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Musings

The Busker's Tale

Part 1
I made my living partly as a busker (street musician) for about seven years, starting when I was 24, living in a squatting community in Brixton, south London. In 1977 I left a primal scream commune with the dream of making music for a living. I sang and played fiddle - and later harmonica as well, a blues harp mounted on a rack, with morris bells on my ankles - in public spaces, urban streets, pedestrian zones, tunnels and underpasses around Britain, Ireland and across Europe, grand squares with statues covered in guano, shopping precincts, anywhere passers-by could drop coins into my fiddle case and I could make myself heard. Preferably without getting arrested - though that did happen more than once. Here’s a first selection of extracts from my diaries, how I started in London, how I busked in Germany in 1978 to pay for my first trip to the Appalachian Mountains. 

Pete in the 1970s


 

Hyde Park Corner

Tuesday 17 August 1976
Steve woke me up to go busking: day one of our new career playing jigs and reels to tourists. He’d been before, as had Mick D. and explained how it worked. A ‘pitch’ was anywhere you could stand and perform and if it was vacant, then, as far as the regular buskers were concerned, go ahead and play. An informal system of one-hour time slots applied to the more lucrative pitches, such as the pedestrian tunnel between the Piccadilly and Victoria lines at Green Park tube station. A girl was singing with guitar when we arrived, and the next available slot wasn’t until six, but she added our names to a ‘list’ passed verbally from one performer to the next.

Meanwhile we played in the pedestrian subways around Marble Arch, my fiddle case open on the ground for contributions. The acoustics were good, amplifying the fiddle and guitar. Our tune repertoire settled down to the most pocket-loosening numbers, the Irish Washerwoman (G), the Tenpenny Jig (Am), Drowsy Maggie (Em) and Frieze Breeches (D). We made £8 in coins and divided them between us before returning to Green Park for six o’clock. However, a character called Tommy had muscled in earlier, it turned out, so the original list had been lost, and now somebody else was playing. Still, a good day. Fiddling again was a gas. I hadn’t played so much since before E. and I went to Spain.

Tuesday 24 August
You could feel the end of the long summer’s drought approaching. I was busking at Marble Arch and came out of the subway for a break. The sky was gloomy with banks of grey cloud. It had rained a little, but just a piddling shower. I’d expected a more distinct, dramatic ending. I sat on a park bench with a wino, smoking a cigarette.

‘Passing clouds,’ he said.

London Tube

Wednesday 25 August
I went busking at the same spot. Steve joined me at noon.

Friday 27 August
At Green Park tube, between the Victoria and Piccadilly lines, I busked £9.80 in a one-hour solo stand, a record! [Social Security was £9.70 a week.] 

Friday 1 October 
Long day busking in the subways, made £10 but got moved on by police at Green Park.

Tuesday 5 October
Rain. Busking a bit discouraging, only made £5. ‘There must be a better way to sell your soul,’ a fellow busker observed.

 

Busking in Italy 1977

Wednesday 21 September
Autumn Equinox, Piazza del Duomo, Milan. The sky is blue and the whole square ankle deep in a sea of pigeons. We wade through them for a while, then sit down to enjoy the sunshine, careful to avoid the bird shit that encrusts nearly every step and monument. It’s eerily quiet, no sound of traffic. Vendors with special umbrella hats sell wind-up birds to tourists, releasing them into the air on flapping wings, white, or red-and-yellow, then stroll around the square to retrieve them. The cathedral, late Gothic, rises heavenwards on our left. A tourist in a grey suit stands in front, one hand held out like a statue, suddenly the centre of a vortex of pigeon wings, real ones, that flap around his face, competing to perch on his outstretched arm, or tumble down to flock around his feet. He looks a real picture and - ah-ha, that’s the point. A photographer, knees bent, focuses and snaps; the latter-day St Francis returns what’s left of the yellow corn to the photographer’s satchel, and draws a note from his wallet to pay for the Polaroid… I open my fiddle case at the foot of the Duomo steps, ‘seed’ it with a couple of 500-lire notes and shiny 200-lire coins, then fiddle a few tunes till an audience gathers. I sing Honky Tonk Women, Irene Goodnight, Paradise, John Barleycorn, The Blacksmith, A-Begging I will Go and the rest, each getting a round of applause (and a few bank-notes) from the growing crowd. Police cars slow down as they pass, but none stops. ‘Pausa,’ I announce after an hour. I take a break to watch the pigeons, then play another half-hour set. An American called Steve invites us to crash at his apartment. E. counts out the money, about 20,000 lire, on the face of it a dizzyingly high amount, but worth just over £12.00. We go to a restaurant for lunch…

Friday 23 September
Hitched from Milan to Reggio. I busked; we spent the night in a cheap hotel.

