Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Street beats: tunes along State

It's 1 a.m. Saturday, and Art Paul Schlosser is playing a kazoo-driven version of an old gospel song outside State Street Brats. As he bangs out the last few chords, two tipsy students rush up to their
favorite street musician to offer a token of their appreciation.

"You hungry? I'm gonna get you a slice of pizza! What kind do you want?" yells one, not really waiting for an answer.
The hungry Schlosser says the two students have just answered his prayers, literally. "Sometimes if you think about something you want really hard, that becomes a prayer," he explains. "Be careful, though, because it can happen with things you don't want, too."
Coming from a quintessential State-Streeter like Art Paul, this odd bit of advice is as natural as gospel.

State Street regulars are some of the most eccentric anywhere, but it's the musicians who really stand out. From orange-jumpsuited Piccolo Pete to the mysterious late-night flute player on Library Mall, they give the street its flavor.
2:30 p.m.
A day in the life of a street musician doesn't start until early afternoon, when the sun's out and people are strolling. Right after lunch is one of the best times of day, since pedestrians are ambling without the purpose that comes with suppertime.
This Friday, Catfish Stephenson is out in his trademark cowboy hat and a matching white shirt, every inch the grizzled old bluesman with his huge, handlebar mustache and gray-blond ponytail.
His fingers pluck the melody almost effortlessly, producing a surprising amount of sound. Catfish has been playing music since he was five years old, and he now makes his living solely through his playing. You can usually find him near Steep 'n' Brew, which he jokingly refers to as his "daytime office."
As a State Street fixture, he was recently featured in a guide to Wisconsin (his mother bought him a copy). He knows most of the other regulars, including a mildly retarded man who soon comes up to greet him.
"Looks like you made some lunch money there," he says, nodding to the respectable collection of dollar bills in Catfish's case.
He's carrying a portable radio that's tuned in to a Christian rock station, which he proceeds to turn up. "Everybody dance!" he yells, grooving to the music.
Catfish dismisses him politely: "Hey, man, I gotta make some money."


4 p.m.

While veterans like Catfish and Art Paul have been playing State Street for years, British one-man band Bob London has only been in Madison a few months. He has mixed feelings about State Street, where his daily take is often unpredictable, but admits that the weekend of Taste of Madison might have been the best he's ever done anywhere.

Right now, he's waiting in front of his weather-beaten contraption for an annoyingly loud sewer truck that just pulled in across the street.

"I should make at least a dollar a minute for this work, that's a fair trade-off for the amount of hassle," London says. "The original attraction of the free-range has been bogged down by hassle, especially in America."

London started playing as a busker on the London Underground more than 30 years ago.

"I was just filling in the gap, figuring out what I was gonna do next, and then this became what I was gonna do next."

London estimates that 10 hours a week is spent playing, while the rest of the time is spent like it is now, "kicking around and trying to figure out what to do with it."

5:30 p.m.

Alto saxman Floyd Cheatham III is relatively new to the State Street scene as well, though you wouldn't know it by his playing. A man sitting at a nearby café even gets up to donate a few bucks in appreciation of Cheatham's rendition of the Dave Brubeck hit "Take Five."

Cheatham is only too happy to talk, periodically darting over to the café to talk jazz history with the Brubeck fan.

"Ain't nothing new under the sun," Cheatham explains. "Music is music. Rock 'n' roll is based on the blues, and they call it that because black people were calling it that."

Cheatham goes on to wax lyrical about a band he was in during the late '60s, opening for Little Richard in Milwaukee and reminisces about smoking with him in the dressing room before the show.

Cheatham's main occupation is carpentry, but he's been an actor and musician for most of his life. As if to prove the point, he pulls a passel of tattered programs and newspaper clippings out of his sax case, including a letter of acceptance to the University of Wisconsin School of Music dated 1994.

He's been taking a break for the past two years to "woodshed" and master his saxophone.

"I just work on my scales, my modes. It's all about the modes," he explains. "Most people, their instrument conquers them. But if you can conquer your instrument … "

In the meantime, he's been making good money playing on State Street. Cheatham claims he can make more than $100 in an hour and a half on a weekend night.

Cheatham isn't out to make much today; he came down mainly to get popcorn, coffee, tobacco and "a drink," though from the looks of it, he's had a few. Soon he runs off to catch his bus.

12:30 a.m.

After the suppertime lull, things don't pick up again until the college students come out to party. The dubious honor of being the college crowd's favorite street performer easily goes to Art Paul Schlosser, the author of whimsical tunes like "Purple Bananas on the Moon."

Tonight, Schlosser is parked at his usual spot next to State Street Brats, and the overall noise level nearly drowns out anything he says.

"This is where people expect me to be," shrugs the wide-eyed guitar and kazoo player.

As if on cue, a college kid drags his girlfriend over, plunks down a dollar and asks for a song.

Without missing a beat, Schlosser begins vigorously strumming with his plastic gift card.

"This is a generic dedication song," he warbles in his distinct, slightly slurred voice. "I don't know much about Becca … or what she has under her bed."

"I sing funny songs," Schlosser says. "I would try to sing serious songs, but people would laugh at me anyway. I look weird."

But what he does works for Schlosser, who says he's been playing on State Street for 20 years. He declines to talk about his busking income or how many songs he knows.

"It's not good to boast about yourself," he says. "Boast about the Lord."

1 a.m.

Just across the street from Schlosser are two of his acquaintances; the three of them drove in from their homes on the outskirts of Madison.

UFO Jim plays guitar and sings, occasionally accompanied by his friend Roy on harmonica. Jim encourages audience participation and even has the lyrics to most of his repertoire scrawled out on large poster board signs, although that's also so he can remember the lyrics.

"My brain is addled," Jim explains with a grin.

Just the same, he knows a lot of songs, including a good portion of the Beatles catalog. After an up-tempo rendition of "I Want To Hold Your Hand," Roy applauds as Jim takes a breather.

"Lot of chords in that," he says, playing each one as he counts them up. "Twelve chords."

1:30 a.m.

Heading home through Library Mall, I notice the mysterious flutist who often plays jazz tunes there, packing up his stuff. I ask him why he never interrupts his endless medley to talk to a passerby.

"I come down here to play, not to talk," he replies before disappearing down the alley next to the University Book Store.

It's the perfect way to sum up the love of music and addiction to their craft that keeps all these buskers coming back to play on State Street, day after day, night after night.

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