Buskers

by | Aug 15, 2017 | Novel Excerpt

 

At the time we had no money, our acoustic guitars, lots of cafes and bars to hang out at, friends to make, streets to meander and minds to expand and experiences to have, sights to behold, girls to meet, facts to unlearn, music to discover and ideas to mature. We were young and free-thinking and knowingly swimming against the current, and in all of that the world was our oyster, and we could just sit back on the beach and listen to the song of the sea. Our heroes were slackers and bohemians and misfits. We were in the midst of our spirit walk. We’d already been out West, and that was part of the adventure. We spent all day at the cafes, and all night in the bars. At some point someone had an old English folk tune songbook, and we would sit around and listen to Bert Jansch and Dylan and Leonard Cohen and all those guys and try to pick out the chord structures and play the songs. We went out to the coast to go camping and swimming, we played guitar and wrote and smoked and drank and sang on and sang to life.

In the bars we used to talk of the importance of the second listen of a record, and the fact that it’s hard to get to the end of an album—it’s a process, like watching a movie you don’t want to finish. You don’t want to get to the end and file it away for a second or third future listen because you’re enjoying it so much at the moment, and then the last words of the last album of one of your favorite artists are the ones that stick with you and resonate throughout the everyday and commonplace as well as the transcendental metaphysical moments for a few weeks after, until you discover something else that moves you just as much, or even a little bit more.

In the café we used to sit and talk for hours about which album or which song was the best, what it meant to us, how it changed us, and how it projected into the future and recalled the past blurring the quiet inspiration of a charcoal sketch with the shattering scream of one note furled up into one big gigantic candescent glowing warm present moment of time where the conversation pitched up and down like a ship at sea, and the wine flowed and the music mingled with voices and whispers and cries and unsaid emotions and everything was the way it should be.

At the beginning when I first got here everything was new and exciting and different and dripping with curiosity, and even the shape of the wine glasses was interesting and unexplainable. It was like stepping into a movie without knowing anything about anything but loving everything anyways. That was back in the day, when the girls were young. When we were all young. When we would spend hours at the café, and then move on to the bar where our folky singer-songwriter English buddy Martin played, and we played too. We had a world of possibilities laid out before our very eyes. We may eventually get married, divorced, have kids, and lose parents, but now that was so far away it was like another universe. We had nothing to lose, but were still completely lost, and it was beautiful. It was art.

After the dark rainy winter, I went out at the first signs of summer and set up camp in a pine grove on a short bluff overlooking the sea. The beach was a leisurely walk down through the rocks on a trail descending to the left. I pondered and jotted some meaningless prose into a notebook. Maybe it would mean something later, or maybe it already did and I just couldn’t see it. Here I was before the great Atlantic, near a lost rugged virgin beach on the northwest coast of Spain. I wrote a short letter to my parents, and a long one to my friends back home. I picked up my guitar and tried to write a song, but it came out all wrong. I was an aspiring songwriter, but I could only find imperfect fragments of the perfect song I was seeking out.

I remembered a guy at the café drinking whisky in the early afternoon and reminiscing about how the bars were before, and thought that if I wasn’t careful, soon I would be like that guy, reminiscing about the old days and how the bars were greater, bands better, novels more interesting, drinks cheaper, bartenders nicer, society healthier. Nostalgia must be a character flaw for someone like him, who tries to relive the past at the cost of losing the present. Everyday is a depression doused in a lost past; he’s like a demented Proustian character trapped by his own wishes that he can’t pedal backward to relive, and that’s his own personal tragedy. That’s why he’ll sit at the bar forever with his whisky, wishing it was twenty years ago and he was in that same place. In him, being sentimental becomes a self-inflicted wound, when, slouching over the bar, the past becomes disenchanted with the present.

