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.


  1. In NYC I saw the Naked Cowboy - he looks great but he is no musician... He is a model. He just strums the same few chords on his guitar over and over. People don't care, because all they want is to photograph him, not listen to his music. I thought he was great.
    I also saw the 'Saw Lady'. She plays music on a saw and she is an amazing musician. She doesn't have a wardrobe stick, but she does wear a shirt with her URL on it, to advertise her website, which is easy to remember: SawLady.com If you go there you might be interested in the link to her blog where she tells what happens when she plays in the subway.

  2. Hey Adooma,
    I checked out SawLady.com and you're so right -- she is awesome. Thank-you very much for your comments and the info!

  3. Great article, Neil! I've never seen the Naked Cowboy, but I know Darth Fiddler and just pointed out your blog to him. He's posted a link to your article on his FB Wall. Happy busking!

  4. Hey Lisa,
    Darth, unwittingly, was my up-the-street competition a few summers ago -- there was no contest! He was excellent, excellent, excellent! I am glad you pointed out my blog to him. Thank-you and thanks for the comments!