Barring another gutter ball my foray out on Friday, 2.18, was bound to be infinitely better in earnings. Luckily this came to pass. I did not quite strike gold, nor even get much spare change, but I did scratch a reasonable (if still paltry) sum. After walking down from the UT campus and through Texas’ larger than D.C. capitol – insufferable, yet hilarious, right? – I set up for a pitch on Congress, as recommended by the Museum worker. Now I need to write a quick note about a chief difference between busking in America and elsewhere. America has a lot of cars. A LOT of cars. everywhere you go they’re rushing by or idling or blaring hip hop. The roads are thus too wide for any noticeable natural reverb. Congress Street is a particularly wide street so I used my standard necessary American street tactic and found a solid, lowish awning to exploit for natural amplification.
I found the daytime crowd much friendlier, but not much looser with their wallets. As soon as I began a couple passed me heading north and then returning south, with the man calling encouraging “Sing it out! Rock On! Do what you do, man!” with a broad smile as they passed. Half of my tips (one dollar) in that spot came from a drunkard who sang along to Leaving on a Jet Plane, tried to drop a dollar in my case and missed by a few inches, retrieved it shakily from the ground and then fell on my case as he hit the mark on the second go, closing the lid as he fell. A passersby remarked “You sure he didn’t take anything?” which just about sums up the general attitude of Americans to street artists and homeless folk. My other tip came from a couple of older business types who became my first suit and tie tippers in the country.
The highlight of this short pitch arrived with another transient. This friendly young black man with a drugged/homeless air about him stood by as I began Liberta. I asked if he’d like to make a request and he smiled softly with a “No, I just want to hear your music.” I sang it as best I could and I could see he really felt it. He nodded his head (with his whole body behind it) with eyes closed, feeling the beat. I tried to keep this steady, especially as he joined in with a wonderful beatbox. He isolated the tonics of each chord and somehow hummed these in the back of his throat, buzzing, while creating a brilliant beat over it. I dragged the song out, playing empty sections just to hear him, improvising with my voice at the end for five or six cycles. Oh it was fun! We clasped hands after and thanked each other. Here in the library where I’m writing this post I ran into him again – he loudly greeted me with “I love your music man. Be free, be free!” and we clasped hands again, his yet sticky with sweat and the smell of tobacco.
With the disappointment of this pitch, I asked a nearby shop worker where else might be good to play, she suggested I try South Congress, a mile and a half across the river. I passed a flautist on the way who’d passed me as I played – he asked how I fared and commiserated – he’d earned nothing. He’d also been recommended South Congress – I’d see him there later that night (and many times again throughout my stay in Austin).
Time for a mini digression on Austin. It’s essentially an overgrown Gainesville. Hipsters everywhere, the smell of weed in every public area, vagrants and bums and ex-hippies and local stores and college students and college football fans and new agers… Everything distasteful about my hometown in spades with none of the natural charm. I’m not sure why they’re so keen to keep it weird. South Congress, for instance, exemplifies this caricature-ably contradictory identity. Though still a busy 5 lane road, with ample parking and a high truck count, the store names read: American Apparel, New Bohemia (a clothing store), Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds (costume store), Electric Ladyland, Uncommon Objects (newage heaven), Home Slice Pizza and Congress Ave Baptist Church… and then some food trucks in garish colors. The pedestrians range from scruffy barefoot panhandlers (of which there are many) to stiletto and aviator clad women strutting as if on a catwalk, scattering the hipsters with speed and disdain. Throw in a few hawaii shirted middle aged men lounging inside cafes and you get a very strange picture.
I procured permission from a store to play outside on the corner, which I took to mean the corner of the store, beneath a little awning – necessary for the acoustics. I received two tips almost instantly, from two women in sequence who, as in New York many months back, credited my “lovely” smile for the tip while I sang Gotta Have You and I knew the pitch would be good. About to begin another song, Wazoo, a guitar playing bum/busker from up the street, came by to listen to me with his homeless companion who’d played along with a shaker and a sign reading “Jos’ HOngry”. I lent my guitar to the latter, reluctantly, who fumbled a few A and E chords, while speaking glowingly of his prowess on the guitar. I know they meant well, but their presence (and smell) drove off passersby and brought out the shop owner, who clarified that I needed to be literally on the street corner. I tried this a moment, but that move destroyed any value the pitch had – open air scattering the sound and at the new spot I felt acutely in the way.
On a local bucket drummer’s advice (who commented on the hypocrisy of the new age establishments for running us off), I chose a new spot in front of a parapeted open air live music venue. Tips slowed again, but at least here people welcomed my presence with an interactive air and not just a cursory business nod at best. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. A little girl danced to Here Comes the Sun as I encouraged her back and her mother watched delightedly. One passing new-hippie type called out “Hey cutie!” with a broad grin. A group of old folks lingered a while before one tipped me a few coins and a “I wish I had more to give you.” They passed three or four times, each time with a smile or a comment. The hipster and rich girls as noted above just tore past without any acknowledgment of my presence at all, or perhaps sufficient attention to feel as an ant. Another set of middle aged folks passed as I began the first chorus of Streets of London and one female of their number mused aloud “I know that song, but what’s the title.” So I locked eyes and nodded my headed as we sang the title together. Despite what I now know to be my general flat intonation (funny how unaware of it I can be) I created many smiles this day – and I might explain away the stinginess to luck – almost every passerby patted a pocket or gave me a shrugged apology.
Best of all, of course, the youth. A trio of three strangely attractive (in a Lolita way, but attractive) early high school girls with the blonde hair and thin barbie figure so prevalent in Texas showered me with kindness. First they each tipped – two of them with a dollar each and the third apologizing and setting two sticks of gum in my case. The tallest, bright eyed one – the leader it seemed – requested I’m Yours after confirming I knew no Justin Bieber tunes. They sat beside me on the parapet, patiently with soft smiles and occasional mouthing of lyrics (they assured me they couldn’t sing when I asked them to sing along – but hey, I can’t really either, ne?). Maybe her stately kindness prompted me or just inspiration, but I decided to sing them the Mario Kart Love Song, which they enjoyed thoroughly.
As I finished my pitch one of two Hawaii shirted men sitting just behind me in anticipation of the band that would start at 6.30 engaged me with “So did you grow up listening to my generation’s music?” This amused me greatly. I answered in the affirmative. We spoke awhile on the attitude of American’s to buskers and just before we finished the three girls returned, the tall one sopping wet all over. They greeted me happily and explained she’d jumped into a pond when I inquired. Hm, maybe I can also blame having just written a song about nostalgia – forgive me, I liked her all the more.
Earnings: $11.50, 2.2 hours
Song of the Day: Liberta – Pep’s