Here is a story about my personal experiences busking around Ireland and Australia .
Bringing you inside the lonely life of travelling musician .
Come on in , the world is a stage and the streets are an open door to the busker .
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Here is a story about my personal experiences busking around Ireland and Australia . It will bringing you inside the lonely life of travelling musician .
Come on in ,
The world is a stage and the streets are an open door to the busker .
My story begins in my half a house in the Western Suburbs of Sydney as I meet up with some fellow street musicians . I tell them about my plan to busk around Europe .
I land in London and reality soon hits hard . The busker is not a welcome sight on the streets of London .
I make my way across the water to Ireland get evicted from a youth hostel by the Police the day before Christmas and spend Christmas sleeping rough with my six string guitar .
After two years getting knocked around from pillar to post , I ended up getting badly bashed up on the streets of Belfast and soon was paid damages for criminal assault. That was enough busking for a while and so I returned to Australia .
Busking On Blisters
Dark Nights Dawns And Fast Twilights
Australia in the seventies was exciting and fashionable . Girls wore platform shoes and mini skirts . Fellas had long hair and they wore bell bottom jeans with denim jackets . Their were love songs with lyrics and highways that allowed traffic to flow freely .
One of the things I remember in the seventies was my early morning train rides on the Sydney system . What an experience it was to travel all stations to Redfern on a Red Rattler . They were called Red Rattlers because of how they looked and felt . In appearance they were unique . Rusty red and fading fast , extremely noisy and uncomfortable . Their carriage doors were too heavy to open or close so they were always left open . The windows inside were the same . No one was ever game enough to try and open them because of the embarrassment involved when you couldn’t do it . A journey on a red rattler was a boneshaker . It filled with swaying emotions and shunted you back and forward into people around you . If you stood near a door the chances that you could fall out an open door was always on the cards . Sometimes if you stuck your head out the door it was possible to imagine you were riding on some huge metallic rattlesnake that weaved along the track .
I lived a half a house in a western suburb of Sydney called Pendle Hill . My place was near the railway station and I used the trains quite often when I went busking in town .
One morning before the sun arose I sat waiting for the train to arrive in to Pendle Hill station . With nothing else to do but stare into space I sat there on a seat on the platform looking at the glow of tail lights from the slow moving traffic that crawled across the bridge by Pendle Way . The foggy shadows that covered neon street lights looked eerie in the early dawn . I gazed into the sky as some coloured clouds welcomed the waft of first morning light .
Suddenly the train pulled in to station . I boarded and took a seat and sat beside the window of the red rattler . Thick morning dew covered the glass and as I tried to squint through the drops of water I watched two droplets race down the window . They ran into each other and the rush was gone . Apart from me there was nobody else on board but the driver of the train . I almost felt like one of those drops of dew . Alone on a train racing down the track .
I felt a sense of the blues come over me so I took my guitar from its case and plucked a couple of the strings to a rhythm of the lonely clickety clack of the train on the track . I was really getting into this twelve bar boogie when suddenly the train screeched to a stop at Parramatta station . I quickly put my six string back into its case and pulled open the old door of the red rattler and jumped off the train . I made my way from the platform to the exit gate where a ticket collector stood wearing this green hat and grey overcoat . Ass I made my way to him I began this frantic search through my pockets for my weekly train ticket . On the platform there were three other people besides myself and I was the only one carrying a guitar case . I seemed to attract some of their attention .The ticket collector sharply blew his whistle and the red rattler departed the station . I made my way to the exit gate and the ticket collector gave me a wave . I smiled and left the station .
I strayed down Argyle street into Church Street . At this time of the morning Parramatta was like a ghost town . The busy buzz was silent . The hum and the hustle of had not yet begun . That’s just the way I liked it . The trick of successful busking was catching an unsuspecting audience . I had a special time and place where I busked . It worked for me . Getting there before the early morning commuters made their way through the bottom level of the entrance ramp underneath Darcy Street . The natural echo of guitar and voice reverberated off the walls in the tunnel sound . The natural deep acoustic sound, always provided a nice presence for your audience . I was aware also that where I stood, was the main thoroughfare and the only way in and out of Parramatta station .
