Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Bag Lady and the Busker: An Essay on Social Strata

Photography courtesy of William Wright

Christina stumbled out of the Cimmerian shadows. It was 7:30 P.M. and we were busking on a luminous tract just off Government Street, a picturesque roadway situated in the downtown district of Victoria. Government Street is an unwrinkled postcard of billowing patriot flags, flower baskets hanging from lamp posts, giant concrete flower pots hugging the curbs, pubs, dance clubs, theaters, and coffee shops. The shop window displays along Government Street are a European spectacle of English woollens, Irish lace, and Scottish tartans, and every now and then, the anomalous mercantile of First Nations fashions and jewelry.

Singing Summer Wine, a 60's song by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, is when Christiina came along. Christina was a bag lady, complete with a shopping cart full of bags, bottles, and cans. Moving directly beside us, right between Baron and myself, Christina joined us in song. When we sang Ian Tyson's Someday Soon it could have been Ian's sweet Sylvia joining us with her vocals. She didn't know the words to The Weight by Robbie Robertson, but Christina hummed along anyway.

Christina was scruffy. A soiled yellow bandanna was tied loosely around her head, the strands of mousy nut-brown hair still hanging over her drooping eyes. In another life her face might have been pretty, but her smirk and distinctive beer breath made it difficult to venerate. As if in uniform, she wore a small tight cotton t-shirt tucked into her tight fitting rayon pants, both of which might have been a crisp white at one time. Had it not been for Christina pushing her shopping shopping cart of belongings, she may have passed, on first glance, as a commonplace worker just off the late shift a laundry mat, a bakery, or a fast food kitchen.

After we sang The Weight, Christina went back to her cart, dug around a bit for some coin, then tossed nineteen cents, a dime and nine pennies into my guitar case. She told of us of how her husband had stolen her last beer, and then she sat down on the curb and cried. A lady passing by stopped, chatted with Christina, and handed her ten dollars on the promise that Christina would use it to buy food.

Beer is food, isn't it
, Christina stated once the lady had walked out of sight.

Baron and I played a few more tunes before rolling up our mat and moving along, mainly to get away from Christina. For Christina, now, had decided to join us, her cart parked beside her, between Baron and myself. All the passers by, I am guessing, were believing the three of us to be a sort of busking trio, shopping cart filled with clothes, bottles, and cans included.

Imagine that! A busker worried that the people passing by may think he is nothing but a cadge!(Knowing what I know about the public status of both buskers and bag ladies, it very well could have been that the people passing may not have wanted to be bracketed with either one!)

At the time I was embarrassed – today I am ashamed that I was embarrassed! Christina, if ever you are reading this, here is a song I wrote just for you, and what might have been had we met elsewhere, an alternate history perhaps, a middle class misadventure -- in a downtown office on Government Street.

And, dear readers, on a social strata I did believe, in those musical moments, Christina to be beneath me – oh how could I have been so benighted! The epiphany of this essay is ironic, strange, and funny. It is ironic in the sense that I, a lowly busker, had somehow socially risen above a paying customer in the apparition of a bag lady. It is strange in the surreal sense that a bag lady stumbled out of the shadows to enlighten my life. And funny – our judgment of others is really a rather focused projection of ourselves. A social stratum is a social psychological stratum, nothing more, nothing less. To dare compare Christina's worth to my worth is not to imagine us being on even ground. We were, and still are, on even ground. I was to her as she was to me, nothing more, nothing less. Have a good night, Christina, wherever you may be!


