2015-09-03 / Front Page

‘Busker’ tries to find place among community

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer


Rick Marr, who has been a full-time street performer for 20 years, is forging new ground in Biddeford as the city’s unofficial resident busker. Marr said he is still looking for the best place to play in the city. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) Rick Marr, who has been a full-time street performer for 20 years, is forging new ground in Biddeford as the city’s unofficial resident busker. Marr said he is still looking for the best place to play in the city. (Ben Meiklejohn photo) BIDDEFORD – A longtime celebrity busker from Portland has moved to Biddeford, but hasn’t missed a beat scoping out the city’s best public places to play. While some people dismiss street musicians as glorified beggars, Rick Marr explained in an interview with the Courier that the craft is no mere waltz in the park.

Marr moved to Biddeford two months ago after he was evicted from his apartment in Portland. Marr had been busking – or playing music on the streets for donations – in Portland since 1996. He’s traveled and busked in other cities, such as Boston, Massachusetts and Nashville, Tennessee.

In Portland, Marr was well known as the man who played electric guitar through a batteryoperated amplifier while riding a bike through downtown. Marr busked while living in Biddeford for a short while in the early 2000s. Although he hasn’t had a job since 1999 and is now on Social Security disability, Marr said being a professional busker is hard work.

“Busking, it’s not a choice,” Marr said. “I do it to get some money for food.”

Marr, who plays mainly punkand heavy metal-influenced renditions of classic and contemporary rock songs, said he is getting mixed responses from people in Biddeford. Marr has experimented with playing in different locations, including medians at the Five Points intersection, downtown and in front of stores such as Paul’s Variety on Alfred Street.

“‘At least you’re doing something.’ That’s what they say,” Marr said. “‘At least you’re doing something for the money instead of holding a sign.’ But then some people look at it like you’re rich – ‘Oh, you got a nice guitar’ and don’t give any money.”

Marr said although Biddeford has a lot of beggars, he doesn’t consider himself one of them. The busking lifestyle is still emblematic of the hardship of poverty, he explained.

“The difference is that when you hit the street, you play and survive. You’re down and dirty. You’re the star maker. It makes the difference between eating and dying,” he said. “I’ve lived in the shelter and been through some rough s--- … walking with dead sneakers, walking with wet sneakers, walking up and down, carrying gear in 90-degree heat – the guitar, the bucket – busking here is like giving up everything you could make at a job.”

Until last week, Marr played his electric guitar in Biddeford, but he had to sell the guitar to raise money and now performs on an acoustic.

Marr said street playing comes with both sacrifice and freedom and it’s work, like any other job. Because he isn’t guaranteed to make a certain amount for his time, Marr said he spends frugally and doesn’t waste his earnings.

“That 90-degree weather, playing and carrying that stuff – it’s work, believe it or not,” he said. “Even though I’m not in some union with a big check, I’m still surviving.”

While he plays to survive, Marr said he doesn’t always enjoy getting ridiculed.

“People make fun of you. They throw coins at you,” he said. “I once had someone throw a coin at me from 200 feet away.”

While Portland has a thriving street performing arts community in the city’s downtown district, the absence of buskers in Biddeford makes Marr somewhat of a pioneer.

“On Exchange Street or Commercial Street (in Portland), people have more of a choice, more time,” Marr said. “In a car (by a median strip), they have 25 seconds to decide. On Exchange, they can listen to a whole song and decide if they like it.”

Marr said he could make $50 to $80 at a stretch playing music in Portland, but in Biddeford, he might play for three hours and not break $20. After trying several times to play downtown, Marr said the unwelcome response from area businesses caused him to explore other areas, such as median strips.

“They try to kick you out. They will say, ‘I’m sorry, but your presence is turning my customers away,’” Marr said.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre, who remembers when Marr busked in Biddeford in the early 2000s, said he isn’t aware of any ordinances that prevent musicians from playing in public places, so long as they aren’t inhibiting foot traffic or breaking other laws.

“He’s been pretty much, really not doing anything that would warrant our interference,” Beaupre said.

Marr said he only had one complaint that drew police to respond in Biddeford – for swearing in a song.

“The cops said, ‘As long as you don’t swear or do nudity, you’re not violent, we don’t care what you do.’ They’re dealing with so much bigger things,” he said.

Although most downtown businesses are quick to ask him to leave, Marr said there are some exceptions.

“The bank usually leaves me alone, Bangor Savings Bank,” said Marr, “and I’ve been going to Paul’s Variety. They’re fine with it.”

Ian Turgeon, general manager of Paul’s Variety, said Marr started showing up and asking to play in the lot in front of the store.

