On the streets, recession bites the modern minstrel

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

August 11, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

Danny "Take It to the Heart" O'Toole gets on the train with his guitar, the T-shirt that declares his identity and his ingratiating personality.

But Danny has a weak voice, and it is defeated by the rattle of the train. Since nobody hears his song, few coins go into the cloth cap he holds out as he works his way down the car.

Then Danny disappears.

Next comes a guy with a guitar and an amplifier. Everyone's blasted with a terrible rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind," but they pay up, proving that power counts, maybe more than talent.

The buskers have come back for the summer. They are in the Underground. Maybe the police are too busy chasing the Irish Republican Army. Whatever, the street singers are back. Not everybody is happy about it.

"They're illegal," complains Melanie Martin of the London Underground. "They slow the traffic through the Tube. People feel intimidated."

London street musicians are usually shaggy, even a little woolly in appearance, like creatures adapted to a lonely life on mountaintops. And despite what Ms. Martin says, they are usually polite. They know there isn't the faintest obligation for anyone to pay for their entertainments, that every pound or pence they get is worth being thankful for.

Beggars in London are also polite, but some of them seem to mask a faint hostility toward those they entreat.

The buskers rarely have this. Maybe it's because begging erodes the self-esteem, and the musicians regard their transactions as a fee for service and thereby retain their pride.

You don't have to be musically trained to realize most London buskers are not talented -- or original. They prefer old tunes and time-tested arrangements. Saxophonists play like Gerry Mulligan; every guitarist has a Bob Dylan tune; every clarinetist will "Begin the Beguine."

But Artie Shaws are not found in the streets.

Which is not to say buskers don't do well.

Gordon Rimes is 45. He has been a street musician (he prefers that to the term "busker") for 10 years. He used to be in politics. He is a one-man band: He plays 24 instruments all at once, and people hire him to do it.

"What I do is a little higher class than busking, which is just standingon corners playing," he says. "Most of the time I'm paid. I perform at shopping centers, corporate events."

Mr. Rimes says his standard fee is about $300 a day. But when he doesn't have an engagement, the lure of the streets is still there: "On a Saturday or Sunday when I'm not working, out I go."

How much can a busker earn?

"It really varies. From just a few pounds up to -- well, really a lot of money."

But times are not good. "The recession is biting. Not the same number of tourists around. There are too many beggars on the street, and people's generosity has worn thin."

Mr. Rimes thinks buskers do better in places like Holland and Switzerland because "people are more accustomed to them there."

Yet England is not without a minstrel tradition. One might even have played a minor part in its history. According to legend, Blondel, troubadour to Richard the Lion-Hearted, wandered Europe during the late 12th century searching for the imprisoned king, all the while singing a song only he and his master knew. One day the king responded from his cell in Austria, and Blondel was able to rescue him.

When the Czech playwright Karel Capek visited London early this century, he was generous in his account of the visit, but not entirely charmed by the city. He wrote, "The ordinary day does not sparkle with the amenities of chance, with smiles, with the budding of incidents."

Not entirely true. Late one afternoon not too long ago the sound of an acoustic guitar rose up through the Gloucester Road Underground station, up through a long curving passageway whooshing with stale winds.

The skill of the playing was evident. It spread its delight throughout all the labyrinth of the station and was so far removed from the usual strumming that people quickened their pace to reach the source of it.

He was found crouching on a platform in the deepest Tube, his eyes on his instrument as if playing for his own pleasure and that only. The train came and went, and people got on and off as usual. But many stayed. It was the ultimate tribute.

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