A couple of weeks back we’d been in Essex visiting family, and after my recent wash out of a charity busk I’d been working on getting my skills up to get out and do some more busking for the coming Summer.
I’d been strumming in the garden and paid a couple of visits to my busking tree to say ‘hello’ and play it a couple of songs.
It’s still looking a bit bare but the fields around it are looking much better now. It’s a great spot to make some noise and not get on people’s nerves trying to pull off difficult vocals that were a lot easier before I took a break from playing.
I set my Ebay shop on vacation settings and slapped an away note on my Artisan site which gave me some time to play instead of worrying about posting, promoting and dealing with customers for a week or two.
The sun had been shining for a few days and I thought it’s time to start getting out there and earn some cash busking in the local towns around where we were staying.
On the Friday afternoon I headed into Chelmsford to see what was happening, hoping to grab a good spot and make the most of the last few days of the Easter holidays. Town would be packed out and good crowds would hopefully mean I could earn a few quid for a couple of hours playing.
As it happens, town was totally packed along with the usual market and a music event going on. There was a few bands and singers playing with a proper set up in the middle of town so you could hear it over most of the central streets. It wasn’t too loud but making enough noise to dowse any chance of getting a spot within a couple of hundred yards.
There were also Fire engines and charity collections going on in other parts of town and another girl busker who was pretty good, set up towards one end.
I wandered about for a bit thinking there was no chance this is going to happen today, but after spending £4 on a parking ticket for 3 hours and knowing that if I went home I’d have wasted my whole afternoon when I could have been playing at home, I thought what the hell, I’ll just set up out the way and play for a couple of hours to get my practice in, without worrying about making any decent cash.
I walked right up one end of town near the banks where it was pretty much deserted – apart from a slow trickle of people wandering by, heading into the main areas.
Busking in these sort of places can be quite good as there’s not many people around to drown you out and you can relax and just get on with playing without thinking about it too much.
I set up and started playing. When you are literally the only one around and there’s not much background noise going on, people can see and hear you from quite a distance and often throw you some cash when perhaps they might not have if you’d been set up amongst the crowds in town.
Hassle the Busker
I played for about 45 minutes and racked up about £5 – 6 pounds with a few good comments in the meantime. When it’s quiet you always get one or two Pink Floyd fans strolling past hearing ‘Wish You Were Here’ and slinging you some cash with a smile.
Just as I’m getting in my stride, I see this scruffy figure, looking in a bit of a state, wandering slowly down the middle of the street, swigging from a can.
You know when you’re out busking, you are a complete target for anyone looking for someone to hassle and as he spotted me from 30 yards away I thought ‘Oh Yeah, here we go again !’
He wandered up to me, taking another swig out of his can and put it back in his coat pocket with it still slopping around. You could tell he had serious alcohol problems and was in a real mess.
In my past I’ve known many troubled people from different walks of life and I’ve seen some pretty bad states in my time. I’ve got a lot of empathy for people whose lives are in a mess, whether it’s alcohol, drugs or for a million other reasons and I never try to judge or treat anyone disrespectfully.
This guy, who ever he was, could have been someones father, son or husband and you never know what sort of life situations had put him there in the first place.
I was actually quite concerned because he was covered in this stuff which looked like dried blood, all over his nose and chin and it looked like he might of just had a beating or been involved in an accident of some sort. You can’t see it from the photo’s but he was covered in it. It was all over his shirt and his hands and nails were black and had about half a centimetre of grime under each nail. It looked like he had blood or dirt all over his coat aswell and I really wasn’t sure what had happened to him.
I kept on singing and with him only a couple of metres away and getting closer, he was shouting and motioning to me, sticking his hand out touching my guitar. Within a few moments I had no choice but to stop in mid song.
‘Alright mate ! How’s it going ?’ I gave my usual smile and happy greeting.
‘Nghot you flaying ffat *&!@# thrubbish for ?’ he grunted back in a slurry drunken fashion. Ng’ny *.@#.. and started churning out inaudible names of groups I’d never heard before.
I was like, ‘Err ! No mate, Sorry I don’t know that one, or that one….or that one..’
I haven’t got the greatest knowledge of musical history, but I seriously didn’t know any of them..I said, ‘Er.. How about Led Zeppelin, or Bob Dylan… is that any good ?.’
