Tin Cup, Tin Ear: A Note on the Street Musicians of Paris
- Published on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
A Bad Busker Is
Not Hard to Find
Let’s see... Costume? Check. Instrument? Check. Props? Check. Ability to count to four? Hey, you can’t have everything!
In Paris, good street musicians are like free, legal parking places: you know they’re out there, but on the reality scale your chances of finding one rank somewhere between “Selfless Politician” and “Sasquatch.”
Once in a great while, I hear someone who can really play and/or sing and is performing in the street either to scare up some petty cash or for a lark. Keziah Jones was “discovered,” as we say in the biz, singing for spare change in Paris in 1991. And that pianist who plays flashy classical chestnuts on the sidewalk in front of the Galéries Lafayette department store obviously knows what he’s doing.
But for most of the buskers in town, there’s a reason why they go to the public and not the other way around. And why most street musicians don’t play in the street, but under it: in the Métro, you have a captive audience.
The typical encounter with a Paris street musician goes like this:
You’re sitting quietly on a Métro car, minding your own business. Not bothering anybody, not making any kind of noise or disturbance.
The train stops at a station and someone gets on carrying a beat-up musical instrument and hauling a beat-up portable amplifier hooked up to some kind of even more beat-up digital recording device, all sloppily duct-taped to a luggage trolley so beat up it ought to file charges for assault and battery.
Next comes the intro speech, which usually goes something like, “Hello ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’re having a nice day and enjoying your ride.” At which point most people in the car are thinking, “I was.”
Then the audio space invader turns on a “music minus one” background track and launches, or in most cases lurches, into a number. It’s a number that you have heard before.
In fact, that you have heard many times before. In factual fact, that you have heard many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many (add one “many” for each year in your age) times before.
Why Parisian buskers are so passionately devoted to “Those Were the Days” I would like to know. I would also like to know why so many of them, presumably having heard the tune even more times than I have, can’t get it right.
To tell the truth, I find it rather intriguing the way street musicians manage to butcher universally known melodies. There’s a little brass combo that comes around to my neighborhood once in a while whose signature opus is a very strange, not to say perverse, version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It starts out with the familiar first four notes of the song, but then gradually gets weirder with each phrase, morphing by the end of the verse — no kidding — into “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Perhaps it’s a medley composed for All Saints Day.
In any case, most Paris street musicians, to quote Frédéric Chopin, suck. But once in a while I come across one who transcends suckingness, who busks through to a new dimension by being so incredibly, appallingly, mind-bogglingly bad that he or she stands out from the cacophonous crowd. Hearing one of these wannabes is always a memorable experience. Some examples...
Memorable experience No.1:
One day I was riding the Métro when a young British guy got in my car with a guitar and started pounding out Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” He could sort of play the chords all right, but his singing talent left something to be desired. Namely, singing talent.
Specifically, he seemed to be incapable of holding a note for more than about a hundredth of a second, which tended to make his vocal style very choppy and take most of the vowels out of the lyrics.
He clipped every syllable so short it was impossible to tell whether he was hitting any actual pitches or not. A musicologist who didn’t know the song listening to him perform it would have filed it under “rap” and transcribed the lyrics like this:
N th clrng stnds abuxr n a fitr byiz trud!
When he got to the “lie-la-lie” part, it was almost nothing but L’s: “lh-lh-lh” for a whole chorus. And when he got to the “asking-passengers-for-money” part, he received due compensation for his services: no one gave him a centime. Whereupon his enunciation suddenly improved, as he stormed furiously off the train yelling at us all for failing to realize that we owed him a living. Or at least music lessons.
Memorable experience No.2:
There used to be an accordionist or, to be precise, a guy who had bought or found an accordion, who played on Sundays in front of a greengrocer’s in my neighborhood. I heard this gentleman every weekend for a number of years and never once discerned any evidence that he possessed the tiniest shred of melodic, harmonic or rhythmic sensibility — he would “play” for three hours at a stretch, at no time producing anything recognizable as music.
It was, in its way, quite remarkable. He seemed to be very happy just to waggle his fingers over the keys and buttons totally at random in a sort of three-hour sonic free-association session. I kept thinking that sooner or later he would stumble upon an actual musical phrase just by chance, in keeping with the famous “infinite monkey theorem,” but it never happened.
