The art of busking is a capricious one. More than most professions, I deign to suggest, its success depends chiefly on factors entirely out of the busker’s control: Weather, the mood of the day, and location. Each of these can be managed up to a point – I can venture out at the warmest time of day, I can sing songs to fit or defy the mood and I can seek out the best location. The longer I busk the better sense I get of how to curate these factors, but the sum effect I have any power over is microscopic compared to current of the day.
I followed Friday’s lukewarm (literally and figurately) pitch on Saturday, 2.12.11, right on time to meet up with the guitarist. He didn’t show for twenty or so minutes (which was fine) but then left quickly promising he’d be back. He never returned and I didn’t mind, I was making mad bank. Relatively. The upswing in temperature brought the needle to rest firmly between 60 and 70 bebeath a very visible sun. People passed thicker, yet slower at this pitch just downriver of the Natchez, all smiles and encouraging comments. Somehow I remember the worst pitches in the starkest detail, while this – one of my best and certainly the best in America – I struggle to recollect. One positive moment flowed into the next to be faded and smoothed out at their faint edges by the glorious glorious sunshine.
I played every single upbeat – or at least old/popular enough for the passersby to disregard the tone in a bout of nostalgia – song in my repertoire, saving the winners for sensed opportune moments. Strangely enough, my foreign suite met the most favorable reaction. After singing Ue Wo Muite Arukou a group of Spanish speaking tourists absentmindedly commented and I answered their rhetorical question with “Soy de Florida.” They were delighted, had a short conversation including the overasked superfluous “Where is the French Quarter?” and one of their number tipped me. Unfortunately I haven’t yet perfected Ojalá, so I followed up with Libertà. One woman came in close for a tip and a mangled pronunciation of “Vive la liberté!” and the whole walkway was rocking.
By this time I’d collected a medium sized crowd to my right and left – just like in New York’s Central Park no one felt alright watching across from me. The cluster about a set of chairs to my right consisted mostly of transients. One homeless type sitting on a bench to my left got up to request Hotel California before joining the his comrades. I noticed with gratitude that much of the time they watched, too distracted to drink the beers in their hands. This man tipped me while I moved my capo just as a business man who’d been “tying his shoe” for an entire song on the parapet across from me turned around. I interpret this to have shamed him but I may be reading into it. Either way, the businessman walked up to my case to tip, also, and remarked to the homeless man “Excellent voice,” eyes never meeting mine. Maybe I can make the classes mix a bit, too?
As my voice suffered mightily from the strain of use in frigid temperatures I moved many songs a full step down so my highest full voice note sat at D4. She’s So High went well this way – I’ve learned the error of pressing the issue from listening to the live recording of this song I made in Denver. It’s positively awful. Two children tipped on a swing by of their orbit around their parents and the tips came steadily throughout. An elder woman shocked me as she sang to I’m Yours and said “I love that song!” A jolly black man laughed as he sang to Hey Ya with the swimming hand motions and rhythmic clapping to provide the trademark beat. A young man from Kentucky sang along to Country Roads on my invitation. I could see he felt bad for not tipping but I didn’t mind – it’s the humanity that matters more than the money, especially when the money’s flowing anyways.
Towards the end a toothless scraggly black man with a trumpet case asked when I might finish up. We struck up a brief conversation which somehow led to his asking if I knew any Japanese songs. He specifically asked for Sukiyaki which is the official name of Ue Wo Muite Arukou. Take what you will from that unfortunate naming. With that courtesy I was quite eager to dismiss the hint of prejudice (in the strictest sense, pre judgement) and sing it to him. He had me run it four times so that I could play the original tempo and timbre of the song, much slower than I’m used to. For the second to last run he accompanied me on trumpet. I closed with Ue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin at the request of a pleasant lady who’d plopped down alongside him to enjoy.
As we swapped off, the trumpeter introduced himself as Alexander Masakela. He gave me advice on street performing with a tale about how he helped Tracy Chapman with her first demo album after hearing her in Boston. He began to talk about his connections through his brother and Earth, Wind and Fire and how he’d be able to gather bass and drums and backup vocals for me for a recording if I’d like. I was curious but noncommittal. One drunk man came through to ask for a jam and began to regale us with a chauvinistic tale but we rebuffed him. Even Michael, the druggie I’d played for at the end of my pitch the previous day, came around for a small chat avowing how much money he had (to what purpose?). I gave Alexander my card and went off.
Google that name and you’ll see why I’m glad he never called me up (though by then I would not have gone, of course).
Mindy and Kevin called me just as I finished by the riverside and informed me they’d be heading downtown shortly. On that I decided to stick around so they might hear me in action, despite my voice. After an hour and a half of rest I claimed a pitch by Rouse’s Market – my first pitch in New Orleans – just as a brass band packed up. I texted Mindy where I was and began, but after a song I knew I’d stay only till they came by. The rush hour feel of droves of people hurrying in all directions muffled my small sound and one busker sitting across the street told me my guitar was inaudible from event that close distance. Kevin later averred that they heard me a block away and found me that way but either way I felt the pitch would be no good. Older more monied passersby make for a slower cash flow – my tips came from the few young folks, including a very kind female busker. I sang Mindy and Kevin Gotta Have You and I Will Follow You Into the Dark for Valentine’s day sandwiching a strained requested Hello. When we left I thanked the seven piece bohemian band for their patience and manners and bequeathed them the pitch.
Earnings: $34.28, 1.7 hours
Song of the Day: Ue Wo Muite Arukou – Kyu Sakamoto