first 30 pages of the novel
On the Road
Busking in Berlin
Brief History of the 1960’s
On the Road
On the Road
On the Road
On the Road
On the Road
On the Road
Appendix: mini manual for the urban busker
the lyrics on p. 164 are from Slavery Days, © David Harris, used with permission
On the Road
Krakow. 1989. I got off the train and followed the crowds, I knew they’d be headed towards the center. I could see I was in a different part of the world – peasant women were hawking wool on every street corner at giveaway prices. Lots of uniforms, nothing new for eastern Europe, but some of the uniforms looked like their wearers had just finished cavalry patrol in the eighteenth century. The narrow street opened onto a giant medieval square ringed by market stalls. I walked around, checking out the stalls and the uniforms, watching the crowd flow – the usual mating ritual between a busker and virgin territory. When I’d sussed out the best place – and worked up my bottle – I set my pack down against the wall and started to pull things out. Suddenly there was the blast of a trumpet from a high church tower. (I found out later it happens every hour on the hour in memory of a lookout back in the middle ages who sounded the alarm and got a Mongol arrow through the eyeball for his trouble.) Quickly, I plugged in the mic and got the backing tapes ready. When I turned around to open my saxophone case there were about a hundred people gathered around watching me.
‘Who is this strange looking guy and what is he doing here?’
Choo Choo Ch’boogie.
Barcelona. 1987. I met three buskers from Brazil.
‘I love Brazilian music. It’s my dream to play on the streets of Brazil. Do you think it’s possible?’
‘It’s wonderful playing music in Brazil.’
‘You won’t make lots of money, but the people will feed you with all kinds of wonderful fruits and you’ll always have a place to sleep…’
‘…but you can’t play just anywhere – you have to stay in the richer cities of the south, where people have a little to spare.’
They drew me a map of Brazil – I saved it for years – and on the map they made a dot for all the cities that would be good to busk in. Then I said to them ‘You’ve been here for a few weeks now, how do you like busking in Europe?’
‘Well, to be honest with you, Fred, we hate it. We go out on the streets – and there’s lots of people – and the sun is shining…’
‘…and we play music and… ‘
Kings Cross. The kitchen was on the second floor. Charlie Savage destroyed pretty much everything on the inside and then started to work his way out. He broke the windows. Then he tore out the window frame. Most of the wall came with it. Jeanette stood frozen in the middle of the room holding the baby and saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’
Charlie couldn’t answer.
Kreutzberg. Charlie Savage told me about London. It sounded like another planet. He said everything was done by keeping a list. There were just so many pitches and every pitch had a list. You had to sign up then fight to keep your place, but he said you could make a lot of money. He said there were violin players saving up to buy houses in the country. I knew that was bullshit.
Brixton. Charlie and his brother grew up in an orphanage in Brixton where his daddy who was a Cornish nationalist fascist had dumped them. Charlie said that busking in the London Underground was what had cured him of insanity – and that staying there would have driven him crazy all over again.
I met Charlie in Berlin, 1983.
Busking in Berlin. 1983/4
Kreutzberg. Two punky looking German guys are working on a car jacked up by the side of an old building. Fred crosses the street to ask them a question.
‘Guten tag, sprechen sie English, bitte?’
‘I’m looking for a place to stay.’
‘This is a squat, not a hotel.’
‘Try the youth hostels.’
‘I don’t have any money, I’m not a tourist.’
‘What are you doin’ here?’
‘I came over with a group of people from the U.S. to join the demonstrations. They all came with return tickets. I came to stay for awhile.’
‘Lot of reasons… I was born here.’
‘You’re not German.’
‘No, my dad was in the army.’
‘Is that a saxophone?’
‘Yeah, it’s an alto.’
‘What do you think, Hans?’
(German German German)
‘He says it would be nice to have a saxophone here… but the problem is, we don’t have any room.’
‘I could sleep anywhere… in a hallway, a closet.’
‘Do you have any ideas where I might try?’
‘Yeah, try the Cuckoo Clock. They have guest rooms for people sometimes while they’re looking for a permanent place.’
‘That’s where I am now. I have to find somewhere else.’
It was pretty much the same everywhere. Nobody had room. Most of them said to try the Cuckoo Clock.
The Cuckoo Clock had been a Nazi uniform factory. It was a stone’s throw from the Wall, if you had a really good arm. There were five floors. The bottom three had student and political types. The top two had mostly punks and street musicians. There was an anarchist bookstore on the ground floor and a caf with a small performance space. On the first floor there was a guest room with a few beds in it. In the back, on floors four and five, were large halls that weren’t used much while I was there. It was a big twisty turny building. I never did get to know my way around all of it.
Fred wanders into the big hall on the fourth floor with his sax. He looks around. There’s a door on the other side of the hall. He crosses the hall and knocks on the door. No one answers. He knocks again. There’s a groan from inside. Fred opens the door. Charlie Savage is half sitting up on a mattress on the floor.
‘Whatd’you want?’ Charlie talks in the London mumble. No strong accent.
‘Sorry. I didn’t know you were asleep. I was gonna practice the saxophone in the next room and just wanted to make sure it was okay… I’ll do it later.’
‘No, it’s good to play music.’
‘It’s good to play music.’
‘I could come back later.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Ten after four.’
‘Is it daylight?’
‘Another couple hours.’
‘You’re a new face.’
‘I’m in the guestroom downstairs. They say I got three more days… ‘
‘Fuck’em. This is a squat. What are they gonna do – call the Gestapo? ‘
‘Charlie. I’ll get my guitar. we’ll make a session ‘
‘And Jurgen… He plays percussion.’
That’s how I met Charlie Savage – in the Cuckoo Clock – a really cool place, but I was a year and a half too late. In the summer of ‘82 the Turks and the German youth had set up barricades in Kreutzberg and held off the police and the army for over a week. That same summer everyone in the Cuckoo Clock had pitched in to try to dig a swimming pool outside. There was still a big hole in the ground. On one side of the building they had painted a giant mural that showed witches brewing up a cauldron. Bubbles were rising up from the cauldron and then floating across to the other side of the building, transformed into round comic book style anarchist bombs and then coming down to land in a pile of garbage and junk from capitalist consumerism. By the time I got there, they were selling the postcard version in the bookstore. I wish I had bought some.
A room on the fourth floor. Jurgen comes in first, sits down with the drum between his legs and starts doodling on the drums. Fred follows him in.
‘Friedrich Friedrich Friedrichstrasse’
‘Café cigaretten rum and vodka’
Friedrichstrasse was probably named after Frederick the Great. But I prefer to think it was named after the other two Freds – Engels and Nietzsche. I learned to play the saxophone on the streets of Berlin, but I learned to jam on Potts Rum from Friedrichstrasse. The U-Bahn had one stop in East Berlin. You could go there without a passport and buy tax free East German booze, cigarettes, coffee and chocolate. Of course it was illegal.
‘You are very lucky, Fred.’
‘Who needs luck when you got pockets like these?’
Fred takes a liter bottle of Pots Rum out of each of the two big pockets on his winter coat, puts one bottle on the table and opens the other.
‘They thought you were a tourist.’
‘You know, Jurgen, it was marijuana that saved me from becoming an alcoholic.’
‘Marijuana is not so dangerous, I think.’
