Tuesday, August 15, 2006
His name is Noah Tyler, age 55, but everyone calls him Dave. He’s one of the last street musicians still left in San Francisco. I first encountered him when I was walking my dogs down by Fisherman’s Wharf on the weekends. It’s a nice stroll down through Aquatic Park, if you can stay clear of all the clueless tourists on bikes who seem to think people on foot are simply in the way.
So, I go down to where the cable cars turn around, and I started to notice this street musician entertaining the tourists while they waited in line for a cable car to board. I was immediately impressed with Dave (or Noah’s) style of playing. He knows a ton of songs and he’s got a great, really gravelly voice, kind of a mixture between Kris Kristofferson and Bruce Springsteen with possibly a little Bob Dylan thrown in. He also has a really acerbic sense of humor and is not afraid to say things to the tourists that are truthful and somewhat harsh, but he does it in a nice way so that people don’t get pissed off at him. So, after watching and listening to Noah for several weekends, I decided to interview him, and he is a fascinating guy.
Noah has been coming to San Francisco almost every summer since 1967. He arrives in mid-May and leaves around Halloween. That’s his migration pattern. The rest of the year he lives in what he describes as a small hut on the big island of Hawaii. During the winter he lives like a hermit and doesn’t interact with many people, so when he comes to SF that’s his time for socialization. “It’s not healthy to be alone all the time,” Tyler said. “You need to be around people once in awhile or you can go mad.”
Tyler plays at the cable car turnaround every Saturday and Sunday from around 9 am to 1 pm. Many people assume he’s homeless just because they see him playing music on the street, but he’s not. He has an apartment with his 23-year old wife (his second) in North Beach where he stays when he’s in town.
Many people would probably admire the way Tyler lives. He has never had a bank account, he doesn’t own a TV or a cell phone, and he tries to be as unencumbered with material possessions as he can. Tyler estimates that he knows how to play over 2,000 songs, and I believe him. Every time a tourist makes a request for a certain tune, he seems to know it. Tyler hasn’t always just played music on the street. In his 20’s and 30’s, he played for bands like INXS, Midnight Oil, Men at Work and others. He’s written songs for Willie Nelson and Toby Keith.
Every year when Tyler comes back to SF, his first reaction is “What has happened to these people? What has happened to us all?”
“Back in the late 60’s when I started this gig, people would laugh and dance around while I played and have a great time,” Tyler said. “Now they just stare at me while using their cell phones and their iPODs. Many of these folks are on stuff like Xanax and Prozac and totally out of it.”
Tyler said you can immediately tell the difference between tourists from overseas and people who live in the U.S. “The Europeans are always much nicer to me and have a better attitude” he said. “Americans are zombied out in a lot of ways. They are frightened for one thing. They are terrified of just about everything. We are a scared bunch of people in this country and it’s a sad way to be.”
There used to be over 50 street performers and musicians on the streets on SF, Tyler said. But, now there are fewer than a dozen and I asked Noah why. “The whole mentality has changed,” He said. “Kids nowadays with any musical talent just want to sit around in front of their computers and make CD’s. The art of street performing is dying, man!”
Tyler grew up in Hawaii as an orphan who was raised by an island family who adopted him. I asked Tyler if the local police ever hassled him for playing on the street. “No, the cops are cool,” he said. “This area here at Fisherman’s Wharf is federal, state and city property, so the cops really don’t want anything to do with us.”
Tyler wouldn’t tell me how much money he makes playing for the tourists, but he did tell me that he’s gotten a good share of $100 bills from people over the years. I’m not at all surprised. The guy can play. If you ever get a chance between now and Halloween, get down to Fisherman’s Wharf and go to where the cable cars turn around, and catch Noah’s act. It’s very entertaining and so is he.