Wednesday 28 September
Florence. Love in the tent. Then we took the number 7 bus, hot and crowded, to Fiesole, a winding climb past villas and vineyards and the waving spires of cypress trees. As the road twisted and turned upwards, lovely views of the city appeared to left and right, red-tiled roofs clustered far below around the great cathedral dome. Such a beautiful city. From the main square at Fiesole we walked up towards the convent, and looked out. The whole valley was a haze of glittering mist. I lay down on a hot stone bench and closed my eyes. An image of Sol appeared in my mind as though carved into a flat rock, the alternately pointed and twisting rays of its face beaming out into a mass of other symbols and figures. As I tried to identify them they vanished, as if erased by time and weather, leaving only the sun’s image at the centre.…

Friday 30 September
Florence…We walked to the Piazza della Repubblica, and E. went to the Post Office while I busked, quite successfully, under the colonnade - nine thousand lire in the first hour. I’d just resumed after a café break when a smartly dressed Florentine with a black goatee beard asked me to play in his shop. 

‘How much do you make in an hour?’ he asked. 
‘Twelve thousand,’ I exaggerated.
‘OK, well, I’ll give you six thousand for half an hour.’

We followed him to a boutique selling women’s clothes. He brought wine and cigarettes, and I played. A mate of his listened for a while and asked if I’d play in his shop afterwards, at the same rate. So when I’d collected my six thousand we walked with him to one of the main streets near the Duomo. It was a trendy shoe shop, with a good sound system. He said he’d played in a rock band until four years ago. At the end of my stint, which attracted customers in off the street - the whole point, obviously - he closed the shop, opened a bottle of champagne and paid me the cash, then asked us our shoe sizes and offered us a choice of footwear. E. picked some espadrilles. I asked if he’d got any blue suede shoes.

‘No, but guess what. I’ve got green suede shoes.’

We dined at a trattoria in the Via Porta Rossa. I’d made enough in two hours to settle the campsite bill for the week, pay for the meal, and buy a packet of MS brand cigarettes, still with five or six quid to spare.  

We went early to bed. Leaves were falling with every breath of wind, and horse chestnuts dropped, clunk, clunk, on the dry, rock-hard earth outside the tent. 

Tuesday 11 October
The island of Ischia, Albergo Macri. Got the bus to Maronti Beach, ate spaghetti and jumped in the enormous waves. Back in Ischia at dusk I took out the fiddle to busk in trendy Via Roma, where a guy from the local radio station, Radio Ischia, recorded me for a fee of 10,000 lire. We went out for a meal later with our Italian neighbours from the albergo, a couple from Milan. They reckoned Radio Ischia was owned by the fascist party. Oh shit. I wondered what the fascists would make of my Woody Guthrie songs.


Back in Oxford

Wednesday 26 October
Oxford. We took the bus into town and I busked at the indoor market. E. wanted lunch at the café, but there was a long queue of students and I didn’t want to wait. She went home in a huff. I sat on the wall outside St Michael’s church. Two buskers had occupied my usual pitch. A man of about thirty with greying hair and a younger woman were playing an Irish jig, she on tin whistle, he on mandolin. They invited me to join them. We played a reel in D, The Mountain Road, I’d learned from Steve D., then Drowsy Maggie. They had arrived in England three weeks before from Rochester, New York, where John Herrmann played in a band called the Henrie Brothers and Karen Ashbrook, ten years younger, had recently left school. She switched to hammered dulcimer, he to 5-string banjo - my first encounter with American Old-Time music. I was captivated by the sound, the repeated notes of the banjo fifth string popping like a stream of bubbles up to the surface of the tune, the clattering hammers on the dulcimer strings setting off a wash of ringing tones. He talked about a Southern fiddler, Tommy Jarrell, and borrowed my fiddle, while Karen switched to banjo. They played a tune called Fisher’s Hornpipe, which sounded like an Irish reel, but more bluesy, with strange twists to the rhythm. I wanted to hear more of this Old Time music, perhaps tape some tunes to try and learn them myself. I wrote down our address and invited them over to the house for a meal.

