human element or the bizarro animal stuff that gave me the willies. The mental image of the rubber lady made me want to gag. It was only $5 and I just kept walking. Maybe under cover of darkness. Once a friend of mine told me he saw a circus freak show in Great Falls (just a couple of years ago) and when he went in his 12 year old son refused and said it was demeaning to the “performers.” I confessed my fascination and mentioned that I had read about how there was a rich history and sense of pride among people that had chosen the line of work. I asked how it was and he said, “creepy…the world’s smallest lady was just sitting down there in a little set…” I think he said she was knitting and looked peevish. He decided his son was right. Sounded like a rip-off to me. All that to say I need therapy before I see a real freak show.
Out on the boardwalk was a man in yellow pajamas doing an act with broken bottles. We were drawn in by his idiosyncratic showmanship. Soon we were drawn in because Burt was part of the show. I cannot do it justice. The video is up on Facebook.
The human spectacle on the boardwalk was not remarkable. What was mind blowing was the abundance of people stoned out of their mind offering to get us our medical marijuana cards. Every 5th shop was a medical marijuana dispensary with a “doctor” on duty to get you started. You just need $100 and a claim that you suffer from any one of scores of eligible ailments and you can start smoking and growing. California allows you to grow ninety (90!) plants for personal use. It’s such a joke, I think they should just go ahead and legalize it. Then we can (maybe) get a handle on the black market and all the ugliness associated with it. The obviously easy access to pot leaves me with this question: Who in god’s name is still buying the stuff illegally in California? And one more: Montana allows medical marijuana users six plants. I head from people in the business that 6 is a lot more than most people need. If so, what are people in California doing with the 84 extra plants?
While I pondered dope and freaks we watched the skate boarders. There manner of sharing the park with each other had an indecipherable etiquette. There were nods and looks and body language sorting out the right-of-way analogous to a pack of dogs. Burt’s explained the system for surfing and I hope someday I’ll be good enough to try it out. A surf wave is pretty straight forward; Everyone surfs in the same direction. Skate boarders were crowded and going in seemingly random directions doing random tricks. Beautiful.
We overheard some kids talking about finding a “spot” to play music. We asked them if they knew the rules. They had their medical marijuana cards and could not provide clear instruction. We got the idea that it might be free and you might need a card from the police. Burt and I decided to try to play by the rules so we wandered over to the conveniently located police station. The very helpful guys there said we could play for free if we had nothing to sell. Good thing we haven’t released our cd yet. We also had to display a yellow card that said people were under no obligation to give us money. They said we were supposed to play in a specific area along the boardwalk. Burt asked, “Can we play in the grass?” The officer said, “We discourage that, but you can.” We probed a little more and each of us concluded that if you are white, middle aged and fairly clean, you can play in the grass. Of course this was an unspoken conclusion that we shared with each other later. We think the police of Venice Beach are hoping to attract more performers like us.
We took our yellow placard, collected Elvis and our instruments and went to find a “spot.” We had left Elvis in the car to guard our instruments while we were on recon. As usual he did an exemplary job. Since we were slow in sussing everything out all free “spots.” were occupied. We decided to play next to the basketball courts. I think I liked the ambiance because I spent time on the side of a court watching my dad play when I was a kid. I think these guys would have kicked my dad’s ass. No offense dad. So we tuned up and got playing.
We weren’t in quite the right area for our type of music. Most of the bball watchers kept their headphones on. Nevertheless we had some diehard fans. Right off a young guy hears us doing Wagonwheel and stops to listen and sing along. He had a rough night. He either fell on his head or was bludgeoned. There were 6 stitches over his left eyebrow and a gold ball sized swelling on his cheekbone. His clothes were ragged and his hair dirty but his smile was sweet. He waved over another street kid and said listen, listen this is a great song. When it was over he sincerely thanked us and started to head on. He turned around dug in his pocket and gave us a quarter. I teared up. The officer that helped us out swung by gave a nod and turned to watch the basketball.
An Asian man listened for quite a while and also thanked us for playing and threw in a couple of bucks. Another street kid dumped in all her change. Most people smiled or waved. I really enjoyed mindlessly playing fiddle tunes and watching the crowd. The songs were more difficult because of the activity. During Put the Blame on Mame a flock of seagulls (not the band) came in low, cackled and pooped right on me. I’m sure it was a compliment. After 2 hours of playing we had seen what we wanted to see and we had $4 in the case, it was time to go home.