Lying on the beach remembering memories I didn’t even think I had, in one of those mellow drowsy half-asleep almost summer afternoons where the day itself fades into twilight as memories mingle with daydreams. I remembered spending a whole summer wandering up and down the Cali coast guitar slung across my back dreaming of writing songs in Spain, a long way from singing and jamming in Chicago cafes or strumming in the canyonlands of Utah, but that was in a whole other life, hazy recollections of a dim and distant time, the beginning of time, of poetry. I have no reason to make amends, I have no regrets for innocence. I’ve come a long way,

I’ve done my soul searching. If I could I’d sing about abandoning love for redemption in the wilderness of the musical soul.

The pale yellow early springtime sun was warm on my face and bare arms, but I kept my flannel shirt nearby to ward off the later evening chill. Sitting on a log next to my weatherworn tent and the fire ring I’d made by scouring the countryside for small chunks of granite, I felt with full force the timelessness of a quiet afternoon. In them, here, I have faith in myself. I have faith in other people, but faith is not trust. I’ve always wondered if a certain amount of healthy schizophrenia was necessary to write a good novel. After all, the novelist hears voices in his head. Sometimes thoughts just disappear into thin air, like today. I heard no voices that afternoon, just the birdsong from the pines and oak and underbrush and the rhythmic conversational lapping and crashing of the waves below on the smooth cool sand. One goes through so much unnecessary activity and meditation and mediation to clear the mind, where at the lonesome beach it comes naturally, but is no good to the beautiful holy imagination.

The next day I walked down the dirt path, past the bright yellow gorse and course granite boulders, removed my t-shirt and pants and tennis shoes, set them on my old faded cotton towel, and walked deliberately into the cold crashing Atlantic waves for my morning swim. The sand was soft and more compact where the tide was going out and formed a slight slope down to the water. There were shells and a few pebbles on the sand and little fish darting around in the shallows near the rocks. It was a morning of muffled summer sounds, of everything bathed in a blue light filter. The water became increasingly reflective as morning marched on, and it all almost seemed like a vision, a hallucination. I paddled around and tasted the refreshing salty sea, emerging from the water as a hero in my own mind, of my own imagination, and lay down on the towel and slowly air-dried myself in the warming rays of the late morning sun. I dressed and walked back up to my camp, took a handful of pesetas and set off for the café down the road, the only one around for miles. Today my buddies were coming on the five o’clock bus, and we would swim and play music and shout poetry late into the night, alone with the pines and the sea and the crescent moon and the sky full of stars. My solitary days of beach bumming and beach wandering were over, for now.

“So here we are, decadents,” I mused out loud in Perry’s direction after having seated myself across from him under the waning rays of the early summer sun, finding my friend at one of the café terraces half-hidden under the arcades of Rúa Vilar. The arcaded street is pocketed in the medieval European city, along with other streets and narrow alleyways that go to and from the various plazas and churches and parks. It had been a few days since I’d moseyed down through the pedestrian cobbled old part of the city. I was just back from the beach.

“Well, that would most likely be what the bourgeois would like to think from their point of view,” he responded in his usual nonchalant tone, “but that’s the thing, the unimaginative materialists are the most boring people in the world. They live life like a desert highway, straight line without incident or landmarks and nothing past the horizon. It’s beautiful for the moment, if you’re on the move, but it has no depth. They are radical Lockeans—they can only perceive what’s right in front of them. That’s their goal and their groove, and that’s exactly where they get stuck. You have to be poor and play on street corners and observe people and travel and go to village festivals and drink homemade wine—that’s much so more fun! Unhinge the imagination, be a conformist of disarray. The most articulate people are decadent, that’s just the way it is. The old adventurers and anarchists and artists like Byron, they were beautifully decadent, like us in a way.” He finished his coffee, looking up with his beat-bearded face slightly tanned by days in the park and at the beach, long dark curly mane tamed by a black bandanna, peering out into the street, innocently observing the passers-by.

