Meanderings

Harmonicas

Harmonicas Blues.

"Capital, investment, profit".

That was Frank's motto, or so he said as we stood freezing down the Annecy subway. He was talking about the merits of harmonicas. I was thinking about the merits of fur coats.

Buying a harmonica would be an investment that right then would break the bank but ultimately would pay off. At least that was the theory.

 So, me being a gullible lad, I took Frank's fine Germanic advice. I forsook the luxury of food and beer for a day and I marched off to Veran music and purchased a harmonica and a harmonica holder. The harmonica was in the key of A. I hadn't a clue how to play it, never mind play it and a guitar at the same time but I was determined to give it a go. What did I have to lose?

Capital, Investment….. Starvin'.

Later that same day, I stood down the subway, poised with my shiny new harmonica in its equally new metal holder that fitted round my neck. I had a guitar strapped to me too. If I'd have been a bomb I'd have been lethal.

After a half hour of frustrating up and down guitar tuning, I finally had both instruments co ordinated. No one had mentioned that the guitar had to be in tune with the harmonica. I began by strumming an A minor chord with my capo on the 2nd fret. Then I'd blow a random note on the harmonica. That went well so I switched to a G chord and sucked in. I must have sounded like a little baby fire engine. "Nee naw nee naw" all afternoon. Luckily there was a convention for the tone deaf in town that day. People actually threw money. It seemed my investment might just have paid off.

After a few weeks I was getting the hang of it. I had mastered Neil Young's Heart of Gold solos and a few Dylan tunes. Don't Think Twice springs to mind. Simultaneous harmonica and guitar playing turned out to be fairly simple after a little practice; kind of like patting your head and rubbing your belly. SJ had also reluctantly invested in a harmonica and was now reaping his own financial benefits. One morning I came down the Annecy subway while he was playing. He said to me, "Check this oot". He blew a note into his harmonica as hard and as long as he could. His cheeks puffed out. He looked at me directly and then he made his eyes go cross eyed. No words were necessary.

My party piece was to puff on a cigarette when no one was looking then blow a big cloud of smoke out through the harmonica as I was playing. I'm easily amused.

The biggest problem with these harmonicas was that their lifespan was short. They needed replaced fairly regularly. I noticed that they tended to last longer in Winter than in Summer. I think this was because in warmer times there was more build up of saliva gunk on the reeds. I was never exactly sure why this happened but I would play the same harmonica all winter till it mysteriously broke as soon as the weather heated up.

Another problem was that they were not cheap. So a harmonica had to be well and truly pronounced dead before a new investment was made. This meant nothing short of being flattened by a steam roller.

On purchasing a new harmonica, the shopkeeper would test it quickly on a little bellows. He'd place the harmonica on it and give it a flourish like Jerry Lee Lewis sliding his knuckles up a piano, one end to the other. Then he'd slip it swiftly back in its box and say "50 francs s'il vous plais." By the time I'd returned to the subway and blown a few notes and realized it was broken, it was too late to bring back. Once my lips had touched it, the harp could not be returned unless maybe if I lied and told the shopkeeper that I'd taken it home and tested it on my own personal private sterilized bellows. SJ kept his broken Harmonicas handy to sell to tourists and natives for the price of a beer or a coffee. I'm not sure who got the better deal.

One fine Autumn day in Annecy, the Pope came to town. Yes the Pope. I was down in the subway tunnel busking as usual. Things had been slow since Summer had ended but this day the subway was jammed with sanctified pilgrims in transit. Train after train of them and busload after bus load came tramping in little congregations through the tunnel. It was an odd experience. Each time that the person at the forefront of one of these flocks would stop and drop me a coin, the whole group had to do likewise. It was as if each member was trying out Samaritan the next guy. This went on all day. It was unbelievable. Dare I say miraculous?

In the middle of this money harvest, my harmonica blew a gasket and needed replaced. It was only 10am but I had already made over 250ff. I didn't want to abandon my pitch even for 2 minutes but luckily SJ appeared and he played while I went off for a new harmonica.

It was a busking day to remember. Later in the afternoon with bulging pockets and blistered fingers, I went into town to see if I could spot the Pope. (Maybe thank him personally). He'd been making speeches down by the lake. There was still a huge crowd assembled. It filled the whole park. I stood at the back, near the pedestrian tunnel at the Bonlieu. I could see a Pope shaped figure speaking distortedly through a microphone. He was far away. I couldn't make out a word. It may have been him or a bishop. I don't know.

That night there was bread and wine back at the Fox's apartment. And some holy smoke too. Number one hit song of the day? You guessed it. "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

To this day though, I am not much of a harp player. I can play melodies and stuff no problem but that real Blues stuff eludes me. It's all backwards to me. I will never be a "Little Walter", but then again neither will most harmonica players. I'm a folky harmonica player which kind of means "Same key, same harp. Not fancy.'

Playing plugged in gigs with my guitar and Harmonica was always a logistic problem for me. Every time I'd arrive at the harmonica solo, I'd accidentally blow directly into the mic and miss the Harmonica. This produced a thud clunk sound instead of a harmonious wail. Other times I'd find myself onstage standing on my tiptoes and shrugging my shoulders so as to reach the mic with the harmonica. Often the harmonica holder would slip over one shoulder so that I had to face sideways to the mic and stand on my tip toes and hunch up my shoulders just to get within range of the mic. I'd have my back to the audience and be looking at them dementedly over one shoulder. If I lowered the mic stand then I'd have to bend to sing. If all that wasn't bad enough, sometimes I'd get ready to blow the solo and discover the harmonica was just a tiny bit out of reach or the screw would loosen in mid solo and the harp would slip out of reach. Or I'd start the solo only to find the harmonica was upside down with the notes all reversed. The classic clanger though is of course the wrong harmonica key for the song being played. That's a real head turner. Scarred by the experience, I gave up playing the harmonica at gigs for a long time.

A long time ago in Amsterdam I had all my stuff stolen. It wasn't much: mainly a bag of rags and a sleeping bag. But my harmonicas, harmonica holder and sketch pads were stolen too. By then I was carrying around about 4 sketch pads. Not great works of art or literature but irreplaceable to me. Luckily they were found later in the station's public toilets. Maybe they'd just gone for a poop.

To cut a long story short, it was late winter and freezing. So I hitched South and ended up in Salzburg. Me, the clothes on my back, a hat, a guitar and some sketch pads. After a few days busking, I bought a new harmonica and harmonica holder. I was back in business. The show must go on. Capital, investment, profit.