June 9th, 2021 Konstanz, Germany
Busking by the lake.
I’m into my second week at one of my favourite places to busk: The park and promenade in the city of Konstanz. Not that it’s easy. The picturesque downtown pedestrian area is very heavily regulated and therefore basically off-limits for me. One is supposed to get a very bureaucratic licence which is not cheap either. And if one wants to sell CDs it’s even more expensive. And of course if you buy the licence, you acknowledge the fact that amplifiers, no matter how small are not allowed.
Since my soft vocals and nylon string guitar picking is impossible to be heard in an acoustic format, I, of course don’t bother to pay for such a useless permit. In recent years the boardwalk or promenade used to be a safe spot, where the municipal police usually didn’t bother to check for “illegal” buskers. Not in the nearby park where I like to play for the by-strollers in a relaxed setting on late afternoons, nor on the promenade where there a some nice terraces to play when it’s busy enough, or at the clock tower that used to be my favourite pitch for a quiet evening set. Until last Friday, that is, when the ORDNUNGSAMT drove up in a car at 9.30 pm and 3 city policemen stopped me to ask for my permit. When I asked them if someone had complained they said No, it was just a routine control. Of course they also told me that my amp was illegal in any case and because of Corona there is actually no permit, BUT there would be one from next Monday….. They asked for my ID and wrote my details down and just gave me a warning.
After, it started to rain, so for Saturday, Sunday and Monday I stayed at home in my free little parking spot under a bridge outside the center. Since yesterday, Tuesday, I’m back out again. I figured, if I have another 2 good days (and I did), any possible fine I might get next time they catch me, will be paid. So now I’m rather relaxed and just do my thing…. Everybody has to pay taxes sometimes….
October 2019, Copenhagen, Denmark
It’s 4 in the morning….the end of October…. And yes, this Leonard Cohen song played it’s part last night in another unexpected and strange but magical day in the life of this busker. I just had to write it down. There were too many other days with similar events that are long forgotten. But I just love when stuff like this unfolds. As usual, out of the blue, in one of its many variations. Tonight was a good one! I will tell you, but let me warn you, it’s a long story, as I breached out a bit here and there and dwelled on a few details as well…. So here we go:
I’m parked about 5 km outside the center of Copenhagen, right in front of my daughter Soluna’s flat. It’s convenient and easy parking, I get to hang out with her a bit and, like last night for example, get to watch Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue on Netflix. Not to mention the wifi, the toilet, (I have one but I try not to use it) the shower (I have one but it’s my storage for jackets and guitars ) or the washing machine. (I used to have one but it was the Low-Fi camper version: Take a plastic bucket with a lid, put it in a secure spot, fill it with some water, throw in the clothes with some washing soap and drive. After a few hours of shaking and breaking the clothes usually are perfectly clean.)
I sleep in my camper downstairs but I went up to have my late breakfast with her in the early afternoon. As Soluna went out to practise for her new side gig as bass player in a local Reggae band, I was looking out the window of her apartment. I saw a black wall approaching accompanied by heavy gusts of wind and the downpour that followed made me sink back into her soft sofa believing it would be a day off for sure. Only 15 minutes later I see blue sky out there. With no excuse left, not much else to do and knowing that out there, in a not so far away distance, there is a full walking street with an additional amount of Leonard Cohen fans, going to and coming from the wonderful and newly opened “A crack in everything” exhibition about the man, I loaded up my steel horse and trailer. Nothing like bicycling in Copenhagen! They have sussed it out! You join a busy stream of cyclist on a perfect net of cycle lanes, all perfectly organised with traffic lights, mostly in favour of the cyclist and not the cars. All on flat ground. In the stretch of the 5 km to the center you pass more bicycle stores than you have ever seen in your life.
As I approach the main busking pitch by the fountain, a good 20 min later, I can already hear an accordion blasting away. As usual it’s an East European guy playing “Besame Mucho”, but not only with an accordion , no, he has a terribly distorted sounding and very loud amplifier with backing tracks as well. I roll up right next to him, sit down by the fountain and wait. Hoping he knows about the unwritten busking rule of sharing the pitch, which here in Copenhagen is 30 or 45 minutes depending on how many buskers are waiting in line. It was a quarter past 4pm (officially busking in CPH is only allowed between 5pm and 8pm) After 15 minutes two more local buskers show up. My old friend Peter Jones, an Ex Liverpoolian who has stood his ground and made a living singing his original songs for over 30 years in this city and Sebastian, a talented Danish youngster, the new kid on the block. (at least for me, since it’s been 6 years or more that I played here last) Peter tells me that the local buskers (which includes passing through friends like me) have a sort of an unofficial understanding with the East European accordion players that after 4pm it’s their turf. “But,” Peter says to me, “You have to start setting up while the guy plays, as otherwise he simply will pretend that we are just socialising forever…
Ok, I make my move, unstrap the gear on my bicycle trailer, put the guitar case out in front of me. And sure enough: The distorted “Godfather Theme” backing track blasting out of his amplifier ceased immediately. While I unpacked, he packed up, gave me friendly greeting and walked his way. There was a cold wind blowing but the sun was pushing too. A lot better than the windy but miserable light drizzle yesterday.
