Cougars, Divas, and Political Correctness: Why Busking is an Honest Business in Fargo

     This week was eventful in the world of music, although it didn’t start out very promising. Some professional musicians had been taking the spot next to the Hodo, across from my usual corner, and used amplifiers. Technically one isn’t supposed to do this, but they did, and have thus consequently tend the busking word aflutter. I began to prefer my drug store spot, the Dempsey’s Nook is consistently under siege, and now I have seen four musicians in a one block radius. I can’t take all the credit, but when I started I was the only guy out there.

     On Friday night, I found myself in such an unpromising situation. “My” corner was being drowned out by three guys in their thirties who turned the knob up to eleven, and there was a new, long-haired busker on the corner near the drug store. Ironically, the Dempsey’s Stoop was open, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

     Like the moment when the guy in the Donner Party said “Hey guys, let’s try this shortcut!” this idea was the beginning of my troubles.

     At first it started okay. A black guy in glasses smoked facing the other direction. A few college kids liked my Johnny Cash “I’ll Still Miss Someone” because they said he was the first punk rocker, so I played some “Cocaine Blues” just for them. A drunk biker guy in a leather jacket and bandanna came, stuck out his hand, and muttered something about him not liking my music, and to the effect of telling me pay up for listening. Despite his impressive use of logic, I told him it wasn’t going to happen and to go away. He actually did, and bothered Greg, a pianist playing a nook down the way. He got tired and moved up the street. Then my real troubles began.

     A middle-aged lady with short gray hair and an orange blouse was with another man who I assumed was her husband. She paid me a twenty, and said something about supporting copyright law and how I reminded her of her kids. She sat on the bench, but I’ll get back to her later. A drunk kid probably a bit younger than me in a zebra striped shirt informed me I beat him to his spot by thirty seconds. I said something like “Oh, that’s interesting” because there was no way I was giving up my spot.

     “I’ll play with you! I’ll even help you earn money”

     “Well….”

      “Oh, it’s too buggy….”

     He did have a point. For whatever reason, the gnats had surrounded the lights over my spot were a problem. They didn’t bite, but they were landing on my face, guitar, and everywhere else and were generally being annoying. I sort of had angled myself under the only light that was broken, but I was kind of standing at an odd angle. The kid went on to Dempsey’s, and I was okay with that. Although not many people do, he rubbed me wrong. He was trouble, or at least, a certified nuisance. Sensing a drama queen, I realized I had learned another life lesson as my time as a folk singer: “Beware musicians that work for free.” They actually think they are doing you a favor my gifting you with their music. If in doubt, always take the guy who wants cash. They know how to sell out and give you what you want .

     At any rate, after the kid walked in the bar, the middle age lady stood up. Her husband/boyfriend said something about the apartment, but she didn’t want to go. She had more to do tonight. What that turned out to be was a lot of grinding, and on any guy that came by. I suppose it started out as “dancing,” but it became pretty apparent that a nice waltz wasn’t what she wanted. At this point in the story, I would like to point out that my music wasn’t to blame, unless songs about the Dust Bowl and fleeing Oklahoma really put people in the mood. I suppose it could explain Woody Guthrie’s three wives and numerous girlfriends, but I digress: I want no credit for the following events. Peter, the tall, balding, tone-deaf guy (mentioned and pictured a few posts ago) showed up. “WWHOOO!” he said “Hey, Bob Dylan! Do you know (insert the name of a song I’ve forgotten the title, much less ever learned the words)?” “No” I told him. Peter wasn’t worried: he’d sing it for me. Peter is the sort of drunk that can be loud and not care what anyone else things. As far as revolutions overthrowing unjust governments, this is a great skill. As audience members, it is a terrible one. I politely let him finish his off-key rendition of whatever it was Bob Dylan wrote (probably sang true to the original songwriter), and he asked me to play “North Country” again, with the promise not to cry. I was okay with that.

     At about this time, the suspected Diva came back, even drunker. “I’ll get my guitar!” he said.

     “Dude….”

     “Okay, I’ll be right back!” Well, he came back. “Okay” he said “I’m thinking we do…”

     “No, I’m leading. At least for the first song.” I’m not all mean.

     He gave me a look. Well, long story short, he stood near the sidewalk (I always play a little back) I started on one song, he started on the next two. It was pretty much was I expected. I played loud, his guitar was out of tune, and he really didn’t care I was backing him up. He assured me he had jammed with lots of people before, and didn’t need my help when I told him the chords. He even put on a capo (a little bar on the guitar so musicians can play in another key easier) for one fret, which means, for a musician, I had to play all bar chords down on the neck, which is exhausting. Strike one.

