The Perfect Busking Partner

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ busking partner. Over the years you’ll want to kill each other, poke the other’s ear with your bow or even strangle them in the back of a taxi. There will be times, (God forbid), when you consider smashing your other half’s instrument on the street in which you play, right in front of their weeping eyes and the unknown throng, as splinters scatter across the cobbles. But your time spent together will be for a reason though, because you’ve got a bond unlike any other. Here are some of the things one should look for in the ultimate busking partner.

1. Someone who plays an instrument in the same key as you

For non-musical folk, that means that if you play the fiddle, don’t look for a busking pal in a clarinettist. They play in B flat which is a big no for a violinist who plays in C. It’s like trying to pair up Britney and Mozart: it doesn’t work. Clarinets also suck.

2. Someone with a sense of humour

Laughter is your defence out on the streets – and you’re going to need it. It comes in handy when it’s pissing it down with rain in London and you’ve been banned from using the toilets in the Royal Festival Hall because ‘you aren’t a real musician’. (Ouch.) You’ll need it again when you fall down the stairs as you run away from the security guard who banned you in the first place.

3. Find an instrument who knows yours

Believe it or not, but instruments are like people. They can speak to each other and know what the other is thinking if they get on well enough. For example, if I play with my sister’s fiddle and not mine, Amy’s violin always knows. The harmonies aren’t quite right and both violins sound like two people on a bad date making awkward conversation: They know they don’t belong together.

4. Find a busking partner who is adventurous

There’s nothing worse than playing with someone who doesn’t take risks. Breaking the law is fun, people! Just kidding, we don’t condone doing anything that’s going to land you in prison. But is it really a bad thing to try to play without a license or in a train station at night? Who cares what that policeman said about ScotRail owning most of Glasgow. He looks very unfit to me. How fast could he really run in a hypothetical cat and mouse situation?

5. Point four leads to point five which is find someone who drives a car or similar motor

A musical buddy with a means of transport comes in handy – especially if that policeman does catch you playing outside Glasgow Queen Street Station in the early hours. All you have to do is run like a flailing ostrich to your partner’s motorbike/car/limo and bingo, you’re in the clear.

6. Find someone who doesn’t ‘do it for the money’

There’s nothing worse than busking with people who are only in it for the cash. (It’s not easy making £100 in a night!) For example, on Boxing Day 2011 we made fifty-two pence, a dollar and a condom in three hours. It’s a tough living, folks.

7.  Look for a busking partner who is also your friend

Some of the best musical ensembles in the world played with friends and turned into successful bands (Coldplay, anyone?) Now, we’re not saying we’re going to end up rich and famous like Chris Martin, but playing with a friend is a great thing to do. You know when the other just wants to go home, get stinking drunk or abandon the performance to find food. It’s also nice knowing you can hang out without your violins and just take shameless selfies like everyone else.

Just kidding, we’re far too professional for that.

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Lights Will Guide You Home

This Saturday will be our last in Buchanan Street for a while. The summer months are coming to an end which means so is our time off from University life. It will be undoubtedly sad and the image of me and Amy both curling up on the sofa with popcorn and Friends seems the most likely scenario for the morning after. For our ‘final performance of the season’, we have decided to stay as late as we possibly can, before we candidly close our eyes for a powernap and wake to find some junkie running off in woops towards a manhole with loot in hand.

Some nights however we do manage to stay out until the early hours: past two, past three until about four, when the only sounds we hear are the occasional taxi humming near the train station, waiting for a lone customer to stumble out from the Grand Central Hotel. The worker in the 24 hour newsagents stands in the doorway to his shop, the lights from the store blazing gold across the cracked pavement of Ingram Street. He stands and listens to us play harmonics and double stopping, triplets and scotch snaps, desperately trying to perfect the ending to Danny Boy. He watches the wall opposite his hiding, never looking round at us for too long.

We struggle to leave though because there is something so ridiculously free about playing in an open space in the dead of night. We stand in the centre of the crossing to the main streets in Glasgow, the entrance to Merchant City beckoning us to it. We don’t want to go home tonight, because we can’t help thinking there is so much more to be done with this. “I wonder what it would be like to always be violinists.” Amy says, and I stare down the street that leads to the Gorbals and the prostitutes of St Enoch, wondering if anyone is looking for a tune. There are no figures in the dark tonight and the only souls that pass are the waiters from a restaurant that we have never seen and probably never will see.

