“As long as the buskers are getting along with each other and not fighting…everything is fine,” said Chet Harrison, a guitarist and fiddle player who makes his living as a busker in San Diego. “The rangers are pretty ’laxed. But if somebody complains about something, they come down on everybody. At times it can be pretty pleasant, at times it can be a drag. Sometimes I have to not play in the park.”
Chet got lucky on the 4th of July and got $100 tip from a couple who listened to his playing for almost an hour. He posted a picture of his guitar case and the big tip on Facebook with the tag “these are a few of my favorite things.”
Another of Chet’s favorite things is the spot in front of the Botanical Building. This is where I found Chet playing guitar, sitting cross-legged on a ledge by the Lily Pond under the shade of a cluster of palm trees. The opened guitar case contained mostly singles (around $25); three $5 bills were visible as well as a few scattered quarters. Not bad for the couple hours that he had been playing.
Chet mostly plays original compositions on his classical nylon string guitar, a 1981 Takamine C138S Concert Series, a $900–$1000 instrument. He plays finger-picking style, mixing fast arpeggios, tremolos, quick licks, and flamenco strumming repeating a similar theme for each technique. His music flirts with dissonance in a jazzy way. His technique is purely classical, giving it a touch of romanticism. But the influence of heavy rock and bluegrass is distinctly there.
“‘Romanza, Take Five,’ my own crazy version of ‘My Favorite Things,’ are just a few I’ll cover,” said Chet. “I’ll do some singing if the crowd seems to be into singing, I’ll do ‘Little Wing.’ There’s probably, like, a dozen songs I can sing if I feel like it. When I was a kid I worshipped Jimi Hendrix. I’m not famous, but I’m kinda doing the same thing, you know? I’m just shredding on my guitar.”
Despite having a soothing voice, Chet dislikes his singing, so for the most part you will only hear vibrating strings. Looking at his crystal blue eyes is like peering into a gentle soul of an old bohemian hippie who has no time for negative energy. Sporting a blonde ponytail, Chet hides his almost non-existent hairline under a wide-brimmed black fedora with purple lacing. A white beard and wrinkled face mark his years of busking experience under the sun. Missing one of his front teeth does not stop Chet from smiling.
“I used to dress up, but it doesn’t make much of a difference [in tips],” said Chet. An untucked button-down shirt, black dress pants, and old green shoes make up the rest of his outfit.
“I try getting along with everybody, and I think I do a pretty good job. A lot of buskers have tempers, but I don’t. It helps if you don’t have a temper. You know it can be like anarchy out there. There’s probably a group of around ten of us [buskers] that have been around for years.”
Chet has been busking on and off in San Diego since the 1980s. For the past six years he has been going to Balboa Park almost every day he is able.
“I was a teacher for a long time...ahh, shit, what year was this? I stopped in 2004, 2005 or something like that… I guess it was earlier than that… maybe 2003 or something… I was really busy for around ten years with an easy, high-paying sales job. It was a terrible thing because my music suffered a lot. I actually forgot to play fiddle in that period of time.”
Chet’s life timeline memory is flimsy, but from what I gathered, he was a substitute teacher for the San Diego Unified School District, at some point owned a record store, busked for a whole year in the early 2000s, got a well- paying job, and when his kid grew up, Chet went back to busking.
“It’s actually hard, especially for a guitarist… And I am the loudest guitarist I know!” Passersby rarely pay attention when Chet is doing soft arpeggios. He garners more attention when he crescendos to loud chords and flashy fast licks.
“The year I got the job was because I wasn’t making enough money to live on and I even had roommates. The reason I’m making more money now...it’s not because I’m a better guitarist, it’s because I understand how to busk better. I am a better musician than I used to be, and I’m really old, so I’ve reached a pretty good spot, since I’ve been playing so long. The reason I’m doing better is because I understand how to do it. I could play a lot of amazing shit a long time ago, but that didn’t mean I was going to make a lot of money busking.”
“Great job!” A little kid walks by Chet giving him two thumbs up and a smile. It’s high noon during free-museum Tuesday, and the park is flooded with several groups of kids and their guides. Couples stroll holding hands. Families tour around the park. Different languages surround me as I listen to Chet’s guitar. “Ve mijo, dale un dólar,” a Hispanic lady hands over a dollar to her eight-year-old son who was dumbfounded by Chet. The kid approached nervously and dropped the dollar. Chet smiles and whispers a quick thank you, carrying on his song uninterrupted.
