24 Aug Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 6
Double Decker Busk
European Atlantic Coast – 2018
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
I can feel the afternoon sun’s temper on the back of my legs. I’m pleased I remembered to bring a cap, although prospectively wearing it backwards has only rescued parts of my neck. A cool sea breeze is doing its best to sooth my skin from the intensity of this August day in the Southwest of France. I take it as a pagan sign of acceptance for my offering of music, being that I am currently 150 metres out to sea stood, busking on the Roche de la Vierge in the resort town of Biarritz. I’m also being watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary, after whom this pier come viewpoint is named, but I figure the more gods I have on my side, the less likely this glorious summer day will shift on me as these coastal spots are prone to.
A steady flow of international tourists meanders onto the viewpoint, pausing for a few minutes to breath in the views and sea air. From a busking perspective, this is about as perfect a spot as they come. Not only is it a beautiful surrounding to indulge my favourite pastime (and top up my t-shirt tan), but capturing people’s attention while they’re loitering is so much more effective than standing, playing songs on a busy high street to a passing crowd. Add to that the impossibility of irritating shop keepers and we’re on to a winner!
The tourists of Biarritz this day have been generous, both with their time and pocket change. Some have even spent a considerable part of their afternoon with me. I think of all the people I share a musical moment with, to then simply drift away into their individual lives. I wonder whether that moment stays with them, or becomes lost in the intricate fabric of a generic emotive memory. It’s impossible not to get romantic about. I think it’s one of the things I love most about playing on the street.
Browsing the creased song-list at my feet I decide that I’ll play one of my own songs to the sea and tune my guitar accordingly. I begin fingerpicking the intro and something out of the ordinary catches my attention on the opposite side of the viewpoint. A young woman begins to move, slowly at first, feeling her way across the barriers of her insecurity. Our eyes meet and I offer her a smile that seems to ease her elegance into an assured modern, ballet flow. I begin to play and she begins to dance. My attention, usually pulled in so many directions during busking, is fixed on her. Everyone disappears and the hum of tourist chatter is replaced by the soft whispers of ocean air. A serene, unexpected moment of artistic purity and connection overwhelms me. I offering her the dance floor, she offering me the stage. For the briefest of moments I am in love with life. My song softly comes to an end and with it her movement. She pauses, smiles, thanks me with her eyes, picks up her bag and walks off.
– – – – –
I walk the cobbled streets alongside all manner of hikers. Some groups of sweaty, exhausted tourists, clearly unused to activity in the Spanish summer heat. Some individuals looking clean, fit and capable and some older, slower, more deliberate travellers, but all with a mixed look of relief, contentment and excitement. I wonder where each started their pilgrimage and what inspired their voyage to this destination, the Catholic city of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Everyone has their own journey, some of grand adventure, some of religious obligation, but all interesting and unique in their own way. I have ended up in this city for my own reasons, but none of them are holy, as I am reminded by the busking speaker I’m carrying which is beginning to dig into my fingers.
Santiago is pretty much the only decent sized city in this area of Spain, sat roughly along my coastal route down to Lisbon, and being that it has an interesting context as the effective Catholic Mecca, it seemed a logical place to explore musically. The Old Town is beautiful and bustling, as expected in this tourist hub. As I navigate round the skinny, cobbled streets I begin to notice busker after busker, populating every square, nook and cranny of this ancient hilltop citadel. My initial relief to know that busking is acceptable here, is getting eroded by my suspicion that I am not find anywhere to set up!
I womble down to large, open square, full of people. Tourists, hikers, hawkers and officials, all milling round. It dawns on me that this must be the end point of the Catholic pilgrimage as an elegant gothic cathedral looms up in front of us all. Lots of people, sitting around on their back-packs, but no buskers! Perhaps this is my opportunity, all be it, my ignorance is being tempered by a moderate amount of suspicion. I set up my gear and begin tuning my guitar when I am approached by a short, rather rotund, balding caricature of a police officer who looks at me rather like a teacher addressing a misbehaving student…
“Licencia?” He barks.
