First person narrative of a life down the tube
You get through strings faster when you play down the tube. You play harder. Sing harder too, I tell you, if you can hold a tune down here, and make yourself heard, you can sing. It's a good apprenticeship, but a lousy career plan. Hat. Not for your head, for the money. Some people use their guitar-case but I prefer the classic money-in-the-hat thing. Best to salt it first with a few pound coins, maybe even a fiver. It might fool the odd tourist into thinking that sort of generosity is the done thing.
If anybody ever tells you they don't like the Beatles, you know that they're lying, or they're an idiot, probably both. The Beatles are the Gold Standard. Maybe the last time when the most successful band in the world was also the best band in the world. But doing a Beatles song is a risky choice because you must honour it. If you hear someone doing a shit version of "Careless Whisper" you might not give them any money but you don't feel insulted, but if you hear someone mutilating something by Lennon and McCartney.....that can ruin your day.
Who are more generous, men or women? It's difficult to say. Women make a bigger deal of it, they'll stop and listen, maybe jig about a bit. Clap when you've finished a song. Then they'll open their handbag, take out their purse and maybe put two or three quid in the hat, all smiles and compliments. Blokes, on the other hand will toss a quid in as they walk past without breaking their stride. If it's cold and they're wearing gloves you've got no chance. Men won't take their gloves off and faff about. So, on balance I'd say it's a draw. Men give more often but not as much. Women want a little bit of attention, but make it worth your while. Sweeping generalisations, I know, but not inaccurate.
I want to remind people of when music was important to them. It's not now. At any point between 1975 and 1995 I could tell you what was number one in the charts, singles and album. Not now. And it's not just cos I'm old. Ask a twenty-year old and he won't be able to tell you either.
Because it doesn't matter. Chances are it's shit anyway. And no-one is going to be playing it down here in thirty or forty years time.
When I started doing this it was a laugh. I'd come down with my mate Denny and we'd do Buddy Holly stuff and some Simon and Garfunkel. We were both signing on, so it was for beer money really. No grand plan. I loved it straight off. He wasn't so keen, said it was wrecking his voice. So I'd give him little rests by doing something solo. Then one day he didn't turn up. And instead of going home I came down on my own. Did alright, better than usual as it happens. And, I didn't have to share it. So I braced myself to tell Denny that I was breaking up the act, and he beat me to the punch, said he was sorry but it just wasn't for him and he hoped I would understand. So I was an act. Just until I worked out what I was gonna do with my life.
There was a kind of freedom about busking then, you felt like you were part of an ancient tradition of itinerant entertainers going back to medieval times, or I did anyway. I wonder if the kids playing along with stereos feel like that. Electricity seems to corrupt it somehow, it spoils the connection between you, and the audience, and our shared past. But maybe that's just me being a wanker. Anyway, what I want to tell you is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. And that's difficult down here coz you never know when you might get moved on. So, in case we get interrupted, Spoiler Alert; this is the end. Me, down here, doing this.
So I was young when I started doing this. Now I'm not. But I haven't done it non-stop, there've been gaps. Several times I thought I'd never have to do it again but that turned out not to be the case. I think once you're out of your twenties there's a bit of a stigma to it. You kind of hope that the kid with the guitar is supplementing his student loan. Maybe you admire his entrepreneurial spirit. But the thirty-five year-old, the forty-five year-old.....What are they doing? It's not how a respectable person makes a living. Maybe they need money for drugs or drink.
Sometimes it's not like that, sometimes that middle-aged half-decent singer has just lost his job, and he's come down here with a guitar he hasn't played for five years because he has to pay rent next week and it'll be a while before the idiots at the dole office sort out his claim. Stories don't always have a beginning a middle and an end. They have a beginning, then the start of a middle, then back to the beginning, then a second chance of a middle, maybe even a glimpse of a happy ending......then back to the beginning again, but with less hope, and less likelihood of getting to the end. This was my beginning.
I always thought a happy ending meant a beautiful woman. I realized pretty quick that this gig wasn't enough to entrance the prey I was after. Yeah you might get lucky with a German back-packer but if I was to meet my soul-mate, it wasn't going to be while I was bashing out Rave On. And I stupidly thought that I was on some sort of career ladder, and it was about time that I got off the bottom rung. So I cleaned up my act, went more legitimate. There were still some restaurants that would pay then (I'm talking mid-eighties. And Covent Garden Piazza, which was the Palladium of busking venues. I remember seeing Eddie Izzard on a unicycle there. He was shit. But this was kind of post-modern ironic busking. Pretty soon the quirky jugglers and political mimes left me looking a bit old-school, and not in a good way. But I'd made the climb, come up from underground. I didn't want to go back down.
