Defending Bill Withers (and ourselves)

We started busking — playing music on the street — almost from the moment we met. At first, we’d go out there with just the two guitars. We were just jamming.

Almost immediately, we had to adjust. People wanted to throw a buck or two in a hat. We were out there for the fun of it, but, hey, if people want to express their appreciation in a remunerative fashion, why argue? So we made up a tip jar, a sign, a sign-up list, a table to sell our CDs and brought an amplifier to compete with the street noise.

We found ourselves a nice little spot on Castro Street in Mountain View where people often congregate. It’s between two sidewalk cafes and has a lot of foot traffic as well. The children are usually mesmerized by watching us play and want to linger. The parents, appreciative of a respite from the never-ending chore of keeping their kids busy, will usually respond with a donation. It’s endearing as they hand a buck or two to their child and instruct them on how to place it in the tip jar.

Of course, compared to our day jobs, the money is nominal. But we’ve gotten accustomed to using the tips as a feedback mechanism for what people like.

A few weeks ago, we had a crowd of 30 or 40 people dancing and singing along and the tip jar was overflowing. We brought down the house with Sherry’s vocals on the Led Zeppelin classic, “Whole Lotta Love.”

But this weekend, we reached a new milestone. Our first ever hater.

The whole thing happened so randomly and ended so quickly, we are still processing it.

It was a warm night and the street was busy but not brimming. We had an older group of three couples sitting next to us and they seemed to really enjoy the old Beatles and Sinatra tunes. (As we play, we watch the audience closely and gauge their reaction. If they are reacting to a particular genre of music, we’ll run through our repertoire that fits the bill. We can and will play everything from Duke Ellington to Coldplay.)

When the older group left, a younger group started hanging out. Sherry proceeded to belt “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and we kicked it up a notch.

I especially appreciate this song for three reasons:

1. It’s a classic. Simple, raw, full of emotion.

2. Sherry knocks it out of the park on vocals.

3. I get to hang back (even sit down) and just riff a bit on guitar.

It was dusk turning to full night at this point. I was leaning back and Sherry was up front on the sidewalk. As were finishing up the song I heard a shout from the other side of the street.

“Hey, Bill Withers!”

I turned around to see a woman, dodging traffic to get to our side of the street. “That was Bill Withers!” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was just excited, out of breath from running, maybe a bit inebriated, or maybe all of those things.

I’ve been playing gigs since I was 15. You learn to identify certain behavioral patterns as people approach a band. Some are polite but inebriated and want a turn at the microphone to sing some song for which they know half the lyrics and for which they can approximate the tune plus or minus a key signature or two. Some are three sheets to the wind and belligerent, and want to argue with you. I wasn’t sure yet where our new friend was going to be on the spectrum.

She didn’t try to grab the microphone, so that was a good sign. But then she said:

“You HAVE to play that song again!” It was not a request.

“Bill Withers, right?”

Yes, we said, this is a classic Bill Withers tune.

“OK,” Sherry said, nonchalantly. “We have our first request for a repeat.”

And so we reprised the song. Our friend seemed in heaven, occasionally shouting out a “yeah,” or “all right,” but other than that, she was respectful of our space and enjoying the music.

As we finished up the tune we saw a tall, bespectacled Baby Boomer. Balding with white hair, he was probably in his early ’60s. We are used to people patiently waiting to praise Sherry’s singing, or our harmonies, or maybe my guitar work. But before we even finished, he was yelling.

“That’s awful!” he said. “What is it going to take for you to leave?”

I looked at Sherry and our Bill Withers fan-club friend. None of us could believe what he actually had just said. Maybe it was a joke.

“Seriously,” he said. “That’s awful.”

Sherry responded diplomatically, in a calm voice, along the lines of: “Sorry to hear it’s not your kind of music,” and “You’re entitled to your opinion.”

But our Bill Withers fan came immediately to our defense in a much more animated tone. “Hey, that’s Bill Withers!” she said the to grumpy boomer guy.

“Seriously,” said the boomer, “How much will it take for you to pack up and leave. I’ll give you five bucks.”

“Really?” I said. “I’ll give you a hundred to leave town and never come back.”

The man looked at me for a moment. I was out of the light, but he was illuminated by a store sign. I could see he was clearly agitated by my insolent remark. He did not expect such a response, I guess.

As I looked at him, I began to sense that I had met him before. And then it dawned on me, that he might have recognized at least my voice. And this made him more agitated. He felt superior and entitled to talk condescendingly to a couple of street musicians, but if he knew me, that changed the game.

He was now even more frustrated. So he turned to address Sherry instead of me. I was about to jump back into the fray, but our Bill Wither’s fan beat me to it.

“It’s Bill Withers. You don’t get it!”

And then I heard someone to my right say:

“Honey, what are you doing?”

There stood an African-American male, who was apparently married to or in a relationship with Bill Wither’s № 1 Fan.

The woman tried to explain to her partner that she had to defend Bill Wither’s honor and by extension the duo paying homage to the legendary songwriter. But her partner was having none of it.

“Get out of there,” he said. “This is fucked up.”

He turned to me. “Don’t get me wrong, the music is great. You guys are great.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Come on,” he said to her. “Let’s get out of here.”

And so Bill Wither’s № 1 fan and her partner left. And the boomer dude decided it was a good divergence to provide for his escape, since he wasn’t winning his argument.

We played a few more songs but clearly this had put a damper on the evening. So we packed it up.

The whole interaction lasted no more than two minutes. It took me another 24 hours to analyze what had happened.

— In the eyes of the aging white Baby Boomer, street musicians are a step above the homeless. It reminded me of the experiment of one the world’s greatest violinists going undercover in a Washington D.C. subway stop. Our boomer critic had no appreciation for street musicians and he felt entitled to tell us what to do. This was his street while he was on it.

— Boomer Dude was uncomfortable addressing, discussing or arguing his case with me, another aging white baby boomer, especially someone he has at least met before if not worked with in the past. This completely undercut his sense of entitlement.

— He was clearly more interested in addressing Sherry, perhaps because of her age, ethnicity or gender. This also backfired. Sherry is diplomatic but does not back down from stating her point of view. (Not that I’m speaking from experience.)

— I’ll admit I was a bit incensed at boomer dude’s condescension, treating us as beneath him. He felt he owned the street and could tell us lowly musicians what to do. But I also had to admit that my outrage was an ephemeral thing. I could go back to being myself. This was put into perspective by the husband/partner of our Bill Wither’s №1 fan. He wanted no part of this. Can you blame him? An African-American man in the middle of what could have turned into a much uglier situation. Had the police arrived for some reason, who would they have questioned first? This guy lived with and is living with this type of condescension all his life. Here he was, out for a nice night and he still has to be on guard every moment.

We talked about it a bit on the ride home. “I could have taken him,” I said in jest, omitting the dependent clause (“…if I were 20 years younger and in better shape”).

Sherry laughed but added a wise assessment: “He wasn’t worth it. Clearly he is dealing with low self esteem.”

So that was our weekend. Another milestone, another notch in the belt as a musician.

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