With that he started reeling of a drunken version of something I couldn’t recognise under the slurring, until he reached the chorus and with a little more clarity blurted out the end lines to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’. Within a few seconds he was pointing to my guitar and started trying to grab the fretboard, motioning to give it here so he could have a go.
‘Sorry mate, can’t let you have a go’, I said holding on to my guitar, ‘I don’t let anyone play this … it’s my only guitar..’ etc. etc.
He looked shocked and couldn’t believe I’d said ‘No’. Totally ignoring what I’d just said, he still kept on going for it, grabbing for the thing and getting really hacked off.
Now, it’s bad enough when someone who’s a bit drunk tries to grab your guitar, but this guy was totally smashed and covered in dirt. I’m not joking. I’ve had lots of drunks try it on in the past, and even when it’s some friendly happy chap who’s had one too many grabs your guitar when you’re off guard, you are guaranteed the strings are going to get a bad hammering or the strap will come off and there’ll be some sort of accident.
If someone who’s out of their head gets hold of your guitar, you’ve got a real problem and you’ll be lucky to get it back in one piece.
You don’t want to be kicking off, especially with an expensive guitar hanging round your neck and the poor guy probably didn’t know what he was doing anyway, so you have to keep the situation calm and get him to chill out.
I held onto it without getting aggressive but with a firm ‘No chance mate’… and with that he pushed himself right into me and squeezed into the gap between me and the guitar… so all of a sudden I’m like, practically hugging this guy while he’s squashed up in front of me trying to strum the thing like we are some sort of duet on Britain’s Got Talent.
I can handle many things, but this was pretty awful, and with the overpowering smell of alcohol and nicotine emanating from his clothes against my body, the black congealed blood like stuff all over his hands fingering chords and those long dirt ingrained fingernails strumming the strings… I was like ‘WTF !..how did I manage to get in this position ?’.
I was thinking ‘What the hell is this stuff ? – I hope it’s not something nasty’.
After about 30 seconds still holding my breath from the fumes, I managed to get out of this bizarre embrace and get a bit of space between us.
He then started mumbling about how he’s got loads of guitars at home and used to be in a band years ago, but within a few moments was grabbing for my guitar again like he wanted another go.
By now I had the guitar secured behind me, holding it with one hand pointing it down at the ground, but he was still going for it and I was having to defend my position, pushing against him to stop him forcing his way in.
The people in the shops over the road and cafes up the street had started to take notice and see if this was going to kick off.
I was still being as friendly as I could be and trying to divert his attention away from the guitar back to himself and his past days as a musician.
He kept saying the same things over and over again every few minutes. One moment being happy and reminiscing over his past musical days, the next bursting into choruses of ‘Blowing in The Wind’ which would ultimately lead back to him wanting to play the song and him trying to grab the guitar again. I was constantly being forced to deflect his actions in a firm but nice way. This would then lead to him getting aggressive and shaking his fist up to my face before switching again to some other erratic subject.
He was insistent he could make me loads of money if I would just give him my guitar… and that he’d give me loads of money if I’d let him have a go..then he’d search his pockets and find nothing, take another swig out of his can and start the scene all over again, saying he had loads of guitars and didn’t want mine.
I kept saying to him ‘Why don’t you go and get your guitar and come out here and make some cash for yourself ?’, to which he would shake his head, dismiss the whole idea and go for my guitar again.
This scene went on… and on …and on… and eventually I had to get more serious and say ‘Look mate ! If you are a musician you should respect my wishes, and my guitar…you’ve already had a go so just leave it now, alright !’
I wasn’t getting aggressive, but just showing him I wasn’t going to put up with his bad behaviour much longer.
It did the trick for a few moments and as I backed him off a few feet saying ‘Give me a bit of space here will you’. He then started feeling my arms, going on about me being a bodybuilder or something (which I seriously don’t look anything like, trust me).
I was like, ‘No mate, I’m just tall’ which again led him into shaking another fist in my face in a manner you couldn’t tell was threatening or drunken silliness.
On a few occasions I tried to start playing again and within a few seconds just kept getting interrupted, but after about twenty minutes of hassle and trying to keep the situation happy, I said ‘Look mate, give us a break, I’ve got to get on with this and try and make some money, how about I sing you a song, Eh ?’ I thought if I can get on with some busking, he might get bored and wander off.
So I started playing for about the fifth time, this time choosing ‘Wonderwall’ thinking whatever he does this time, I’m not stopping for anything.
I think he got the message this time, but instead of moving on, he stood there in front of me, swigging his can and and growling at people with his hand out, trying to get money out of passers by.
