Saturday, January 29, 2011

Three Rules To Sing By: An Essay On Imperfect Pitch

Existentially in relation to guitar and banjitar busking, I'm suggesting three significant rules to sing by:

Rule #1: Never sneak into a song.

Rule #2: The notes are for those who don't know the tune.

Rule #3: Perfect pitch means nothing if you sing like a stick.

Many years back while in a band having five singers (Sharie and the Shades), our bass player, Ray, would remind us again and again to never sneak into a song. Step into that song exuding confidence and authority! Ray was our guru, having toured Eastern Canada in the 70's with the soft-rock lounge combo, The Lady and the Gentlemen. Ray was a seasoned performer, having had records released through RCA. He had the uncanny ability to play bass and rhythm guitar both by note or by ear, and was gifted with a set a jazzy pipes. Man, could that man sing!

It was also Ray who told us The notes are for those who don't know the tune. With a play list of over 400 songs in his head, Ray knew what he was talking about. In a philharmonic chorus, yes, each member ought to singing thee notes. Singing to scale and to time is essential for the overall sound of the choral group. Singing in a band is quite different. Even when doing covers, a singer need only be inspired by the original, not dictated by it. As long as the audience members recognize the song, you'll be fine.

After taking a few semesters of vocal training from a music conservatory and then going to busking school (joke), I have determined that Perfect pitch means nothing if you sing like a stick. This is the most pragmatic of my three suggested singing rules. Public performers who stand like a stick are signaling to the audience that another bathetic (not necessarily pathetic) performance is underway. Stick singers, not surprisingly, are incredibly commonplace. They are a dime a dozen and will likely earn a dime for every dozen passers by.

Here are more busking suggestions:

  • A busker ought to be much more than liminal. Buskers best be perceived as being wide awake and with it!

  • A busker ought to appear cordial to the crowd, and elastic to the song, sometimes tristful, sometimes jocund.

  • A busker (without instrument) ought to fillip. All the greats, from Dean Martin to Bobby Darin, Patti Page and our pet Juliette, filliped as they sang. Even Old Blue Eyes – the Chairman of the Board had his finger fashion snap when he crooned.

  • A busker has to scintillate to be successful. Figuratively, a busker ought to sparkle, providing the audience moments of brilliance.

And last, when it comes to song presentation … 'tis far better to be vinegar than to be vanilla!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bandmates To Go: An Essay On Vampires In My Life

They've caused me grief; they've caused me angst; they've beaten me down; they've drained me. Such has always been my Van Helsing life among the vampires.

Nosferatu. Dracula. Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Blade and 30 Days of Night. From Dawn Till Dusk and from the cult of Buffy to the corny Diaries and Twilight, vampires have long been in our midst. And some, even, become our emotional sucking bandmates.

I remember being in a band with a me-me-me-me-me vampire named Michael. Michael was a good looking guy, bespectacled, tall and lean, with musician long hair, and his fingers were Russian on those guitar strings. Michael was a narcissist. He had this grandiose sense of importance along with an imaginary entitlement. Though technically awesome on the electric guitar, Michael was socially draining his bandmates. Lacking any empathy, me-me Michael continuously needed things to be done his way. And he even threw tantrums. At one rehearsal Michael yelled at me to Shut up! Michael's exit from the band came shortly after.

I remember being in a band with a poor-me vampire named Patti. Patti was forever the victim. The other band members were blamed for her unhappiness. They didn't want to play the right songs, and if even they did, they played them the wrong way. Patti was gorgeous girl with angelic vocals, but a diva personality. When she didn't get her way she would pout and refuse to participate on other members' songs. And she could pout, and she pouted right up until the day we kicked her out of the band.

I remember being in a band with a control-freak vampire named Kenny. Kenny was grayer than the rest of us and had been around the music world for a couple of decades. He and his other band even cut a few records in America. Kenny knew the equipment inside out. He would alter the sounds, mind the microphones, mend the mixer. Kenny also needed to be the official spokesperson for the group. He was the maelstrom, all the rest of us just incidental swirls about his important position.

I remember being in a band with a drama-queen vampire named Deborah. She was short and round and ever chatty and her adventure stories were ever boring. Oh this would happen and that would happen and then oh my and then well for the life of me and then and then and then. Deborah sometimes showed for practice and was always late for gigs. Deborah was not a great singer and it was a treat to kick her out of the band.

