The first time I went out to busk I was nervous as hell. I don’t know why. I stood across the street from the spot I’d picked smoking and shaking a little bit. Maybe it was because it was in Lyon, France, and if I got in trouble I’d not be able to understand the consequences. Maybe it was because the street was simply a new kind of stage, which I had no experience with. Maybe, and probably, it was that I was about to cross a line between classes of performers. I don’t know if that was really on my mind at that moment, but I bet it was there somewhere. On my side of the street I was a serious singer songwriter and performer. On the other side I’d be a street performer, a skilled bum, a beggar.
But Molly and I were broke. All her savings were tied up in a Frencheaucratic rent-guarantee account, and her teaching gig wasn’t paying well. As for me, I couldn’t get myself a legal job and I wasn’t having any luck getting gigs. And we needed dinner money. The only way we could figure on getting it was my busking. So I stood there smoking and shaking looking at my spot and I wrestled with myself. It seems stupid now. And it seemed stupid, and naive, to me then, too. A lot of my friends and favorite songwriters had busked, still busk. They’ve always spoken of it matter-of-factly, without any mention of having stooped, or of prostituting themselves. So how come I had such a gross and high-and-mighty feeling about it? How come I was thinking about it like some sort of rite of passage that would lead me to some lesser place?
I walked across the street and stood in my spot for a minute. It was a good spot. On a pedestrian street, it was a little raised platform around a small tree. I could stand up on the platform like it was a stage and open up my guitar case in front of me. The nearest beggar was a woman sitting cross-legged on the ground covered in gown and veil. She was a block down the way, so I wouldn’t be competing with her, and there was plenty of room in front of and behind me, so I wasn’t in anyone’s way or in anyone’s face. There was little street noise, and the street I was on was filled with classy shows and restaurants, so the people walking through would be richer than I was. I pulled my guitar out, strapped it on, seeded my case with a few euros, and began to play.
“I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told.” The well-dressed people of Lyon walked by. The first thing I noticed was that my voice was nervous and thin, and such a voice was not going to draw much attention, which meant I wasn’t going to get much dinner money. Obviously there was no mic and PA. This was not a stage, it was a city street, and so I was going to have to project. And so when the second verse rolled around I dug the pick into my strings and belted it out: “When I left my home and my family I was no more than a boy!” And people’s heads began to turn, and someone dropped a euro in my case and winked at me. And you know, I know it sounds stupid, but that euro drop and that wink gave me a little rush. I have been paid for shows; people have bought my records; and hell, I had had a deal in Nashville where I got paid every two weeks to write songs. But something about that man stopping what he was doing and digging out a coin for me was better. It was fast and direct–immediate. To me, it was as if the dude was saying, Thank you for improving my walk. Or maybe he was saying, I think you’re pretty good. I dunno. Maybe he felt sorry for me. But it felt damn good. And when more people started tossing in ten-cent pieces and dollars, it felt like a pretty good job to have. When I got back to our little apartment a couple of hours later (after my voice was shot) Molly asked how much money I’d made. I said I didn’t know yet, but my guitar case was heavy with all the coins. We counted it together and there was about twenty euro there. We’d be pissing off the cashier in the grocery store with all that change, but we were gonna eat.
That night I was sort of high on the experience. I wondered if there was another trade like this one, where you could think to yourself, I need dinner money, then go out to the street and two hours later have yourself some dinner money. Could a doctor or a lawyer do that? Could an accountant or mechanic? A graphic designer or a retail worker? No. But a busker could. I could.
The next day my buzz was killed in the first few lines I sang. I started with The Boxer again, and just as I sang the first lines I heard a loud and painful moan come from somewhere nearby. I continued on, and then the terrible sound came again. It was loud and painful but it also sounded angry. I looked around as I sang until I spotted a dirty bearded man sitting on the sidewalk in the shadow of the awning of the movie theatre across the street. He had a hat out in front of him, and he was looking straight at me while he moaned. It dawned on me that he was trying to ruin my song: He was trying to tell me to get the hell off his turf. Well, if I was the reason for his yelling I didn’t want to continue on, as I wasn’t there to stir anything up or to annoy people. So I stopped before I hit the chorus, and sure enough the man stopped yelling. I put my guitar in my case and wandered off to look for another spot.