[chorus – hum only]

[F]I only go to work so I can take another look at sweet [Em]Christina

[F]And every time she passes by she’s sure to always act the perfect [Em]stranger (stranger)

[F]That’s okay because tomorrow we’ll be together [Em]forever

[G]In my dreams


[F]Ooooooh sweet [Em]Christina (3x)

[G]In my dreams

[F Em]
With wanton eyes I stare each day at every move she makes my sweet Christina

[F Em]

And every day she gives her raven hair a flick I know she knows I see her

[F Em]

But that’s okay because tomorrow we’ll be together forever


In my dreams


[BRIDGE]accented singular down strokes --Female singer for verse 3

[F Em]

I only go to work so he can see me

[F Em]

But I’m so shy when he’s nearby I act the perfect stranger

[F Em]

That’s okay because tomorrow we'll be together forever


In my dreams

Saturday, October 16, 2010

These Boots are Made for Working: An Essay on TV Cowboys and Busking

A trio of portly cigar puffing gentlemen wearing light summer suits and very dark sunglasses strutted past -- one of which returned, and tossed a fin into my guitar case.

Nice boots, he said.

Nice boots indeed. Rocky - Techno Ride Billings Saddle cowboy boots, seahorse emerald in color. I had purchased these extraordinary work boots an hour previous, used, from a downtown cobbler.

Photography courtesy of William Wright

I was saving these particular boots for a costume party, stated the cobbler, but I guess you can have them for thirty-five dollars.

Sold! I replied.

And I'll re-sole them for you, he said.

We had arrived! Attired in our Western costumes, I in my white cowboy hat bought at Value Village, and my brand new used cowboy boots, and Baron wearing his snappy camel Western shirt and red neckerchief, it was the perfect day for busking in Bastian Square, Victoria, BC. At the top of the Square was a Beatle tribute band, the Sutcliffs. She loves you ya, ya, ya screamed down the corridor. Between the top and bottom of the square there were artists selling paintings, oil and watercolor, bearded merchants in flowing robes peddling knitted scarves and carved jewelry, and a garden market bursting with fresh greens and many other colored pieces of produce. At the base of Bastian Square are two fancy restaurants, both situated on Wharf Street, each having crowds of pedestrians forever in que for the coveted outdoor seating, no doubt attracted by the delectable scent of fishes and steaks sizzling on the outdoor grills. Already served customers could be seen sipping red wine, talking on cell phones, typing on laptops, and some just reading regular softcovers.

Just across Wharf Street the honkings of the tug boats zipping up and down the harbor were barely audible, the squawks of the diving and dipping seagulls piercing, as the people continuously became more congested into Bastian Square.

I had been to Victoria, British Columbia, several times over the last few years and for some notion had developed a yen to be one of the buskers along the causeway of the Victoria Inner Harbor.

This yen that I had was undoubtedly prompted by my watching television westerns in the fifties and sixties. Westerns, then, had a couple of prevalent themes; one being that a stranger comes to town, and the other being, a lone rider leaves town on his horse for yet another adventure elsewhere. I suppose these themes are really one and the same, especially if one reckons that the stranger coming to town is that same fellow that rode out from the other town.

Two westerns especially come to mind: Have Gun Will Travel and The Deputy. The lead character in Have Gun Will Travel was Paladin, a suave gunslinger whose home base was a San Francisco hotel. At the start of every episode Paladin, so nattily attired, would receive a telegram from someone requesting his professional hired gun services. Paladin’s business card read Have Gun Will Travel. And just before the theme music, we’d be watching Paladin, now dressed in all black, riding his horse to somewhere to save the day.

The Deputy had Henry Fonda, a U.S. Marshal, ride into town every week to recruit a young man, Clay, who ran a general store along with his young and pretty wife. Clay’s wife always begged him not to go, but every episode Clay would become The Deputy.

Cripes! Who wouldn’t want to be like these guys! Riding in, riding out, an adventure here, another adventure there. Who would not want to be likened to Paladin and Clay? At the start of each television story the mood was set as normal but mundane. Then that situation would change! Bummmbedumdum Dummmmm! The music changed and the next scene the cowboys would set out.

I had imagined that being a busker would have that kind of a life, carefree and confident, ready to handle a situation to help some distressed soul who lives elsewhere. A busker could go anywhere, could just follow the sun so to speak, and when the warmth of the sun lowered in late October, early November, a busker would have made enough coin to mozy on elsewhere, perhaps becoming a drifting busker of sorts along the cities and towns of anywhere warm, the Mediterranean Sea coast even. The life of a busker could be even more exciting than that of a television cowboy. Afterall,fifties and sixties tv cowboys were stuck in black and white; polarized. As a busker I could imagine my life being filled with technicolor.

