Early morning. Four million sleepy Paris-area commuters are on their way to work. Hurrying down the steep steps into their neighborhood Metropolitain subway station, they push through the turnstile and walk along the well-lit corridors, barely glancing at the colorful Perrier and Renault ads plastered on kilometers of walks. They dodge the mops of Algerian or Moroccan cleanup men who keep the Metro tidy, and arrive a little out of breath on the train platform with a few minutes to wait in the stuffy, slightly rancid atmosphere. Then they squeeze into one of the packed trains crisscrossing their fabulous city. The usual and impersonal trip to the heart of town.
But Dave, a young American from Kansas City, political-science graduate (music composition minor) from Williams College in Massachusetts, onetime anti-Vietnam war demonstrator and now erstwhile Parisian, is going to ease the monotony of daily commuting.
At 5:30 a.m., Dave had rolled out of bed, picked up his guitar, plodded to the Metro and boarded the first train to his "pitch." Dave is a "busker" or street musician and his pitch in the Etoile station under the famous Arc de Triomphe is where he performs.
By 6:30, Dave is playing and singing his own ballads, or maybe those of Dylan or the Beatles, for the commuters pouring in from suburbs such as Vicennes or St. Germain. He stays at his pitch until 10:30 a.m. By that time, passersby have thrown 150 francs, coin by coin, into his guitar case. Dave then calls it quits for that day. Those coins now amount to $30, enough for him to eat at Paris' outrageous prices and pay for the modest hotel room he shares with Yvette, his French girl friend.
The troubador then spends the rest of the day in the library at the new and controversial Georges Pompidou Center for the Arts (many Parisians call it "The Refinery" because of it starkly industrial architecture). Dave will be back at his pitch the following morning. He plays seven days a week. But each afternoon he is in the library researching and writing a novel.
Being a busker or street musician is an old occupation. In the Middle Ages in Europe, troubadors wandered from castle to castle, from fair to fair, singing and playing for rich and poor on instruments not much different from our modern guitars, banjos and flutes. Today a multitude of performers have invaded every Paris subway station and corridor, following an unprecedented week of music in the Metro (called "Metro Molto Allegro") organized last spring by the imaginative RATP "Parisian subway administration). At that time, for example, Parisian commuters descended at Aubert, one of the largest exchange stations, to confront a complete symphony orchestra playing Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.
Now you can hear guitar, banjo, harmonica, either, violin, flute recorder, trumpet, harp, cello, balakaika - you name it - played by young and some not so young) American, English and French musicians and many other nationalities. These buskers (from the ancient verb "to busk" - entertain by singing or reciting on the street or in a pub) are sometimes accomparied by a "bottler" who solicits contributions from the passing commuters. Some are good; some are bad. Some play folk music or rock; others classical. But the majority play and sing American and English music which has caputred Europe. In addition to Dylan and the Beatles, Elton John and Cat Stevens are among the favorites.
"I also play some of my own," says Tony, a bearded, long-haired 33-year-old British busker. "I started two years ago here in the Paris Metro with a few songs." Then pointing to a thick notebook, he explains: "I now have a repertoire of 50." Before that Tony played in London, but "there the Bobbies arrest you for vagrancy - here it's different."
Busking in Paris is legal and free permits are issued by the RATP. You must prove your identity and have a French residency or student card, both easily obtainable. A busking permit is renewable after three months and the potential exposure is enormous; play in any of the 353 stations in the 78-year-old Paris Metro, which stretches for 114 miles. The catch is that only 75 permits are issued, and since there are many more buskers the majority play without permits. However, the crisply-uniformed French are indulgent and do not really harass these "illegals." They make them move along but seldom arrest them.
"After all," says Mona, the French bottler (fluent in three other languages) who collects for Tony, "Paris is the capital of the arts. Even the police are Okay. Especially if you play well and have a crowd around. Then they don't dare say anything.We just don't bother asking for a permit." Her reasoning is understandable. There is a long list of requests and the waiting period is more than two years.
Who, young and free in Paris, knows where he will be in two years?
Some buskers are professional musicians and only busk between jobs. For example, Bernard is a French one-man band who normally entertains at village weddings and dances. He gave me his elaborate advertising-calling card (with phone numbers for his Paris and country residences). When I met him, he was playing four instruments at a time - drum, cymbals, accordion and trumpet. You can see him one afternoon a week at the Montparnasse station. Pros, such as guitarists Georges and Paul, are part of an orchestra. Flutist Steve worked as a London recording studio musician before taking up busking in Paris.
Violonist David, from New Hampshire, was only spending a couple of weeks in Paris. He had already traveled in England (where, contrary to Tony's impressions, he found that Bobbies like fiddlers). He stopped in Paris on his way to Portugal, Spain and Ireland (where he intends to learn something about fiddling Irish jigs). He prefers to work alone rather than share his earnings with a bottler or fellow musician. (A combo, for example, has to work 8 or 10 hours a day, even changing its pitch every two hours or so, in order to make the same per-person amount as David does alone. The subway rider does not automatically shell out more for duos or groups.)
Parisian buskers are not confined to the Metro. Sidewalk cafes and theater queues provide pitches, too. But there are special problems: On the famous Champs Elysees, a street of movie theaters and cafes, and a literal carpet of tourists all year, a "mafia" type of busker operates. These take a "territory," play solely there, allow no competition, and the interloper risks having his guitar smashed on the pavement. But our peaceful Metro buskers know this unwritten rule and simply avoid any conflict.
Terry, a harmonica-guitar player, explains that "working the movie queues requires psychology. If you want to make good money, you have to know how to choose the picture. If the movie is bad, forget it. If it's a good flick, and it makes people think, they'll be more generous. Kids' movies are great: The adults are relaxed when they come out."
Escaping the wet and cold and playing against traffic noise of polluted streets is another reason why buskers perfer the Metro.
However, when not in the Metro's corridors, many buskers get together at the cafe mazet in the Latin Quarter where, between beers, they play for themselves and exchange information about good and bad pitches, put groups together, recruit bottlers or give musical instruction to the less talented. This togetherness does not imply great, flourishing friendships. The rule is discretion and respect of the other's private life. In fact, buskers usually know each other only by their first name, or whatever name one wants to invent.
In August, Parisians flee their city for the Riviera. What does a Metro musician do in a near-deserted subway? He simply follows the crowd south to Nice, Cannes or St. Tropez. There he may get a tan and save rent sleeping in the open, but busking is neither encouraged nor allowed by the city fathers.
"It's good to be on the Riviera where the action is," says Steven, a closely-shaved, neat-looking American busker, "but you can sure have a nervous breakdown being on the constant lookout for a cop. You have to move too often for too little money. We're happy to see September come when we hitchhike back to Paris."
If for some busking is a permanent way of life, or the hope of being one day "discovered" like Paul Simon who played the streets of Paris, for the majority it is a period of transition between school and the job that cannot be found in this period of economic uncertainty, or a way to earn some pocket money while practicing for that next lesson at the Conservatoire de Musique.
"Sometimes people come up to me and ask why I don't look for a job" says Swedish busker Soren. "Don't they know that this is a job? I'm not begging. I'm entertaining them and giving them something for the money they give me."
What Soren and other buskers give them is a respite from the Metro grind in Paris: the empty sound of foosteps, the pitiful whining of gypsy woman beggars, the droning voice of the blind man selling raffle tickets. And, after climing the steps out of the station into the busy street, many a Metro rider finds himself humming a tune played by one of the new troubadors.