Memorable experience No.3:
Returning to Paris on a late train one bitterly cold winter night, I emerged from the Montparnasse station to find four young guys engaged in a performance that, for the sake of charity, I will qualify as “mercifully inimitable.”
All four were prancing around energetically, whether to follow some incomprehensible choreography or just to stay warm it was impossible to tell, and were decked out in attention-getting costumes crafted mostly from aluminum foil. One was squawking assiduously away on an alto sax (why is bad saxophone so much more offensive than bad anything else?) while the other three were showcasing their musical gifts by pounding more or less in time with spoons on cooking pots.
And showcasing their grasp of the artist-audience relationship by calling out to passersby, “Come on, people! Give us money! That’s what we’re out here for! It’s cold! Money! We need money!” etc., etc. Those guys were such anti-musicians, I honestly think they were hoping that people would pay them to stop.
Which is what I was tempted to do one Friday last August when a street singer set up her impressively loud sound system on the sidewalk near my building. Coincidentally, she had chosen the very spot where the musical-blank-slate accordionist used to hold forth. And, like him, she kept up her “act” (which consisted of singing along with and talking over commercially released pop songs) for quite some time despite the fact that her musical abilities seemed to be limited to the capacity to purchase commercially released pop songs.
Not surprisingly, no one was giving her any money. At one point, she very wisely gave up trying to sing and just mimed to the music while her iPod did all the work. Whole minutes went by while she hammed, shammed and emoted along with the song, putting her heart, but not her larynx, into it. At last, a street musician who knows her limits!
At least she bothered to lip-sync. I mention this because I was once in the Métro when a guy got on my car holding one of those old “boom box” cassette players, turned it on and walked around, hand extended, while the thing blared out some insipid ditty. He never even opened his mouth. To my astonishment, someone gave him a coin. Which I guess made him, at least for that moment, a better musician than the embittered British “Boxer” busker. Enunciate that, buddy.
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Reader Naoma Foreman writes: "Once on the Métro a man played a saxophone, and when he came near me he played a song just for me. I thought that was quite interesting and fun."
Reader Ronald Hurwitz writes:"Gotta weigh in here on this one. Yes, I certainly agree with you that there's more than enough rank amateurs pounding or scratching out barely recognizable music in the Paris environs.
"But, I'm moved to write about a remarkable exception I came across 12 years ago. I was living around the corner from the Métro Vaneau in the 7th that year. Almost every time I went into the subway I was greeted by an accordionist. Not just any accordionist, but an exceptional musician.
"The repertory of this man included Liszt's piano arrangements of various Wagner operas as well as other devilishly difficult piano transcriptions of symphonic works. The accordionist was not only a highly accomplished musician, he was a technical terror, the Paganini of his chosen instrument. Truly amazing.
"Several years later I ran into him again in another Métro station. I gave him money many times for the pure pleasure he offered, but I regret never having had a conversation with him.
"I've never seen anything like that since. Sadly, the accordion is my second least favorite instrument, exceeded only by the bagpipes, which I wouldn't even consider an instrument.
"Best wishes for quiet Métro rides."
David Jaggard replies: "It's probably the same guy who played at a friend's wedding. He had a huge button keyboard (as opposed to piano keyboard) accordion and played Bach's organ concertos like a fiend. The groom had heard him in the Métro and hired him for the reception — as I recall he was Ukrainian.
"There certainly are exceptions."
Reader Jack writes:"Once, many years ago, I heard a very good busker on the train to the airport on my way back to the US. He sang John Lennon's 'Imagine' with a guitar accompaniment, and it set exactly the right plaintive mood for a departure from the City of Light.
"But only that once, and never again."
Reader Stephan Artist writes (on Facebook): "Musicians are not allowed on Bart or Muni, so I very much enjoyed their playing on the Métro. And YES, one of the favorite songs was 'Those Were The Days,' which was originally a French song, so I can see that. The other most popular song was 'Hello, Dolly.' My favorite was the young man who stretched a bungee cord between two poles, hung a blanket over it and proceeded to do a puppet show with background music from his boombox. He was set up in a matter of seconds, and it was most entertaining. Thanks for bringing back those memories."
David Jaggard replies: "The between-the-poles puppet show used to be a Métro standard, but hardly anyone does it any more. Those were the days!"
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