--- J A M I E W A S S E R M A N
The tourists think it's all part of the show but Busking is as much science as it is art.
"I say fuckin' grace on this song," Paul says tapping out the bass line to Papa was a Rolling Stone on the table in Cooper's, a bar in Victoria station. He is unwinding after his last gig. Spread in front of him is his traditional pint of McKewan's, a pack of low-tar Benson & Hedges, and a quart of skim milk. His drum kit is kept close beside him at his feet.
Paul is breathing heavily and his long brown hair is matted to his cheeks. He has every right to be exhausted having just played a two-hour set before an audience of over 60,000 people all the while dressed in a Sylvester the Cat costume. Paul is a professional busker and his audience is the crowds of harried commuters who make their way up and down the escalators of Victoria station. His schedule is as rigorous and demanding as anything real or imagined that Liam Gallagher might have suffered while on tour in America. Tuesday through Saturday Paul plays from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon; sometimes as Sylvester the Cat, sometimes as a 'Tequila' playing Mexican complete with sombrero and fake moustache, and sometimes as a Scotsman right down to the drums and kilt. Paul is the newest addition to the very closed world of buskers. "They don't like new faces," he says and lights another cigarette off the one hanging from his lip. Paul lucked out; five years ago, in a hotel right off Victoria Station, he met and befriended Nigel.
Nigel is the 'King of the Buskers' having been at it for 12 years, longer than anyone currently playing in the Underground. Nigel has made busking a science, counting the people who pass through different parts of the subway. He experimented with different songs, different costumes, different locations (pitches) until he discovered the Sylvester the Cat costume and the "magic" song- a special eight minute version of Stevie Wonder's Part-Time Lover.
Nigel made a successful living in a world where Sting, playing in disguise, brought in little more then a few pence and where Rod Stewart got his start. Nigel and his cat costume were a fixture in the London Underground but after six years of playing Part-Time Lover five hours a day, seven days a week, Nigel tired of the busking life. He sold the costume and the rights to use it for 100 quid to Paul then left for a "straight" job. For four months Nigel worked as an English teacher but, to no one's surprise, returned quickly to the Underground. Buskers don't hold 'straight' jobs.
Paul himself has worked as everything from a professional nuclear protester to a punk rocker. His dream is to be a rock star or rich, "What else is there?" he asks, quickly downing the rest of his milk then his beer. Paul is late for court.
Busker's spend half of their lives playing music and the other half going to court to defend their right to do it. Busking is illegal. The charge is trespassing but the penalty often far exceeds the crime. Paul recalls how seven members of the British Transit Authority jumped him as he tried to enter a station, "I just kept yelling 'you're being awfully silly' and pushed my way through." Ironically, Paul was once married to the former supervisor of Holland Park's Tube station.
When justice is left to the courts, buskers are made to pay fines of anywhere between ^c30-100. "I owe them 2500 quid," Paul says then smiles sheepishly, "I pay 5 quid a week. They can dig me up for whatever is left."
Paul takes the Oxford Circus train to court. On the way, he stops to speak to a fellow busker named Frankie. Looking like a cross between James Dean and John Wayne, Frankie turns up the volume on his Pevey amp and says, "Normally I'm the King of Swing but tonight I'm saving my voice for a better pitch."
There is a lot of competition between buskers. This is how they earn their living so getting the best pitch is everything. As a result there is a lot of tension but always a sense of professional courtesy, the same type of atmosphere you might find backstage at a beauty pageant or The Big, Big Talent Show.
"Buskers are always telling lies trying to outdo each other," Frankie says pouring himself a cup of coffee from a thermos at his feet and straightening his Texas Ranger bolo tie.
"I can make the same amount you do in half the time," Paul says, gathering up his drum kit.
"And because of that I'm going to pour this black coffee down your neck."
Both buskers are smiling but stand holding their instruments like they would machine guns.
"You need a good Scottish beer. Maybe it'll help your playing," Paul nods to Frankie's coffee.
"Scotts don't drink beer, they piss it." The men both smile and Paul disappears into the crowded Northbound train. The rumble of the car temporarily silences Frankie's guitar but he continues to play unfazed. On the wall behind Frankie is a poster for 'La Triviatta.' Written across the naked back of an opera singer is a list of names; a sign-up sheet for the pitch Frankie is playing. A quick glance at the poster reveals a pattern of regulars, "Moog," "Phil," "Paul," "Valentine."
Soon, someone else will come down the walkway, instrument in tow and Frankie will stop playing in the middle of whatever song he has begun. It's an unspoken rule. But for now there is just Frankie and his guitar and a slow Wilson Pickett ballad.
A man in a grey suit walks by and tosses a few coins into Frankie's guitar case without looking up and steps onto the next train. He has a folded newspaper in his hand but today he is not reading, he is looking out the window into the darkness of the tunnel humming a song he swears he heard somewhere else.
© crossconnect 1995-1998
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania kelly writers house |