I’m sitting here playing a song called “San Francisco Bay Blues”, written by American One Man Band Jesse Fuller. I think of him as our Patron Saint. Busking is a culture in its own right – busking, street music… Any attempt to bring it out of the twilight always seems to go wrong, because it’s so much a thing of the moment – it’s very difficult to capture that quality of busking in any kind of broader structure. But I live in the belief that one day it will be possible.
Buskers Don’t Fade Away
This is Earls Court. Just outside the tube station. I’m singing a song called Midnight Special. It’s a song about being released from prison. I see it as quite a religious song. When Bongo Mike and I started busking in London, this was one of the first pitches we found – playing almost where I’m playing now. But the trouble was, in those days you could only last for about twenty minutes (or maybe slightly longer if you were lucky), before the police would come along. They would say, “Oh hello boys, just moving on were we”, or some friendly greeting like that. After a while we found it very difficult to co-exist with all that, and so we went over to the continent – I’m talking about 1978 – and for the next thirty years we spent a large part of our time over there, in exile as we saw it. But we used to come back of course, and while we were back here we used to try and fight against the situation in any ways that we could. We took quite a lot of court cases and got quite a lot of publicity for them, and in the end what we did actually started to have some effect – though it was probably more the publicity than the court cases, because it was rather bad publicity for the set up here. And round the turn of the century a lot of changes started to happen. Now change can be for the good and it can be for the bad. Where it was for the bad was that you got all these awful licensing schemes coming in – on the tube, and lots of towns, and boroughs in London – which wasn’t too good. But the good thing was that it was taken out of the hands of the police, and the way it was going to be handled was put in the hands of local governments, and since time has passed the attitude has started to mellow quite a lot, and busking in the street is in many ways a thing that you can do now without too many of those type of problems. So I sing this song now with a sense of triumph really, because….. we got out of prison.
The busking narrative continues, even if the street changes
This is Earls Court. Just outside the tube station. I know quite a lot of people round Earls Court way, but I haven’t spent much time here for a long while.
Now I’ve started busking again – well, very interesting. You know, when you go back to something, you see it through new eyes – or at least, you notice things that you might always have known but not thought much about before.
I mean, for example, friends. When you’re a busker you’ve really got to be open to everybody – because the whole world’s your audience. You can’t choose these ones here, but not those ones over there. And you find that people who knew you when you were not a busker can’t always handle this. ‘Cause in your new reality, they’re just one set of people among many – but of course they think that you should belong to them. I dunno.
A note on visual presentation of a busking act
(Dear reader, we will transport you back to 1978 and the Iranian border shortly, but things are happening in London 2021, which are claiming our attention.)
That’s me, Extremely Frank Jeremy, playing in a street market in London. I’m actually playing the guitar sitting down, and I’ve got a bass drum, played with a foot pedal, as you can probably hear, although you can’t actually see it. But take my word for it, it’s there.
And so where’s Bongo Mike? Well unfortunately, I’m recording this in September 2021, and the fact is that Bongo Mike passed away in June last year 2020.
It’s taken me this long to get used to it, but you get over these things because you have to. And now I’ve started busking again by myself. So I’ve had to work out a new act. The reason why I say that is because, when you’re busking, it’s not just a question of – as a friend of mine in Yugoslavia used to say – “It’s easy, just take guitar and play”. I mean, that’s quite an interesting way of putting it, but it’s not quite as simple as that really.
If you’re actually going to do something that is going to work, in the situation where you’re playing, you need to think about a number of things. Sure, the sound – if it’s a musical act, that’s the basis of it – but you need a visual dimension as well. When I used to play with Mike it was quite a striking thing – there was Mike sitting on his stool, playing the bongos, I was standing playing the guitar next to him, and it had a visual integrity to it.
In our travels we would occasionally meet people who, once they had ascertained that we were actually English, would delight in impressing us with their own versions of famous speeches from William Shakespeare et al… One of these was an elderly gentleman who was the principal receptionist at the hotel where we stayed, in Istanbul, this first year of our joint travels – the Hotel Sumer in Gedik Paşa.
Gedik Paşa is an area of the city not far from the famed hippy-haunt of Sultanahmet, and close by the equally well-known Grand Bazaar – or Kapali Çarsi, to give it its Turkish name.
“Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'”, this gentleman would intone each time we passed his desk on entering or leaving the hotel. As we would find again years later with another acquaintance, who inflicted a different but similarly grievous act of sabotage on the same quote – attempts at correction were futile.
