You must have seen this guy -- either on the Telegraph Avenue sidewalk
near the UC campus, or near the downtown Berkeley BART station, or by the
Cannery in San Francisco. He's the street musician with long red hippie
hair, a hammer dulcimer on stilts, and fingers a little like Edward Scissorhands'.
He usually draws a small crowd with the mesmerizing sound of his instrument
-- something like bells and shadows, a veritable Turkish steambath of overtones,
a sound that first gets your attention from about a half a block away.
A self-described "community icon," Michael Masley was carted
off to the Berkeley slammer in the spring of 1993 for failing to procure
a business license to sell cassettes out of an open case during his performances.
As reported by the Oakland Tribune, Masley's defense to the two
cops and two city finance officials who arrested him was characteristic
of his cosmic outlook: "Go to Fremont or Hayward," he admonished
the suits and uniforms. "This is Berkeley.....this place is spiritual,
and a business license is not a spiritual option."
Masley's abduction by the authorities drew protests from a number of Telegraph
vendors and bystanders, including noted "plop artist" Richard
List -- the genius who installed the erstwhile toilet gallery in the empty
lot at Haste and Telegraph. "It's like arresting Beethoven,"
List said. Masley spent only one night in the pen, and though his status
as a vending minstrel was never ironed out, he says he hasn't been significantly
The prestigious Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th
edition) credits Masley with inventing the "ten-fingered 'finger-hammer'
technique" of playing the cymbalom, a chromatic concert version
of the traditional hammer dulcimer. Masley's wheeled cymbalom was built
by an expert back in Michigan, Masley's native state from whence he moved
out West in 1982. Masley describes what he does as "earth-folk,"
which he recently further defined as "a contemporary Afro-Celtic variation
of Free World and Country Eastern music."
A couple of years ago, the plashing, shamanic soundwaves issuing from Masley's
instrument were arresting enough to catch the ear of Ry Cooder when he
was fishing around in his box of unsolicited tapes for just the right mystical
resonance to round out the soundtrack for the feature film Geronimo.
Playing cymbalom, Lakota flute, and water pipes for a couple of movie minutes,
Masley made some reasonable bucks. Masley's musical contribution was excerpted
for use on CBS's broadcast of the Winter Olympics, on NBC's Entertainment
Tonight, and in an HBO special. Masley's prospects were beginning to
When Sony issued the Geronimo soundtrack, however, everyone received their
due credits for composition except Masley. "I doubt Ry Cooder had
anything to do with this," Masley wrote recently in Musician
magazine, in an article entitled "Credit is Not Negotiable."
After lengthy legal wrangling, Sony coughed up a "decent" out-of-court
settlement and issued what Masley calls "the letter": a full
admission of Masley's contributions to Geronimo, duly signed by
Robert E. Holmes, executive VP of Sony Pictures Music Group.
If Masley is worried about never doing lunch in big-time music town again,
he doesn't show it. "I'd love to do more soundtracks, and I probably
will," he coolly predicts. "You see, I have a timbral monopoly.
Nobody else can do my sound."
In the meantime, you can pick up Masley's brand-new CD -- Mystery Repeats
Itself, a greatest-hits collection culled from six of his tapes --
at the Musical Offering in Berkeley, or order directly from the artist
(P.O. Box 5232, Berkeley, CA 94705). Since Masley long ago blew his Sony
winnings on expensive audio gadgetry (much of it from Sony, of course),
quantities of his disc are limited. But you can still catch him out on