Busking With Fire: A Slice of My Life
The following is an abridged chapter from a memoir I wrote at 25 years old, about my foray into show business from 18 to 21 years old, before I decided that I would drop show business and become a writer. I wrote the memoir at that age without thought to publication, but with a desire to write it when all the details were fresh in my mind. It was to be like a photograph of the period of my life where I was “finding myself.” This abridgement, however, was one that I did decide a few years later I wanted to have published. I sent it out to some literary magazines, which showed no interest. But as I work on another memoir-cum-travel book about travelling around the world and playing at open mics a couple of years ago, I see this in a different light, and while my writing style has changed and I have matured, I wanted to share it here… as a photograph of that period. The actual photograph here is of me as I looked at the time, although the photo was taken in New York City, not in London:When the first ten pence landed in the coat with a cushioned plopping sound, my body filled with warmth. I stared at the coin and began singing louder. I had not eaten for three days. Here was money falling from the sky. Here was milk, bread, rent. And it was so easy. To stand there in that pedestrian tunnel in Shepherd’s Bush singing my heart out, playing my guitar and having the world throw its appreciation in the corduroy jacket at my feet.
After about an hour I collected the money, counted it, and started for the first food store I could find. I bought a bottle of milk and sipped the cream off the top and then downed the white. What a revelation. I walked on to a variety store and bought another bottle. I came to a fried chicken place and bought a couple of legs and fries and a Coke. When I arrived in Notting Hill Gate, near my hotel, I stopped at a Greek food bar grabbed a falafel and another milk.
I found an alley between two tall whitewashed buildings, sat on a garbage can and continued eating. At that moment I was a king in a private kingdom, a kingdom no one could know about, the joys and greatness of which were mine only to see and feel.
Soon, however, after several weeks of this, once the kingly feeling had passed, nothing was left but the sordid reality. Sure, there were to be more times when standing in the subway screaming out songs, or sitting at the table of a restaurant after a long day of singing, I would feel like the world was mine and I was a happy beggar. But most of the time I saw only the dirt of the subway floors. The people passing in their suits and shiny clothes, on their way to work, school, play. And I was outside their world. I once belonged to their world. That world of splendour, of not being in need, that clean naive world of the bourgeoisie. And how I wished I were again part of it.
I was a tramp. Early one morning on the way to busk I was walking up Bayswater and encountered a couple of teenagers who asked me what time it was, I reached into my pocket and removed my large gold alarm clock with two bells on top and a little hammer between them.
“Hey just like a real tramp,” said one of the kids.
“Yeah,” I said. If only they knew I was a real bum and that it wasn’t neat or fascinating, but horrible.
The Repulsive Hotel – its actual name was Rapallo – was one of those whitewashed concrete buildings in Notting Hill Gate which all looked alike – except for varying degrees of dilapidation – and which attracted those who were soon to be or recently had been down-and-out. Four or five people to a room, mine was on the ground floor at the back of the building overlooking a weed-infested garden, with laundry hanging out the windows of the brownstones behind. It had just enough space for the four beds, a sink, and a wardrobe. Barely enough for the humans.
The toilets were communal, and washing was done either in the little sink in the room or in one of the many bathrooms on the floors above. Sometimes the window in the bathroom might be open and birds in the trees might be heard singing…sometimes even here one might be a king.
The occupants of the room were a varied group. One particularly unpleasant animal physically, but who was pleasant in manner, was the 29-year-old electrical engineer who had let me into the hotel at night secretly when I’d run out of money and couldn’t pay the rent. He ate Marmite on bread for breakfast and occasionally for dinner too, and he slept in his white underpants, undershirt, and brown socks. Usually unshaven, he had a small moustache of the same brown colour as his greasy straight uncombed hair.
On the other hand, I liked the guy from the midlands, about 58, who worked as a cleaner and spent his evenings in the pub. He told me I had a great future because he loved my singing. Greasy slicked-back black hair, this loud-voiced, thickly accented man introduced to me the name Django Reinhardt, his favourite guitar player.
But while that man provided a sense of security, a man in his late 40s was going grey, and mad. He told us one night about people in the streets who are from other planets.
