Words on the Street: Stanley

Making Beats on the National Mall

Stanley is a drummer—actually, percussionist is probably more accurate, especially if calling someone (or oneself) a drummer is predicated on playing actual drums. On any other day, Stanley may well be a drummer—but today, his “drums” consisted of a set of five gallon plastic paint buckets, cleverly arranged to resemble a drum kit with the aid of several parking cones subbing in as makeshift stands and risers. Playing the part of both a high hat and a crash cymbal was an old metal shopping cart, which Stanley would strike at just the right spot, using just the right pressure—the perfect sonic punctuation to whatever beat or pattern he was exploring his way through. I first met Stanley on the sidewalk outside the National Museum of Natural History on the Mall in Washington DC. I’m a fan of great drumming, and in fact played drums for several years when I was young and I can tell you Stanley can play. Put this kid in a trio or behind a rhythm section and something special is going to happen.

When he took a break, I asked him how long he’d been playing and if he was out here every day. “I’ve been playing a while,” he said. He told me he played on the Mall as often and for as long as the police would let him. “They call it pan handling,” he said. “It’s Federal property, so they kick us out after a couple hours.” I was surprised that the police considered playing music pan handling, but I guess they need some sort of rules to keep people visiting the museums from being bombarded. Still, it’s ironic that Taylor Hawkins beating the hell out of a drum kit in an arena is rock and roll, but Stanley making beats on the sidewalk is no different than “hey, can you spare any change?” I spoke to Stanley for 20 minutes or so, during which time he told me that he was trying to figure out how to get on iTunes. He said he had a couple friends who he plays with—”I can play anything, man. Rock, jazz, whatever. On real drums, too,” he assured me. “Not just this,” he said, pointing at his street kit. I asked if I could record him, watched him play for a bit more, dropped a few singles into his bucket, then thanked him for his time and wished him good luck. He nodded acknowledgement as he kept playing. “Cool, man. Thanks for stopping by.” “I’ll see you on iTunes,” I said as I turned and walked away. “No doubt, no doubt,” he replied, followed by an impeccably executed, rapid-fire fill. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

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