Goodbye Mike – one year further on.

This being the week – in 2020 – when Mike went into coma and died, I can do little else but try to celebrate his life and achievements.


The Guardian: Other lives
/Music

Michael Kay obituary

Michael Kay (Bongo Mike)
Michael Kay (Bongo Mike) in a promotional image for When The Sun Shines On Wigton, his 1979 exhibition of visual poems. Photograph: Frank Williams

Jeremy HelmThu 13 Aug 2020 17.41 BST

Bongo Mike (Michael Kay), who has died aged 76, was for almost 50 years my close friend and associate, and co-activist in the long-running campaign to get a better deal for buskers – the role in which he became best known to the public.

Born in the East End of London, he spent his early life in Edgware, the adopted son of Joe Kay and his wife, Celia (nee Adler). Joe and Celia were at that time managing a hardware store in Leather Lane, though Joe had earlier been a professional drummer, briefly leading his own dance band.

Michael, introduced to jazz by his father, became a talked-about young drummer on the early 1960s club scene, and a confidant of other young musicians who went on to fame and fortune – though he himself preferred to pursue a more individualistic cultural identity.Advertisementhttps://2bd3f2f3c9cd7f0bd103c46888e93415.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

In 1972 there appeared on the streets of London and elsewhere a certain Bongo Mike the Street Poet, distributing illustrated broadsheets of his poems for 10 pence each, and further mounting a succession of exhibitions of larger works he called “visual poems” at such venues as Camden Lock and the Art Meeting Place in Covent Garden.

This phenomenon, by the 80s, had mutated into Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (as I was by then known), the militant buskers, fighting through the courts as far as the European court of human rights for better treatment of street musicians. We did not gain any meaningful concessions in Europe, but nevertheless won, in Westminster county court in July 1988, what became known as the Twenty Pence Case (in ironic recognition of the damages we were awarded by the court for a false imprisonment by the British Transport Police).

In the 90s we were joined by other buskers, notably the London Public Entertainers Collective, and Michael was successful in winning support for the cause from the emerging cyberculture, being generously offered by James Stevens of the Backspace Cyberlounge the chance to set up the campaigning website Buskaction. After some two decades of consistent pressure, and the frequent highlighting – through the media – of the busker’s plight, there was achieved the partial, at least, decriminalisation of busking that exists in the UK today.

Retiring from busking in 2010, Michael secured shortly afterwards, with the 33Jazz record label, the release of an album of our own contemporary folk songs, Away from Tube Trains.

Michael was ill for almost a decade with the effects of a stroke and vascular dementia.

He is survived by a half-brother, Ronnie.

One of Bongo Mike’s songs, co-written and co-performed by your Blog host. (The website bongomikeandextremelyfrankjeremy.co.uk, referred to in this podcast of 2014, can no longer be reached.)

And to round off this presentation, one of the finest of Mike’s many Visual Poems (as he described this style of work), from the exhibition collectively titled “From A Poet’s Travels”

The material presented on this post is copyright protected

An Artistic Disturbance of the Peace

This is a phrase we came up with many years ago, not long after we had started our campaign to bring about a better deal for us buskers. We had been interviewed in Belgium – where we were generally seen in a more favourable light than in UK – for a student newspaper published by Leuven University, called “Veto”. On reading the article that eventually appeared, and seeing that it was in fact a serious presentation of the ideas we had spoken about to the journalist, Wim Verhelst, we were encouraged to write a rather longer pamphlet ourselves, called “An Artistic Disturbance of the Peace”, which would deal with the same range of topics as the “Veto” article, and which we hoped might serve us as a calling card to the cultural establishment back in London.

Tony Samstag, the journalist on The Times who first broke the story about us and our campaign, was intrigued by our pamphlet, and got a feature about it published in The Times in Jan. 1984. Though grateful for the publicity, and for the clearly sympathetic approach of Mr Samstag’s piece (it’s always nice to have friends), we were nonetheless apprehensive that we were back where we started, as far as the ‘being taken seriously’ thing was concerned. To quote the Times article: “I have known them for a year now, and I still have no idea whether they are entirely serious or whether their occasional pomposity and studied idiosyncrasy are really an elaborate send-up of the conventional world they have so uproariously rejected.”

Yes…I mean, they were an elaborate send-up, in part. As were the songs we were writing in that era – “I am a Professor of the University of the Street”, “If You Can’t Have a Shave in a Toilet, Where Can You Have a Shave” et al. But the Police Stations, the court appearances, the public insults and the ritual humiliations were all real.

Even if my life as a busker and “street person” is only a memory now, I still feel the hatred and contempt from the official world, and that particular sense of being ‘outside’ that goes with the state of homelessness.