And I'd got a nice girlfriend, Belinda; a bit Home Counties horsey but very nice, and she had only known me as an above-ground entertainer. I'd started to make friends and connections, I always chatted to the guys in the guitar shop on Denmark Street when I bought strings, checked out the Musicians Wanted board. So I felt I was in the game, did some demos for song-writers who couldn't sing. Tried out for some bands. Even got paid properly for doing vocals on a concept album about colonizing Mars, but it never got released.
Me and Belinda were living together in Tulse Hill. Her parents thought she should buy somewhere and were going to help if she could come up with half the deposit. Money just changes things doesn't it. I'd had my best year ever moneywise, but the way Belinda saw it I'd just been doing okay enough to pretend I was doing okay, I couldn't come up with five grand just like that. She didn't quite say that we were finished because I was never going to be rich enough for her but that was the subtext. She was used to ski-ing, and going to Gloucester for the weekend. I don't mean to sound chippy, but that was never going to be me.
So she moved out, I couldn't afford the rent on my own, found a bed-sit in Vauxhall and started coming down here again. Just til I got my shit sorted out.
That was the first step backwards I'd ever taken. It was kind of humbling at first. I used to dread being seen by anybody I knew, didn't want to embarrass them. I saw Denny down here, I let him know that this hadn't been my only gig since I'd seen him last. He was working as a bingo-caller in Camden, so maybe he was wise to have looked after his voice. Deep down I knew I was doing the right thing. Just continuing to do what I do. Sometimes you can't quite get your foot on the next rung of the ladder, you know, that ladder that doesn't actually exist. But I could make sure that if an opportunity ever presented itself again, I would be ready. I no longer had good days and bad days, there was something rock solid and dependable about what I was doing. Some people liked it more than others, but nobody could say that I couldn't do it. It's that pride that stops it being begging. It's never begging. I give freely to everyone who walks by me, and some of them give something back. It's a pretty beautiful transaction when you think about it. And wonderful things can happen. The most unlikely, magical things.
Now at this time there was a sort of system for busking down here; you'd go to a pitch and speak to whoever was playing and write your name on a list, usually on a nearby poster. Each act would do an hour, or get moved on by the police or by London Transport people, in which case the list meant nothing and the pitch was up for grabs and a new list would start. One morning I was doing the rounds of my favourite pitches, just getting my name on all the lists and found the best spot at Holborn (the bottom of the escalator) was empty, somebody must have just got moved on. So I set up shop, put the hat down and started playing.
And when I got to the middle-eight, this amazing voice joined me in supernatural harmony. It wasn't just that it was nice, and in tune and all that, it also blended with my voice perfectly so the sound we were making was more than the sum of its parts. And it was effortless, for both of us. The voice got louder as it came towards me down the escalator, and it just kept sounding better and better. Usually when people try to join in, they're drunk, or tone deaf, or don't know the right words. But this was like, Everly Brothers good. But it was a girl. By the time she reached me people were throwing money in my hat. I was already hoping she'd stay and finish the song with me. She did. And the next one. And the next one. We still hadn't said a word to each other. I was kind of scared to, I didn't want to break the spell. We were already communicating on some higher plain. It would be a shame to spoil it by sinking to the level of normal conversation.
Eventually, after about ten songs, all better than they'd ever sounded before, she said. "I really should get to work, I'm Fleur by the way". I tried to give her a tenner but she wouldn't let me. So I sort of manoeuvred that into asking her out for a drink, and she said okay. I played it pretty cool, but I was excited, not in a boy meets-girl way, more of a Marks-meets-Spencer sort of way. I couldn't believe I could be so in sync with anyone, or rather that they could be so in sync with me. I was a solo. But she made me better, that had to mean something.
She was clever and beautiful and talented and kind and funny. There really wasn't much she couldn't do. She genuinely lit up any room she entered. And she liked me. So it was a boy-meets-girl thing. And we bonded doing this. She didn't want to be a singer or anything, it was just one of the million things she could do. She was on the fashion course at St. Martin's school of art and she also worked in a boutique on Long Acre. She was a few years younger than me but more evolved somehow. We were everything to each other. She was the centre of my world.
So I climbed up and out again, partly through her, partly just coz anything seemed possible. There was a whole fashion/music/club scene that I'd known nothing about that opened up to me. Fleur graduated and I started helping her organize parties and label launches and gallery openings. It wasn't really my world but that didn't matter, it wasn't really anybody's world, we were all making it up as we went along. I was finally getting somewhere, doing cool stuff with cool people. And I was with the best girlfriend ever.
This was my middle with a glimpse of a happy ending. I couldn't believe my luck. That was the problem.
I doubted it. Didn't think I deserved it. So, I screwed it up. I got jealous and paranoid and stupid and there's not a day goes by when I don't think about what an idiot I was. I believe Frank Sinatra had a similar experience with Ava Gardner, it made him a better singer.
