One of the things I do here in New Orleans that I simply won't do in most other places is busk. Busk, (busker, busking) are European terms that mean someone who performs on the street for money. “On the street” might really be a street, or maybe a park, pedestrian mall or subway station. I thought I'd talk here about how I began busking, an historical personal retrospective if you will, and then at some later date I'll talk about busking in NOLA.
To set the scene for my busking roots, we must roll the tape back to 1980. I was just out of college when the '80s began, living in the East Village, one of the vilest slums of New York City. I was heavily entrenched in the underground Hardcore Punk scene, and also playing a lot of Bluegrass and Country fiddle (it was something of a double life, like being a secret agent or Anthony Weiner). Before I had gone off to college I had known a lot of regulars in Greenwich Village, including a band called the New York Frets, who did a fair amount of busking around Washington Square. Now as '79 turned to '80, I returned from college and ran into these guys again. And as luck would have it, they needed a fiddler.
The New York Frets was the brainchild of Gene and Truckin', a couple of old hippies who shared a staggering knowledge of Country music and a true knack for street performing. Gene had moved to Greenwich Village in the '60s. He lived in a stylin' apartment over a Korean market, and had a stunning collection of instruments, including the ax he played with the Frets, a vintage Gibson banjo. Truckin' lived in a basement under a restaurant, and played a beat-to-crap Fender bass through a tiny, tinny Pignose battery powered amp. From a distance it sounded a bit like a cross between an injured cat and a broken calliope. Truckin' also had the ability to start a song at any tempo and end up at a speed that could have won races at Bonneville. He was tall and gangly, danced like a scarecrow when he played, and had a huge perpetual grin. You could not help loving him.
Almost everything I know about playing Country music I learned from Gene. Gene was handsome and brooding, and seldom spoke except when he was giving the band instructions or introducing a song. He had several “Gene-isms” as I call them, phrases which he used all the time. When he introduced the song “Different Drum,” written by Monkees guitarist Mike Nesmith, he would always say “this song proves the theory of evolution; it was written by a Monkee.” When he caught any of us eying the tip money collecting in the banjo case, he would paraphrase the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler” by saying “There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the playin’s done!” And when he felt we had played enough for the evening, he'd say “we've reached the point of diminishing returns,” which was some fiscal formula that I never fully understood. Still, to me Gene was a sage, my guru, my Obi Wan, so when he said it I believed it and that ended it.
Before I joined the New York Frets (if you haven't figured this out, we were named on the model of NYC sports teams: the Mets, the Nets and the Jets. Frets are the fingering lines on a guitar) there had been a revolving door of female singers. That changed in the summer of '80 when Holly showed up. Holly and Gene shacked up, and Holly stuck around for a number of years. She was a good guitarist and an amazing singer, and she knew a ton of Country songs, so Holly was in, and that was that. She also knew how to keep perfect time, and I'm sad to report that this edged Truckin' out.
As for me, while I play several instruments (I was playing bass in Punk and Rockabilly bands at the time) I liked busking on fiddle best. It's easy to carry, it's a novelty to most people, and it gives me the option of stepping back and being a sideman, or stepping out as a front man on any particular song. So I was the fiddler/singer. By the end of '80 Truckin' had pretty much left the band, and for the next several years the lineup was Gene, Holly and myself. Gene's Gene-ism for this (and this might be funny only to musicians) is that the New York Frets were now a three-piece because “Bluegrass is never played past the third Fret.”
In busking, as in real estate and U. S. military aggression, the rule is “Location Location Location!” We would only play in one of three spots: against the wrought iron fence on MacDougal and Third; outside the Korean Market on Bleecker and Sullivan (under Gene and Holly's window), or down a little further on Bleecker between Sullivan and Thompson. Why? Because these spots presented the highest level of non-interference from local business, tourist interaction and visibility (we wouldn't get kicked out, everyone could see us, and people could stop and stand in that area). And tourists there were in plenty! Greenwich Village was a mecca for “bridge and tunnel” people, tourists from New Jersey and Long Island. On a Saturday night in Greenwich Village in 1980 you could hardly move down the sidewalk as it was so mobbed with tourists combing the streets and clubs of the Village looking for “The Next Bob Dylan.” This massive influx of musically misguided tourists made walking down MacDougal street a nightmare, but it was GREAT for our wallets!
The dress of the day: for males, topsiders, cargo pants, and polo shirts; for females, huge baggy tee shirts and skin tight spandex leggings, and hair in claw bangs. Also in the mix were disco hot pants, leisure suits, pants suits, maxi skirts, and wide leg jump suits. The eighties were truly the era that fashion forgot.
We went out nightly and played a mix of Bluegrass and Hippie Country. Most listeners stood for a song, maybe two, tipped, and moved on. Some, driven by either alcohol or poor social skills, had to interact with the band. This meant clapping loudly in a rhythm that was nowhere near the rhythm we were playing (and sometimes nowhere near the rhythm of any known musical form), sometimes stomping wildly, or on those very special occasions, doing a mock “swing your partner” or “do-si-do,” apparently learned from cartoons or from the movements of mating lemurs. In special displays of love, listeners would shout out song titles that were meant to be inclusive of the style we played. “Dueling Banjos” was a favorite shouted request (note that we had only one banjo), as was “She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain.” My favorite, of course, was that old chestnut, “can you guys play The Devil Went Down To Georgia?”