But to look at the matter from a slightly different angle: the (rightly)much-praised book by Peter Brook “The Empty Space”, which I have read in recent years, begins Chapter One with this: “I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Good. Great, in fact. Then look at a sentence from our “Artistic Disturbance of the Peace”, drawn from our own journeyings in exile: “Most of the activities nowadays ennobled by the description “art” or “entertainment” are rooted in spontaneous creations and performances at the grass roots of society; there is in fact no break in the series of links between the underground platform and the stage.” These two trains of thought seem to me to be mirror images of each other, the one emanating from the progressive professional’s study, the other from the busker’s crash-pad. Progressive professionals get proper recognition; we got six months! (So to speak. If we were able to avoid serious confrontation with the law, as Strasbourg complained when dismissing our case, it was not for want of trying by the authorities, but simply the result of our being battle-trained in fighting prosecutions.)

Both Mike and I were continually, over the years, writing down thoughts on scraps of paper, thinking that one day we’d assemble these thoughts into a book that would explain just what we had been trying to achieve with our court cases and our weird songs. It grieves me that Mike died before it was possible to do this, but I am trying now to take on the challenge by myself.

One of the principal obstacles we faced, the nearer we got to achieving any practical result, was the infiltration, into our presentation of the wrongs being suffered by buskers, of the concept of a “buskers licence” as being the answer.

When a busking performance is successful, one of the main features of that success is that the busker is just there. No other form of entertainment achieves this, so far as I know, and in a city such as London, a hothouse of massive plans and ambitions, both collective and individual, it is like a flower that can grow out of concrete. Licensing essentially kills off this unique aspect of busking, and like some cheap three card trick substitutes for it an underlayer of the regular music and entertainment business.

We finally addressed this issue in our third application to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but got no nearer the hearts of the judges than we had on previous occasions.

I want to include as a postscript to this entry a cartoon drawn nearly 300 years ago by an artist called William Hogarth, which doesn’t really need any comment.

The Enraged Musician. William Hogarth 1741

And as a second postscript: while travelling today, May 24th 2021, on the District Line on London’s tube system, I heard the following announcement over the Public Address system of the train I was on, “Beggars and buskers are operating on this train. Please do not encourage these activities by supporting them.”

This is a demonstration recording of a recent song.

The Casebook Of Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (2)

“Listen Chaps, You’ve Won. It’s Only A Question Of How Much!”

It was 1984. Our second application to the European Court of Human Rights had joined our first one in the dustbin of history. And a visit we had made to the United Nations Commission in Geneva had borne similarly little fruit. It’s not my remit to belittle the work of these organisations – simply to point out how remote their authority seemed to be from the concerns of two buskers, guitar and bongos and collapsible stool in hand, who managed to fall foul of the authorities – in one way or another – in virtually every country they worked in.

The iconic 90 meter water fountain in Geneva

Anyway, it being early July, there was a bit more busking to be done before the café terraces of Western Europe became populated entirely with summer tourists (who never paid), and then we would be disappearing to a cheaper part of the continent to give our voices a rest for a month or two, before taking on the London tubes and trains in the Autumn.

1984’s summer break was an interesting one, which I’ll probably talk about in some later post, but the storyline I’m following here skips the rest of the summer, taking us back to UK in early October, and up the M1/M6 to Chorley in Lancashire, to visit our friends Stefan Sierzant and Barry Pamplin, two radical lawyers who had successfully sued the Kensington Police on our behalf over an illegal body search, and who were interested in our campaign against the abuse of buskers on the London Tube.



At our conference with Barry we showed him a copy of the London Transport bye laws, and pointed out the two that related to busking, viz, 22(1) which forbade the playing of music to the annoyance of any other person, and 22(2)(c) which forbade unlicensed soliciting for alms, reward or employment. We described a typical sort of incident, where a train guard or platform attendant would hear our music as we were performing on a train carriage, would board the train and summarily order us off.

Photographs by Seamus McGarvey

Barry thought for a moment: “Ok”, he said, “next time you get one of these interruptions, ask if anyone is annoyed by the music. If no-one says they are annoyed, then it seems to me that you haven’t committed an offence, so there would be no reason for the staff to demand that you leave the train.”

Not so long after that we did run into another interruption by a train guard, who heard our performance on a District Line Tube train and ordered us off. The passengers, when asked, didn’t say they were annoyed, so we refused to get off. The guard, and the platform staff who had come over to support him, eventually gave up arguing with us, and sent the train away – but four stations down the line the police were waiting. They dragged us off the train, marched us to an office where they held us for half an hour, then let us go. We had, however, got two witnesses from among the passengers, one of whom actually got off the train with us and stayed around until we were released.

We wrote out a statement and sent it off, together with the witnesses’ details, to Barry in Chorley. And after some to-ing and fro-ing of paperwork, Sierzants issued a writ in our name against the two Police officers in question, who belonged to the British Transport Police. The writ was for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment. (It seems it’s a peculiarity of the law that, if you start an action, you don’t always end up suing the people who’ve actually caused you the problem.)

