This will sound weird, but I thought of my busking as a silly thing I did to improve my playing and make other people happy. I didn’t think of it as an explicitly political act and never thought it would play a role in my political activity. I especially didn’t expect it to bring me to the campaign trail.
Something as world-changing and serious as politics didn’t seem like a natural match for The World’s Happiest Instrument, so I followed the news as I made my way out to busk each day and assumed that never the twain shall meet. That assumption ended on 23 July 2016, when Hillary Clinton appointed Tim Kaine as her Vice Presidential nominee.
Tim Kaine The Replacements Fan
When I started my Year of Busking, I hadn’t expected that my ukulele adventures would bring me to the campaign trail.
Something as world-changing and serious as politics didn’t seem like a natural match for The World’s Happiest Instrument, so I followed the news as I made my way to the pitch and assumed that never the twain shall meet. That assumption ended on 23 July 2016, when Hillary Clinton appointed Tim Kaine as her Vice Presidential nominee.
My initial disappointment that Secretary Clinton hadn’t chosen a more liberal candidate disappeared as I learned more about Senator Kaine’s background. I admired his beliefs and – as an alumna of the national service organization AmeriCorps – identified with his strong commitment to social justice.
Most significantly, though, I saw that we shared a similar taste in music. Kaine had gone on the record as a fan of The Replacements and cited Let It Be as his favorite album, leading Replacements biographer Bob Kehr to joke that “someone who knows the lyrics to ‘Gary’s Got a Boner’ could be a heartbeat away from the presidency”. I had a soft spot for the Mats – as diehard Replacements fans call them – and had already incorporated a few Replacements classics into my busking set. Further, the Vice Presidential nominee also played the harmonica, which resonated with a quirky instrument aficionado and ukulele player such as myself. Within moments of learning these two facts, the penny dropped: I had to invite Tim Kaine to busk with me.
How to reach out to Tim Kaine
My only diehard political friend was someone I deemed The World’s Youngest Goldwater Republican, so I asked online about how one would go about inviting an elected official to busk with them. While a few people gave good practical advice, the negative comments from others got under my skin. I sassed back at the commentariat who warned me that I could end up on a watch list for so much as asking whether I could busk with Tim, but I started to feel scared that might be my fate.
That fear subsided a bit when I started volunteering at the Hillary for America office. “Nice shirt,” the dude who ran the office said the day I wore a shirt with the iconic cover art for the Replacements’ album Pleased to Meet Me shirt. “You know who else likes The ‘Mats?”
“Damn straight it’s Tim Kaine,” I replied. “I want to ask him to busk with me.”
“We can make that happen. Make a video and we’ll tweet it.”
“I won’t end up on a watchlist?”
The bro shook his head. “Nah, you’re good.”
Since I had a background in film, I thought about shooting the clip on my phone, but leaving my phone unattended on the Boston public transit system the MBTA for long periods of time worried me. After a longer search than I wanted to conduct, I found a director in Chris Barrett, a member of the Boston band Kingsley Flood who had shot videos for other local artists. His suggestion as a director was to change a line in the narration alluding to the song “Gary’s Got a Boner”, since the Republican nominee had already gone on the record with crass statements about menstruation and the size of his genitals. After I changed it to the more family-friendly “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”, we shot the video at a station where I frequently played.
On the day of the vice presidential debates, the video went live. In some ways, I had great timing, since I released it the day Kaine (and his opponent) had generated some major coverage on social media. Since the Access Hollywood tape was leaked the Friday before the debate, people were looking for positive stories, and my clip fit the bill. My “dare” to busk with Tim Kaine got some blowback after a prominent local blogger retweeted the clip, but hearing from Boston Globe reporters, who wrote a story about my dare, softened the pain I might have otherwise felt from drive-by insults about how I was “obese, unemployed, and hopelessly untalented”. When a brief item about the video made the Globe’s Names section, Replacements’ lead singer Paul Westerberg’s manager saw it and was rumored to have shown it to him. Learning that Paul Westerberg had – as the song says – seen my video was the realization of an adolescent dream I didn’t know I had.
The clip gained me some further media attention: I appeared on my first podcast and played a snippet of “I Will Dare” for a Radio Portugal correspondent interviewing Hillary supporters. I took added action to my media attention by volunteering to canvass on the presidential campaign. I would have felt like a hypocrite if I just made the video and didn’t do what I could to get out the vote. Busking for a few months gave me the nerve to go outside my comfort zone, and finding common ground with strangers–and talking to people face-to-face about a candidate who inspired me–came more naturally than it would have without those experiences.
As we went into the final weeks of the campaign, I felt confident about Hillary’s lead and was looking forward to seeing her lead the country. Though Kaine hadn’t responded to my invitation to busk with him – and no New Hampshire speaking dates were forthcoming – I hoped for a day when setting up a pitch on the White House lawn and busking with him.
Unfortunately, we all know how that turned out. I was so invested in Hillary’s campaign that watching the returns file in felt like a kick in the teeth. I went home from a party at her campaign headquarters shaking with fear about what the next four years would bring. After I got past the shock of the Republican nominee winning the election, I packed up one of the Pleased to Meet Me-inspired signs that I’d put in my hat and sent it to Senator Kaine, along with a note thanking him for his service and inviting him to busk with me if he ever found himself in New England. Busking right after the election – especially with a set of songs I associated with the campaign – felt weird, but after a few weeks I packed up my pushcart, got on the Orange Line, and played an altered version of the set I’d been playing before the election.
I finally heard from Senator Kaine when I returned from a pitch one Saturday night in December. A letter on stiff, cream-colored stock was waiting for me in the evening mail. Dreams of the thoughtful, heartfelt letters Hillary wrote her supporters danced through my head, but my fantasy of an invitation to busk in Richmond was dashed when I opened the envelope and read the three-sentence form letter. Even though he apparently signed it, I had hoped for a personal note that suggested he’d read my missive.
And then I felt awful at my own entitlement. Kaine was coming back from a contentious presidential campaign as a member of the minority party, and he had to invest his energy in representing his people and leading the Democratic Party forward. Answering a letter from someone who wasn’t one of his constituents – no matter how charming and unique the letter was – couldn’t be a priority in a time of panic.
On one level, my attempt to busk with Tim Kaine was a failure, since I didn’t meet my goal. On other levels, though, it was successful beyond my expectations. By bringing a few minutes of positivity to a garbage fire of an election season, I made new friends and became more involved in my community. My boss at my new job saw the video on the Boston Globe’s website and had me work more with the communications department. If Tim Kaine knew any of this, I bet he’d be really proud.
Of course, my dream of playing ukulele/harmonica duets with the Virginian senator hasn’t quite died. With Kaine as a potential candidate for the Democratic primary in 2020, I extend this invitation to him:
Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime Hell, I don’t care, meet me tonight If you would dare, I would dare