‘That’s what makes it evil. With alcohol heroin speed crack it doesn’t take long to reach a point where you have to decide whether you wanna live or die. But dope is a lot more laid back, isn’t it?’
‘I think so.’
‘You take a toke when you’re seventeen or seven probably now, and then twenty years later you’re saying – what happened?’
‘Was that you Fred?’ Fred takes a drink instead of answering. ‘Why don’t you get out your saxophone?’
‘When the bottle is down to here.’
‘You won’t be able to play.’
Fred passes the bottle to Jurgen.
‘That’s what the coffee’s for.’ Fred goes to the door and yells into the kitchen, ‘Hey Charlie, just breath on it, that’ll get it boilin’… I love this coat. This is the warmest coat I’ve ever… it’s the only really warm coat I’ve owned.‘
‘It looks warm.’
Charlie comes in empty-handed.
Fred, ‘Where’s the water?’
‘S’not boilin’, is it?’
Fred goes to do the coffee. Charlie takes a swig from the bottle, gets out his guitar and starts jamming with Jurgen. Charlie sings.
‘There must be some kinda way outa here
said the joker to the thief…’
Fred comes back in with a kettle and cups. He spoons out instant coffee and pours hot water and rum into the cups. He takes a long drink from the bottle and gets out the sax as Charlie and Jurgen continue jamming.
As a former chord strummer, I had no idea how easy it was to jam. I thought you had to change scales every time a chord changed… No. You get some Potts rum and get Charlie and Jurgen to play the same song over and over, while you blow and blow until you find the five and a half notes that work for that song. Five notes work on every chord, and note number six works only on some of the chords, but if you hit it on the wrong chord, you just slide up – never down – to the next highest note, as if that’s what you’d been planning all along.
Charlie starts to pack up.
‘We must go’
‘Let’s just do the songs one more time, I’m not sure I’ve got the right notes.’
‘You’re alright, isn’t he, Jurgen?’
‘You sound good, Fred.’
‘No I was hittin’ bad notes on two of the songs, Didn’t you hear it?’
‘They like to hear mistakes, it makes them feel superior.’
‘Just one more time.’
‘One more time and we’ll be too drunk to go out.’
‘One more time…’
A Brief History of the 1960’s
Pasco. 1965. We used to cruise the Ave just like in American Graffiti. One night me and Mike and Donald drove through the east side, we were going back to Donald’s house, he lived on the wrong side of the tracks. We went past some kind of a hall, people were just getting out, it was some kind of a nightclub, I think, and it was late. Mike stuck his head out of the window just as we drove by, it was a black nightclub, they were all colored people, it was 1965, it was the wrong side of the tracks and Mike stuck his head out the window and yelled ‘nigger’ just like this ‘NEEE-gAAr! NEEE-gAAr!’ Donald and I just about shit ourselves. Donald was driving and he floorboarded it, I pulled Mike from the window, he was laughing like a maniac and we were shitting ourselves and punching him, then we were all laughing when nobody followed us and we knew we were going to live.
Jimmi. 1968. I took my girlfriend to see the film version of Monterey Pop. Otis Redding, the Mamas and the Papas, Janis Joplin – and Jimmi Hendrix. Jimmi played the guitar with his teeth and set it on fire. Half-way through the show, in the middle of the coolest riff ever, he didn’t exactly stop, but he kind of paused for a second and said, ‘Aw, shucks.’ The bastard. As soon as we got out I turned to my girlfriend and asked her what she thought of Jimmi.
‘Not my type.’
I looked at her closely – she seemed to be telling the truth – but I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in me after they’d seen Jimmi.
Spock. 1969. I went down to People’s Park in Berkeley the week after the murder and watched the hippies put flowers over the bayonets and barbed wire of the national guard. We stayed in San Francisco with some really cool hippies. From Orange County. They were sophisticated and bohemian. One of them looked just like Bert Lahr in the Wizard of Oz. I asked him to say, ‘Courage’, but it didn’t sound the same.
Next year we were back in San Francisco for the big peace march organised by ‘the Mobe’. Over a million people marched to the Golden Gate Bridge Park. Crosby, Stills and Nash sang. Spock from Star Trek spoke. Marijuana smoke wafted up to the heavens. Then David Hilliard got up to speak. He was the Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party, the highest ranking member who wasn’t either dead or in jail.
‘You want peace in Viet Nam?,’ he said.
‘You really want peace in Viet Nam?’
‘You really want peace in Viet Nam?’
‘Well, you’re not gonna get it waving all these fucking flags.’
There were lots of American flags in the park. The idea was to not let the right-wingers take over the American flag. After all, it stood for freedom and the Declaration of Independence.
‘...which was signed by 50% slave owners,’ David Hilliard told us.
He went on to tell us just how much the people of the world hated the fucking flag and just how far our fucking tongues were up the fucking asses of the fucking ruling class if we were still stupid enough to wave their fucking flag.
Very Bad Vibes.
We tried to boo him off the stage, but we were too stoned. I went home thinking about what he had said.
Seattle Shipyards. 1970.
“Pasco… Pasco, that’s one racist motherfuckin’ town.”
I was in a tank in the fo’csle. I was talking to Pontiac Jr. His dad was vice-president of the Shipscalers union. Comin’ up pretty soon, his dad and the president and me were going to gang up on Roscoe an’ try to kick him out of his job as union secretary and later on in Berlin I was gonna remember that, but right now we were skivin’ off and hiding out from the foreman and talking about Pasco.
“That’s one racist motherfucking town.”
“My home town.”
I told him the whole truth. I told him about niggerlipping cigarettes and riding pussy, shotgun, and nigger in the backseat. And I told him about how any white girl who ever as much as smiled at a black boy in high school was made into a whore. I told him about how my parents would have washed my mouth out with soap for saying those nigger words at home and not just for not being nice, but because they hated racism and loved internationalism – especially my dad, he really did, I always wondered if he’d fallen in with the communists in Hollywood and now he was stuck living in the desert in Pasco and I was telling Pontiac Jr. how stupid I’d been and Pontiac was forgiving me because he knew about Pasco.
“One racist motherfucking town, Fred. Every black in the state know about Pasco.”
And it was dark in the fo’csle, it was like a confessional, and I was being forgiven or at least I thought I was, but I knew I was never gonna change enough, did I already know that way on into the future I’d hear some shit about uppity Iraqis or some such bullshit, and I’d think before I actually really stopped to think about it, I’d think “hey, they can’t do that to us” jesus fucking christ on a stick who is us?
The first guy ever talked to me about Mao tse-tung was hiding up in the attic with Tony. They were hiding from the FBI because they were deserters from the army. This guy didn’t have a wild hair up his ass like Tony, but he told me about picking up the Selected Works of Mao tse-tung, Volume One and reading the first sentence which went something like:
“The most important thing for a revolutionary to know is – who are your friends and who are your enemies.”
And he thought, “Well that’s pretty basic.”
But then he got to thinking it may be basic but it’s not necessarily obvious. In fact, it may be just about the most difficult thing there is to get right.
the Hot Autumn
‘Where is the Shah?
Where is the butcher?
Where is the king of kings?’
It was a real revolution. Things had gotten so bad that people were willing to die to change them. And they did die. And they did change things. But only for a while. One divides into two. Communists and Islamic fundamentalists fought on the same side to overthrow the Shah and drive out U.S. imperialism, but when the first battle was won, a second one began – and this battle was lost, the revolution was defeated.
