Boston's Keytar Bear Is a Great Musician, When People Aren't Punching Him
After a motorcycle accident and a summer off, Beantown's infamous, mysterious mascot has returned to perform.
In "Local Legends," VICE spotlights people famous in the small towns, cities, and neighborhoods where they live—colorful characters, who, unknown to the wider world, are staples in their communities. Submit your own Local Legend to Alex Norcia, at email@example.com.
It's been a rough few months for Keytar Bear. This past spring, he slipped his motorcycle on sand, crashed, and broke his foot. As a result, he had to sideline his busking for the entire summer. Also, as he casually drops on me, he is now girlfriend-less, and, consequently, between homes.
These hard times, however, are not rare for his breed.
For the uninitiated, Keytar Bear is Boston's infamous, anonymous street performer who, as his moniker suggests, wears a full bear suit and stylishly plays a keytar—that cheesy electronic keyboard and guitar hybrid that became a punchline in the 80s—throughout the city's T stations and public parks. After first appearing basically out of nowhere in 2014, he has become a weird staple in a parochial, old-monied place not particularly associated with weirdness.
"By their very definition, mascots are people or things (or bears!) that symbolize something greater than it," the Boston Yeti, a man named John Campopiano who dresses like the mythical beast and famously shovels snow in his hometown, writes over email. "I've always considered [Keytar Bear] to be a mascot for Boston. He embodies many of its core values. He's tough as nails: He shows up in the dead of winter and the sweltering heat of summer. And he's as fun-loving, too, as he is mysterious."
"He is a bit elusive," Tom O'Keefe, who runs the popular BostonTweet Twitter Feed, tells me, citing a large aspect of his charm. "He doesn’t have any consistent schedule, so when you do spot him on the street, it’s a huge treat."
The bear's appeal is the calculated, purposeful allure—the mystery—that he's formed around himself. He refuses to reveal his who he really is, or offer much personal information. His tunes range from Rick James all the way to Metallica. His favorite areas to perform are outside South Station, in the open-air market Faneuil Hall, and near the Common, which is like Boston's Central Park (a comparison I'm certain many Bostonians will enjoy). O'Keefe alone has randomly captured him shredding Prince after the musician's death, jamming with the band Guster, and sporting all sorts of Boston athletic attire. (Go Sox! Go Bruins!)
Keytar Bear has a recurring story—a cyclical, mystical loop. First, he's brutally hurt in some capacity, forcing him to hibernate out of sight as he recovers. While he was once lauded by Mick Jagger, he more often makes local—and sometimes national—news because of the many fist fights he's been in, all a matter of self-defense. (In the past five years, he tells me, he's punched "around six dudes" in total.) He's been involved in so many physical altercations that, in the wake of police arresting three New Hampshire teenagers for attacking him in 2017, Boston.com compiled a round-up of all his brawls: the time a man chucked a Snapple bottle at him and ruined his instrument; the time a man pretended to take a selfie with him and clocked him in the nose; the time a man and woman beat him and robbed his tip bucket; and then the time—the most recent—three boys from the Live Free or Die State ripped off his mask, hooked him in the jaw, and jacked his cash.
"There are two types of people who screw with me: drunks and schoolkids," Keytar Bear says. "I have one rule, man: Don't touch the bucket."
All the Mark Wahlbergs in the world, though, can't stop him. Following these scuffles, and the subsequent injuries, comes the charity chapter. Usually, a diehard fan (or fans) will offer their services: Off the heels of the first assault, Cambridge declared May 8 "Keytar Bear Day"; a GoFundMe campaign, begun by an admirer, Eric Williams, raised $10,000 following the pouncing by the teens; and after he wrecked his bike, the Trillium Brewing Company created the Keytar Bear Double IPA, which it brews "with local wildflower honey." (“We made sure to pay Keytar Bear and are also giving him beer… obviously,” Jonathan Tompkins, Trillium’s marketing director, wrote in an email to Boston.com.)
Finally, once he's better and ready, Keytar Bear reemerges from his cave. This, of course, is always the last part of the tale, where we are now—until the cycle repeats.