Sometimes we pack up so late that the lights on Buchanan Street are beginning to dim. We look up the hill towards the car park where we left the Kia Picanto six hours before and the sound of a limo hurls past us in a mass of drunken, Glaswegian applause. We stand at the brink of the kerb and turn back for a moment down the high street, hoping to catch a glimpse of somebody looking for a dance. Perhaps, we think, the Americans have returned, or maybe the Captain of the Royal Fusiliers never really lost his legs and wants to start a waltz.

Then we turn back to the road before us and wait for the gleam of red to fade away. If you wait long enough, you’ll see the green lights flickering as the faulty wiring struggles to change. And although so desperately reluctant, we cross anyway, watching the green break across the navy sky; as if to show us the way home.

 


The Soldiers of Buchanan Street

Sometimes it’s easy to become cynical while busking.  A junkie steals your money, while his good friend, Jimmy decides to lick your ear while you try to bat him off. You’re offered a fiver for a shag down an alleyway and slowly your night turns into a battlefield of the buskers vs the homeless and the helpless.

The view from where we play is often hilarious, sometimes unnerving and occasionally, simply unsafe. On the nights where it brews trouble, Buchanan Street becomes a warzone, the junkies marking their territory while we refuse to move off ours. They stand arms folded by the doorways to the pubs, scurrying past our case every ten minutes or so, determined to make us pack up and go home. We stand our ground though, one foot on our case and one hand ready to scratch the eyes of anyone who dares steal from us again.

There is something tragic about Buchanan Street though. It is riddled with the helpless, the lonely and those who are simply broken. And amongst the anger that we feel from being robbed and cheated by them, there is occasionally compassion. The thief is too drunk to even stand now and his petty stealing has been spent on the booze and the dope. His friend is slumped in the corner of the entrance to Merchant City, while his female companion is kicking him as the polis creep ever closer. Then the drunkard in the wheelchair moves towards us, breath tinged with Jack Daniels and cheap cigarettes. He coughs into freezing hands and we stop playing for a moment. “I lost my legs…” he says, and he points to his stumps. “In Afghanistan. I did two tours of Ireland. Iraq for six months. Then some twelve year old on his phone… whole street… blown up. Shrapnel… shrapnel everywhere in me. Every soldier around me… blown into pieces. I was Captain of the Royal Fusilers…”  For a moment we stand still as the street grows silent. The couples are dancing home to the taxi ranks while the restaurants begin to shut for the night. We can hear the thief in the distance crying out as the dust from the rubbish trucks blows circles into the air, mixing with the ashes of men in a road in Kabul. The soldier wipes his eyes.

 “They were my boys.” He weeps.“My boys.”

 

 


The Seven Rules of Busking

After another cold summer’s night in Glasgow, my friend and I reminisced in the car on our years of street performing. We sat in the car park at Chinatown as the clock approached 3.30 in the morning.

“You know we’ve been doing these night time gigs for a year now, Amy?” I turned to my friend as she divided the loot between us, tossing another Euro out the window (“stingy bastards…” she muttered).

I looked out the window into our dark surroundings, the blurry white of an ancient Volvo catching my eye in the corner. It seemed to sit there every night, its lights flashing spontaneously next to the rusting metal that was the storage unit of Outdoor World. Amy threw me another handful of pound coins.

“Good night.” She said as she counted out the fifties. “We should’ve started doing nights years ago.”

“We sound like prostitutes.” I said. Amy looked at me and broke into laughter. It was this big loud laugh that sounded like she’d just broken a rule and gotten away with it. I leant my head back and suddenly felt quite old.

“You know, we’ve actually learnt so much about busking these last few years. Don’t you think?” I said and I grabbed a Botswanan coin from the case as Amy started to roll down the window. “MINE.” I cried.

“FINE.” Amy rolled the window back up as the rain started to dampen our empty McDonalds’ bags. “Right, that’s all the loot. Now I really need to pee.”

