Jean Bartlett


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Busking at San Francisco's Montgomery BART Station, musician Arlis Tyner is a song and has a story
June 21, 2007
By Jean Bartlett, Managing Editor

BARTSome people have just the right knack for doing not only what they should be doing but doing something that makes a difference in so many lives.  I met singer-guitarist Arlis Tyner about five years ago.  Like so many weekday morning commuters, I plowed through one BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) turnstile or another on my way to work on Montgomery Street.  Some days were easier than others.  Those easier days were when I caught a melodic remembrance of a tall, cool glass of spring.  Those easier days were when I heard the vocal and the guitar of musician Arlis Tyner.

Arlis played beneath the pedestrian signs which pointed – this way Montgomery, this way Post.  He played for the people scurrying by as well as for those who would stop long enough to gather some of his magic and take it with them to the office.  Songs like: “Since I Fell For You,” “Cry Me A River,” and “Just When I Needed You Most,” performed by Arlis, were just the right dose – of everything.  He still plays there, he informed me not long ago by email.  He still gets big tips, small tips and no tips.  He just put out another CD; and like his previous releases, it’s selling well.  He was out for a while, sick from the cold air that seems to linger at his underground stage, no matter the season.  He had other health issues as well; stuff he had to struggle through, but he’s back.  We talk through email.  We talk about getting together soon for coffee – though my morning work path no longer stops at Montgomery.

Arlis Tyner is from Elwood, Indiana, which is about 40 miles north of Indianapolis.  The son of parents who divorced when he was one, Arlis was raised mostly by his father.  Like his paternal grandfather, Arlis was a natural born musician.  As a child he could play just about any instrument put in his hands and his singing voice was the stuff of family boasting.  His first memory of singing was when he was four and visiting his Mom in Florida.  She made him stand up on the table at a restaurant and sing “Let Me Tell You About The Birds And The Bees” and people applauded.  His grandmother put him in a choir when he was five.

“The music had to come from somewhere,” Arlis said.  “Mine came from my father’s father.”  Arlis didn’t see much of his grandfather.  “My grandfather was a rambling guy.  Not really a family man, though he started a family and had five kids.”

Grandpa’s name was Burel Tyner and he made his way through life mostly as an electrician; at one time he was a sharecropper.  But what Burel really was, was a musician.  When Burel was 18 and Arlis’s grandmother was 17, she saw Burel at a park in Elwood.  He was standing on one of the picnic tables in the pavilion playing the fiddle and she told her friend, “I don’t like him, he thinks he’s smart.”  A year later they were married.  Family and work sidetracked Burel from music.  Then of course, Burel got sidetracked from family by wanting things he could never hold firmly in his hands.

The last time Arlis saw his Grandpa was when Arlis was 14 years old.  “My grandfather was old and sort of broken down but he got his guitar out to play it for me and I felt like he was really giving me something, something that I could hold on to.”

At age 19, musician Arlis left Indiana.  “I started traveling around the country with my guitar.  I did the whole Woody Guthrie bit.  I rode freight trains and hitchhiked.  I did that for years.  You come to a town, you stay about six months and then you move on.”  Sometimes he couldn’t even afford shelter for the music he was playing but that was fine because: “I was living a real life and I was young and the romance of it all was enough to sustain me.”  Arlis played in dives.  He played in halls.  He played in Nashville to New Orleans and all his way out West.

In 1989 Arlis was in San Francisco and things were happening.  By day he played on Haight Street or Mission Street and at night, he played the stages of such San Francisco hot spots as: The Kennel Club and the I-Beam.  He had also opened for a band called “Sister Double Happiness” and he hooked up with an incredible blues guitarist named Max.  His life was beginning to edge along that path of fame.  But a “devastating break up with his girl” sort of took the heart out of Arlis and he headed back to Indiana.  By then he had been on the road for thirteen years.  “The older you get you start thinking about your future, you start thinking about survival.  You start thinking about exposure to the elements which really make you old before your time.  When you’re 19 years old and you’re traveling and singing, you’re a vagabond and people admire that.  The older that you get, you become a bum and people start to wonder what in the hell you’re doing.”

When Arlis went back to Indiana he taught himself computers and the Internet.  He did freelancing and consulting.  He set up websites and did various other jobs and he gave up music for ten years.  “I didn’t play a note for anybody.  I figured that music hadn’t really gone for me the way I had planned and I guess I just got burned out on it.  But here’s the thing.  Music, that’s the thing that I was made to do.  Everything else I ever tried to do besides that has ultimately failed.  I mean like everyone else I wanted things too: a stereo, a CD player; you know all the toys.  And even though I tried and I tried, eventually I was looking at that very thing I had been trying to avoid all those years; going back on the street.”