But it was a scary moment. The possibility of being run off the transport system, losing our income and having to flea abroad again was ever-present in our minds. People we spoke to advised us to give it up, repeating the mantra, “You can’t fight the police”.

For a number of reasons the case was delayed coming to court, but on July 4th, 5th and 6th 1988 we had our moment. The judge was not very sympathetic to our case, seeming to be himself annoyed about the fact that there were so many journalists there to report on it. And in fact it didn’t seem to be going very well for us, despite the evidence of a Mr Christopher Wintle – then Head of Music at Goldsmiths College – who although not present on the day of the incident under discussion, gave a glowing account of a performance of ours that he had witnessed on a train on a different day.

It was when our barrister Mr Nigel Ley was cross-examining the last witness in the case, one of the policemen, that things changed. The constable’s memory of the incident differed from ours in several respects, but it was a point about which he actually agreed with us – that he hadn’t arrested us – that seemed to cause a problem for London Underground.

It’s curious how everything can turn on one momentary slip. Because, with the PC being so sure that they hadn’t arrested us, by which power then had they held us in the office? The whole atmosphere in the court changed in a second – though Mike and I, not being lawyers ourselves, had to wait till later to properly understand why. Mr Ley spoke to us afterwards, pronouncing those unforgettable words, “Listen chaps, you’ve won. It’s only a question of how much!”

It certainly was. We got a sense of the way the wind was blowing as Judge Harris, in his summing up (which was subsequently adjudged by the Court of Appeal to have been defective), advised the Jury that they were at liberty to award minimal damages, since the imprisonment had been purely “technical” – as he saw it. The jury duly awarded us twenty pence.

There was a slightly bizarre postscript to the story. A considerable time – maybe 15 years – later, Mike and I had just finished performing our act on a British Railways train from Waterloo to Wimbledon, and were making a brief collection from the passengers. It had been quite popular, and one man spoke to Mike as he put a pound coin in the upturned bongos:

“That’s more than I gave you last time” he said mysteriously.

“Oh, how much was it that time?” asked Mike, “have you seen us before, then?”

“I sure have”, he replied, “I gave you twenty pence last time. I was on the jury at Westminster County Court that day!”.

“Oh”, said Mike, a bit taken aback, “did you know, we were quite upset about that.”

“Yes, I heard all about it”, he said, “I saw you on the news that night, on the telly. But you got us wrong. We weren’t against you. It’s just we reckoned you two was having a laugh, so we thought we’d have one as well. That’s all it was!”

So, thanks to Judge Harris’s summing up, and a jury’s sense of humour, we had all ended up looking a bit ridiculous; but in news terms, the week had been ours. Mike and I felt already that London Underground would eventually have to back down; and after another group of buskers some years later took up a case of their own, which generated further publicity for the issue, the die was definitely cast. But the idea that any new regime brought in by the said London Underground would be operated in such a way as to genuinely liberate buskers as artists – well that was just a dream too far.

Below is a studio recording of the song we used to sing on trains, accompanied by a film improvised in a friend’s toilet. The lyric immortalises – if that’s the word for it – a real life altercation with an angry toilet attendant.

GUITARS AND MORTAR-BOARDS or It Was All Lionel Took’s Fault

I’ll admit straight away that I was planning the full Biopic here – all the joys and disappointments, the injustices, the turning points, the challenges and failures, the insults received and given out, the girl who broke my heart… and so on, all the way to the Hollywood-style meeting with my lifelong associate Bongo Mike, as the lights dim and the credits roll across the screen.

But then I thought, in the end, well maybe not.

So I’ll be brief.

A friend of my brother’s (Lionel Took) gave me my first lesson on the guitar when I was 13 – not by any sort of prior arrangement, it just happened. Showed me how to play finger style, and taught me the introduction to The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun”. (An all-purpose beginners package back then.) It seems that at some point during the years that followed I conceived the idea, without telling anybody else or even letting my conscious mind fully in on the plan, to live my life as a sort of amalgam of “The Autobiography of a Supertramp” and “Bound For Glory” (autobiographies respectively of the Welsh poet W.H.Davies and the American folk singer Woody Guthrie). And after I’d paid my dues to the grand old British Education System, I went off and just did it.

Thought I would let these passport photos tell their own story;: first one in my school uniform (Brentwood School) at age 13; second one at college five years later

If there was a problem at school, it was that the type of pupil I was, i.e. rather conservative, earnest and hard-working, didn’t fit so well with the type of musician I was trying to be, i.e. into contemporary folk and pop-rock. My teachers were mostly very friendly and helpful to me, but I would have to say that the chief impetus concerned my getting my arse up the M11 to Cambridge rather than getting myself a career as a busker-songwriter.