The first U.S. ‘hostage crisis’ took place in between these two battles. It represented the high point of the first, and the beginning of the second. Islamic militants broke into the U.S. embassy in Iran and took the embassy workers and their Marine guards hostage.
Middle America freaked out. Innocent American Lives were at risk. All over the United States, anti-Iran demonstrations were organised. At the University of Washington in Seattle, over a thousand people came to demonstrate against Iran. Most of the left political groups in Seattle showed up at the demonstration with leaflets and newspapers, but they took a long look at the size of the crowd, gauged its mood, tucked their papers under their coats and slunk away.
Except for the Maoists. Two women with a battery powered bullhorn quietly and unobtrusively climbed up onto the ledge of the Student Union Building which overlooked the demonstration. Then they switched on the bullhorn and began to t\ake turns speaking.
‘We support the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Iran. The Iranian people had every right to take over the embassy, and here’s why…’
They told about the Shah’s U.S trained murder squads and about the CIA engineered coup d’etat that put the Shah into power. They told the crowd that the U.S. embassy covered twenty-one acres, that it had to be so large because it was the de facto government of Iran. As for the Innocent American Lives…
‘They’re part of a terrorist organisation that’s oppressed and murdered Iranian people for decades, the U.S. government…’
The organisers of the demonstration went berserk, they tried to drown out the two women by cranking up their own sound system, but the Maoists had invested in a state of the art bullhorn that could just about hold its own in a full scale rock festival. Some of the crowd tried to climb up, grab them by the feet and tumble them to the ground, but the women took turns, one speaking through the bullhorn while the other kicked the head of anyone who got within grabbing distance. The organisers began to scream over the loudspeaker.
And then, ‘Rape the bitches!’
A few people cheered this, but most of the crowd reacted differently. They had come to hear about innocent American lives, not this kind of garbage – they shouted down the organisers and pulled the plug on them. The demonstration became a debate, as other Maoists waded into the crowd with newspapers and leaflets. Then the Arab and other foreign students joined in. The U.W. had a large number of foreign students from the Middle East. At the beginning of the demonstration, they could only stay out of sight – there had already been attacks on them. But now it was possible to come out and join in the argument with first hand accounts of exactly what U.S. foreign policy meant to the people of Iran, to the Palestinian people, to the people of the world. The anti-Iran demonstration had become an anti-imperialist teach-in.’
The next day, the same people tried again to organise an anti-Iran demonstration, and again the same thing happened. There were fights, there were arguments, but at the end of the day, the demonstration was broken up and turned into a teach-in.
I wasn’t there the first day. I had two years since, dropped out, locked myself in my room and started writing. The second day, I was one of the people who waded into the crowd with newspapers and leaflets. For the rest of that spring, all the way through the first hostage crisis, we marched down the streets chanting
‘Red white and blue
We spit on you’
It was nothing like the sixties. Back then we were on the winning side. Back then I had read Mao saying things like:
‘A revolution is not a dinner party, it is not writing an essay, or painting a picture. It is nothing so refined or genteel. It is a civil war, where one class overthrows another.’
…but even though I knew and understood this intellectually, in my gut I imagined the revolution as us marching arm in arm with the masses in their hundreds of millions against a tiny handful of capitalists and their pitiful lackeys.
Now the tide had turned, and the Maoists were going into the face of it. All through 1980, we consoled ourselves with tales of how at the beginning of World War 1, anti-war Bolsheviks were dragged from speakers podiums all over Russia and in some cases literally torn limb from limb by angry, patriotic crowds – but three years later came the October Revolution.
I still wanted to be a writer, a drop out, but I couldn’t drop out all the way – not then, or at least not there in front of everyone.
Seattle. 1983. I was playing at the Rainbow Tavern. It’s a topless go-go bar now, but for decades it was about the coolest place in Seattle to play music. I was playing in a band called Think Tank at a benefit for the Party bookstore. Just before we started, my ex-girlfriend’s husband got up and made an announcement.
Across the big pond NATO was about to install Pershing and Cruise missiles in Europe – where just about the only people who wanted them were the heads of the governments. The usual story. The people said, ‘No.’ And the government said, ‘You’ll eat this and you’ll like it.’
So the people were organizing massive demonstrations in Germany, Holland and the UK. These would turn out to be the largest demonstrations in the history of the world, which is pretty impressive, and some people thought, ‘Surely this will be enough to make them change their minds.’ But of course in the end what the demonstrations accomplished was to say, ‘We’ll eat it, but we won’t like it.’
The papers were already calling it, ‘The Hot Autumn’. The Party had decided to organise a contingent of revolutionary minded people from the U.S. to go to Europe and join the anti-missile demonstrations as a gesture of solidarity. As soon as I heard this, I knew I was gonna go and told them so.
‘I’m gonna go.’
‘And I’m not coming back.’
‘I don’t know about that, Fred.’
My friends took up a collection to help with the plane fare – partly so I could represent them, partly so I’d be too far away to borrow any more money.
I had been locked in my room trying to write ‘Bert Brecht meets Rodgers & Hammerstein and sings the blues to a Latin beat.’ Astonishingly, the world had not beaten a path to my door. So I decided to become a big rock star, then the theatres would beg me to let them do my plays. The band I started – Think Tank – was the first step in world domination. The Rainbow was our first big gig. Was I letting the rest of the band down by pissing off to Europe? They didn’t seem too bothered.
Just before I left for Europe I had a play produced at an obscure theatre that only produced new plays by unknown authors. The theatre had sold out for the first time in it’s twenty year history and I was very full of myself. An Iranian student a few years younger than me asked if we could have a chat. We met for coffee and he offered some comments on my play. I listened carefully, there were some good ideas, but I thought he had missed the main point. I don’t think I was condescending, but I probably wasn’t far from it. He told me that he had wanted to talk with me, because not only did we have a common political outlook, but also, like me, he was a writer.
'What have you written?'
'Well, you understand, nothing in English, but in Farsi I have published four novels, and three volumes of poetry… a few plays. They’re all out of print, of course, now that Khoumeni has come into power.'
I was astonished – and embarrassed at what had been my attitude. 'If you have anything in English, I’d love to read it.'
'I do, but it’s all in storage now.'
'Would it be possible to get some of it out? I’m sure I’m not the only one that would like to read it.'
'I don’t think it’s possible. I leave for Iran next week.'
'Isn’t that dangerous?'
'Of course. But I don’t think they know of my political sympathies.'
'If they do, they’ll kill you won’t they?'
'Probably. But I think I’m safe. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to put it to the test. With most of my comrades, there is no doubt. I’m one of the few who has a chance. So I have to try.'
Friday night. I was leaving the next morning. Danni came by for one last try.
‘We want you to leave your guitar and saxophone behind.’
‘Not a chance.’
‘Fred, you know how important this is. Europe is being turned inside out over this. There’s no telling how large the demonstrations are going to be or what they are going to lead to. We have reports that Germany is trying to seal off her borders to anyone who looks like they might be coming in for the demonstrations. That guitar is gonna be a dead giveaway.’
‘This guitar is gonna feed me after you guys go back home.’
‘We don’t think you should stay. We think you should come back and report on the struggle to all the people who contributed to get you over there.’
