Tuesday, October 30, 2007
I looked down at my guitar to adjust my capo and re-tune slightly.
I looked to my left down the long Metro tunnel to the turnstiles. As I did, he bowed slightly, crooked his right arm and sent a dollar rolling in my direction about 25 yards. It rolled steadily, picking up speed, and, just before it reached me, it bounced into the air.
I caught it at the top of its arc, and looked up at him. He smiled and waved and hurried to the stairs down to the Montmorency train, which was just whooshing in to the station a level below me.
Of all the culture I would cover in Montreal, Metro musicians intrigued me the most. ("Hey, I can do that!") Unlike other cities where "busking" is a casual, haphazard thing--You get somewhere, set up and play--Montreal has a system, sort of.
It goes like this: Someone (maybe you) gets to a Metro station at 5 a.m. when it opens. He scribbles out a list with the date, name of the station, and two hour slots from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. He makes two of these lists, tucks the first under the corner of a blue metal sign designating the music station. The other is usually tucked behind a tunnel billboard.
Get there early, and get your name on it. That's it. The trick is just getting there before anyone else because once the list is up, that's it for the day.
I chose the Sherbrooke station for obvious reasons—it's a block from my apartment. I could stagger out, stumble down the street with funny hair at 5 a.m., sign up and then go back home to sleep. Traversing the entire Metro system looking for the music stations (identified by a blue lyre sign) was not something I was keen to do.
The whole singing by yourself with only a guitar thing, this wasn't something I was that familiar with. Back home I have a loud, noisy rock and roll band for protection. Here I would stand alone. Just me and the new/used Takamine guitar I bought at Jack's Musique on St. Antoine. (On sale, Sylvia, OK?)
My friend Jimmy from Glasgow and I once busked on a street corner in Old Town Pasadena, and drew such a large crowd that the cops came and asked them to move along. I could not take credit for the event, though. Jimmy sings like an angel, and his Dad was in town visiting. Once Jimmy sang, his Dad had to dance. The combination was simply too irresistible. In ten minutes and 28 dollars, the moment was sealed forever.
The Metro would be different. I ain't Jimmy. I don't sing like an angel, I sing like a person. Huge difference.
My first day--the mid afternoon slot. I had only come in the hope that there was a slot available later in the day. But the 3:30 people were late. I could start right then and keep the slot for the two hours if they didn't show up.
Oh, OK, that means go! I had sort of a song list in my head and in a notebook. But I began with whatever would come out when I started strumming. Out popped out a really slowed-down version of the Supremes' "Stop in the name of Love," with just enough angst to get people to say, "Um, do I know that song?"
(In exactly 30 minutes the 3:30 people showed up. End of the first day.
I realize now that people going by were wondering where Xie Wie, the Chinese violinist who usually bogarted every available spot here, was. (I would see him every time I walked through the station. I even bought his CD. Now that I understood the system, I wonder how he always managed to be there. You only get one spot a day. There was something just a little moo goo gai pan going on here, if you ask me.)
The Song List
I probably know about 200 songs in my head, all of which leave my same head when its time to write them down, so I jotted down about 25 of them in a notebook, that I could play at the drop of a coin. Then it occurred to me as I was playing: I could play the same song for two hours. People were constantly walking by, in the middle of songs. How could they know? And sadly, the vast majority of them are wearing their iPods.
I learned that there are certain songs that have no effect on people, others that you have to learn to squeeze a little emotion out of. I resisted playing really popular, well-known songs, and never had to play the "The Fucking Eagles," as I have gently referred to them as for so many years.
And then there is the one song will always get them, will always stop someone in his or her tracks, will always make someone smile and look at me, like they know me.
The song? "Somewhere over the Rainbow," of course.
It's problematic, I know. I was telling someone about doing it, and she was appalled. Said no one but Judy could do it. Said she wouldn't even stop to listen to anyone else doing it. Ouch.
But mine is a simple, spare little version. No histrionics, I'm no one I am not, know what I mean? And people like it. Girls smile. Old women look at me kindly. Punk rockers slow down and lip-sync to their friends. And they give me money. What other song can do that?
But How Much Money?
The easy answer is, "I don't know." Money was never the object of the adventure, just the experience. My original goal was to pay for the guitar I bought, but after a few sets, that was seeming more and more unlikely. That first half hour I played? Ten bucks. I think that was the only time I counted.
After that I simply put a little change in my guitar case once I started the set,to give people the idea, and then emptied all the change into a large serving bowl once I got home. The bowl is almost full.
Most Montreal musicians make the bulk of their income from the Metro, though I could not imagine that I could, and am very glad I was not trying to. (I was explaining this to Daniel, one of the musicians, as he was packing up and making room for me, and he just stared at me. "You have a job?," he asked, incredulous. I let him have the next train.)
I didn't get rich, I didn't get famous. I'm okay. My guitar will be packed up and shipped home next week.
What I take home are these snapshots:
--An older gentleman approaches me as I arrive, and hands me money. "Here,"he says. "I meant to give this to you yesterday, but my train was arriving."
--A frenzied mother coaxes her shy young daughter to approach me. When she is unsuccessful, the older daughter hands me the money.
-A young student stops at the turnstile, walks all the way back to me, drops money in the case. "That was nice," she said.
--A couple hands their baby in a stroller money to give me. She puts it in her mouth, of course. They apologetically drop the gooey money in the case.
--A trio of black-shirted metalheads gathers about 25 feet to my right. They huddle seriously, then approach me. Three tattooed fistfuls of coins spill open at once.
Lots of people smiled and some danced. Many ignored me. Plenty of pretty women slowed down.
And that, dear reader, is the point. Every rock and roller from Carl Perkins to John Lennon to Kurt Cobain, who ever joined or started a band, every big hair metal dude who ever cranked it up to 11, every earnest college dork who ever sang "Kumbaya" at a campfire, every 12-year-old who ever begged his mother for a cheap Korean electric guitar, did it for one reason. One reason only. To impress a girl.
And I'm no different. Hope springs eternal.