“We just let him run with it. There’s been no problems,” Turgeon said. “Some (customers) will ask, ‘What’s he doing outside?’ but the only thing most people complain about is people begging for money. He’s different though. Here’s this guy who’s just trying to play his music. He’s pretty good; he’s very good.”

Turgeon said other downtown businesses that chase Marr away are missing the point: that a successful downtown should have more street artists instead of none at all.

“(Asking him to leave) I think is wrong,” Turgeon said. “He should be able to do whatever he wants. It’s harmless. He’s just playing music. If I had that talent, I’d want to go out and play, too.”

Turgeon said Marr is the first busker he has noticed in Biddeford.

“I’m basically the only one here,” Marr said. “The other ones all have cardboard signs. I don’t have an addiction and I’m here with a guitar.”

Marr said he has to contend with two different classes of people when he plays. On one hand, there are business owners who deter him, but on the other hand, there are the alcoholics and addicts.

“The businesses are trying to get rid of the people, trying to get the millionaires in here,” Marr said. “But there’s so many heroin junkies and alcoholics. The attitude about music is – the druggies are joking about playing – to them I’m just a side show, but I’m playing serious tunes.

“Some people are like, ‘That’s nice,’ and then they offer me booze and it’s in public.”

Marr said not all people with money are adverse to his playing and, sometimes, he’ll get an unexpected reward – like the time he was riding his bike playing guitar and a 2012 Chevy Camaro rolled up alongside him and the driver handed him a platinum gold coin.

“At least some rich folks are like, ‘Here, here’s a coin, a tidbit,’” he said.

Marr said his hard rock performances don’t always cater to what many people want to hear. To appease them, he often learns and plays ballads.

“Everybody wants everything to sound real kind. It you want to make money, you have to play James Taylor or something sweet like The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’” Marr said. “And when you’re playing some nice music, that’s when they’ll come over and give you a dollar that’s warm because it’s been in their pocket like a gummy. You have to play softer music to reach people. The songs have to be the type that they like for you to make money.”

Marr said he covers bands such as Whitesnake, Soul Asylum, Puddle of Mudd, Blues Traveler, Motley Crüe, Iron Maiden and Yngwie Malmsteen, but also plays his own songs. Among the songs he’s written: “‘Cuz I smoke reefer,” “Ever Faithful Marijuana Preacher,” “Food Stamps Welfare Boy,” “How It Feels to Be Alone,” and “Down the Drain.”

When he’s depressed, he plays “shreddy, instrumental stuff.”

“I’ll fire it up and give it real blues and screaming notes, (Joe) Satriani, and Steve Vai instrumental notes, finger tapping,” Marr said. “Some people come out of the woodwork and give you a buck … That’s when I’m really down and out, when I know I have to bounce back. The real scream of a guitar, the younger people like it.”

After trying the medians, Marr said he’s not sure if he’ll return because people don’t have a chance to listen and the location is dangerous. At one point, Marr said he had to jump out of the way to avoid a tractor trailer truck that rolled up onto the median. The truck hit his amp, sending it rolling down the street and leaving a dent in the wooden frame.

“Some people roll their window up if they don’t like a particular note or mode. They do that pucker sauerkraut face when I got 10 watts and their stereo is cranking Kenny Rogers and I got Satriani cranking,” Marr said. “But I get the opposite response from the rap people rolling up in nice cars. The rap community has been very open to me. It’s turned around to the point where they’re the ones supporting me, probably because they don’t hear a guitar much, so when they hear something that’s not a beat, it’s neat, it’s something new. It’s leaked over into other people’s musical discoveries.”

Marr said he’ll keep searching for a perfect spot with high pedestrian traffic and people with open minds, but he’s not sure if he’ll find it in Biddeford. He said the best places he has busked are in the Old Port in Portland, in Boston near Boylston Street, and on Second Avenue in Nashville.

“A spot? I probably won’t find it. Biddeford doesn’t have a spot. I don’t know if it agrees with me,” Marr said.

“I’m basically living as simple as possible, seeing how other people complicate the world, being eyewitness to the demise of corporate standards.”

Until a good spot materializes, Marr seems to have a home at a place where the pedestrians may not have money to spare, but at least they appreciate his music – the place with a sign that says, “Friendliest Store in town” – Paul’s Variety. Marr said he hopes that, in time, after people get used to seeing him around town, they will feel more comfortable tossing him some change or a few dollars.

Marr even has a website where people can donate to him using PayPal. However, he said he rarely gets a donation there and relies entirely on his live street performances.

To drop a coin in Marr’s bucket, look for him downtown, or drop a virtual coin into his account by visiting http:// www.rickmarr.com.

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