Each morning before busking began I made sure I had a good breakfast . The routine was a walk to City Extra having a talk to the street cleaners in Phillip street . Over the years I got to know some of them . As I wandered down through town I saw Robert busy upending the council rubbish bins into the back of his truck . He gave me a wave and said .
“G’day mate , How’s it going ?“
“Ok . What’s happening mate ?”
I said .
He took his hat off and replied .
“I’ll tell you what mate and I’m fair dinkum about this . I reckon they should put padlocks and chains on these bins . So far I’ve only found three where they should be . There has been rubbish everywhere else except in the bins that are provided for the purpose . I’ve found empty bins on top of traffic lights . Another was hoisted up on a flagpole . I’ve had others stacked up on top of each other . It’s the devils bloody playground around here at night .“
Robert loved to have a chat .
I said ,
“You know what mate , sometimes I think they have filled their heads with too much rubbish mate . The problem is they never empty them .“
That always did the trick for Robert . He loved to hear stuff like that . He said ,
“I’ll tell you what mate I don’t know what the kids are coming too these days. Maybe their parents should put padlocks and chains on them .“
“Padlocks wouldn’t keep them in mate . “
I said and he replied ,
“You’re probably right mate . You know what I reckon . They should be locked up in prison mate and only let out once a day to do my job . That would soon change their tune .“
The conversation was interrupted by a strange noise that was getting closer and louder by the second .
“Wait on mate “ Robert said .
He went over to the truck and grabbed his brush from and looking slightly perplexed he went over beside the automatic teller and leaned on it . Somehow it seemed to give him a kind of security . I was intrigued by Roberts change of demeanour and t was then I saw what was behind it . There it was . Grating and grinding its way along the gutters of Church Street was this large yellow mechanical sweeping machine . Complete with flashing lights and hoses that spat out a chemical spray from its water tanks on to the side of the road . Robert stood like a man under pressure and spat on the ground . Then he pointed to the machine and said ,
“See that mate .“
I nooded .
“Yea. What’s the problem mate ?”
“That’s my number one arch enemy mate .“
“What do you mean ?”
I asked .
“Well you see I was here long before that machine ever swept up . It’s slowly taking over my role here mate . Soon it will be after my job .“
I looked at the fear on his face . It seemed as if he had just confronted a some monster from another planet come to destroy all life on earth .
“Its getting late Robert , I’ve got to go , See ya mate .“
I said and he in response lit up a cigarette and shouted in clouds of smoke , ,
“Hooray then “.
I made my way to City Extra, the twenty four hour joint in Church Street .I took my usual seat opposite the overhead TV screens . I loved the way they always allowed you to settle for a while before coming to take your order . It must have been about twenty minutes later when the waitress came over and smiled as she took the menu away .
“Yes sir, are you ready to order now and how may I help you “ She said with a friendly voice . I smiled at her and replied ,
“Good morning “
She was glowing all over and smiled back and said ,.
“Good morning sir “
I replied .
“ It’s nice and warm in here .“
She kept smiling and said ,
“Yes sir .“
I continued ‘
It’s bitter cold outside .“
“Yes sir . Would you like to order now .“
She said and I looked at my watch and said ,
“Do you have any Darjeeling ?”
”Yes sir .“
“I’ll have a pot of that .“
The music of Fleetwood Mac was on the radio softly playing in the background . The tone was friendly .
“Do you want anything else with the pot of tea sir ?”
“Some toast “ I replied .
“Brown or white .“ came the speedy reply .
“I’m not racist in any way . Why don’t you choose the colour for me .”
“I think brown bread is much better for you .“
“Does that pencil work ?.“
She almost started laughing but somehow held a tight grip on notepad and pencil in her hand .
“Will that be all sir ?”
“I’ll have two eggs fried with two sausages in between the brown bread .“
“Sunnyside up ?
