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All the road's a stage for performers who just want to busk in the glory


Anson Cameron

It's only the street, but to a busker it can be so much more.

ROD Stewart was busking on a railway station when Long John Baldry discovered him. Forty-five years later Stewart saw Amy Belle busking in Ashton Lane in Glasgow and less than a week later Amy was singing a duet with him at a packed and adoring Royal Albert Hall.

When you watch their rendition of I Don't Want To Talk About It on YouTube you have to ask yourself if there is a more beautiful, vulnerable singer on the planet than Amy Belle, her jeans still dirty from the cobblestones, batting her eyes shyly at the miracle.

Tracy Chapman was busking, too, when fame found her. As were the Violent Femmes when the Pretenders found them. These stories of lightning-strike celebrity are what send kids into the city with a milk crate and a guitar.

Pity the busker, convinced each headlong pedestrian might be their Colonel Tom Parker about to raise them off the milk crate and out of anonymity into the Grand Ole Opry of their imagination.

The truth is, on passing a busker we are usually asking ourselves why we have to endure sound-bites of Paul Kelly's finest songs extruded like sausage meat through the yellow teeth and studded lips of a tuneless Mohawk-wearer while we're trying to listen to our phone messages. At the pace most of us are travelling, and at the depth of preoccupation in which we are operating, a busker can only ever hope to offer us a refrain, a short string of notes, perhaps a disconcerting declaration that we are the wind beneath someone's wings or that we feel the earth move under our feet.

It must be dismal to sing to heedless pedestrians. But passing and paying a busker makes as much sense as glimpsing a hood ornament and buying a car. Not even Elvis could sell you a song in the time it takes you to walk on by.

To be static while the audience flows past into its day is to be passed over a thousand times an hour. For them, you are part of a shadow play, ephemeral not individual. Otherwise you represent a ceaseless staccato rejection and your passing is one more wound blithely delivered in this death of a thousand cuts.

Of course, many buskers have less music in them than a banker's ablutions. Many of them appear to be beggars forced by city bylaws to retreat into musical pantomime where it's legal to beg. But not everyone is allowed to busk. Did you know the hoop-eared beatbox artist outside Myer has paid a busking fee and got a permit? He has had to perform a five-minute review before the City of Melbourne Busking Panel and show an ability to entertain. As well, strangely, in this land of free speech, he has had to convince the panel his performance does not involve any religious or political issues.

Yes. A Busking Panel. Do they listen to the auditions blind and their chairs swing 180 degrees at the touch of a button? Surely the lord mayor Robert Doyle wouldn't miss out on this opportunity to lounge paunchily like Seal gone to seed while the young beatboxer runs through his repertoire. I see the beatboxer's rhythm catch the lord mayor's toe. It taps. Then his leg wiggles. The wiggling leg of the lord mayor empowers the other panellists and pretty soon they're all grooving, dancing - yeah, dude, you're in.

What kind of Enlightened People's Republic are we trying to build here? Are our buskers Bob Dylan's poets or Bob Doyle's puppets? And what type of groaning loons does the Busking Panel reject if the hellish discordant outside the Swanston Street Maccas gets the nod to perform?

There are good musicians performing on our city streets. Typically, they go through their act as though they are ghosts, their every gesture unseen, their every note unheard.

In 2007, The Washington Post conducted an experiment in which the famous Grammy-Awarded classical violinist Joshua Bell played as an incognito street busker at the Metro station in Washington, DC. Of the 1097 people who passed by, one person recognised him and seven others stopped to listen. In three-quarters of an hour Bell collected $32.17.

I have just given money to a bowler-hatted accordion player with amethyst eyeglasses in Flinders Lane. His playing is good. A Viennese waltz or some such beautiful tangentially repetitious tune. He's chosen to bring his ancient music into the city among the smoking schoolkids and charging suits. That's brave. His name is Harold and he says on a good day he can make 35 bucks an hour. He is comforted to hear he has the same fiscal pull as the great Joshua Bell.

But Harold says he does it for the buzz and to meet people. Buskers aren't looking for money as much as for recognition, affirmation, an audience, adoration, love … a way in. The same stuff Rod Stewart still yearns for every night on stage all these years after he was found on a train station.

Go now and look at Amy Belle, a nymph plucked off cobblestones, and next time you're passing the kid on the crate singing white-breathed into our winter, shorten your step and cock your ear. That kid has an annual permit, and diminishing hope.

Anson Cameron is a Melbourne writer.

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