Guy P. and I played our first gig as Honky Tonk Angels at the Bullingdon Arms, 162 Cowley Road. The landlord, Noel, was sceptical at first…  but twenty minutes into our first set sent over a couple of pints on the house, and a barley wine for E. who sat at the bar. Maybe I’d played some aggression out of my system busking in Italy. Anyway, I felt more relaxed about playing back-up, just blending in with Guy’s vocals, twelve-string guitar and finger-picked banjo. Two Jamaican guys encouraged us with applause… Noel’s verdict on our performance: ‘Well, boys, I was pleasantly surprised.’ 

Saturday 21 January 1978
We were going to Wales later to see E.’s brother. I wanted to busk her coach-fare as well as mine. We had ten magic mushrooms each for breakfast, then into town on the bus. The mushrooms started coming on over coffee at Georgina’s. I made my way into the Westgate shopping precinct, paranoid but knowing what that was about. Although the air was cold the vibrations of the strings extended a glow of energy into my fingers, then my hands and arms, gradually warming my whole body as the reels began to flow [cf 4 Nov]. Trippily aware of the echoey acoustic, I could see the sound waves of the violin spread out as an energy field from where I stood to approximately half way to the Queen Street exit and observe the effect on shoppers entering the zone, young children stomping and dancing with varying degrees of skill, older people allowing their grumpy masks to crack into smiles - often good for silver coin - or else skirting the energy field entirely, as if magnetically repelled. The morning faces of young, fuck-fresh couples always lit up. After an hour I scooped up just over £6 from my fiddle case and met E. at Gloucester Green. We were soon on the coach heading west through the snow-white Cotswolds to Cheltenham, doing the crossword together and talking. I started writing a [skiffle-style] song.

I went down to the Westgate to busk my blues away -
Well, that wasn’t my only reason, but I was busking anyway
- When I saw them all a-comin’, man, I had to jump aside
Those kids were doing kick flips as they skated down the slide.

(Chorus:) Skateboard Kids are coming, doing all those crazy things. 
I’m going to pull my fiddle out and skateboard on the strings.

(followed by fiddle break with Orange Blossom Special-style shuffle before the 2nd verse…)

Tuesday 24 January 
Started reading ‘Bound For Glory’ on the National Express coach back from Cardiff, Woody Guthrie ‘bouncing along in the boxcar’ in the 1940s, riding a freight train. ‘We looked like a gang of lost corpses heading back to the boneyard.’ 


Köln

Friday 28 April 1978
I caught a tram from the Innere Kanalstrasse at the end of the road to Neumarkt in the city centre, then walked the length of the Fussgängerzone (pedestrian precinct, closed to traffic) until I found a promising pitch for busking by a corner of the Gothic cathedral, the Dom. A crowd streamed up and down the steps to the railway station and brown pfennigs and silver marks were soon dropping steadily into my fiddle case as I played and sang until mid-afternoon. I was taking a break at the side of the square, smoking a roll-up, when a young woman sitting further along the wall asked me in English, 

‘You’re going to play again?’  

She had time to kill, waiting for a train and we went for a beer at a café near the station…

With aching legs I sat down to count my earnings: eighty-seven Deutschmarks. I soon got the knack of stacking the coins, then rolling them up in paper Deutsches-Bank wrappers of different colours according to denomination into heavy cylindrical packages [coin tubes] to exchange for notes at the bank. I was glad of 

the meal I was invited to share - bread, cheese and cold meats, followed by whisky and grass - but, stoned and conversationally isolated by my very  limited German, I felt lonely and slightly paranoid.  

