Tag Archives: Busking

Sidewalk Show 1980

“Try not to applaud when I make a mistake, you’re only reinforcing bad habits.”
Jefferson Street 1980
One of the grittiest hand to mouth hustles ever invented in this world of hard knocks is busking. No contracts, no off site gigs— just pure hat and more hat shows. “Hat” is street pidgin for money. Conjuring up legal tender from out of the thin blue is the real magic. Motivating citizens to open their wallet pluck out a bill and voluntarily hand it over never ceases to be anything less than the biggest cardiopulmonary event this side of weeping at the sight of Michelangelo’s frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . Busking is a spine tingling page turner with the best ending you’ve ever experienced. A reliable pitch works from here to eternity any time, any day, all year long— she’s always there for you. Playing the king’s fool in the public square is life emancipating.
This lightning bolt street performing epiphany hijacked my not yet completed journey to adulthood. Somehow I had come to believe the world I wanted to live in was about running wild and being free. Anxious family and friends thought I was headed toward a cobblestone catastrophe. Destitution and insolvency were bookended plotting points. There is no getting off the road, no lucky breaks, no easy streets on this obstacle strewn unpaid parking ticketed path. You can’t undo what you’ve bet your last glimmer of hope on. An emergent busker is a go it alone type drowning in a world insisting on orthodoxy. There has to be no other way out— this is your fated Tombstone. Conformity is a stinking stalemate. Faith in the kindness of strangers is your North Star. You set out to do so many shows, as far as an eye can see, until you’re at risk of being buried in a sea of nickels, dimes and quarters.
Stalling is what you do when the famous ego induced death spiral—fear of rejection—has you cornered and on the ropes. I’d put off trying my luck on the sidewalks of San Francisco so long that the present moment was now a fresh unused January 1980. Waking pensive with a stomach tied in knots I drove into Fisherman’s Wharf. What I can remember was a crazy early morning— the sky a muted overcast blotted daybreak— a bustling midday Jefferson Street at this hour waited empty— but for the mournful seagulls, barking sea lions, and this one tentative performer preparing to place his great expectations on the line.
Making it to the tippy top of the small time sidewalk show I’d need to find a way of delivering my best razor sharp fifteen minutes. Running too long was too much and too short added up to too little. All in, from start to finale, was not one second more than one quarter of one hour’s journey to glorious acclaim or crushing defeat.
I jiggered the running order, discarded one routine added another. I invented jokes there and then, whipped up wisecracks on the fly. This is throwing it down. Street performing is about owning every inch of the self-claimed constitutionally guaranteed concrete stage. This is the pedestrian’s coliseum. You are an entertainment gladiator.
Raspy voiced, drained— the grinding first day exacted the last bead of sweat. Sidewalk shows are a monument to repetition. Over and over the same routine altered on the whim and the will was retried and refined. Improvement inched uphill— grudgingly.
In a scalding hot-heartbeat the first weekend flashed by. Twenty-four shows reverberated across the pavement like a trumpeting bop infused Miles Davis scorched earth- note perfect- improvised melodic soul-aching out of this world moon shot. Escape velocity sent this one and only into busking orbit. I was a man on a mission.
Gut wrenching images of audiences walking away before I could pass the hat tortured my lean confidence. Curious youngsters begging parents wanted to stay to see what happened next. Preschoolers recognized the infant mortal fragility disguised beneath my thin busking veneer pleaded whining at full lung to see what further trials this odd bit player would be forced to endure. More than a few lovely’s lingered. A beat cop standing in scuffed shoe leather ordered I watch my crowd size. Merchants stood in their doorways half curious, inconvenienced, not yet convinced— smoking cigarettes. Assorted stubborn misfits, the grizzled survivors of the sidewalk scene all too pressed by their own scramble to make ends meet had not even a spare moment to fritter away calculating the odds of my surviving. My peers didn’t need to know— they knew. Those relationships would grow if I could make my sidewalk show stick. Jefferson Street was wide open if you were foolish enough. Here was untamed frontier, civilizations westernmost outpost, an emphatic continental end of the line— the leading edge of some one of a kind infinitely-dubious vocational enterprise.
First and foremost street theater is about profitably stopping people dead in their tracks. Two becomes four, four turns into eight; eight becomes an engaged audience of fifty. Practitioner’s of this centuries old enterprise have an eye, feel the vibe— know how quick they’ll draw a crowd— how long they dare to hold them. Change the show’s length, alter the pace, adapt to live another day— execution is the whole enchilada. Wily busker’s got this one word— survival— tattooed across their chest— there is no second chance, prosper or perish, show up, play big, be present for the only moment that counts. Get real you overzealous flame throwing heartbreaker’s or sit back down— life is short.
End One of Ten… more to follow

Time Whispers

I am no longer at the intersection wondering how much further I have to go. The cast playing the Edmonton International Street Performer’s Festival needn’t say a word. Time whispers in my ear.

Street theater is physical. The quickest wits, the sharpest reflexes, these gifts on loan from the gods are asking to be returned. Another season in our life arrives, another page to our story is written.

I have wanted to be a street performer for more years of my life than I have wanted anything. I’ve wanted to be my best version. That is enough.

The kind audiences here in Edmonton allow me to slip into my show. Gracefully I am allowed one more sip. Obey the unwritten rules. Go about the work. Be kind to the children, be comfortable in your own skin. Have an unshakable faith that what you have been put on earth to do is exactly what you are doing. You are enough. You are fulfilled.