She asked .
“Yes please .”
“Will there be anything else sir ?” She asked .
“Could you keep an eye on my guitar for me while I use the bathroom .“
“Certainly sir .“
She left me with a smile and I went in to freshen up before work .
I washed my face combed my curly hair and returned to my seat where breakfast was waiting for me . I took to it like a four legged friend on the last furlong of a hungry mile heading for its nose bag . I enjoyed some new inspiration and scribbled down the lyrics of a song going through my head . The melody was the same one I had found on the train to Parramatta .
I called the song , The Day Dropped In and the lyrics went something like this The clock on the counter said a quarter to four , I walked into City Extra like a hundred times before . I sat myself down and I had a pot of tea , I watched Good morning Sydney on the colour TV .
The day dropped in and said hello nice to see you . I though I’d bring you a song to sing now that the night is through .
I poured my thoughts down on paper and my tea in a cup the I got up to my feet as the morning sun got up . Within my heart and soul I played this new tune and the waitress she smiled as she walked across the room .
With a new song I sat and watched the day start to drop in . I listened to the clinking of china cups the tinkle of tea spoons on saucers and for a brief moment I chanced to look into the faces of the other patrons of City Extra . There they were sipping coffee and eating raisin toast exposed to the day like a crew of suspects in a line up . I walked out of City Extra and was amazed at the bright light that was bringing shadows before my feet . My shadow followed me all the way to the overhead railway bridge near Argyle Street where I made my way to my corner and opened my case and began to play a few of my own songs . I had an instant reaction and money was placed into my open guitar case . I played a few covers but they never seemed to bring back any reward for some reason . Now and then I had a passer stop and smile before continuing their journey . I played without a break until lunch and I used some of my cash to grab a burger before returning to my spot . A lot of times I was able to take in a lot of what was happening as people went about their daily duties . Life was an interesting parade of people passing by .
I remained until twilight before packing my guitar away . I headed to the platform and took a seat and waited for another red rattler to bring me back . A train rolled in as the day dropped out and I fell into a seat and relaxed for a while before departing the train . There was no one there to check for my ticket at Pendle Hill which was just as well because I didn’t have one . I walked up the steps and walked back to my half a house in Burra Street . Night time had come to whisper hello and I passed the remainder of the day putting together some new melodies and lyrics . I was pleased about my new song The Day Drooped In and recorded it on an old ghetto blaster in my bedroom . I had a coffee and drew back the curtains . To my surprise the night had left and dawn had already arrived . I quickly put my six string back into its case and walked out the front door down Bungaree Road where I walked down the steps to the railway station . I didn’t have any sleep but felt as fresh as the dew of the dawn . Once I got on the train I realised I didn’t have my weekly ticket again so instead off going to Parramatta I got off at Westmead . I knew no one would be checking for tickets at Westmead at this early hour and knew about the pathway that ran through the park so I decided to take an early morning walk into the city streets .
Shrieking cockatoos perched on branches of Jacaranda trees overlooked their abode like kings or queens on a throne . Yellow feathered head dresses stood tall on their heads that proudly adorned them with a look of nobility . Other residents of the park stirred about to welcome you to their abode . The geese near the picnic areas by the river gathered around in a circle gossiping in a gaggle as they do . Ducks glided in to quack to the new day . They played hide and seek with their friends, diving under the water and then resurfacing somewhere else a few minutes later . In a special way all the inhabitants of the park welcomed the regular visitors and the tourists .
Along the river bank rats scurried for cover into their holes . Water bugs hovered over the muddy surface of Parramatta river . Now and then they disappeared as small fish leapt out of the water and swallowed them . Both sides of the river bank were covered with weeping willow trees . In the middle of the park, beyond the cover of tall conifers the ground was littered with acorns that scattered themselves all around the mossy barked pathway . Lurking in the foreground was Parramatta Stadium, the home ground of The Mighty Eels rugby league team . Along pathways in the park you were met by regular early morning joggers who pounded their way into another new day . One must admire the routine of joggers who rise to each day with a personal fitness attitude to life . When ever I met joggers I felt some camaraderie with them . My own routine was similar to theirs . Maybe what I was doing had a sense of ritual attatched to it . Even thought my everyday existence was different to most people I saw parallels to it . I made sure I had lung fulls of fresh air to breath and kept a clear head . Each day was kind of pre planned and I saw that I was making a contribution to the community .