     At this point, the audience upped the ante. Peter was getting into the music and was “herding” people before me for tips. The Cougar was grinding with about every guy who showed up, and with the tact of a horny bonobo, had pulled a luckless foreign grad student in her trap. The Diva had taken to playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (which was good the first six hundred times someone asked me to jam with it) which put the happy, lust-filled couple in the somber, quiet mood that comes with shoving their hands down each other’s pants, necking, and generally letting the same instincts that produced the cast of the Jersey Shore come into effect. They had boldly decided to put aside their thirty-year age difference with the sudden realization that both of their sexual organs still worked. Shakespeare could write a love story about two people overcoming a age, families, and bloodshed and still have the audience on his side. I am no Shakespeare: It was gross. Cameras were coming out, people were laughing. The Diva was oblivious to this, because he was singing and had an audience, and probably in his mind thought he was encouraging true love. I usually don’t meet guitarists this into themselves, but I guess the luck has got to run out at some point. Anyway, the song ended and I, for the first time in my life, told them to get a room. It took me three tries before I was able to demonstrate I was talking to them. They looked a little sheepish and sort of moved three feet to the side. At least they weren’t blocking my case and, above all, the route to the tip case.

     “Want to play another Bob Dylan song?” asked the Diva.

     “Let’s take a break from Bob Dylan” I said.

     “We only played one.”

     “Yeah, I know.”

     I said lets play “City of New Orleans.” “I don’t know that one” he said. “It’s as good as Bob Dylan” I assured him. He gave me a look.

     “You just don’t understand Bob Dylan.”

     Strike two, and to extend the metaphor, this is the part where the pitcher throws the batter one under the chin, just to make sure he knows his puny life is on the line with his fastball. “I get the feeling you don’t like me very much.” “You’re drunk” I answered. “Am, maybe I am….” he replied.

     Well, that went on, and I told him how I knew enough Bob Dylan to smoke out a Central American embassy, but he lit a cigarette and didn’t care. We played “New Orleans,” he wasn’t good but that was the point (throw them a hard one they should know). Suddenly with a crash, I looked to my left. Cougar and Grad Student had taken their relationship to the next level, which happened to be a wall. Unfortunately, it was blocked by a large flowerpot they were tripping over. As grad student began to take away Cougar’s orange spaghetti top, I gently and forcefully physically moved them out of the nook to a dark window where they could have as must dry sex as the alcohol and lack of cops would allow in a public place. The rest of the audience laughed and applauded. At this point, the Grad Student’s friends, who I guess were waiting for someone to break up the romance, came and said something in another language I imagine sounded like “Dude, we’re bored, you’ll regret this, and seriously, what the hell?” and took him away.

     I struck up “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” which is the simplest song but for some reason people have trouble following, the Diva gave me “advice,” I was going to leave, he said he’d leave, and so on and so on and long story short, he said two more songs and I finished them. He did the most horrible version of “I’ll Fly Away,” which killed the song. Strike three. Then his friends, a grungy band from Chicago, came. By this time I was tired of the Diva, Peter’s musical talents, enough lust to made Sodom and Gomorrah look like a teen youth center, and the lack of cash. Diva said he and his friends would play up the street, and I said they could have this spot, as up the street looked better anyway. They set up.

     “Can I have a dollar?” said Diva, taking a dollar. I figured since someone gave us a ten while we were playing, he may have at least earned a dollar. “Fine” I said. “You know what, if you don’t want that, fine” he answered, and put the dollar back. That suited me well, and I left with no word of farewell. The Cougar was busy finding the next victim and Peter, who “Loved that guy!” was just getting into the music. “You’re leaving?” he asked me. “Yep,” I said. I saw Greg on the corner, and told him about the Diva. Greg was a middle-aged, life-long musician who had just gotten off a gig on a cruise ship. “There’s always one in every band” he said, “that’s why I play alone now.”

     I moved to the spot by the drugstore, and liked it better. There were more younger college students, the people were nicer, and I made more money. A guy named Eric stopped by, who had heard me before, and we chatted, and I talked with a few other people. It was fairly productive. Toward the end of the night a short, bearded young man with glasses then stopped to my left and stood next to me. .

     “I want to hear some blues by Jim Towse the bestngaplnblumntts.”

     “What?”

     “I want to hear some blues by Jim Towe the bestnigthlplydthblues!”

     “I don’t know….”

     “Look, I got ten dollars. I give it to you for some Skynrd.”

      “I don’t know any Skynrd.”

     “I’ll give it to you anyway, but look, play Jim Tow, the best nigger who ever played the blues!”

     “Okay, well, I don’t think so.”