Shirtless joggers swiftly pass by with headphones on. Others walk their dogs and stop to have a conversation with other dog walkers. Dozens of tourists pose and take pictures by the koi pond near Chet. The ones who stop and listen seem to be musicians or music nerds. Less than half of them tip, others compliment Chet’s playing and give him a thumbs up from afar. In the course of three songs, around 20 minutes, a dozen people drop tips in his guitar case. The rest and the majority of the people in the park stare at their cell phones. Many play Pokémon Go.
“The kids are awesome,” Chet says. “The kids understand the music more than the adults. Adults are prejudiced against music. If it’s not their kind of music, they won’t give a damn. But the kids are wide open to everything. It’s different for everybody, but couples are the best for me. What I play is kinda radical but it’s also kinda romantic....
“The kids, generally, even though I love them... the kids and their parents are not that good [with tipping]. The parents, they want you to give them a balloon, then they will give you a tip. The jugglers, acrobats, and people like that, they make a better living than all the musicians. They create a spectacle. Musicians, you don’t really want to create a spectacle; it distracts from the music. Especially if you are playing classical guitar, you are not going to start screaming.”
Chet would rather not tell me how much he makes on a daily average. He did tell me that his best day, without getting a big tip, was around $200. And his worst day was under $35 for more than a couple of hours of busking.
“I’ll tell you what, it is inconsistent as hell. Valentine’s Day this year was shit. Actually, last July was my record month of all my years. Old hippies, hipsters, or if they got a heavy metal shirt on, that’s a good sign of a good tip. Families are hit or miss. Parents have a lot of shit going on, and they got limited funds. I don’t blame them. ”
“I am really lucky; I usually get a permit. If you get a good number, then you get to pick a good spot. If you get a high number, then you don’t get a spot. The guy that has [my favorite spot] this month, his name is Wayne, and Wayne only plays in the afternoons for an hour or two. I only play when he is not here and you are allowed to do that. It used to be that you could only play at your spot. There are some spots where it is not even possible to get an audience.”
According to the entertainer brochure found in the City of San Diego’s website, Balboa Park issues 25 permits total: 10 permits for musicians (vocal and acoustic, no amplification allowed), 10 permits for performers (clowns, balloonists, portrait artists, etc.), and five for show acts (magicians, jugglers, dance, improv, etc.).The lottery is the first Saturday of every month at 10 a.m. at the Administration Building.
“Saxes are very loud. They don’t need an amplifier. If I have an amplifier and I play as loud as I possible can, it’s not even half as loud as sax players. The way the rules are written says no amps, and it’s basically too much of a bureaucratic nightmare to change the rules. If a sax player, a bagpipe player, and some of these super loud African drums play together, it’s as loud as a freakin’ rock band! And this is all acoustic.”
Much louder than a car horn, a tenor saxophone player by the fountain, near the Natural History Museum, drowns out the sound of the water and the constant chatter. The jazzy melody can be heard from a far distance, while a guitarist can only be appreciated at close proximity.
“The first time I played in Balboa was back in th ’80s with a really good banjo player,” says Chet. “We used to play bluegrass. We would jam out, and it was really fun. We only did it, like, twice a month back then. We used to always come down here and busk on Sundays, sometimes more than that. I [busked] as long as Eric [the banjo player] was in San Diego. I never thought I could do it just playing guitar. Banjo is louder than hell. Back then, you had to get the permit every day. I would prefer it like that, because I am here every day.”
Compare the 10 musician spots in Balboa Park to a city like Montreal. The Canadian city has 55 designated spots for musicians identified by a blue panel with a white lyre in their subway stations. It is legal and encouraged to play in the space in front of the signs. Behind the busking sign there is a small piece of paper used as a signup sheet. Buskers can schedule up to three hours and in as many designated spots that they want, with the condition that the schedule is honored. If a busker doesn’t show up to play in 30 minutes after the signup time, the spot is up for grabs. Some spots are reserved for musicians who have passed a city audition.
