Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Yeah, I'll Give You a Euro... To Shut Up!

A couple of days ago, walking through Brussels I heard some guy (I hesitate to call him a "street musician") "playing" "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" on the violon. Although it was more like "My Bonnie Lies... um, oh yeah... Ovreeeee... um, Over the Ohshun." I'm sure I've heard him massacre the same song (which isn't exactly a Paganini-esque, now is it?) on another occasion.

Are we tougher on or more indulgent of street musicians than we are with... "indoor" musicians? I'd like to think not and simply reminisce about memorable encounters.

In 1999, in New York, I'm rushing to a Foot Locker to buy a pair of shoes before going to the airport. I come out of the subway and this guy is singing "Satisfaction" and accompanying himself on guitar. He's singing the same line, maybe winding up the song. I try on the shoes, buy them, walk back to the subway, the guy is still at the same point in the song.

Much more recently, I'm walking down the main shopping street in Antwerp. First up is this black guy on guitar. He can't play but has a great growly voice. A hundred metres later, I hear the worst, most cringe-worthy version of "Redemption Song" ever (and that's saying something). Then, an East Asian guy is playing violon. I don't really hear him play because as I pass, a girl drops some change in his hat. The violinist stops playing, runs after the girl and gives her a chocolate.

Of course, the lowest of the low, in my estimation, are the ubiquitous Peruvians playing "My Heart Will Go On" and other such pap on pan pipes with pre-recorded muzak backing. These guys are everywhere, on every square in every semi-major European city or so it seems and some even sell CDs, so there must be a market, but I really can't see who would enjoy that crap. Whenever I hear them, I feel a call to violence coursing through my veins... or something like that.

Back in the Sussex University days, I stumbled across a fun small jazz combo in Brighton's Laines a few times. I'd come out of the comic book shop and listen to them for a bit, as they'd attempt to improvise call-and-response chants based on car models. Of course, after "Ford Fiesta" and "Vauxhall Corsa," the leader's supply started to run low and the music to fall apart. I'd give them 50p.

Then you have the weird instruments guys (no, pan pipes don't count). Like the guys with what looks like a miniature version of a piano's strings exposed and hit with tongs of some sort. Or that band (which doesn't seem to be there any more) with a huge triangular bass in the hallway between the main hall of Brussels's Gare Centrale and its Metro station. Or the violon with a sort of trumpet bell stuck on it.

You get people underground, in the subway, too, of course. I remember hearing this young harmonica player a number of times and, the last time, thinking "Hey, you've improved!" A couple of accordeon players in the tram once were actually a lot better than that description sounds. They brought some joy to that trip.

My latest find was probably my greatest to date. Next to the Grand'Place, this old guy sitting on his amp, with a big white beard, few teeth, wrinkled face, old trucker hat, singing some kind of country-swing music with vigorous glee. He was awesome, it was like he had just arrived in Brussels from Alabma or something. He was more entertaining than a lot of the acts I saw that same week-end at the Jazz Marathon...