Down On The Corner, Out In The Street

July 19, 2013

The other day I passed a guy on the sidewalk playing a guitar. He had his guitar case open in front of him, and a few people had tossed in loose change and a couple of dollar bills. I tossed in a dollar as I went by because I felt sorry for the guy. This is Nashville, after all. This is Music City. Anyone with an ounce of talent isn’t performing on the sidewalks; they’re performing at one of the two dozen open mic nights that are held in every bar, restaurant, and lawyer’s office on Old Hickory Road, or in one of the houses turned into recording studios that are just three blocks south of where I work. Although anyone with two ounces of sense isn’t trying to get into Nashville’s recording scene, which is so crazy they made a movie and a TV show about it, neither of which makes it look all that appealing.

Although I’m not sure why there aren’t more street performers in Nashville. It seems like a great way to be noticed. In London, for instance, street performing is a way of life for many people, and it’s how a lot of successful British musicians, singers, actors, and comedians got their start. Eddie Izzard started out as a street performer, which is why, when he’s already been paid to do a gig in a $50-per seat theater and he rattles off a line that gets a big reaction from the audience, he says, “Thank you, but I don’t do this for applause. I do it for cash.” And then he passes a hat around, because old habits die hard.

You can’t go into a single London Underground station without passing at least five guitarists, two singers, and two guys playing didgeridoos and doing an Australian tribal dance. Once, on my way to a train, I passed a flutist. He was sitting cross-legged and playing a very sad, mellow tune. I’m not sure what it was—the only flute pieces I know are by Prokofiev and Jethro Tull. He had a satchel spread out in front of him, and there were only a few small coins on it. I felt bad for him, so I tossed a pound coin onto his satchel. I got on the train and looked back to see him take the pound coin and put it in the satchel. I thought, you charlatan. I felt bad for you, and you’ve probably got £200 in there. And then I realized he’d changed his tune—literally. It was something light and happy—it might have even been “Thick As A Brick”, although if he was taking requests I would have asked for “Bungle In The Jungle”, but that’s another story. In the space of less than a minute I went through the entire spectrum of emotions from pity to outrage to happiness tinged with regret for having thought badly of him. The pound I tossed to him was probably the most money he’d make all day.

I told this story to a professional drummer named Jamie whom I worked with briefly. I wasn’t touring in a band, unfortunately, but Jamie was between gigs and doing temp work in my office. I was training him to work in the mailroom, and, being a drummer, he could open boxes with one hand and sort letters with the other. Anyway Jamie told me that street performers are also often at risk of getting robbed, so no matter how much they’re making it’s safer to keep the larger denominations hidden. That added another layer of regret for me thinking badly of the flutist. Jamie had a lot of great stories of his own about performing and touring, although my favorite story had nothing to do with his professional experience. He’d left a gig and was walking down the sidewalk, and he saw a group of people walking up the street toward him. They were being led by a guy dressed in an all-white suit, who, Jamie would later find out, was a then unknown comedian named Steve Martin. Martin even talks about this same event in his autobiography, although he doesn’t mention meeting Jamie. Martin got bored doing his act one night in a club, so he got the entire audience to get up and follow him out, turning the act into a street performance. And this happened in Nashville, about three blocks north of where I work.

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