Some recent experiences over the past few months have brought me back to my youth, or at least my young-adulthood, much of which I spent as a professional street musician. For many, busking is a marginal profession at best. For others, it's a good living. These days there are large parts of the world, particularly in the US and Canada, where you can travel for hundreds of miles without seeing a busker. In much of the world, though, and in some parts of North America as well, the buskers are an active subculture that anyone who uses mass transit or frequents pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods has daily contact with in one form or another.
Ever since anybody has been paid to play music, there have been buskers. In other words, it is a tradition that goes back at least as far as the first market town. And as sure as busking is as old as civilization, it has also always been the number one profession of travelers of many kinds, and of the newest migrants to any place, along with other forms of day labor. Although the tradition is old and has a timeless quality to it, it's also profoundly influenced by things like laws, urban planning (or lack thereof), and the state of popular culture (that is, Clearchannel, Sony, Time-Warner, etc.).
From the time I was in my late teens I guess I was pretty sure I wanted to be a professional musician. I tried my hand at busking in various cities as a youthful vagabond, but for years it was only an occasional preoccupation that only supplied me with a very supplemental income in terms of what I needed to come up with every month in the perennial effort to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. In my early busking efforts I don't think I ever made much more than $4 an hour on average, and I could make three times that much money doing temp jobs for Kelly Services and the like. Back then, in the 1980's, someone who could touch-type and knew how to use a primitive word processing program was in high demand. I could (and did) live somewhere for a few months just to check it out, knowing I had a skill that could keep me more or less gainfully employed in any major city or college town.
By the early Nineties, though, I developed an unmistakably nasty case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and typing for a living was no longer a viable option unless I were just resigned to the problem getting worse, which I wasn't. I stopped typing for a living and never looked back. Faced with the need to make a living doing something else, I started busking again. I also took a couple jobs in cafes, but it became clear that I could make just as much money per hour busking, so I never worked the cafe jobs more than on a very part-time basis.
I quickly discovered that there were ways I could make quite a bit more money busking. But I never intended to be a professional busker -- I wanted to be a professional musician, making a living performing mostly original material, or at least covers of really obscure leftwing artists. I knew this kind of material wasn't ideal busking material, unless you're busking near a protest or something, but I didn't care. I had a plan, and busking was to be part of it. The plan was to become a really good musician, and then to become a really good songwriter. I viscerally recognized the truth in the advice I had received somehow or other from Utah Phillips, I believe it was -- that in order to be a good writer of any kind, you first had to steep yourself in the tradition. Whatever tradition you're into, you have to have it in your blood.
At the Pike Place Market in Seattle there was a young woman one day handing out fliers about what it meant to be a bard. It said a bard needed to be able to make up a song on any subject on the spot, and a bard should have at least three hundred songs memorized at any given time. I never worked too hard at on-the-spot songwriting – although one of Pike Place Market's regular buskers, Jim Page, was and is a master at that art -- but I thought memorizing three hundred songs seemed like a good plan.
Although I had lost the worker's comp claim against my former employer due to a new law passed by the state of Massachusetts under the Republican governor at the time that said any worker's comp claims had to be approved by the employer of the injured worker, thereby making most claims by folks like me completely pointless, Aetna kept on sending me worker's comp checks by accident. They were supposed to only send them for 6 weeks, but they kept coming for eighteen months. I was receiving a whopping $160 a week for eighteen months, and I savored every bit of my newly-found liberation from wage-slavery.
I used the time methodically, living in the tiny little efficiency apartment in Seattle I had moved to. Every day I spent several hours learning songs and practicing them, committing them to memory. I had a songbook I made from photocopied pages of other songbooks, and lots of lyric transcriptions I had made myself for songs of artists without songbooks such as Jim Page, John O'Connor, Utah Phillips and others. Once I had a batch of songs memorized I'd spend an afternoon busking at Pike Place Market, then I'd go back to the woodshed and work on learning more songs.
Life continued like this until Aetna rudely stopped sending me checks. I then briefly and abortively pursued higher education a bit more in late 1993 and early 1994, before picking up with a band called Aunt Betsy, for whom I played bass guitar, recorded an album, and did a midwest tour. Soon after that was over I found myself once again living in Boston, where I had originally gotten Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. This time I wasn't typing for a living, I was busking, pretty much five or six days a week, four hours a day (until my voice was hoarse, which took four hours generally), mostly in the Boston subways -- the T, as it's known.