And when I did get to Cambridge, I would again have to say that I never really settled in. Considering that I was, as far as I knew, the first person in my family to get to Cambridge, and then understanding how proud they all were of me, and how encouraging they had always been along the way, I couldn’t lightly walk away from it all. And of course, the knowledge that I had successfully competed for my place did give me something to be proud of, even if my music was going nowhere; so it was easier to just immerse myself in the whole collective experience, on the vague assumption that something would work out at some point, rather than admit that I had lost my way, and get out of the gilded cage while there was still time.

Behind the upper window on the far left of the wall with the clock tower, I sweated out my first year at Magdalene College
In this sumptuously decorated room, resembling nothing so much as an exhibit in a museum of fine art, I suffered my second year

Photographs by Matt Moon

I approach my years at Cambridge with a little more humility these days than before – time alters ones perspective. I was clearly given a golden opportunity, as a young man, to set myself up for life. It just wasn’t what I wanted; and I couldn’t see any way that I could fit in with or usefully contribute to the situation, or indeed even get out of it, as I already explained. Retrospectively, I’m sorry it all went so wrong – though I dare say anybody that I upset back then by complaining about everything has recovered from it by now! A lot of water has passed under the bridge since, and maybe the years of chronic indecision, that seemed wasted at the time, were all but inevitable.

And so I want to conclude by recording that, at some point after I had started working with Bongo Mike, who was one of the most committed opponents of elitism and snobbery in art that you could ever hope to meet, he said to me that one of the reasons why he had been interested to get me to join with him in distributing poems in the street, and later playing music as well, was that when we had first met, in a squat in Belsize Park in 1973, when I was completely destitute, I told him that I had been to Cambridge University. That’s how hard it is to escape your past.

This is a demo I recently re-discovered of a song we never recorded

The Casebook of Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy

The European Court Of Human Rights

Like a lot of things we used to do over the years, it all started in Belgium

Photograph by Patrick Schrevens

We had played some songs to a café terrace in Leuven, and got into conversation with a young professional type of guy who was interested in our tale of woe about being arrested for busking the whole time in our own country, but not having a proper right to work or reside anywhere else.. Tricky situation. It meant that to keep ourselves legit in Belgium, for example, we had to make sure we left and re-entered the country every eight days – that way we could remain permanent tourists.

The person we were conversing with was a Belgian lawyer called Raf Gerard. He started talking about the European Convention of Human Rights, which he said most European countries had signed up to, and the Court of Human Rights, which the citizens of participating countries could appeal to.

Well that was the first we’d heard of it. But it seemed that it was a remedy we could only apply to one half of our illness, so to speak, because the individual only had the right to complain about their own country – so we could fight about the performing difficulties in Britain, but not about the residence difficulties on the continent. Ok, we could live with that.

Being the type of simpletons that we were, we decided on the direct approach. We hitch-hiked down to Strasbourg from our place in Leuven, having slept out one night on the way in some sort of building site just outside Metz. In Strasbourg we met some French students who befriended us and offered to put us up for a couple of nights. And so the assault on the bastions of justice began.

Two rogues outside the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

Turned out it wasn’t the actual Court we wanted – or at least, not at first. You had to start with the Council of Europe, and if they thought you had an arguable case they would represent you against your government at the Court.

So we go into the Council of Europe building, and someone explains that we will need to see the British rapporteur. We’re shown into a room, and a few minutes later in walks a glamorous young person announced as Madame Dollé, who turns out to be English. She’s quite matey with us, and says something along the lines of “Nice try lads, but I’m afraid you’ve got no chance!”

Well we hadn’t come all this way to be shown the door quite that quickly, so patiently we set out to demonstrate that this wasn’t just something we’d dreamed up for a laugh after a few drinks in the pub one night but was actually quite a serious issue, and eventually her face lightened up, as she said, “Yes, yes it’s about time we had a freedom of expression case here.” She gave us some forms to fill in then and there, and said we should find a lawyer to help us prepare our claim in detail. That was March 1983. Quite hopeful, after a tricky start.

Meanwhile back in England the Times and the Evening Standard had started following developments, which was a great asset, because getting publicity about the issue was half the battle – I mean, most people back home in those days didn’t even know that you couldn’t play music in a public place in London without being arrested.

We actually thought we had quite a good case. With, for example, Government publications like this one making use of images of buskers (THE HAPPY WANDERERS, a group of buskers from the 1950’s) to represent the character of Britain to people abroad, while at the same time British police were playing a nasty, dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with real-life buskers every day of the week – well, looked at in that way, the whole argument seemed cut and dried.

We had a lot to learn. The Commission Of Human Rights issued their report in October, turning down our application.

First off, they wouldn’t even commit themselves as to whether “the practice of street entertainment for gain falls within the scope of freedom of expression”.