“I talked to a buddy of mine in San Francisco.  Jobs were plentiful in the world of dot-coms and he said I could stay with him for a while till I landed on my feet.  So I came out to the San Francisco in March of 2000 thinking I was going to use my internet skills to land a great job and that’s right when the internet jobs went bust.  Out here with nothing to do.”

To add to his worries, Arlis’s friend had turned into a raging alcoholic.  Still jobless, Arlis decided it was safer to live on the street then to stay with that friend.  For two years Arlis lived on the streets of San Francisco.  He turned 40 on the street.  Every so often he’d get on GA (general assistance through the state’s welfare program).  He’d get a couple of checks and then “they’d throw a bunch of stuff at me that I wouldn’t be able to maintain and then I’d get cut off.  But here’s what happened.”

“I keep getting cutoff and GA makes you go through so many hoops to get on it or get back on it, that I just got tired of it.  For five months I lived on the street with no income whatsoever.  But then I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I got back on it.  I get one check and then the night right before I was supposed to go to this mandatory GA work fair, it rained all night and I couldn’t find a dry place to sleep.  I’m up all night walking around and then in the morning I had to wait for the Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway) to get started so I could get on the longest ride, which was the “M” train and get a nap in.  I did that but I fell asleep and missed the last stop.  I woke up right when the driver was pulling away from the last stop and I yanked on the bell but the guy refused to let me out.”

Arlis was driven into the train yard and locked onboard the empty train.  “I know the driver knew I was on there because I kept ringing that bell.  I’m on the train, watching while the driver walks away to take his break; and I’m panicking.  Finally it dawns on me, the emergency exit.  But that wasn’t easy either.  If that thing had been on fire I would have been dead.  But I did force my way out and I was enraged.  I went over and just cussed that driver out.  Next thing, a Muni cop comes over and now I’m in trouble because I’m trespassing on the train yard.  So then I’m detained by this guy with the threat of arrest looming over me.  Finally I get out of there but I have now missed my work fair project and I get cut off by GA.  Then suddenly GA decides to give me a thirty day sanction, after five months of no help.  So here’s what happened.”

“It was around Christmas time and I got some Christmas money from home; one hundred bucks.  And that’s when I thought, I used to play street music and make money and I’m outside anyway; I don’t have to pay rent.  And even if I make ten or fifteen bucks a day it would totally improve my life.  I wouldn’t have to be in soup lines.  I could smoke cigarettes.  I wouldn’t have to smoke stipes that I found.  I could have a little bit of dignity even if I was living on the street.  So I went to the pawn shop and bought a 60.00 guitar.  Went down and played at the Embarcadero Station and I made 10 bucks.  And so that was it.  I thought, great, I can do this.  The more that I did it, the better that I got and the more money I made.  And then one day as I was rolling out my sleeping bag from where I slept, I reached in my pocket and I had 40 bucks.  And I thought, this is stupid.  There’s a hotel in North Beach I could stay at for 25 bucks a day.”

From then on any day Arlis made 25 bucks, even if he had to go hungry, he was sleeping inside.  He got to the point where he started making 40 and 50 bucks a day.  He went through two more 60.00 pawnshop guitars before finally making the money to buy his current archtop guitar.  He lived at the hotel in North Beach for over a year, first paying his rent daily, then a week in advance.  Then he moved to a place with a bit more room.  He hit hard times for a while, the dollars often fall less after Christmas and right before tax day, but he was able to avoid the street and keep a roof over his head.  “Funny,” Arlis said.  “Nothing else I ever tried succeeded.  And then when I got to the point where there literally was nothing else I could do but music, I just did it, without any distractions like worrying about rent.  And that lead me to where I’m at today.”

In 2002, Arlis put out his first CD and on the cover is a photo of a young boy playing the banjo and that boy is Burel Tyner.  “To me that picture was almost like a Talisman, a way to redeem my grandfather with the family.”  And to Arlis that picture is also a reminder that he wants to become the promise of what that photograph captured.  His second CD came out on December 11, 2003 and he presold so many he had to order a new batch two days after the CD’s release.  By the time his 3rd CD came out, Arlis was hired by morning listeners to come sing at clubs and private parties.  Most mornings you can still find Arlis at his spot, though sometimes he loses his stage to another performer who beats him to his 4 a.m. call.

Arlis believes there are: “Spiritual agents who will guide you even against your will.  There are certain things you are supposed to be doing and you are not going to succeed or enjoy or get the benefits of anything else.  I know now that come what may, this is what I am supposed to be doing.  It is the only way I am going to be happy.  You’ve got to take whatever happiness brings you.  It’s not for everyone to have a giant mansion somewhere.  It’s okay to be happy on whatever level you’re at as long as you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.”

You can get an Arlis Tyner CD by contacting: http://www.orangesky.org/arlis or emailing: arlistyner@yahoo.com.  Then there’s always a lucky stop at the Arlis Tyner Montgomery BART stage.