Knowing the Leonard Cohen exhibition is very close to where I play and looking at the banner advertising the exhibition, I of course did what I do most days: Singing Leonard Cohen songs. And knowing I only have about 30 minutes, of course I focused on some of the better known ones. But to no avail. While yesterday in much worse weather conditions I often had a small crowd, today I only managed to get a decent audience after my 30 minutes were almost up. As I played “Famous Blue Raincoat”, finally some people stopped to listen. (Usually “Hallelujah” gets one a crowd for sure, but not today!)
So naturally (and knowing my two busker friends in line would be approving) I stretched my set a bit, just to not disappoint my modest crowd too much (as well the empty red hat in my guitar case) and ended with “Dance Me To The End Of Love,” as I do often. The applause at the end made up for the otherwise rather poor set.I had to wait for over an hour while the other 2 guys did their sets. Meanwhile a local drunk had arrived on the scene and made himself comfortable on the bank of the fountain, continuously slurring away in an unintelligible and annoyingly loud mix of Danish and English. I knew that my next set would become even harder. And it did! It was very difficult to focus on some of the more complex lyrics, while someone was yelling constantly: “Can you play “No Woman No Child” by Bob Marley….. (Yes, he did shout CHILD!) And even as Sebastian tried to tone things down by involving him into a conversation, he was still way too loud, no matter what he was talking about. I had to interrupt 3 times and tell him to shut the fuck up, until he finally left towards the end of my set. Again almost no audience, but at least a Cohen fan (I could tell she was, as she sang along the entire “Stranger Song” lyrics with me), bought a CD. At least!
After these two somewhat demoralising episodes, things got better. It started with some friendly Indian Lady coming up to tell me: “We are from the local Indian Sikh community and would like to invite you to some free food just behind you on the square next to the cafe.” I thanked her and packed up my stuff and put my gear next to Peter and Sebastians bike trailers who had moved to the other side of the walking street. I had a delicious plate of rice and spicy beans with fruit juice, all free, as in the tradition of the Punjabi Sikhs, who feed everyone in the Golden temple in Amritsar, India. Meanwhile it was getting colder and colder, as the wind blew stronger and stronger. Without this plate of food I would probably have filed this day as “ I tried but I failed” and gotten on my bike to ride back by now. But the Sikh beans gave me some energy, so instead I thought: What the hell, I give it one more shot.
Sebastian had done his 30 min. and was about to quit, but I said: “Play one more, while I get my stuff ready!” He did the “Sound of Silence” and just after, I rolled up and started to get ready for my final set. By now it was almost 8 pm. Yesterday, as I played my last set around the same time, a local guy came by and introduced himself to Sebastian as the representative of the local citizens who live in the nearby buildings. I could hear him talking agitatedly but only when I stopped playing he came to me and told me that it’s already after 8pm and that I play much to loud, as amplifiers are not allowed. I gave him a sample of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne acoustically and told him that there is now way that this can be heard un-amplified. And while I told him that I did appreciate the fact that he came down to talk to us personally, instead of just calling the police, I decided that I simply would try to turn down a bit next time but of course continue playing amplified. After all it is allowed to play here at certain times and people always have been using amps. But back to tonight:
So while Sebastian is packing up and I’m still talking with Peter as I’m getting ready to play next, suddenly a sharply dressed guy in a suit comes walking over rather briskly from one of the tables outside the cafe all the way across the square. He stops right in front of me, pulls out his wallet and without counting, grabs a bunch of bills, and stuffs them into the hat in my guitar case and says: “Play something romantic for the next half hour”! Before I can even ask him if he has any particular songs in mind, he disappears as fast as he came. Me and Peter just look at each other, thinking: wtf was that??? While tuning my guitar and plugging in my cables as fast as I can, before the guy might come back to change his mind, I’m trying to think: Romantic ?!… What kind of romantic songs do I have in my repertoire to satisfy this guy who just gave me some serious looking bills. Where is my songlist? No, maybe no time for that. He is waiting over there! I’m gonna have to start right now! And then I’m thinking: “Well most of the Cohen songs that I play every day do sound kind of romantic. And songs like “No way to say good-bye”, “A thousand kisses deep”, “So long Marianne“ or “Sisters of Mercy” certainly must have a certain romantic feel to them, at least as those sweet melodies gently drift over to the two self absorbed lovers who are drinking champagne at the table all the way across from me.