‘Every penny I’ve gotten has been raised on the understanding that I’m not coming back. Besides, we’re leaving tomorrow. I don’t have a return ticket, I don’t have the money for one and I never did.’
‘If you bring that guitar and sax, you’re gonna fuck things up for everyone not just for you.’
‘I’ll cross the borders alone and join up after.’
‘You might not even get in. When they see your instruments, they’re gonna ask to see your money.’
‘I’ve got money. I got $1,000 in travelers checks. Of course it’s not real money – it’s a loan and I have to mail it back as soon as I cross the borders… ‘
‘Leave the guitar and sax here. We can send them on when it looks safe ‘
‘When it’s safe.’
‘You guarantee that? Personally? That the Party won’t decide the class struggle has bigger needs that come first?’
‘Of course I can’t guarantee that.’
‘So how am I gonna eat.’
‘We think you should come back.’
‘I’m not coming back.’
‘You still can’t take your instruments.’
‘I’m going to.’
‘You don’t give a shit about the rest of the group, do you?’
Friday night. I was leaving the next morning. Daisy came by to pick me up for a farewell drink with her and Tony. Tony was waiting back at the tavern. Daisy was alone. I pulled her in, slammed the door and started tearing off her clothes. We rolled around naked until she was on top of me sucking my cock and I tried to lick my way back into her womb and be safe forever. I came in her mouth and she swallowed it, thank you Daisy.
This is a lie. It’s only a fantasy. I never touched her, Tony, not then, or the time you were out of town for the weekend and I took her to a play and we fucked before and after the play and I said, ‘I can’t do this again. Tony is my friend.’
And she said, ‘Then let’s make the night last.’
Busking in Berlin. 1983/4
By night we would drink Pot’s rum and jam and go out pub busking, or just drink Pot’s Rum and jam, or just drink Pot’s rum. Everybody else seemed to be able to survive for long periods of time on nothing more than Pot’s rum and Chibo’s coffee, but I had a chocolate habit to pay for…
Daytime. Fred is playing solo sax in the Kudamm. He’s on a wide street with a lot of traffic, but far enough away from any of the shop doors so no one will be driven crazy by hearing Summertime over and over again all day long. A tall black guy in a very warm looking fur coat has stopped for a listen…
'How long you been playing?'
'Really? You must have played another instrument before.'
'Yeah, guitar. And clarinet for a couple years when I was a kid.'
'You play music?'
'Saxophone. Not so much in Berlin. I tour a lot.'
'Are you good then?'
'Am I good, sure, the best in Berlin, for what that’s worth. Actually, it’s not a bad city for saxophone. It’s not New York, but then… '
'You live here?'
'When I’m not tourin’. Why don’t you play me a scale. You know your scales?'
'How about a D scale?'
'Don’t know it.'
'Sure you do. Your last song was in D minor. You just gotta play the third note a half step higher. Start at the bottom there. That’s right now that’s a D. Just play up the scale. Think do re me fah. Hold on to each note and listen to it.'
So I did. A little trouble finding f# instead of f.
'That’s not bad. You need to work on your breath control. That’s the main thing in saxophone. You breathe in with your diaphragm. It roots you to the floor and gives you a good solid foundation for pushing up. You weren’t quite in tune. Could you hear that?'
'But you weren’t that far off, considerin’. Here. That’s my card. You know, I really am the best saxophone player in Berlin…'
Actually he really was. I asked around later.
'…and I don’t give many lessons, but if you’re interested… give me a call.'
'What would it cost?'
'Twenty marks an hour.'
'I don’t have much money.'
'I think I can see that. It’s why I offered you half price.'
'Twenty marks is about what I make in a day. '
'Well you know we’ve all gotta make sacrifices.'
'I might. I’d like to. '
'Think about it if you want to. But don’t call next week, I’ll be in Budapest.'
'Golly, if I got good enough do you think I could play in Budapest?'
'It’s all about breath control.'
Food: The best garbage cans in Berlin were a block down the street from the Zoo, towards Kurfustendammstrasse. The Grill there threw away a lot of stuff because it wasn’t fresh. Sometimes even spiesefleische – or fleischespiese – slices of pork, onion and peppers marinated in some kind of marination. I’m a carnivore, whenever I can be, but I hate sausage. Germany is the land of sausage. I was starving for meat in a sausage kingdom. Fleischespiese – or spiesefleische – was made up of slices of real meat. It was just pork, not my favorite [but is it better than sex? said the rabbi to the priest]. They threw it away late Saturday night or Monday or Tuesday , I forget exactly.
The other good bet was the posh food-and-everything-else department store just outside the Brandenberg Gate U-Bahn stop. (Ka de Ve??) An upmarket Harrods – judging from the quality of samples – more variety, more meat and bigger portions generally. It was possible to get a good high protein meal if you worked all the floors carefully. You could also see fish swimming around in tanks and waiting to be eaten. I knew the feeling.
We made a lot of soups – carrot peels, onion skins, fishbones, any kind of bones, any kind of just about anything, if it was cooked long and slow enough.
When we were really skint and needed a big score, we would play the long tunnel inside the Merhringdamm U-Bahn stop. On those rare occasions when we lasted for as long as an hour, we would be in funds for a week. We used the resource sparingly because the station staff were prone to overreaction. The last time we played there they called in two van-loads of armed police who closed in on us from either side. Their chief gave us a stern lecture and then they melted back into the night, leaving us shaking – me anyway – but our pockets full.
Charlie Savage taught me about pub busking. It’s a tradition going back a hundred years or more in Berlin. 'Kannen wir spielen?' we would say, and they would turn off the stereo, and we would tune up for about an hour and forty-five minutes, then play for fifteen. We’d give them three or four quick ones, then one of us would bottle for the money. I liked bottling – you got a lot of strokes.
Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Freddie McCoy. We all did it the same way – the doors open, just walk right in. Kannen wir spielen? Except Woody and Cisco wouldn’t have been speaking German. I used to walk down the streets of Berlin hugging myself, I was so thrilled. Nowadays I’m carryin’ so much equipment if I tried to hug myself I’d get a hernia.
I must busk. I used to wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Oh goody, I get to go out and play music for a living, that’s so cool.’ I got big arm muscles from hugging myself. Veteran, decade-long, bleary-eyed buskers would stare at me with hatred – now I am one of them.
Busking was wonderful. I still get a warm glow of satisfaction when I walk past a construction site and know I don’t have to work there. The first time I went back to Seattle, I did a show under the slogan Nine Years without a Day Job, but by then it was already too late. Busking had become a day job.
On New Years Eve the entire Berlin sky would light up with rockets-- East and West united/fire in the sky. It was like The Christopher Hour:
... and if everyone lit just one little candle
what a bright world this would be.
The punks in Kreutzberg scored some truly amazing rocket/candles and aimed them at bank windows. It looked like Beirut. Inside the Berlin city jail were some Palestinians who had just escaped with their lives from the actual Beirut in Lebanon. They were refugees, but they were locked up in the Berlin city jail like criminals – which was against the city charter of the United Nations conventions on refugees or something – so some of the refugees went on hunger strike in protest. The strikers were put in a different section of the jail, separate from everyone else.
A few hours before midnight, a fire started in the Berlin city jail in the section where the strikers were held. The guards were unable to find the keys to the cells until after all of the hunger strikers were safely dead. The rest of the prisoners listened helplessly as, one by one, the screams died out.
