Sunday, June 17, 2012

Boulder 4

It’s the weekend. Dress up. People are walking the ped mall as something to do, not to get to a destination, so be presentable and sing out.

Find a good spot. The piano players are out--as are many buskers, so you might have to continue farther west toward the mountains, your as-yet-uncharted block in this town. There is a payphone there, which you hope is out of commission, and it will make a good backstop. Keep an extra eye on your stuff today--since you went for the dress instead of jeans, you have no pockets.

About the dress… It’s a nice touch since this is Sunday, and so many people are out that this is like a real show. But be mindful each time you stoop down for your water, or to protect your dollars from the wind.

And there will be wind. Although it batters your voice for the first few numbers, it provides a bit of relief from the 80-something heat. Stay in the shade. There is a bank of benches near that food cart, far enough away from the payphone that you’re not technically interrupting the cellphone users on the benches, but later your audience will assemble there.

They stand, the lean on trees, and one by one by one by one they come forward with dollar bills that stack up and flutter at your feet. Keep putting them back under the coins, but know that you might lose a few. You have still broken your record.

Many people sit and listen for multiple songs, and it’s worth way more than the bucks dropped by passers-by. At least four people will come and talk with you. Long-Forgotten Fairytale is going over well with families and young girls. They don’t know how brilliantly Stephin Merritt can craft a screed to an ex; they know only that you said ‘castle’ and ‘princess.’ One mom tells you that the small pink child to her right wanted to thank you herself but was too shy. But that girl is not too shy to stare and stare.

A photographer comes by on the second round of Wilder Than Her. You wish beyond wishing that you had more water or breath or finger power, but you will have to tell your audience that this is your last song. They don’t know that it was also your first, over eighty minutes ago. Keep singing, and when you are packing up, be careful with that enormous pile of cash. People are watching.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Denver 4

It’s getting hotter. Busking season is almost over, unless you get creative or start working the morning transit crunch. If you are already sweaty by the time you get to your spot, you are going to need a new spot by the summer solstice.

Use your cardinal directions. If you choose well you will be in the sun for only ten minutes, your case for only another ten.  The earth is turning in an eastward direction, so use this to your advantage.

Zack from Children International agrees to let you share his spot in front of Barnes & Noble, where you are both banking on some sort of stereotype about book store customers. You will both be wrong, although you fare better than Zack in the first five minutes. A quarter lands in your case during the first verse of Wilder Than Her. It always seems like people know that song, but you’re not conversing with the coin-givers, so you wouldn’t know. You know only to keep singing.

The free mall shuttle stops right in front of you every two and a half minutes. The doors stay open for approximately ten seconds, during which time you might catch someone’s eye or ear. People deboarding generally turn one direction or the other, but don’t be surprised if someone gets right off and comes forward with a dollar. It may be a child, and she will very carefully place the dollar—enormous in her hand—beneath the rock in your case. Luckily, you are at a break after the second verse of that Dylan song, so you can thank her.

But when a filmmaker comes and drops his card in your case, and is trying to explain what he does, you are full throttle in the chorus of Middle of the Night. You feel lucky that on its first time out busking this song has already garnered some change, a few glances, and Big Jon Ian’s card, but you’ve forgotten the lyrics. Keep playing, the words will come soon.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Boulder 3

Do not be afraid to stand right in the middle of the ped mall, a few steps from the Beans & Co. food cart. It is overcast, and many of Boulder's buskers are not out today. This could also mean fewer pedestrians, but give it some time. Within the hour you will have a sweaty upper lip, a pile of dollars in your case, and a guitar that's losing its tune in the afternoon sun. The clouds in Colorado do not last long.

Notice the kids again. They are drawn to you, even if they sometimes have a perplexed look. One will approach with a dollar and then shyly run back behind his grandmother's knee. She is coaxing him closer and closer to the case. Even after he drops the buck and runs, she sends him back—motioning to put the bill under the rock so it will not blow away. And although he cannot be more than five, you belt the chorus of Teenagers Kick Our Butts, because one day he might remember it.

Do not underestimate how lucrative an original song can be. "Robert Pirsig" is like a beacon, and by the time you close your eyes and sing the words "motorcycle maintenance" to the heavens, three different potbellied white men have approached with money, their pony tails blowing in the wind. One of them drops a wad and you know there are at least two folded bills. Keep singing.

You sing your originals differently, better perhaps, and you are puzzled and thrilled when a family drops a dollar in during General Things. There is no better encouragement for your songwriting. Don't overdo it, but know that when you say "Liz Phair," at least one person will look back behind himself (even if he doesn't toss in any cash).

Men give more than women, and the women who do give are all much older or have babies in their arms. No one who looks like you will give money. Young women in packs pass by, maybe even shouting "Hippy!" but they need their dollars for other things. Businessmen in pairs will walk past, but it is only the solo, maudlin entrepreneur, not late for a meeting yet, who lifts the rock in your case to add his 100 cents. People, after all, have places to go, things to do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Boulder 2

Although you have come to predict certain aspects of the busk, it will be different each time—like  weather. And by the way, weather is everything.