While I walked away I was amused and angry. I was amused because I, Casey Black, Mr. Serious Artist, was now competing for space on the street with bums, and instead of feeling humiliated by it I thought it was funny. One of those moments when you look at your life from the bird’s eye and think, Umm, how did I get here? I was amused because, hell, I’d been sitting on my butt for a couple months while Molly went to work, and the challenges of my workplace were refreshing and stimulating. I started thinking about turf and strategy and the rules of the street. Did I do the right thing in yielding the old moaner? I had packed it in because he was causing a scene, but also because I’d had the quick notion that maybe that place was the guy’s regular spot. Maybe the guy had been bumming there for years, and then along comes Mr. American Mustache Singer trying to drain the change out of his hat… I left out of respect. But then that’s the thought that made me angry. Sure, the guy had (maybe) seniority, but what the hell was he doing? I was providing entertainment. I was performing some sort of service for the passers by: What was he doing? He was just a bum. I was a bum with a skill!
There were plenty of checks and balances out there for my self-righteousness. Teenagers could be pretty mean. I was playing my new cover of Billy Jean when one tough lookin’ teenage dude walked right up to me and put his face an inch away from mine. He just stood there staring right into my eyes, expressionless, as his friends pointed and laughed. I figured that if I quit playing I’d be surrendering to him somehow, and so I continued singing, and looked him right back in the eyeballs. And when he didn’t move I raised my eyebrows and smiled at him. He backed off and walked away laughing. The same day I was playing Help! (which is a very appropriate, if not desperate, busking song, I think) when another French-olescent passed by yelling something French and angry at me. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he held his pinky up for me to see, measuring it with the thumb and pointer of his other hand, and then pointed to my groin area. After awhile there was a group of teenage girls who’d stroll up, after they got out of school I guess. They’d always ask me to play Hit Me Baby One More Time, which I’d learned in order to have myself a funny number. I would oblige, and they could crowd up on me and sing along, and then leave without thinking it appropriate to throw me a nickel. They were okay, though: They made me laugh.
I never saw the old moaner again, so I suppose I had been wrong about being on his turf, but out on one of my last busks I did get pressured by another bum to move on down the street. I was trying a new spot when this guy, in his twenties with dirty dreads, waited until I finished a song and then said, in English, “Hey, man, we were wondering if you might move down a block. We’re set up right over there.” I looked over to where he was pointing and saw a woman, also in her twenties with dirty dreads, sitting on a blanket with two dogs and a hat for change. Again, I obliged, but again as I walked away I felt that amused self-righteousness, and I thought, But they’re not doing anything for the money! As it got warmer, more people came out and started doing things for the money. I eventually got pushed out of my spot by a breakdancer who’d bring a huge boombox and crank it up, only about twenty feet away from where I was playing. I was pissed, but when he started getting large crowds I relented. Fair enough.
Yet the benefits and joys of busking far outweigh the crap. Almost every time I went out I’d have small kids dancing. As they passed they’d sorta start to jig, and their parents would look up at me like they’d hit the jackpot and they’d just stand there, taking a break, while their kid rocked out. Usually when this happened a parent would eventually dig into his or her pocket and hand the child a euro. At which point the child would become confused and the parent had to sort of push the child up to my guitar case and tell them to drop the coin. I remember one time a little girl walked up all cute-like with her euro and instead of dropping it she bent down and started taking the money out of my case. I tried, as I sang, to smile and make light of it. The embarrassed parents rushed over and corrected the situation. Of course, there were adult fans, too. One I remember most fondly strolled along way across the street on one of my first days out. I was belting out Like A Rolling Stone and this lady stopped dead and turned to me. She sang every lyric along with me and when I was done she crossed over, said merci and dumped all the change in her change purse into my case.