All of these vampires which I described had a few things in common. All were high maintenance and all of their imagined strengths ironically proved to be their Waterloo. All of these vampires winkled their way into the band, and all were voted out through consensus. Any woolgatherings any of these vampires dreamed about, were dashed by their own self-centred shortcomings.

Good bandmembers are unflappable. They stay calm under duress. Just two nights ago, our newest band member, Eric the fiddler, sang Ophelia (The Band) for the very first time in public. We had rehearsed it just one time previous. Of course, we hung him out to dry a bit, playing the right chords in the wrong place and finally fixing things near the end of the song. All said and done, Just needs a tweak, Eric stated with a smile.

Two members in our band just want to play their instruments. One plays rhythm, the other the cajon. They get lost, mesmerized from the beginning to the end of every song we perform. These guys act vanilla, but they are great, great bandmates.

All of these above mentioned characters are but transitory and ephemeral musical experiences, and more reason why busking is so beautiful. Busking is beholding to no one. On a busk there need never be a compromise, never a spat, nor a kiss and make up, and ...

never, ever a vampire!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

It's Always Easier Not To: An Essay On Doing Nothing

Last Saturday shopping for groceries in Canadian Safeway, Mallory, a biker girl I know, approached me.

What do you do in the winter? Aren't you getting antsy? She asked.

She acknowledged that she was getting antsy and was planning some motorcycle trips come the first thaw. During the cold climes Mallory is a substitute teacher; during the warm climes she's a biker. On her last trip just before this winter, she rode her Hog through the Canadian Maritimes then down along the Eastern American Seaboard. And she looks the part. Her hair is spiked, her clothes are tight, and she definitely has that devil-may-care attitude. I like Mallory and I could listen to her zillion travel tales forever.

In a late response to her question: Yes, I am getting antsy. These Canadian winters stop my busking cold. They are like an ambuscade! From November through till March I abjure soliciting from the downtown pedestrian parades in Western Canada. I could whine on and on in my writing about this stoppage in transitu, but some necessary introspection forces me to seek the positive effects of this abstinence.

First off, doing nothing in Winter is hardly an artifice. Doing nothing is neither clever nor skillful. Doing nothing is being slothful. (Sloth was recognized as one of the seven deadly sins in the Middle Ages). Doing nothing is but a bivouac for temporary and imagined peace of mind. Come Springtime, a doing nothing Winter will lead to an eventual head storm of regret.

Doing nothing is a dalliance with lethargy, which is a synonym of sloth.

Doing nothing tends to obfuscate the romance of busking experienced in the warmer seasons. It tends to darken the erstwhile street memories of joy and excitement in those busking musical moments.

Doing nothing is akin to laziness, in the sense that laziness is the opposite of impulsiveness, a trait not uncommon to street buskers. Doing nothing in the non-busking seasons is not going to make you a better busker. Doing nothing cannot be likened to a well-deserved regenerative vacation typical to your middle class customers who toss to you their coins. Busking is not a middle class adventure; in fact, most middle class adventures could be cataloged as middle class misadventures by the any or all members of the free spirited busker community.

Doing anything is better than doing nothing; even simple jawboning is doing something. Talk may be cheap, but the rewards could prove be very valuable.

Doing nothing is passe. A busker needs to get his shtick together. A busker needs to learn new songs, learn new licks, and perhaps even, new instruments!

I am looking at my Winter calendar. I see that for several Tuesday evenings I have booked Friday Harbor, our small band, for some coffee house gigs. For entertaining at coffee houses we have some set ideas. Anything bigger than a trio is clunky. Ideally, we like a twelve string, a fiddle, and some auxiliary percussion, or pots and pans as we call it. When performing in Winter, Friday Harbor provides mostly instrumentals, which we've found very practical for indoor coffee house performances. One appreciated perk playing in coffee houses is the never ending java supply. As far as cash in kind is concerned, Friday Harbor plays only for tips, which we keep in a jar by the door.

Every Thursday evening our seven member band, The Grand Trunk Troubadours, is booked either for retirement homes, or hospitals. All band members have agreed that our band was created for community service and therefore, our fee, is for free. After each of these performances we are always offered an abundance of conversation and cakes and other sweets. (I just received a phone call this morning asking if we'd consider playing for a March Mardi Gras at a seniors shut-in facility, and course the answer was yes.)

