By Andre Camilleri
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This is my story. I am only a character in a virtual reality game. I was created solemnly for educational purposes of dead souls. The information in this report might come handy the day you enter a heavenly game center, but I bet you won’t remember a single thing I’ve said. I’ll see you at the Formula One game console.
In the 1980’s Berlin was not a bad place to be. Although just about as provincial as any other German town, or place I’ve been to since, it had one great advantage in that it attracted all sorts of crazy, spaced out people from all over the place. There was something mysterious about the city: Perhaps it’s island character, the last western stronghold behind the iron curtain, placed deep within the eastern block; perhaps its former glory before the Nazi’s fucked it all up. Whatever it was, misfits like us came swarming in, attracted by a magic magnetic force.
People talk about us. Every city has it’s own fashions and topics people gossip about. We play a major part in that. We invented our selves, appeared out of nowhere and overnight became a vital part of the city and underground. In the meantime they can’t imagine it without us. We add spice and color to this dull underworld and make it a place worthwhile. Obviously many people hate our guts, don’t see it quiet like that.
We are definitely one of the better buskers in town, which obviously helps. People appreciate the fact that we actually have a voice and know how to tune our guitar. Our approach is very professional and we are definitely wasted down here, but then again, ‘we are all fucked anyway’ and ‘who gives a shit?
Berlin is ugly with a distinct morbid charm. Many house facades still show scares from the war. Your eyes never get to see anything apart from concrete and stone. The only color in the streets is from cars, advertisements, and the bright hair of all the Punks, who are begging at every street corner: “Haste mal ne mark (Can you spear a dime)?”
During winter the pollution from coal heating gets so bad your handkerchief is filled with disgusting black slime every time you blow your nose.
Developers and speculators mostly overlook Berlin for obvious reasons. Who on earth with money in the bank would live here voluntarily? If you have a choice you definitely prefer to be some place else. Perhaps the outskirts, Schlachtensee or Wannsee are not to bad, but Neukoeln or Kreuzberg?
Berlin is pretty much the bottom of the ladder, the lowest of the lowest so to speak. In the central districts just about the whole fucking population is low class and the all prevailing misery is just not suitable for class-conscious pricks. When they take their prize winning doggies for a walk around the block they might get an infection.
And that’s exactly why we love it. But it gets to you at times. The sun almost never shines all the way down in to the streets. The typically 5 or six story high buildings block off any light. In this permanent semi-darkness all sorts of societal waste flourishes, or shall I say manages to extend its existence. You can’t really call it a life.
Sometimes I think the reality out there is nothing but a projection of our inner self. Perhaps it doesn’t really exist, except in our own imagination.
You have to feel sorry for the natives, because the city is annexed by weirdos, who give you strange looks for being a decent citizen. Dropouts from all over the world come to Berlin and turn it in to a mad house: An open ghetto confined by the massive wall that spreads all around it. West Berlin is the rubbish bin of the western world, the ultimate subculture heaven. Nowhere else in Europe (and perhaps the entire world) can you see so many so-called alternative people in one spot.
I think it is the special postwar status that triggered it all off. The Allies allow no German military in West Berlin and young men with a Berlin-ID card are exempted from national service. As a direct result thousands and thousands of West-German young men escape from being drafted by moving to Berlin immediately after they finish schooling.
Not only East Germans try to escape to West - Berlin, but West-Germans as well. It drives the officials mad, but they can’t really do anything about it. Once you are in the city and get yourself a Berlin - ID the army can’t get you out. It is great and our way to show the state what we really think about them: “Fuck off Helmut (Kohl), why don’t you join the army yourself?”
Like I said, it is the only loophole to escape the terror of the state in this regard. What the fuck, I am not going to waste my time. I just wasted 13 precious years in school. Another 1 and a half years in the army that’s 15 years, which makes it almost life imprisonment: No thanks, I had enough for the moment! Don’t call me, we’ll call you….
And it works. The army isn’t even allowed to send you mail. If we had run to another country they probably would have hunted us down like terrorists, but in Berlin we are safe. Every time I am down or depressed I imagine some fat - ass general, going mad about guys like me. It immediately makes me feel really good about myself.