Although I spent most of three years as a full-time busker in Boston, I was still looking at it as an opportunity to pay the bills while honing my craft. By this time I had learned well what sorts of acts make significant money on the streets, and I was not doing most of the things I should have been doing if I were trying to really master the specific craft of busking. My goal by then was to become a good topical songwriter and a good musician, and I was still working at it.
Particularly on the streets -- the tourist spots like Faneuil Hall or the neighborhoods where people go when they're "out on the town" such as Harvard Square -- the buskers who make serious money are generally very talented people who tend to fall into one of three categories: the exotic, the extravagant, and the familiar. People who combine these qualities often do the best. For those of us who possessed none of these qualities, those of us doing a more subtle kind of thing, such as telling an unfamiliar story or singing an unfamiliar song in a way that wasn't particularly flashy, our best bet was always the subways, rather than the streets, and the Park Street T stop, middle platform of the Red Line, became my home. Usually Monday through Friday, 11 am til 3 pm or so.
On the streets people are walking around from place to place, going somewhere, and if they're going to stop and listen to a street musician or watch a street performer of some other kind, the performer has no more than a few seconds to catch their attention. In the subways it's different -- people are standing on the platform waiting for the next train. If it's not rush hour, the trains might be coming once every ten minutes. This means that most of your audience is going to be on the platform, within earshot of you, for one full song. If the trains are running late, maybe they'll catch two or three. (Those were the best days.) In this situation you have a bit more to work with, you have a chance to suck them into your story -- nothing too impressive required other than a good, solid narrative.
Until last fall I hadn't really done any busking since 1997. I often think of the years when I spent much of my time on most days somewhere underground, though, and sitting in a bus a couple weeks ago really brought it all back to me in a more physical way. Sitting in a bus is also something I haven't done much since those days, for better or worse, and sitting in my seat, looking at the advertisements and the poetry and the diverse bunch of people crowded onto that bus, I remembered all those mornings, many hundreds of them I guess, taking the Orange Line from the second-to-last stop, where I lived in Jamaica Plain, to Downtown Crossing, where I'd take the Red Line one stop to my spot at the Park Street T stop.
I guess it was the closest thing to a regular full-time job I ever had. Each weekday morning I'd put my guitar on my back and pack my battery-powered amp, mike stand, mike and assorted cables onto a little wheely thing and I'd walk to the Green Street T. The commute from there in JP to downtown was 45 minutes each way on the Orange Line. I became quite disciplined about reading a book during the commute, so I was spending 1-1/2 hours each day reading a book in those days, and I got more book-reading done during my Boston busking years than ever before or since.
The subway line I was riding on every day only exists due to a struggle waged by the local residents against a planned highway that would have essentially wiped the neighborhood off the map, like so many others around the country before it. People mobilized and the government ultimately canceled their highway plans and replaced them with an extension of the subway instead. Above the subway in JP is a long, thin park, and on this park every year people involved with a local institution called Spontaneous Celebrations hold a small festival -- in part to commemorate the victory of the neighborhood in defeating plans for a new highway.
In a place like Boston it doesn't take very long to get to know all the regular street performers. Some of them come and go, but by and large it's pretty much a few dozen people who are full-time buskers, at least among those whose main stomping grounds were the T, like me. I quickly discovered that for the sort of music I was doing, the mid-day train schedule worked best. Fewer people coming through, but they have more time on the platform. I made a living, just barely, but in a decidedly unambitious way. The more ambitious performers did popular covers, or had a really eye-catching shtick of some kind, and in the subway they played during rush hour, when the maximum number of people are going past them or waiting on the platform near them, and when the trains are coming every few minutes -- too fast for most commuters to even hear an entire song.
