Rube Waddell is a throwback that emerged from the trash and drunks of San Francisco’s Mission District; a jug band at the end of the Second Christian Millennium; a band of street musicians who, in an era of techno and sampling, insist on playing sea shanties, Hawaiian melodies, old blues, union songs, hillbilly ditties—and even the occasional Beethoven chorale. What’s more, they play their music on whatever is at hand, be it junk or musical instrument, according to the Bay Guardian’s John Paczowski, “harmonica, mandolin, trumpet, old buckets, Casio organs, and almost anything culled from abandoned streets and alleyways and capable of producing sound.” Their only compromise to the electronic age was to set aside the jug in favor of battery-powered amplifiers strapped to their belts.
The original Rube Waddell—the first of the great flaky left-handed pitchers and a member of baseball’s Hall of Fame—was born in rural Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. The band’s origins, however, are shrouded in deep mystery. According to the group’s official Web site, Rube Waddell spent time “tending bars at countless taverns along the eastern seaboard, wrestling alligators in the fetid swamplands and bayous of Louisiana, squatting at the feet of Guru Swami Sharma Prasad in the barren wastes of the great Ganges plain, appearing as ‘The Doctor,’ in Joop Kkonga’s production of Buchner’s ‘Woyczeck’ at the East Broadway Senior Citizens Center, and preaching to an audience of one at Cecil’s Scrap and demolition Palace just off exit 20 on highway 43, 17 miles South of Little Rock…After a brief stint at the Starkville City Jail, where he befriended a mysterious man in black, he began another extended period of hijinx and wanderlust, often appearing on select street corners throughout the county as the Rube Waddell Medicine Show and Musical Revue, featuring a wide variety of musical showmanship, recitations of pivotal works, divine augury and astounding feats of strength. And it is in this setting that Rube Waddell is most commonly seen today.” Whatever the truth, the latter-day Rube Waddell, the heirs to the Hall of Famer, have become a fixture of the San Francisco music scene. Or as much of a fixture as street musicians, playing in the dead of night in one of the city’s dingiest neighborhoods could hope to be.
Rube Waddell consists of three musicians: the Reverend Wupass, percussion, bass, and organ; Mahatma Boom Boom, guitar, trumpet, tablas, and accordion; and Captain Feedback one-string guitar, harmonica, and mouth harp. All the members sing. Though it later graduated to enthusiastic crowds in bars and restaurants, Rube Waddell got its start in the mid-1990s playing for change in front of tiny audiences on the streets of San Francisco. “The first couple of times we played on the street we were definitely a bit lonely,” Reverend Wupass told the SF Bay Guardian. “We used to hook battery-powered amplifiers to our belts and wander around playing. Sometimes we’d go to this parking garage that had an enormous barred gate and we’d stand behind it playing ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’” They also invaded Laundromats occasionally with their act; it got them out of the rain and they had a captive audience, at least until the clothes came out of the dryer. Unfortunately, they discovered that people there were not as free with their change as they were in the street.
They found their perfect gig playing at Leeds—not the hall where the Who cut Live at Leeds, but Leeds Shoes in San Francisco’s Mission District, by day an area of poor Latino shops, by night a scene of drugs, alcohol, gangs and prostitution. Rube Waddell would set up in front of Leeds’ entrance, under its eaves after the store had closed. “When we first played Leeds we set up out there on Mission Street and it was dirty and there were a bunch of people that had just been discharged from the S.F. General psych ward and a few drunkards standing out there watching us,” Reverend Wupass related to the SF Bay Guardian. “There were other folks passing by—people going to bars, or home for the night—and we really had to create some sort of spectacle to keep people standing on that corner in that atmosphere and listening to us.”
Eventually the word got out that something unusual was happening on Mission Street Saturday nights, “crazed musical revivals” the San Francisco Weekly called Rube’s performances. Small crowds would gather at Leeds in expectation. If they were fortunate,
Members include Captain Feedback, one-string guitar, harmonica, mouth harp, vocals; Mahatma Boom Boom, guitar, trumpet, tablas, accordion, vocals; Reverend Wupass, percussion, bass, organ, vocals.
Began performing Saturday nights in front of Leeds Shoe Store in San Francisco Mission District, mid-1990s; released LP Hobo Train, Vaccination Records, 1997; released Stink Bait, Vaccination Records, 1998; nominated for Bay Area Music Award, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Vaccination Records, P.O. Box 20931, Oakland, CA 94611.
Rube would eventually arrive, their noise-making gear in tow in shopping carts. They’d heap everything in front of the shoes displayed in the store windows, switch on their tiny amps, and cut loose. “It was worth traversing the horrors of Mission bars on a Saturday night,” the San Francisco Weekly’s House of Tudor reported, “just to catch their spiel on the stumble home. Drunken passers-by would dance or shout obscenities or just stare in disbelief. It was a good weekend when you could catch Rube Waddell.”