There are actually other possibilities not to go to the army, but I didn’t consider those options for myself. I know people and heard of others who don’t sleep for 3 or 4 days before the medical entry test (Musterung). Instead they take about every single type of illegal drug there is in this world. This treatment turns them in to a living dead with a resting pulse of 130 beats per minute, dark rings under their eyes and a general complexion comparable to that of Count Dracula.
Others collect doctor certificates, like other people collect collector cards of soccer players, which certify all sorts of ailments. According to these dubious papers they can’t lift anything above 1 kg, suffer from migraine and severe Depression, Rheumatism, Parkinson Disease and an assorted collection of 50 different allergies. They might be lucky and get away with it, but chances are they don’t. The military doctors have been on their job for ages and they know every little trick. They are just waiting for smart-asses like that. As a result you might end up in one of the designated training camps for disruptive elements, where you learn to curse the day you were born and wish you never had those brilliant ideas in the first place.
Others simulate to be homosexual. I don’t really know the army’s policy regarding homosexuals, but, I tell you, I wouldn’t want to go to the army as a certified homosexual. Come to think of it, you are probably better off to just shoot yourself.
Berlin is the only safe-way-out and I think that is how the city eventually grew in to this giant madhouse. We are the new generation of young West German men that benefit from the special postwar status. We stand in a long tradition of anti-social individuals, who are not prepared to serve their country like all the other idiots. And we are extremely proud about that. This is our story, a story that’s never been told. It’s too disruptive. Anyway, I am proud to stand in this tradition. I tell you, it’s not easy to be proud of your country when you are German.
I arrived in the summer of 1987. Two years later the wall comes down. The world celebrates the end of the cold war era and collapse of the eastern block. Everybody celebrates at Brandenburger Tor, except me. I am at home, falling in to another deep depression. I imagine that fat ass general laughing his head off, writing my draft letter. Gone not only the Berlin wall, but also the city’s special status regarding national service. I bet I will be drafted shortly. This is the end of a crazy era and the end of my busking career. The fucking army is finally going to get me.
The fall of the Wall is not only a shock to us, but the entire city. When they make Berlin the capital of a united Germany it will be it’s final blow. Berlin is going to be like any other big town. They are going to clean it up. It will never be the same. Developers will make fortunes overnight, rents and prices skyrocket and the poor and weird are silently driven out.
Armies of Yuppies and politicians (I don’t know who’s worth?) invade ‘our districts’. It is suddenly hip and trendy to live in Kreuzberg in a loft under the roof, with a view over the former ‘death –strip’. A fucking disgrace, or a sign of the times depending how you look at it…
In the metropolitan jungle Buskers live like prehistoric hunter – gatherer people. Our lifestyle is so basic you could think we have emerged out of a distant past. We are stone - age people in the postmodern age. It is exiting to leave the house in the morning not knowing what the day will hold in stock for you. One thing’s for sure: there is enough money to be made in the streets.
All the dope we smoke does not help though. Apart from the actual playing you always have to fight your paranoia. The drugs make you think the passengers are exactly the same people as yesterday, the day before and ever since you started playing here. The hardest bit is always to control your demons and make it all the way down to the underground. Many days you are so fucked up you just can’t set your foot in it.
Excuses are easily at hand. Like You imagine cops everywhere, thinking they’re all out to get you. That’s why you only play when you really have to.
As a way out, I sometimes think that, perhaps, we don’t exist, are just an illusion, but if you start to think in that direction you turn completely nuts.
Apart from the necessities of life, there is something else that makes you go back time after time, again and again. Busking subway trains is extremely addictive. It’s just like gambling, shoplifting, or a good fuck. Your adrenaline gets going big time. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride that leaves you begging for more and an extremely direct way to make money. You jump on a train and three minutes later you might have made 20 Marks just like that. It gets to you.
Like a gambler, who puts his money on the same numbers, thinking they have to come up at some point, you play another train and another and another one. You can’t get enough, while the weight of the coins in your pockets grows and grows until they are so full that you have to stop and you think they are going to burst and then you walk home like a living piggybank. And that’s exactly what you are: a living piggybank.