The plus side of being unambitious was there was rarely any competition for my favorite spot -- at least by the time I got to it. Before I got there there would often have been someone busking for hours, taking advantage of the rush hour. Two of the regulars at that spot other than me were a cantankerous blues musician from New York with the stage name of Roland Tumble, and a cantankerous blues and folk musician from West Virginia named Nathan Phillips, who later took up the moniker of Bullfrog. Many of the other musicians would drop by on their way to another spot, sometimes checking in to see if my spot was already taken. It was a major stop for switching from one major line to another (Green to Red or vice versa) so they would often have been coming through anyway, and when you ride the subway enough you know where to get on so when it stops at Park Street you'll be near the area where the buskers usually busk when you step out of the train.
Some of the best musicians I know, who I have recorded and performed with on and off since then, I first met in the subways. Eric Royer was one of them. I don't remember if we met when I was listening to him busk or when he was listening to me, but whenever I was lucky enough to come across him on the street or in the subway somewhere I'd listen for a good spell. He was and is a crazy musical phenomenon, with a vast repertoire of traditional old-time and bluegrass songs in his head, all delivered on a five-string banjo that he plays with consummate skill, and when it comes to most of the bluegrass numbers, with the blinding speed and technical accuracy that the genre usually calls for. But in addition to the fine singing and banjo-playing, Eric also accompanies himself with the most sophisticated one-man band setup I have ever seen or heard of, which basically involves playing a two-string bass, a four-string guitar and a cow bell using an intricate, medieval-looking invention of his that allows him to play different chords, complete with an alternating bass line, using pedals controlled by his feet.
The highlight of many different afternoons of busking was when Eric would stop by on his way somewhere, get out his banjo, and play along with me for a few songs. Eric is a fairly shy sort who probably didn't enjoy a lot of the attention he'd get while busking, but his craft was clearly destined for the profession. The blistering banjo solos are a real attention-getter, and combined with the wild one-man band setup it's irresistible. Eric made more in an hour than I'd generally make in a day -- this despite the fact that he hardly ever did a song that anybody other than a serious traditional music fan would recognize. If he did bluegrass, one-man band versions of Aerosmith songs he probably would have made many times as much money, I'd guess.
One of the legendary buskers of Harvard Square in the 1980's -- a few years before my time as a professional busker, but he would very occasionally make an appearance during my time on the scene -- was a guy named Luke. I don't know his last name -- I heard many people refer to him by his first name and never once heard anyone mention any other name. He was a very precise, energetic performer with an impressive vocal range and very solid guitar skills, and he did nothing but Beatles songs. He only ever busked in the same storefront in Harvard Square, and whenever he'd set up to do his thing he'd attract an adoring crowd of tourists, students and street kids who'd stick with him until he packed up for the night. If he wasn't around on a warm weekend night when people figured he'd probably show up, many of the street kids could be heard asking, where's Luke?
With Luke there was something intoxicating about the way he used the Beatles as a unifying factor for all of society. It turns out pretty much everybody loves the Beatles -- they transcend age, class, ethnicity, etc. Their music was just so popular and so infectious that it just managed to get into the broad fiber of society, and people would sing along actively, often in harmony. It was a very participatory thing.
But if Luke represented the positive side of using popular culture for good purposes, you might say Manny represented the dark side. He was always an impeccably nice guy, and extremely industrious. He had learned many things about doing street music over the years, growing up somewhere in the Boston area, with his unmistakable, working class Boston accent. He knew the basic elements, or some of them, of how to make decent money at the craft: a good spot with room for lots of people to gather, a good sound system, a knowledge of songs that people are familiar with. He may have known that he could make even more money if he were a better musician, but this was unclear.
I heard the stories from many people who attempted to have a chance to busk in Manny's very prime spot there in the middle of Harvard Square on Brattle Street. Whatever time of the morning they'd get there -- and for the best spots you had to get there hours early and hold the spot until the good busking time came around -- Manny would be there. It seemed he often got there before dawn, riding to the Square on his bicycle, home-made wooden trailer attached to the back of it, with his mixing board, speakers and guitar.
What he lacked was the ability to deliver anything but the most lifeless renderings of only the most over-played, over-busked songs ever written. Like a broken record, visitors and locals alike would be accosted every day to many hours of Cat Stevens, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones -- but only their very most popular songs, none of the other ones, ever. Workers at the local businesses had to suffer interminably repeated unvaryingly stillborn renditions of "Heart of Gold" and "The Sound of Silence," quietly wishing Manny would one day be silent, their wishes dashed with every new dawn, as they found Manny holding down his spot when they came to open their businesses.
