Came across and wanted to reblog a post by a fellow harp player named Pete Ak who tells of his days busking a small Welsh vacation town. Definitely worth a read! After you’re done, head over to his blog, Pakinwunmi, and check out his poetry!
There was a time in my life when I enjoyed the status of ‘full time musician’… I’ve yearned for that status many times since, though not in the manner I am about to describe to you…
So – was it as a member of a successful touring band playing to thousands every night? Or a session musician – the real hidden talent behind pampered stars? Or maybe a recording artiste in my own right with a multi-million pound record deal? Erm… it was none of those – it was in fact when I busked for a living, eking out an existence on the hard streets, my only friends being a beaten up harmonica and an on loan tenor sax. The streets were hot, dusty and lonesome, this is my story:
My busking virginity was taken from me in that beguiling little seductress of a town that is Saundersfoot, near Tenby. We were four 16 year olds on a Pembrokeshire tenting holiday, my 3 friends all had jobs or college to go to after the holiday but I had no job and I will admit Tenby/Saundersfoot had stolen my heart! I’d loved the holiday which had been mostly spent in a drunken haze and didn’t fancy going back to reality! Making enough money to hang around was a priority and following a suggestion from a friend, I thought why not?
The fact there were no other buskers around should really have given me a clue about how lucrative it was likely to be, however my naivety was only matched by my ambition, so I pulled out my trusty Lee Oskar harmonica in the key of D and belted out blues riffs and common tunes with abandon. As someone said about dancing, it’s important that you do it as if no-one’s watching; the same is true of busking – because usually no-body is!
Looking back, I was ludicrously optimistic. Lots of people, I thought; I know I can play and people are bound to enjoy it and give me lots of money. I’ll add to the effect by dressing shabbily (big mistake) and buy a cap to collect money in. Incidentally I’ve been a committed cap wearer ever since – a long time after I last busked!!
Deciding on a pitch was the easiest job of the day, two pubs opposite each other across a square formed the hub of activity, everybody holidaying or living in the town passed through there at some point in time. So I just turned up, found a shady spot on the pathway, laid out my cap and blew and sucked away to my heart’s content.
Within a few minutes I was approached by two girls a little older than my tender 16 years. Rather than listen, one of them came right up to my cap bent over it and flashed a ten pound note. It was kind of hard to pretend to concentrate on my playing when breakfast, dinner and tea are all about one foot from being within my grasp, but I did try, sneakily glancing at them from the corner of my eye. The harmonica as you can imagine is not a sociable instrument. Unlike say, the guitar, cos I couldn’t say anything unless I broke off mid-tune and in my incredibly self centred little mind I was convinced my playing was having a pied piper effect and entrancing my audience. To stop playing would break the spell so I blew and sucked even more feverishly! I was also nervous about stopping not knowing what to say if I did!! However then, one of the dark haired little beauties got her camera out and snapped her friend holding the tenner over my cap, after which they both walked away giggling; returning fleetingly to deposit 50p into my coffers!! Disappointment was the theme of that day.
Before that first day, I hadn’t played harmonica for such long hours continuously ever, and the havoc it wreaked on the inside of my lips was not pretty! After one blistering rendition of “You are my Sunshine” a chap in swimming trunks, with a little boy in his arms smiled and jollied his baby along with the music. When I stopped to rest said lips, the baby looked at me while I nursed my torn mouth and wondered if after all, it was really worth it. But then the tot started waving his arms and screaming as only babies can, a really distressing caterwaul screeched across the whole square. Fifty maybe sixty people all stopped what they were doing to look at me; and I, bleeding lips aching cheeks and sinking heart was at once single handedly responsible for the horrendous act of child abuse – which was to stop playing my fucking harmonica!! Hurriedly I returned the gob-iron to my mouth and tried to blow a nursery rhyme tune to calm the little monster, happily I succeeded. If I remember correctly it was jingle bells that eventually, some 20 minutes later put him to sleep, somewhat inappropriate in the middle of August but hell, if it works!