Saturday 29 April


Koln
Koln


Next morning the balcony door stood open, the young leaves of a lime tree in the courtyard bright green in the spring sunshine and full of birdsong. After a late breakfast I took the tram and returned to the Dom square, and made a hundred marks in the course of the afternoon. Walking back, the fiddle case under my arm, shoulder bag heavy with coins, I felt like a farm labourer returning from the fields…

Sunday 30 April 1978
Sunday morning, and the fussgängerzone was full of FC Köln football supporters in red-and-white scarves, waving flags to welcome their team, who’d just won the Bundesliga cup. At my pitch between the station and the Dom I attracted a small crowd, singing John Prine’s song Paradise, droning the chords on fiddle and following it with a soulful Irish song, The Factory Girl from The Bothy Band. 

As I was a-walkin one fine summer’s morning
The birds on the bushes did warble and sing
Gay laddies and lasses and couples were a-sporting
Going down to the factory their work to begin

I went straight from that into a couple of jigs. I introduced each song - John Barleycorn was another - and each set of tunes in my foreign-sounding German, making a bit of a show.After half an hour I’d collected about sixteen marks and took a cigarette break before repeating the set with similar success. By my third time, though, the lunchtime streets were emptying and I failed to pull a crowd. With busking, I realised, there was no guaranteed formula.


The Waldeslust

In the afternoon Mario, Caspar, Loni and I drove out into the country for a walk in the forest - ein Spaziergangin die Wälde. We met up with Gunther in the garden at the Waldeslust, a rural guesthouse with a bar and restaurant. He was sitting at a table with Willi and Martine (everybody called her Chou-Chou) from the downstairs flat. [Did people tell me about the famous busker, Klaus der Geiger?] Caspar went to the bar and returned with a tray of Maibolle, little green-stemmed glasses of white wine, each with a sprig of a sharp-tasting woodland herb, Waldmeister [sweet woodruff]. After a second round the landlord, a short-haired, middle-aged man given to dry, apparently humorous remarks I couldn’t understand, offered a third on the house if the fiddler would play. As good as his word, he brought out another tray while I was tuning up. After five minutes of Irish jigs and reels and applause from the other tables, yet more Maibolle appeared, this time with the compliments of a customer in the restaurant, requesting that I play indoors. 

I went in and played another short set, returning to our table in the garden, accompanied by a waiter with yet another [5th?] tray of Maibolle and plates of bread and ham. I got into conversation [in English] with Martine. She was a student, a tiny slip of a woman, brown haired, with a small, humorous face and a nose like a bird’s beak, who told me she liked Irish folk music. Her friend Gabi made tours in Germany for Irish bands like Clannad. I told her about meeting John and Karen and my plan to go to the States. I played a couple of American fiddle tunes. People started dancing and the party took off well into the dusk and darkness, with free drinks and much laughter. Our ‘walk in the woods’ appeared ever less likely. When the  landlord placed yet another bottle of wine in my hands, with another request for a performance indoors, I was completely drunk and ravenously hungry again. 

‘First, I must eat,’ I said. ‘Then I will play.’ 
After a plate of food I staggered inside for a final stint, my voice as hoarse as my fiddle strings. 
‘I’m too pissed to play,’ I confided to Chou-Chou, who came in with me. 
‘Don’t worry,’ she replied. ‘They’re too pissed to notice.’ 

Eventually the whole group of us set off for our long-delayed Spaziergang in die Wälde, Chou-Chou and I stumbling along together in the darkness…

Waldeslust


Tuesday 2 May
I set off early into town. I tried my luck in a pedestrian underpass but a policeman moved me on. I found shelter from the rain in a doorway and played there for a couple of hours, but made less than forty marks… I was feeling at a low ebb and rolling a cigarette when along came a man with a guitar case. He had a long beard and an enamel shamrock badge in his hat. Jonah was another busker having a bad day. He was from Birmingham and had been coming to Germany for the past couple of years. We went for a cup of tea. When the weather cleared, we played a few songs together and quickly drew a crowd, though we still didn’t make a lot of money. Köln was always fairly useless, Jonah grumbled, and he was planning to get the train down to Wiesbaden. We decided to see if he could stay the night at Weinsbergstrasse…