Busking makes you very greedy. You get attached to coins like tits and ass. In the morning before you start you are completely broke and you don’t know how to make ends meet. Then you start to play and within two hours the wheels of fortune have changed and the world looks very different. Suddenly you have money to go shopping, to go to a bar at night and you can even put some money aside for the rent. This extreme up and down kind of live style is exiting. It keeps you coming back for more. It’s not like you have a job and that’s it. After a while you stop thinking about it. It becomes a routine like brushing your teeth or jerking off before you turn the lights out and go to sleep. With busking there is no fucking routine. It’s more like bungy-jumping, or sky diving…
When you start your day you are tense and full of stage freight. Your fingers are shaky and your voice trembles. But you have no option and eventually you loose up, until you feel in control. You get to the point were you develop a strong influence over people and you play with their reactions. Every train is a small – show. You plan it out really well. You might start in a totally unspectacular way, so that some people won’t even notice you. That prevents passengers screaming at you and other ugly scenes. Slowly you become more and more intense and by the time you end the song you’ve captured everyone with your presence.
Although perhaps the underground doesn’t exist and I have never played guitar down there either.
What’s options do you have anyway? You could be a waiter and work your ass off to get the same money in a whole day you can make here in two hours. And you would have to take so much shit from customers or your boss. When you are a busker you don’t take shit from anyone. There are thousands and thousands of passengers. If someone doesn’t like you, someone else will and pays for two.
During our best moments we feel invulnerable. I can definitely say that many people hate us. Hate our looks; hate the noise and everything we represent.
A guy who works his whole goddamn miserable life in a factory to support his family (which is falling apart) is on his way to work when he bumps in to us. We are having the time of our lives and people throw money at us. Hot babes down there man, you’ve got no idea. And they love us, we are different you know, have a talent and shit. It’s that James Dean outlaw shit. We play the game. Of course we do and what else could we do? And there is the guy watching this whole in your face ‘pull up to my bumper baby’ number. How do you think he feels? How would you feel?
The thing is, he can’t do a thing about it, but to swallow all his anger and frustration down. Oh yes, he can beat up his kids or degrade his wife. Psychologist pricks call it transference, I think. At the end of the day it’s like this: People are, I’d say, equally split in to two groups. One half hates us, but the other half appreciates a break from the monotony down here.
Tourists don’t dare to speak up, because they are just visiting and looking at things from outside. They don’t have the guts, cause they know we’d finish them off in no time. All that tourists can do is put on a stupid grin, whatever the situation. You can insult them and they still grin. Fucking idiots let me tell you. At least they have a lot of extra cash and they love to throw it away. Berlin is like an open zoo and we are the monkeys they come to see. If we had any self-respect we’d rather eat from tin cans than to dance for them, but who gives a fuck about dignity. In this society you don’t have a chance or a choice. Whatever you do you are always a part of the system. Wether you fuck everybody else or everybody fucks you, we are all fucked anyway...
The good thing about busking is that, although you are some kind of freak, you represent culture and art. We are musicians and we all live for our music, no matter how spaced out we are. Therefore we are privileged in a strange way. Although everybody figures something about us is fishy, we, sort of, get the benefit of the doubt. All that we manage to get away with seems crazy. People carry in their heads this romantic image of the starving artist, which we utilise to our own advantage. Sometimes you have people that see right through you, which can be a devastating experience, but on the whole you learn to protect yourself. People don’t want to be looked at as spoilsports, who ruin other people’s fun. Therefore, you are rather safe, protected by the crowd.
If anyone insults me I pretend not to speak any German, which always works, because it turns the whole thing in to a racial issue. Germans, like all other nations, never openly admit they are racist. Show me anyone that openly admits he hates foreigners: “Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against them, but…”
What if I am only a character you can choose to become in some virtual reality game? A new technology where players immerse themselves completely in the game reality and take on the personality of a character. I am ‘Andre, drug addict and street musician’. ‘The ultimate way to experience all sorts of mind-blowing adventures and a chance to test your guts under pressure’.
Busking, like so many things, is all in the mind. It depends a lot on how you present your self and the way you perceive things in your head. You learn not to show your fear and to act confident. Once in India I saw a one armed monkey near a holy Hindu sight on a hill in the middle of nowhere. He was begging for food, holding up what was left of his one arm to by-passers. Believe me, he got much more food than the other monkeys.
Busking is very much like that. Rather than a good musician, you have to be a good psychologist. You can be the best guitar player in town, but that doesn’t help you much on the streets, or underground. Apart from the musical skills you need to develop other things.
