This past weekend I did my first stint as a busker in over 20 years. A lot has changed in that 20 years, especially me. Back in the “olden days” as my children like to say, as Berklee students we all would busk in the subway stations occasionally. It was a great way to earn beer money (we called it phone bill money, but it pretty much all went to beer) and it was good practice for the future stardom we were all certain to attain. The acoustics were fantastic down in the subway, too, if you could get past the smell of stale booze and urine. I was about 19 or 20 years old then, and afraid of nothing.
Now I’m in my mid forties and afraid of everything. I would never busk in the subway these days, unless some serious cash was guaranteed. No, these days I prefer to busk at the lovely Hyannis waterfront. Saturday was my first day, playing between the artist shanties that line the walkway near the ferry terminal. There was a nice breeze…ok a bit too breezy maybe–I need to bring some clothes pins next time to hold my music to my music stand. The sun was shining, people were walking around, artists were painting and selling their work, ferries were arriving and departing. Ferries have loud horns they blow as they are departing, which I had forgotten until I heard the blast of one right in the middle of my song, which startled me enough that I forgot where I was and had to begin again… but it was cool, there weren’t any people listening to me at that particular moment.
I played and sang, and if actual people happened by I would sing a little louder, play an upbeat tune. If the people walking by were older, I’d play an old Irish tune, hoping to get their attention. Know your audience.
About halfway through my set, I heard this sound coming from down the street, getting louder as it drew closer. Then I saw him. Across the street, an older gentleman playing a trumpet as he walked along the sidewalk toward the Black Cat restaurant. He then stood on the lawn of the restaurant and continued to play his trumpet…loudly. So I stopped playing, to listen and rest my fingers. I figured he was done when I saw him walking off the lawn and into the Black Cat, so I started playing another song. I had just begun to sing the first verse when I heard it again. The trumpet blasting from across the street. This time he was on the balcony, playing out to the street, directly across from me. I thought to myself, “Darn you Lou Columbo!” I sang louder, and played my guitar with more force and conviction. Lou played even louder, more uptempo. I knew I couldn’t compete with a trumpeter of Lou’s stature, so I gave in. I sat and waited patiently for him to finish, then started to sing again. I was pretty much near the end of my two-hour time slot anyway, so I didn’t really mind, in fact I thought it was amusing. I wondered if Lou had ever busked in the Boston subway tunnels.
It turned out to be a nice day, and I made $5 which immediately went toward lunch for my son and me. I’m sure as summer goes on, it will get busier and I’ll gain more confidence and maybe get some inspiration for new songs. I just love hanging out at the waterfront, around the boats and the artists and the tourists. I don’t even miss the smell of stale booze and urine.