I approached the gate out of the park that stood beside the ex-service men’s club and saw a helicopter high in the sky making its way across the blue sky where it hovered like cloud gazing down at the traffic that was at a standstill on Lennox Bridge . Horns were tooting in trucks and cars, engines were roaring and exhausts were spluttering out fumes into the air .
Suddenly the song of birds singing and the gentle presence of park life had been blasted away by the cacophony of the morning rush hour . The calm stillness had been broken and now I was captivated by the hustle and bustle of this crazy motion of life . There was a song there begging for words . There was melody screaming to get out . Somewhere there in this orchestra of life the busker was begging again to be heard .. Looking for an audience .
One never likes to keep the audience waiting too long so I make my way to my usual spot . The walk through the city streets was fast and furious . I was caught up on the sidewalk with high heeled hoofing office girls who strutted their way like pretty flamingos . Bunches of brief case wielding barristers bounced along the footpaths like medicine balls looking for tem pins to bowl over .
I knew that very soon all of these would be at my mercy . My busking spot was now in view . I don’t know what it was but there was always this kind of warm affectionate welcome there waiting when I arrived . I took my guitar out from its case and my blues harp and began to play some easy blues . Money was piling in to my guitar case and life was good .
Somewhere between the bars of blue suede shoes I saw a fellow busker friend called Chris . He walked over to me and said ,
“Hey Mac . How’s it going ?”
It tricky trying to talk between the lines but now and them I let the six string do the business while I spoke to Chris .
“Yea pretty good Chris . How’s thing with you ?”
“Tops Mac . Hey why don’t you take a break mate .“
What he was really saying was lend me your guitar so I can do a few numbers Anyway before I could answer him he grabbed my six string and said .
“I rake you in some bread . Take five Mac . “
I gave him my guitar and sat down on the ground and counted how much money I had made so far . Then I listened to Chris for a while . After he finished playing a few songs he gave me back my guitar .
“Welcome to my spot .“ I said .
“Yea , listen Mac what about us doing a few gigs ?”
He asked .
”I’ll tell you what Chris . Lets go for a bite to eat . I’d like to talk things over .“
I said .
Although I was always open for propositions I was also wary of the music scene out there . Even though I was confident with Chris and his ability as a person and a professional musician , one never knows what will happen . Chris used to be a member in a band called Thin Ice . They had been the support band for Mike Oldfield when he did a concert at the Capitol Theatre . That was the biggest gig Thin Ice had ever scored . They never really got the big break . Thin Ice were a good blues band but maybe they should have chosen a better name for the band . The reason being was the band eventually broke up in the end and some people got hurt .
Who knows in the bigger picture the name of the band was kind of prophetic . Just after the band split up is when I first met Chris . It was in a music shop in Parramatta one day as I was purchasing a new six string . He listened to me testing out the sound of a Fender guitar and he came over and started to chat Chris was Australian and I was Irish . We hit a common chord because we were both songwriters, buskers and musicians . That night he invited me over to his place to meet a few of his friends . We did some tunes there together and ended up busking together for a little while around some busy spots in Sydney . We wrote a few songs together and did a few gigs for the unemployed youth in Granville and Catholic Church groups in the Blue Mountains . I suppose if you didn’t know us better you might think we were two weeping sticks of dynamite ready to explode at any time but in fact we were not harmful at all . Our appearance was deceiving due to the fact that most of the time we had a guitar strap thrown over our shoulder blades and an unshaven look on our faces . Our clothes may not have been well ironed and there may have been some threadbare holes in our clothes here and there .