“I see them quite frequently,” he said, sitting half dressed on the edge of his bed, preparing for sleep. “They look just like you and me. But they come from other worlds. They’re quite friendly now, but one day they’ll take over the earth.”
I was frightened by the look on his face, and the slow and deliberate way he spoke. Worse, he was an out-of-work actor like me. A graduate of one of the London acting schools. Would this happen to me if I continued with my desire to be an actor? Would I end up in my 40s, graying, having had one or two lousy acting jobs and having spent the rest of my life doing bum manual labor jobs, and all for a cavern of madness in which to fall in the end?
I determined to be better. I set out to read every play of Shakespeare. I’d read that George Bernard Shaw had, by the age of 19, memorized the names of every character in Shakespeare’s plays.
One Saturday after having spent the entire week reading, I woke up realizing that I had to pay my rent that evening and had no money for it, and no money for food either. Luckily the sun was shining, so there would be tourists.
I arrived at the Marble Arch tunnel at about 8:30 A.M. and began singing Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. This song brought more money than any of the others, because it was known by many, and the one I could sing the loudest. When people entered at the far end of the tunnel they could hear me, and had the time to think about putting their hands into their pockets before they passed me.
At about nine o’clock another busker showed up. I’d been singing Mr. Tambourine Man over and over again. I stopped. It was the ‘Jesus-is-a-rolling-stone’ busker. The guy who looked like Jesus and who sang the above line non-stop.
“Gotta piece’a paper?” he asked.
I pulled out a scrap and he signed his name for the pitch for 10 o’clock. I then signed mine for eleven. The advantage to showing up first was that you played until the second person arrived, then you could place your name after his because your name had not previously appeared on the list. That’s how you got the maximum amount of time.
After the hour I went to the next pitch down the way. I passed through the open sunken courtyard where jewelry sellers and other crafts people set up shop. From there I entered the short tunnel that led up to Speaker’s Corner.
Here one of the buskers who’d signed my list was now singing. He stopped and I signed his list. In this way, travelling from pitch to pitch, booking sometimes twice in the same place I made reservations till dusk in the Marble Arch area.
For 12 hours on this sunny Saturday I sang Mr Tambourine Man. At the end of the day my jacket pockets were bulging with coins: thirteen pounds worth of glinting coins. And a one pound food ticket, valid for a dinner in any of sixty London restaurants.
After counting my money I looked at the back of the food ticket and found that one of my regular Queensway restaurants was a subscriber. So I went slowly and contentedly to the restaurant to feast after having eaten nothing all day, having sung non-stop, having lost my voice, but not my spirit. I sat by the window and ordered a hamburger, a salad, and a beer. I looked out the window at the plastic world and let the scene walk through me.
One evening, tired from having busked all day, I decided nevertheless to play again after dinner because I had to pay the rent again. But I was so tired that I sang sitting down on the cold concrete floor.
I played slowly and quietly. There weren’t many people, but there was a steady flow. As I played I dreamed. I dreamed of the past mostly, and of how I ended up in this most horrible and unromantic of situations, and I dreamed about how I might somehow get out of it, and about the books I was reading, and of how I might move on to Paris and play Hemingway. But that was not a very serious dream because I knew that starvation was rotten.
As I sat on the floor I became aware of something that I pictured to myself as a flame in my abdomen. As I sang I thought about how this flame and my voice were connected. I began to think of my abdomen as a kind of burner, or engine driven by the flame. And the more I thought about that flame and about my acting and singing practices, the more I realized that all my practices were an effort to control and use that flame. And the flame was not just the energy that I’d discovered had been wasted in the past when I’d done dope, but now, as I sat noticing people’s shiny shoes treading past, as I looked at the little chips in the smooth floor of the subway, and as I sang, I realized that the flame was emotion and spirit as well as motor energy. And that is why it was a flame, a fire, and not just muscle or some other such dead matter. And as I realized this, I made an effort to funnel the flame into the song I was singing. To breathe fire. The result was a rush of a kind I had never felt before when I sang. (And an increase in the number of coins that fell into the coat.) And at that instant, I realized that I had to devote myself to the concretization of the flame, that would be my life’s project, the practice.
The tourist season died out at the end of September, and I got a job as a bartender and my busking days were over. But my writing days had begun, and the effort to translate the flame into words.