There were times when audience participation became unpredictable. Once a hippie guy was dancing spasmodically to a song. He threw off his shirt, and kept dancing. He then slipped off his shoes, and kept dancing. He then took off his pants, laid them with his shirt and shoes, and...left, walking away naked down crowded Greenwich Village streets. Public nudity while dancing on crowded streets was actually not uncommon, but wait, more on that in a moment.
We busked like this for about three years, and made awesome money doing it. Twenties and even fifties were not uncommon tips, and that was a good deal of money at that time (at least for two hippies and one disheveled Punk boy. Mind you, rent on my squalid one room apartment in the Alphabet Jungle was only $135 a month). But all good things must end. Greenwich Village had gone from being a '60s artists' mecca to being a model of '80s gentrification. Ironically the people who had bought in during the '70s to be in the artsy neighborhood where Henry and June and Bob Dylan had once caroused in artistic squalor, now found themselves living in high end real estate, and did not want smelly buskers devaluing their pristine streets.
To this end, the MacDougal Street Block Association elected a president who would go to any lengths to chase buskers off of their street. He called the police on every busker who set up on the block. In time the police ignored Mr. Block President's calls, and he had to find ways to escalate his war on buskers. This was graphically demonstrated one evening, in an incident involving (as promised) public nudity while dancing to the music of unkempt buskers.
Gene, Holly and I were playing in front of the Korean Market when a group of hippies began dancing. On girl was wearing a long, bell sleeved velor dress. She held one bell sleeve over her chest as she danced, maneuvering around behind the concealing fabric. When she lowered her arm, her breasts were exposed. She smiled a knowing smile at us, and kept dancing, boobies staring up at all who watched.
Now generally speaking, a little public indecency in NYC can often go unnoticed. But it seems Mr. Block President caught wind (or sight) of Miss Boobie-Dancing Hippie. War was waged upon us undesirable buskers.
We played, and the hippies (including Miss Boobie-Dancer) danced. People walked by, stopped, listened, ogled, leered, and tipped. In a few moments we noticed a mounted police officer ride up in a state of agitation. He halted his horse, looking frantically up and down MacDougal street. “That couldn't be for us,” Gene whispered. “A mounted cop?” We played on.
Two squad cars followed, then several beat cops, and another mounted cop. “That couldn't be for us,” Gene again whispered. “That many cops?” We played on. The brave boys in blue all gazed up and down MacDougal, looking both wary and bewildered.
Then they all seemed to notice Bluegrass and dancing hippies, and suddenly all eyes focused on us.
Gene knew one of the beat cops, and walked over to powwow with him. When Gene came back he was almost smiling (that would be like laughing hysterically for anyone else). The police had received a tip, an anonymous call, reporting that a man with a machine gun was walking down MacDougal. Hence the dispatch of a dozen or so of New York's finest. When the officers saw us, armed with only a banjo, guitar and fiddle and not one single AK 47 among us, it dawned on them who had placed the anonymous call. Yes, Mr. Block President.
That was the day we knew busking in Greenwich Village had died. There were other issues than the whole Block President situation. Portable amp technology was jumping ahead by leaps and bounds, and by this time full bands with portable amps and huge rock drum kits were setting up in the streets. A little acoustic Bluegrass trio simply could not compete with that level of volume. But do not worry about us, dear reader, we had our plan B. It seems the movie “Urban Cowboy” had caused all the discos in Jersey to become Country bars, and we were riding that wave of employment. We bid adieu to the profitability of New York's streets and began playing music as a five piece (adding bass and drums) in New Jersey Country bars. This proved to be gainful, steady employment.
My mentor Gene taught me some amazing lessons about busking that I carry with me today. In a club, you want your set to arc; that is, you start hard and fast, move into sensitive and slow, then move back up to emotional and hard hitting. But in the street no one is going to stay for more than two songs, so no long set lists: each song must be a universe within itself, displaying the bands' best talents, best playing, and utmost level of energy. We take turns singing lead so that everyone rests for two songs, then hits their hardest on their turn. Harmonies are important too. They sound good, and also give a sense of band unity. If people make requests and the band knows the song, do it. It makes the person feel special, and they'll tip more (the New York Frets knew every single Country song ever recorded, BTW, except for The Devil Went Down To Georgia). Discourage hippie girls from denuding themselves in public: it can be bad for business. Smile and nod when people clap and hop around like mating lemurs. And of course, “there'll be time enough for countin', when the playin's done.”
Members of the New York Frets still play around NYC in the the Minetta Creek Bluegrass Band. When I'm in town, I still play with them.
From NOLA, and reminiscing about the glory days of NYC, this is Kenny Klein explaining it all.