A couple of things need to be said about that experience cos one of the things I’ve discovered about busking is that you really only need about seven or eight tunes. The audience changes constantly and very few stay longer than that. Unfortunately this little baby fuckmuppet didn’t follow the rules and I was running out of ideas just as he fell asleep. It had been exhausting, painful and stressful and when the baby did nod off I thought I deserved a little more than “cheers mate” and a jaunty smile from the twat in his Speedos holding the shittin baby! (of course I use the word ‘shittin’ deliberately. Not only had he virtually demanded almost half an hour of my time but he’d also pissed off all other potential contributors to my fund with the whiff from his rugrat’s nappy!)
But there were good moments on that first day too. I remember having a go at a tune that got stuck in my head at the time, it may have been ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. An old man came over and listened attentively, definitely appreciative and as I finished the last few bars he walked over to my cap and chucked in a couple of pound coins (you learn to recognise them very quickly) and as he walked away he said in an obviously foreign accent but with good English, “I haven’t heard the Turkmenistani National Anthem played for such a long, long time, thank you my friend!!!” I wasn’t too proud to be glad of the 2 quid!!
That first day I made about £15 for approximately 6 hours (on and off) playing. I was happy!
I returned to the pitch on odd days for about a month and rarely made more than a tenner though it depended on the weather, day of the week and how long I played. In the end I’d set myself targets and just play till I met them. I’d find myself thinking about all sorts of things as I was playing almost always ways to get different people to give me money.
Though I met lots of interesting people, I also met more than one pseudo, big-mouthed, quim wipe offering me opportunities to play in a band or tour as a session player none of which ever came to anything. What do people get out of that? Coming up to me all appreciative and offering opportunities they have absolutely no intention nor I suspect, capability, of ever fulfilling. I recall one guy, not in quite the same category, watching quite intently for about five minutes, and then he left only to return with a quizzical look in his eye about 15 minutes later. This went on for most of the afternoon (I was always up and playing at the crack of noon). Then, in between a couple of tunes, as I paused for much needed beverage, he approached. I should mention here that in those days I sported a pretty impressive afro, multi-coloured headband, fringed denim shorts and tie died vest tops. Cool! The look of intensity on the stranger’s face was almost scary; he had a glare of maniacal zeal about him as if he’d just discovered oil in his back garden. Well it wasn’t oil he thought he’d discovered – it was the ‘supposedly’ departed Jimi Hendrix!! For the next week or so he’d harangue me begging me to admit that I was in fact the late, great guitar hero in disguise. I’d apparently faked ‘my death’ and had swapped my life of wealth, fame, girls and music for a career playing harmonica on the streets of Tenby and Saundersfoot! At the time I was quite ignorant of the reality of mental illness (I’ve since made a career from it) but I will admit that at first I played along, my denials being more enigmatic rather than definite. Fact is I quite liked the idea of being regarded as my ultimate guitar hero. As you can imagine – it wasn’t the best decision I ever made! Man, was I glad when his holiday was over!
Playing in Tenby one time I was approached by a tramp asking me the way to the nearest shelter – he obviously thought I was also a homeless beggar (not far from the truth actually but I was sleeping in a girlfriend’s wardrobe at the time so I did have a temporary home, albeit not known about by her parents!) Oh, and another guy, unshaven, heavily tattooed and a row of front teeth that looked like a burnt fence, came up to me with two bottles of beer. He stood about 6 inches from me, waited till I finished a tune, put one of the bottles in my hand, clinked it with his and just walked off around the corner, humming the tune I’d just played – a magical moment.
Yeah, good times, framed by innocence and driven by imagination. They were days of infinite hope, ambition and aspirations… Time has served its purpose, and if I had it over again, I’d take exactly the same path, even though dreams crumble and blow away in the breath of life’s twists and turns. Maybe I was a bit too brazen then and I definitely had nowhere near enough common sense; but I had passion and faith – put them together and both shall be exalted!