27 March, 2006

On song

They have licensed buskers on the Underground nowadays, but that doesn't mean they're any good.

I had the misfortune to walk past a woman the other day who was "playing" a violin. The inverted commas, of course, imply she was doing nothing of the sort. She was in fact scraping her way through some appallingly self-conscious 20th century composition that sounded like a cross between a violin being thrown down a flight of stairs tied to a brick and a tone deaf person trying to tune a washing line. Little wonder she only had about fifty pence in her violin case.

What was she hoping to make through the performance of such a shamelessly self-conscious uncompromising and inaccessible piece of music? It certainly can't have been much in the way of money. Far more pleasing to the ear and the conscience was a bloke I passed today who was valiantly picking his way through 'The Sound Of Silence' and making a rather good job of it. There's some uniquely evocative about the distant echo of a busker materialising in your ears from somewhere down a long tunnel - more so when combined with the rush of the wind that both precedes and follows after the trains themselves.

I must confess to having tried busking many years ago. Twice. It was an exercise in showmanship as much as generating revenue, I'd say, though me and my mate were certainly not unhappy with the takings we made from what was essentially a run through of Beatles and Rolling Stones covers. It was back in my home town, in a fairly small but bustling pedestrianised street, home to second hand record shops, pot pourri stores and, at one end, somewhat appropriately, a job centre. Both times we mustered around £10 or so from an hour or so's playing, which back then felt like a lot of money. I remember being thrilled when someone from the barbers just up the road walked past, half recognised us, and gave us a whole English pound. An old woman did the same. At the time it felt like one of the most generous gestures in the world.

I don't know whether our choice of material was the most subtle ('Help' for starters), but at least the stuff had a tune. And I'll bet we made more money in 60 minutes all those years ago than that violin woman made in however many hours she stood there scraping away. Give the public what they want, and they'll give you what you want. Most of the time.


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