By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Every Tuesday night from 5 – 9 pm you can visit downtown Huntington Beach on Main Street and be entertained by the buskers who perform for Surf City Nights, the city’s weekly street fair.
Buskers are people who make their living by performing for you on streets, sidewalks, subways, parks and other public places. In Huntington Beach, you’re most likely to find buskers in the downtown area, on any given day, but especially on Tuesday evenings at Surf City Nights.
Buskers have a proud tradition, mostly.
Musicians probably make up the majority of buskers at Surf City Nights, but since it started four-years-ago there have been Russian acrobats, break dancers, the guy who rides the highest unicycle in the world, magicians, tap dancers, bubble makers, mimes, human cars and people who juggle lit torches, bowling balls and long knives.
Wikipedia tells us that there are buskers all over the world, that their name has Spanish roots (“buscar” means “to seek”), and that busking dates back at least to ancient Rome where street performances were governed by “The Law of the Twelve Tables,” which demanded the death penalty for buskers who dared to satirize government officials.
Surf City Nights buskers are governed primarily by the rules of the Advisory Board of the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), a collection of downtown merchants.
The BID isn’t as strict on buskers as was ancient Rome, but you have to follow its somewhat arbitrary rules if you want to busk at Surf City Nights. Would-be buskers can’t just show up on Main Street on Tuesday evening and start performing. They must first apply and audition for the BID. If approved, the busker will be assigned a time and place to play.
Warning: buskers who sing happily about pot will be banned for life, but Irish bands that happily glorify getting shit-faced drunk (a perfect fit for downtown on any other night) are welcome back anytime.
Other than that, Surf City Nights rules for buskers are pretty sensible and simple—compared to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which is the busker capital of southern California. There the city runs the (daily) show and the rules are stricter and more complicated. Buskers rotate on a first-come first-serve basis and city inspectors use sound measuring tools to ensure that buskers don’t get too loud.
Without its buskers, Surf City Nights would be a much duller event, just another outdoor market. Buskers created a night (or four hours to be more exact) of entertainment downtown that never existed before—minus the drunks that stagger out of the bars and head back to their cars on any busy night.
For all its charms, busking full time is clearly a lifestyle choice that nobody should select without careful forethought.
Busking is hard work and it takes great determination and talent to even modestly succeed at it.
Buskers depend on “donations” from the crowds they draw in order to buy food, pay bills and fill the gas tank for their return trip home.
The acrobats, break dancers, tap dancers, unicyclists, and magician buskers, who gather the crowds for regularly scheduled shows, usually pass the hat around to collect money; first, as they build up the excitement and expectations of the audience and then after their big finale, which might be juggling bowling pins while riding the world’s tallest unicycle (over 15 feet) or somersaulting over a row of 10 people bent at the waist.
Musician buskers, who usually sing continuously save for short breaks, often leave their money basket, jar, bucket or open guitar case in front of them on a table or the ground to collect donations from passersby. Sometimes they offer self-made CDs in return for larger donations.
Some buskers use “pitchers,” people who go out into the audience proactively soliciting donations or signing up fans for future notices.
Buskers usually don’t like to tell reporters how much money they make for their work. They fear that if the public finds out that they can make several hundred dollars in one night it might cut back on donations.
But a busker who makes $300 at one Surf City Nights event might make only $40 another time. He or she might not be able to find a good location to work at on the other days of the week. That $300 might be all there is to live on for the week.
It’s a story that Eric Kufs, a Surf City Nights mainstay since its inception four years ago, cleverly, self-mockingly, and at times sardonically, weaves into his songs as he pleads for donations.
While casually strumming his way through a modified version of Paul Simon’s song, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” he sings about his life-altering decision to move from New York to Los Angeles to become a folk singer.
People say I’m crazy because I’ve got diamonds on the souls of my shoes.
They say I’m crazy for many other things too.
Like singing out here on the street for all of you.
Most buskers don’t end up with careers like Hendrix or B.B. King, or Ben Franklin for that matter, but many of them are accomplished performers, some of whom deserve the fame and fortune that has alluded them so far.
But the road to commercial success, much less stardom, is fraught with struggles. Kufs had to work several other jobs, including being a bouncer and a barista at Starbucks (which he ridicules in his music), just to survive before he was able to make a living solely by performing music.
