Today I describe how I use musical performance to shake off the feelings caused by the doom and gloom in the news. If I don’t have a gig then I go out and hit the street. Here is a recent and true tale about the reality of making music on the street and the benefits, or otherwise, that come from it.
This war is getting to me and I’ve lapsed. There has been a marked deterioration in my writing routine. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing, because I have, but it feels like wading through mud. Everything I write seems inconsequential and pointless. And no amount of editing seems to improve it. Waking in the dead of night I imagine the plight of the Ukrainians and see again the images delivered by the news media. I relive my feelings of shock from times when my own world has suffered great change; but it is so much worse for them. My own experience holds nothing to compare with what they are living through; the horror made ever more vivid by my own imagination.
I feel defeated by the logic of why we can’t do more. It’s like watching the schoolyard bully beating up the little guy. And, while we cheer the little guy on, we do precious little to help. The thoughts swirl and collide.
Emotions and feelings do not exist on their own. They are the product of thoughts. Taking care of mental health is mostly about preventing our thoughts from running amok and creating feelings that are, at best, unhelpful. For us to be of use to others it’s better to stay happy and calm. Yes, we should know what is going on in other parts of the world, but we are no good to anyone if we let those cares debilitate and destroy our lives by proxy.
Somehow, we each need to find our own medicine. Whether it’s through counselling, exercise, meditation, medication, prayer, volunteering or simply just talking. We need to get out of our heads for a while and pursue the interests that consume us and keep us in the present. In normal times, for those of us who do it, the making of music can be enough of a tonic to keep the world at bay. It keeps our head and fingers too busy to include unnecessary thoughts. But sometimes that is not enough. Even while playing music, my brain still manages to take me to the places I’m trying to avoid.
To reset myself I need to get out and do something different. So, last week, I tried something that has often worked in the past: I dropped everything and went off to perform.
It is a sunny Friday morning when I decide I’ve had enough of fighting the doldrums at my computer and take myself off to go busking in Barnsley: a twenty-five-minute drive away and, due to the loss of its mining industry, one of the poorer towns in England. Despite that, I love the place. The inhabitants have a natural down-to-earth quality, which, despite some rough edges, makes them often kinder, friendlier and more generous than you might otherwise expect.
But Barnsley doesn’t make it easy for buskers. The first hurdle is parking. The carpark, shared by Lidl Supermarket and Quality Save, allows up to two hours free parking for customers. I enter each store to make a small purchase and validate my parking before loading up my cart with music-making gear. With my microphone-stand strapped to the side of the cart I set off on an 8-minute walk along a bumpy sidewalk where I negotiate incredibly slow and sidewinding pedestrians.
On the way I stop at the heel-bar (shoe repair shop) where I’d bought a leather watchstrap 5 months ago. The strap’s underside looks brand new but the cheap pressed leather on top has cracked and broken to the point where it finally fell off my wrist. I show it to the guy who runs the shop. He wears shorts all year-round and has the crest of his favourite football team (Everton) tattooed on his calf. He recognises me from my music. He is a very nice guy and extremely apologetic about the strap and he wants to put it right. I tell him I’ll pick it up on the way back.
Setting off again, I notice one leg of my mic-stand is falling down and dragging on the ground. It’s unusual but I’m nearly at my favourite busking spot so I keep going. I can see the spot in the distance lit by the lukewarm glow of March sunshine. I hear no other buskers. Lovely; it’s all mine! But as I approach the intersection of Market Street and Peel Square, I start to hear the distorted rantings of a raging female god-botherer shouting through a cheap PA about 50 yards from where I plan to play.
To call her a street preacher would be far too much of a compliment. Her words are not uplifting and the sound she is making is nauseating. Full of threat and misery as she yells, in the most unpromising way possible, that, “God will save you; God will feed you; God will protect you …rant, rant, shout, shout!”
I slow my pace wondering what to do next. Passers-by, seeing me with my music gear, beg me to start singing,
“And make sure you’re louder than her,” says one. “She’s disturbing the peace!”
Even the nearby market-stall merchant (and these are not a breed who normally like buskers near their stalls) begs me to stay and play.
I decide to go ahead and set up in my usual spot and see what happens, reasoning, that, if she complains I’ll tell her, “God told me to come here.” On some level it’s got to be true.
But then setting up suddenly becomes a lot less simple. The reason my mic-stand was dragging is because, somewhere along the bumpy walk, the main screw to hold the legs in place has shaken loose and fallen out. I think, ‘Maybe it’s not an important screw, I’ll probably be fine without it.’
