BUSKING AROUND EUROPE – my life as a fool

Yesterday I was ‘tagged’ in photos posted on Facebook by my former partner in theatrical crime Lee M. Ross, and the swinging seventies came flooding back to me. Thanks, Lee.

Pigeon Drop Theater, La Rochelle, 1977. RT on right, in the fetching yellow overalls.

The day I first arrived in Amsterdam, in 1976, I was arrested within an hour. My heinous crime was playing my yellow fiddle in the Kalverstraat.

I’d done some street theatre in Australia and spent time busking at London tube stations and street markets. Despite my crimes against musical good taste I’d seldom been in trouble with the law. I’d never visited ‘The Continent’, as it was then known to Britons, and I assumed that playing in the street would be allowed in the freedom-loving city of Amsterdam.

But the Dutch constabulary were having some sort of clean-up day, clearing undesirables from the city, so they bundled me into the back of a police car, along with an English drummer and a Spanish bagpiper who confided that his name was Juan Corazon Serpiente, or “Juan Heart of Snake”.

At the police station they confiscated our instruments, so we were stuck in Amsterdam for a few days while we begged various city officials to let us have them back again. We pleaded our ignorance of Dutch street regulations, our instruments of crime were returned and we were let off with a stern finger-wagging warning about disturbing the peace. ‘If you want to earn money, try selling hash like everybody else here does’.

Pigeon Drop, RT scratching in the background

But we heard that Amsterdam was soon to host the annual Festival of Fools, and the police suggested that a young Australian idiot should feel right at home there.

The Festival of Fools, a ‘comedy convention of the nouveau clowns’ was an event attracting comics, circus artists, cabaretiers and street performers from around the world. It ran in Amsterdam from 1975-84, until it became too foolish for the sensible Dutch and moved to Copenhagen. I believe versions of the event now take place in Spain and Northern Ireland.

The Festival of Fools offered me paid piano bar gigs in the Melkweg and Shaffy Theaters, as well as a licence to perform on the street. Through this work I met Pigeon Drop, a group of American dancers, clowns and musos. A bad Australian fiddle player who could juggle three balls and was used to public embarrassment was just what they were looking for, so I joined them.

The Pigeon Drop support vehicle

The photos were taken in La Rochelle, France. Pigeon Drop travelled there in Lee’s red ‘ugly duckling’ Citroen van (six of us plus instruments crammed into it somehow – this was before seatbelt laws). We slept on a sheet of plastic on the beach or in fields. Lee reminds me that we were once woken by a circus arriving, informing us that we were sleeping on their spot.

Yet we earned enough money to eat, occasionally to drink vin ordinair and to fill the Pigeonmobile with fuel. There were often embarrassingly meagre pickings, but there were sometimes exciting performances with good hauls of cash. Memorable was the day Chip and Steve accidentally attracted a big crowd by tossing a frisbee in the street . Frisbees were new to France apparently. So we kept the boys throwing and catching, passed the hat around, and dined very well that night.

Pigeon Drop gets the French crowd rocking (gently).

We learned a few tricks about street performing… Creating the expectation of something about to happen will draw a crowd better than starting the act itself. The act doesn’t matter much. Do anything at all with energy and confident good humour. If you project the feeling that you are enjoying your work, the audience will forgive your lack of skill. Pass the hat before you finish the performance. Lead the audience to believe that if they stick around they’ll see something amazing, then collect the loot, then do the act. If anyone feels let down, it’s too late – you already have their coins. If you wait till it’s over, most of them will just split and go shopping.

I left Pigeon Drop at the end of 1977 and went back to Australia to try my luck in more serious theatre. The remaining group members, freed from the shackles of my appalling fiddling and basic clowning, briefly became famous in theatres, clubs and festivals around Europe. They earned good money and wisely invested it in good fun. Well done Lee, Chip, Steve and the boys of the new band. Thanks too Karen and Barbara for the good times we had in the heady Pigeon Drop days.

I still have the yellow fiddle and play it often (whenever Mevrouw T leaves the premises, actually), with no noticeable improvement. I have seldom performed on the street since, but I enjoy seeing people who do it well and cheerfully put money in the hat when I see effort and enthusiasm.

It would be nice to do it myself again one day, but I’m afraid I may have used up my lifetime’s supply of bravado during 1976-77.


Filed under Budget travel, Travel- Europe

10 responses to “BUSKING AROUND EUROPE – my life as a fool

  1. Mike

    Six in that van? And gear? You must have been seriously in need of a good meal or six.

    Another wonderful yarn, Richard.

  2. bagnidilucca

    What a great story! Oh to be young again.

  3. Agnès

    Super Richard! Erg leuk om te lezen. Ik was ook in de seventies op vakantie bij La Rochelle. Jammer dat ik jullie toen niet gezien heb.

    • Missing us probably saved you a few francs, Agnés.

      We would have collected your money, sung a very disappointing version of “Rolling in my Sweet Baby’s Arms”, then driven away fast!

  4. Richard, I didn’t know you could juggle! But you seem to have forgotten, we actually had 7 people in that car for part of the journey through France. The four in the back wove their legs like a zipper (which would have been calamitous for any future siring-if we’d have had an accident). And some one sat on some else’s lap in the front lawn-chair the Citoen makers called seats.

  5. Those were the Daze!! I remember driving in that little 2 cylnder car with 7 people during our time in France. We picked up a hitch hiker.
    The car had the gear shifter on the dashboard so the only time the ‘middle’ person had to move was when the ‘driver’ had to use the emergency break to park.
    That was real luxury!!

    • Thanks Lee and Chip.

      Okay, seven people in the van. And if we keep this correspondence going long enough we could squeeze ten people into it.

      As someone commented, we must have been a little slimmer and more flexible back then.

  6. Oh, Richard, now you’re sending me on a very enjoyable trip down memory lane! I loved the Festival of Fools and particularly remember one year when the Footsbarn Theatre did the complete Shakespeare oeuvre in one show. I can still feel the pain in my cheeks and stomach from laughing. So hilarious! And, of course, Jango Edwards. Priceless. Thanks for jogging my memory.

    Best wishes for 2011!

    PS: love the yellow pants and the matching fiddle. 🙂

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