You have to be able to walk in to a train compartment and instantly read the situation. No train is ever the same. That is why you make 20 Marks in one compartment and, while you think you are doing exactly the same thing, not one cent in the next. That’s why I mention the monkey. You need to develop your persuasive skills to the fullest and try to leave all your scruples behind. Rethink your behavioral patterns and discard everything that keeps you from reaching your targets. Think of it as an actor on stage that slips in to a role for the time of the play. Don’t try to be yourself. It doesn’t get you anywhere. The role you take on serves as your protection shield. It doesn’t matter what music you like and how you want to be perceived by others. It’s what people want to hear that should be of interest to you.
Remember this isn’t about you; this is about setting the rules and making money. Full stop.
You think that sounds business - like and a songwriter should only think about his music. You are right, but when it comes to playing trains you are wrong, because people don’t give a damn about you and the more you open yourself, the more you can get hurt. Remember you are not playing in a music club, where people come to see you. If you don’t like the idea, don’t do it! Or else throw yourself to the lions and see how you go.
And this is how it works: You always pick a wagon in front or end of the train and then you work yourself up or down. Never play in the middle, because that is exactly where the station officer is inside his glass box. Playing right in front of their noses is like spitting in their faces. Remember these guys are responsible for the safety of passengers, getting on and off trains inside the station. Also, try and remember the kind of shit-job they have. All day locked up underground, without daylight or fresh air, working shifts and the only thing to look forward to is a two-week summer holiday at the Costa Brava…
You’re much better off showing a little respect and staying out of their sight. Make them feel you are scared of them. They usually get a kick out of that. It makes them feel important and powerful. Remember they can call security and kick you out. Security personnel, police and ticket inspectors usually hang around the middle of the platform, so this is no – go area.
Always take the middle door of a wagon (which has three doors). I find it better to wait until the doors close before I start, so the noise does not spill out so much on to the station. Whatever you do, try and remember that you are not only here for one day. Your own and other busker’s livelihood depends on you, so try not to be a smart ass and fuck it all up. Several times I had two security guys and a policeman patrolling inside the train, while I was playing. Although what I am doing is against the law, they didn’t stop me. That’s because I had the whole fucking train hanging on my lips and I kept it quiet. I hate their guts, but if you want to be left alone and respected you’ve got to do your homework and try to keep it civilized!
Think about it. Wouldn’t it be great, if we could swap personalities for a while and be whoever we want to be in a virtual world? A safe way to get to know yourself and train your weaknesses under extreme conditions.
Once the train starts to move you play for two or three stations. Again, keep it quiet while you’re inside stations. Some buskers even stop playing, but I believe that is stupid, because it kills the atmosphere. It’s like stopping and starting a record three times during a song. It sucks!
You probably think all these precautions are rubbish, but I strongly believe that because I stick to them I manage to play trains without being hassled for so long. It usually takes around two or three stations to play a song. Nobody will notice if you stretch or cut it a bit short. It is much more important that you pick the right moment to finish and start collecting money. I say for example ‘something for the music’, while I walk around the compartment with my hat. Of course it’s pretty obvious why you stuff your hat under people’s noses, but when you directly address them they are much more likely to give you something. If you sneak around like a scared chicken, chances are you won’t get anything, although you might have played like a God. Act confident, look people straight in the eye and don’t rush it. Make it clear you deserve to be paid for your service.
It all depends on the first person that gives you something. Others will usually follow. While you play it is always good to single out people that are listening to you and to establish some kind of rapport. There is always someone in need of human contact and those are easy targets. Make them your accomplices and utilise them for your goals. A little smile won’t hurt you. Pretend that you care for people and after you finish walk straight up to them.
If you stop playing too late doors open and half of the people rush out and new passengers come in. That is why you need to know the line you play and where people get on and off. That sort of thing.
Busking on trains is in some ways similar to a cinema, where it is dark, with little to distract your attention. That is why it is so easy to immerse yourself completely in to the reality on screen. Similarly you need to grab and hold people’s attention from the moment you walk in until you collect your money. Any distractions can easily ruin your business. Choose carefully the line you play, the section, individual compartments and the time of day. Forget rush hour. People are stressed and trains are so jam packed you won’t even get on.
I usually play on my own whereas most of the other guys team up with someone else and often take along a third person to collect the money. Two guitars, a guitarist and a singer, guitar and mandolin, or even guitar and double bass and not to forget the notorious chick collecting the money.