At the gates of Berlin…
Fred, Charlie and Jurgen, standing and shivering with their thumbs out, musical instruments and luggage beside them – duffel bags, beaten suitcases – nothing so well organised as a backpack. Fred has just pulled a sweater out of his pack.
'Charlie, take the sweater.'
'Don’t need a sweater…'
'…need a ride.'
'Okay, you take it, Jurgen, you haven’t turned blue like him yet, but it looks like you’re on the way.'
Jurgen holds up his hand to forestall Fred, then rummages in his bag for a thin sweater which he holds, but doesn’t put on.
'No cars today.'
'Of course there’s gonna be cars – plenty of cars.'
'Not before we die.'
'I told you guys to bring warmer clothes. It’s February for gods sake…'
'It’s almost March.'
‘…and we’re headed north. It’s gonna get colder.'
'They like warm weather in Denmark.'
'They like warm weather in Alaska too. That doesn’t mean they get it.'
'We’re not going to Alaska are we?'
'Hey Fred, what about the land of the midnight sun?'
'In the summertime, Jurgen, but it’s not all that fuckin’ warm even then.'
'Just not the right day, is it?'
'Maybe we should go back.'
'It’s too cold.'
'Take the sweater.'
'That’s not the point, is it?'
'Take the sweater.'
'It’s the wrong day, tell him, Jurgen.'
'If it was the right day, it would be warmer.'
'It’s February. We could have… I wanted to leave in March. But we’re out here now. We’re packed up. We’ve stored the rest of our gear.'
'I’m going back.'
'I guess I’m gonna go back too, Fred.'
'If we go back now we’ll never get out of Berlin.'
'We can leave tomorrow.'
'But we won’t… I’m not going back.'
'Fair enough. You leave today. We leave tomorrow.'
'We’re gonna get split up.'
'You worry too much.'
'It’s always cold in February.'
'Not in Mexico.'
'We’re not in Mexico, are we?'
'You’re not in Mexico, Fred. You’re in February.'
On the Road
I left Charlie and Jurgen at the gates of Berlin and headed north for Copenhagen. Hitchhiking. I’d done my apprenticeship in Berlin. Now, for the first time, I was gonna hit the road as a busker. By night-time I had gotten as far as the Hamburg roundabout. I slept under some bushes. From Hamburg on it was a magic trip. A lot of short rides, but it was worth it. I would be standing on the muddy side of a two lane highway, a beautiful woman would drive by and I would think, ‘Why doesn’t someone like her stop?’ Then the brake lights would come on…
My second ride took me almost to the sea in a broken down hippiemobile driven by a beautiful young woman with dark brown hair. I told her I had been born in Berlin. Her eyes lit up.
Naturally I was excited to be heading towards the land of mythological blonde beauty. Sure enough my last ride was with a mythologically beautiful blonde woman and her two or three year old son. The father was German living in Sweden and she was Swedish living in Germany, they were separated and raising their son in Denmark because it didn’t have compulsory military service. Something like that.
She dropped me off by a metro station on the edge of Copenhagen and I rode a train into the city center. Of course I didn’t pay for a ticket. We never paid in Berlin. I didn’t pay in London either at first. When I finally started making enough money to buy weekly passes, I felt like I was being disloyal to Charlie and Jurgen.
At the central station I stuffed as much gear as I could into a locker, then set off to find the address Ropert and Steen had given me. It turned out to be a big building on about the same scale as the Cuckoo Clock, possibly bigger. I knew I had the right address, but there didn’t seem to be an entrance. It looked lived in, but all the doors and windows on the ground floor had been bricked and cemented shut. I circled the block and came in the back way, but everything had been bricked and cemented shut there too. Then I noticed that on the next story up, there was a door where there should have been a window, and it was open, and I could see someone inside.
'Do you speak English, please?'
'Is this 129 Rysegaade?'
'You see the number?'
'I did on the front.'
'Then it probably is. What do you want?'
'I’m looking for Steen and Ropert.'
'Steen and Ropert.'
'They invited me to visit when I came through Copenhagen.'
'Come on up.'
They lowered a ladder from the door/window and I moved in. It took two trips to get all my gear up.
Rysegaade. Without a doubt the coolest squat I’ve ever been inside of or even heard about. Ropert and Steen. Two brothers. Legendary drinkers. Steen was the oldest, about 22, I think. He and his girlfriend, who I think was 23, were like parent figures in the Rysegaade squat. Most of the people living there were teenagers. Ropert and Steen had come down to Berlin for a holiday and stayed with us in the Cuckoo Clock. This was just about the time the shit hit the fan with Harold, and he started waving woodchisels around and threatening to cut off ears not his own.
Ropert and Steen said, ‘Why don’t you come up and visit us in Copenhagen?’
Damn fine idea.
Now I’m living among the savages of central London, the real savages who believe in things like astrology, and ghosts, and homeopathy. They are mostly sweet and gentle people, loving, giving, I try to learn from them, but I know I can never really be like them. I have been to the mountain and I have seen Disneyland
Rysegaade. Thomas Moore could have come here to do research for his best seller. It was a big building with three wings, a couple hundred people organised into about ten kitchens. People cooked and ate communally in their nearest kitchen. Cleaning and cooking assignments were worked out at Sunday night meetings over dinner. I don’t remember any fights about dirty dishes while I was there. Considering there were about twenty people eating together in each kitchen, it was almost spooky, but it didn’t feel spooky. It just felt relaxed.
There was a folk pub in Copenhagen that would give almost any busker a gig, as long as they could do four hours of material without repeating. I brought my guitar and saxophone and did everything I knew from Take Five to Jailhouse Fire. There was a caf/restaurant just off the main walking street where lots of musicians and street people hung out. You could play for your supper there. There were a lot of cool things like that in Copenhagen. The coolest, at least the one that’s supposed to be the coolest, the one that everyone talks about, was Christiana. Christiana was a fort that had been taken over by hippies in the sixties. It has been a center for the counterculture ever since. Many cool things have happened there. On later trips through Copenhagen I got a more positive view of Christiana, but back then it just seemed like a rock festival that had gone on 20 years too long.
The first time I went to Christiana I was really just looking to buy some hash. It was night – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Christiana in the daytime. Once inside the walls of the fort, it was clear I’d entered a different world. There were lots of fires, large and small, with groups of people sitting/standing around them, staring into the fire, maybe cooking some baked potatoes, maybe a bit of jamming with guitars and percussion. I found the place I was looking for, a large building turned into a pub. There was a guy sitting at the entrance to the pub with a scale and a giant lump of hash. Just place your order and pay your cash – which I did on the way out, but first I ordered a beer and had a look around. I thought I was hallucinating. the place was full of Chicanos. Had I been teleported back to LA? I caught myself looking around the pub to see if my friend Ricardo from Boyle Heights was there. In fact there seemed to be a couple Chicanos standing next to me at the bar.
'Excuse me, do you speak English?'
'You think we’re stupid?'
'No, sorry. I just didn’t want to assume… I mean I should be speaking Danish here but…'
'We’re not Danish.'
'I was gonna ask, are you from Spain… South America?'
'We’re from Greenland.'
'Oh, yeah, of course. Greenland is part of Denmark.'
'No, it’s not, but they think it is. So they have to let us in.’