“Los Angeles is a jungle. I’ve been meaning to busk in Venice with my group [Cairo Beats], but it’s tough to get them all together.” Chet has never busked outside San Diego. Busking in Los Angeles is legal, but pedestrian traffic is limited. The most popular spots, Venice Beach and Hollywood Avenue, are saturated with street performers. To perform on Santa Monica Pier or the Promenade, a $37 performance permit is required (it is also saturated). It is illegal to busk at the Universal Citywalk; street performers are auditioned and hired by Universal.
“I play most of the popular busking spots in town. I personally like Balboa Park; it is more conducive to playing nylon-string guitar. I think Seaport Village or downtown is better if you are going to play a lot of pop songs. I’ll go busk in front of Café Sevilla a lot of the times at night. It’s fun and I’ll get okay tips, but I get tired of drunks coming up and going, ‘HEY! Play ‘Hotel California’!” Chet exclaimed, imitating the drunks.
“Downtown is a hassle; it’s so busy and it’s too loud. And then if you have an act that draws a lot of attention, then they’ll shut you down. It’s like a catch-22. You can probably go out there and play classical guitar and no one is going to hassle you. But you are not going to get that many people watching you or make a lot of money. If I went out there with a drummer, my fiddle with an amp, and a sexy dancer, we could probably make money, but we would also get shut down....
“Some people think I’m homeless, but I live very close [to Balboa Park] and I got very cheap rent, because I lived there for 20 years. It’s really a blessing. The police don’t deal with buskers [in Balboa Park], they deal with criminals. The rangers can give you a $300 fine. Usually they are really nice.” Chet is the type of guy who avoids confrontation, if the atmosphere in the park is not “’laxed,” he will pack his instruments and move on.
During his busking break, I offered to buy Chet some lunch. He refused food but accepted a beer. On our way to the Prado restaurant, we walked by a snappily dressed young violinist in the hallway in front of the Model Railroad Museum. He was playing “Tango Por Una Cabeza,” by Carlos Gardel. A song written in 1935, it is one of the most recognizable tangos, thanks to the 1992 movie Scent of a Woman (and several more films since).
“I don’t know if he has a permit,” said Chet as we walked by the young violinist. “But no one is really allowed to play there. I was kicked out of there when it was over 100 degrees last week and I wanted to play in the shade. He [the violinist] is really non-intrusive. If you want to play without a permit, you just have to be really nice....
“From a selfish point of view, it would be preferable if buskers were auditioned. The better the musicians that come out here, the better. There was a guy that came a couple of days ago that played beautiful cello, and with him it was really obvious. He made me money. If you are going to play a solo instrument, cello is probably the best one. What hurts is people that come to the park that play three chords. Some of them are really nice, but they don’t really help me out.”
On our way back to the lily pond, I saw another classical guitarist playing under the arcade near the Timken Museum of Art (a hallway that is not a designated spot for musicians). A cute tiny blonde girl was playing “Capricho Arabe,” by Francisco Tarrega, a standard in the classical guitar repertoire. Without any amplification, her guitar could barely be heard. Her guitar case had only a few dollars. I stopped to chat.
Her name was Isabella, a 23-year-old student with two jobs, who takes guitar lessons with Fred Benedetti and occasionally busks in Balboa Park. She confessed that she doesn’t have a permit but said she has never been bothered.
I join Chet back at his favorite spot. Wayne, the rightful owner of the spot for the month, appeared with his fiddle a few minutes later. Chet finished the song he was playing and ceded his favorite spot. But he wasn’t done for the day, so we walked to Chet’s second-favorite spot, a big tree near the overlook of the Japanese Friendship Garden.
“Ugh, a three-chord guy is there,” Chet scoffed as we found out his other spot was taken. A young guy with shoulder-length blonde hair sang pop music, strumming loudly. Instead of playing guitar under the shade of the big tree (a designated musician spot), Chet settled for playing in the hallway where he had gotten kicked out of before. Instead of playing his guitar, this time Chet opted for his fiddle so he could be less intrusive.
“Did you get the Pikachu that’s over there?” I overheard people walking by Chet, still glued to their phones playing Pokémon Go. A kid in a stroller reacts to Chet’s fiddle; the mom stops and listens. Chet gets down to his knees and plays for the kid. The kid flails around his arms in excitement. Chet earns another dollar. A group of people stopped to listen, a woman stood next to Chet pretending to play the fiddle for a picture. Another dollar.