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.
“When my father was busking first it was illegal under the Vagrancy Act. Later he tried to set up a union with Christie Moore and Mary Begley who plays the little button accordion in the alley around the corner.”
There, Frankie Cahill tells me he knew Rhiannon’s dad. Frankie still plays with fellow veteran Mary Begley and feels any guidelines or plans to organise are doomed to failure. “It’s very hard to organise musicians,” he says and laughs. “There are three of us who usually work on this alley and it’s hard enough to organise the three of us.” He’s been busking since the 1980s. “There was a pitch down there where Switzer’s was, one at the old Marks and Spencer’s, one at the top of the street and one in here,” he says. “The guards would move people on under the vagrancy act of 1847. ‘Gathering alms’ was another law they used. I don’t even know what alms are. I used to busk as part of a seven-piece band and I remember a guard from Pearse Street telling us that he’d been on a flight to New York which had a nine-minute video of us advertising Ireland. He was telling us that as he moved us on.”
The Vagrancy Act was struck down in 2007 and Dublin has since been a friendlier place for buskers. “Busking is a valuable part of the cultural makeup and fabric of Dublin,” says Jim Doyle, an arts officer with Dublin City Council. He along with Dan Belton, organiser of the Street Performance World Championships, helped put together the guidelines in consultation with street performers.
The voluntary code involves restrictions on amps, rules on monopolising spots, and a controversial stipulation that buskers must know a repertoire of at least 20 songs (I break this rule with my six song set-list). Those who sign up receive a numbered badge, but I speak to just one busker who has one and everyone is sceptical.
Asha Allen, who’s been busking for eight years, is bluntest in her disapproval: “I think the guidelines are bullshit,” she says. “The council made them. They gave out 50 badges but I didn’t get one because I wasn’t around on that day. And this thing about 20 songs? Busking shouldn’t be about how bad or good you are. It’s the people walking by who should make their mind up on that.”
Allen approached me while I was attempting to busk for the first time in a decade and a half across from the Temple Bar Trading Company. She watched me butcher Take it Easy by the Eagles before asking how long I’d be holding the pitch. This is the correct approach, but according to Allen, a lot of the etiquette has gone, more and more people are monopolising the good spots, and are using louder and louder amps (Allen steadfastly refuses to use one). She was featured in this paper last year pictured playing outside the Gaiety to a then-campaigning President Michael D Higgins.
“He gave me 20c,” she says. “Busking in a recession is a different kettle of fish. Look at these tourists. They’re getting here and they’re eating sandwiches out of Centra. Eight years ago they’d be throwing in money, now they’re like ‘these are euros! We need those!’ Busking is my main source of income. I’ve a six-year-old and this is something I can do to make money during school time.”
COWBOY-HATTEDslide-guitarist NC Lawlor has one of the council’s badges, and is unsure about the guidelines – “I don’t like the repertoire one,” he says, “I think people should have a chance to learn” – but he hopes they might put manners on some boorish performers. “Last week this guy drove his 13-year-old son up from Clare to busk on Grafton Street,” he says. “There were buskers waiting for the pitch and this guy monopolised the spot for three hours and refused to move . . . Busking in Dublin has become a bit of a victim of its own success. There’s an X Factor thing – everyone who can hold a tune is giving it a go . . . Five years ago I could set my clock by what I could make, but not any more.”
Many are busking, some very successfully. On Thursday, at one end of Grafton Street, a full band called Keywest pulls a large crowd, as do Australian Tristan O’Meara and Cornwall man Richard Bridge playing slide guitar and didgeridoo on a Europe-wide busking tour. “Ireland is by far the best place to busk,” says O’Meara. “The worst is Montpellier because of uncontrollable kids and Nazi-like police. The police here are so nice. They come up and say, ‘Do you mind turning it down a bit?’ ”
The day before in Temple Bar, I draw no crowd. I make €4.30 over an hour in instalments from a gleeful toddler (the parents of curious children are a huge part of the busking target market), a tattooed Elvis fan (he liked my version of Burning Love), a charitable old lady, and a little boy who gives me an enthusiastic thumbs up. When I try a stint on Coppinger Row any fear I have has waned. I make €5.50 and actually enjoy myself. In fact, when I meet Tom Petty’s soul mate, it feels natural to play him two verses of Free Fallin’. He doesn’t stay to listen.