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O.C. Scene

Stringing Us All Along

Phil Burby has no home, but he has his acoustic guitar. And he has to get out there and play.

August 24, 2000|CHRIS CEBALLOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Orange County, where most of the shiny new malls hire performers to entertain shoppers, traditional street performers are scarce.

At Forest Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Phil Burby plays acoustic guitar, hoping enough tourists and beach-goers will toss enough spare change into his plastic-shell guitar case for him to buy something to eat and drink for the day.

Burby, 38, is homeless and has been playing at the prominent Laguna Beach intersection for about six months, since he lost his last "real job."

"I'm into a country-funk sound," Burby said, describing his music as "the Doobie Brothers meets Stevie Ray Vaughan meets Alice in Chains."

He said he'd like his next real job to be in music.

"If I had a chance to record with somebody who would believe in what I'm doing, I'd shower every day and get my [act] together," Burby said. "That's the hard thing about playing your own stuff; [everyone] wants to hear 'Hotel California.' "

Burby said he has a collection of demos and hopes to find somebody who will mix the tapes in a studio. Until then, he said, he'll continue playing on street corners.

Watching Burby's back is Raymond "Ray-Ray" Litchfield, also homeless. They share a beat-up guitar. Litchfield's was stolen some time back.

"The church helps out some, but on the streets the musicians stay together," Litchfield said. "We take care of each other."

Litchfield and Burby said they try to stay out of trouble, although they have been ticketed for drinking in public and sleeping on the beach.

Police in Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach--where the two played earlier this year--said street performers aren't a cause for concern.

"In Santa Monica it's been a huge issue," said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Janet Perez. "But we don't have very many, and the ones we do have haven't caused us any problems."

"Generally they're not a problem," said Bruce Butler, director of the Fingerhut Gallery, which--because of its location--plays the primary audience to Forest Avenue street performers. "Generally we only get nervous when we see someone with a bongo drum."

Customers don't complain about the performers, said Butler, who raves about a family of classical violinists who infrequently grace the corner.

"If [the street performers] play right outside the door, it can be terrible," he said. "But it's funky and it's fabulous. Some are quite good. Some are ho-hum. We have one saxophone player that is so bad that we have to ask them to leave.

"We have a Bob Dylan-type musician by the name of Spider," Butler said. "I don't know what his last name is, but he's a great entertainer."

Burby is a far cry from the socially conscious, lyrically poetic folk singers Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. Burby's passion lies in electric guitar playing, and his instrumentals come primarily out of his struggles with depression.

But still, it's hard not to think of Guthrie--the famous vagabond who penned "This Land Is Your Land"--when hearing Burby talk about his wanderlust journey to California.

Leaving the suburbs of Detroit with his wife in 1991, Burby played in blues bands for five years in Las Vegas. They then hitchhiked east, while Burby tried to break into the club circuits of the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Nashville, Tenn.

The couple moved to Oceanside, where Burby held down a job as a janitor for about three months.

After his wife left him, Burby moved to Huntington Beach, where he met Litchfield. The two quickly left Surf City for the more upscale--and generous--tourists of Laguna Beach.

*

On Forest Avenue, five minutes pass between a man who drops loose change into Burby's case and a woman, double-fisting drinks from Starbucks, who awkwardly kneels down to drop in a dollar bill.

"For a Monday, today was pretty good," Burby said, collecting mostly change from his guitar case. Every day Burby plays about five hours and on average earns about $10.

"There's a lot of professionals who come out to play; they have amps and everything," Burby said. "If I break a string we've got to walk three blocks and then panhandle for the change to buy one."

A woman in her early 20s sits down at the corner to finish a vanilla ice cream cone. Offering Burby a couple of cigarettes, she borrows his guitar to play Jewel's 1997 radio hit "Who Will Save Your Soul." She says it has been a long time since she played before an audience.

Burby, who normally has a quiet, laid-back voice, replies enthusiastically to the fellow musician: "You just gotta get out there and play."

For Burby, as with many performers, music is all important.

"It's been a long journey. All I've got is my guitar," he said. "I'm a street musician."

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