Second, the fact that it was against the law apparently didn’t matter because “the applicants would be able to exercise their profession by virtue of an apparent official tolerance of buskers” (not something that we’d ever noticed).

And third, “The applicants have not substantiated their claim that they are outlawed, having managed to avoid serious confrontation with the police and prosecution for some years by their mobility” – so we’d weakened our case against the British Government by going abroad to avoid getting nicked!

You want our reaction?…they didn’t understand our predicament or our culture, didn’t think it was genuinely under attack, and worst of all, as we saw it, wouldn’t clarify whether they considered busking as meriting their protection under any circumstances. But then who cared what we thought.

Two subsequent attempts, one in 1984 and one in 1995, also failed, and for the same reasons.

On one of our visits to Strasbourg in the eighties we stayed a night with an interesting guy we had got talking to – a “sixty-eighter” type (or soixante-huitard in French), i.e. veteran of the 1968 riots and strikes in Paris. We discussed with him what we were trying to do. “Don’t worry”, he said, “the lawyers and judges will be sitting tonight in the finest restaurants in town, laughing about your case over a glass of champagne”.

To be continued…

Sometimes Son Is Better Than Father, Sometimes Father Better Than Son

Fabulous postcard view of Galata Bridge, Istanbul 1970’s

Towards the end of the era of the “India By Land” hippy trail-makers, Mike and I often used to hang around the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul – where most western long-hairs would end up at some point – and make a bit of money busking in cafes and restaurants round about. There were two pudding shops, both very popular, one known just as “The Pudding Shop”, and the other one, a few doors away, called “Can [pronounced Jan] Shop”, or simply Can’s. The Pudding Shop itself, with its history of appearing in the film Midnight Express (not a favourite film with Turkish people, being a version of the swashbuckling hero legend, played out at their expense ), had gone rather bigtime, and didn’t encourage buskers, but the Can Shop was a different story.

Can was the name of its owner, if I remember rightly, and he was always very friendly, encouraging us to play as much as we wanted, when he was there; but on days when his son was left in charge we weren’t welcome at all. However, a little bit further up the road (Divanyolu Caddesi) the roles were reversed. There, there was a hotel called Hotel Pirlanta, which had its own restaurant on the ground floor: and it was the boss of the hotel – the father – who didn’t like us; but his son Mehmet, running the restaurant, used to welcome us to come in and play to his customers.

A bit further up the street still was the Hotel Sultanahmet, probably the cheapest in the area, where the proprietor had once let Mike live free of charge in return for some English lessons. And it was while staying there, in a small room with walls painted a rather garish greeny-blue colour, that I had the idea one evening for a song that would start with the line, “Sometimes son is better than father, sometimes father better than son”….

We did nothing with the song for a long time, but many years later we were in Skopje, Macedonia, in the music studio of a friend of ours called Eroll Jakupi – a well-known singer of Albanian language pop songs in those days, and half-Turkish as it happened – who had said, could we find a song of ours for him? Well, we let him listen to a few we were currently working on, without getting much reaction (which didn’t surprise me, in fact, because it’s a very different musical culture down there), when I just thought to myself, “Oh well, why not try him with ‘Sometimes son…etc.’ ” and after I’d played a couple of lines Eroll stopped me. “That’s the one “, he said.

So, Mike did some magic with the lyrics, which we’d never properly finished, and which then of course had to be translated into Albanian; Eroll set Xheni, his arranger at the time, to work; and in the end the version that seemed to come out the best was one that featured all of us weighing in with the vocals, but didn’t actually use the original line that had inspired the song – so it ended up being called “Mushti Rushti Balkan Families”. Don’t ask me what that means exactly, ’cause I haven’t a clue, but it’s got to be the only Balkan folk song that was written by two British buskers!

You can listen to it here if you like.

Myself, Bongo Mike, and Eroll Jakupi, on a bright but cold Winter’s day, before Mike became disabled

Jugoslavia. Skopje. A Song for Bayram.

On September 15th 1978 we entered Jugoslavia from Italy. Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy. And after waiting at the border for a couple of hours we thumbed a lift to Ljubljana, regional capital of Slovenia (now of course an independent country). It was late afternoon. We walked around the city for a while and came upon a large square in front of a shopping centre, surrounded by neighbouring buildings, and possessed of a raised section at one end which it was impossible for us, being street musicians, not to see as a natural stage.

We unpacked our instruments and started to play, and over the next half hour or so the square gradually filled with young people, who reacted to us as if we were the first street musicians they had ever seen. When we finished we were treated to resounding applause and showered with Jugoslavian dinars, I was button-holed by a couple of young girls, while Mike got us fixed up with a place to crash… So far so good.

But our hearts were set on a longer journey. The following morning we hit the road again, and two and a half days later were in the southernmost Jugoslavian republic of Macedonia, standing on the Boulevard 26th July, at the edge of Bit Pazaar – otherwise known as the Turkish Market – in the centre of Skopje old town.

