Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Canines and Coins: A Shaggy-Dog Essay on Busking with Bowwow

Yesterday. The sky was bright and the tunes were cheery, and on my morning ramble about the outdoor plaza, I tossed a coin into the fiddle case of a winter busker. The passers by were very scattered and the temperature was just above the freezing mark. Though he was bundled for the cold with his toque, parka, and snow pants, I couldn’t help but notice his red and white mittens beside him on the stones, and his mutt, a Chocolate Labrador, asleep at his feet.

Just what is with this age-old covenant between humans and dogs? Could it be that the bond between master and dog is stronger than any that exists between humans? Could it be for protection or emotional security? Personally, I have never owned a dog, but some of my best friends have had best friends who were dogs. No, I am not referring to the imaginary hound havens of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie and the Littlest Hobo; I am referring to the real Fidos and Towsers of my past, at least as real as my romantically nostalgic memory allows.

I remember Patches, who belonged to my friend, Brian Smith. Or it could be that Brian belonged to Patches. Brian’s dad owned the Massey Ferguson dealership in our town, and Patches spent endless hours snoozing by the front entrance of the shop. Sometimes when it rained, Patches would move inside to snooze. Patches was a patched black and white terrier. Patches never barked, just yipped a bit when rudely awakened. Everyone in our town knew Patches.

I remember Mac, the golden brown slobbery St. Bernard that walked my buddy Ricky Percival to school each and every one of the 200 school days of the year. Mac, the giant, would waddle alongside Ricky, and then lay in slumber on the sidewalk at the edge of the school yard waiting for Ricky’s return at recess and lunchtime and end of the school day. Like Patches, everyone in our town knew Mac.

And I remember Sandy, the sandy-colored Cocker Spaniel, who belonged to my best friend, Brent Hopfner. Unlike Patches and Mac, Sandy endlessly scrambled about following his master, Brent, on hikes, bottle hunts, and just generally hanging out.

Reminiscing, Patches behaved more like a cat than a dog. I suppose a stranger walking into the Massey Ferguson shop and seeing Patches would have cause to be wary, but strangers were very few and far between in our village.

Certainly not then, but curiously now, as I remember Mac, mountains and brandy barrels come to mind. And with little effort I can even hear yodeling songs across the cliffs.

And I remember Sandy, jumping up and down, chasing sticks, his ham-like tongue lolling out his panting and wide open mouth, his bright-eyed nary-a-care manner, loving every minute of anytime his master would venture him attention.

Over the years I have seen many a dog and busker together, and the partnership they project is dependent upon whether the master is a tony or a troglodyte. (Buskers regarded by the masses as troglodyte transfer that same condition to their dogs -- the people passing assuming these canine mates to be curs, mongrels, and fleabags.) Whether they be high-brow or low-brow, such busker-bowwow pairings always present a sylvan lifestyle, representing a rustic and idyllic presence amidst the urban hustle and bustle. Buskers with their canines are always closer to ragtag than riches, and this hardly goes unnoticed amongst their shopping middle class consumers.

By busker design, this performing partnership between human and dog can be a kind of stratagem, a mercenary maneuver to attract that hound-loving segment of the consumer population and, as well, for personal reasons:

-to draw the focus away from the ineptitude of the busker over to Bowser

-to attract children who always want to pet the dog

-to attract phatic chats from parents of these children, and then coin, of course

-to act as a heater for a chilled busker

-to act as audience on a sparse consumer day

-to attract the sympathy coin for the pouting pooch

-to offer protection and companionship and unconditional love

I guess in the big scheme of things we are indeed, featherless creatures who love furry companions. It is certainly well documented that our best friends can be dogs. And for those who have as best friends, dogs, it must be psychologically comforting to have four feet trotting in front or alongside or meandering and sniffing behind them.

To close, I guess it is rather sad that an arrogant blogging buskologist can only imagine the true gladdens of a wagging tail and a wet nose ... ruff ruff.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Project Mercury: An Essay On A Bar Band Experience

1961-1962. Yuri Gagarin was the first man into space. He was a Soviet. Alan Shepherd, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn soon follow. They were Americans, members of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the United States.

. The Mercury Café in Regina opens its doors. Outside on the roof there is a silver rocket. Inside there is décor of the 60’s, complete with paintings of rockets and astronauts mounted on the walls. The café colors are mainly red and silver, similar to many of the diners in the 1960’s.

The Mercury menu is deliciously 1961 -- Big fat juicy beef burgers with dill pickles cut in half, sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, plates of big fat fries with the right amount of crunch, and big thick chocolate milkshakes with thick straws in silver mugs.

It is Christmas Eve and I am woolgathering our gig debut at the Mercury Café. Each Friday night at 9:30 the Mercury Café converts into a bar. We played there from 9:30 ‘til 11:30 a couple of Fridays ago. As of late it has been bitterly cold in my marshmallow buskingdom of the Canadian Winter Wonderland, and so I booked an indoor gig at the Mercury Café.

Whenever I play indoors with just one or two other musicians, I do so under the nickname, Friday Harbor. (Friday Harbor is named after an American sea station where my daughter, Natika, had studied). This particular Friday Harbor was a boy-band scrabble: Hoe Down Eric with his fiddle, Surfer Nick with his acoustic, Bongo Baron with his cajon, and my thrumming self with the twelve-string. Nick and I prepared the song list from 60’s folk and rock charts, Johnny Cash to Bobby Dylan to Ian Tyson, and a dozen or so folk originals. We were hoping to appeal to the Mercury barflies, erroneously thinking they would be of the 60's zeitgeist ilk.

