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Music of the streets – story #2

Like most places in winter, my city is quiet, her streets not so full of people. I miss the sounds of the street musicians, the buskers, as I walk in the rain. I can’t blame them for taking a break during the inclement weather. But I am assured in the coming months when the rain abates and the sun shines, that these wonderful troubadours will be on the street corners, in the parks, serenading all who pass by.

Dreams of a Busker

To busk means “to entertain by singing, dancing, or reciting on the street or in a public place.”Henry Dewar was a busker, and he entertained on the street by singing. Busking is a profession that really isn’t a profession but more like a volunteer position that struggling musicians find themselves in when trying to become noticed. If one is lucky, or good enough to be noticed for more than a few passing seconds, there may be a bit of pay involved. But more times than not, being a busker is just putting on a free show in whatever locale is available for whoever happens to walk by. Actually, it was Dylan Jameson who was the busker – that was Henry’s busking moniker. He had decided that Henry was a totally inappropriate name for someone who sang songs like the ones he wrote, full of heartfelt meaning, sprinkled with an idiosyncratic nature at times. He arrived at Dylan in a clear cut tribute to Bob Dylan, the most famous of buskers. And in keeping with the whiskey theme attached to his last name, he chose Jameson instead of Dewar. And besides, he much preferred a shot of Jameson over a shot of Dewar’s any day. Not that he should have known the difference, since he was only 20 years old and not quite legal drinking age. But who didn’t drink before that time anyway? Only dorks and geeks and nerds, and he wasn’t one of them, although at times he felt like one. But when his friends passed around the bottle of whatever they could find in their parent’s liquor cabinet while they were out of town, Henry gladly took a swig. The warm glow of  whiskey or whatever was in the bottle he held in his hand  took away all the insecurities and especially the voice of his mother, asking him once more when he was going to put away that silly guitar and find a real job or go to college or really do anything but play music. Henry would hold the bottle in front of his face and speak to it, pretending it was his mother and that he actually had the courage to tell her, “Mom, I’m not going to college and I am going to find a real job – a job as a musician – I just wish you would believe in me, but it doesn’t matter because this is my future, this is my dream and it is going to come true because I believe in me.” And with that he would take an extra long swig and wait for the liquor to fill him full of the golden glow of that belief.

Perhaps out of respect to Henry and his dreams, maybe he should be referred to as Dylan from this point on. Oftentimes an artist in bloom requires a new identity, even when that new identity continually gets slathered over by naysayers, like Dylan’s mom. Like most moms she meant well, and as a single mom she meant even more than well. She worried about her son, as she watched him try out different hair styles and different hair colors, ranging from blue to green to the jet black that he seemed to have finally decided upon. And couldn’t he just cut it to a more respectable length, above his shoulders at least? How would he ever get a decent job with long, stringy, black hair? And his clothes, well she couldn’t complain too much, he certainly didn’t spend much of her money on his wardrobe. Dylan’s closet was only half full at best; a few pairs of well worn jeans, various t-shirts in plain colors or those with different bands or musicians on the front, and a meager collection of hoodies for the cooler weather he endured while playing outside in the Portland, Oregon winter. It was all a struggling musician needed as far as clothes, but Dylan’s mom envisioned him in business attire, at the very least in a button down shirt with a pair of dress pants and shoes that weren’t made of canvas. She hated to keep nagging him but she couldn’t stand the thought of her son, her only child ending up like his father – living in some remote seaside town on the Oregon coast in a rundown ocean weathered house, still chasing the artist’s dream, still trying to make a living out of driftwood he found on the shore. When they had first married she found it charming and thought it was just a phase that he would grow out of and learn how to properly provide for his family. But that never happened and now Dylan’s mom painfully watched as her son began to travel down the same dead end road, with the same glazed over, starry eyed dreams as his father had followed.

Dylan liked to think of the buskers in Portland as a family of sorts, a community unique onto themselves. They were like the Impressionists from 19th century Europe, who came together to put forth their art that was so misunderstood at the time. Of course there was a vibe of competition among the buskers, how could there not be? They all wanted the same thing, to be discovered and catch that elusive fame and success, to sing for more than just the passing people on the streets. But they encouraged one another, and listened to one another. Sometimes partnerships were formed and other times they were broken. But there was an unspoken rule of no backstabbing or stepping over another to achieve their time in the spotlight. Many times precious guitar strings were shared, as well as information leading to a treasure like find of really cheap instruments for sale. In Portland the Willamette River divides the city into east and west, and Dylan knew most who played on both sides, although his home turf was the west side. Those on the east side would proudly proclaim that their area was “the real Portland”, with the hip and quirky bohemian flavor that most musicians seemed to thrive in. But as Dylan would come to find out, serendipity didn’t choose sides of a river, it went both east and west.