Bit Pazaar as seen from the road, 1980’s

We walked into the market area and soon were surrounded by a crowd of children, amused by the sudden appearance of two long-haired musicians complete with instruments and large travelling bag. Having made it clear that we wanted to find something to eat, we were escorted by our young entourage to a restaurant with a small terrace out front, called Restoran Turist. People were friendly, and eventually the conversation came round to where we would sleep that night. Someone said they knew of a hotel just round the corner, and would find out for us if there were any rooms. It seemed there were, and it seemed they were quite cheap – in fact, by our instant calculation, easily affordable even for two buskers. And so we were introduced to the Hotel Shar, Skopje – a place which was for many years, until we found our own home in Belgium, the only fixed point in our nomadic life on this planet Earth.

The staff of the Shar all seemed to have been hand-picked for their distinctive personality as much as anything else – each one was a genuine original. Of course, we didn’t get to know them all immediately; this first encounter with the Shar lasted only ten days. But we returned year after year until 1989, accumulating during that time unforgettable impressions, of the milieu, of the people who worked there and gravitated round it..

Reception, Hotel Shar

Adjoining the hotel there was a restaurant, also called Shar, which could be thought of as a sister-enterprise (private business was allowed in Jugoslavia, provided the total number of employees did not exceed fifteen), and I’m going to tell the story of Bayram, a deaf-and-dumb Roma, among whose responsibilities was the care of the restaurant toilet. This was situated to one side of the beautiful little courtyard lying within the hotel walls, where the restaurant’s clientele would sit, drink and eat their meals during the summer months.

We would see Bayram around, but had no direct dealings with him in the early days, because initially we never used to eat or drink in the restaurant or use its toilet, having our own washroom next to the bedroom that always seemed to be allocated to us; so he was just another regular face, but not someone we had made friends with.

Now, sometimes when we woke up in the morning (life started quite early at the Shar) we would hear a strange gurgling noise, which we assumed – without giving the matter much thought – to be the song, or cry, of some particular type of bird native to that environment. But imagine our surprise, a few visits further down the line, when we observed a blazing row between Bayram and a customer of the restaurant (who had apparently used the toilet, and failed to leave the courtesy ten dinars in the receptacle provided), and heard issuing from Bayram’s mouth the precise noise, only many times louder, that we were used to hearing in the mornings from what we thought was some Macedonian variant of the crow family.

It was an amazing revelation, and one which actually led to a deep-seated friendship between us and Bayram. I’m not sure exactly what the basis for this was, but the following idea has occurred to me (I think it’s a reasonable analysis, though some people might consider it too fanciful): thus, it could be argued that a part of the alienation which buskers typically feel in so many situations, is connected with the denial of their voice as a “proper”, legitimate artistic medium; and this could in turn have been the unconscious basis for the bonding between Bayram – the man who could only croak strange noises – and Mike and myself.

Shar Courtyard

Be that as it may, Bayram soon appointed himself as our sponsor/guardian angel in the situation. Remember we were buskers, and even though from a respected country, nevertheless renegades without official recognition from that country – or indeed official invitation from the Ministry of Culture in Skopje. And so we found our standing to be at times a little insecure – as on the occasion when, having been caught busking in town and then marched back to the hotel by the local police to have our passports checked, we became the butt of humorous remarks and asides for a period of several days. Bayram alone remained loyal, offering me as consolation a pair of second-hand shoes he had picked up in the Bit Pazaar.

Or again – on Friday afternoons there used to be a gathering of ethnic folk musicians at the tables in the courtyard, and we began to notice a certain cynicism on their part towards us, as being merely “gypsies” who used music to scrape up a few shillings for the next meal (and not even proper gypsies, either). But Bayram wasn’t going to let his new friends be treated in that way. One Friday, as we were walking through the courtyard with our instruments to go out somewhere in town, Bayram suddenly appeared and forestalled any of the usual derogatory banter by insisting loudly that we should play a song right there, and prove our worth as entertainers (of course with his vocal impairment he couldn’t say all that, and we wouldn’t have understood it if he could have, because our Macedonian in those days was very limited, but it was obvious what he meant). I think we played Sweet Georgia Brown and I’m Confessing, with Mike on kazoo and vocals, and me on guitar and backing vocals – and though it probably wouldn’t have passed muster at the Cotton Club, we felt, as we often did, that the street players of the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band from New Orleans might have been watching over us approvingly. Anyway, it was good enough to silence our critics at that moment, and Bayram was overjoyed at our triumph!