I made an email contact with the Victoria Harbor Authority and we were invited to come out to audition. Regina is a twenty hour road trip to Victoria, a rather arduous journey, even for a wannabe cowboy. However, a representative of the Harbor Authority agreed that a video would be sufficient. We made the video and mailed it right away.

However, the Harbor Authority wanted causeway entertainers as early as May, and because we could not leave Regina until the end of June, it was suggested we drop by the Harbor office when we arrived and an attempt would be made to find us a spot. This was enough of a go-ahead for us to saddle up and ride West.

We made arrangements to rent a small house within twenty minutes walking distance to downtown Victoria. This was to be our home from June 28th until July 14th. Even though all performances on the harbor are unplugged, Baron and I packed a couple of microphones and a battery powered amplifier, in the hope we would have opportunity to do some busking elsewhere. Our music gear consisted of a djembe, a set of bongos, my twelve string guitar, and two binders containing our seventy-eight song playlist. We also had a roll-out slat rug on which to set up and create our street performing space.

Driving from Regina to Victoria we made two overnight stops, one in Bassano, a small dusty cowboy town in the Alberta foothills, and Kamloops, a modern cowboy city of a hundred thousand people situated in the heart of the British Columbia interior.Leaving Kamloops, we drove fours along the Coquihalla Highway to the coastal village of Tsawwassen to board the ferry.While waiting in the line at Tsawwassen to board the ferry, two twenty-something, slim and unshaven fellows, Geoff and Banning, wearing pirate hats stomped by, one playing guitar, the other holding a video camera. In passing conversation they introduced themselves and inform us they had just returned from a beach in the British Columbia Shuswap. They were marching down the ferry line to add some cheer for the people waiting to board. After showing them our music equipment they invited us to jam with them once all of us were on board the ferry.

And we did jam with them. Just off to the side of the entrance to the cafeteria, for an hour we entertained ourselves and anyone who would listen, Banning and I on guitar, Baron on the bongos, and Geoff, singing and operating the video camera. This hour increased my enthusiasm for our coming summer busk. After the jam we said goodbye to Banning who was returning to his radio job in Tofino, and to Geoff who was off to South America for some scuba diving.

We did some sight seeing the rest of the crossing. From Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay is like a taste of the Mediterranean Sea right off the Canadian Pacific coast. It is a many island paradise.

Arriving in Swartz Bay we drove down island right into Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. The 350,000 people residing in Victoria enjoy the purportedly best weather in Canada. It is a marvelous city, especially the downtown and inner harbor areas. Cruise ships arrive almost daily from different parts of the world, most of which having two thousand voyagers descending the planks to wander the inner harbor and the downtown shops in Victoria. Along the inner harbor these tourists will pass by xylophone, accordion, drum players, and of course, guitarists. They’ll pass by performers who are juggling fire while riding unicycles; they'll pass by wood carvers, craft and jewelry makers, and caricature artists. And when these tourists leave the inner harbor for an evening walk downtown, they’ll see Darth Fiddler frantically playing his violin, and just up street they’ll have an opportunity join the circle of fans clapping for a very talented Marimba troupe. Walking anywhere along Government Street and all the connecting side routes, tourists will be offered many a song and dance by at least a dozen buskers on guitars, violins, and a variety of horns. And at least one of the street musicians will be playing a sitar.

Over the next while Baron and I would be counting on these tourist voyagers to drop some coins into our busk pot.

I put together a song of my favorite television cowboys, the lyrics of which I remember as they were originally sung. Pull on your cowboy boots --




[G]He dreams of [Em]horses

[G]He dreams of [Em]Texas

[G]He watches [Em]Lone Star on his[D] TV

[C]And only that[Em] Indian

[C]On that test [EM]pattern

[C]Hears him [Em]sing these cowboy [D7]songs.