     “What, my language?” He went on to explain to me that it was okay. He had a honest to God cousin who was black and a step aunt who was Asian, and he got along with them great.

     Well that went on for awhile, and while I was explaining I didn’t work like on iPod on “Shuffle” I heard a voice.

     “Matthew, we thought you had left!”

      Looking to my right, Peter, Cougar, and the black guy who had been listening earlier came, looking very pleased they had tracked me down, using the skills that only alcoholics seem to have to find the soberest guy on the street and zero in. They took up their position quickly. The black guy immediately got in a tussle with another black guy, but they made up pretty fast, and he was contented to stand there and use his musical skills he must have learned from Peter to back me up on “Goodnight Irene.” In the meantime, I was trying to mediate Scruffy’s rhetoric. Peter stood on my right, and asked me to play Bob Dylan. Couger took her position in front, and started herding, grinding, or whatever else she was doing. At one point, it looked like she was going into an apartment building, but no such luck, she had more stuff to do outside. Peter asked me to play Bob Dylan. The gang was all here. Scruffy was still pretty focused on hearing his jams.

      “Play Jim…” continued Scruffy, undeterred.

     “Look dude, I don’t know Jim Towe!”

     “Look” he told me “You want guys like me around.”

     “No,” I said, “I really don’t.”

     “Yeah you do, we give you ten dollars. I have a twenty. I’ll give it to you for some Skynrd.”

     “Look, I don’t know any Skynrd.”

     “Well you don’t get the twenty!”

      “Fine!”

     “Play Bob Dylan!” chimed in Peter.

     “Look” said Scruffy “I don’t care what you play, but you gotta play something!”

     I told him I was. I should mention I was playing the whole time Civil War era music classically on my guitar. It’s a little tradition I always end with “Dixie” and “Battle Hymn” all mashed together. “This is 1860s era pop.”

     He wasn’t impressed, and told me I had to pick something. His friend finally stopped by (where do these people wait?) and took him away. I finished the song that inspired the Army of the Potomac (I like to be relevant to modern events) and said to no one in particular “Well, time to go.”

     Peter asked if I was leaving. My case was packed and I was walking, so I said “yep.” He did a out of tune serenade of whatever Dylan song he wanted me to sing earlier, and I told him to have a good one, and left. They were having their own party anyway. Getting to the car, I sent a message to Glen, who was at a gig, telling him he should call, this was worth relating. I didn’t hear back from him, so I went home, pulled a cheap beer out of the fridge, and feeling like I had earned my (roughly) hundred dollars, finally went to sleep at four in the morning.

     Stay tuned, part two, “The Night My Case Becomes a Garbage Can” comes up, next.

Part Two:

     The second night of the weekend, Saturday, started out more smoothly. I found my spot by drugstore, and although I could hear the guys with speakers less than a block away, I was somewhat sheltered in the niche. It had been the day of an NDSU football game, so the town was crawling with yellow and green shirts. Someone who I thought was a young kid stopped by right away to listen, and told me he came about every night to listen to street performers. He said liked the music I played. He was pretty nice, and set himself up on the other side of the sidewalk to listen. A homeless guy came on his bike. He chatted with the kid and hit him up for a cigarette before leaving without his ride. “Did he know he left his bike?” I asked the kid. “I tried to tell him!” he answered, “but he said it was okay.” A drunk guy then came and chatted with kid. I don’t know what they talked about, but he kissed the kid’s hand and went away. The kid looked amused and sheepish. “He said I was beautiful and reminded me of his kids.” I told him that sounded disturbing on many levels. He laughed. “It’s the baby face” he answered. I asked him how old he was, and he said twenty-two, although I would have put him at fifteen. I told him I could identify with that. We chatted a bit off and on, and I played songs on and off, but without the aid of beer, wine, and whatever those colorful drinks that I never order this early in the night, it was slow.

     Things picked up a bit when some people came out of the Sweeto Burrito. With a sort of reverence, one kneeled down and gave me his bag. I was a little quizzical at first (my case sometimes gets used for trash) but he was a nice guy and gave me an entire burrito. I wish I had been more thankful than surprised, but I at least got in a “thanks.” He went off down the street. The burrito was warm, big, and filled with meat. I saved it for breakfast tomorrow.

     My Sudanese friends stopped by. I had met them a few weeks ago. They were dressed up to go clubbing, and one had a bright pink sweatshirt that said “Fap” on it in the “Gap” company font. They were very well spoken. We chatted a bit about music, and they said they had a new sound, called “Cosmic.” They said they’d e-mail me about it later. My youthful looking friend stuck around during the quiet times at the beginning of the night, and was pleasant company. He was the only one who heard several debuts of new materials. Once I gave a dramatic sigh about something (someone had passed me by or was being a moron) and he thought that was pretty funny. I told him you learn that skill in college, as in “[sigh] My professor is SO annoying” or “[sigh] I’m SOO busy today!” Someone told me I sucked, and the kid told him he sucked, and waved to make sure he knew it was him. He really had my back. Eventually, he headed off and I gave him a matchbox someone had thrown in the case. I sort of missed hanging out with him.