I lean into the wind. Hold my wife’s hand. Piecing together next steps. I hear it is wise not to keep holding too tight to yesterday, to not look out too far ahead to tomorrow, to spend most of what you can on making good use of today. I’ve two shows. For today that will be enough.

The Kindness of Strangers

Variety show preparation continues. Physical skills practice is one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is adding new material. In this instance it is woven into the opener and closer.
 Most of this material is now memorized, but the jokes require context, setup and then let the line go. If the lines were merely recited things would be infinitely less difficult but they are not. A street act has to fit the line into the moment. That is the unmistakable mark of showmanship.

I’ve got several edited musical pieces to physically improvise. Being visual is street performing.
Performing at the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival is an anxiety making prelude. Surrounded by the best of the best takes some steeling of nerves. All of us want to believe we belong. Performers take their material place it into the moment and proof their blueprint by testing its merit with an audience.
Then, there is a laugh, maybe an audience applauds and all of a sudden you’re over the worst of the thing and ready. 
To meet the moment there is a madcap dash backstage when then all at once you hear the stage manager make that fateful call for all of us to take our places. The stage manager under the direction of the producer signals the start by wave of hand.
A thousand performers and more in the last 35 years have waited standing on their mark anticipating this Shakespearean surge of love, laughter and madcap playfulness. North America’s premier street performer’s festival comes to a roiling boil in the living, beating heart of North America’s most populous northernmost city this July as it has every July for the last 35 years.

Like the time of your life, there is no other better moment to make the most of than this one moment we have all been given.

The Love

If I hadn’t gotten all drunk and stubborn  and insisted on putting a down payment on that double wide I fell in love with there would not be that much in my life to be ashamed of.

End of my show I use some musical tracks mixed down. I do my own editing. I’ve got plenty more mixing to do. Then, there is synchronizing the musical tracks with the volunteers who’ll be caught up in the show’s ending. None of this can be rehearsed. You just go out and try it on a crowd to see how it fits.

This musical closer is pure street theater. It belongs to the street, and is a form of group improvisation perhaps singularly suited to the here and now.

I find love a particularly salient theme, but you have to handle the conveyance of a loving theme with a certain cold disdain so as to not overshoot your audiences appetite for such intimate insights. Sneaking up on the powers of heart with a good laugh is close enough.

However it works in your life- in a relationship, not in a relationship, single, married, lifelong bachelor, married once but never again, never married but suddenly head over heels, these things are not choices, we are not in control, our heart sees the world through its own eyes and makes its own decisions. We are along for the ride.

Some busking types might say it is all laughs, that it’s how much you make in the hat, how big a crowd you can draw. My goal is to touch the four year old, the eighty-five year old and everyone in between with the notion that our loving one another is where everything begins and ends. Imagine having a show that works on that level every time? I’m such the romantic

When I work in Mexico there’s this guy that pushes a cart through the neighborhood selling bottled water. Well, it turns out he’s got a sister that sells hot water that a married man can never get out of.

polishing the tile

Mated Pair

June 10th I roll eastbound. The author of Hot Spring Honeymoon will thread his way from one geothermal wonderment to the next. Rehearsing lines, writing more material, finding a good shade tree where I can juggle will be part of each day. Making miles east will be a second duty. There is an art to being somewhere while you are trying to get to somewhere. They are one and the same. Road warriors know how to drink up every inch of the two lane highways.

Once I arrive in Ft. Collins, Colorado I’ll hustle down to Old Town and pitch up and throw a few shows down while I am there enjoying the guest services of my always much younger sister and brother in law.

Rules seem to be important to understand for those people not in the serendipitous business of sidewalk entertainment. The key to a successful career in busking is to never ask for permission and always ask for forgiveness. When ordered to shut down best to move along so as to get along. In a nutshell that’s the long and short to the busking game. Smile, appear to be reasonable, act compassionately toward officials fearful of a creative uprising breaking out upon the sidewalks of their free speech infused constitutionally guaranteed democracy. Street is the ultimate rule of law.

North from Ft Collins we’ll next take on Thermopolis, Wyoming and her astounding geothermally heated waters. After taming that frontier town we’ll circle north then west for Chico Hot Springs on the northernmost boundaries of Yellowstone before stopping in Helena, Montana where I’ll drop my wife so she may return to California for further explorations in all things to do with a major home remodeling project that at that date is scheduled for completion.

For pure comedy I’ll roll north and cross into Canada and streak north where I’ll be appearing at the 35th Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. I first appeared at this much heralded busking tsunami in 1987. All these decades later being invited to appear at the event dwarfs my wildest expectations. There is not a more lucky so and so. More to come

Cavalcade of Concrete

Wayback on the byways

Ramping up for getting out on the Beggar’s Banquet-Kindness of Strangers- Why Don’t You Do it In the Road North American International Busking Tour of 2019

This is the Ft Collins, Colorado, Edmonton, Alberta to Grand Prairie long hops and short stops itinerary.

This includes stopping at Miette Hot Spring, Thermopolis, Wyoming for soaking and two days in Kootenay’s at Nakusp Hot Spring. What would you expect from the author of Hot Spring Honeymoon.

A bit of sunscreen, chapstick and we’re set. See you out there on the Street of Dreams