“Okay but it’s – ” Before I could finish though she was legging it out the car into the night, her red tartan skirt skimming her backside.

“AMY! GET BACK IN THE CAR!” I shrieked hysterically in our tiny Kia Picanto as she ducked behind the metal storage unit in the downpour. I sat, terrified in the car alone and locked all the doors. My only means of protection had abandoned me to use the facilities and I was ready to wet my own pants. So as the plethora of high delinquents started to stroll past, I closed my eyes and pondered the ‘tricks of the trade’ that we had so far gathered…

1. Always mark your spot

Every spot is valuable for a reason. Guard it with your life, mark it out with chalk, give it a post code, pee on it if you must. But whatever you do, keep it as your own.

2. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer

Yes, that middle-aged guitarist might seem just lovely. He’s offered you friendly advice, his mobile number and the address of his caravan in Ayrshire. But remember this is business: everyone is looking for a profit. So keep your opponents on your watch and learn their weaknesses.

3. Always have a safeword

If you’re wise, you won’t need a safeword to alert your partner of oncoming trouble, because you’ll be playing the flute at 1pm in the suburbs of Cambridgeshire. If you’re an idiot however, you’ll be playing in Glasgow: the murder capital of Europe at 2am. You’ll not only need a safeword here, but you’ll also be needing God’s mercy when the junkies arrive to steal your things.

4. Dress for your audience

Take careful note in this. No one wants to see you half-naked, eyes bulging with Tesco eyeliner and smelling like a hooker in St Andrews: golf resort and family getaway central. In Glasgow however, they want to see FLESH. No one likes bare legs and a tartan mini skirt more than inebriated Glaswegian males on a Friday night.

5. Say NO to strangers

Remember what your mother always taught you? Don’t go home with strange men, even if they do offer you lemon tea and the promise of a beefy bake at a West End pub. It’s all very well making friends while performing but use your head. Otherwise you’ll find yourself sitting in a stranger’s flat, watching Still Game and awkwardly dancing to Bennie and the Jets while trying to work out the fastest route to your car.

6. Have some dignity

Yes, the offer of a Versace dress, a hot meal and a sneaky snog for a £20 note does seem appealing. But for the love of God, imagine what your children would say? Do you really want to tell them that you made your money as a student by charging a fiver a grope? It’s all about the talent, ladies.

7. Use your instrument as weapon

There will come a time when you have to defend yourself and your money. So use your bassoon as a club, take that piccolo and ram it into oncoming ribs. Take your triangle and clean out that bastard’s left nostril. And if you’re a violinist, use that £800 Steiner bow for what it was made for: Those coin-stealing cocaine addicts won’t be able to sit for a week…

 


Celebrations and Sinatra

It was ridiculous: we were being complimented by sober human beings devoid of crack and cocaine. A guy with half-moon spectacles bought us two shots of tequila and told us to make some contact cards. The ginger twelve year-old manager asked us to come back next week and do the same piece again, “It’ll bring in the big bucks!” He laughed. The couple in the corner with their upcoming engagement party told us to call them, and bought us chips from The Big Blue next door. It was like floating in insanity. I grabbed Amy’s arm and bit my bottom lip in sheer, ballooning happiness. “What the fuck just happened?” I whispered under the clinking of beer glasses and ever-so tipsy ears.

So good, girls.” Alistair gestured. He held out his arms in positive disbelief. “Didn’t you have fun?”

I nodded nervously, grinning like an idiot. “Yeah, I did.” Glen was still smacking the air to the four four rythm. “I told her didn’t I?!” He suddenly grabbed Amy’s beautiful little face and kissed her by the bar. “Look how sexy they both are! In their little kilts!”

“Ignore him…” Alistair laughed as Amy uproariously wiped Glen’s saliva from her lips. “But seriously… That was so good.” Then he paused and looked to the back of the bar momentarily. Then he said, “I’ve really wanted to do something with violins for a while. Like a nice little arrangement with a couple of trombones. Louis Armstrong, you know?”

Amy and I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, my Granddad loved Louis Armstrong!” I said and I hugged Amy as Alistair pondered the thought a little longer.