Chris was very tall and slim . His legs were like two beanpoles with hinges in the middle . I called him Stretch ,he didn’t mind that for a nickname . He was about six foot four in height and weighed about seventy kilos . I was much smaller and weighed about the same as he . He was Australian and I was Irish . Our friendship with music had brought us together . He was the kind of person who would exhaust you and yet it was great to have him around . When we got together it was like full on . He’d come back to my half a house in Pendle Hill and in one long late night of lyric writing my weeks supply of coffee would be gone . I liked his company . He was bright and energetic .He was able to read a lot of the unsaid things and never sought kudos among peers . He was able to inspire you and rarely brought any negativity trap to snare you . Both of us knew the traps as well as any . As musicians and buskers you have to be aware of that . There were good times and bad times Choice was not sometimes an easy thing . Knowing when to say that’s enough was being street wise . With music there would be top times mixed with the absolute bottom of the barrel stuff . Money and music had a strange relationship . Some people made money and some people made music . Around Sydney you had to count your blessings .
So far this morning my blessings had counted out thirty dollars and seventy cents . That was enough for us to grab something to eat . So I packed it in for the day . I headed over and bought two return tickets into the city centre and handed one over to Chris . We walked up the steps to number one platform . Chris was able to take three steps my one .
We never had to wait long as the train to the city centre pulled in just as we landed on the platform .This time it wasn’t a red rattler but a split level silver R-set . As the automatic doors opened and we headed upstairs for a seat . The train pulled away from Parramatta and we sat silently for a while .
I broke the silence and said ,
“I ’m thinking about going back to Ireland this year Chris .“
He seemed shocked and replied .
‘Ireland and all around the U.K.”
“I’m considering busking my way from place to place . Seeing new places and meeting new people as I go . What do you reckon ?”
He sat and thought for a moment before giving me an answer .
“Sounds really exciting Mac . Its really out there and if I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d probably say you were crazy . Really , you know what , I must say that must be the craziest thing you’ve ever come up with and I’d love to come along with you Mac .“
I smiled and said ,
“Well if you can you get the air fare together you’re welcome to come along .“
“Are you going to your home town in Belfast ?
He asked .
“Sure and I must warn you you’ll be asked a few questions in certain areas about how tall you are . You’ll be a stranger in their midst .“
Suddenly I noticed saw a change in his enthusiasm .
‘Do you think I’d be a target for assassination ?”
He asked with a worried look . I laughed and replied ,
“Don’t be silly mate . Just look at you with that innocent face and your army style hair cut and your suspious attitude . No one would ever mistake you for an undercover spy .“
Now he looked really anxious .He started yanking his thumb and fidgeting .
“Do you think I’d not be safe Mac ? ”
He said with a jagged edge to the question . I had to deal with it accordingly .
“Get a grip and take the trip Chris . Let me know if you can come . I’m thinking about leaving soon .“
He thought about that a while as the train continued to make its way to the city by the time we got to Circular Quay he had decided against coming with me .
“Send me a postcard Mac and have a good time Ok .”
He said as we made our way to another platform . We decided not to do the City Circle thing and made our way to the Basement instead to see who was playing there .
We stepped off the train at Circular Quay in Sydney. It was almost evening and already a brief twilight hall fallen . The lights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge began to twinkle against the winter evening sky. It almost could have been captured in the words of a song but I had to put away that thought for another time .
The crowd on the street were an interesting mix of city workers heading home Late night shoppers out for a bargain and tourists mingled with night life steppers like ourselves . We hurried along to Reiby Place and arrived at the steps that bring you down into the Basement , one of Sydney’s best live music venues, Tonight a blues band were playing . Chris knew some of the people who ran the Basement and we got in for free . It was mentioned that we could possibly get a gig there on evening . We sat and soaked in the atmosphere as the band began to play . The Basement was buzzing.
Although I had been here a few years ago there was a different feeling about the place The Basements soft lights filtered across a sea of faces as its patrons jostled for their seats. People’s voices filled the air as the music added a kind of static backwash to it all . Maybe I felt a bit lost there in this sea of faces and in the mix of the music but whatever it was it fuelled the fire in my belly . Now more than ever I wanted to do my overseas busking trip . I wanted to strum my way through the streets of Ireland and beyond .
