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Publication date: 10/02/2002

Mining S.F.'s musical soul

By Joyce Nishioka
Of The Examiner Staff

    If a picture is worth a thousand words, the same could be said of "Streetnote," a new CD that offers musical snapshots of The City's vast soundscape.

    Here, you won't just hear Don Garrett's melodic guitar riffs and twangy storytelling songs. You'll imagine the group that gathers round him, first chattering and then clapping to the beat.

    Recorded live -- on the street -- the CD also features Rico, who plays keys and flute on a busy Chinatown corner; Robert, who sings opera to bursts of impromptu applause; Larry, who beats on his buckets as cars whiz past; and Mr. Xie, who plays er-hu to the clicking of heels.

    "Streetnote" is the brainchild of Tim Nutt, a 25-year-old native of France and graduate of Stanford's mechanical engineering department.

    Nutt describes himself as a music enthusiast, though music activist may be a better description. Along with playing piano, clarinet, guitar and drums, he is currently in a band called Shiva Las Vegas, which is set to tour The City by foot.

    After college, Nutt worked in a music store and dabbled in producing CDs. When he decided to take his hobby a step further, he looked to other musicians to record and promote.

    "I thought to myself, I don't have that much to say, but there are so many people out there that want to express things, but who don't have the means of distributing and putting their ideas on CD," he says.

    He decided to focus his project on street musicians. For five months, he scoured The City for talent, spending hours just sitting and listening. For this first CD, he chose musicians who made their living by playing in the street, those who embodied the diversity and spirit of San Francisco.

    "These are really dedicated musicians," Nutt says. "They work hard everyday to make living, to express themselves and remain true to their art form. They get some recognition, but not enough recognition."

    Take Garrett, who has been writing songs, singing and playing his guitar for 40 years. A Texas native and born-again Christian, Garrett says, "I never considered myself fancy guitar player. God didn't intend for me to be a fancy guitar player. From me, you have to take the whole package, from me you get a song."

    Garrett never writes his songs down (he doesn't read music) and never liked to analyze his music too much, either. To do so takes away from the mystery of it, he says. He prefers to express the spontaneous emotions of the moment. "The songs are already there. Songs are something you try to capture out of the air."

    Because of the ephemeral nature of his art, Garrett doesn't know how many songs he's composed but says it's in the hundreds. Many of them, he remembers by playing. And when he gets deep into a conversation, he repeats lines from his lyrics.

    Describing how after his stint in the Army he escaped from his small Texas town and drove to San Francisco, he says, "There was a promise of adventure and I wanted to go. I wrote a little song, 'I'm old enough to know when trains had a whistle to blow.'"

    Describing his musical influences, he says, "The first time I heard guitar and harmonica and someone singing, it struck something deep in me. I wrote song about it: 'You can keep your blues for a feeling, and I'm here just to steal the song.'"

    Asked how old he is, he replies, "I'll be 165 next month." He explains, "At 31, I wrote a song about how there's nothing new under the sun except me and you. It goes on to say that I was going to be 131.

    "It doesn't seem that odd to add on 100 years to life, especially with some of the stuff you go through."

    Garrett says the most difficult part of his job is observing his audience. "There are just all kinds of people on the street, from well-to-do to most un-well-to-do. There are crazy things on street. Just being there can be unfortunate."

    After serving in the Vietnam War, Garrett was supposed to go to college, but he never made it there. All he wanted to do, he says, was strum his guitar and howl at the moon.

    He and his friend packed their duffle bags and drove a Cadillac to San Francisco. He started singing in North Beach, and for a few years played gigs throughout the Bay Area. A couple of record companies were interested in him, but he says he never pursued it. He even turned down a record contract. "The demands were outrageous," he says.

    Garrett left street performance for a period in his life. In 1971, he became a born-again Christian. He spent 30 years in fellowship and churches but says "the music never went away."

    About five years ago, he returned to the streets to perform. He earns some money through donations and selling his personal CD. Desta, his wife of 35 years, has supported his choice. She has a regular job and, Garrett says, she has been cooperative and understanding of his need to make music.

    He still plays at small venues, but he's pickier now that he's older. "If it's just some drunken thing, I have no need for it. Bars and clubs are usually just death at this point to me. I did it when I was a young man, but I don't need it anymore. I'd rather sit on the sidewalk in the sun and let the people go by."

    Garrett may exude a carefree spirit, but he isn't as laid back as he appears. "There's a lot going on; what you see is not always what's going on."

    A closet perfectionist, he says he isn't satisfied with his performance on "Streetnote," though most listeners say it's the highlight of the CD. Still, he emphasizes that he admires Nutt for doing the project in the first place.

    Since the recording, "Streetnote" has evolved from a CD to a record label. In the future, Nutt plans to record more CDs and eventually produce an audio magazine. He also plans on lobbying City Hall to make public spaces more accessible to street musicians.

    So far, Nutt has paid for his project using money from his own pocket. To compensate the musicians, he gave them copies of the CD so they could sell them and keep the profits.

    "Many street musicians have something to say that doesn't jive with mainstream media. They have something to say from the heart," Nutt says. "I'm just helping them get their messages across."

    E-mail: jnishioka@examiner.com