For a moment, Amy and I stood silently with the possibility of opportunity circling the air. Then we let out a startled exclamation as the pianist struck a major seventh across the keys, announcing his return to his usual platform. We started dancing across the varnished pool of wood to Sinatra as Glen passed Amy a shot of tequila. He held up a second glass to my lips. “I know you don’t drink, darling. But we’re celebrating surely?!” I laughed and spun awkwardly into Alistair’s arm. Then he took my hand as my hair flew across my face.

“You’re lovely,” the Jazz Singer said. Then finally without thinking, I downed the Blue Dog’s tequila, the sticky aftertaste smacking the back of my throat.


The Trip to Pakistan

We headed west to The Blue Dog on George Street. It was the finest cocktail bar in town. Well, according to Amy anyway. Being a teetotaller hardly gave me opportunity to judge. But the evening pianist was a talented player, and on dead nights like Boxing Day, Amy and I liked to listen to him play while we drowned our sorrows in apple juice and gin. It was a quaint little place, and last time we’d been there we’d met Jesus. Or at least a Mancunian who’d claimed to be Jesus reincarnated. It was for things like that why we liked it.

We sat down in the corner and rested our damp feet on the sofa; our violins tucked safely behind the leather seats. For a while we simply lay there, pondering our recent adventures. Then after ten minutes, Amy turned to me and said, almost anxiously, “Promise me something, Laura? Let’s keep busking for the rest of our days? Even when we’re old and no one wants to kiss us for a fiver?”

I smiled at my friend and gave an inward sigh of relief. “I promise.” I said. “We will keep playing till we are eighty one. Even if we don’t tell anyone about it – like Alistair.” Amy grinned and rested her head on my shoulder. I gazed up at the lights while one of the managers dimmed the power. I felt my eyes close as the ceiling grew dark. Then suddenly I felt Amy tug on my elbow. I frowned and looked sheepishly towards her. “Speak of the devil…” she said.

*********************************************************************

“I’m telling you chicks now! If you get up there and play you’re selling yourselves! I’m not even making money out of it and I’m telling you to!” Glen was undeniably drunk and quite possibly high. But he’d just told us about his financial achievements in Singapore – the guy knew how to make a profit. Amy grinned at me and raised her eyebrows. “Just one song, Laura.” She said. “It might be fun?!”

“Do it.” Alistair said. “I’ll sing something after. It’s the least I can do since I lied about my job… It’s cool. As long as we don’t take over the stage or anything.”

I laughed and pondered the proposal as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself or let Amy down with my mediocre performance. Then suddenly I thought of little Stevie playing guitar outside The Royal Bank of Scotland – insane and inebriated – being continuously arrested by the polis. “Alright, fine.” I said. “Something fast though. Nobody is dancing in here tonight.”

“Good on ye, girl!” Amy clapped and jumped over towards the piano, giving John the pianist the key. My back was sweating; I never did things like this. Not in the Blue Dog anyway. Amy looked straight at me and raised her bow over the D string: you very rarely meet people in life who can look at you, and know what you’re going to do.

The bar went dark. We smacked our bows against the B sharp of Seeing to his Sheep. Amy played the chords as we began clambering across the Highlands, the mist and the rain of the winter darkening the road north. I could hear Alistair clapping somewhere in the rain, “Look at them!” He called. Amy and I skipped down the heather and the crags; spotting speckles of white by the dip in the field before the mountain rose again. The chords changed and sleet began to stream from the sky; our faces turning scarlet red in the wind from Feugh. “I represent them!” Glen cried and danced the Highland fling among the moss and the drowning holly. Then the sheep scurried into the inky sky of the mountain top and we buried our arms into each other while the storm engulfed our ears.

Amy’s bow leaptoff the string and the key melted from an A to a B flat into our Trip to Pakistan. We were suddenly dancing through sand storms, nine thousand miles from the snow of Crathes that had began to race menacingly from hot clouds. Amy held the minor harmony as we ran through spice-ridden deserts and slate coloured peaks. The orange sun hung lazily in the white sky: it was hot.  So we threw off our boots and hats to the beat of the drum and the stamping of the barman’s feet. Alistair whooped as we circled the same bar; sneakily playing on the riff change and rocky terrain. Then we smiled as the beat came pounding down upon the last bar of the reel; the dust of our rosin-fuelled bows mingling with the dust storms of Mount Sikam. Jabardar, Hachu in the distance.


