In Sydney, there is a really long tunnel that stretches underneath Central station, taking you from the West to the East. Obviously, it is 92% less interesting than any tunnel that took you from, say, West to East Berlin circa 1980. Nevertheless, on most days, it provides a kilometre of pure entertainment on my twice daily walk to and from work.
During the morning and afternoon peak hours, however, the tunnel is unpleasantly crowded. This makes me edgy, mostly because if there was a fire, there could be a stampede, and if there were a stampede, I might be trampled underfoot. And I have in no way planned an inglorious death in a tunnel lined with murals of construction workers.
At night, it is deserted and slightly creepy. If you were being chased, you would have to run a long way, in a straight line, underneath fluorescent lights. These are sub-optimal conditions for anyone, except if you are the attacker, in which case I would highly recommend it.
It is, however, the perfect venue for busking, because it channels a large number of pedestrians for a long distance and offers no opportunity for them to avoid you. In the six months that I have walked through there twice a day, I have witnessed musicians, performers, puppeteers, Christians, Hari Krishnas, Seventh Day Adventists, bracelet weavers, beggars, a pregnant woman and a ‘palm reader and face reader’.
As far as I can tell, all of them would like some money. Some go about their quest passively, sitting behind a cardboard sign or holding a cup (beggars, pregnant woman), or displaying goods and services for sale (Seventh Day Adventists, Christians, palm-and-face-reader).
Many people with the carefully-lettered signs sport sunglasses, and are quite specific about the fact that they would like to go to Liverpool or Gosford. This is no doubt because they are beautiful places and is in no way related to the flourishing trade in illegal substances there.
However, it is the active methods of encouraging donations that I find most fascinating, which as far as I am concerned all come under the umbrella term ‘busking’. There are a surprising number of regular minstrels, and I am dying to interview almost all of them. Had I a more journalistic bent, I would do exactly that, instead of what I am about to do, which is wildly speculate.
I would start my interview series with the most committed duo, who appear almost every day. He plays guitar and looks about ten years older than his companion, who is herself solidly middle-aged. She plays the electric keyboard and sometimes sings. Unfortunately she does both of these things with no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Nevertheless, she is clearly the star of the show, despite the fact that he has more musical talent. This makes them very similar to Roxette.
I wonder a lot about them. Are they a couple? Or are they friends? Are they doing it for the money? Or does she just want to practice? Every morning, I wonder how I could best make a gold coin donation say, ‘I marvel at your lack of musical talent whilst applauding your commitment.’
These two, however, are certainly the most traditional of the lot – the dwindling old guard of busking. They are the Turners to the Damian Hirsts and Tracey Emins of street performance (NB I stopped paying attention to the art world in 2001, please replace with your favourite contemporary bleeding edge artist).
It’s difficult to pick favourites from such an embarrassment of riches, but I have to admit that it’s the avant garde that really gets me in. In true guerrilla style, my favourite act, who I like to call ‘Pensioner Bouncing A Tennis Ball’ has only performed once, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
His formula for success: Take a tennis ball and bounce it. That’s it. That is his whole shtick.
In a market already saturated with instrumental entertainment, he has clearly decided to wow his audience with performance art. What especially appealed to me was his astounding natural lack of coordination. To wit: He bounced the ball and then couldn’t actually catch it again. And not even in a deadpan, slapstick Federer-meets-Charlie-Chaplin kind of way – he was always slightly embarrassed to have to go chasing after the ball.
Coming a close second is a double act featuring an oriental marionette and a custom-made mobile puppet theatre on wheels. When I first saw this act through the crowds, I could have sworn that the puppet had a Fu-Manchu moustache. As you will note from the location shot, however, the marionette is in fact a woman with a selection of instruments at her disposal. She is accompanied by mournful, minor-key muzak eminating from a cheap amp on the floor.
The icing on the cake, though, or rather the coconut on the lamington, is the Australian flag that waves proudly atop the puppet theatre. I desperately want to know the story behind that flag, and it is certainly the first thing I would ask the owner-performer about in the interview. I assume that what he wants to say with the flag is ‘I am a proud Asian-Australian and want to share my culture with you, passerby, while embracing my new homeland’.
However, it could mean any number of things. He may have calculated that the average level of xenophobia is offset by a flag measuring exactly 20x30cm. Or, for all I know, the streets of China are knee-deep in flute-and-liuqin-playing marionettes, and the flag is a point of difference to get the attention of the Asian Diaspora in Sydney.
It may even be an attempt to appease nationalist Anglo goons wearing ‘we grew here you flew here’ wifebeaters, making racist remarks on the way past on the well-trodden path between Cronulla station and Sydney Central Backpackers.
We’ll never know unless I actually conduct an interview with him. It’s pretty far down on an extensive list of things I’m currently procrastinating on, however, so it’s safe to say it will remain a mystery for a while yet.
A few weeks ago, a new guy in town appeared – the Backwards Busker. He faces the wall and lets his country yodels reflect off the tiles. His guitar case is halfheartedly opened in front of him – which is actually behind him – but he clearly ain’t doin’ it for the cash.
My suspicion is that he is actually either undergoing therapy, or is a member of Toastmasters, and that his foray into busking has nothing to do with money or practice, but is a way to build up his confidence and prove to himself that he can do something scary. It could be that he is an introvert who just wants to get up the courage to ask out the forty-something divorcée at the bar who has been serving him every Friday for the last 20 years. We don’t know.
Another regular has a little kick-drum, a good sense of rhythm, and a repertoire of a few decent chords on the guitar. Unfortunately, I am forced to deduct points for the god-awful caterwaul that comes out of his mouth. I look forward to such time as when he gets a producer who can encourage him to explore instrumental tracks. Someone who can gently but firmly tell him to make like Holly Hunter in The Piano and zip it.
The real future of busking, however, lies with the children. There is a little girl who sometimes plays the violin after school, sitting on a milk crate diametrically opposite her terrifying mother. The only reason I haven’t yet put money in the hat is that I keep forgetting to bring a stopwatch, so that I can time how long it takes for mum to cross the tunnel and snatch the coin, still warm from my hand, for herself.
At other times, there is a little boy who plays what looks to me like a school recorder that has contracted an iodine deficiency and developed a goitre. A reliable source informs me that this is in fact called a hulusi, and has been played since ancient times, even before the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
I can’t quite shake the feeling that, should the gods will it, these two will perform at the same time. Catching sight of one another across the crowded tunnel, they will fall in love, á la Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake in the Mickey Mouse Club. NB: This is not to suggest that the girl will subsequently marry in a velour tracksuit, pash on with Madonna and then shave her head; nor that the boy will write a hit song about their breakup and then become a slashie singer/actor.
It can only be a matter of time before Channel 7 sends some desperate X-Factor producers out to mine this rich source of raw talent. I will magnanimously accept a token cut of 95% of all profits for lifting the lid on this pot of gold.
Full financial disclosure: It is a fine line between investigative journalism and ‘cash for comment’. I solemnly declare that a total of $3 was spent in the writing of this article, as compensation for photographs only. Cheapskate, sure. What of it?