I guess I am a decadent, now that I’ve been here for a year. Part adventurer, part anarchist, and part artist. Not bohemian or bourgeois, but decadent. I’m not even really sure why it’s been that long. I ended up staying here, I guess, as if on a whim. Like most things in life, there’s a psychedelic undertone or psychotherapal layering going on somewhere, yet that’s neither here nor there. So here we are. At the beginning it was different, of course. I had been led, by destiny or fate or something I read yesterday, and figured I’d go over to Europe and wander around for a while. The idea hadn’t occurred to me suddenly—I’d been ruminating over it ever since I met Lewis Peregrine, who everyone called Perry, in college. He was an interesting character, a music bum always on the road traveling around playing guitar. He played Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan on a worn-out old acoustic guitar in the bars and cafes around town and drove around in a beat up old Chevy like a crazy person. Over in Europe he bought a used little Fiat 500 stickshift and would take off every once in a while and spend a couple weeks in France or Italy or Germany where he knew people.

I suppose before I went off to play music and bum my way around Europe I should have read a few guidebooks beforehand, but I didn’t, and maybe it was better that way.

Henry Miller could have told me all about the murky seedy literary underground of Paris, Fitzgerald and Hemingway about artistic expats doing the European thing in Spain and France. That was another time, though. I ended up reading them while living abroad, and maybe that’s why I understood them, or at least enjoyed them. I would eventually come to see my own American madness with Europe, and the European decadence around me, but for the time being it was simply a sense of adventure permeating everything. There were buskers and musicians and bohemians and bearded smoking philosophers. There was folk music and street theater and town drunks.

My own rugged individualism driven forward and gathering strength from the times I’d been on my own, and would be, and becoming transcendent. I must gather all my previous experiences and put them to good use, put them to verse, learn from them. My time alone was the optimism of youth, creative, imbibing sense and sound, mad to do everything, absorbing the world around me, feeling nature from the inside out, making crazy plans, being positive and ambitious and carefree and easygoing, before it becomes negative debauchery snaking around through dark bars and dark nights ending up in sweaty goopy half-awake half-dreamed nightmares clawing at consciousness in a hangover bed sleeping all day—and coming out of all of this on the other side of morning—to keep growing and progressing and being dynamic and stay. Stay where I am not treading water in one place but moving forward and progressing. The spiral has brought me out here where my mind starts to move and shake and my creativity and ambition and wanderlust are re-awakened.

We met Martin Astley our first night in town when he was busking. He let us in on what was going on with the music scene, and told us about good street corners and plazas to play in. He also gave us some pointers. “Right mates, this is the thing, there are some rules you’ve got to abide by when you’re playing in the street. Number one, never play Stairway to Heaven, it just doesn’t work, no matter how much you love the Zep. Never plug into an amp, even one of those little battery powered ones like the wankers do here sometimes. Always tune beforehand at home and bring water or wine or whatever floats your boat to whet your whistle. Never let another person play or touch your guitar. You’ll get people coming up and asking to play a song—just tell ‘em to fuck off. And most importantly, always throw a bit a change in the hat or the case before you start, that way people’ll think

‘Hey this guy must be alright since other people gave him money, so I reckon I will too’. And that’s all there is to it. ” Martin had been busking since he was a teenager in London. He was a great street musician, and he also had a strong sense of place. We asked him what kind of songs we should play. “Just sing a song from your native place mates.” And that’s become my goal, to eventually write a tune about the small town where I grew up, or the towns I passed through crisscrossing America.

I carried around a notebook, my song notebook, with the tea-stained leaves and lyrics from the early misanthropic teenage angst years, from when I had no taste in music and was brainwashed into writing and liking whatever tickled the fancy of the other people. I also had the wine-stained verses from the first days in Spain, filled with a mix of hope and amazement but dragging behind in their wake some of that all-too-familiar angst and nervousness. Originality would be the cure and so the inner tension was swinging and palpable and almost beautiful. Eventually my songwriting became more profound, as did my emotions, observations, cadences and imagination. For songwriting is like a drawing in red chalk—one must erase in order to create depth. At the beginning there is no depth of character in songwriting, like red chalk before it’s been erased. The depth of feeling is just under the chalky surface and not completely accessible as it still lies tucked away in the unconscious. This would all come in good time, and after hours and hours of practicing and jamming and playing in cafes and in the street.

