I was a busker from 1977 to 1984. All of the events here (with the exception of "Mr Ax" which is really only 1% fiction) actually occurred. I have not been inclined to embellish on the truth, because here it has once again been proven that reality always exceeds the most imaginative fiction.
I am as amazed as any reader that any of these things ever happened to me. In a way perhaps that's what drives me to share the wonders and miracles that have been included here.
Why did I ever become a street musician? Do all of the reasons have to be logical?
Street music is perhaps the most direct route of artist-to-public interaction. But it is also the lowest rung.
I hated it. It sure wasn't what I wanted to be doing. Those songs were so stupid. But the audience loved him. So he made money.
He'd always play the Irish tunes way too fast, always speeding up faster and faster as if it were some kind of competition for whoever couldn't keep up the pace. But all I had to do was thumpety out the same four or five chords on guitar in rhythm.
When Weasel and I were working as a duo, we called ourselves "Travelling Folk". We had a poster made where I was sitting on the piano bench, him behind me holding a banjo. I looked like an angel and he looked like a mad alchemist from the middle ages.
I played with Weasel and consequently his Irish Folk band "Dalriada" (eventually elevating my status to penny whistle player on certain numbers!) for a period adding up to two years, from late 1977 to summer of '81. During that time we were mostly based in Paris (like all young bohemain artistes).
After Weasel, I quite coincidentally moved to the town in Switzerland where Big Junk lived. I got hooked up with him and his crowd of hanger-onners. I traveled all over Europe with them. On our first Rock'n'Roll busking tour we called ourselves "The Crashers". Later we came up with the name "Bootleg Band" (actually, I came up with the name).
[Just recently I found out that this Italian guy Franco Vinci who used to work Big John Signer and Mario Ferrara is still calling his band "Bootleg Band".]
During my time as Big Junk's keyboardist, I got the idea to play acoustic piano in the street. I'd just gotten married, managed enough credit for a white Bedford van (named "Moonshine" after Beethoven's "Mondschein" sonata) to haul the piano in, and so decided to go into business for myself.
I built an elevated dolly to roll the piano out to the pitch. I always played it standing up.
People had never seen anything like that before. The technology to produce lightweight harp alloys did not exist back before the last world war. No one in their right mind would drag a perfectly good piano out onto the street, in the drizzle, much too heavy, much too precious.
The piano I've got is much lighter than the old kind with the cast iron innards. I got the idea by seeing this guy in Paris playing a "Klein" piano (it's a tiny thing, with a shortened keyboard and shorter strings - a children's toy for adults, you might say). I went down to the warehouse where they made these little "Klein" pianos to check them out. They just don't have enough keys for me, plus the sound doesn't travel well in the open air.
This was before they had synthesizers that could make reasonable approximations of piano sounds. So I got myself instead a regular size spinet style piano with 85 (not 88) keys and took it all over Europe and even to the Canary Islands, during the period from fall '82 to early '85. That was when old "Moonshine" failed to pass her 2-year inspection (which I managed to delay for six months).
That poor old van was trashed! By the time I sold it to the junkyard man, it had been up and down and all around the continent. Usually full of five or six musicians and a few girls. Their weight combined with that of the piano, and the additional ordeal of millions of miles of ancient cobblestone streets, well, you can imagine what Moonshine felt like.
I sure got my use out of that van though, but as a business proposition, the equation
"Busking + Piano = $$$"
does not offset the hyperbole that
"Rain/CarBreakdown = MajorPoverty".
In the end, repairs over the time I had that van actually added up to exactly the amount I had paid for it ($4,000 in 1982 dollars). With that same investment, I could have saved myself the time and trouble of frequent visits to the mechanic by taking that same money and buying a new car with a three year warranty. Well, almost.
During the time that I was "The Piano Busker", I played Open-Air in the major town squares of over forty cities in ever major country in continental Europe. In fact, I claim the world record!
It was hard work moving that piano in and out of the van. Once I hurt my back really bad.
The piano also fell over on me another time as I was pushing it down cobblestones to get the the center of the old town. In Montpelier there was a festival and kids were throwing firecrackers inside the piano while I was playing for a terrace. "Hey, Don't Shoot Me. I'm only the Piano Player!"
The piano's been drenched by cloudbursts, snowed on, left outside in the van on the coldest nights, bashed, battered, repainted black and beaten some more. Never has a piano traveled so many miles across the surface of this planet under such unaccommodating circumstances.
And where is that piano now? That would depend on when you're reading this. But we're getting ahead of the story.
It used to be that the advantage to being a piano player was that you never had to carry your instrument to the gig. There was almost always a piano sitting in the dusty corner of the bar. And I must've played every bar piano in Europe. Sadly that's a tradition that has been dying out. Lifestyles have changed, and time has taken its toll on those lovely pianos that abounded at the turn of the century.
One of the best street formations I had together was called "The Fantastic Four" (named after the Marvel comics). I was "Kid Flame" jumping around and dancing while playing piano, Jerrykins on lead guitar was "Stretch" the elastic man (Jer's real tall and pretty skinny), my ex-wife was the "Invisible Girl" (she would silently sift around in the crowd tugging at people's elbows for spare change - you never saw her till she was right on you), and Galfano our standup bass player from New York was "The Thing" (he didn't like that at all, especially since he was kind of short and rotund with a pocked face. Unfortunately the name stuck).
Everybody else busks with guitar, and once I couldn't haul my piano around anymore I needed something different to set me apart and opted for a smaller instrument to carry around - the silver flute. I played flute on street corners, in bars, and for terraces for over a year. Just having fun and travelling light.
I never made very much money with the flute, but some of the best coins I ever made on the street with flute was in Frankfurt, Germany. When I got to town, almost the entire walking street was under construction.
I found a little alcove between some glass cases so as to use the natural reflective acoustics to "channel" the sound. Only moments after I started playing, a jackhammer started up right on the other side of the corrugated divider. I didn't stop playing immediately, and suddenly the coins were dropping like crazy. Here was this loud mechanical power device completely drowning me out, and people were throwing money at me! It must have been something to them like that photograph of a beautiful flower struggling up through the one single crack in an asphalt sea of flatness. Every once in a while the jackhammer would stop, and I'd play call and return with tthe unseen operator. "Sonata for Flute and Jackhammer".
As you'll see on the following pages, I had a lot of fun during my seven year career as a street musician. Anyone could. Just don't forget that even the lowest level of life still has its pecking order.