Playing the hits, pleasing the crowd
WHEN YOU’RE a mediocre busker, existentially challenged by the apathy of passers-by, any attention feels like good attention. Thus far on a sunny Thursday morning, there’s been a drunk man who did a little dance as he passed, singing along to my rendition of Ring of Fire, a snide teenager who smirked and threw in 20c sarcastically, and an easily thrilled little girl who emotionally blackmailed her mother into contributing. And then there was a man with a long beard who really likes Tom Petty.
“So what are your influences?” he asks, having heard me play two Johnny Cash songs.
“Johnny Cash,” I say.
“I like Tom Petty myself.” “Really?” “We’re friends actually, me and Tom Petty,” he says, and looks at me intensely. “Very good friends. He’ll be moving here soon.” “Really?” I say again, a little more quietly.
“We go way back,” he says. “A long time. A long, long time.” He pauses meaningfully. “And not just in this life either. We’ve been together before.”
Busking involves putting yourself out there. I’m busking on Coppinger Row, a few weeks after Dublin City Council has endorsed a set of voluntary street-performing guidelines. The location was suggested the day before by Paul, aka “Grandpa”, a friendly moustachioed American with long grey hair, who plays blues from the American songbook. I met him twice – once when he was setting up outside Bewley’s on Grafton Street, and a day later when singing a John Prine song in Johnson’s Court, the alley around the corner.
Each time he was awaiting a tardy drumming friend, aptly named the Invisible Man. “Grafton Street is like amp wars these days,” says Paul, who’s been playing in Dublin for five years. “There’s no point singing there without one. I’ve got a good voice, but it can’t compete against the amps. They only turned up over the last few years. So now I have to go with it. There’s a little space around the corner where I can do it acoustically but the amps can still drown it out. And if you ask them to turn down they look at you funny and tell you they have to make money, as though being loud is going to help them rather than being good. That said, the quality here is good. In America, busking is seen as a step up from begging. Here people practise it to an art form.”
Rhiannon Clarke, who is distributing fliers outside Bewley’s, approaches me to tell me about her father, Andrew Clarke, who died three years ago.
“He was one of the first buskers in Dublin,” she says. “He was a lone parent. He had to get free legal aid to fight to get me and my brother in court and he busked to make money for us. He wore the same kind of outfit every day – his Rasta jumper and his waistcoat over it and his blue jeans and long grey hair and a little paddy cap. He had two dogs at his feet – a Lassie dog and a little terrier. He was so well known he was in guide books of things to see in Dublin.