A busker’s worse nightmare is someone out of their head making a scene in front of them and I thought surely no one is going to give him anything.
Just then about half way through the song, a lady and her little girl of about 4 years old streamed out of the shop opposite, with a coin in her child’s hand looking all excited to have been given some money to stick in my case.
They obviously had been oblivious to this guy’s actions while they were in the shop as with that she walked straight into the tramp’s path and he took off his hat and lowered it to the little girl, who’s face dropped like a stone. There wasn’t really much else she could do but nervously drop the coin in his hat and scurry away quickly. I just thought ‘Oh no, that’s going to put her off buskers for life’ and as he gleered at the pound coin she had put in his hat I thought, ‘o.k, let’s see what you do with it’.
He played with it for a while, taunting my case with this coin while I was still singing the song, and although I didn’t expect he would maliciously steal it, I did think he would probably forget what he was doing and just stick it in his pocket.
By the end of the song, he was still taunting my case with it so I said ‘Go on then, stick it in’ with which he regrettably threw it in, finishing his fun for the moment with another shake of his fist.
A couple of passers by who had been witnessing the scene from the coffee shop wandered by shouting ‘Oi Noel, I thought you’d sacked Liam’ which was quite amusing , but I didn’t play another song after that. It just wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want him freaking anymore kids out and I have a little girl around that age so I know how things like that can affect them.
Although the whole scene being made wasn’t really ‘nasty’ as such, it was still quite unnerving for me and for passers by, and having to be on guard while his mood constantly changed, wondering what he’s going to do next or if it was going to turn nasty wasn’t doing any favours for my busking abilities.
As we stood there, with him still acting somewhat erratically, he pulled out a tin from one of his pockets and opened it up to reveal a large pot of dark brown snuff.
He dipped his fingers in it and pulled out a huge pinch, offering me a dose.
I said ‘Thanks, but I’ll give it a miss’ and he raised it to his nostril and took a huge clumsy sniff, with half of it coating his nose and chin and the rest pouring down onto his coat, leaving his fingers and clothes covered in snuff. He then took another swig of his can without a care of the mess he’d thrown all over himself.
I could see then what all this stuff was he was covered in, and I was quite pleased that it wasn’t congealed blood or something worse as I’d first thought.
The antics continued for about another twenty minutes and by that time we had been there for about three quarters of an hour. I could tell that there was no way I was going shake this and the only thing I could do without getting physical or being mean was to pack up and go home. I thought of setting up further down the road but knew I’d probably be followed and the whole process would start again.
I packed up, still humouring him as pleasantly as I could and once I’d got my stuff together I said ‘See You Mate’ and started to wander off.
Once he realised I was actually going, he seemed to get quite offended and started growling more stuff at me, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
I came away from that busking session feeling pretty disheartened and although he’d ruined my session, I wasn’t annoyed, I felt more disturbed about the whole thing and quite sorry for the guy more than anything else.
I couldn’t help thinking about the situations that lead to him getting into a state like that, and it reminded me of a program I saw a while ago called ‘Saving Ed Mitchell‘ about the I.T.N news presenter who had sunk from being a successful television journalist with everything going for him, to a homeless alcoholic down and out living on the streets.
The outcome of a person’s life can be determined by many things, and even successful business men, sports heroes and legendary musician’s lives can be destroyed by making a few wrong decisions in life.
Whether a person’s downfall comes about for reasons beyond their control or are self inflicted due to addictions to substances like alcohol and drugs, none of us really know what’s around the corner and unless we keep checking ourselves and keeping our lives on the right course, we could easily find ourselves in the same situation a few years down the road.
I’m often exposed to weird situations when I’m in the street and sometimes the easiest option would be to threaten or whack someone who’s giving you attitude or hassle. But that’s not the way we do things, and one of the rules I live by is never to strike someone unless it’s in self defense and absolutely necessary, and even then, only if that person is a genuine threat and not just someone who’s had a few too many drinks or just winding you up.
You don’t have to back down or let people abuse you, but just be firm but also tolerant of people in these sorts of situations. Understand that being exposed to the general public will undoubtedly lead you into some weird scenarios and you should only ever resort to ‘kicking off’ when it’s the very last option available to you and you literally have no other choice.
Being tolerant of the general public is something all musicians have to get used to and whether it is in the street, in the pub or on stage, it’s all part of the process.