'But we’re not Danish – we’re Eskimos.'
'Cool. My brother’s wife is an Eskimo.'
'Really? Where is she from?'
'They live in Alaska. On the Kuskoqwim.’
'Alaskan Eskimos are pussies.'
'Why do you say that?'
It was clear it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask a second time. I finished my beer, bought a lump of hash, and went back to Rysegaade
MDC. Millions of Dead Cops. The ultimate name for a punk rock band from LA. They were on a hand-made tour of Europe. They’d just played at the Cuckoo Clock in Berlin. (I asked them about Charlie and Jurgen, but they didn’t remember meeting them.) Now the band was up in Copenhagen to do a couple of gigs. The kids at Rysegaade had made the arrangements. The first gig was at a youth club on the Rysegaade side of the canal. They were hard, fast, loud, politically conscious and aggressive. Then there was a break. One of the kids from Rysegaade made a speech. Inspired by the music, the speech was hard, fast, loud, aggressive and probably politically conscious, but of course I couldn’t tell, since it was in Danish. Every now and then I could make out the word ‘Christiana’ or the word ‘Bullshit’. Either word was a cue for the kids to roar with anger and shake their fists in the air.
I asked one of the kids from Rysegaade, ‘What’s it about?’
'MDC is doing a gig at Christiana tomorrow.'
'What’s wrong with that?'
'Bullshit runs Christiana now. They don’t like punks. Some of us have been beaten up over there. So we’re all going to the gig. If Bullshit causes trouble we’ll be ready.'
Bullshit was a home grown Danish motorcycle gang, like Hells Angels only not quite so tough – at least that’s what I was told by a street vendor I knew who said he had connections to the Danish branch of Hells Angels. There had already been a number of clashes between Bullshit and Hells Angels, but the Hells Angels were seriously violent according to this vendor.
Anyway, Bullshit didn’t run Christiana – nobody did very much – but a deal had been struck. The heroin problem in Christiana had been getting out of control. The deal was: Bullshit would clear out the heroin dealers. In return, Bullshit would be given a monopoly on hash dealing inside Christiana. According to my friends, the deal was working so far and heroin had been cleared out of Christiana – along with the punks.
The big night came. We went down there loaded for bear. I was shitting myself as usual. Nothing happened. No one from Bullshit took any notice.
The week before I left Copenhagen there was a demonstration outside an embassy – I think it was the Peruvian embassy – about the murder of political prisoners in Peru. We lined up across the street from the embassy. Behind us was a fenced-in park. Between the embassy and us there was a row of Danish police. So we stood there chanting political slogans and screaming obscenities at the Danish police. Suddenly they charged. I had quit busking early to come to the demonstration and I was there with my sax, my guitar and my day’s earnings. I figured if things looked like they were getting heavy, I would move off to the sidelines. Too late now. The entire demonstration – except for me – leapt over the fence and into the park. I was loaded down with my sax, my guitar and my days earnings. So I walked towards the charging police line, as if I were a hippy businessman looking for a handy lunch counter. They ran past me. There I was behind the police lines with nobody paying any attention to me. I walked home alone.
The night before I left Copenhagen was the regular Sunday meeting. After dinner, there was a long conversation in Danish. The person sitting next to me dropped out of the conversation to ask me
'Do you know what they’re saying?'
'They’re saying that you’re the best guest we’ve ever had, you’re the only one who’s joined fully with the collective life and not treated us like a tourist hotel.'
I remember a busker named Christoph telling me on the first day I was in Copenhagen… actually he told me a lot of things, like I had to pick up my gear and leg it whenever I saw a policeman, which was a bit of a problem as I had a tendency to play with my eyes shut. In Copenhagen I learned to play the saxophone with my eyes open. He also told me about the holiday camp he had worked in once, where there was a spy hole into the women’s shower.
'And these were Swedish girls with big breasts,' he said.
Every weekend Copenhagen would fill up with Swedes who had come over to drink in Denmark because a liter of whiskey in Sweden costs more than a Volvo. Christoph was one of the people who warned me:
'Don’t go to Sweden, Fred they’re all fascists in Sweden they’re almost as bad as the Germans.' And another thing he said was, ‘For the Swedes, Copenhagen is Paris. For us, Paris is Paris.’
Which is kind of funny, considering it was in Copenhagen I met Paris. I was on guard duty the night he checked into Rysegaade. I told him about the Palestinian hunger strikers who were burned to death in the Berlin jail and sang Jailhouse Fire, the song I wrote about it. He told me about 232 Books, the anarchist bookstore in Brixton, where I could find a place to stay if I ever made it to London.
Years later I heard the authorities had finally mounted a major assault and closed down Rysegaade. The kids had it so well fortified that the police had to call in the army, who used airborne troops and assault helicopters. Even then it was not a piece of cake – the kids had covered the flat roof with boulders and barbed wire to make it impossible for the helicopters to land.
My first trip to England. I hitchhiked up to Gothenburg Sweden from Copenhagen. An English busker I had met in Copenhagen gave me the address of his friends in Gothenburg (English guy, Swedish gal) and they took me in just like that. I think they had been friends with Alan Partridge (is that the right name?) an English busker who’d had a big hit with a song called Rosie and then partied away the money. He used to play on the streets of Gothenburg. So did I, but only for a couple weeks, then I caught the ferry to Harwich. £10 round trip. Amazing. Special off-season deal to the English club of Gothenburg.
The English guy and the Swedish gal were good company. They let me sleep on the couch and use their shower whenever I wanted, probably for their own good, come to think of it. I learned two new English phrases: 'Over the top,' and ‘Out of order.’ They both mean about the same thing, but it’s okay to be over the top, as long as you’re not out of order.
Some other language things: The East London Interrogative. (I learned this from Charlie Savage.) 'We had a holiday, di’n we?’ ‘You fucked up, di’n you?’ ‘She had a baby, di’n she?’ ‘Di’n I?’ ‘Di’n we?’ 'Di’n you?' Or if you’re too lazy to conjugate, you can use the all purpose, 'I’n’it?' I found it all intensely irritating. Just like the American, ‘You catch my drift? You hear what I’m saying? You know what I mean?’ (English too)
Time. In England, half seven is 7:30, half past seven. In Germany, half seven (halbe sieben) is 6:30, half way to seven. In Berlin it didn’t make any difference – we were never on time for anything anyway.
Street Cred. I think the first time I heard about street credibility was in London. I thought, ‘Great, I’m living on the street, I’ve got tons of street credibility.’ It took me a decade to figure out that living on the streets only gives you street credibility if you have graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, or if you used to live on the streets but now you are rich and famous. If you are just living on the streets for real, that’s not street credibility – that’s poverty.
When I got to England I caught a ride all the way from Harwich to the Angel tube station. The first person I met said, ‘Nice one,’ as if I had really accomplished something, but it was just another English phrase.
'Oi, wot you think you’re doin?'
'In’t you a busker?'
'Right. You takin’ the piss?'
'You just put money in my case.'
'What do you mean by that? You tryin’ to make some kind of a point?'
'I just thought it was… '
'What am I supposed to do now when I pass you playing music? Am I supposed to put money in your case?'
'Well, no, not if you… '
'I’d look a right mean bastard if I didn’t wouldn’t I? And then you’d look pretty cheap if you didn’t put somethin’ back in my case. Pretty soon we’d have to carry a bloody sack of money just to walk around in the Underground.'
