“Stand back! I’m going to try busking!”
– Ms. Em's Facebook status
I've been meaning to write more, really. But what with my day job, the chaos of family life and all, I've not been finding much space to chat with Calliope. Em's Facebook status reminded me of something, though. Something that happened back in February, my last night in Christchurch before heading off to adventures in Oz.
So, you know I’ve been playing guitar for, oh, nearly forever, right? Not particularly well – I just hammer out chords and sing, usually to myself, in the manner becoming our family motto: Badly, but with Enthusiasm. Still, it’s served me better than could be expected.
But I’ve always been drawn to buskers. That trust in oneself, that trust in humanity (and often necessity) that leads a person to stand out there on a street corner, lay open their guitar case and their soul, and literally sing for their supper. There’s a closeness to reality that I don’t get to encounter much in my cloistered little world, where I sit at a comfy desk and roll around to my direct deposit pay day on alternating weeks.
That open guitar case on the street corner - that's a busker's way of saying “Here’s a little bit of beauty I’ve created – will you please stop for a moment and drop a coin if you think it’s worth your while?” At least, the best ones do; we’ve all crossed paths with the angry, the pathetic, the menacing busker or two who shames or intimidates us into feeling like we’d damned well better recompense their intrusion into our lives.
But the good ones – and even in the bad ones – they expose, vividly, that usually-stuffed-under-several-layers-of-window-dressing web of threads that bind us all together into a human society. It’s a glimpse of the social contract laid bare, and I’m irresistibly drawn to it.
Given all this and my sense of adventure, you’d think I’d be sneaking out nights and busking anonymously at every chance. Right? I mean really, would it surprise you if I told you I had? But the truth is that I’ve never once worked up the nerve. Yeah, I’ve done some fairly outgoing things in my life (no need to bring the mirrored spandex incidents into this). But singing on a street corner? Never had the gumption.
In fact, it’s always been one of the tantalizing unattained things on my “life list”. I’ve knocked off some much more difficult accomplishments (“Work at the South Pole”, “Become a flight instructor”, “Have a species named after me”), but “Earn money singing on a street corner” has always been in the same bucket as “Visit Esfahan” and “Solo a Spitfire” and “Coin a word that makes it into the dictionary”. Some things are just harder than others.
Anyhow – back to my fascination with buskers.
That last night in CHCH, I was strolling, aimlessly, down the Cashiel Street mall. It’s a pedestrian mall, built around a street split by unused trolley tracks, crammed on each side with shops selling undoubtedly-fashionable clothes, shoes and whatnots that someone clearly can’t live without. By day and early evening, I’d always found it teeming with a predictable urban blend: hip young men exuding solo cool, gaggles of young fashionista girls, and clots of skateboard-toting but surprisingly good-natured urchins.
I liked walking Cashiel St.; it gave me a place to mindlessly let the spectacle of humanity wash past me in the background while I emptied my mind and searched for some emotional center. You know how some people turn the radio on in the background when they need to relax? Those were my walks down Cashiel.
But that night it was different: the mall was deserted. Really – felt like a trailer from one of those movies where all the people on earth have vanished, and our protagonist wanders the city in search of an answer Why.
Half a block from the end, where Cashiel crosses Oxford Terrace and disappears into the white stone memorial bridge recounting battles in Turkey, Greece and Mesopotamia, I heard a voice: a lone busker just noodling along on guitar, singing to himself while trying to figure out what – if anything – to play next.
I was relieved to have any sort of human company at the moment, so I approached and placed myself in the generally recognized “Hi, I’m your soon-to-be-appreciative audience” posture.
He looked up, smiled and asked if there was anything in particular I’d like to hear. I couldn’t think of anything, so he slid into a gorgeous, soulful rendition of David Gray’s “Babylon”. I fished in my pocket and found a couple of kiwi dollars to drop into his nearly-empty guitar case.
He introduced himself as Nick, and asked where I was from. Conversation circled around a few times, and we both looked up and down the street. Crazy empty place – what was up with that? Anyhow, anything else I wanted to hear?
I asked if he knew any John Prine, vaguely evoking the Brad Yoder song about singing “Angel from Montgomery” in a train station with a stranger from Wisconsin. Seemed like good karmic groove to tap into. He said he knew a couple; any favorites?
I pushed my luck: “Please Don’t Bury Me”? Blank stare. No worries, but it’s a fun one. He asked if I played. Yeah – heh. Badly, but with Enthusiasm, and all. You know.
He swung the guitar off his shoulder and held it out to me.
“Show me how it goes?"
Uh, okay, sure.
I strummed a couple of chords to gain my composure, but there wasn’t any need, really. We were just two strangers standing on a deserted street corner in Christchurch on a Friday night, sharing a breath of common humanity over a borrowed guitar.
So I found my stance, started thwacking out the chords and put on my best John Prine drawl as I rolled into the first verse. Nick smiled some encouragement, bobbing his head and tapping a foot along, so I kept going. I was actually starting to enjoy myself. Second verse came out clean, and was cruising into the next chorus when a flicker of motion in my peripheral vision made me jump (remember – we’re on a deserted street).
Felt like out of nowhere, a well-dressed man appeared at my side. Looked over at Nick, looked over at me. Said “John Prine? I love John Prine!” He dropped two dollars in Nick’s case and was gone.
Yeah, just like that.
[Funny postscript on all this is that when I ran into Zach a couple of hours later, he told me he'd just met Nick on that same corner. They'd had a conversation about how he’d just handed his guitar to this guy who turned out to be from Google, and…
Zach had gotten a bit more information, though. Turns out that Nick was just killing time before his band was supposed to take the stage down at Fat Eddies. We headed down there for a listen we were – pardon the trite phrase – totally blown away at how good they were. Crazy good music. A few bits ‘o Nick’s music are YouTube over at