You need to wear sunscreen. Even if it is cold. Even if you are going to stand in the shade. The sun is unrelenting here. Respect it.

You will think you are too late for the lunch hour, but think again. Some of these people are just leaving their offices at 12:45 for a business lunch. And although they are not as generous as tourist families, they hear you, so sing out.

Kids will stop, or they will try to wrench their parents’ arms in your direction. It happened to Joshua Bell, and it will happen to you. The kids seem to hear the music differently, and they are not yet jaded. They may think you are a freak, but they do not think you are a beggar. All they know is, you are making music outside. Two of them will convince their parents to give them a few coins that are ultimately destined for your case. They approach during Fear of Trains and you hope the timing is just right so they do not have to hear you say “KKK.” They don’t, but they and their parents linger and then try to dance. It may be the first time they have heard a Stephin Merritt song. They do not know that his songs are not for dancing.

A young man calling himself Calem will come forward and tell you he is about to start on the piano a block away, and that he is afraid he will drown you out. It is nice of him to warn you, and you engage in polite conversation, leaning heavily on what you assume to be a shared busker code or context. He is a fantastic player, and you do end up moving around the tree to stand near Hip Consignment, but Calem still has a lot of set-up to do by the time your voice is waning. (Among other things, he has to go retrieve his piano bench from an adjacent business where he stores it.)

Sheila from the consignment shop invites you to play right in front of her store. You will serenade her with an original song because she is a businesswoman and she understands the notion that You Are What You Repeat. She compliments your voice, which is enough to refresh it for another thirty minutes.

A group of young guys are eating on the steps nearby and they want to know your story. You say just enough but are leery of them. They request an Eagles song. (You will consider learning one for just such an occasion, but note that that would be very unDude.) You give them Dylan instead, and passers-by will drop a few more dollars in your case. The guys, also, will give the change from their Qdoba lunch, and you’re in business. This will give you the courage to play another original, and several more dollars will end up at your feet as you rock your way through General Things.

By this time your bag will be in the sun, so think about putting less jelly on your sandwich next time. On second thought, skip the jelly. Peanut butter has protein.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Denver 3

A spinach and black bean omelet is the breakfast of champion buskers. After that eat a whole grapefruit so your vocal chords are hydrated but your bladder will not be full. You will need water later, and plenty of it. The wind will be whipping, and your spirits will be down from the jackhammer construction at Union Station that is upstaging you. Consider moving down the block. Again. Farther this time.

It is slow, even though it is Friday and you made a point of coming even later into the lunch hour. It’s a chilly day and the lack of response is both caused by and causing your lackluster performance. Sing for someone else, someone who is not here. Sing to the wall across the street whose edifice you will have memorized by the end of the summer.

At some point, a guy coming out of the bookstore will throw you a buck, so keep singing and just be patient. He also makes eye contact, which is worth twice as much. You accept once again that Friend of the Devil is a more lucrative song than Another Mystery. So be it.

The field trip is here. Are there weekly school trips to downtown Denver from the suburbs, or are these the same kids from last month? They are here to learn about historic Wynkoop Street, but probably not its famous brewery. This group gets to go into the bookstore with their leader. Maybe they are from out of town.

On their way out, two different kids will throw fives in your case as they and their classmates are arranging their Velcro wallets and bags of new books. You will hesitate, almost screw up the second verse of Fear of Trains, but by the time you get your wits about you and think you should say something (…to them? To the teacher? How far down 16th are they now?) , it is too late. You are ten dollars richer but you feel the guilt. Those kids did not know they were throwing fives.

Or they did, but you still should have returned them.

It’s too late. “She could have been the belle of the Ponderosa,” you sing, and you are officially making money off middle schoolers. They wanted to support the local arts movement, you rationalize. And they did. You will keep singing, and never forget them.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Denver 2

Today, break your previous record. Sing 20 songs instead of 15. Earn more money. Endure the sun a moment longer. Skin cancer with busking experience trumps skin cancer without. (You have to die of something, and you may as well die happy.) Forget about the timed transfer on your light rail ticket. You’ve already missed it.

You may think that Mondays are just not good for busking. After all, the last time you were here was a Friday and there seemed to be more passers-by. There is, in fact, just as much foot traffic on a Monday at this corner. However, you are 30 minutes too early. By the time you play The Swimming Song, you have used a lot of your energy, but people from offices are just now making their way past the book store to Noodles & Co. Be in their path.

Placement is everything. You want to be near a busy intersection but not at the corner. Give people coming from either direction a chance to hear you and decide if they want to bother to wonder whether they are carrying any small bills. They do this between Wynkoop and the second set of benches on 16th, heading East toward the entrance to the ped mall.

Some of them have never seen a lady busker at the bookstore before, much less one in a cowboy hat and boots. Some of them will laugh or smile and you may have a moment between Teenagers Kick Our Butts and the Sons and Daughters/When You’re Old and Lonely mash-up to ask yourself whether they think you are courageous  and charming or just ridiculous. Sing with such joy that it is hard for them to tell the difference.