I sensed the six string in my case was itching to leave .
Suddenly the cross-talk on stage shrieked out all around the room.
With feedback problems I gave Chris the nod and we went over to grab some potato wedges and a drink . We returned to our seat near the stage and enjoyed a nourishing moment .
I hadn’t really seen a live blues band perform for a few years and was amazed at the high level of musicianship and sound quality we were hearing from the people on stage . A live performance for me always reflects the heart of your talent. So mush plastic things can be produced in a studio with over dubs and mixing and arranging but when its live you can feel the emotions from the very heart and soul . This kind of music is what speaks to us . Anticipating the ups and downs of a performance creates presence that brings a warm glow . Its warms us like a comfortable coat on a cold winter night .
It can also challenge and change an audience moods .
Playing a guitar and singing a song is very much a spiritual thing . It can be personal as well as visiting the audience around who have come to share the experience .
At the end of the performance the band received a warm reception from the crowd around the room . The audience showed their appreciation.
After the gig Chris and I made our way up the steps to the pavement, then back down the streets to Circular Quay where we made our way to City Extra for a cup of coffee . We sat just where the Many Ferry comes in and talked about my trip to Ireland . After we finished we walked down along the quay and took in the backdrop of Sydney harbour . It was aglow with twinkling lights, shinning stars and a special sprinkle of magic called night life .
The pier was thick with people on an escape from the daily grind . There were buskers with flutes and guitars . Some even played saws and fiddles . Some angrily disputed who owned the spot where they played .
I still had enough small change for a bucket of hot chips and bought us one each . Chris burst out with a sudden left field though and said ,
“Hey I know this guy nearby . I can borrow his guitar and we’ll do some busking in town tonight . Eh what do you reckon Mac ! “
The cash kitty was a bit low and so I said ,
“ Sounds great Chris . Lets go and get that axe .”
Some people call a guitar an axe or a gun . I like to think an axe sounds deadly artistic and very dramatic even . Anyway Chris asked me for a coin to make a phone call which I did . He disappeared into a phone booth and rang his contact . He was talking for about ten minutes . Finally he came out from the phone box and said .
“ He’s home for a little while and says its ok to use his axe .”
“ So Where does he live ?”
I asked .
“Up the Cross .“
Came his reply .
I nodded in agreement and we made our way to Opera house steps then marched double time to the Domain .
“Are you on speed or something ?”
I asked .
“No, I’m straight . What do you mean “
He answered .
“The way you’re walking you must be on something .“
I said .
“What do you mean ?”
He answered .
“Well I’m running to keep up with you and you seem yo be taking the scenic route to Kings Cross that’s all . ”
I said .
“Oh no , I just take good care of myself Mac and I’m trying to remember the best way to his place . I haven’t been there for a while and I’m just getting my bearings . Are you on speed ?“
He asked in reply .
“No. I do look after myself I’ll tell you , I am straight .“
I said .
“I used to do that .“
He said as he lit up a cigarette .
“Do what .“
I replied .
“Look after myself “
He said .
“What was it happened that made you give it up ?”
I asked .
“Rock and roll I suppose .’
He replied .
“How did that affect you ?“
I asked .
“Being mixed up with the music business is not the what I’d call the healthiest lifestyle around .“
I nodded to the affirmative and said ,
“It does tend to get its hooks into you .”
“Sure does Mac.”
We took a moment and sat on a seat there and watched life passing by .
As I walked down the ramp at the entrance to Parramatta railway off Darcy Street I sat myself up in my usual spot and began to play some easy blues ..
I had no home but it does no good to moan and I said ,
"Lucky it's not raining when I'm on the corner busking ".
I awoke to a new day . The sarsparilla sky hung suspended over Clapton .
There were always people like Michael in The Lobby who might give the busker a good night entertaining the crowd .