Anyway, they somehow didn’t seem too concerned about what exactly I would be playing it seemed. Peter suggested that I put away the bills. We counted almost € 100.- worth of Danish bills. We both shook our heads in disbelieve and grinned. The luck of the draw! Peter always likes to portrait me as a bit of a legendary busker to the young guys on the block. And seeing Sebastian’s look on his face certainly will cement that “myth”.
I start with Suzanne, (which definitely qualifies as a semi romantic song in my opinion), followed by my sad, but thanks to the harmonica also bittersweet sounding version of “Seems so long ago, Nancy” and a few of the above mentioned songs. Just as I’m in the middle of my absolute Cohen favourite “Famous Blue Raincoat” suddenly a POLICE CAR pulls up, and stops right in front of me. I’m thinking: Oh come on, not now! I guess the complaining guy from yesterday must have decided to play tough and called the police tonight. How can I tell them that this is an important and well paid gig that needs to go on at least 15 minutes more? As I see them pulling down the window, most likely to tell me to stop immediately, I decide to jump ahead and with a friendly face I tell them what I always say at first in such an occasion: “This is the last song!” But instead of replying anything, one of the two cops in the car shows me 2 fingers. It took me a second to grab what I was hoping to understand: “TWO?? You mean I can play two more songs? He nods and smiles. “Well, I guess you like Leonard Cohen” I said unbelievingly and somewhat unconvinced. And then I heard what I have never heard before (and very likely will never hear again) coming from the inside of a police car that has just pulled up in front of me: The officer next to the window said in a loud voice: No, play ten (10!) more songs!
I just smiled and went right back into “Famous Blue Raincoat” while they stood there with their car and listened! To explain my astonishment, I would like to add that back in 1994, I was arrested by two undercover police men at almost the same spot. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the city was packed with shoppers. I hadn’t even started to play but I had set up all my One Man Band gear, amplifier and a case with Cds for sale. This unfortunately caught the eye of the two policemen on patrol and they decided to arrest me on the spot for trying to sell CDs. It didn’t matter that it was my own music or that I hadn’t really sold any. I was breaking the law just by advertising them! And their new policy was such, that they would not warn people anymore, explaining to me that this doesn’t work. (They were right about that). At least I was able to leave all my gear with some friends but I had to get into the police car they called and was carried off to an actual jail cell for the entire day. And not only that, as in the real thing, I had to give them every single bit of belonging that I happened to carry with me, which they meticulously noted, as well as my belt, so I wouldn’t be able to hang myself in the cell. It also didn’t matter that I was traveling with my daughter and her mother and we were just passing through town and living in our camper van. They were allowed to come along for the ride but I had to say good-bye to them inside the police head quarters without really knowing how long this would take. It was unbelievable! Eventually, I was let out again in the evening under the condition that I pay a fine of something around € 100.- and sign a paper, that I would leave town the same night. I did what I had to do and didn’t come back to play in Copenhagen until 15 years later, after my daughter had moved to CPH herself and started busking there to find out those kind of harsh rules had changed by then.
Back to last night: After I finished the song, the police car drove off and parked across next to the cafe. As I kept on playing, all kinds of thoughts entered my mind. I was almost sure the cops were maybe part of another arranged bid of this strange game that unfolded in front with me in the middle. But no, they went to talk to someone else next to the two lovers, who were floating in their romantic bubble, completely oblivious to anything going on around them. Then, as I am playing “Bird On The Wire” I see the male lover suddenly reaching for his pocket and, as I fully expected, going down on his knee to propose to her!
Not that this was the first time that I became involved in this kind of action. In Würzburg, Germany last year a guy arranged that I play a special song while he out of the blue and in front of my rather large audience did the same. As a matter of fact, I had to stop and announce it over the microphone. And while he proposed I played the best possible song for that moment: “Dance Me To The End Of Love” by Leonard Cohen. I had hoped that I could pull out that song for this special moment this time again. But no, unfortunately the guy seemed to really only need me to make sure that there was only back-ground music. And romantic sounding back-ground music at that! I guess I could have played “Besame Mucho” for 30 minutes and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference. He just needed to make sure that the busker on the other side didn’t accidentally play “Highway to hell” as he got down on his knees.
Well, everything seemed to have worked out for him according to plan. His future bride looked rather pleased as she hugged and kissed him after the ring bit. They lasted a few more songs, only once looking over to me. Did he tell her that my music also was arranged for this occasion? I will never know. At one point they suddenly got up and dissappeard without a second glance. There went my chance to give them “Dance To The End Of Love” to properly finalise the proposal and I would have even thrown in a CD with the songs they unconsciously listened to, while starting a new future together. An everlasting memory they could have played to their grand children while reminiscing about that strange night in Copenhagen way back when it all got started. But No! It played out rather unromantically for me….. I still played “Dance Me” at the end after they where gone and and when I looked into the by then empty street and packed up in the icy wind I thought: Oh well, they got the honey and I got the money…. What can I say: Another exiting day in the office!