A Conversation With Busker Mike
[Ed: This was originally slated for publication in a bimonthly zine called THE SYNGLES CLUB which unfortunately fell through, so I’m publishing it here because it’s such a wonderful piece of writing and deserves to be read. This was also the last thing Andy wrote for us.]
“If you think most people give a shit about your music, you are wrong.”
“What’s in it for you?” I ask Mike, the seasoned busker of 25 years who is set up on a public bench at the Bourke street mall, amongst the hustle bustle of inner city shoppers. He is sitting comfortably under the weight of his self made guitar.
“What’s in it for me?” asks Mike, as if to himself. He is clad in his street wear, denim jeans and a well worn leather jacket. His weathered face turns towards mine with intent. “I’m just here to play some music.”
When I enthusiastically agree with his statement, he pauses. He considers for a short second, then he locks his glassy blue eyes onto mine with intelligence. “It should be about, what you think it should be about.”
It’s an ordinary Tuesday afternoon at the Bourke Street Mall. Undecided shoppers combine with the hectic lunchtime office crowd to form a constantly moving flux of people. Wave upon wave the crowd wonders past Mike’s spot on the street. Maybe one person in a hundred stops and listens for a minute, then moves on with their daily business. The city lifestyle is a demanding one; there is never enough time for others.
I stand and watch Mike’s performance. His home made guitar, Number 11, is a unique construction, with an artistic touch added in the form of an odd antler, a protruding branch of wood that arcs over the neck in a slight curve. It’s a well crafted instrument, reflecting the owner’s insight and experience. The streets make a valuable teacher.
His electric guitar is complimented with a distortion pedal and a moderate sized amp. Around his neck hangs a blues harp from a holder. As I listen to the original blues riffs on his self made guitar I note the complexity of his technique. There are a few influences at work; he alternates traditional slide guitar with intricate rhythmic tapping patterns of the strumming hand, high up the neck, followed by over-driven solos that contain long, accentuated notes. Impressively, he matches every note of the solo on the harmonica. It reminds me of Deep Purple on their live recordings where Ian Gillian is keeping up with Ritchie Blackmore’s whining bends. My daydream is brought to an end as Mike breaks into the chorus riff and sings gruffly “I’m going up, don’t bring me down.” Simple lyrics drive home.
Later, when he’s taking a break, I ask Mike about the process of making his guitars. He tells me about the workshop he hires out for a reasonable amount near Box Hill.
“All I do is take down the timber and they’ve got all the tools set up there, ready to go”. He makes the entire thing sound matter of fact, as if we are all born with an ability to build guitars. When I ask him how he learnt his trade, he replies confidently.
“You just need to think a bit about it, that’s all”.
As I talk to Mike, I notice the wear on the cuffs of his leather jacket. That garment has probably experienced everything that Mike has, including years of foraging Europe as a street busker.
“You know, you could not play music at this volume in Europe” he says, pointing towards his own generator powered amp then down the street to the other two buskers. Two small circles of onlookers indicate their location on the street. The mix of harmonica and slide guitar drift towards our position in ripples, mingled with traffic, laughter and noise.
One of these buskers is one of Mike’s friends, Dez, who is also set up for the afternoon. While he is a dedicated blues harp player (been playing for 12 years and still learning, he says), he’s got an elaborate setup of multiple instruments, complete with drum machines and loop pedals. When I ask Mike about the similarity of their sound and whether it ever blends together, he explains that the two of them play alternating sets every half an hour to prevent their amplified sounds from clashing. Their breaks are spent watching the street, observing the crowd walking past. To succeed in creating an audience, they need to understand how each individual will react to their music, and how the street as a collective will generate a response as well. A busker’s trade is just like any other, full of intricacies and fallacies.
As Mike warms up to the conversation, I approach him about the politics of busking here on Bourke Street, where there is always potential to draw a good crowd and earn some cash.
“How do you secure your spot here week by week?” I ask. “Does it get quite competitive?”
He pauses, just like he’s done with all my questions this far. I can tell he isn’t a man to give an unconsidered reply.
“It isn’t hard. There is a meeting every Wednesday at the Council and you just show up. First come, first serve. Then you get the permit -he points at the yellow laminated ticket that is lying on the ground next to his guitar case- and you have your spot.”
“Volume is basically the only thing the Council really cares about” he continues. “They don’t care what you do, as long as it’s not too loud” he says with a dry laugh.
He then turns his head around and peers down towards Elizabeth Street.
“Then again… some play louder than others.” he finishes convincingly.
He is referring to the Japanese duo who busk about a hundred yards away, just a bit further down the street than his friend Dez.
It’s an ‘East meets West’ outfit; a mix of traditional Japanese music and western blues. Their line of instruments include a shamisen (a 3 stringed Japanese instrument that is picked with a giant plectrum) a slide guitar, an acoustic guitar, drum machines and a blues harp. The sound to my ears at least, is catchy and original. You could say they are ‘pros’. Mike is less than fond of the outfit.
“It’s a novelty act!” he says, shaking his head slightly.
“That man is doing an overkill on the guitar! He over accentuates the slides, to catch people’s attention!” Before long Mike has me convinced that it is a mortal sin by slide guitar standards.
“If you listen to them for a bit you will see what I mean. Every one of their songs has the same structure, and the solos are identical.” He then gives me one of his wry smiles that he’s acquired from nearly three decades of observing the street.
“The crowd loves them though. They do well for themselves.”
I have to agree with Mike’s last statement. Before having a chat to him I did watch the couple’s act. I couldn’t help but be drawn in, and whatever the motivation might be behind their sound, the duo is an impressive musical outfit. Their timing’s tight, there are no missed notes, and there are both harp and shamisen solos aplenty. There is also just enough authentic Japanese accent. Their look is complete with cowboy hats and boots. The crowd doesn’t stand a chance.
In his own way, Mike understands more than what his meagre audience indicates.
He knows for example, that the average pedestrian’s attention span is around two bars long and it is in those few seconds that the busker needs to capture the listener’s attention. Only by acquiring a critical mass of ten or fifteen onlookers will a street performer ever build up to a crowd of intrigued listeners. The only way a large number of people will stop to watch is if there is already a small number of onlookers huddled around. For the average shopper walking past, a large audience is a good indicator that the act is worth watching.
Now completely comfortable, Mike shares with me some of the busking wisdom that he’s acquired over the years.
“There are two ways you can go about it really.”
“If you are clever, you can be original.” He gives me one of his signature smiles.
“However, if you are not very clever, you will need to resort to covers or novelty. If you are just sitting out here with a guitar singing your own songs, everyone will walk right past you.”
As he continues, a hint of emotion slowly creeps into his tone.
“If you think most people give a shit about your music, you are wrong.” The smile disappears.
“These people…” he says, and holds up his hands, signalling towards flux of people surrounding us, “they don’t give a shit”.
He stays silent for a second, then meets my gaze with his penetrating eyes,
“Now I better go and see my friend, see how it went for him today.”
As I shake his hand, he bids goodbye with a nod and a weary smile. He turns towards Dez a bit further down the street. He leaves his guitar, Number 11 on his bench, forming an island among the endless waves of shoppers drifting past.
by Andy Szollosi