Whenever I came back down here after one of my spells aboveground, I never saw any performers I knew from before. It's a rite of passage, a phase one goes through, apparently I had to keep repeating it like it was an exam I couldn't pass. Or perhaps it's a Buddhist thing; maybe I have to accept that I'm actually just a busker, then I can get to come back as a cat or something in my next life.
Whatever the reason, I was here. I went through the motions, did what I do, made a living, just, and didn't dare hope for anything more. That's when it went a bit pear-shaped. I suppose I no longer looked like someone with a bright future ahead of them, I wasn't. I started to hate coming down here, resented it, and it showed, in the hat. It's because I stopped believing, but this was all I could do so I kept on doing it.
I think the final straw was "Candle in the Wind" when Diana died. I'd always hated that song, but in the aftermath, I heard a kid doing it, not very well, and he was cleaning up. So I thought it would be stupid not to give it a go. I was right. Best week I ever had, and it was all I played. I felt like a rose-seller on Valentine's day, but worse. I was literally profiting from everyone's grief. So I stopped. Thanks to Elton John I could afford to.
I got a proper job, my first, at a pub in Islington. They were just starting to crack down on foreign students over-staying their visas and getting cash jobs so suddenly my nationality became a sought-after qualification. Turned out I was quite good at it, which just means I was ontime and sober and didn't steal. I liked it. And I liked knowing that I was going to get paid.
I'd got into the habit of never picking up my guitar if I wasn't on the job. Playing down here everyday it was just never what I wanted to do when I got home. So my guitar stayed in its case while I became an assistant bar manager. I didn't even miss it. I was busy doing other stuff; normal, grown-up, above-ground stuff.
I felt like I'd just about managed to catch up with the world again, and it was okay. Then one day my boss, Mike, said he'd been offered a beach bar to manage in Marbella, and did I want to go and help. I thought about it for a couple of seconds and said yes. There was nothing to keep me in London, so off we went.
Sold all my stuff, including the guitar I never played, and the records and CDs that just took up space. New millennium, new start. Turned out the beach bar was really just a hut with three fridges, but we did all we could to make a go of it. There were other, better equipped bars on the same beach but luckily there were enough thirsty people to keep us all going, mainly Brits, so we wore Union Jack T-shirts and blasted Chaz and Dave through the crappy sound-system. As a marketing strategy, it really shouldn't have worked, but it did. After six months we were buying a fourth fridge and hiring new staff and after a year we were opening later in the evenings and bought a new sound system and started using DJs. I really felt like we'd done something special.
Turned out what we'd been doing was doubling the value of the bar so the owner could sell it as a going concern. 'Course, I didn't know that til I was out of a job, miles from home and no money.
Mike went back to London straight away, to be honest I think he knew it was coming but kept it to himself. I on the other hand had just signed a one-year lease on an apartment I could barely afford even with a job.
So, failure had found me again, but it was different now, I was older, and it no longer suited me. A weird survival instinct kicked in. There was this kid, James, who worked at the bike-hire place. He sometimes sat outside his hut strumming a guitar that was way better than his playing. I asked if I could borrow his guitar, he said no. I said I'll rent it then, like a bike. He said okay.
I went to a little square where there were sometimes street performers. A girl was playing, a quirky perky pixie with a ukulele. I asked if anyone was on after her, she said no and that she was going to stop as soon as she made enough to pay for a hostel for the night. I listened as she endearingly plonked her way through "Living on a Prayer", "Like a Virgin" and "Girls just wanna have fun". She wasn't very good but got away with it through youth and charm. Apparently satisfied, she picked up the little pink plastic beach bucket that was her cash box and nodded at me before taking off. I sheepishly took her place, put my hat down and assumed the stance of a guitarist. I hadn't played a note for four years. I did Hallelujah.
It was a prayer and it was answered, my hat ranneth over. And I realized that I'd been wrong all along. This wasn't just what I did when I was at my lowest ebb. This was what had repeatedly come to my rescue. Loads of people lose their jobs or their homes and don't have this option. It had always been my saviour. Even in Spain, the songs came through for me, because I honoured them.
That act of desperation in a square in Marbella turned out to be a shrewd career move. That summer was the pinnacle of my busking career. I made good money and remembered why I love doing this. And I didn't even have to go underground. It was pretty perfect.
But.......respectability started looking tempting again. I wound up running a karaoke bar out there. Then I got homesick, or just sick of that way of life. It's tiring being on holiday fifty-two weeks a year. So I came back. And the home I thought I missed wasn't here anymore. Turns out what I really missed was 1994.
I don't know how much longer I can do this. I'm signing on so it's just for luxuries like food and shoes. People are still kind.
Magic can happen.