It became apparent to me the enormous power of the busker to influence mood on a Thursday afternoon in March. I was sitting sipping a badly made iced coffee and staring across the cultural centre. In front of the once-fountain-now-imitation-lake, and in the shadow of that terrifying statue, stood a man in a motorcycle helmet, thrusting jerkily. He was requesting money for this. He wasn’t getting any.
He gesticulated wildly at passersby, his case empty save for ten-cent pieces. People would glance and then look quickly away. There was a man lugging a large camera (a tourist perhaps) and dragging a small girl by the hand. He brought the girl up to the man in the helmet (who by this time, I had decided was trying to imitate a robot) and pointed, smiling. Robot man pointed his pot belly at her, in a friendly gesture, and she burst into tears. I burst into tears.
The tourist picked up his daughter and carried her screaming away, photo opportunity ruined. Robot man stood, taken aback for a moment, before returning to his jerky thrusts, if a little less enthusiastically. I had a wild thought about his family; I wondered if those ten-cent coins were his, people don’t pay for this. Can he pay his rent? Can he feel the animosity of passersby? Is his helmet filled with the suffocating fog of failure? Can he pay his rent? How awful! How awful to be the man in the street to make a child cry!
Are there buskers out there, in this vast booming metropolis, to do any better?
Take the sound manipulator man, for example, who takes his stage about three metres away. Under the cloak of night he beeps grotesquely on his sound manipulation machine. Helmeted and shiny upon his pedestal, he’s the nighttime, coked-up, decked-out reflection of robot man’s jaded daylight desaturation. Those who can bear to be near his hideous, mechanical drone seem to toss coins in the hope that he’ll stop screeching. This audacity is indeed more lucrative then Robot Man’s subdued (some might say resigned) gyrations.
For these two mechanical men, the helmets provide a semblance of protection from the waves of sneering hatred, but what of the others? The vast majority who don’t hide their face?
Case in point, what of the throngs of microphoned starlets with pre-recorded accompaniments and pre-written banter, orated loudly to a cheering crowd of no one. Watch their bewildered eyes dart around, there’s no one to make contact with, how can an artist relate? There’s no hope for authenticity when you’re repeating empty thank you’s rehearsed in front of your bedroom mirror to audiences who rush past wincing. We may never know exactly to whom these buskers are busking, probably to anyone who’ll listen, their faces contorted with naked desperation. “I’m going to sing some Norah Jones now. Thank you so much.”
The singstars armed with acoustic guitars are usually less invasive with their misery. A lot of the time I don’t even think they know where they are. They seemed to have strummed themselves into some kind of stupor; moaning and wheezing out their strangled Jeff Buckley covers. “Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah” as if some combination of low-grade weed and the sheer force of repetition will bring them to enlightenment. The dreadlocks that hang from their pasty scalps certainly aren’t helping any. Sometimes when they remember where they are and that they’ve been there a while, they switch to Yesterday.
Then you have the understudies of this motley crew, smaller, shorter and prepubescent. What of them? What of the boy standing outside of target, recorder perched at the ready to wheeze and wail for loose change, rung one on the ladder to stardom. He has fantasies of the orchestral pit, and maybe later in his career breaking out of the more traditional constraints of classical music, and moving into the avant-garde. But he’s tone-deaf. And what of the girl standing across from him, outside the commonwealth bank? Violin at the ready for another day of virtuosic glory to ever-growing impromptu crowds, the malevolent shadow of her mother behind her, as she dreams of a simpler life as a dental assistant. Children never fail to induce despair, they remind you of the future.
So have we arrived at a point where all buskers can only be seen to be joy-sucking, migraine-causing scourges on society? Yes, but for one instance. There once stood a man outside the old post office building in forrest chase, he had a feather in his hat and a flute at his lips. His case wasn’t fuller than other buskers, he wasn’t drawing a crowd, but he was dancing a jig and playing in tune. He had a nice jawline. He played without affectation or expectation. He played without heavy sound gear and a painstakingly made sign with his name and photograph on it. He didn’t sell cd’s. He didn’t talk. He made my day.
Words By Bella Morris