Before Keytar Bear and I meet in Worcester's Union Station and eventually make the 90-minute trip to the Boston Common, he is emphatic that I not mention his real name. He would not agree to any interview that outed him. He also wouldn't state his age, only saying that he's "somewhere in his 20s and 30s." And I never, at any point, fully see his face, even if I can peek through his mouth hole and see the weathered cheeks of an African American man. (If he didn't wash his bear head, he says, "it would just smell like weed and tacos.") Also, beneath his furry mask, which he rarely takes off during the hours we spend together, is another mask: a neck warmer wrapped around his mouth and sunglasses. He resembles Morpheus, if the Zion operative was close to five feet tall. He has been interested in music since he was a kid, he shares (he began with the drums, the guitar, the piano), and his heroes include Van Halen, Styx, Guns N' Roses, Jim Morrison, "fucking Mötley Crüe," Wu-Tang Clan, the Roots, and Kiss. At various times, you can hear these influences in his routine; he's an incredibly gifted keytar player.
Keytar Bear frequently launches into humorous asides without warning—like when he insists he's dreamed of teaching bow-and-arrow lessons, or how fisher cats murder dogs and fellow cats. And, despite what the secrecy surrounding his identity might suggest, he's occasionally prone to bouts of openness about his life. His grandmother homeschooled him in Sutton, Massachusetts, he says, a nearly 9,000-person town, where they have "Bibles and horses." All he'll mention about his parents is that his mother is white, a Pennsylvania native of German ancestry, and his father, whom he's never met, is black and was in the military. In regards to his getup, he says it was inspired by a real-life bear. As a kid, a mama bear would visit his grandmother's backyard, and he fell in love with the animal.
But this is as much biography as anyone's likely to receive; his grandma didn't even realize who he was, he says, until she saw on the news Keytar Bear had injured his foot in a motorcycle accident, realized her grandson had suffered the same fate, and put two and two together.
Besides a single extensive interview he granted the Boston Globe's Steve Annear in 2014, he's aggressively media shy as well, claiming that if you get too famous, like John Lennon or Martin Luther King Jr., the probability of a crazy person harming you increases. "The more publicity you generate," he tells me, "the more reason for people to hate you." But a desire for anonymity isn't the only reason Keytar Bear's human face remains hidden. "I’m trying to kill racism in my own little way, you know what I mean?" he told the Globe in their Q&A. "You don’t know if [I’m] black or white, you just see a little bear."
On top of that noble, and maybe not-exactly well-formed idea, Keytar Bear also has many thoughts on class. "Being rich must be so boring, right?" he asks me, somewhat rhetorically, as he finally sets up near the Park Street T Station and wonders aloud how fame is actually attained. "What do you do if you're not trying to survive, if you're not trying to stop all the shit trying to kill you?"
As he plugs his speaker into a car battery, he asks me to buy him a Dutch at a nearby 7-Eleven. I concede. I'm gone but three minutes, and when I return, a small crowd has already gathered in a circle. It's his first performance in Boston since spring, and clearly they've missed him. I watch as Keytar Bear improvises, smoothly transitioning from the hits of Nora Jones to Smash Mouth. His fingers, exposed under his gloved paw, glide quickly and effortlessly across the keys.
As he goes from one song to the next, a boy in an Iron Man costume dances. A woman watching calmly chews on a soft pretzel. A lady walks past, FaceTiming the impromptu concert to someone on her iPhone. People, naturally, start saying things. It is Boston. “My dude," a passerby shouts. "Glad to see you back in action!" says a guy in a leopard-print vest. "Yo, Keytar," screams a dude with a ginger beard and a Red Sox cap. "What's up? Call me!" Then, a man dressed as a revolutionary solider, simply yet emphatically declares, "Keytar!"
"He confuses your mind with the Teddy Bear. That's his thing," one reveler tells me. "You think it's a gimmick—but Keytar, he's a jazz musician."
I believe it. Talking to him, I'm reminded of the Washington Post's rouse in 2007, when the paper had the nation's premier violinist, Joshua Bell, fiddling away in a busy DC metro station at rush hour, and only a couple commuters took a second to pause from their hurried routine. This stunt, it seems, is nearly the opposite of that: Here is an undisclosed bear with perhaps the most ridiculous instrument known to mankind, in a region not normally heralded for its warmth and congeniality, tricking people into pausing, even for a moment, to soak in his moves and melodies. In Boston, he is nobody and everybody at once, as if he has inverted the city's ethos with its stereotypes: Keytar Bear has a cuddly exterior, but he is willing to knock you out if you fuck with him.
Over 30 minutes, newcomers appear, and others disperse. The woman nibbling on the pretzel finishes her snack, and hugs him before walking off. I take that as my cue to leave, too. Before I do, Keytar Bear reaches into his bucket and hands me two dollar bills.
"For the Dutch," he says, laughing. "I'm back in the wild."
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