Doing nothing is easy. It's always easier not to (just fill in the blank). Just keep in mind that …

Doing nothing never works!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Something Around The Corner: An Essay On The Radiance Of Busking

There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner

(G.K. Chesterton).

G.K. was right. Every time I am busking, radiance is always right around the corner. I know that my very next customer might toss a ten into my busk pot. I know that my very next customer just might invite me to play at some party for a couple hundred bucks. Busking, at best, is an austere adventure, and having an imaginary right-around-the-corner attitude makes it that more tolerable. Busking can be banausic, whereas positive imagery is always radiant.

Everyone knows that radiance is right around the corner because, generally, most of us are committed to a macedoine of everyday activities. Some of us are driving the kids to violin or drama lessons, or to swimming pools or hockey rinks. Some of us running errands, going to meetings, cleaning our cars and apartments. And some of us are getting ready for our next busk. All of this would be but more moil to be reckoned with, if not for the radiance we know awaits right around the corner. Our kids are going to become musicians or movie stars, or lifeguards or NHL'ers. These something-around-the-corner notions keep us moving (not exactly, of course, because most parents do recognize the value of recreation and are compelled to instill a sense of group and citizenship in their offspring). Whatever the motivation, this parental thirst for something-around-the-corner adventure is much more potable when we believe our children's prospects are at stake. Whether or not any of these future vistas are actually realized and whether they eventually quench this thirst is certainly always up for a debate of sorts.

Back to busking. The aureate of my (amateur) musical career asunder, of course, is busking. And to cosmeticize my love of busking with the belief that waiting for that radiance around the corner is somehow going to redeem me of this spartan lifestyle, is certainly not to appreciate the zen, the existential nature of busking. To actually demarcate between the now of busking somewhere on a street corner singing for whomever happens by and perhaps tossing a coin or two into guitar case, and that imagined radiance of something-right-around-the-corner seems somehow not being able to grasp the day, enjoy the moment, appreciate the animation and sprightliness of being alive at that right-now busk spot.

Admittedly, if I am in the doldrums, the imagination of something-right-around-the-corner radiance, will psychologically embigger my current situation. And I think this may be one of my many make-up-on-demand heuristics: Anything that keeps me putting one foot in front of the other in any walk of my life is, indeed, something-around-the-corner radiance.

What is your kismet? To be stuck in a particular spot for the rest of your time?

Of course not – because you know there is, indeed, something around the corner.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Be Good At What You Do: An Essay On Busker Identity

Be good at what you do, was the politic and savvy counsel given to Larry Hornung by Scotty Bowman. At the time, Larry was in the NHL playing defense for the St. Louis Blues, and Scotty Bowman was the team's head coach.

Your job is to get that puck out of our corners – do that and you'll keep your job, said Scotty to Larry.

(Larry later said to me that whenever he went into the corner to get the puck it was like his job was always on the line, that it was like getting money out of the corner.)

Getting that puck was Larry's calling card as a professional hockey player in the NHL. He knew what he was good at and he did it. Buskers, too, need calling cards. Be good at what you do is sound advice for anyone who is out there busking for a living.

While I write about buskers and their calling cards, two examples especially come to mind, The Naked Cowboy and Darth Fiddler. The Naked Cowboy's busking turf is New York City's Times Square. He wears only a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and briefs. His shtick is to strategically place his acoustic over his privates, presenting an illusion of nudity. The Naked Cowboy has claim to fame enough to just recently announce his intention to run for President in the USA in 2012 as a Tea Party candidate.

Darth Fiddler's busking turf is just above the Inner Harbour in Victoria, Canada. Darth Fiddler is a doppleganger to Darth Vader, Vader, obviously being the evil twin. The busking Darth plays a mean fiddle and people drive for miles to have their pictures taken alongside him. I've seen Darth several times over the years and one time even had a glimpse of him without his hood! He was leaning backward and sipping from a water bottle. He looked quite spent, actually, and no, he was not my father!

What is your calling card? What makes you stand out?

The Naked Cowboy offers sex appeal. Darth Fiddler offers euphonious wickedness. Over the years I have tried different identities. My first foray into costume as a busker was to dress like a cowboy. I bought used green leather cowboy boots from a Victorian cobbler, and a white cowboy hat from Value Village. My son's girlfriend gave me a red neckerchief and I had plenty of western style shirts. In giddyup cowboy fashion I yodeled only cowboy songs. I had all the horn and rattle but with limited success.