'Sorry, I’ll take it back.'
'You must be joking. It’s already cost me more than that in wasted time…'
Five o’clock jump
Leicester Square. You go down the escalator, across the foyer and into the tunnel straight ahead of you. In the corner where it turns to the right is the main busking pitch in Leicester Square. Jane is just about to finish her pitch. She is singing, and strumming an acoustic guitar. The case is opened in front of her, money in the case.
Fred comes up from the platform, carrying his sax. Jane sees him coming and clocks the saxophone on his back.
'Let me take you on the streets of London… and I’ll show you a bunch of bloody cheapskates… you lookin’ for a pitch?'
'What’s a pitch?'
'Yeah I reckoned you were new. Done any buskin before?'
'Berlin and a few other places. Just got off the boat. What’s a pitch?'
'You’re standin’ on one. And I’m due at Oxford Circus in 10 minutes. So – you want a pitch?'
Jane packs up as she talks. First she puts her money in her totebag, starting with the silver, which she counts, then the copper, without counting. She puts her guitar in the guitar case. Then she slings her tote bag over her shoulder and she’s ready to pick up the guitar.
'Alright, it’s your lucky night. You won’t get this from everyone. We’re all bastards down here… If I were you I’d just wander around tomorrow and check out all the pitches – see where people play. That’s the first rule. Don’t fuck with the pitches. If somebody’s playin’ on a spot’s been a pitch for ten years and you start playing upstream of em...’
'I get the picture.'
'First one on a pitch gets it for an hour. Whoever comes after gets it for the next hour. Somebody else comes, start a list. If the station staff tell you to stop, give’em five minutes, then start up again. If it’s the Bill give’em ten. If they stop you twice, you better quit. But don’t piss off until the next busker comes.'
'What’s the Bill?'
'My names Jane.'
'The Bill, is that some kind of police?'
'Don’t worry about the Bill. Your real enemy here isn’t the police, it’s other buskers. It may sound kind of cynical, but that’s the way it is. Don’t let anybody bully you off this pitch. You got that?'
'Okay, look, it’s 3:25. You’re playing Darren’s 3:30 pitch. He’s gone home early. Steve is on after you at 4:30. Then Liverpool Nick, but it’s rush hour by then, so it probably won’t last. Here’s the list. Don’t let anybody take it – and don’t walk off the pitch… '
'I got it.'
'You’re American right?'
'Have a nice day.'
Brixton. 232 Railton Road. It’s an anarchist bookstore. I walked through the door and said, ‘Paris sent me.’
The guy behind the counter took one look at my gear and said, ‘Oh, you must be looking for accommodation.’
By a lucky chance they were looking for people to accommodate. Three days until the eviction across the street at Effra Parade, and all hands were needed to fill in the sandbags and barricade the doors and windows. I stored my sax in a near-by flat and pitched in with hammer and nails.
The battle of Effra Parade. The anarchists had been given advance warning from a sympathetic council worker. They had hauled in some derelict cars to turn over and set on fire as needed. The day came, then the night, then the police. The cars were set on fire. There was a confrontation on the street in front of the house and Irish Mike knocked off the Sergeant’s hat. This is a big deal for English cops – well it would be wouldn’t it, with silly hats like theirs. The hat went scuttling across the pavement between the legs of the anarchists.
The sergeant said, ‘Here, give that back.’
And they did! I couldn’t believe it. What kind of game was this. More to come.
The knocked-off-hat was the signal for the dance to begin. The anarchists ran for the flats and barricaded the doors. The police got out their battering rams. Half the anarchists stayed below, reinforcing the barricades. The other half got up on the roof and started chucking slabs of concrete down on the cops. When the cops were about to break through, everyone from the roof raced down to join the others so they couldn’t be identified.
When the cops finally broke through they said, ‘Do you want to go easy or hard?’
Tough choice. Everyone opted for easy. So the cops escorted them out of the flats and across to the other side of the police line so they couldn’t get back into the flats – and let them go!
I heard about all this second hand. I wasn’t inside the buildings. In those days I was constantly worried about being deported for lack of funds (the number two reason for Americans being deported from Europe – shoplifting is number one). I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where I was sure to be arrested. Instead I borrowed an old bugle that was lying about, climbed up to the top of a neighboring tree and blew the call to CHARGE. Of course it was a U.S. Army call I was playing – the Brits have their own bugle calls – so probably it just sounded like noise, but then that was the basic idea.
Ten minutes into my concert, while The Battle Of Effra Parade was still in full swing, I heard an irritated and slightly bored cop’s voice yell up at me, 'Oh piss off,'
another English expression. Months later, Andy the busker would demonstrate the literal meaning of this phrase in a tunnel at Leicester Square tube.
Meanwhile, I stayed up in the tree and kept on blowing the bugle. The next cop to shake my tree was a WPC. (woman police officer – their term, not mine)
'You there. Come on down. You’re in serious trouble.'
Anyway, it looked like the eviction battle was over. There were several cops waiting at the bottom of the tree and I was in no hurry to join them. Fortunately the tree was next to the dividing fence that ran through the back yards parallel to the street. It was a high brick fence. When I got low enough, I leapt from the tree onto the fence and managed to keep my balance, as I ran along the fence top until I was far enough away. Then into a back yard and out across into the street.
The next few weeks were a crash course in squatting. There were a lot of us homeless now that Effra Parade had been evicted. The first house we squatted had the water pipes ripped out to the street. Not a good prospect. The second house was an even bigger mistake because it turned out to be private, rather than council owned.. Generally speaking, it was a good idea to stick to council houses, because generally speaking, they stuck to the rules and would go to court to evict you. Private owners could be quite uncivilized, even when the house had been empty for months or years. I found this out on a Monday morning when I was sitting in the living room and I heard a boom and a crash and looked up to see half a dozen construction workers with sledge hammers and crowbars.
The next house we squatted was private too – we were making a lot of bad guesses. This time the landlord himself came by and tried to break in. There were three of us in an upstairs room when this happened. One of us was an ex-cop…
He said he had been a South African cop. Great. Some right on reason for quitting no doubt. To prove he had been a cop he showed me a clever technique to use when you are being mugged. You reach into your pocket and take out your change and ‘accidentally’ drop it. Let’em see it first, so they know it’s money. That way, when you drop it, they’ll automatically look down – they can’t help themselves. And that’s what gives you your chance to jump them and overpower them.
So the landlord started trying to push in the door, and the ex-cop stuck his head out the window and yelled down to him, ‘Excuse me, this is a legal squat. We have changed the locks and posted a legal notice in accordance with the blankety blank housing act, section 7 paragraph 9.’
'This is my house.'
'You weren’t living in it.'
'I paid for it. It’s my property.'
'And we’re taking good care of it, sir.'
'Get out of my house.'
'This is a legal squat. We have changed the locks and posted a legal notice in accordance with the blankety blank housing act, section 7 paragraph 9.'
The landlord went to his car, came back with a screwdriver and a crowbar and set to work. Just then at the far end of the street, a policeman came into view. The ex-south african cop stuck his head out the window and yelled, ‘Officer. Officer. Could you come here for a minute please.’
'What the fuck are you doin’! '
I tried to pull the ex-cop from the window, but there was no stopping him.