But it is an important screw, I realise, as I watch my microphone waving from side to side in the morning breeze like a demented, music-themed wind-vane,
After tearing up an old set-list I shape it into a wedge to hold steady the madly swivelling microphone. It works! I then set about plugging all the necessary batteries and cables into my portable sound system. At this point a bearded street-person (looking the physical embodiment of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung) is perusing my stuff and pointing at the mini-disc player which carries my backing music. He seems to be saying that he wants to sell me some mini-discs. I politely tell him I’m not interested but he keeps on and on, asking me things and telling me things in his burbling language that I can’t understand at all. I lose my patience and say, “Look mate, I’m working here and you’re not helping, so go away.”
He goes away. But, within half a minute, there’s another guy standing right next to me. He’s a simple, benign looking fellow who obviously means no harm. But he’s decided to come and stand right in the place where I already am. Give me a break!
“Can you stand a bit further away please – you’re crowding me.”
He says, “Oh, sorry.” And walks off. I’m not sure if he’s taken offense but I’m getting past the point of caring now anyway.
While all this has been going on it turns out that Lady God-Botherer has ceased her fire and brimstone and is now playing a recorded song that offers a similar message to her shouting, but now with overly dramatic music, that is full of tortured meaning.
I have been in the music business for some years now and have learned a thing or two along the way. And one thing I know about songs is that, sooner or later, they end. I work faster to get everything ready in order to start singing as soon as her music stops. Nearly there but ….Gaaah! The battery in my instrument pickup is dead. A miserable fault of the built-in Fishman pickups is that if you use the tuner and forget to switch it off it drains the battery. This happens all too easily and all too often and why they sell such an impractical and annoying device is frankly beyond me (all the resulting dead batteries cannot be good for the environment.) So, it’s off with the instrument. I fumble for a 9V battery and find one that is shrink-wrapped so tightly in its cellophane package that it is all but impenetrable without the aid of industrial tools so like a raving Basil Fawlty I tear at it with my teeth until I finally rip the battery from its packaging. Meanwhile the music has ended and the god-loving banshee has started wailing again.
I finally finish setting-up and begin to sing. My old German amp, though small, sounds great and, as an antidote to all the screaming, I attempt to make the loveliest music I am capable of. There is immediate appreciation from passers-by who smile and start putting coins in my red ukulele case. Even the market stall guy walks over and puts something in there.
The fellow from the heel-bar is suddenly in front me and holding out my watch,
“There you go pal,” he says, “That’s a top-of-the-line strap I’ve put on for you. You won’t have any trouble with that and I’m sorry about the other one.”
He has closed his shop to hand-deliver my watch back to me. Now that’s what I call service. I thank him and offer to pay towards this new strap but he won’t have it and turns and leaves.
In my peripheral vision I notice Lady God-Botherer and her friend picking up their noise-making equipment and moving to greener pastures.
Announcing to the street, “It’s George Formby time!” I strike into Chinese Laundry Blues with my banjo-uke. Immediately, most of the people within earshot react with delighted smiles. Several stop to listen. And I wonder if there’s something in Barnsley’s municipal water supply that causes an instinctive love of the Formby sound. Back when I toured the west coast of the USA presenting my historical musical slideshow on the history of George Formby I was proud to tell people that the first time Formby played his banjo-uke onstage was in my hometown of Barnsley. And it was Barnsley’s unalloyed enthusiasm for the Formby sound that prompted George and Beryl Formby to keep the instrument in his act. And now this audience wants another song so I follow up with My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock.
Most local buskers won’t play here in Peel Square because, despite regular community police patrols, it still manages to be a hangout for street people, such as crackheads, smackheads, alcoholics, the homeless, the abused, misused and confused and the generally messed-up. But I quite like the egalitarian feeling of seeing all strata of humankind enjoying what I do. In fact, for the most part, when they are not being annoying, the street people tend to be a jollier and more attentive audience than those who hurry past with places to go and things to do. These folks whoop and laugh and often dance. Or they sit on the cobbles in a happy cider-sipping group listening and singing along to the music. They ask for requests and, for the most part, are as generous with their coins as any other demographic. I’ve never yet had any serious trouble from them. But, since I last played here regularly, over two years ago and before covid, I am now noticing a greater sense of desperation on the street that wasn’t there before.
A shabby guy wanders up and stays for song after song, smiling and enjoying the music from five feet away. Once again it’s a little too close but what can you do? His partner arrives and stands with him sipping from a can of lager. Together they watch me and she puts money in my case while he requests a song, a UK hit from 1976, called Living Next Door to Alice. Having written a parody of this song I am able to make a decent attempt at it except that the parody, so strong in my memory, has completely overshadowed the original lyrics. But he doesn’t seem to mind and he records my performance on his phone.
As the song ends, a passer-by puts a few coins in my case and comes up close to whisper in my ear,
“Those two are known robbers. Be careful – watch your stuff.”
