Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Busker Days: "It's Only Make Believe"

When I enter the Montgomery BART station in San Francisco’s financial district on my way home from work it’s a game of busker roulette. Sometimes there’s a guy delivering inspired gospel, clapping the beat in the main station, while other times I hear a distant garbled guitar and vocals in the opposite pedestrian tunnel. Many times it’s silent, save the shoeshine guy’s radio or the sudden BART agent announcements. Yesterday a scrawny weathered guy with cowboy boots and hat was swooning in tagalog (my guess) and recently there’s been an old man playing an erhu, a two string traditional Chinese fiddle. You never know.

If I’m real lucky, a couple of guys, one on a Gibson mandolin, the other on a Gibson LG1 or J200, will be plying their trade down in the tube station. Their musicianship is solid with the mandolin offering thoughtful fills and leads, but the showcase is the guitarist’s voice, in particular his upper register. When I hear it, inevitably my first thought is ‘liquid gold’ followed by the thought ‘get this man an agent!’ I always feel compelled to stop and listen (and donate, of course).

Recently I came with my digital recorder ready and asked the duo for permission to record, which they readily gave. The mandolinist prefaced the song by warning that it didn’t adequately showcase his partner’s voice. I beg to differ! Give a listen to their rendition of the first number 1 hit by Conway Twitty, It’s Only Make Believe, a b-side released in 1958.


  1. Holy Crow! That is one superb recording. I would love to see a pic of the dudes. Heck, we don't have buskers here in Boulder, Colorado. Just slackers doing yet another tired Grateful Dead tune...poorly. And back in DC they wouldn't allow buskers to perform in the Metro. Keep 'em coming. I wouldn't mind hearing the Ehru. And I have NO IDEA what 'tagalog" means.

    Keep 'em coming.

  2. great song, great voice. Conway Twitty! wish I had his pompadour. hell I wish I had hair.

  3. It is unusual. BART never bugs the buskers. Never seen it happen. Generally the buskers are a little out of sight of the agent's box, so maybe there's an understanding. Not so with the guy who sings in tagalog (accent on the second syllable). He was there today and yes I was correct: He is Filipino and he does some songs in tagalog, the national language of the Phillipines. He also plays in plain view of the agent's box. I actually recorded a couple songs and took a picture so there may be a future post if either merit a post. The first song was in tagalog (my request) and the second was Blowin' In The Wind and has me on the G harp in accompaniment with his guitar, vocals and harmonica. Now I know why my backpack weighs so much - I have enough harmonicas stashed here and there in it that one of them was a G. For what its worth, I think my playing brought in an extra $1.

  4. Oh, I've got to hear that. I might even throw you yet another dollar.

  5. Great recording, nice performance, and I agree, that is quite a voice. Although my first thought wasn't "liquid gold" but "that sounds like the guy in 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'". Which is a weird comparison to make when talking about a guy singing Conway Twitty in a Bart station. But that's what came to mind.

    I hope you do post more of these recordings.

  6. UPDATE: Jack Hayden found out who the guy in the recording is. His name is Eric Cornforth and he is a SF native. His pic has been added to the post and here is a link to his MySpace site:

    The mandolin player, who, unfortunately, is difficult to hear on this field recording, is Tom Etheridge.

    We hope to hear more of them.


  7. Well, yes. We took a busker recording down. Damn shame too. I really liked that performance. The musicians however were very averse to my having put it up on a blog.

    (Note: This was one of the early recordings that I didn't ask for permission to post. However, they didn't put any restrictions on the recording when I made it either. They have a different recollection regarding this point, but I assure you I would take no pleasure in going against an artist's wishes. The next time I saw them after I posted the recording I asked them for their permission and I got anything but.)

    That said, I'm curious to get your feedback on the main reasons the musicians gave for wanting the recording taken down.

    1. They didn't give me permission to post it.
    2. They never heard the recording and want to maintain quality control on all their music.
    3. They are drawing interest from the music industry. The music industry, which does not want to see recordings willy-nilly on the internet, certainly would not like to come across a field recording posted on a blog.

    What's your opinion?

  8. I think there reasons are ultimately legitimate even if they are constructed under false terms. In other words, it should come down whatever the reason if the artist in question wants it down. It is their work and, while Flip-Side is trying to help musicians get their music across not profit off of it, if the artist feels otherwise, that is their prerogative.

  9. I'm not asking whether you think I should take the recording down based on their reasons. In fact, they don't need a reason. If they want it down, so be it. This is meant to be collaborative after all. I'm interested in the reasons themselves. If I were in their position I might just give reason #1. But I don't think I would give reason 2 or 3.

  10. Okay, I'll give them #1 w/o hesitation. And #2...but with a serious wink of the eye as they are playing in a gosh darn public subway system. Truth be told, they lose their reasonable expectation of privacy in that setting. It's the same with filming. One can not walk down a NY street, and then complain about being in the background of some news footage. You are in a public place and are treated as scenery. Their music is scenery.

    Reason #3 is just silly. Radiohead, Pearl Jam, and Wilco have certainly proved the willy nilly Internet is a plus, not a negative. Hell, would the Dead be the Dead if they tried to stop people from recording and disseminating their shows?