'Officer, this is a legal squat. We have changed the locks and posted a legal notice in accordance with the blankety blank housing act, section 7 paragraph 9.'
'And who are you?', said the police officer to the man with the screwdriver and the crowbar.
'Who am I? I own this house. They’ve broken in and now they’re trespassing.'
'This is a legal squat. We have caused no criminal damage. We have changed the locks and posted a legal notice in accordance with the blankety blank housing act, section 7 paragraph 9.'
'This is my house. I paid for it. They’re trespassing.'
The cop was silent for a moment, considering his options, then he turned to the landlord and said, 'You there, piss off.'
I couldn’t believe my ears. Was I still on planet earth?
Years later when I was back in Seattle for a visit I told my Uncle Jimmy this story and he couldn’t believe it either. He was outraged. 'You mean they can just break in and get away with it?'
'Not if they cause criminal damage, but yeah, if they don’t damage the building and it’s been empty for a long time… '
'That’s outrageous. What if you’re on vacation?'
'No, it has to really be empty. If you’re living there but you’re just on vacation, it’s still legally occupied.'
'But if it’s your property, don’t you have any legal rights?'
'Of course you do. You can go to court and get them evicted. You just have to show that you’re going to use the property. It all goes back to the middle ages. The idea is that houses are made to be lived in.'
'Don’t you have the right to leave it empty when it’s your own house?'
'Why should you have the right to keep a house empty when the city’s full of homeless people?'
'And this is called squatting?'
'Well if somebody wants to try it here they can squat on my twelve gauge.'
'Jimmy, you live here, nobody’s gonna squat in your home.'
'Not as long as I’ve got my twelve gauge.'
Back in Brixton. That squat didn’t last long either, but this time I moved out before the hammer fell. I wasn’t entirely happy with the company I was keeping – two drongos and an ex south african cop. Actually I liked the drongos. Actually I liked the ex South African cop. I like too many people, I used to anyway. Now that I’m getting old, I have a lot less time for idiots. Now that I’m getting old, I have a lot less time.
The last straw was an argument about the corner stores – the Indian stores, the Pakki stores.
'They got plenty of money.'
'No. They’re working for a living just like us.'
'We don’t work.'
'They’re getting rich off of us.'
'They’re not the enemy.'
'Yes they are.'
'It’s because they’re not rich enough to hire guards that you’re stealing from them.'
'Nobody forced them to be capitalists.'
'They’re not capitalists, they’re not rich and powerful, they’re just an easy target for lazy assholes.'
The last squat was the best. It lasted several years. Longer than I did. My co-squatees were a Danish diplomat’s daughter, an Ozzie anarchist couple, the he of which had played in a semi-big punk band down under, Steven the Norwegian, and just to prove they really existed – an English squatter. She was from Leeds which I vaguely thought of as a small seaside town about half an hour from London. She used to say, 'Blimey,’ just like in the old movies.
Steven the Norwegian was cool. He ran away to Paris when he was fourteen so he could get a really cool switchblade the kind that was illegal in Norway. Steven spoke with an impeccably middle class English accent that might have saved his life on his recent visit to America. The first day there he took the subway and got off at the wrong stop. He was a few blocks from the subway on an almost empty street before it sank in that he had made a big mistake.
'What are you doing here? Ha ha I’m gonna kill you.'
'I’d rather you just directed me back to the subway entrance, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.'
'Where’d you learn to talk like that?'
'I’m from Norway.'
'I knew you weren’t from New York.'
'It’s my first day here. I take it this was the wrong tube stop?'
'Tube stop – I love it. Come on, I’ll show you the way back.'
'You said something about killing me.'
'That was before I heard you talk. Norway, that’s in Europe isn’t it?'
'I got nothin’ against Europeans. Go on, talk some more. Say a whole paragraph.'
When I first met Steven he’d just goten back from his trip to America. I said, ‘How’d you like it?’
'Well to be honest with you Fred, I didn’t. Everywhere I went people would ask me. What do you think of America?' At first I’d give them an honest answer, I’d say, “Well on the one hand I like this, and this, and this, but on the other hand, I don’t like this, or this, or this.” Invariably, as soon as I made the least little criticism, they would get stroppy and invariably the conversation would end with, “Well, if you don’t like it here, why don’t you get the hell out?” So after the first week or two I would just put on a big… what you would call – shit eating grin – and say, “Very nice, very nice, very nice.”’
Now to be fair to the rest of the United States, I guess I should mention that aside from a couple days in New York, Steven spent his entire stay in Florida. Nevertheless, I knew what he meant. Americans (unitedstatesans) are stuck on themselves. It’s one of the great things about the English compared to the Yanks (of north and south). The English take the piss out of themselves. They do often have this smug air of confidence that they are just that bit more civilized than the entire rest of the universe, so maybe they are just as fucked up in a different way, but at least it is usually not as in your face as American patriotic fundamentalism. More than once I have been in a pub discussion where everyone at the table was mercilessly taking the piss out of the English.
'But wait a minute. You guys are all English.'
'Fred, my mother was Welsh.'
'I’m not English. My grandfather was Cornish.'
'My grandmother was from the Channel Islands.'
Busking in the London Underground. Not an easy place to crack. I almost gave up and went back on the road after the first few weeks, but fate intervened. I had enough money to leave, I was carrying it around in my wallet because it wasn’t safe to leave it in the squat. So I got robbed on the street. By a gang of 12 year olds. How embarrassing. I was coming back from the tubes with a French guitar player, Hervé from Herne Hill. We had been making a bit of money, playing mostly Pink Panther over and over.
Mostly Pink Panther, but not entirely. I had been warned by Charlie Savage about what happened to the guy in the Paris Metro who had played Pink Panther over and over again for eight years, getting crazier and crazier every year until finally the men in white coats came and took him away.
We had been making a bit of money and now we were walking down the street, our pockets were going clink clink and we were feeling good. I was leaving for Paris in a couple days so Hervé gave me an address in Paris and I took out my wallet to put it away when somebody said,
'Gimme that wallet.'
The kid that said it was either fourteen or he was a damn big twelve year old, but the rest of them were smaller. Not small enough for me not to panic though. I had spent the coldest year of my life in the south side of Chicago and a gang of twelve year olds there was nothing to laugh at.
They had knives, sort of, basically pen knives. While some of them tried to pull Hervé’s camera from him, one of them sawed away on his wrist with a pen knife. It didn’t cut the skin. Hervé kept his camera. I was worried about my saxophone. I pushed it up against the fence and stood in front of it. If I lost my saxophone I was screwed. So I took my wallet and threw it as far away as I could. That cut down the crowd surrounding us by about half. A minute later the ex-South African policeman and the two drongos came round the corner and raised the alarm. Irish Mike and some others were close behind. The kids scattered. Hervé still had his camera. I still had my saxophone. Cool. Then I remembered the cash in my wallet.
This never would have happened in the U.S.. I never would have been so careless. I took out my wallet on the street without even looking around. We were in front of a small Christian church. I had let myself be ripped off by the church youth club.
They did me a favor. I was about to give up on London and hit the road. Now I would have to have a second go. I got serious. I learned to play Take Five. I learned to play In The Mood. I learned to sign up for seven pitches and then keep checking every ten minutes to make sure no one was fucking around with the list. I learned to get up early and stay late.
(continued in book)
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