Back when the West was very young

There lived a man named Masterson

He wore a cane and derby hat

They called him Bat, Bat Masterson …


[Verse 2]


Who was the tall dark stranger there?

Maverick is the name

Ridin’ the trail to who knows where

Luck is his companion

Gamblin’ is his game …

Cheyenne, Cheyenne

Where will you be traveling tonight?

Lonely man, Cheyenne …


[Verse 3]


Have gun will travel reads the card of a man

A knight without armor in a savage land

His fast gun for hire in the calling wind

A soldier of fortune is the man called

Paladin …

[Verse 4]


Sugarfoot, Sugarfoot

Easy lopin’ cattle ropin’

Sugarfoot …

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp

Brave, courageous, and bold

Long live his fame and long live his story

And long may his story be told


[Verse 5]


Dumdedadumdedadumdedadum Bonanza!


Happy trails to you

Until we meet again


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Darkness of the Shirts on my Back: An Essay on Positive Addiction

Mid-day at the Fredrick Hill Mall. The brilliance of Oskna Ka-asasteki, the bronzed giant buffalo, shone under the Autumn rays of the old gold sun; two banners emblazoned upon twin towers, depicting one hundred years of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, shone far into the robin's egg sky. Eddies of orange and yellow leaves intermittently danced to our tunes, the waltzes and maxixes of the kappellmeister breezes swirling along the grey and red brick walkway. We chose an auspicious spot for our busk station among the specialty shops of smoke and magazines, chocolate and ice cream, and comics. Two outdoor patios were on either side of us, our nostrils assailed by the congeries of a Punjabi restaurant specializing in tandori chicken, mixed with that of a pizzaria specializing in beer. We were set up right beside the goth shop, Madame Yes Dark Fashion.
Sipping our drams of Americano decaf between songs, the burley and always affable Gary Bresch, a fellow well known for his repartee, approached us.
Child, I enjoyed your last blog except for one thing, he said.
What's that? I replied.
Buskers don't wear expensive hats! Check out the Sally Ann shops and Value Village. You'll see the hats that buskers wear, he said.
I bought my cowboy hat at Value Village, I replied.
But you bought your derby there, he stated as he pointed his finger right at Madame Yes Dark Fashion.
I remind the reader that I am but a faux busker – my real money income is from my full-time high school guidance counsellor job, my part-time university instructor job, and my private downtown counselling practice. Because of my middle class privilege I have some wherewith to spend money on my image. In my last essay I wrote about hats (the one Gary was referring to) ; this time I am going to write about my other addiction – buying black shirts at Madame Yes Dark Fashion.
It was thirty-six years ago this month that 700 runners responded to a questionnaire William Glasser, a psychologist, had published in the October 74 issue of Runner's World magazine. From the responses, of which 75% professed to be addicted to running, Glasser became convinced that running was the most basic solitary survival activity, and that it produced a sense of confidence more effectively than any other form of physical exercise. Glasser then wrote the book, Positive Addiction, the theme being that positive addictions could strengthen and make lives more meaningful.
The skinny of Positive Addiction is simple. Suppose a person has an addiction to a particular activity that is generally and socially regarded as being negative. An example: When a person gets into the habit of being frequently intoxicated, and this drinking is causing negative effects on either family life or work life, this would be considered a negative addiction. Another example: If a person is frequently spending a significant amount of a paycheck at the local casino, and this spending behavior is causing delinquency in paying bills elsewhere, especially for rent, groceries, and family activities, this, too is generally regarded as being a negative addiction.
Now suppose these same people, the drinker and the gambler, by design, take up an activity that is generally and socially regarded as being positive, violin playing, picture taking, weight lifting, even running being some examples. Glasser proposed that any person who became so hooked and entrenched in a positive activity by way of continued practice and study, in so doing that person's negative addiction would eventually dissipate, therefore freeing up more time for the person to indulge in the new positive and addictive activity.
And just where am I going with this? To my world of busking, of course!
Before I was a busker I was a band member. My very first band was Sherry and the Shades. Sherry and the Shades consisted of a lead guitar player, a bass player, a keyboard player, a drummer, and five singers. I was one of the singers. We mostly performed sixties and seventies rock and roll covers. One of the other singers and myself practiced daily, and the band rehearsed weekly. Sherry and the Shades made the rounds for a couple or three years, ever nascent to our final fifteen minutes of fame, being the featured band on a real live television show at Christmastime.
That was my Sherry and the Shades past; presently I am a member of three bands, the Grand Trunk Troubadours, Friday Harbor, and Seahorse.
The Grand Trunk Troubadours (GTT) is a community service band that meets every Thursday evening for either a gig or a rehearsal. Our gigs are always in hospitals or retirement community homes. Mostly we perform for free, though sometimes honorariums are offered and graciously received. The GTT is so named from our original meeting place. All of the original members of the GTT were students in vocal training at the University of Regina Music Conservatory on College Avenue in Regina SK. College Avenue was formerly 16th Avenue, formally the street of the Grand Trunk Railway Station. The Grand Trunk Troubadours is seven years strong and still has three of its original members.
Friday Harbor is a coffee house folk band. Friday Harbor was named after the location of a marine biology station in Washington, U.S.A. My daughter used to work there in summers when she was a student at the University of Victoria. My Tuesday nights are reserved for Friday Harbor.
Seahorse is the name of our busking band. Seahorse was the hurried name we submitted for our busking permit in Victoria BC. Seahorse has just two permanent members, my eldest son, Baron, on hand drums, and myself, on either twelve string or banjitar. Oftentimes, we have guest performers on our busks. Summers are reserved for Seahorse.
Previous to my band memberships I did not have a drinking problem; I did not have a drugging problem; I did not have a gambling problem. Ever since I joined a band I have had an addiction problem – buying black shirts!
In all of the bands of which I've been a part since and including Sherry and the Shades, black shirts have been the only dress heuristic, and adhesion to this black-shirted policy has always been shared by all of our band members. In Sherry and the Shades all band members wore black shirts and donned sunglasses. In the GTT we wear either black or white shirts and jeans. Most everyone wears the black. In Friday Harbor we wear either black or white with jeans – mostly black. And in Seahorse, we usually choose the blacks. The two exceptions to our blackness is when the temperature is hot or humid, or when I play only the banjitar.