The battered and duct taped black guitar case stood in the corner, like a soldier waiting for its assignment. Inside the case was Dylan’s most prized possession, the Yamaha acoustic guitar made of light brown wood, covered with stickers of all sorts from the different bands around town who gave them out, to one from Jackpot Records, his favorite record store in town, to one proclaiming “Keep Portland Weird”. The precious guitar was a gift from Dylan’s father, on his 12th birthday, when his father was still around. His father understood him, he understood the musician in him, and he understood Dylan’s need to follow his passion. It is exactly what Dylan’s father had done, followed his passion, even though it had cost him his family. These days Dylan didn’t see him very often and talked to him even less and missed him even more. But life wasn’t always easy or what we thought it should be, as his mother reminded him time and time again.

“I’m out of here,” Dylan shouted to his mom as he grabbed his guitar case, his coolest pair of sunglasses, and a bottle of water for his busking session, this time down by the waterfront of the Willamette.

“Will you be home for dinner?” his mother shouted back.

“Don’t plan on me,” Dylan said as he walked out the door.

“I never do,” his mother muttered under her breath.

It was Saturday, and that meant the Saturday Market was in full swing. It was a perfect summer day and Portland was full of visitors who made it a point to visit the huge weekend gathering of artists that they had heard so much about. It was a different energy than the artists who showed their work in the Pearl District, which was much more upscale and catered to people who bought expensive works of art that transformed their homes into art galleries themselves. The artists of the Saturday Market were more of the arts and crafts feel, many of them creating their works as a hobby and not as their profession. But during the summer months when the crowds were full and fierce, the tourists gobbled up many of the unique treasures offered and the artists fared well. Many different varieties of food were also offered, as well as different types of music being played everywhere throughout the market, and there were even break dancers once in awhile who moved like taffy being pulled, to the sounds coming from a nearby beat box. Dylan made his way to the market by first walking through the nearby Farmer’s Market that was also held every Saturday. He could hear the echoing strains of the sax man as he neared the site of the Farmer’s Market. Dylan wondered how long the old man had been playing on that same corner; his saxophone a dull gold color now, but the notes still coming out clear and bright. He stopped to listen as he heard the moaning melody of the blues being played. When the sax man finished, Dylan shoved a dollar into the glass jar he always had, the one with the sign in black marker that said, “Bless You”. “Thanks son,” the old man said with a tired smile. The sax man was the only one that Dylan gave money to; he kind of felt sorry for the old guy. But he never could find the courage to ask him about his life or his experiences as a long time busker; at times he was afraid of what he might hear. Dylan moved on to the park outside of the Farmer’s Market and spotted his friend Tyler, playing his brand of heavy rock music with his cheap electric guitar and amp that he hauled around town.

“How goes it man?” Dylan asked him.

“Not bad, I’ve made a few bucks but it’s mostly head banging highschoolers coming to listen. What I really need is the music people to come, you know? Not just a bunch of wanna be kids.”

The “music people” that Tyler referred to was every busker’s dream, that someone of some importance from the music community would take notice and tell someone else of some importance and so on and so on, and then they would be discovered.

“Yeah, but don’t forget about all the attention you get when a crowd gathers. And don’t forget about your fans,” Dylan reminded him.

“Yeah, well alright. Where’re you headed?”

“I’m gonna set up down by the Market, by the waterfront. A great day like this brings everyone out and hopefully the music people will be out too.” Dylan was thinking about all the famous musicians who had been discovered playing on the streets, like Bob Dylan of course and in more recent times there was Beck. To Dylan it was not just a pie in the sky dream, to be a famous musician. Music was his passion, his life; it was the only thing that he wanted to do. But reality had begun to sink in lately, the reality of being unemployed and living at home, and along with that was the constant sound of his mother’s voice reminding him of this. But for now he just wanted to find his favorite spot by the waterfront, under the shade of a tree and play his heart out to whoever wanted to listen.