I think, ‘Sheesh. That’s all I need.’
For the next couple of songs, I am bristling, on guard, and fully expecting one of them to try and distract me while the other ducks behind to grab my uke. But that doesn’t happen. They sort of drift around and check their phones then cheerfully wave goodbye and off they go.
Once I’m into the swing of playing, without all the interruptions, I concentrate better on the music. This outing is an opportunity to try out my recently acquired looper pedal. Although I still haven’t got far with using it as a looper. It’s chiefly a means for providing percussion while I play and I keep having to pull my phone out of my back pocket to find which song goes with which pre-programmed rhythm. So much tech. The looper is operated by four AA batteries, which, after only an hour are out of juice. A much faster drain than I was expecting. I’ll remember to use rechargeable batteries in future.
Even with breakages and distractions and everything going on, it is still a joy to be playing. Young children, who have grown up chiefly indoors and away from strangers, thanks to covid, are both fearful and yet captivated by my presence and warily edge towards my case to put coins in there before running back to their adults. I do what I can to make them and their parents laugh and I love seeing the lightness in the children’s step as they skip along on their way.
But my time is nearly up and I’m on my last song. I’ve allowed myself fifteen-minutes to pack up my gear, haul it back to the carpark, load up and drive away before the parking time is up. It’s all go-go-go when you’re a busker. I end by announcing my name and saying that I am available for live gigs. This is a good move as two separate people come quickly forward to each give me a five-pound note and get my card. They say some nice things about my performance. After the way my morning has gone this is a nice way for it to end.
I’ve decided to get something to eat so I drive to Morrisons supermarket and park there before walking back into the centre of Barnsley for one of my guilty pleasures: sausage, chips and baked beans from my favourite chippy, The Mermaid, all washed down with a can of Ben Shaws Dandelion and Burdock. It’s probably all very unhealthy but it’s just what I feel like eating right now. The Mermaid fish and chip shop is down a side-street at the back of where Woolworth’s used to be and I sit outside at one of the café tables watching the ongoing parade of people.
I stroll back to the car and, after buying a few groceries in Morrisons, I decide that the traffic home could be pretty bad and I might be wise to use the SatNav (GPS) on my phone. I reach to get my phone from my back pocket. It’s gone. My phone is gone! The dawning realisation of the loss of my phone – with all its vital information – causes the whole carpark to swim before my eyes. Did it fall out of my pocket? Have I been pickpocketed while walking around the store? Think, think.
I need a way to phone my phone to see if someone will answer it. The Customer Service desk in Morrisons will surely let me use theirs. I run in, but, at the counter, there is someone talking endlessly about what has gone wrong with their purchase of pink lemonade. And behind them is another customer waiting and rolling her eyes. This is no good. I go back to the car. I check my bag and every pocket knowing full well that my phone is gone.
It occurs to me that I may have lost it while eating at the fish and chip shop. I check the car is locked before setting off on an adrenaline-fuelled run across Barnsley to The Mermaid chippy. It’s now past lunch and there’s a woman working by herself.
“I’ve lost my phone. Have you had one handed in?”
“Do you have a phone I can use so I can call mine?”
“Yes, you can. Oh, I’ll ask the others first; see if they know.”
She yells to the back of the shop, “HAS ANYONE HAD A PHONE HANDED IN?”
There are several “Nos.” And then, the woman who had served me earlier, comes out from the back saying, “Yes, it’s here.”
She reaches under the counter and pulls out my phone, saying,
“Someone picked it up. She thought it might be yours and even left your description.”
I want to kiss them both. But instead, I choose to babble,
“Thank you so much. I will never eat anywhere else ever again. Only here. I promise…”
Even as I speak, I hope they will forgive my ridiculous exaggeration.
I go back to the car reunited with, and clutching tight, my Motorola phone in its battered faux-leather case. The day is cooling off but the sun is still shining and all is well once again. I savour the sights, sounds and smells of late Friday afternoon in Barnsley from within the calm, peaceful centre of the hurricane that settles between the hectic business day and the burgeoning onset of evening and heaving nightlife.
Checking in with myself I notice how I feel right now: exhilarated, uplifted, carefree, happy, at peace, in the flow, united with humanity, ready for anything and glad to be alive. How different this is from other feelings I’ve been having recently. Suddenly I notice that, for the first time in weeks, I’ve gone several hours without thinking about war. Not only that; the hustle, the bustle, the tussle, the stress, the hassle and the use of my skills in performance have all focussed and grounded me and it feels good. Dealing with life and humanity has brought me back to myself.
How much time do we waste dwelling on things we cannot change; or pondering on the pointlessness and futility of existence? The fact that we are alive at all is amazing and worthy. Hold on to that fact; love life; cherish it; and make of it the best that you possibly can, right now.