By Keith Harris

Despite playing music in public since the age of five, I didn't get around to busking until many, many years later. It simply never occurred to me, though I could have done with the cash many times over.

Like when I joined my first pro rock band at about 17 and lived in a trailer on a communal site and survived on bread, marmalade and tea for several weeks. The first time I set my open guitar case down with a view to earning some change from passers-by was in Galway in the spring of 1995, nearly 30 years later. It was an eerie experience as I didn't really remember that many songs from start to finish, and my knowledge of Irish songs was next to zilch with the exception of one of two Van the Man Morrison numbers.

Still, I earned a few quid, or punts as they were then. I had no income at the time and was travelling the country in a camper, it was necessary to busk. I hit Dublin's Grafton Street, and Dublin's other city centre busking spots, busked all over Galway, and after several months had busked in dozens of locations across Ireland from Westport to Waterford and Doolin. I was surprised when after joining a travelling American at the Youghal busking festival we snatched third place as a combo with the name of Pheobe. We went on to busk at several other locations, gaining a slot on 2FM national radio from a live broadcast at Killarney, before we again split to continue on our ways.

I left Ireland in the autumn of 1996 for the USA, arriving in Boston with just a few hundred dollars left and squeezing through immigration by the skin of some contacts in my address book. I'd had to purchase a second ticket from London when airline officials explained that the single ticket I held to Boston was useless as I would not be permitted to stay in the US without a return ticket. Why the travel agency in Youghal where I'd purchased the ticket didn't explain this I don't know, particularly as a return was more or less the same price as the £250 I'd paid for a single ticket. I was also charged an extra £120 for "excess baggage" by the Irish airline on which I flew to London for the first hop of the trip to the US-a radical rip off.. The new ticket took away a much needed £500 from the cash I'd been banking on to get established in Boston.

Three days later I was down to just $200, despite having been booked into a Boston hotel by a friend who paid the $200 plus bill for my stay. She'd returned to New York after spending a few days with me and I was suddenly faced with being alone in what to me then was the unknown city of Boston.

After spending almost the whole of my last day at the hotel telephoning accommodation advertisements without success I was about to drop into deep despair when I received one telephone call in response to a message I had left somewhere. My caller proved to be something of a saviour and after a long chat on the phone agreed that I could take the room he was renting without seeing me, though I did go out that evening to meet him at the house in Revere.

A taxi-driver collected me from the Boston city centre hotel the next morning and helped me pack the six large bags, rucksack and guitar in his taxi before running me to the bus station. I'd packed practically everything I'd had with me in the camper van except the tool kit and various other large items as I'd not intended returning to Ireland and was uncertain just where I would eventually end up.

The chatty black taxi driver had questioned me on the way to the bus station and so learned a little of my story. As we unloaded the bags from his taxi he asked how I intended getting all the stuff to where I was going. I didn't realise that the bus would stop about half a mile from the address I was heading for and yep, it would have been a problem.

"I'll manage," I told him. I would have too, though I would have been like a triple loaded packhorse and the trip from the bus stop just might have killed me.

As he took the last bag from the taxi, he suddenly shrugged and started loading everything back into his cab.

"Hell, look, I'll take you out there for nothing. I play music too, and buddy, you'll never carry all this stuff, believe me."

He was right of course. We had a good talk on the way to the Harris Street address in Revere and though he tried to refuse it, I pressed one of my last valuable $20 bills into his hand and would not let him give it back. He wished me well and we parted.

I gave my new landlord, with who I would share the large upper floor apartment in the detached house, $150 of the $275 he wanted, promising to repay him the debt as soon as I could. I was left with just $10.

Talking by telephone to my friend in New York later that day, she suggested I went down to the Kells Bar in Boston's Irish quarter and let it be known that I had newly arrived from Ireland and desperately needed a job.

"Grab a seat over there, there's a fella coming in soon I can introduce you to," the barman said when I told him my story. I'd also bought a beer with my last few bucks, having travelled in on the T.

The 'fella' did come in, and after the barman introduced us my new acquaintance immediately bought me a drink before asking me: "What can you do?"

"I'll do anything," I said, meaning it. I was fit then and felt able to take on any task.

