In the nineteen-eighties in downtown Toronto, there was an old man who would sit on a concrete bench and play his old wooden cane. He was there every day, near the corner of Yonge and Bloor, and because he was situated at one of the busiest pedestrian corners in the country, and because he was the most unusual of buskers, I think he did pretty well.
His beaten up old hat sat on the sidewalk in front of him. If he had teeth, I didn’t see them. And as he pretended to strum his cane, he would make sounds with his toothless mouth that were suppose to replicate the sound of a guitar. Or maybe an old wash tub bass. I thought it was kind of sweet but I also felt sorry for him. I didn’t think anyone would ever aspire to be a toothless old man pretending to strum a weather-worn cane on the sidewalk for money.
Then I happened to get a job in a music club and one of my co-workers was also a busker in the Yonge Street area and he told me the real story of the old man. The cane strummer could actually play guitar and used to do so. But as his guitar strings would break, particularly in the cold weather, he found that he was making just as much or more money with a degenerating guitar and that it wasn’t really worth replacing them. As each string broke and he had to compensate with more and more vocal fakery, his hat began to fill a little more each day. Eventually there were no strings left and all he could do was sing his guitar.
After a while, he decided to forget the stringless guitar altogether and simply strummed his cane, while he kind of sang his music. That’s when I first saw him. I had a first impression of what I saw and then when given some more information, I had a completely different perception of this old man.
And I’ve never looked at a street busker the same way since.
I’m not thinking of the Cirque du Soleil type buskers who can command an audience of two hundred people. Or of the classically trained musicians who play expensive violins or who pluck Pachabel on a harp. I’m thinking of liquor store guitar players who are playing for food or booze or rent.
I busked once. I was 23 years old and I had my guitar with me while I sat in a tavern with my friends. I was out of money and it was still early so I took my guitar out to the street in the Byward Market, opened up my guitar case, and started playing. I don’t remember what I played. An upbeat original, maybe Fulsom Prison, maybe My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It. I did well. I made ten bucks in about fifteen minutes and I had enough cash for two more quarts of beer that would last me the rest of the evening.
I was lucky though. I wasn’t hungry and I had a bed to go home to. I did it for fun. But most buskers don’t do it for fun. If it was fun, I’d have done it today. No, they do it to survive and they’re making an effort beyond pan-handling.
No one learns how to play guitar while they live on the streets. No one learns how to play guitar as an adult when they live in a homeless shelter. Every one of our liquor store guitar players likely learned to play guitar as kids because they loved music. That’s when they learned Neil Young and Eagles songs for the first time. And they probably didn’t imagine that twenty years down the road they’d be playing those same songs on the pavement in rough neighbourhoods because that seemed like their best option to make it until tomorrow.
So when I pass a busker who has an out of tune guitar, I think of the old man on Yonge Street. When I hear Heart of Gold or Take it Easy for the thousandth time, I think of the old man on Yonge Street. And when I sit down to play my guitar in my kitchen and strum an old Johnny Cash tune, I’m thankful that I’m still able to play because I want to. Not because I have to.
Every busker has a story.