With the guitar case in one hand that held his most prized possession, and a half empty bottle of water in the other, Dylan made his way out of the sprawling grounds of the Farmer’s Market and turned north towards the Saturday Market. This event took place in the area known as Old Town, a part of Portland that was a bit grimier than others, but Dylan loved the feel of the area. He made his way past the many booths set up, where people sold a hodgepodge of arts and crafts; everything from soaps to nuts, jewelry to junk made into treasures. Every type of artist opened up shop, with art done in every imaginable medium. Dylan always thought of it as the perfect showcase for Portland’s strong art community. And mixed in with all that was for sale were the musical offerings, from those who were asked to play on the small stage set up by the food area, to those who were uninvited, like Dylan. But there was a level of tolerance for all the buskers; they never seemed to be harassed by the police for playing their music. Dylan weaved his way through the throngs of people gazing at the dazzling array of arts and crafts offered until he got to the waterfront area. He had a favorite spot, a corner with a large oak tree that provided him with much appreciated shade on the hot summer days. It was one of those hot summer days and Dylan was glad to see that no one was sitting there. He sat down on the grass and laid down his guitar case. Opening it up he gently lifted his guitar out, and also found his cheat sheet of lyrics and chords to the songs he had been working on lately. Dylan had discovered his mom’s record collection from her youth, and he was surprised to find that he actually liked a lot of the music his mom used to listen to. His favorite of late was The Slider by T. Rex, and he had been working hard to perfect the songs from that album. He strummed through the six strings of the guitar, one at a time, in an effort to make sure he was in tune. One last gulp from the water bottle, a check to make sure his guitar case was opened and close at hand to any passersby who would want to throw some money in, and on with the cool white rimmed sunglasses – he was ready. Dylan got into the place where the music came from; a place where he could feel the joy of singing and playing the music, a place where he seemed to be in a world all his own. So it came as a surprise to him when he looked up for a second and saw the woman standing there in front of him. She looked old enough to be his mom but she was into the T. Rex song he was playing. When he finished she clapped her hands excitedly and said, “That was great! And you even remembered to shout out “rock!” in the right place.”

“Thanks,” said Dylan shyly, “I found this album in my mom’s record collection – it’s a great album, like a classic, and one of my favorites.”

“When I was in high school I remember hearing T. Rex on the radio, but all they played was Bang a Gong.  I didn’t realize until years later how much other great music they have. They never really got a fair shake in the US,” the mom-like lady replied.

“I’ll play you another if you’d like,” said Dylan and with that he launched into Spaceball Richochet but kind of faded out towards the end.

“Sorry about that,” Dylan mumbled, “I’m just learning these songs.”

“That’s okay, it sounded great. And by the way, my name is Sharon Waters. I’m actually here for a reason – I work for Aberrant Records and we’re hosting a kind of “battle of the buskers” called The Buskers Ball. We got talking one day about all the great music we hear on the streets but realize how hard it is to get noticed and catch a break. So we’re having a talent show of sorts at the Roseland Theatre in two weeks. Here’s all the information about signing up and other details. The winner will get free studio time with a producer and engineer provided, and Aberrant will press the cd and distribute it. But even if you don’t win, there will be plenty of Portland music industry people coming to listen, and the possibilities are endless!”

Dylan didn’t know what to say, with this opportunity just falling into his lap. “Thanks, I’ll be there!”

“I’m counting on it,” Sharon said as she moved on to find the next busker to bestow good fortune upon.

Dylan spent the next two weeks feverishly practicing and perfecting his music; broken guitar strings became a common occurrence and he bummed new ones off the other buskers when he could. According to the small white piece of paper he got that fateful Saturday, he had to go online and register his name, so of course he registered as Dylan Jameson; and each person got one song, one chance to show what they’ve got. Since the lady from Aberrant liked his T. Rex material so much, he chose a song off of The Slider to perform. He had some original material; songs he had written but he wasn’t sure how they would go over – better to play a cover that people would recognize. He could play his own songs after he got the ball rolling and found a record label to put his stuff out there. But for now, his hopes were on this Buskers Ball, hoping against hope like all the others that they would be noticed or even better, be the lucky winner.

As Dylan walked down Burnside Avenue, guitar case in hand, he neared the Roseland Theatre and saw the lineup of others just like him. Wow, there must be every busker around from east to west, he thought as he took his place in line. He was so nervous! He had never been on a stage before; this wouldn’t be like playing outside, now he got to play inside in a proper venue. The line slowly snaked towards the backstage door. Dylan felt the nervous anticipation and started singing to himself – would he get up there and forget the words? He wished he could take his guitar out of the case, right there in line to make sure he remembered the chords. But after two weeks of constant practice he felt like it was second nature, the song he had picked to perform. Now he was up to the door – he could see the table set up where everyone had to sign in and get all the new details about what was going to happen and get the number that they had to wear so the “judges” knew who they were. Kind of like a talent contest, kind of corny and kitschy but hey, it was a chance to strut your stuff that may have never happened in a million years so Dylan was willing to play the game. Now it was his turn – “What’s your name?” the lady at the table asked. “My name is Dylan Jameson,” the old Henry Dewar replied. He got his number and found himself in the backstage of a real club, a real place to play. And as he moved around the backstage area, and found himself looking at the stage where he would be playing, he realized that his dreams, the dreams of a busker, had a very good chance of turning into his reality.

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