Meanderings

The Busker. A Man for all Seasons

For the full time busker, winter is split cleanly and abruptly in two. Pre- Christmas and post-Christmas.

Pre-Christmas has a great sense of optimism and expectation which fuels a fair degree of enthusiasm. Everything is geared towards Christmas Eve. Profits rise with every sunrise until suddenly it's all over. The Kristkindel markets pack up. The decorations are put back in their boxes whilst the Carolers are lined up and shot.

New Year finds the last of the Christmas trees thrown out with the wrapping paper and the empties. At this point, many buskers call it a season and depart for warmer climates or back to college or to their normal jobs. But this is where the full-time street musicians roll their sleeves up and brace themselves for the coming months of torture.

The migrating busking flocks have flown south and only the year round residents are left to paw an existence from the frozen streets. Trust me when I say, anyone busking in late December/January needs the money.

Once, when I was hitching throught the black Forest in the aftermath depression of Christmas, I got dropped off in Freiburg. I saw a busker playing in a deserted underpass. He sang a song with the line, "looks like it's you and me again babe". He looked like the loneliest guy in the world singing the saddest song ever. I passed on by. He didn't nod hello as buskers often do. I guess he saw my little guitar in a garbage bag and estimated my affluency. I returned 2 minutes later and he was gone. Probably went off to kill himself. I took out my guitar and laid the garbage bag on the ground as a money collector. I made 5 deutch marks (one coin) then my bag blew away. I followed it out of the tunnel and we kept on going out of town.

Years later I think I met that busker in a bar. Still in Freiburg. I guess the busking hadn't been so bad or perhaps he'd just been busking up some extra cash for the January sales. 

From January till April is the desperate time of year for those who work the streets. Though the students, entrepeneurs and summer buskers have gone, those who remain provide fierce competition. They are, as I mentioned, desperate. They'e not busking to earn a little holiday cash.

"Faire la mange". This is a French catchall phrase for street performances that earn money. These include activities such as busking, juggling, panhandling, mugging, stabbing and breaking down crying. Buskers in France don't seem to have heard of the unwritten law of busk for one hour then move on. If you ask a French busker when he will be stopping, he will look at you in disbelief and blurt out, "Stop? Moi? Are xoo kwaizzy." Napoleon didn't stop either and look what happened to him.

Me and Frank shared the Annecy subway tunnel. He played mornings and I played afternoons. But it wasn't always so simple. Frank would turn up like clockwork each morning at 9:00 am. I was inevitably always just too late. So I began turning up a few minutes earlier too, and so sparked off the race for the pitch which culminated a few weeks later when Frank showed up at 6:30. At that hour we were alone down there. No one really showed up till around 8:30. we'd drink coffee and talk. Melanie, (Frank's dog) would sit in the open guitar case to keep her feet off the cold stone.

An open guitar case was a vital part of the terms of staking a pitch claim. A closed case meant you were just a guy standing there who happened to have a guitar case. Thus you were open to be ambushed by other buskers hiding round the corner. They'd peek round descreetly from the underground carpark, with their guitars primed and ready. Then if your instrument wasn't unpacked, they'd leap out and start strumming with avengeance. it was kind of like being musically mugged. A coo. Or a revolution. Bastille day with egality, fraternity, and a touch of every man for himself.

Meanwhile my fellow Miserables who shared the tunnel's precious resources, spent the day bouncing off the walls in delirium till by late afternoon, they were slouched cross-legged against the wall, touting bottles of red plonk and shamelessly begged the price of another. By the time I was packing up, I'd have watched them slide imperceptively down the wall as if they were evaporating. From the lotus position they morphed slowly into the horizontal crucifiction position.

In the evenings when I took a parting glance over my shoulder, the tunnel looked like it had been shot up in a war zone. Such a scene of carnage. Red wine drained out of the groaning corpses that littered the tunnel. Half open plastic bags of possessions wrapped in twine were clung to like life jackets. Openal knifes tumbled from back pockets and from trouser legs. A reek of soggy camembert cheeze and stale baguettes wafted down from La Buffet a la Gare. Papers and tin cans clattered aimlessly from gutter to gutter, echoeing down the bottleneck netherworld where the insane and forgotten cried out for pity from the cruel world above.

 Such poetry in a subway.

The last thing I hear as I step over a body is an exasperated little voice bleeding self pity unto itself. "Anything. Anything....  Even a cigarette".

 Spring weaves into summer and the full-time busker is rejuvinated like the natural things around him. Behind him are the stark leafless days where winter treated him as a personal spitoon.

 Ahead lie days of lazy squander.

TO BE CONTINUED...