The next summer busking my garb was as a folk singer, with blown away hair, muscle shirts, faded jeans, and boots or sneakers or sandals. This free-like expression, I find, still pays huge dividends at street fairs and folk festivals.

Never having the urge to get too, too nattily attired I seem to always rely on just a couple of guises. When I play guitar I go with the folk look, and when I busk with my banjitar I go a bit dapper, wearing a bowler, derby, or tam, and a white shirt with long sleeves and a crisp collar. For legwear I always wear jeans, and for pediwear I don workboots.

Not only do The Naked Cowboy and Darth Fiddler look great, they are good at what they do! The Naked Cowboy strums in the buff and Darth fiddles in full armour. Aside from costume, certain proficiencies in either instrumentation or vocal skills too, are necessary. And as all of you buskers already know, you need both gregariousness and gust to go on a busk. Anyone can be a busker, but to be a successful busker you must offer a calling card. No busker can do everything, but all buskers can do something.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch -- You do need to be good at what you do.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

It's The Real Thing: An Essay On My Coca-Cola Past

I am staring at a Coca-Cola bottle I stole, unwittingly, from the Mercury Cafe in Regina, Saskatchewan. Is this green-tinged translucent beauty for which I used to pay 8 cents for a small and 10 cents for a large, not including the extra 2 cents if I were choosing to drink it outside the diner, an anachronistic signal from my past? No it is not. Rather it is a retro model, freshly delivered from the Coca-Cola factory each week, directly to the Mercury Cafe I am told. And so, not unlike the rest of us, the Coca-Cola Company, too, has a yen for the past (or at least to humor the yen for its customers who have a yen for the past).

Generally speaking, everyone, when given the opportunity loves Coca-Cola. Not to besmirch Pepsi or Crush or Barq's (or those flexuous bottles from Fanta) but I've met many, many people who've had an adhesion (synonymous to an addiction) to Coca-Cola. Some noteable members of this Coca-Cola caucus include Ron, with whom I'd taught swimming at the YMCA and who drank upwards of a dozen cokes a day, and my present colleagues, Jay and Mike and Peach, who, whenever I see them, are ever sipping from a can of coke. I include myself in this caucus. Whenever I have a shot of bourbon I always mix it with Coca-Cola, one dram of bourbon, three ounces of coke.

And so dear readers, both cola and uncola drinkers alike, I invite you to march right alongside me in my Coca-Cola callithump on this first day in 2011, whilst I reminisce.

I quite remember the cold, crisp taste of Coke during my lazy adolescent days of confusion and hotness. Coke then indeed, was both delicious and refreshing. I remember that if you could chug-a-lug a coke you would get the hiccups. I remember if you added Lik'em Aid to Coke you would purposely spray the cafe ceiling.

I remember that things went better with Coke. Potato chips, 5 cents for a small bag and 10 cents for a large bag of plain, barbecue, or salt 'n vinegar, were wonderful to munch and wash down with Coke. Pretty Boy, a teenage friend of mine, purchased a Coca-Cola drink and Caramilk bar practically every Summer day, then punched out Nashville Cats on the juke box. Chocolate sweets and top forty hits have always gone better with Coke.

Coke was the real thing, even when my future was not. Those days I was unaware of collectivistic and individualistic cultures; those days I had political and religious attachments. Those days the richest in town were the most affluent and included a few wheat farmers (those who didn't spend their winters in the beer parlour), the bank manager, certain school teachers, and the municipal secretary.

Those days one could buy a stick of licorice or a plug of licorice for 2 cents. A small package of cigarettes cost 39 cents, a large pack 45 cents, or two cigarettes for five cents from a pickle jar down at the pool hall. Those days Department of Highways crew members in the field earned $1.74 per hour. Labourers in the private sector could earn upwards to $2.50 an hour. A fancy new brick house could be built for $40,000. and a brand new Chevrolet could be purchased for $2400. Gasoline was 43 cents a gallon. Beer was $3.40 a dozen, $1.70 for a six pack, and 21 cents a glass. Water was free.

Those days were Rockwellian.

These days I am a busker with those days hazed in romantic nostalgia. This Coca-Cola bottle that I stole from the Mercury Cafe is significant to my past and my present. This Coca-Cola bottle used to represent a wonderful world.

It still represents a wonderful world -- Coke is it.