You will be paid
You will be paid
All your conflict and trouble will be repaid
Don’t be afraid
Put your faith in the hands of the union maid
When you’re lost at sea
You’ll hear the sweet melody…
–From “Union Maid,” by Eric Kufs, based on his attempt to unionize buskers.
Kufs got the folk-singing bug when he was 12 or 13. “I needed a reason to just go sit alone in my room and not talk to anybody,” he recalls.
Kufs is, without doubt, the most talented and accomplished folk singer—out of many—who have played Surf City Nights. He also plays regularly at the Third Street Promenade and at private and public gigs across the country with his equally eclectic band, Common Rotation.
Kufs is a true original. He writes his own songs, which he describes as “sort of morose.” But they are actually lyrical, catchy, poetic, blues sung with an incredible countertenor voice that he can make sound exactly like a trumpet when he sings standards like “Hard Times” by Ray Charles.
“It’s folk music,” Kufs says of his own material. “You know, a little bit of pop in there. But it’s folk music. I’ve got a lot of songs without bridges, you know. When you don’t have a bridge, it’s a folk song.”
Kuf’s incomparable voice and guitar playing allow him to sing everything from pop hits like “You’ve Got a Friend” to folk classics like the uncensored version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with honest and heart-felt panache.
Kufs doesn’t draw the larger crowds that some of the bands or other singers do. Pop singer Adam Ho, another Surf City Nights mainstay with star potential, and Seis Cuerdas, the dynamic classical/flamenco guitar duo from Argentina, often draw a large circle of spectators as they spectacularly slash their way through dazzling guitar riffs.
But Kufs lures his audience a few at a time as they stand in line for food or stroll by. Using pop standards and his self-deprecating wit as the bait, Kufs sometimes throws in one of his original songs after his small group of listeners is hooked or just at random.
A small group, college age, are listening as they wait in line with other people to buy kettle corn where Kufs is playing – at the junction of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, just across from the pier. He just finished singing one of his own songs and says, with his usual refrain, “Thank you ladies and gentlemen. My name is Eric Kufs. That’s one of my songs. I have CDs and a tip jar. Please support local music. Thank you.”
One of the youths asks him to play something by Boston.
“I can’t even tell you what’s a good Boston song,” Kufs laughs.
“Play some Journey,” the same youth asks, singing the words, “Take the midnight train.”
It’s a song much better suited for pop specialist Adam Ho, not a folk singer, but Kufs plays along, singing the lyrics, “just a small town girl,” in an exaggeratedly high voice. “That’s not me,” he laughs. “That’s not my voice.”
“Do your own rendition of it.”
“Uh, yeah! I’ll just whip that up right now,” Kufs jokes. “I’ll whip up the version of that tune that’s better than Steve Perry’s. Yeah, great!”
But Kufs skillfully continues to engage them. “People come up to me on the street and say, ‘Yo Dawg, that last song was pitchy.’ I’m like, ‘You guys are totally ruining busking.’”
His listeners laugh and ask for some Andy Garcia, another request that doesn’t suit Kuf’s style or repertoire. But he leaps into an hilarious imitation of a Garcia song for a bit, then stops.
His tiny audience laughs and applauds enthusiastically, but Kufs tells them “That’s enough” and goes into a satirical song about American Idol.
“I hate that show,” he says. The song is catchy, hard hitting and funny, reminiscent of Phil Ochs, but his young audience, having already tipped him, is mostly oblivious and starts to drift away.
On a cold winter night last year I filmed Kufs singing a set of his own songs at the exact same location where he had been bantering with the Journey fans. We met before prime time in order to minimize the financial loss that he would take by not singing his array of well-known pop/folk standards.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says about half-way through the set. “You know, I can’t make a dollar unless I play a song that people know.”
By playing his own songs, however, Kufs reveals a much higher level of talent that, given the right break, could take him off the streets forever.
I don’t want to die alone
A last resort
Or a bag of bones
I will serve my time and then I will come for you
You were born with a face that I’d never seen
And a head too strong to ever know what I mean
I had watched him perform a handful of his own songs to perfection when he cut the next one short. It was time to start making money by singing the songs that people knew. Noting the obvious conflict between art and commercial success, I asked him how he decided to be a folk singer in the first place.
“I used to write pop songs that I thought people would like,” he explained. “But then I only started doing anything interesting when I started doing what I liked to listen to. So, this is what happened. This is what became of that experiment.”
“Anyway,” he added, “this is a song called ‘Bitter Honey.’”
Then he whispered, “This will be my last one.”