Auto-pilot dumb tourist Jeremy kicks in and I smile a gormless smile as I attempt to apologise for my lack of Spanish, in Spanish, much poorer than my actual level of Spanish.
“Licencia!” He barks once more, this time scribbling furiously with his hands as if I am deaf and stupid – my plan seems to be working.
“Ah scuzi…” I offer in Italian, touching my heart apologetically while channelling my inner Shakespearian actor. “nao licencia” I follow in mongrel Portuguese.
The police officer and I dance this dance for a considerable amount of time to the point where I become concerned that my eyebrows may remain fixed forever in a position of apologetic surprise, until it becomes clear to me that I am not going to get hammered for lacking a busking license and that unfortunately for me, the licence office is closed today and I’m going to have to leave.
This explanation has taken three times as long as it could have done whilst I have kept up the guise of chronic stupidity, but I’m pleased that we part ways more through the police officer’s frustration and boredom than through a resolution of a fine or a telling off.
I pack up and wander on, a little down-trodden at first. No sooner am I lamenting the waste of time this has been than I am buoyed by a sense of resolute hope. No! I exclaim internally, the show must go on!
It’s a big town, I can just repeat the same charade to the next official who questions my credentials! With renewed enthusiasm I wander the skinny streets of the tear-drop shaped old town until I find a calm corner with a comfortable level of passing tourists. I set my gear up and begin tuning my guitar.
No sooner have I began singing my first song than an old scoda police car slowly crawls around the corner and I come face to face with PC Caricature. My blood runs cold as his face contorts into all manner of creases. Ok, emergency stations. I erupt into an enormous smile and wave as if confronted by an old friend. “Ola Senor!” I sing joyfully, fully aware that this moment is about to test all of stupid tourist Jeremy’s ignorant charm…
– – – – –
I’m strolling along the pedestrianised southern bank of the river Douro, guided by the crisp signs of the old Port Wine distribution factories, long since converted into swanky bars and Port Museums in Portugal’s second city, Porto. Night time has fallen and the cool breeze that is being brought in along the valley from the Atlantic Ocean is a relief from the scorching daytime temperatures of 40 degrees during this summer hot spell. Across the river, the lights of Porto’s old town line the steep valley side in a cream gold. In front of me, the impressive double-decker Dom Luis I metal arch bridge, gracefully fills the valley, connecting the industrial and residential banks of the city.
I feel comfortable here. The darkness has brought a character to the city, that was lacking during the choked daylight hours. There is a buzz from the many strolling tourists and locals, soaking up everything and nothing. There are parts of Paris that feel very similar, as if wandering aimlessly with loved ones is more than enough of an evening objective.
I’m intrigued by a crowd gathered on a viewpoint where the bridge meets the southern bank and notice 4 or 5 teenage boys standing, bare chested on the tall walkway barrier of the bridge. One of the boys, more muscular than the rest crows at the crowd of onlookers as two younger initiates navigate the viewpoint with hats, collecting donations. The boys tease the engaged tourists with promises of jumps and dives from the 20 metre platform into the river below. Despite the entrepreneurial nature of the show, there seems a hesitation from both sides. The boys not wanting to waste the opportunity of financial gain, and the tourists, struggling to trust the transaction as genuine.
Before too long, the boys jump and the crowd disperses and I’m left at the viewpoint, amongst a loose ebb of voyeurs, gazing across the unique cityscape. I begin to set up my microphone stand and busking amplifier and softly tune my guitar. The benches around the viewpoint slowly fill up with passing tourists and we settle into a feeling of symbiosis. The temporary nature of busking to strangers in interesting places is an alluring experience. It is something I have fallen in love with during my music career. There can be a spiritualism to it. An inexplainable connection in sound between singer and audience, painted on a canvass the is temporary and unique. Picking through my guitar songs on that warm, calm evening in Porto was one such special moment. The faces of the passers-by quickly blur through the passage of time, as I’m sure my face has in the memories of those there that night, but the feeling lingers. A moment captured in the senses. A vibration, felt vividly if one closes one’s eyes and welcomes in the past.