     There is a time of night where things just start happening, and happen all at once. As Elvis sang “When it rains it really pours.” Bam, I got hit up by some college students who wanted to hear Bob Dylan. Then a bunch of college girls stopped by and wanted to hear something else, so I played to them too. One wanted to be my tambourine player, so I said “fine” but she didn’t have a tambourine, so she said she’d be here next week. She and her friends went to MSUM, and said how they were better because they had dragons. I told them something about having a live buffalo, and so it went on and so fourth. As usual, they asked me for my “best” song, a Tom Petty song, and a harmonica at the same time, so I compromised and did “City of New Orleans.” We’ll see if they come back next week. By and by they were followed by a couple of NDSU girls. They didn’t have money, but they came and asked me to play “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Since they were pretty, a couple of college guys who had been hanging around since the great buffalo debate kept trying to knock in the conversation, but weren’t very good at it.

     As an aside, I should mention how much I realize the business sense of bars trying to get women to hang out there. It is truly unbelievable how much traffic picks up for just one who is listening. Actually, I’m mostly reminded of nature documentaries, and visions of fish, bugs, lizards, and whatever else swarming the poor solitary female. About two weeks ago, a few girls came up to be, one who was dancing and hugging me from behind. Her friends started to say something, when all of a sudden a flash goes in my face, and a huge grinning group of college guys (the ones with designer t-shirts and sideways baseball caps) stop by. “Play Freebird!” they yell. In the meantime, the girls friends are saying something about their friend being pregnant, and making baby motions with their hands.

     My point is, if you want attention, get single college girls to hang around.

     At any rate, the ones standing before me mentioned how much of an audience I had gotten, and how much they liked “Blowin’ in the Wind” so I played a verse of it with a harmonica solo. One of the ones wanted to send me a check. “Here, put down your address!” I had no idea how to do that on an iPhone, so I just gave a number. It’s actually not unheard of that this happens. They then left, but came back later with a stolen popcorn bowl, that one put down worldlessly. Come to think of it, I can’t remember which group did that. Oh well. Long story short, more people hung around, conversations were had, and the night was productive (two $100 nights in a row is good). A sort of “Liberal-Arts Looking” man in his thirties stopped by, and although he said he knew folk music, didn’t know “Jesse James” and said he could tell I wouldn’t make money off of it. I said it was a standard, and that it went okay. He wore those big white headphones anyway. What did he know?

     One last event that’s worth mentioned occurred during a quiet period. A man and his friend in about their early thirties walked by. The nearer one was scrawny, I believe tattooed, and without a shirt, and wore a bandanna on his head. I could tell ten feet away what he was going to do. They were walking quickly, and he went for the cash. This was the sort of guy you worry about, because he seemed to grasp that moving quickly (not staring at the stuff for a minute) would be effective. At any rate, he was quick and I was quicker, and I muted the guitar as I used by knees to slam the case shut. I don’t know if it would have broken his fingers or not, but it was a hard case and I threw somewhere between 130 to 140 pounds on it. He looked kind of shocked. “Man, he was quick!” the guy said. Then he apologized, and said he meant nothing by it, his friend tossed a quarter. A rare victory. I moved back into “Sunday Morning,” they got bored and left, and that was that. I do think that in most cases, street music or life, the most moral thing to do is often to not let people go for something you have: morality is shaped by how much power two parties have. That just happens to be the harder thing to do. One shouldn’t pick a fight when someone looks at one funny, but a lot of the time if someone is trying to see how much you’ll take, a lot of the time the best way to end it is to set limits.

     The rest of the night was fine, even as details continually slip my mind. My neighbor and his friends stopped by, who are all pretty nice guys, and we jammed a bit and he tipped a ten, which he didn’t need to do. A tall bald guy in his thirties gave me more than a twenty (I put those in my pocket) and more or less people were pretty friendly that night. I chatted a bit with Greg at the end, while Glen and his girlfriend Laura took the “Dempsey’s Nook” although I didn’t see them. Overall, it was a good night.

     And that’s the world of music in Fargo, my hometown. I could mention bands and concerts that are playing, but to make one horrible confession: I always got bored with live music, at least the bands here, so if you want to know what they’re doing grab ten bucks and see them yourself sometime.

 

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