Name: Marion Mays
Day job: Disabled, “a few little things”
Venues: South Side and Mount Washington
Instrument/medium: Acoustic guitar and vocals; balloon art
Favorite musician: Todd Rundgren
Favorite song: The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You”
Average daily take: $50
Weirdest tip: A Seiko watch
For those new to the busking scene, Marion Mays has some words of advice. “The rules of busking are, that if somebody calls a complaint in, you have to get out of there immediately,” he says. “When the cop comes up, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna leave,’ or ‘She’s a jagoff.’” And his other tip? “If you’re not making minimum wage, you’re in the wrong spot.”
Mays should know — the lifelong Pittsburgher has been busking here since 1991, when he first opened his guitar case in front of the U.S. Steel Building. “All these guys were coming back from lunch, and they all threw in a quarter,” he recalls. “Around 2 o’clock I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t too bad!’” But when he returned the following day, confident in a profitable repeat of his debut, he learned it’s easy to wear out your welcome. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” he notes with a wry chuckle.
Since then, he’s adopted his current rotation between East Carson Street, in the South Side, and Mount Washington’s vistas. In the past, he also played Oakland, where he recalls once getting a request to play some Joan Osbourne … from Joan Osbourne. (Mays wasn’t able to oblige, he says, “but I did learn some.”)
While some musicians may view busking as a lark, or as a way to get their music heard by passersby, Mays, who is disabled, doesn’t mind admitting that the money he earns comes in handy. While Social Security covers his bills, Mays says that with busking, he’s “able to ride busses and go to dollar stores, and do little projects” — and feel good about where the cash comes from. “Not because I so desperately need the money, but just the fact that I like that, you know? I like when people sing along with Eddie Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues.’”
With those factors in mind, it makes sense that Mays’ performances are crowd-pleasing: covers of songs by The Doors, Bobby Darin, Neil Diamond, Johnny Cash and others suited to his smokers’ baritone voice and amplified acoustic guitar. (Given his oldie-goldie repertoire, Mays’ tastes are surprisingly up-to-date: Kings of Leon, LCD Soundsystem, The National, even local singer-songwriter Kevin Devine.) And it’s not just the music, either. Bubbles, balloon animals and blow-pops can be part of his act, especially on his more family-friendly Mount Washington beat.
Which is pretty much the opposite of what he experiences on the boozy stretches of East Carson on a weekend night. “Music is 90 percent of that anyway,” he says. “You’re drinking or smoking, or you’re doing something, you know? Or you’re making love, that kind of thing. Music is Dionysian in nature, and more on the party side than it is on the kinda analytical aspect.” As he tells stories about seeing The Velvet Underground playing with The Fugs and the Grateful Dead, it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about.
Sometimes the South Side’s Dionysian side means heckling from wasted college students. “They were intimidating me for quite a while, but with an amp I intimidate them,” he laughs. “You get used to people walking by and going ‘You suck’ or ‘Free Bird, Free Bird.’” The trick, he says, is that if you ignore them, they lose interest quickly and move on. And that’s pretty universally effective. “Everybody’s drunk — everybody’s loaded, there’s no one who isn’t,” he says.
Except Mays. While there was a time when that was his lifestyle — he cops to 30 years’ struggle with alcohol and drug addiction — these days he says he’s enjoying sobriety, and counts himself a church-going, God-fearing man. And that’s helped realize some of his musical goals: He’s in his third semester at CCAC, where he’s studying music and taking guitar lessons, his first real training.
Beyond, of course, from what he’s learned from the Devil, “who seems to have a particular fondness for me,” he jokes — and from playing the Devil’s music on Pittsburgh’s streets.