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Robert Scheer

Flames of Dissent:Activist busker Phil "Free" Frenelli (right) and his partner, Robert "Skidmark Bob" Duran, have ignited the tempers of local merchants with their provocative songs and conduct, but some downtown visitors--like five-year-old Joshua Kirk of Aptos--hope the show goes on.

Provocative downtown street performers squabble with merchants and cops over the boundaries of music and free speech

By Michael Mechanic

On a late October afternoon in 1994, Robert Duran and his friend Phil were walking down Pacific Avenue near Cathcart Street in Santa Cruz when they were stopped by two police officers. "Looks like somebody don't like your singin'," said one, explaining that there had been complaints about their manner of playing guitar and singing on the mall and that they were suspected of disturbing the peace. Two days later, Duran says, he went to the district attorney's office to find out about the case. He says he was told the case was under review.

The next evening, as he walked up Pacific, Duran noticed two patrol cars creeping up behind. "Robert Duran, we have a warrant for your arrest," said a sergeant, grabbing him and presenting the papers. Duran was jailed pending $1,000 bail, charged with two counts of disturbing the peace, and released on his own recognizance hours later.

Duran, a.k.a. Skidmark Bob, and his singing partner, Phil Frenelli, a.k.a. Phil Free, have taken their political activism to the streets in recent years, pushing the boundaries of free speech and making enemies of quite a few merchants. With songs like "Kill the Cop Inside" (a sort of fascist inner child, in their view) and "I Wanna Go Shoplifting at Bookshop Santa Cruz," covers of Ice T's "Cop Killer" and their habits of singing rather loudly and referring to the downtown hosts as "Hospitality Nazis," the pair has curried little favor with local authorities.

Members of a band called Jus' Kiddin, Duran and Frenelli have each been cited numerous times for their provocative street entertainment, although the cases have never made it through even the first stage of the court process. The police keep a close eye on them, and Duran says his guitar was once even confiscated as "evidence"--although the arrest was for illegal camping. Duran and Frenelli claim the authorities unduly harass them for expressing unpopular political views, but business owners say it is their own rights being violated when a member of the duo sets up next door.

The merchants complain that Skidmark Bob and Phil Free sing too loudly, curse, encourage people to shoplift and even advocate violence. According to one police report, ID owner Stuart Martin, who has lodged multiple complaints against the provocateurs, told police that Duran sang in his presence songs with lyrics including "Blow up ID," "Kill Stuart Martin" and "Kill cops ... kill all pigs."

There have been similar complaints about Phil Free. "They are not there to make money, but to antagonize the shopkeepers of the mall and business in general," says Martin. "No street musician gets a bad time if they have a good attitude and they are friendly."

Duran denies he used the lyrics cited by Martin, except in a song written later to parody the police report. Although the duo does cover Ice-T's "Cop Killer," Duran stresses that their own lyric is: "Kill the cop inside."

Content Problems

According to section 415 of the state Penal Code, any person who maliciously and willfully disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noises or who uses offensive words in public that are "inherently likely to provoke an immediate violent reaction" is disturbing the peace. Whether the language Duran and Frenelli use is truly likely to provoke violence is debatable, especially in a town reputed for its tolerance. "Store owners tell me: 'When you're singing it's okay, but going off about Nazis or fascists ...,' that's political content people have problems with," says Phil Free, out on the mall in his signature fatigue pants and trench coat. "It's provocative, but not to the point of starting a violent action."

Doug Kilner, an employee at The Vault jewelry store, who also has called the police to complain about the performances, says what bothers him is the cursing and the volume. "Politics is one thing, but you can't sit and yell at the top of your lungs and expect people to enjoy it," he says.

"We recommend singing lessons," adds his wife, store owner Joy Kilner, noting that they enjoy many of the other street players.

"I try and not cuss when kids are around," Free retorts. "I try and keep the F-word to a minimum ... 'n' shit!"

guitaist
Busting Out Is Hard to Do: Guitaist Bob Brozman--now internationally known, but once a local street performer--gets busted in Dec. 1976 after throngs of listeners interfere with downtown traffic.

Those street musicians who have good relationships with shopkeepers say they can understand both sides of the dispute. Some feel harassed by the authorities and resent that the downtown hosts pester them to adhere to a set of rules the street musicians themselves drew up more than a decade ago. But many understand how the merchants feel. "I didn't spend $60,000 to open that gallery there and it's a lot easier for me to move a few paces down than for him to move his gallery," says Doctor D, who was out busking country tunes with his friend Joe on a sunny afternoon. "That doesn't mean it's okay to be oppressive, but let's be realistic--you can push your rights to the point where flak comes back on you."

Old-timers like Bobby Carr and Dr. Madd, Boulder Creek residents who have been playing the local streets for decades, sympathize with their embattled cohorts. "I don't think he's out of line. The stuff I write is more subtle, but it's still political," says Dr. Madd. "I think when these hall monitors [downtown hosts] interrupt us in the middle of a song, I think that's obnoxious!"

"The city passed ordinances that you can't stand in front of any window displays," adds Carr. "We get told to move on and it's really irritating to us. A bunch of chairs and tables [in a closed restaurant] is not a window display. There's more oppression since the monitors came. We get pushed around. The police treat us like panhandlers."

Conduct Code

The tensions may soon start heating up again, with Mayor Mike Rotkin's proposal to ban drumming on the mall. Disputes between performers and the establishment, however, are nothing new, though during the 1970s it was virtuosos like Bob Brozman--now an internationally acclaimed musician--getting arrested, not for disturbing the peace, but because their huge crowds blocked pedestrian traffic.

Circa 1980, then-Santa Cruz Police Chief Gino Pini proposed a ban on street performing--part of a series of recommendations to the city on how to clean up problems along the mall. The City Council responded by convening a Mall Advisory Committee, largely consisting of merchants, to consider the recommendations. Tom "Bubble Man" Noddy, the lone street performer on the committee, called a separate meeting of performers and discovered that their complaints about each other were similar to the merchants' complaints about them--that performers would set up too close to one another and hold the same spots for hours. "There are unwritten rules of street performing, and I said, 'Let's write 'em!' " Noddy recalls.

The 35 street characters drew up a voluntary code of conduct for street entertainment, figuring it was better to self-govern than have laws enacted. Their guidelines won the approval of the Downtown Association and the City Council, were copied and distributed to downtown merchants and entertainers, and are still widely circulated. The guidelines ask performers to move every hour and, if asked by a merchant to move along, continue to play for no more than an hour before doing so. They ask performers to make sure their crowds aren't blocking the sidewalk and that musicians set up with plenty of space in between.

Noddy says the guidelines take care of 95 percent of the problems, but is quick to point out that they are non-enforceable. "Merchants have copies of the guidelines, so the idea is that they don't call the cops but go out and give the performer a copy," he says. "We wanted them to go out and find out that only one in 75 street entertainers was a crazy. In the end, the merchants stopped bothering with them and started calling the cops again. They were too scared to go out and find out what's going on."

Given the rapport Phil Free and Skidmark Bob have with the police, the cops now instruct merchants to call them directly when they have a problem with the pair. But Free and Skidmark say they adhere to the guidelines and consider this treatment unfair, a retaliation by the authorities against their activism around town.

Noddy stops short at taking sides in the dispute. That's for the courts to decide, he says. "I think they would win the content question and lose the volume question, but that has nothing to do with the guidelines," he points out. "The guidelines are to help prevent the disagreements from happening all the time."

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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