Just joking! Day manager Micho administers some emergency dental treatment to Bayram

A bit later still, to celebrate our friendship with Bayram, we put a photo of him, standing with me near the hotel, on the cover of our second single “Professor of the Street”, and showed a copy of it to him next time we were in Skopje. But tragedy was to strike – a few days after showing him the picture, we heard that he had been knocked over by a motor car as he was walking home, and killed. We were haunted by the thought that maybe it had been our fault in some way, and to expiate our feeling of guilt – be it real or imaginary – we wrote a song, called simply “Song For Bayram”. Below is a link to a video of it on YouTube, shot in and around Shuto Orisari (known locally as “Shutka”), a village just outside Skopje where many Roma people live. Some of the visual sequences were filmed with permission at a gypsy wedding there.

Song For Bayram

Still photography: private collection of Mike Kay.

Loitering….A Brush With Fate!

The Young Bongo Mike

On the night of November 30th 1966 occurred an event which was to change Michael’s life forever. He had spent some hours that evening in a pub called The Ship, in Wardour Street, which was then one of several Soho pubs frequented by the music business; but he had left after an impassioned argument with music manager Tony Stratton-Smith.

Feeling rather disturbed by this argument (of which maybe more another time), he took a train to Finchley Road, where he visited some friends; then, realizing he had missed the last bus home, he hitched a lift which took him as far as Mill Hill, from where he intended to walk the rest of the way. Always as much a poet as a musician, Michael used to enjoy rambling around the deserted streets of suburban areas of London at night, finding inspiration there – and, with much on his mind after the events of earlier that evening, as he slowly made his way homeward, he wandered up a narrow tree-lined turning, deep in thought and talking to himself. When he re-emerged a few minutes later, he was suddenly grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground by a person who turned out to be a police officer, claiming to have seen him attempting to burgle a house!

To cut a long story short, he was taken to a police station where, despite his denials, he was charged with “being a suspected person, found loitering with intent to commit a felony” (the notorious, and now repealed, “Sus” law), and subsequently found guilty of this offence in the local magistrates court and fined accordingly.

But Michael was a person who wanted to believe in society and its institutions, rather than engage in slick cynicism, and against the advice of many who told him to just forget about it and get on with his life, he set out to appeal. The enforced activity of applying before a High Court judge for legal aid, finding a barrister and solicitor to represent him, and preparing his case for the appeal, acted as a kind of therapy which enabled him to keep his sanity; and, as the newspaper cutting shows, the appeal was successful, even if Mike was not so happy to be warned by the Judge (Mr Richard Vick) that for his own good he should not in future go out wandering late at night….

Fortunately for us he took little notice of this warning, and some of his best songs have come from the times when he would hang around in empty night-time or early morning streets. But the whole episode, occurring when he was in his early 20’s, had a huge effect on his later life.

And as a final riposte, Mike composed the poem below – one of some 80 different broadsheets of his, that he and I, working together, would print multiple copies of, and sell on the streets of London and many other towns and cities around the UK, in the 1970’s.

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Historic European (Busking)Train Journeys

LEUVEN – AACHEN

[first of an occasional series]

Leuven

Walking out in the early morning from the tiny, terraced house in Leuven which we had made our base on the continent – it being some time in the early 1980’s, and the day being Tuesday, our day for traveling to Aachen (just over the border in Germany) – we were happy simply to be alive, and following our chosen occupation.

It was a short walk from our street to the railway station – we would probably have had a coffee as usual in the Café Oud Leuven on the way, bought international tickets in the station, and had a joke with our friends in the ticket office to pass the time, since we were usually early for the train.

Leuven Station as it is today

AutoCCD, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

On our way out to the platforms on this occasion, we noticed that Padé was also at the ticket office, asking in a loud voice for a ticket to Tienen (although he called it Tierlemont- the French name). Padé was a Belgian gypsy. So far as we knew, he lived with his family in a caravan, somewhere on the edge of town. He supported his family by busking round Belgium, rather as we did, only we did not have a family. We ran into him – or perhaps I should say he ran into us – the very first day we showed up in Leuven. We were having a drink in the student café known as Alma 1, on the main road which led from the station into the centre, when in walked a remarkable-looking personage with a guitar, about as dishevelled as we were, with black hair, heavily lined, swarthy face, and a thick moustache. He started immediately to play the guitar in a distinctive rhythmic manner for a minute or so, before hurrying round the tables to make his collection.

We found out later that he was well-known in Leuven, in fact people would say that you knew summer had arrived when you saw Padé! Despite the affection people had for him though, it seemed he was not accepted as a proper musician – but I always thought that he had a perfectly natural and expressive way of making his guitar sound, and in addition he was completely professional in his relationship with the audience, no matter how informal the situation. Unfortunately, it was extremely difficult – in fact almost impossible – to get into conversation with him.