An odd man will stand directly in front of you during Sweet Sweet Smile and you will try to make your sunglasses-clad face conjure the look of distant love so that this guy releases himself from the notion that you are singing to him specifically. You prepare for the worst, and are glad when he walks away. Later when you see him on the bench across the street, be glad to realize that your voice cannot possible carry that far, although you will then know that he is just watching, and not listening at all. He will rifle through the trash can over there and find a discarded smoothie cup—half-full—and  you are glad for him, but you focus your attention on making a real F chord on Rox in the Box. You already know the MagFields songs don’t go over so well in this state, but Colin Meloy is from Montana, so maybe another Decemberists tune will catch the attention of one of those hipsters exiting the bookstore. Perhaps the one who entered while you were singing an original, his expression seeming to say, “What else you got?”

After two more songs, the man across the street will not bother you so much anymore. There is a woman on the adjacent bench reading and, in your paranoid daymares, she could be a witness. She crosses and approaches. “I don’t have any cash,” she says, “But you have a beautiful voice. Will you be here tomorrow?”  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Boulder 1

Appreciate that you are in a busker’s paradise. Arts appreciation + pedestrian mall + disposable cash = Boulder, Colorado. Find free parking even though paid lots are ample. It is a beautiful day so you will not mind walking to your chosen spot.

Walk the length of the ped mall. You will pass many buskers, but they are not all musicians. Some of them are mimes and contortionists. The musicians are not all guitarists, either. There are mando players and banjoists and there is even a piano on the block between 13th and 14th where students from the College of Music play concertos. Put a buck in the hat as you pass.

Keep a distance from the others, especially the musicians. Observe busking etiquette. If you see an old man leaning on a brick planter with his guitar case, ask him if he is going to play there before you set up a few feet away.

Be aware of lunch-goers. They are your prime customers, but you are so close to the patio seating for Kasa Japanese Grill & Bar that you do not want to ruin anyone’s lunch or get reprimanded by the sushi chef. Center your case between Kasa and Illegal Pete’s, facing directly down Pearl Street. The traffic picks up again here at the end of the ped mall, especially on the cross street, but you are in a prime spot.

Also, there are not many female buskers in Boulder, if any.

You will learn here that the Magnetic Fields do not have a huge following in Colorado. And you will accept that your one Dylan song and your one Grateful Dead tune are the ones that garner the most attention and the most cash. Still, you want to fill an hour before your sore fingers, dry and cracking from the wind at 5328 feet elevation, give out and you start packing up. In the meantime, sing your heart out.

You may be approached by a strange woman. She is steadying herself on the bricks just inches away from your water bottle, digging in her purse. She is either looking for money or just oblivious to personal space boundaries. Give her the benefit of the doubt.

When you finish your current song, she will ask for your card and say she needs a non-professional singer to play a role in the movie she is making of her life. She will call herself Quantum Cow and you will be glad you are not a professional.

Smile. Find any scrap you have to write down your email address for her and graciously accept the one dollar she says is all she has. It will be more than enough to get you started on All the Umbrellas in London, and while you are singing that, although the opportunity to play a busker in a film is worth more than a hundred gold coins in your case, you will be pleasantly surprised to see a man approach and delicately place two folded bills securely under the rock at your feet.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Denver 1

Water. Fingers. Wind. Altitude.
Noise.  (You are a part of it now.)
Song list. Parking meter.
Feet. Fingers.

When you find your spot, the key is to act like you know exactly what you’re doing, especially if there are people around or if you are in front of a prestigious bookstore that might kick you away for loitering. Look tough, act tough while you are setting up. It is best to have something at knee or hip height to put your water bottle on.

Tune only if you are stalling. You arrive and there is no pretense, no one to introduce you. It is just you and the first chord of Wilder Than Her.

Know your songs. Know them really, really well because there will be many distractions. People. People talking. People talking on cell phones. The very people you are playing to. Firefighters right up in your face asking if that Colin Meloy song is by Joan Baez.

Some songs work better than others. Do not play a musical interlude ever. Sing the chorus again. Do not sing a story song unless it’s a well-known favorite. Songs with preachy imperative chorus taglines work best as someone is walking by. And do not underestimate the rare person walking by without earbuds. That person can hear you, so sing out.

Save some for the end, though. Don’t spend it all on Born on a Train because there are nine songs left and you are in the Mile-High City now and the elevation is getting to you.

The people who pause or stop on the adjacent bench or smile sometimes mean more than the people who give money.

Some do give money. You are sorry you did not interrupt the line about the hurricane to say thank you. You are sorry, and thrilled, that it’s lunchtime and the foot traffic is almost a constant flow. You are sorry that after 50 minutes your fingers will give out, that is if you don’t run out of water first, that is if your feet in their unsupportive-but-must-wear cowboy boots do not give out first.

You are in the shade. That’s good, because across the street people walk in the unrelenting sun in shorts and flip-flops—their gazes either a permanent squint, or devilishly cool behind sunglasses.

A troupe of school kids files by. They think you are a freak of nature, but in a good way, and their leader/teacher/docent person wishes they were paying attention to the Colorado history lesson at this corner. 

But one of those kids is still watching as you pack up your guitar. And you feel like the coolest person on earth.