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  • By Josh Max

    A lot of folks who bash a guitar aspire to clubs, festies or the stadium circuit. But when I was eighteen, the street, specifically Washington Square Park, is where I wanted to play music, to make money and to grow a pair of man-sized performing cojones. I wanted strangers who had no reason to like or dislike me to stop and either drop a buck, break into a smile or, at the very least, stay for the entire song. The further goal was to have one of these strangers invite me to crash at their apartment that night.

    I’d started playing at thirteen in my rural Westchester town in order to reach people, because I could barely talk. Fresh out of three years of special ed, I was terrified of the “normal” kids in high school, and my words came out one by one, if at all, unless I knew the person very well.

    I found an old Gibson acoustic guitar in my parents’ closet that summer, yanked it out and learned to string it and tune it from my school’s music teacher. Almost as soon as I could play for real, I made recordings at home using two tape recorders to overdub guitars, harmony vocals and pots and pans for drums. It sounded crap but caused enough of a buzz in school to get me into a popular local cover band playing bass and singing lead. I made my debut in front of an auditorium packed with 600 kids, wearing a cape my mother made me, and playing a Fender Precision bass through two doorway-sized speakers.

    The next day, a level of unprecedented respect was rained upon me in school, which spread to town and eventually across the county as we played more auditorium gigs over the next year. I still said almost nothing, looking at the floor and letting my emotions out through my singing — my longing, my loneliness, my passion, my humor and my rage. I was seventeen.

    By the time I was eighteen, though, the band was finished. We’d graduated high school and tried to make our way into to local clubs but didn’t do so well there, up against guys in their late twenties who had the moves, the toughness and the crowd rapport. Our demise was devastating to me.

    I packed up the acoustic guitar in a duffel bag one spring day and took the train into Grand Central Station with only enough money for a one-way trip. When I arrived at Washington Square Park, I saw a variety of seasoned, established, successful, moneymaking performers. There was comedian Charlie Barnett, who only had to walk around screaming “Showtime!” to gather hundreds of people who showered him with laughter and money. Tony “The Fireman” Vera’s popular act consisted of blowing flames twenty feet ahead of him. Handsome Alabama cowboy Ellis Hooks raked it in with an Elvis-like charisma.

    I opened my case and let it fly, trying out tunes. At first no one stopped but I kept going because I had no choice. After I’d been at it for ninety minutes, I had four bucks. I looked up and saw Ellis, who’d finished a set, watching me. He walked over, picked up my case and carried it around, ordering people to drop money in it for me. The case came back with a little over $30 and a bag of weed. I felt like I’d hit the lottery.

    I thanked him and he said, “You need to sing and play louder.” I started again, practically yelling and playing the guitar with all the force I could muster, and people began stopping and dropping dollar bills.

    When it got dark I jogged alongside Ellis and his entourage of two fans, sisters Dina and Gina, and bought them dinner in thanks for Ellis’s help. After a few beers, Ellis said I was welcome to crash with them at the Marlton Hotel on West 8th Street. I spent a platonic, sleepless, roach-infested night on the floor of this then-dump under a blanket with Gina, fully clothed. It was uncomfortable and scary but it beat anything I’d known in Westchester. Had Ellis been less generous, I would have probably quit that day, gone home to my parents’ house and stayed there. Instead, I deeply inhaled the stale oxygen of the Marlton at 4:45 a.m. and felt like an artist for the first time in my life.

    I appeared five days a week in the park that summer. I’d have to wait until the established comedians, fire breathers and other serious performers had done their sets, then I’d let it fly. By now I had an established ten-minute set of roughly the same tunes I knew got people’s attention. Hank Williams was big, as was Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” as adapted to acoustic guitar, and soon I started seeing the same people in my small crowd. My act wasn’t as big, wasn’t as brash and wasn’t as much of a slam-dunk as the others’ shticks, but it was mine and it made me money.

    At night I would find someone, anyone, who had a couch or a floor and I soon lost any shyness about asking strangers if I could stay. I crashed in NYU dorms, sprawling Fifth Avenue apartments, West Village studios and, one evening, on a couch in a furniture store. There was only one night I had nowhere to sleep, leaning up against a doorway from about 3:30 a.m. to dawn, my feet aching, my face and hands filthy. I learned then to set up lodgings early in the day rather than waiting until night when all the weirdos, dealers and hookers appeared. I wouldn't stay with just anyone, even when it rained.

    September came, as it must, and one day it was fifty degrees in the park. I opened my case, played two tunes to nobody and felt my nose, ears and fingers freeze. I packed up my gear for the last time and took the train home, intending to come back next summer, a summer that never came.

    The experience of playing music in the park — and doing it knowing I had nowhere to lay my head down when it got dark — changed not only the way I played and sang but the way I lived and the way I interacted with people, a change that remains to this day when I take to a stage wearing in-line skates, or gunning a live circular saw or pretending to strip before starting the first song. As Henry Frankenstein famously said, “It’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive.”

    Read more, from five writers who recall the timeless terror—and surprising satisfaction—of sleeping on other people's sofas, in Narratively's Tales from the Couch.

    * * *

    Josh Max is a performance artist, musician and producer whose original recordings are represented for pre-cleared licensing for television, radio and gaming by MPL Music Publishing. He loves children and animals and is available to speak, play, sing, write or shoot anywhere in the world.

    Illustration by Katie Parrish.
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