Jogging backwards to the bucket boys’ beat, a tipsy Cubs fan nearly bowled over a small child. Lenard Richardson, seated in his wheelchair next to three other busy drummers, pointed his drumstick and chastised the man.
“Ey, ey, ey!”
Richardson lost his legs when he was 16. “I got shot up,” he said, when trouble erupted at a party. Now 19, he continues to play with Chicago’s bucket boys, as he has for nearly a decade. During almost every Cubs game, ten to twenty boys saunter from corner to corner of the streets outside Wrigley Field. They split up, choose spots, and sit down on crates, beating out intense, repetitive, tribal-sounding rhythms on plastic utility buckets.
The traveling bucket boys of the South Side are just a few of the city’s street-performing individuals — 357 as of last year, to be exact. But that’s only counting the “licensed” performers who possess $100 city permits.
Most of the bucket boys don’t have these permits. Richardson reluctantly displayed his license, which reads “Bobby L. Davis III.” It shows a boy with dreads; Richardson’s hair is short.
In 2006, the price of a permit jumped from $50 to $75, and it has since been raised to $100. While Chicago’s permits cost less than in other places, such as the $500 that the San Francisco Port Authority charges, some feel ambivalent about its effects.
Tim Nutt founded streetnote.org, a Web site devoted to publicizing the music of street performers around the country. He has mixed feelings about the permit. “By having a licensing system, it legitimizes the street musicians and actually gives them credit for what they do.” On the other hand, he said, it can push out the poorer musicians and favor the more professional ones who come with high-quality equipment and work experience.
Street musicians are important, Nutt said, because “there’s a triangulation that happens between the city, the street musician, and the passerby, and that triangulation actually develops a sense of community where otherwise it wouldn’t exist.”
“The ultimate goal of a city is to put everything in its place,” he said, “and street music adds a little bit to that otherwise isolating environment.”
When Nutt worked in recording studios, he said he witnessed awful bands spend tens of thousands of dollars on CD production while talented musicians on the street went unrecorded.
“I just realized that they were the musicians that needed the most help in terms of marketing and public relations,” said Nutt.
If a tourist with a videocamera approaches the bucket boys, they immediately hope for YouTube fame. “We gonna be on YouTube?” several asked. They are already featured in many videos uploaded by impressed tourists and city residents.
As some bucket boys leave and others arrive with their crates, buckets, and sticks in hand, the lineup changes over the course of the day — and over the years. They first played on Michigan Avenue fifteen years ago, and they began to play at sports events around 2000. They started playing at Cubs games five years ago.
Tourists and sportsgoers are usually fans of the bucket boys. “I think street musicians are fantastic!” said John Douglas after the Cubs game. “It gives musicians an opportunity to perform before of a mass amount of people that they wouldn’t usually have an opportunity to perform before.”
Local residents and employees, who must endure the drumming every day, are not as enthusiastic.
“We get a lot of complaints about the noise from the bucket boys,” said Jeff Riley, policy director of Ward 42, which includes the tourist stretch of Michigan Avenue.
“The noise travels upwards through the buildings, so the noise gets louder as it goes up,” he said. “Now that people are opening their windows and enjoying the air, they’re hearing it.”
Mark Cotton has worked at Wrigley Field for three years. “I’ve got a quote for you: Change your song,” he said.
Shirt vendor Mark Kolbusz agreed: “The bucket boys suck.”
“It’s the same beating for hours on end. It’s real irritating,” said Bill O’Brien, the security manager for Murphy’s Bleachers, a bar and grill next to the Cubs stadium. He has worked there for 25 years.
“A lot of times they approach the customers with a bucket in their hand and try to get them to give them money. They look intimidating, give ‘em the look and whatnot.”
“What can you do?” he asked as the bucket boys drummed a few feet away from Murphy’s Bleacher’s patrons. “I mean, I guess the city council says if they get licenses, they can pretty much do whatever they want.”
Efrat Stein, a spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Licensing, explained the reasoning behind the permit. “It ensures that traffic is not impeded, it creates rules that address safety and welfare issues, and it also addresses quality of life issues such as noise.”
According to Nutt, the permit system rewards street musicians who are professional performers. This breed of street musician is, contrary to public opinion, quite common, if not the majority.
“The biggest misconception about street musicians is that they are homeless or untalented,” Nutt said.
Mike Hudson, who plays saxophone professionally at clubs and commercial venues, takes his alto and tenor saxophones and an amplifier to Michigan Avenue a few days a week.
“Playing on the street is a business to me. I usually go on the street when gigs are slow. And jobs are slow for me right now,” he said.
Hudson can make as much as $200 in four hours. He held the day’s earnings between his palms, and they fanned out like sheets in a thick paperback book.
He said he supports the idea of a license because it ensures that the music is good and that the musicians interact fairly.
“You ever see the kids playing the drumsticks on the buckets?” Hudson asked, referring to the bucket boys. “Sometimes they can get a little disrespectful.” He said they recently set up just 50 feet from his spot.
“They set up next to you trying to run you away, and they don’t have licenses. Most of them are not old enough to have licenses. They’re supposed to be in school!”
The bucket boys range in age from twenty-somethings to teens to even younger tagalongs. With a smile, Richardson recalled skipping school and slyly leaving his house several years ago.
“I used to sneak out of the house ‘cuz I was young,” he said. But now, “my mom, she’s cool with it.”
Richardson doesn’t want to be a bucket boy forever: He hopes to become a drum teacher when he’s older.
He says he has mentally recovered from the shooting. “I got a daughter to live for now. I’m happy now.” His daughter, Lanaya, is two years old.
“You see me downtown, I was smilin’ right? It’s cool.”