On The Money

Give the piper a penny to play, and two pence to leave off.
-Thomas Fuller

The first busker I noticed in Paris was a guy strumming folky acoustic cliches at St-Michel. It must have been brutally cold for him, sitting on the concrete ledge of the fountain, strumming with his bare fingers, so I felt sorry for him. Sadly, it takes a lot of heartstring action to make one cough up coins sometimes, and it was my first day there, so my Scrooge levels were undoubtedly at their highest. So I didn’t give him anything, but in McDuck-like defence, he wasn’t really that special – there are a billion guys like him in the Central underpass every day, redredging gruff covers of Dylan or Crowded House to the flurry of passing commuters.

And anyway, he was an English chap, so I’m not sure if he counts in my haphazardly scrapped together personal census of French buskers, as conducted during that short but seminal stay. If that sounds all snarky and uppity (or English-ist!), it’s not meant to be. It’s just that the French buskers were really engaging. And they were different.

The first few who stepped onto the train carriages of the Metro were a surprise, simply because they were entrepreneurial enough to do so. Obviously, it was something worth taking advantage of, the fact that we weren’t going anywhere between stops – whereas subway tunnels are full of walking-the-other-away-to-avoid-the-vicinity-of-the-busker’s-hat potential. It’s also a relief, because everything is so static and lifeless on trains. Everyone just recedes into robotic, dead-minded versions of themselves, like the automatic persona we revert to on elevators, where the imagination is only capable of watching the floor levels change. And plus, it takes a lot of ticker to want to play to a bunch of strangers, especially when a few already happen to be simmering with I-don’t-want-to-be-here resentment. So, I would pretty much be gunning for anyone who has the pluck to do it. Of course, unless you sing ratty covers of
Blowin’ In The Wind or Red Hot Chili Peppers, then I might just look a bit mean and unreceptive, it’s just my schtick.

Thankfully, there weren’t any excuses for perfecting misanthropic busker-unfriendly looks.

The first two buskers were burly, jovial(-ish) blokes playing jaunty upbeat pianoaccordion numbers probably copyrighted by the Tourist Commission – stock standards you’d probably hear in every corny holiday ad or film about going to France. But I didn’t mind ‘cos it was French – it wasn’t Cold Chisel or Silverchair or something I can hear a billion times in Circular Quay or Pitt Street Mall or anywhere a coin-laden hat may lay in Sydney. Then it got interesting. A really young guy got on at one stop with a girl friend of his. He had some piano accordion action happening sure, but he also had some rusty sounding beats coming out of a speaker, and he started MCing while his female friend added percussion flourishes with her shaker. This was on the day Beth and I were about to hotfoot it up the Eiffel Tower, and we both thought it was cute and cool and a smart idea to do it in twos. The girl was smiling in a way that made you think he wasn’t really her boyfriend or anything like that, just that that they were friends; it seemed like she was slightly embarrassed by it – like it would be uncool to admit it was fun – but was also enjoying it a lot more than she thought she would. Beth had just come from Tokyo and told me that in Japan people don’t busk for money, a revelation I found fascinating. (Later, through Tabitha, we learnt that a lot of young folk in Paris are doing this sort of thing – debuting their individual songs and styles on commuters and walkers by. She thought it was a cool thing too.)

I wondered if this whole serenading-entire-train-carriages spiel was just a novelty to us because it doesn’t happen in Sydney, and maybe it’s just old-hat to everyone else in the world. But I enjoyed it, a lot. I remember a saxophonist who came on one train, backed by a cheesy-synth backing track. The first tune was such oversugared muzak that I wondered how I was going to enjoy the rest of the ride. But the next track was the old Candy Dulfer hit from the ’90s,
Lily Was Here, and despite the schlocky synths, there was no denying the gusto and sophistication he played with – the kamikaze squeals and dizzying strains of brass. I noticed the French couple in the opposite seat were unearthing change long before their stop was up. I did too, but I realised you also have to be strategic with your carriage-hopping. The saxophonist had got on near the end of the line, and the crowded mass of commuters had shrunk to almost nothing before he could begin his obligatory hat-passing tour up the aisles.

Of all the buskers who courted the metro lines, my favourite was the two old guys in their 50s who started MCing to their own clunky-sounding beats.