The Corinthian

We were standing outside the most expensive Casino in Glasgow with a Canadian, an American and a case full of cash. We got to the doors to find chandeliers gracefully posing over the entrance and a string of millionaires waiting to get in.

Alistair had this sort of graceful, Hollywood manner about him – he was glamorously reserved. “My cousin, ladies and gentlemen!” Glen, the drunken Canadian cried to the security guards, his cigar conveniently breaking in his exclamation. Amy and I tried to restrain our laughter as we walked up the thick, violet carpeted stairway while Glen cursed behind us. (“Fucking Indonesian cigarettes, dude!”)

We nervously made our way across the white marble floor to the bar, my eyes watering as the smell of gin floated like cigarette smoke through the air. The sound of poker chips being thrown to their winners clapped like a drunken applause in the casino, while Japanese businessmen did shots for every win they got. Amy gripped my hand as Alistair ordered us a drink. “We’re not in Buchanan Street anymore!” She whispered.

Alistair smiled as I stared at our surroundings:  every woman was studded in diamante and crystal; fur coats and patent heels. “They are just people.” He said stirring his tonic. “People with money.” Amy however, tried pulling her skirt down in an attempt to look more glamorous; (while a fifty year old behind her enjoyed the view).  “Fuck it.” She said. “I’m going to the bathroom to ‘rearrange’ myself.” Then she walked off through the foreign throng, passing Glen on the way, who had managed to find a potential ‘woman’ for the evening.

“So what do you do?” I said turning to Alistair.

“I’m in real estate.” He replied.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“It’s just a job really.” He shook the ice in his glass. “But I studied music and theatre at the University of Southern California. You would love it out there. So different to here.”

“Ha, I’m sure it is.” I said. I was struggling to look him in the eye while a man in a blue shirt tried to feel my ass from behind. Alistair swapped sides and carefully blocked the wandering hands of rich men. “Do you still sing then?” I asked, thanking him with my eyes.

Alistair half shook and nodded his head. He quickly changed the subject. “You and Amy should really keep going with this violin thing. There’s a lot of potential there. But if it’s not your true passion, it’s always going to be hard.”

I was about to answer when I suddenly saw Amy’s blonde hair glaze among the stench of arrogance that filled the floor. The whole place was brilliantly white and smooth. Amy cuddled into my arm. “I think I need to use to the bathroom now!” I said, quickly sensing.

Amy and I smiled politely and dashed to the toilets downstairs. As soon as we closed the door we let out a youthful scream.  “This is insane.” I said, rubbing the lines of foundation into my jaw. “How do we get ourselves into these situations? His name’s Alistair Tober, yeah?”

Amy was taking great delight in turning all the motion censored taps on and off with her hands. “Aye!” She said. I looked gloomily into the mirror and tried to rub my Tesco foundation into my jaw line. As I realised this was as good as I was going to look tonight, we started to make our way back out the bathroom. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s find Alistair.”

“I’m sorry but did you say you’re with Alistair Tober?” An American woman’s voice suddenly came from nowhere. She was gracefully following us back up the stairs. “He’s like, one of the biggest Jazz singers since like, forever. He just finished playing a week’s worth of shows in Glasgow! He was in… what’s that show called? Oh yeah, Dexter! And Days of Our Lives. Y’all probably don’t know that one though, being from the UK and all…”

Amy and I momentarily gaped at one another as the American woman casually strolled on into the arms of a James Bond lookalike: everyone was so passively nonchalant here it was frightening.  We suddenly saw Alistair talking to Glen at the door of the bar and he raised his hand to us like a true gentlemen. I waved back, trying hard not to look too startled. Amy nudged me gently and passed me her Blackberry. “Look.” She said.

I glanced at the screen and then back up at Alistair who was walking towards us. It was him on Google images; standing side by side with Daniel Craig on a red carpet, microphone placed in hand. I stuffed the Blackberry into Amy’s pocket. We kept quiet and followed Alistair into the Casino, the sound of poker chips clattering the boards like the hail that was falling outside.