The band did its best to enhance the performances. According to one report, its members even wrote a letter to Leeds’ management, as concerned neighborhood residents asking that the store keep its display lights on to deter crime. By 1998, however, Leeds had closed its doors for good, and Rube had more fundamental concerns about its performance space. “Now that the store’s closed,” Captain Feedback told the SF Bay Guardian, “the area that we used as the stage has become absolutely disgusting. When we play Leeds now, we’ve got to go there early with a mop to clean up all the crap so we can actually set our instruments up.”
Their instruments are a mix of old, new, found and homemade. Electric guitar is played through fuzzy battery-powered practice amps to the rhythm of Mahatma Boom Boom’s tablas or a screwdriver banged on a hubcap. The band’s trademark is Captain Feedback’s main instrument, One-String Eddie. One-String Eddie was a homemade guitar: a single piece of wire stretched over a length of 2x6 board equipped with a pick-up, which was played by plucking the wire while sliding a bottleneck or knife blade along it. The name was taken from a real musician. “Eddie One String is a hero of mine,” Captain Feedback explained to the SF Bay Guardian. “He was a homeless street musician who recorded in one brief session in L.A. in the ’60s. He played a broomstick strung with a single piece of wire and attached to a tin bucket. I built the Eddie One String Guitar mostly in his honor but partially because I needed to design an instrument to address my limited needs as a musician.”
As their popularity grew, Rube Waddell was able to move off the street and into San Francisco clubs and restaurants. They dragged their roots with them, continuing to play the same mix of old-time hillbilly songs, waltzes, blues, religious songs and such from early in the last century. They didn’t much bother to upgrade their equipment either, which turned out to be a boon on occasion. “We did one show at the Stork Club in Oakland last year,” Reverend Wupass told the SF Bay Guardian, “and there was a blackout right in the middle of our set. But we just kept on going because we were playing through battery-powered amps. We didn’t even miss a beat. People appreciated that. They appreciated our survivalist qualities.”
They have released two albums. The first, a one-sided LP called Hobo Train, came packaged in a ziploc bag, and besides a lyric booklet, included instructions for building a one-string guitar, facts about Rube Waddell the baseball legend, and recipes for okra gumbo. The band’s second release, 1998’s CD Stink Bait, packaged in a little metal bait tin, offers a taste of a Rube Waddell late-night hoe-down; the record sounds like it was recorded in 1929, just before the Big Crash. Among its songs are “Westward Rider” a combination blues-cowboy song arranged for One-String Eddie and tablas; “Roy Smeck” a tribute to the Hawaiian slack guitar great; “Mohandas” a bizarre ballad about a boy’s mom’s affair with her boss at the Hindustani restaurant; and an upbeat version of the old Wobbly rouser, “The Ballad of Joe Hill.” The record closes with a harmonica-inflected version of the “Ode: An der Freude” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—sung entirely in German.
As the millennium ended, they had a number of new projects in the works. They hoped to do a theme record about the historical Rube Waddell and were working on something they termed “a sea exploration opera.” They placed ads in San Francisco papers offering to set lyrics to music. They hoped to be able to put together an entire album from what they received. “We’re looking for some really absurd mundanity,” Mahatma Boom Boom told a reporter for the San Francisco Weekly’s RiffRaff column. “The worse the better.” But by mid-1999 they had only received four responses, and those four weren’t particularly promising. Boom Boom described one contributor as “what seemed like a young teenage girl in Richmond” another as “a young, lonely, office-worker guy who really seemed pent up.”
The group sees themselves as spiritual heirs of their namesake. “Rube was not a complex man. He was someone with a fundamental ability and a complete lack of professionalism,” Captain Feedback told Paczowski. Mahatma Boom Boom added, “We don’t really know how to do what we’re doing. We play about 14 different instruments, but we play them all very simply… In that way we pretty much clearly reflect Rube’s legacy.”
And like the first Rube, the band once found itself on the field of a major league ballpark performing before thousands of spectators. They weren’t playing ball, they were playing their music at a San Francisco Giants game. They proved that they could be just as flaky as any old Rube Waddell though. “We played a short set, and on our last song, right on the final note, the entire audience—like 35,000 people—started booing,” Boom Boom explained to the SF Bay Guardian. “And we were standing there, and yelling back at them, giving them the finger in defiance. But when we turned around we realized that they were booing because the opposing team was taking the field. Still, for a moment it was invigorating to feel hated by that many people.”
Hobo Train, Vaccination Records, 1997.
Stink Bait, Vaccination Records, 1998.
Ink, #11, November 1998.
San Francisco Weekly, September 2, 1998; June 23, 1999.
SF Bay Guardian, August 26, 1998.
“Rube Waddell,” http://www.girlyhead.com/RWaddell.html (July 5, 2000).
“Rube Waddell,” http://www.imusic.com/showcase/indie/rubewaddell.html (June 30, 2000).
—Gerald E. Brennan
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