[My shirt pictures are courtesy of William Wright - check out his photoblog]

All of these shirts were purchased from the ever enchanting Susan, owner and manager of Madame Yes Dark Fashion.

Even though I am but a faux busker, I am quite aware of the real buskers in my community. Guys like Rye, a full-time guitar and harmonica busker, and Desmond, a first rate fiddler busker are Saturday fixtures at the local farmers' market. Both these buskers are familiar strangers so to speak; we acknowledge one another, have the occasional chat, and that is that.
Another of my familiar strangers is Randy. Randy's modus operandi is betwixt a busker and a cadge; he is a picker, and for years, has been wandering about the back alleys of downtown Regina. This is the song I wrote about my familiar stranger, Randy. Feel free to use it on any of your busks.

[Am]Strolling down these smelly [G]alleys
[F]Pop and beer cans in my [E]hand
[Am]Digging for buried treas[G]ure
[F]In other people's [E]litter
[E]I'm a [Am]picker.

[Am]Shop next for [G]free at the [F]Sally[E]Ann
[Am]Eat at the soup [G]kitchen when[F]ever I [E]can
[Am]So just leave me … [E]leave me ...[Am]be
Am G F E
Rummage each day through these back alley bins
Am G F E
Come sun-up tomorrow you'll see me again
Am E Am
So just leave me … leave me … be
Am G F E
I'm just pickin' garbage I'm not pickin' your brain
Am G F E
I'm minding my business wish you'd do the same
Am E Am
So just leave me … leave me … be
Am G F E
Drifted away from my chores on the farm
Am G F E
Took the country by train and then joined the marines
Am E Am
So just leave me … leave me … be
Ok, Gary, I am addicted (positively) to buying expensive hats and shirts but so what! Charles De Gaulle just about said, You start out giving your hat … then your shirt … and finally your soul. I once gave away a cowboy hat to my GTT band mate, Bill; and I have donated scads of shirts to Salvation Army Thrift Shops.
As for my soul – every time I busk, I give a piece of it away.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Cat in the Hat: An Essay on the Artifice of Auxiliary Headiness