Performing at the Mercury Café was the tramontane of busking. As a practicing Buskologist I can state with authority: Milquetoast musicians do not busk; and only buskers who sea change into meshuggeners prosper on the bar stage. We galumphed into the Mercury Cafe at 9:30 in the evening, with zeroth being the number of times we had played in a bar. In daytime, the Mercury Café is a Cathedral area conversazione, filled with the chatter of university students, philosophers, and neo-beatniks. Come nighttime on Fridays, the Mercury Café transforms into a parley romance of guzzling, guffawing, and flirting.

The patrons in the parlour that night were noisy, yet gracious (they clapped after each of our forty some songs), and the Mercury staff was awesome (a special thank-you to Mikayla and Mike for their continuous all eve encouragement). Our Friday Harbor gig proved to be a worthwhile emprise, all of us hoping to replicate the performance sometime in the New Year.

Back to busking. In spite of the bitter weather, my frequent buskmate, Trent Leggott of Trent’s Guitar Studio, and I have decided to duo-banjitar busk for some social cause during this Christmastime. I am thinking, of course, for maybe the Canadian Mental Health Association, or the Schizophrenia Society of Saskatchewan, or SEARCH, or Phoenix Residential Society, or the Carmichael Outreach Center.

And to all buskers and consumers in every buskingdom on the planet …


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Come And Trip It : An Essay On The Light Fantastic

Come, and trip it as ye go,

On the light fantastick toe.

John Milton (1645)

When I was younger I travelled light. As an emerging adult I was on survey crews doing pipeline work in Western Canada (West Coast Transmission, Trans Mountain, and TransCanada in the North West Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba). Those days I worked seven days a week, sunup ‘til sundown, until the contract was completed, then go to wherever I wanted and wait for the next call. And when that call came, I’d stuff a week supply of clothes into my duffle bag and drive my beat up Datsun station wagon or fly Air Canada to Calgary or Edmonton or Kamloops.

I didn’t own property; I didn’t have a wife; I didn’t have kids; I had only myself. I wore only blue jeans and tee shirts and hiking boots. In winter I wore a sewer coat and in summer a jean jacket. I ate either at diners or out of a can. I had no anchors; I was rudderless; it was glorious.

Then the stuff came. Pretty soon I had a wife, kids, a steady job, and then property. I bought a reliable car to drive on family vacations. I wore dress slacks, collared shirts, and sports jackets to work. I shopped at the supermarket on a regular basis. No more beckoning telephone calls. I was grounded; I had a compass; with nary a regret I sold my soul to the company store.

And now, metaphorically, I’m reclaiming my youth. My kids have grown and gone. My working persona wears blue jeans, collared shirts, and work boots. My dwelling is a downtown two-bedroom apartment. I drive a used Ford van. I’m a busker.

As a busker, I’ve discovered the lighter I travel the more joy I experience. When I first began to busk I was not aware of this, and chose to be encumbered with a music stand and sheet music. This over-preparedness proved to be inconvenient and clunky, especially when a breeze came along. Paper clips were very necessary to keep everything contained.

At long last I’m able to trip on the light fantastic toe. Now when I busk I take only my banjitar and case. I thrum original tunes and make up new riffs as I go along. My buskpot is simply my banjitar case and that is that. Rarely do I sing and I never take requests. Busking in such light and simple fashion makes my sidewalk life so very, very easy and pleasant.

However, I could not have appreciated this simplicity had I not the intimate knowledge of workplace and recreational complexities. In my middleclass workplace I am crisp and professional and my income is more than substantial. But there is a trade-off. I have to endure meetings, meetings, and more meetings. With those meetings came paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. With that paperwork there is an accountability in the form of more meetings and paperwork. This is corporate bureaucracy at its finest.

All of this I can compare to my musical recreations. I’m one of the founders of the eight member band, The Grand Trunk Troubadours (the GTT). On the road we have amps, microphones, microphone stands, music stands, sheet music, and sound checks. We have protocols surrounding our playlist, our personal song choices, our start and end times, our venues. This, too, is bureaucracy.

Both in office and on stage, the degree bureaucracy is directly related to the number of players involved. However, such bureaucracy need not be pejorative. With professional people in best practice there needs to be accountability in order to ascertain certain progresses of the endeavor. We write smart goals for the office; we write play-lists for the stage.

I love my work and I love my band, even though both are rather Aesopian in their natures. To an outsider, the office looks terribly inviting. Office workers are cut and clean and push pencils. Being a scrivener seems better than being a digger of ditches. And to audience members, those on stage seem ever smiling, ever sweating, everywhere an oyster. Being an entertainer seems better than being a scrivener.

Having entry into the residency of either scrivener or entertainer, offers valuable insight into the political behaviors of the member drones and their agendas. Often such epiphanies prove to be transmogrifications. Both the workings in office and stage are usually steady as she goes in wonderful synchronicity. However, parts can crack, control centers can crash, and mechanical members can run amok. To reiterate, I love my work and I love my band. To jettison either or both will no doubt offer certain autonomy of effort and freedom. This, however, is totally at the discretion of the self. Such a decision could easily translate into more effort (working harder) and less freedom (working longer). With busking, this is hardly the case.

For me each busking day begins with lifting weights at the local gym, followed by an American Decaf at the coffee shop nearest my next pitch. Under the sun I am dressed in my tee and my blue jeans, sometimes wearing sunglasses, always wearing ankle laced work boots. For me each busking day is a dream of strum and thrum to the hundreds of passers by from the Chaucerian sidewalk parade. Every buskingdom is a day filled with chat chat and chuckles.

Busking gives me carte blanche travel with Annie Oakley tickets to boot. Also, fortunately for me, busking is but a bivouac from which to pitch my musical wares, an opportunity to bask freely beneath bright and sunny foreign skies; an opportunity to distance myself far and away from the carceral surround of tiny windows in office towers, the moil of meetings and microphones, the scratching of papers and playlists.