Of all the buskers who courted the metro lines, my favourite was the two old guys in their 50s who started MCing to their own clunky-sounding beats. The carriage was crammed with people when they got on – they barely made it through the doors – and as they began rapping, you could see these tiny smiles break through the mono expressions of some commuters. That funny protocol about maintaining a poker face during train travel didn’t stick with me either – I couldn’t help it, how could you not smile? It was funny, cute, and a little embarrassing, but good on ‘em for having the chutzpah to do it. They only performed a measly two songs though, which was a shame. At least they appeared to be original songs, which earned my admiration (though they could have easily been French numbers that ignoramus-me was unaware of). Given my patchy Z-grade level of fluency, it seemed like their first track had a lot of chanting about the “young Mafia!”, and I wondered if they had cooked up this intriguing double act while chancing across Eminem or some local rap star on the TV, and figuring that they could cash in on what them young folks was lapping up these days. Or maybe they happened to be grumbling about how older folk are always shunted out of the spotlight, and that this crazy rap business was the fastest way to court attention. Perhaps they made some drunken dare one night, or hell maybe they were hip hop fans from way back and had in fact preceded Grandmaster Flash and co by devising rhymes about Tintin since they were knee-high. Who knows, but certainly they flared up my curiosity a lot more than any guitarist acoustically shilling
Yesterday ever did.

There are all these other memories that merge together – like that grim-looking one-man-band playing jazzy numbers in front of Musee D’Orsay (which set the maddeningly me-me-me woman in front of me dancing in grossly theatrical fashion), or listening to a busker entertain the carriage, only to look out the window to see a mustachioed violinist fiddling away on the train streaming in the opposite direction.
Or that amazing nine-piece string group at Chatelet station who always drew a crowd – and the staccato sound of coins being dropped in their collection. Like the busking truism that
CNNN proved when they pitted a cute kid adequately playing tunes against the higher-profile, more-professional busking of Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil at Circular Quay (with the kid attracting much more money by a longshot), it made me think that the bigger the group is, the more likely you are going to score a healthy sum. (Of course, if you happen to be a 12-piece ranting Nazi rhymes to a shoebox-and-canned-bean-symphony, then I don’t think you’d quite be raking it in.)

The Guardian
also let in on another fact about busking last year when it gathered some of its vaguely-musical staff to see if they could one-up the paltry £1.60 Badly Drawn Boy earnt during a 90 minute busking spell. When features assistant, Emily de Peyer set up near Kings Cross Station with her harp, she had a “humiliating start” when her sheet music was briskly blown away, and had to be kept in place with hairclips and chewing gum. And despite being a self-confessed “amateurish fraud” who never got past grade three at age 16 due to a horrifying exam experience, she ended up out-earning all the other Guardian buskers by a phenomenal amount (raking in more than £17 in an hour and a half, while they only earnt £1-5.) She put it down to people feeling sorry for her: “it is getting progressively icier and I am starting to look consumptive and wan, except for my blistered, purplish fingers. Plus the seven pedals are proving troublesome in my winter footwear, so I have to resort to playing in my socks. This only seem to enhance my harp-urchin image.” Obviously though, she wasn’t too bad because in those 90 minutes, she received an offer to play at a cafe and a wedding as well as a request to join a band. And I wonder too, if having a unique-seeming instrument like a harp is a good hook. Imagine how well a kid harpist at Circular Quay would do.

My memories of favourite Sydney buskers is less pronounced than my Paris list. Despite my anti-guitar railing, I remember one young guy who playing gorgeous pop songs outside Glebe Markets on his acoustic and harmonica. (Despite looking a tiny bit like Ben Lee, who of course, was ‘discovered’ by Thurston Moore while busking, as the story goes, this guy was about a billion times better.) It was the same day I had to buy something for my Year 12 formal, and I felt bad I could only give him 95c. (And this was despite spending a paltry $25 on my formal clothes.) And on the radio the other morning, I heard the guy who usually plays tunes on his beer bottles outside Woolworths in the city. He played a cracking (or should that be chiming?) version of the
Inspector Gadget theme song. I thought he was ace.

Perhaps out of symmetry (so she says!), I might just finish this on a cranky end-note. When I got back from Paris, the first busker I heard was some chap doing a godawful rendition of Phil Collins’
Another Day In Paradise on an acoustic guitar. As I started pining for the Metro buskers (and running in the opposite direction to this man), I thought the song title could not have rung with less irony.

Lee Tran Lam

Speak-easy #7: The Music Issue