Photography courtesy of William Wright

Writing is work. It demands time; it demands talent. And here is the irony; in Summer when I have lots of time I write very little, and in Autumn and Winter when I have little time I write lots. Perhaps I am apologizing to you, my readers, about the frequency (or lack thereof) of my bloggings. Enough of this. From this day forth I shall attempt to keep my readership informed of my current buskapades more frequently than I have been as of late.

This particular entry is to be about hats, the logical extension of my previous post, Cap – a – Pie: An Essay on the Hat and Sole of Busking. I shall state immediately and emphatically: I urge anyone on a busk to don some headgear, for doing so can be quite lucrative (from a very mercenary perspective).

As for my personal preferences for headgear, I shall describe asunder. I wear a cowboy hat when I strum and sing cowboy songs. My favorite cowboy hat is one that I purchased at Value Village in Victoria, BC. Those days I imagined myself as a doppleganger to Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys!

Of course, oftentimes the clime will dictate the headgear to be worn. On a cool Autumn busk I always wear a toque, and when doing so have always imagined the Mike Christopher look to be my projection. Outdoors among the masses, a certain headwear has that strange ability to embellish one's attractiveness, because busking at its best is really a gloze, a deception, a mask of one's true appearance (unless of course you are instrumentalizing and soliciting even during your bedtime hours). Any type of hat will always add a little tony to your visual street presentation.

To put this headiness into perspective, I shall give a quick review of some personal busking heuristics.

Rule #1. One must be motivated and have the desire to be a busker.

Rule #2. One must develop a technical skill to be a busker.

Rule #3. One must develop a tactical strategy to be a busker.

Wearing a headpiece is part of Rule #3. (Rule #1. Yes, you have a yen for adventure and angst. Yes, you have the urge to be going somewhere – else. Rule #2. Yes, you can play a guitar. Yes, you have a great voice. Rule #3. Yes, you have written some great songs. Yes you have that look – the right hat will enhance, even transmogrify that look!)

Whether on vacation or buskation, I am always on the qui vive for the perfect hat.

You may have noticed I have started to add pictures to my blog. If something requires the use of a knife and fork – I am your guy. If something requires some computer savvy – I'm not your guy. Please be patient whilst I learn the lowdown of the upload of this or that to my posts. And in return for your patience, I shall submit for you an original song, complete with lyrics and chords. My next post I hope to have a recording of this same song for you to doubleclick.

The backdrop to this song: In Regina, Saskatchewan, at the corner of Broad Street and College Avenue is a new development called Canterbury Place. Canterbury Place, by English design, is to be filled with condos, nifty shops, and even a replica of Big Ben. I had imagined a guy, like myself, to be busking there. I had imagined this fellow to be strumming and singing in the main square beneath that big clock. And I imagined the ladies to be winking at him, whilst clinging to their boyfriends. Here it is. Try it out on the next ruck of pedestrians you're entertaining. Put on your hat and go, Cat, go!




[C]Girls at Canterbury Sta[F]tion

Are [G]flicking drooping [Am]eyelids while [C]clinging to their


Who are [G]clapping to my [Am]tunes

And [E7]tossing coins … toward my re[Am]demption. [X3 at end]

[verse 1]


Girls at Canterbury Station

G Am C F

Nibble sour cream on bagels and sip their frigid beers

G Am

Beneath the courtyard clock.

E7 Am

And I hearken to the tickings … reckon my beginnings once again.


[verse 2]


For I am but a busker

G Am C F

A customary hustler slinging my guitar

G Am

Where certain people gather

E7 Am

At Canterbury Station … where they toss a coin or two for what I do.

[chorus] X2