"Okay. We're renovating a bar in Brighton. Its called The Irish Village. Be there at 8am tomorrow. You'll get $100 a day in your hand," he said, and after shaking my hand and buying me another drink he was gone to talk with someone else.

I travelled home on a cloud of good feeling. I'd only been in Boston four days, had run out of cash but I had enough to get the subway to work the next morning to start earning money.

My new landlord, who'd once been a DJ on a west coast radio station and had also been a frontman singer in a band was surprised and pleased to hear I'd got work and generously lent me $20 to get me through the next day. "You gotta have some cash in your pocket buddy," he said.

After several cups of coffee at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts I was getting worried the next morning when by 9.45am still no-one had turned up at the Irish Village. It didn't look as if any work was in progress and I started getting suspicious that maybe I'd been taken in on a sick prank.
But no, shortly after 10am my new employer arrived, with two other workers and we began our job of stripping the external varnished woodwork before re-varnishing it.

That lunchtime we sat in the pub and our boss bought everybody beers, something he did every day at lunchtime and also at the end of the working day. That evening I was given $100, just as he'd said. "Start at 10 tomorrow," he said as I left for home.

Travelling home high with the cash, I heard several proficient buskers working the T stops and the idea of trying my own hand began to germinate, but I didn't get around to starting until the job I had was finished seven days later.

After speaking with several busking musicians I felt I had a good idea of the lay of the land, which stations were among the better, and also knew about the busking potential around Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square. I also had a list of venues where sessions or 'open mic' evenings took place.

The day after my job ended with the completion of our work on The Irish Village, I took time out to buy a microphone stand and microphone for my small battery amplifier and set off for my first Boston busk. I made my start on the outbound Blue Line platform at Government Centre. It had good acoustics and would be a good testing ground for the amplifier and sound balance.

It soon became obvious to me that the small Yamaha amplifier was not able to handle a guitar and vocal input, and although I used a pre-amp pedal the sound left much to be desired. I did find a working level, but the volume was very low and I knew I'd need a better amplifier. I made several dollars, moved on to another station and made several more and by the end of my first session I was carrying an extra $40 dollars home. I knew then that I could do better.

Daddy's music store in Massachusetts Avenue had a bargain basement but the Mouse street amps were just above my budget. I asked the guy behind the counter what he'd give me for my small and for my needs relatively useless amp.

"No more than 15 dollars," he said. "What are you looking for?"
I told him I needed a street amp for busking and after giving me a quick scrutiny he went off with the words 'hang on'.

When he returned he was carrying a brand new boxed amplifier, not a Mouse but an equally good sturdy piece of equipment with twin inputs. "$120," he said.

I told him and didn't think I had enough and he told me to put my money on the table. It came to $95 and I took $10 back to have something in my pocket.

"I owe you $15 for your Yamaha, that makes £100. That'll do," he said and passed the new amp to me. I thanked him sincerely for his generosity and that night with the new amp I made $70.

Busking was to prove an invaluably entertaining lifestyle, introducing me to a vast range of people, skills and small talk talent. At a busy time at the busier stations, buskers had just a few minutes to entertain their audience of perhaps a hundred before the next train arrived to whisk them away and the process started over. They had to like what they heard in the short time if you were to see their dollars and quarters.

Slacker times were easier, you could get around to performing several numbers in between each train. The Boston subway also proved to house a wealth of talent. Musicians travelled from distant states for the rich pickings and the quality of performers was astonishing. I saw and heard everything from keyboard players, solo bass artistes, flute, harmonica, string and percussion players including a Jamaican kettle drum, and guitarists and just plain singers. Henry, a black flute player was an enigma.

A former Berkelee College instructor, he lived wherever he found himself and spent most of his earnings on beers and cocaine. One day seeing I lacked a trolley for my gear, he took me out to a storage unit in west Boston where he had enough stuff to fill a house. "Been here a few years now. Got nowhere to put it any more but I hang onto it," he said, giving me a luggage trolley that I still have to this day. He wanted just $5 for it, so I took him off to breakfast after.

continues later - bookmark this page (Ctrl+D)

Keith Harris
April 9, 2015

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