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Subterranean Rush Hour Blues: Behind the Soundtrack to Your Commute 

Wednesday, Dec 18 2013
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It was certainly an improvement for someone who lived off whatever money got thrown in his can. Raised in Kansas, Hunt taught himself to play drums at age 3 by listening to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich records. His father ran a shoe shine shop and dry-cleaning business; his grandmother helped mind the store. He has two brothers, one who became a minister, the other a parking attendant. His adopted sister, Juliette Williamson, played bass in the Chicago Brother and Sister Blues Band until the band's singer, Bruce Brooks, bashed her skull in with a hammer and dumped her body by the Hunters Point shipyard.

Hunt says he never knew his mother. "She left when I was born," he says. "My daddy raised me."

After honing his chops in bar bands and gun-for-hire blues gigs, Hunt took a circuitous path to the Bay Area, stopping first in Georgia to play with the Drifters, he says, then picking up work with Oakland guitarist Ronnie Stuart and his Caravan of All Stars band. Hunt wound up penniless in Berkeley in 1983 and began playing drums on the Cal campus, sleeping in frat houses and student co-op basements, and earning just enough to squeak by. Alumni who attended UC Berkeley during his long tenure remember endless performances of "Black Cat," the bristly Janet Jackson rock song that Hunt was evidently trying to perfect. Singing the guitar part at full volume, Hunt made enough noise to drown out the incessant drum circles in the courtyard below.

Administrators in Sproul Hall were not amused. Hunt says that at some point in the '90s, after settling stacks of tickets and noise complaints, he got "driven out of Berkeley," and had to set up shop permanently in downtown San Francisco. But over the years, he became a much better musician. On a good day, he might play nine hours and pull up to $60, enough to supplement his Social Security check and pay for an SRO room in the Tenderloin. He plays a full repertoire of funk and rock songs, usually accompanied by an electric bassist and a tap dancer who can't be relied upon, Hunt says, owing to "relationship problems." ("But when you're whooped," he says, "you're whooped.") Hunt keeps a picture of Will Smith on his bass drum and hangs a stuffed green dinosaur below his ride cymbal, like an oversized ornament. He hands out photographs of himself and Smith — apparently taken after Hunt's Pursuit of Happyness street cameo — to young women who pass by.

"See?" he says, waving a stick for emphasis, and grinning wide enough to reveal a piratical gap tooth. "Now you know who I am."

Hunt has until Christmas to pay a $115 chunk of his $460 citation, or face a 90-day jail sentence. "When I get done with this, I'm suing them for harassment," he grumbles. "They do this to me every year. And I still have to go out there every day to earn enough to pay my phone bill."

By Thursday night, his stack of milk crates hadn't moved; its paper sign and cord wrapping remained unmolested. Hunt and his bassist were playing an upbeat rendition of the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" — a song that carried its own hint of irony for anyone who'd read Hunt's heartfelt plea. The tap dancer was shuffling his heels on a square of plywood, and the crackle of Hunt's cymbal was just loud enough to get a homeless woman dancing at the Market and Fourth Street intersection. Passersby threw dollars into a plastic tip jar by the drum set. Things were looking up. Rachel Swan


Craig Ventresco

Guitar

Montgomery BART Station

Craig Ventresco and his guitar are a matching set. He's a slightly disheveled 46-year-old in a loose-fitting fleece with the floppy brown hair and overall rumpled appearance of Tom Baker's 1970s-era Doctor Who. His instrument is dark and worn like the Boston Gardens' old parquet floor; the strings erupt out of the headstock, recalling the Guinness Book of World Records photo of the gent with the spiraling fingernails.

They both look as if they've seen better days.

And perhaps that's so. But it's not about the looks. Ventresco perches on a tiny stool at Montgomery Station and begins to play. And it would be immediately apparent, even to his idol Blind Blake, that something special is happening here. Forget looks — Ventresco is a master; that's him strumming the guitar on the soundtrack to the 1994 movie Crumb. Among connoisseurs of old-timey music, this is an achievement akin to playing Woodstock.

And that gnarled old guitar? It's one of several instruments lavished upon him by a ragtime-obsessed Daddy Warbucks who saw him playing a gig and, in short order, dropped tens of thousands of dollars in pricey music shops on Ventresco's behalf. At one point, the hedge-fund baron summoned Ventresco to his home and commanded him to "play me something from 1902." Fair enough.

An envelope containing $800 was tossed across the desk.

Back in the underground, a handful of coins — heavy on the pennies — is tossed into Ventresco's case, an impromptu reward for strumming a tune of the sort that might induce Groucho Marx to dance with Thelma Todd. The guitarist glances up, and grins. A fellow street musician has emptied the contents of his pants pockets into Ventresco's kitty. "You should hold onto this, man," the guitarist tells his admirer. But the transaction goes through.

About The Authors

Kate Conger

Bio:
Kate Conger has written for SF Weekly since 2011.
Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.
Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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