Wiesbaden

Wednesday 3 May
By noon Jonah and I were on the train, heading south past the hills and castles of the Rhine valley. The sky cleared and the sun came out as we approached Mainz. There we changed trains for the affluent, nearby spa town of Wiesbaden. Strolling briskly from the station, we found a suitable spot on the fussgängerzone and worked hard all afternoon, averaging about thirty marks for each twenty-minute set, which consisted of Jonah’s generally rather overworked material like The Black Velvet Band, The Wild Rover, Whisky In The Jar and The Raggle Taggle Gipsies, along with fiddle tunes of mine, including flashy crowd pleaser the Orange Blossom Special. This was definitely business, not art. We ate in a pizzeria, then collected our bags from the station…and made our way up a hilly street, footsore and worn out, to his friend Johannes’s flat in Philipsburgstrasse. After Jonah and I had counted out the day’s takings on the kitchen table and divvied it up, I washed my clothes, took a bath and got an early night, ready for the morning.

Thursday 4 May 
In the afternoon Jonah and I busked the price of a pizza, walked in the park for an hour, trying without success to buy drugs from Americans, then walked back in the buskers’ dusk and sat in a square waiting for the bars to fill. A geyser of hot water spurted and splashed into a stone basin beside us, its sulphurous steam drifting among the well-heeled guests at the spa hotels who strolled past like puppets. Jonah told me he’d stolen a watch in Birmingham while on probation for something else and then done a bunk to Ostend. A cult called the Children of God had taught him how to live on the streets.  

A white-shirted barman at the first place we tried told us to come back later when there were more customers. When we did, he said they were too busy. 

‘Fuck it, let’s go,’ said Jonah. 

We got a better reception at the next bar. 

‘Sure you can play,’ said a short-haired blonde woman. ‘And your drinks are on the house.’ 

So off we went with our now well-rehearsed set, bam! bam! bam! bam! bam! I played a solo fiddle tune at the end while Jonah passed the hat. After a couple more beers, during which I was buttonholed by a German Maoist - The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, he said, in a short conversation about German cinema, was a bad movie, promoting only resignation and despair among the masses - and a parting schnapps from the landlady, we went on to another bar... At the Jazzhaus we repeated our performance - bam! bam! bam! - and a beret full of silver coins backed up the applause of a noisy crowd. We met Johannes there, with a big bush of hair around his smiling, sleepy-looking face, and after midnight the three of us staggered back to his flat, leaning forward into the hill as we climbed Philipsburgstrasse. Another two hours of vodka, black coffee and multilingual bullshit and I crashed out into a succession of dreams… 

Saturday 13 May 
Rain after breakfast. With an hour before the train left we drank coffee in the cafeteria, both desperately sad… I picked up my rucksack, shoulder bag and fiddle case and walked to the platform under the great arch of the glass and steel roof, with the neon eau de Cologne advert.

4711
ECHT KÖLNISCH WASSER
KÖLN HBF

I had £268.00 in my wallet for my trip to America: 715Dm = £176.00 + (£40 + £60) - £8.00 = £268.00.

The train sped west, the window glass giving the landscape a strange green/ violet aura. The ticket collector (fahrkart kontroller) was a brusque, self-important man in a blue uniform, a bright red plastic strap from right shoulder to left hip. He would probably have been happy to carry a Luger to shoot fare dodgers, if required. I slept in short naps. Aachen station, a passport inspection, Welkenraedt station, we must be in Belgium, another four hours to Ostend. Arrived at 10.00pm, discovered the ferry was delayed four hours, now sailing at 2.30am. I thought of going into town - have a drink, play fiddle, pass the hat round - but after I bought my ticket to London a single coffee was all I could afford if I was going to make it to America. I felt low, just wanting to get back to E. and suss out where I was at with her. 

‘Is that a fiddle?’ asked a woman sitting on a luggage trolley.

I had no idea what her oblong instrument case contained - an Appalachian dulcimer, as it turned out. She was an American folk singer called Holly Tannen, who had been on tour in Germany. We chatted and passed the time with some tunes…


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