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Subterranean Rush Hour Blues: Behind the Soundtrack to Your Commute 

Wednesday, Dec 18 2013

Page 3 of 4

It's an odd moment in an odd career. After 15 years of daily busking and 10 years of doing anything but, Ventresco is out on the streets again because he needs the money. And yet, he refuses to comport himself in a way that will earn him much.

"I guess there's something wrong with me," he says. Then he smiles. And then he plays another 110-year-old tune you've never heard before and never will again.

The Internet has been a mixed blessing for Ventresco. For collectors of century-old 78 rpm records and even older phonograph cylinders, the World Wide Web has eliminated the need to wander into strange and potentially dangerous people's basements and record their vintage music. So, that's good.

On the other hand, San Francisco's voracious, tech-fueled booms have driven the cost of living into the stratosphere. For those whose chosen profession is collecting and performing obscure tunes appealing to an exceptionally select audience, this bodes poorly — and ensures your fellow esoteric musician pals leave town and don't come back. So, that's bad.

Also, the rise of the Internet has made it damn near impossible to find good deals on records and cylinders at the garage sales of strange and potentially dangerous people who empty out their basements. (Ventresco would like you to know that, if you've got any of these laying around, he's interested. Listening to these old recordings "is what makes me go.")

And yet, Ventresco now feels safe enough to play on the streets again — after foreswearing the practice a decade ago following a pelting with soda cans — largely because of the city's aforementioned tech-driven gentrification and the accompanying increased police presence along the Market Street corridor.

As the city's tides continually turn, Ventresco, it seems, is carried along for the ride.

The musician and his music grow older. The city grows younger and richer. Every day hundreds more affluent young techies who've never heard Joseph Francis Lamb's "Cleopatra Rag" wander past the rumpled guitarist in the corner. And, even though he's dutifully playing that old ditty, they still haven't heard it because they're not listening.

The guitarist shakes his head. If he whittled his playlist down from thousands of ancient unknown songs to a dozen or so standards (or just played "All of Me" ad nauseum) — well, that could be lucrative. Ventresco knows a musician who camped out at the cable car turnaround and did just that; it was a rare day he didn't pocket damn near $300. Even junkie musicians — and, God knows, there was no shortage of them — did what they had to do to earn the cash to get their daily fix.

Ventresco's only addiction, it would seem, is to esoteric music. He can't make himself not play it. If he's not improving every day, if he's not playing the music he thinks is authentic, then why bother? "I don't want to be sitting out here not doing anybody any good. I don't want to be a beggar," he says. "I don't want sympathy money."

And, on this day, he doesn't get any. In fact, he doesn't get much at all. It's a dank and chilly afternoon, and commuters decked out in their once-a-year parkas waddle to and fro. They bury their hands in their pockets. And keep them there.

But it's not about the looks. If you close your eyes and lose yourself in the rollicking chords of "Cleopatra Rag," it may as well be a century ago. It may as well be sunny and warm. And, if only for a few fleeting moments, the world slows down and worries temporarily cease.

"I'm so happy music like this exists, and I get to play it," says Ventresco. "It really is my whole life." J.E.

Jordan Wilson

Just about everything

Powell Street, Fisherman's Wharf

Close your eyes in the vicinity of the Powell Street cable car turnaround or Fisherman's Wharf, and you'll hear a full band, playing away. Open them, though, and you'll see Jordan Wilson, twitching away.

Wilson's series of subtle, twitchy movements reveal that he's playing as many as four instruments at once. He built his first musical apparatus straight out of high school, a hodgepodge of drums and guitar that straps to his back — reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke's one-man band in Mary Poppins.

Wilson says he started building one-man-band machines out of a "lack of social skills and a natural skill for music."

"Musicians can just be way too cool sometimes," he says of his need to play every instrument himself, simultaneously. Despite the difficulty of their task, Wilson says it was harder to put together a band than it was to just figure it all out alone.

His second apparatus, built when he was 20 years old, is nicknamed The Squid. A pedal board lets him play drums with his feet. "I play bass guitar with my thumb," he says. "The neck is flipped upside-down, next to the guitar neck." The Squid also incorporates a keyboard, and Wilson sings.

Playing four instruments and singing at the same time seems damn near impossible — until you've seen Wilson do it. "People think it's so impressive, what I do," he says. "As far as the big machine goes, nobody's seen it before. ... But if you're playing guitar, you're not just doing one thing. You have to move your elbow, your shoulder, all the different positions with your fingers, timing, all of that." The Squid, he explains, is "like a more complicated guitar part."

This May, after several Union Square businesses complained about performance volumes, the Board of Supervisors passed new legislation making it easier to cite street performers in the area for noise ordinance violations. Wilson's act uses drums and amplification, two things singled out by the board. "I use a 15-watt amplifier so you can hear the guitars and vocals," Wilson says. "It's probably better for them in the buildings if they can hear all the music, not just the drums."

About The Authors

Kate Conger

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

Joe Eskenazi

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

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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