We wanted to play in the street like we’d heard you could do around the old European cities, and pass a hat around and meet interesting people and learn new songs and become buskers. And that we did. We took turns passing around the hat, but most of the time played together with the hat on the ground in front of us. We figured out where to play, but not where people gave you more money or less. Some days we quit early, and some days we could go on playing for hours. Either it was a great day or a few-coin day. On the cold days you had to wear a scarf and maybe fingerless gloves and the wind got you right at the throat. I had my trusty old Martin acoustic that I bought with landscaping money after California, and Andy had his warped second-hand traveling acoustic he didn’t play very much, and his harmonica. I kept a sheaf of scrawled chords and lyrics to songs stuffed in the case with the capo and old strings just in case I needed to quickly repair a broken one. Andy eventually got a weird little harp from somebody and would just sing and recite and jam on that jingly jangly twangy boingy mouth harp of his.

Martin stopped playing in the street when he got weekly gigs at a bar, and we’d go watch him. Andy and I got to talking to the owner and ended up getting weekly gigs there too. Later I found a drummer who lent Andy a bass, and we played weekends in another bar as a three-piece rock band.

I lived with Andrew Jones in a small garret apartment that a friend of his who was in India channeling his chakra and doing yoga leased us for a few thousand pesetas, which was less than fifty dollars a month. He was supposed to have come back a few months ago, but never did, so we just stayed there.

We had a small kitchen with two burners and no oven, and normally took our meals at the eating house across the street. We each had our own room with sloping roof, mattress on the unfinished wooden floorboards and small chest of drawers. It was in an old building with those narrow wooden European staircases with wrought-iron railings winding up to the fourth floor attic. We had a small living room with an old worn out couch, a turntable connected to the stereo, a small rabbit-eared TV, and a few small wood-and-metal chairs. We left our big skylight windows open on nice days, which overlooked the red tile rooves of the old part of the city, and the top half of the bell tower of the Cathedral. I had a small bookshelf that I found on the curb and painted where I put my tapes and books and CDs and notebooks and four-track, and not much else. My guitar was in the corner, and that was all I needed. There was a guy from Tangier who lived across the street who would leave his windows open and play reggae and put up free Palestine and Independent Sahara flags that were always flapping on his balcony.

On a typical day our circumference of action had a diameter of about half a mile— the apartment, the cafe, the bar, the supermarket, rehearsing, a bit in the street, the late night bars, the flat—not necessarily in that order. Instead of everyday being a laundry list of things to do, living here you just go with the flow—learn a few new songs, have coffee, hang out, write a little, perhaps some anxious angsty couplets or some lines of love, and then go play in the evening in the street or pass around the hat while your buddy plays or see a gig at a small old-town café. Our rhythms depended on the weather, the people around us, the tides, and the music of the night.

In the morning I would throw on some clothes from the clean pile, and go for coffee. I would walk down Rua Vilar past the morning busker, towards the Alameda, a tree-lined promenade forested with big gnarly old carballos (oak trees). There was a little cafe and, in the summer, I sat out on the terrace and watched these Europeans with their small quaint fashionable everything and their easygoing stroll through life. Leave America behind for the finer pleasures. In Europe they’ve mastered the art of living—wine and philosophy and music in the street. I wanted so much to be fashionable and trendy and tasteful and speak in idioms and be able to hold a conversation about modern painting or poetry or philosophy.

After breakfast I’d normally go to the garden cafe to think and read in the morning. The garden cafe used to be an old convent, with its magnolia and lemon trees and vines growing along the stone walls and tables and chairs and flowers in small and large pots scattered pell-mell around a low central square stone fountain. My idea was to spend time in Europe, to think and read and write poetry and songs and keep a notebook to write a novel later maybe, but lately I’ve been very non-committal with this novel idea.

 

Chris George grew up in a village in northeast Ohio. He taught English and played guitar in Santiago, Spain for many years. He completed a PhD in Comparative Literature and has published academic articles on the intersection of Galician and American culture. He currently lives in Madrid with his wife where he plays music, writes, and runs. He gets back to Ohio twice a year.

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