“No, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question!'”, we would say with increasing desperation as the days went by. “Yes meester, thank you. Aah, ‘To be or not to be – to be, to be true'” would come the reply.
But the memory from Turkey that has lingered longest, is the music – broadcast continuously on long-distance coaches as you are carried from one city to the next, spilling out from shop doorways, orchestrated or simply sung… an outpouring of the soul of a people, a whole new world of sound to the western ear.
On one early morning walk in the vicinity of the Hotel Sumer, we were making some enquiries in a workshop where there was a printing machine, being operated by a young man who was singing a plaintive song to himself. Long before the days of the ubiquitous mobile phone, we nevertheless had with us a miniature dictaphone, and were able to make the following impromptu recording of voice and accompanying printing press:
Travelling further east from Istanbul we arrived, after a two day coach trip, at the city of Erzurum, in the north east of Turkey, over towards the Iranian border. It was the late afternoon, daylight was fading, and just as we entered an interesting, slightly gloomy-looking waiting-room/cafeteria, attached to the concourse of Erzurum bus station, the lights suddenly went out! Assured as we were by all and sundry that it was only a temporary power failure, nothing to worry about, still we decided – after some ten minutes had passed – to try our luck in the town itself which, sitting not so very far off, could be seen basking in the light denied us at the bus-station!
In the town we soon ran into an office which was a sort of provincial out-post of the tourist industry that had, as it seemed, sprung up to service the needs of the India-by-land devotees who for many years (it was by now already 1978) had been passing across Turkey, en route to those glittering destinations of Kabul and Kathmandu.
Sensing a rather cynical attitude to us, we made our own way through the narrow streets in the twilight, finding eventually an invitingly unpretentious small hotel of the type we always looked for, catering to the nomadic workforce of a still largely pre-industrial economy, and clearly not aimed at the tourist trade.
As the evening wore on, a drama developed around a rather rough-looking countryman who it seemed was not welcome to stay at the hotel – whether because he couldn’t afford a bed for the night, or for some other more obscure reason, we never discovered. He was ejected, and walked away, but some time later returned to the street, and through an open window- from the lane outside – serenaded those of us inside with a song. He seemed to melt the hearts of the management, and of another guest in particular, because he soon resumed his place in the small room which served as a foyer, and continued his song, alternating his vocal with periodic bursts on an improvised comb-and-tissue-paper instrument – eventually retiring to the room that had been given to him for the night.
The song had a striking and memorable chorus, “Deloy loy, deloy loy..”, which lodged itself somewhere in our heads. A few years later, on another stay in Turkey, we happened to make friends with the owner of a music shop selling cassettes of Turkish popular music, in the night-club area of Istanbul called Beyoğlu. On an impulse Mike chanted “Deloy loy, Deloy loy….”, and asked our new friend if he recognized that snatch of music. “You mean Maden daği!” he said triumphantly, and produced a vinyl single from one of the racks, which he then played for us. It was the same song.
Having only the one disc left, he ran us off a copy of the song on a spare cassette, and also sold us a different cassette from the same singer, Izzet Altinmeşe. Time and wear over the years have rendered these cassettes unplayable, but by a miracle of the modern world, the same recordings can be heard today on YouTube – as can a later, more upmarket version of Maden Daği , sung again by the same Izzet Altinmeşe (unsurprisingly, a little older now).
Does the autobus still drive two days and nights along those partially unmade roads from Istanbul to Erzurum? And does the bus driver’s son still come round with little glasses of Turkish tea for the assembled passengers, at one of the periodic refreshment breaks? Or has that world disappeared forever? I’m not sure I really want to know.
It was 1978. Mike had been in Turkey the previous Autumn, recovering from a bad attack of what he called Tube Train Sickness (more about that in some future post), and where he had – as he informed me on his return – felt the call to visit India at some point in the future. Back in London, in late Winter, it fell to me to inform him that the Street Poetry enterprise – which had been going since 1972 – was fast approaching the end of its life-cycle.
We put our minds to finding some alternative. Mike had always had his musicianship and song-writing (and occasional busking) as a second string to his bow, alongside his poetry; and as for me, I had in my younger days sung and played the guitar, and indeed even done a bit of summer holiday busking a couple of years running, as a kid…
And so it came to pass, that in the Spring of 1978 a new busking act appeared on the streets of London (see earlier post “The Professor of the University of the Street”); and almost simultaneously, the two buskers in question suffered the loss of their home in London, of five years standing, through eviction by the house-owners (the Roman Catholic Church), it having been only a squat.
