Whenever Tony Thrown makes his way to Lincoln Road, he takes the back alleys that run behind the tourist boulevard. He emerges into the light at Pennsylvania Avenue, an old refrigerator shelf stacked on his head like an oversize hat ready to be knocked off by the next puff of breeze. Hunching slightly under the weight of his headdress, he pulls behind him a laundry cart stuffed with metal and plastic containers. He spreads out his wares on the concrete walkway in front of a boarded-up building opposite the Lincoln Theatre, where an advertisement boasts of the New World Symphony's dedication to developing musical leadership. Thrown, a man who literally has drummed his way out of some of Boston's toughest ghettos, performs a striking counterpoint to the symphony's statement of commitment to its young players. He is at once a cultural asset, part of the essential spice of Miami Beach's arts scene, and a frequent target of the city's fitful purges of peripatetic artists.
Until the 31-year-old drummer strikes the first note, he looks more like a dapper junk hawker than a percussionist. His drum kit is made of discarded kitchenware: shelves, oven grates, pots, pans, buckets. From the look of his equipment, it appears as if the scrap couldn't survive much of a beating. Before him sits a flipped-over and severely dented copper pail. To his left, on the ground, lay a large cast iron kettle mounted on an overturned bucket and pans that lost their luster long ago. The two refrigerator shelves resting lengthwise atop oven grills to Thrown's right appear ready to topple over before he even slaps a drumstick to them.
Thrown sits on a milk crate, precariously balanced between two realities; he is poised on the edge of his criminal past and Miami's cultural scene. On this November night, the street musician will talk easily and frankly about his life with an aspiring rap artist, a homeless man, a model, a child, a tourist, and a journalist. "Before I started playing the buckets I was just doing nothing but getting into trouble with the law," says Thrown. "This is what took me out of gangs and drug selling and all that negativity." His problems with the law are not entirely behind him, however. Code enforcers frequently ask him to move along. He has been arrested three times for "playing buckets," nabbed by police in Miami Beach, in Coconut Grove, and at Bayside. After each of the arrests in the Grove and Miami Beach, he returned to the scene of his playing only to find his equipment had been snatched. The unit he is playing now is in its third incarnation.
In front of the entrance to the Miami Cultural Center at West Flagler Street and SW First Avenue
Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays
On weekend nights he haunts Lincoln Road, Ocean Drive, and Washington Avenue
When Thrown plays, the materials shift around him, sliding ever so slowly along the concrete. Several times one of the shelves topples over and is righted without a missed beat. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the late and sedate Eric Dolphy -- slender frame, goatee, close-cropped hair, large, dark knowing eyes that emit a persistent and paradoxical wanderer's innocence -- Thrown bends forward, his torso and legs jackknifed at what seems to be painful angle, the better to get at the instruments before him. He wears baggy carpenter-style pants and a navy button-down polo shirt, which he soon discards as he heats up. Performing a half yogic, half Houdini-like stunt, Thrown frees himself of the garment, all the while keeping the beat. His sinewy muscles, damp with perspiration, shine purple in the neon and street lights. Sculpted sharply, Thrown's body has the sleekness of a greyhound. It comes as little surprise that he can play up to an hour and a half without a break. And then it is his back that gives out in need of a stretch, while his arms are as loose as rubber bands and ready for more.
He has only been playing for about twenty minutes tonight, but already about a dozen people have paused to watch the bent figure work at his unusual drum set. Shorts-clad tourists stop, their children in tow, and drop cash into the performer's only upright bucket. A beautiful blond-haired young woman on a bicycle listens and leaves only after getting a smile from Thrown. Some of the city's shadier characters also gather around the musician. Thrown is polite, but Chad, a street urchin who takes a seat twenty yards in front of the scene, cramps the drummer's style with his drunken babble. Later, during a break, Thrown admonishes him gently. Later still, he compliments a child on the colorful wheel of his scooter and then abandons his drums to help a woman who has crashed her bicycle.
The beat he is playing now is reminiscent of a New Orleans march, with a hip-hop undercurrent. He whacks the copper pail with the drumstick in his right hand and coaxes a "bap!" snare sound out of it. Then he uses both hands to fill the sonic space with the sounds of all the other junk laid out before him. For a high hat, he intermittently strikes an oven grill capped by the two metallic refrigerator shelves rigged to carry the sound further. He kebongs the kettle, making it clang like an amplified cowbell. His hands crisscross before him in blindingly quick figures.
He learned to manage a standard trap set beginning at age five, working his way up as a drummer in his high school stage band. But it was during a two-week trip to New York City, to visit his cousin Larry Wright, that he learned how to play for money. He was nineteen at the time. Larry was fourteen and on the verge of being discovered by a variety of musicians and filmmakers, including Spike Lee and jazz drummer Max Roach. A year before Thrown's arrival, Wright had made a name for himself banging on buckets in Times Square. "My cousin was like, I'm going out to make some money; I'm gonna play some drums in the street,'" remembers Thrown. "We got all the way down to Times Square and he says, We gotta get some buckets.' And I said, Buckets! I thought you said you knew how to play the drums.'
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"Yeah I know how to play the drums on buckets,' he said, and I was like, Oh, I got to see this!' So he gets the buckets and starts playing on them -- brrrrrr bap! prrrrr dap! -- and all of a sudden people start coming around. I seen all the money dropping in the bucket and I said, Wow, I could do that!'"
When Thrown headed back to Boston, he schooled himself in his basement in the art of getting the maximum sound quality out of buckets and discarded kitchenware. He checked out a local Boston busker who played bongos to find out how much he made. He knew he could do better. "The first day I made $100, and that was it," he declares. "I said, I'm giving up crime.'" It wasn't easy going at first, but gradually he earned credibility among the city's law enforcers, garnering a favorable reputation for his training of inner-city youths in the art of street drumming. Two years ago he came to Miami for Super Bowl weekend and was seduced by the weather. "On the weekdays during tourist season, I'll struggle," he says. "I'll make $80 or $100 if I'm lucky. It's just enough to get by. But on weekends I can make double that."
Although Thrown still laments the run-ins with the law that led to the loss of a complete set of cast-iron pots and pans and his prized professional-musician's cymbal, he is enjoying a brief reprieve from harassment. The City of Miami Beach has declared a moratorium on issuing citations to buskers until after December 22, when the city commission will consider a proposed street artists' ordinance. For now the beat goes on. Until the municipality fashions an outdoor music policy that allows for Thrown's street approach to music, he remains perched on that sharp and slippery edge he knows too well.
On Halloween, protected by the spirit of the pagan holiday, Thrown balanced gracefully along that cusp between legitimacy and lawlessness. Hundreds of revelers formed a circle around him in a spontaneous dance macabre to the drummer's high-energy grooves. A squat group of aliens with enormous heads wiggled wildly. A diva with an astounding black mane shook her rump. Goblins, robots, pirates, and all manner of Miami's raised dead formed a party line that wound a repeated circuit around the kitchenware drum kit. Wearing a ghoulish mask, Thrown kept a significant expanse of Lincoln Road spellbound with his driving beat for more than an hour. As some dancers tired, others came to fill their place. Thrown accommodated them all, bent long and low over his kit, refusing to quit until the costumed visitors moved on. By the time he called it a day at about 3:00 a.m., he walked off, exhausted, with $500 and a very sore back. For the aging diva, the toddler in his first Halloween mask, and the wandering tourist, Thrown was one reason Miami Beach became, for a moment, the right place to be.