Like an anxious little puppy waiting for its treat, the busker’s hat sits in anticipation on the sidewalk, enticing, luring, siren-like but never begging, because the musician behind it is offering up his or her soul in twangy plunking, picking, bowing earnest for all who pass by. He’ll have an audience for about 30 seconds, sometimes a minute. Sometimes people will throw money into the hat. Sometimes people will sneak money out of the hat. Sometimes they’ll take the hat. But the wandering minstrel endures and has the benefit of praise and hopefully gifts … if he or she has a smidgen of talent. Of course, with a short-term audience, all the busker really has to do is learn three or four songs and learn them really well, since no one ever stays around long enough to hear more than that. Troubadours can go into a continuous loop and no one would know the difference. “Wow, that guy covers Neil Young perfectly!” Well, yeah, it’s the only song he knows.
This isn’t true of all buskers, of course. Paul McCartney once busked his tune “Yesterday” on a London street unrecognized and only heard the jingle of a few coins. Sting played the pavement with his hat pulled down and made £40 with no one noticing. Bruce Springsteen would show up on a corner with his guitar. Tracy Chapman began her career busking at Harvard Square. Bob Dylan was positively impromptu on 4th Street at SXSW in Austin. Even Benjamin Franklin was a street performer of his own composed songs, poetry and prose. He was the original beatnik, carrying on about current politics and selling printed copies of his work. No one notices buskers, especially in cities, because no one wants to look a busker in the eye for fear of getting his life story or, worse, feel guilted into dropping dollars into the case.
It’s far different in the mountains for street performers, whose music and efforts are usually appreciated and rewarded. Outside of a coffee shop in Crested Butte, three bohemians are playing on a combined 20 strings — two guitars and a mandolin, while down the street on a bench sits Alex Klivecka, with guitar in hand and banjo at the ready. Alex jumped ship from a Silicon Valley job and hit the road busking from San Francisco to Park City, Utah, to the Colorado Rockies. “I don’t play perfect,” he confesses without remorse. “I can come out for half an hour and leave whenever I want. The crowds are more forgiving.”
“Busking in the mountains is much more friendly than the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Pearl Street is the Fillmore of busking,” says Tyler Lucas, a multi-instrumentalist. “There’s a lot of talent down there. It’s cutthroat.”
Jackson Melnick is still a teenager, but has busked all over the world, and now performs on the streets of Crested Butte. “I think how cultures respond to buskers tells a lot about how they feel about the arts in general. People who support buskers are the people’s patrons,” Jackson adds with a boyish smirk. “It also depends on your skill level.”
Mountain genre leans toward folk music, Americana and bluegrass, and there’s usually someone sitting around playing Grateful Dead songs. The busker will get requests for everything from Pop Goes the Weasel from a four-year-old to a promenading group needing a birthday song. While it’s true your ear will catch mostly popular culture tunes that pay the most, there are the phenomena of young students at classical music camps who will go solo or gather for a sidewalk chamber concert in places like Aspen during their music festival.
The resilient stock on the beat will brave the extreme elements, oftentimes getting the sympathy or respectful rewards. Andrea Lecos and Cory Obert (hardpressed.com) have played the pavement of Telluride and Ouray and were set up on a sidewalk in Durango when one of those ominous mountain storms rumbled in, badly bruising the sky to black and purple. “It was a deluge, but we kept going,” says Andrea, who wasn’t about to let the climate come between she, her partner and their prospective audience. “It was pitiful, because the streets cleared out, but we wanted to play. An older gentleman who was listening to us started throwing money in our cases and then said, ‘better yet make it a wrap and I’ll buy you a drink next door.’ Even though we wanted to make more money, it was still fun and we could have cared less … we were singing at the top of our lungs to no one and someone got us drunk.”
Minstrel Greg Pettys, who’s traveled the planet via guitar and horn, thinks Telluride’s great for busking. “People take care of you with money, booze and nuggets. People are psyched on the music. They invite you in and, before you know it, you have food and a place to stay. Music opens the doors. When you’re camping in the summer, you can make some pretty good money in the mountains.” Jackson won’t easily part with his own hard-earned coin unless there’s good reason. “Sometimes if there’s an amazing gypsy jazz trio on the street, I don’t feel obligated to give money because they’re just into playing for people and they have lots of paying gigs. But when it’s a dirtbag hippie like myself and he wants that muffin from the health food store, then I’ll toss a buck in.” However, Tyler feels that twinge of guilt. “Sometimes I feel awkward — those begging eyes and droning Dead songs. You feel like you have to give them a dollar.”
Clever performers know how to capture their audiences, as Michael Ruffalo on guitar and Ted Bosler, wearing the washboard, used to. “We’d get on the Mountain Express shuttle bus with all the tourists going up to the ski area. The more we insulted them, the more they liked us and gave us more money,” says Ted, the frontman, who went through their shtick. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are on the musical bus. In case of the unlikely event of a water landing, please use your seat as a flotation device. You will, at the end, give us most or all of your money.” And in between the guffaws, the duo would play their silly tunes, all related to local businesses and events. “The tourists loved us and the locals would grab a six pack and ride around. At the end of the night, we’d go to the bar and spend it all,” the Crested Buttian proudly proclaims.
Andrea thinks the benefits outweigh the sometimes meager living eked out, so she continues on her troubadour track. “You never know what kind of magic can come out of busking. It’s beyond just playing. It’s beyond the coin in the cup. It’s who you reach out there. People will come up and say ‘thanks for making our day.’ You make them happy. Of course, you might make some crazy. It’s a good gig. You reach a ton of people. It’s very low key and there’s no stress of having to carry around your PA, getting to sound check on time, no stage fright and, if you forget the words to your song, who cares, because people really enjoy it anyway and you still make money.” And she feels one of the big perks of busking on the street is always being able to have your best friend with you. “You can tie your dog up to something while you play, but you could never bring your dog to a real gig … and if you have a really cute dog, you’ll get more tips.”
If there’s too much structure in your world, and you can play three or four chords on any instrument while crooning out a few tunes, you may want to consider chucking it all for a life of busking and a sense of independence. The world will truly be your stage.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and musician who is ready to abandon any remaining semblance of structure and give in to her lack of time management to busk the streets of the world. Until then, she’s a feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly who’s been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org