Maybe you've seen Winston Steward before. Perhaps you’ve heard him. Even if you haven’t, chances are you'll recognize his songs.
Stewart is a human jukebox.
He's one of the many musical street performers who regularly set up shop at the Santa Monica Promenade in Southern California. The three-block walkway is "one of the better spaces in the United States for outdoor performance," Steward told the Daily Dot from his home Frazier Park, Calif., more than an hour away from the walkway filled with restaurants, shops and park bench stops, tree-lined walking streets and entertainers by the dozen. Musicians post at nearly every corner.
"This is the People's Republic of Santa Monica. You pay your $38 and set up and play, and you rotate through every two hours. They exercise a Jeffersonian democracy and ask that you don't play so loud that it disturbs thy brother performing down the road."
Steward goes to the promenade four times a week to perform cover songs on his Martin acoustic guitar. At night, when the crowds thin out and he can hear himself better, he returns with a microphone and video camera and records retakes of his favorite songs from that day, all of which he mixes on Cubase, a home recording and mixing tool. He then uploads them to his YouTube channel, which has 450 subscribers and over 155,000 views since November 2010.
The channel is like a jukebox of your favorite songs from the last half-century, a 690-song collection that includes covers of Pearl Jam's "Nothingman," David Bowie's "Changes," Blind Lemon's "No Rain," and, well, just about everything else.
"You pretty much have it your own way," explained Steward, a health-care worker.
"If you want to sing Lady Gaga while you're standing on your head, you can do that. If you want to sing something by Social Distortion, you can do that, too. I do both."
Each video arrives in uniform, with Steward standing under the promenade's blue and yellow lights in pants and a buttondown shirt—and nothing more than a guitar and a microphone. In some videos, people in the back of the shot will stop to watch part of the performance. In most, they pass straight by. Either way's fine for Steward.
He performs each song in a way that sits better with some of his fans than it does with others. (He’s definitely not for everyone.) But that doesn’t matter to Steward. He gets enough of a thrill out of playing that he discounts what others think.
"I feel sorry for some of the other people that perform there. It's terribly disappointing for some of them who show up thinking that they'll be the cat's meow only to find that nobody's watching them. Very few people watch me just because of the sheer proliferation of the performance.”
Besides, Steward has already had his time in the sun. In 1990, he released an album called Luna, a "new age CD a la Yanni" that sounds "just like all the other ones you'd find in the incense section of a novelty store." (He also had a brush with fame a couple of years ago for some letter writing, but that’s another story.)
He's been through the ringer, playing music as a competitive sport.
On the promenade, Winston Steward performs for fun.
Steward's Top 5 Promenade Jams
Combing through 690 videos to find our favorite sounded like too tall of a task, so we went to the source and asked Steward to offer up his five favorite performances from the promenade. They're listed below, along with a few words from the artist himself.
David Bowie, "Moonage Daydream" / Radiohead, "Exit Music For A Film"
"One fact of life about an outdoor venue like the promenade is that, as soon as you stop singing, you’ll inevitably lose a little bit of the crowd, so I tend to do lots of segues, and I like it if they make some sense. Mashing up David Bowie’s 'Moonage Daydream' with Radiohead’s 'Exit Music For A Film' seems natural. After all, without David Bowie’s moody histrionics, would we have ever been given 'OK Computer?'"
Kate Bush, "Running up that Hill"
"There always seemed something deviously perverse about a guy doing a Kate Bush song, until I found that Placebo also covers "Running up that Hill" and "Hounds of Love" was covered by The Futureheads. I like playing "Running up that Hill" because listeners are slow to recognize it, and it’s fun to watch it dawn on them."
The White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army"
"Jack and Meg White are all about minimalism, the belief that if you’ve written a good song, it should sound good while it is still raw. This suits me just fine, so I do several White Stripes and Raconteurs songs in my set. This is one everybody likes."
The Smashing Pumpkins, "Mayonnaise"
"I like playing 'Mayonnaise' because it’s one of the most beloved songs among true Smashing Pumpkins fans. There’s something piercingly beautiful about Billy Corgan’s imagery and guitar playing on this song, and it’s fun to try to get it all on one guitar and one voice."
Weezer, "Buddy Holly"
"There’s no one around today who does quite what Weezer does, that über-nerd thing, so I like playing Weezer songs. People always remember them fondly, especially 'Undone (The Sweater Song)' and 'Buddy Holly.'"
Photo via YouTube