FWP: O Danny Boy, the pipes are appalling

First World Problems: Jimmy Thomson gets really really annoyed by things he really, really shouldn’t.

I have had it with buskers. There was a time you could walk down a street in the city and hear the distant strumming of a guitarist.  As you got closer you started to recognize the tune and as you walked away it became a pleasant memory.  If it was good, you barely broke stride as you dropped some shrapnel into their hat.

Unobtrusive and unintrusive, it was little sprinkling of musical fairy dust on your otherwise humdrum day.

Now, the music is played at rock concert volumes and you can hear it several blocks away as you negotiate the concrete canyons, using echoes and charting the wind to try to negotiate a path between the Chinese violinist, the pan pipes player and the wailing kids – Oh, God, the kids!

Now I assume the old Chinese guy playing his two-string fiddle is actually playing it (it’s called an erhu, by the way) but how would I know?  The backing track booming out of his portable amplifier could just be a recording and the strings on his Erhu might just be rubber bands.

Maybe he’s just very good at miming.  Does that earn him the change from my pocket?

And don’t get me started on Pan pipes.  I can forgive Paul Simon just about anything – breaking the embargo with South Africa to record Graceland, Bridge Over Troubled Water, stealing the intro to Scarborough Fair from English folk musician Martin Carthy – but introducing the pan pipes to the west?  Nope, that is a bridge too far.

Just the other day in George St in Sydney I was assaulted by a booming backing track at deafening volumes supporting a pan pipe player performing … wait for it … The Sound of Silence.

But was he actually playing.  If I had unplugged him – a serious temptation – would his South American tootling been silence too?
Now, I realise at this point readers under 50 have wandered off, with a list of things they have to Google, like Paul Simon, South Africa and erhu.  Just go. It’s OK.  This is not for you (although there is a mention of Bruce Springsteen coming up).
What? He was a singer-songwriter in the 70s who … Oh, ok then. Off you go. Have fun.
School holidays will be here soon and the kid singers will be back in Pitt St.  They too are amplified and backing-tracked but, sweet mother of God, I wish they were miming.
They are kids.  Their vocal chords are under-developed.  It doesn’t matter how much passion and commitment  they put into a song (although it kind of does) they hit the notes on the broken clock principle – it’s right twice a day.
But we live in a world where a TV audience goes wild when a singer holds a note for more than two seconds and where a key change will send them into raptures.  So some skinny kids belting out screechy facsimiles of the latest Beyonce song is going to get an adoring  audience of tone-deaf passers by enthralled. Sometimes it’s just enough to do it, you don’t have to do it well.
Years ago I went to the Three Sisters Visitors Centre in the Blue Montains and there in the car park, a little girl of about 10 was practicing her scales  and Frere Jacque on a clarinet. And busking.
So I’ve gone to the mountains for peace and quiet and some genius has come up with a way of not putting up with his daughter’s clarinet practice by inflicting it on everyone else.  And maybe even making a buck or two out of it.
I offered her $10 to pack up and go away but then her little brother, who was holding the hat, said he’d need a tenner too.  I gave up.
Now wonder you see so many people wearing headphones in the street or on public transport. There is so much aural pollution around, you may as well choose your own and block everything else out.
Where does Bruce Springsteen come in? Apparently The Boss has a habit of turning up, grabbing a spare guitar and joining in when buskers are playing his songs as this (very poor) video from Copenhagen in 1988 shows.
This must be a video because we didn’t have mobile phones back then.  I wonder if the guy you can hear asking him to play “Down By The River” tortures himself with memories that he requested a Neil Young song.
I like buskers – but not people who mask their inadequacies with booming backing tracks.
I even have a sneaking regard for the ‘moothie” men of my youth in Glasgow.  These streeties would buy a kids harmonica from  Woolworths (it was different kind of store – more like Target) and sit in a doorway and blow tunelessly up and down the air holes, but rhythmically so as you approached it sounded like a jig or reel.
It was only after you had passed and divested yourself of your loose change that you would realise they weren’t playing a tune at all. Genius!
And you can’t put a backing track on that.

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