The greatest benefits of busking have been the changes it has brought to my style and philosophy of performance. I don’t know why, but some time bout ten or twelve years ago I became very anti-“performance.” I’d become very cynical about a “show.” To me, what has always been most important is the quality of a song, especially the lyric. A performer’s duty, therefore, my duty was to perform the song in a way that would draw little or no attention to myself, but instead focus all attention on the song. This meant no over-emoting, no ridiculous Aguilera-runs (not that I am capable of them), no crazy dancing. My goal for so long had been to be the same Casey onstage as I was offstage, to be as ‘natural’ as possible. I called it the Naturalistic Philosophy of Performance. But such a philosophy wasn’t going to make me any money on the street, where a performer needs to draw attention. For who in the hell wants to hear a stranger quietly singing to himself on the side of the street? And why should anyone give money to a guy who appears to be trying his best not to put on any kind of show?
So, out on my first day of busking, between the first and second verse of The Boxer, not only did I decide that I needed to project, but I started to put on a damn show. In the next few days I loosened up. I moved around, stomping and twisting: I went for the high notes, and maybe did a run or two, the best I knew how. I dug into those strings. After a week my range and endurance had improved, and I was doing things with my voice I’d never been able to do. And much to the chagrin of my purist past self I found that I was actually having fun performing, perhaps for the first time since I was an unselfconscious teenager playing in metal bands. I started thinking what a complete waste and sham my former philosophy had been. A waste because it had prevented a lot of fun from occurring over the last decade, and a sham because there had been nothing ‘natural’ about those rules of performance. What is most natural at any time, on any occasion, not just in performance, is to act in congruence with your feelings and desires. To stomp and twist is natural, if that is what I am moved to do. To prevent myself from doing so when I am moved to do it is in fact unnatural, is dogma. Moreover, one can’t really be the same onstage (or on the street) as off, and maybe one shouldn’t try to be. In a way it is impossible to be natural on a stage. You’re on a raised platform, making you taller than you naturally are. There are lights (sometimes) shining on you, making you brighter than you actually are, and you can’t see the audience. There is amplification (sometimes) that makes you louder than you naturally are. Lastly, you do things on stage that you don’t do off (like singing and or dancing or acting for two hours straight). And so it is ridiculous to try and bring offstage nature on stage.
A week ago I busked in New York for the first time, and I did it a second time late last Thursday night. It’s been a couple of years now since Lyon, and sure, I am broke as ever, but I’ve also been having the urge to get out there and dig in and get some dollars tossed at me. I brushed up on the ole Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel songs that had served me well and I rode the subways looking for a good spot. West 4th was full of performers and the 14th St and Bedford L stops had too much train noise. Giving up I went to the N, Q, R platform to get my train home and there was a group of drummers sitting in a sweet spot looking like they had just been busking. I stood there and watched them as a few trains went by, until finally one of the guys doled out the earnings and they left. It must have been ninety degrees down there, and closing in on 11PM. I was tired and excited, and I don’t know why, but I was nervous again. I stood there staring at my spot, such a golden spot(!), trying to get my nerves up. A couple moved into the spot and my heart sank, but they weren’t there to perform, just to kiss, but still they gave me a reason to procrastinate even longer. Until finally their Q came (which was my Q too?) and I moved into the spot, threw my case open, seeded it with a few dollars and quarters, then began a-stomping my foot and playing, “I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told!” I made three bucks before the next train pulled in.
Busking is hard, and the money ain’t usually good for a solo singer songwriter. But it’s good-feeling money. A good fistful of dollars for singing and sweating. And sure it’s done a lot for me, but by writing about it I ain’t calling myself a veteran, or even a skilled busker. I was talking to amazing singer songwriter and pal Warren Malone about it the other day, and he said he busked for fifteen years in England, which is where he’s from. Fifteen damn years! I’m hoping to interview him about that and post it up, as I’m sure the guy has better stories than I do.