Tienen

Anyway, our train came in, and Padé got on the same train, because Tienen lay in the same direction from Leuven as did the German border. We saw Padé head straight for the buffet car and order a glass of Loburg, in French, again in a loud voice – and once again I experienced a fleeting sense of admiration for his style! Although we weren’t stopping off at Tienen ourselves that day, it was in fact a town where we frequently did play, though normally on Sundays. There was an interesting collection of cafés and restaurants that we used to sing in, in the evening, but our real joy on the visit would come from sitting through the Sunday afternoon in the strangely atmospheric railway station ticket hall, waiting as it gradually filled up every half hour with people making the journey into Brussels; then ten minutes or so before the train was due, we would give a performance of one or two old country-blues numbers and make a collection, winding up just as the carriages chugged in alongside platform 1. They were magical moments that never failed. We sometimes thought we saw the station master watching us through his little window, but he didn’t say a word.

Liège Guillemins Station, 1970’s and 80’s

Numérisation d’une dia personnelle (Claude Warzée 1975) de la gare des Guillemins Liège (Belgique). This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Liège

The train proceeded eastwards from Tienen; through Landen, where a disused train car standing near the station had been converted into a quaint little restaurant, and on to the city of Liège, where we would often have to change trains. Liège was our Friday pitch. That is to say, we would sit the whole of Friday afternoon in the station cafeteria with our instruments at the ready, every now and then playing a few songs suitable to the party atmosphere that usually prevailed, and making a collection. The waiters generally liked it, in fact on one occasion one of them did an impromptu dance on an empty table; it was the toilet attendants who disapproved, finding us – I think – a bit too cavalier on occasions when we surreptitiously unplugged the juke-box to enable the customers to hear our performance!

And so past Verviers, where sits the Cour de Cassation – the highest court in the Belgian legal system – then through the northernmost fringes of the beautiful Forest of Arden, past the border town of Welkenraedt, and on to the German border itself – which, for those entering by train, is situated in Aachen Station.

Aachen Station – then and now

© A.Savin, WikiCommons

Heinrich_Emil_Ludwig_Martha; Kaufmann_Anton_Ypsilon

Now this could go quite smoothly, or it could go wildly wrong. It just depended on your luck on any particular day. In any event you would have your passport checked, and always our names would be spelled out into a border guard’s walkie-talkie: “Heinrich – Emil – Ludwig – Martha; Kaufmann – Anton – Ypsilon” (that’s our surnames, Helm and Kay, in German police language). But on a bad day there would be a reception committee waiting on the platform of Aachen Hauptbahnhof, we would be marched along to the police office, and ordered to strip off all our clothes…. So, despite the fact that Aachen – when you actually got there – was a most attractive, surprisingly bohemian city, the problems we had entering Germany at that border do mean that this otherwise fascinating train journey is unlikely to take first place in our eventual rankings; although, in fairness, it should be conceded that the Aachen border was not the only one to offer this unconventional type of welcome – our strip-tease act was quite well-known all over the continent, and closer to home in Britain, too.

(Since the implementation of the Schengen agreement in 1995, you can now sail through Aachen station without so much as an “Ausweis bitte!” to disturb your day; although Covid restrictions, in these strange times, can still lead to the temporary re-introduction of border controls.)

So You Think You Can Make It to the Station Alone?

And so to some music. This song – I think of it as a wiser Bongo Mike addressing his impatient younger self – was recorded acoustically, and released  as the ‘B’ Side of the first single from our own label, Newspaper Records. 

The Professor of the University of the Street

Early Days

Photgraph by Michael Abrahams

There we were, busking outside “The London Experience” in Coventry Street, London’s West End, with our friend David Benn on the tin-whistle (or flageolet as it is sometimes called).  The year was 1978, and we were finding out what it was like to be hunted criminals, regularly hauled up in court for “obstructing the free passage along the highway”.  Two songs that were to become permanent fixtures in our repertoire were composed on this very spot: “It’s a Crime to Play Music in the Streets” and “I am the Professor of the University of the Street”.

Our acoustic performance of “Professor” became the mainstay of our busking act on the continent, during what we called our exile period; but back in London ten years later, we recorded an electric version of the song, which we decided to make into a vinyl single.  We called our electric act “Disco Justice” (more on that name another time), and released the record of  “Professor” b/w “Away from Tube Trains” on our own independent label, Newspaper Records.

It so happened we’d used some pictures of Skopje  – a town in Yugoslavia we often used to visit in those days – for the artwork of the single.  We took along some copies next time we went down there, and our friend Vladimir Mandecevski – who owned a record shop in Skopje called Bagi Shop –  started playing it on his program on the local Studentsko Radio.  It became quite popular with local kids who were enthusiastic listeners to Indie music from the UK and USA.

Vladimir was known to everybody in Skopje as Mande.  As well as playing our record quite a lot, Mande would interview us when we were there, and used to say nice things about us…….which was always welcome, considering how much we were up against things at home.

The song lasts an epic 5 mins 20 secs, featuring towards the end a surprise verdict and punishment meted out by the Magistrate.