So with a new job, which it looked like we could take with us wherever we chose to go but which was landing us in trouble with the Police in UK, and further with homelessness staring us in the face in our native London, we did what many British buskers used to do in those days – packed up and took ourselves across to the Continent!
Well, although considerably less risky in most European locations than it was in Britain, the life of a street musician was not entirely trouble-free over there either. After a month in Belgium playing to cafe terraces in Antwerp and sleeping in a disused old railway station at the edge of town, we caught the attention of a family living nearby our temporary home, and got run in by the local police (squatting strictly forbidden apparently), who advised us that if we signed a statement they had drawn up for us, saying that we had not been able to find accommodation in the local hotels, but were anyway now just on our way to Holland, they would let us go without any further repercussions. (We weren’t, but don’t tell anybody…)
Or again, in Switzerland, where we were actually going, we arrived in the city of Winterthur, by coincidence at exactly the same time as their local festival, the 3rd Winterthurer Muzikwoche. Local publicity about this had, as we found out later, proclaimed that “the music should be on the streets“. But not ours apparently – after playing successfully to a moderately-sized audience for maybe half an hour, we were whisked off to the local Police Station, fined a percentage of our takings, and informed that the show was over! Though not especially publicity-hungry in those days, we did actually make the acquaintance of a local journalist called Arthur Shappi, who wrote an article about the incident, pointing out the obvious irony of the situation.
By the middle of September we were on our way again, stopping off for ten days in Skopje, Yugoslavia (a city which we would get to know almost as a second home in later years) quickly crossing northern Greece, and arriving in Istanbul in the first week of October.
To be continued…
Photograph by Michael Kay 1986
When I first met, in 1973, the personage known at that time as Bongo Mike the Street Poet, and started working with him selling poems in the street, one of the things I was most impressed by was the fact that he made a living from it, and was thus not existing off hand-outs from a society he self-identified as living outside of; he felt free to criticize it or not, as an artistic decision. I am aware that this could be seen as an over-simplification of complex matters; but there was a straightforwardness about Mike’s point of view, an easily-graspable immediacy which captured my imagination. There have been others I have heard about over the years who have described themselves as street poets, but I am not convinced that the designation had, in every case, the authenticity, or should I call it authority, that it had when Mike used the term – he having paid his dues with a period in his young life of homelessness and virtual destitution, and then having managed to survive from the proceeds of selling his poems to people in the street for the best part of a decade. With Mike you always got “exactly what it said on the tin”.
At the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, as the period of state-sponsored experimental art wound down in a flurry of Thatcherism – “market forces”, “the threat from Russia” and the Special Patrol Group – Bongo Mike and I met the challenges of the time by switching from poetry to music, a more easily “marketable” commodity, joining the ranks of the buskers we had worked alongside for so long. It came to our attention that the street theatre groups and progressive art venues we had been familiar with were getting thinner on the ground, starved of their Arts Council sponsorship. This was not something we were happy about, but still we couldn’t help feeling that our insistence on being always self-sufficient was perhaps more realistic than we had at times been given credit for.
The publicity generated by our campaign for the decriminalisation of busking, which gathered momentum through the 80’s, was to a certain extent underpinned by a perception amongst some in the media that we had found a refreshing way to stand the Thatcher argument on its head. The Independent chose to make our campaign the subject of a leading article in November 1987 (accompanying a front-page article about us in the same issue), beginning their opinion piece with the slightly bizarre assertion: “Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy are small businessmen”.
During this period of history, when monetarism seemed to be vanquishing the “threat from Russia”, and American academics were confidently welcoming “the end of history” (it has more recently fought back, one might think), Bongo Mike and myself were frequent visitors to Yugoslavia, and witnessed the slow, painful transition from the communist economic system to the capitalist one, which convulsed the whole of eastern Europe at that time.
A song of ours which encapsulated our farewell to the departing regime was entitled “You Can’t get a Lather On Your Shaving Brush, When There’s Toothpaste On Your Face”.
However, several years further down the line, as the breakaway state of Macedonia – which we were particularly involved with – struggled with some of the contradictions of embracing free market capitalism, we felt a need to update the lyric of our song, which was then re-named “Two Religions”, to reflect – perhaps – our eventual conversion to the idea of the mixed economy, and along with that our decision to disengage our own concerns from the conventional political arena.
One final image I wish to share is my memory of a meeting in Skopje, in the early nineties, with an American gentleman who was making a pitch to represent the interests of the “small, small business”. How small? Oh, operations with even as few as twenty employees! (See photo at top.)