Strumming on the Street, Part II

Apr 04, 2008

…To my utter shock and glee, passersby started plunking coins into my open guitar case not long after I began…


I say I wanted to see what the “busking” scene was all about down in Melbourne; but really, it was the friend who’d hired me to write—she’s the one who suggested I try it. I said, “You want me to come out here and do my little lazy-hobby thing in front of all these people?” To which she replied: “You don’t know anybody down here…How humiliating could it be? And who knows, maybe you could make a few bucks while you’re at it!”

Well, in truth, we had just walked past a particularly mangy-looking adolescent on a street corner, one mauling a perfectly good guitar and shrieking like an Inquisition victim being lengthened on the rack. He was getting money, too. Presumably to be quiet at his earliest possible convenience.

So I thought, what the heck? She’s right. Who do you know down here? How bad could it be? Could you be any worse than Inquisition Boy?

The next day, we bypassed a juggler, a human statue, a mime, a portraitist, musicians, and a bed-of-nails guy (!) along a plaza by the Yarra River, and finally scoped out a spot on a busy footbridge leading to Flinders Street Train Station. I set up, and my friend sat a bit away from me, reading, that first afternoon. But after that day of my groundbreaking railway debut, I was on my own…

Wow, what a weird and exhilarating feeling, the first time out on the street with your guitar! I sensed at once that I absolutely had to look like I knew what I was doing. So I put on my best serious-guitarist face, trying not to break down in a fit of hysterical laughter. 

I was indeed just a breath away from cracking up at the now-full-blown public pretense that I was a musician. But I had to remember that this sea of Australian commuters had no idea I’d never performed before. I managed to keep a straight face long enough to launch into one of my five memorized songs.

To my utter shock and glee, passersby started plunking coins into my open guitar case not long after I began. I moved on from The Girl from Ipanema to One Note Samba, and then on to Summer Samba from there. Did my two other melodies and then started the whole thing over again.

Something was happening to me as time passed, that first afternoon: In the grand tradition of Inquisition Boy and countless other nameless busking pioneers before me, I had crossed a certain threshold. I hadn’t been run off the street by a horde of torch-wielding townsfolk. People were giving me money. I was singing songs that had meaning for me. The music was actually causing people to slow down, smile, sometimes even stop for a little while and really listen before moving on. It felt as if a thousand palpable connections were being made, and their energy was carrying me lightly along as day moved into night.

The whole thing was, for me, like going without shoes again at long last, and in the very best sort of way. I could really understand, to a degree, why an accomplished Melbourne-based guitarist later said to me, “Yeah, conservatory-trained, and here I am out on the street. Crazy, huh?

“But I don’t ever want to play indoors again. That’s just not who I am.”


I intended to tell, today, who was more likely to give to a busker—a pregnant woman with a toddler, or a businessman with a briefcase. Let’s save that for tomorrow, ok? I got sidetracked going back in time, but no more!

Tomorrow, then—Part III of “Strumming on the Street”!!!