And then there were artists who had an even better, more souped-up battery-powered sound system than Manny's, complete with a variety of effects pedals, but who were masters of their craft. One such busker in Harvard Square for many years was Ned Landin, aka Flathead. He was, in fact, slightly Neanderthal-looking, with long hair coming out of a balding head and big, hairy eyebrows. I assume that's where he got the stage name, I don't know. More notable than his appearance was his mastery of the guitar and his poignant songs. He'd do a lot of his own songs, not so much familiar stuff, but despite this and the fact that he was just another white guy with a guitar, he had a loyal following in the Square because he was just so damn good. Flathead originated in Minnesota, and he could often be seen busking in Harvard Square in the middle of winter, when most buskers were either in the subway, busking in some warmer part of the world for a few months, or doing something else for the winter. Just to emphasize the point, he would plant his big amp on top of a nearby snowbank. He told me once that if the temperature went down below 25 degrees Fahrenheit he'd stop for the day, not because he had a problem playing the guitar in such weather, but because people wouldn't stop and listen when it was that cold.
Weekends were the best time to busk in a place like Harvard Square, and many people only came out to busk on weekends, such as Mike, the juggler and tightrope-walker extraordinaire, who set up his tightrope in one of the few parts of the Square where there's a wide enough public space to set up a tightrope without getting hit by a car. This happened also to be within earshot of Manny's perennial spot, so the juggling and tightrope-walking inevitably had to happen to the tune of yet another sad performance of "Wild World" or "Down By The River."
A bunch of us regular street performers once had a meeting to try to figure out a system so people wouldn't have to get up at dawn to hold down a prime spot, which is generally the default procedure when a better system isn't agreed upon, but if I recall, Manny didn't show up to the meeting, and we gave up soon thereafter. Sometime after that Flathead abdicated his position as a fixture of Harvard Square and moved to Los Angeles. I couldn't believe a Minnesotan who had lived for years in Boston could find a happy home in LA, but he's still there last I heard, so I guess he likes it.
At the Harvard Square T Stop -- easily the most popular place on the T to busk, the Inbound platform, specifically -- a system had been agreed upon by all the regular buskers, called "the flip." This happened every morning at 7 am, and I believe it still does today. Every morning at 7 anyone who wanted to busk on the spot at some point during the day would show up, and the spot would be randomly allotted via the flip of a coin to three performers, who had dibs on morning, afternoon or evening. I never wanted the morning slot and I was damned if I was going to get up at 5:30 so I could be on the other side of the Boston area by 7, just so I could hang around somewhere or other in order to have the afternoon spot I wanted. But I did show up for the flip on more than a few occasions, somehow or other.
During one of the time periods when I was showing up for the flip we had an entertaining little problem in the form of a Polish accordian player, an older man who had probably very recent immigrated to the US, and spoke no English. The flip is, of course, just a convention established by the community of street performers -- nothing legally binding or anything. So if someone gets there before 7 am and doesn't want to play by the rules, there's no predetermined method for dealing with this. So for several mornings in a row, an assortment of musicians showed up for the flip and encountered this stern-looking, very large Pole with a massive accordian protruding from his very large belly. Each morning we'd all attempt to explain to him through some combination of English and sign language what the deal was, and each morning he'd look at us with an expression that at first appeared to be confusion, and later looked more like annoyance.
By the second morning, Roland, who was cantankerous to begin with, suggested we break the accordian player's fingers. The rest of us, exasperated though we were by the situation, all thought that this was a shockingly violent idea, especially coming from a fellow musician who used his fingers for a living in very much the same way as the accordian player. Along with me and Roland, Grant was there every morning. Grant was a very good classical guitarist from somewhere in England who was one of the most regular occupants of the spot there on the Inbound platform of the Harvard Square T. Finally, after four or five days of this, a young classical violinist from Russia came to the flip, and the confict was resolved immediately and amicably. Amazing what a little verbal communication can do when it's in the right language. The Pole spoke Russian. The violinist explained, in Russian, how the flip works. The accordian player understood. Starting that very morning he started participating in the flip and playing by the established norms henceforth.
In all the years I was busking in the Boston area I hardly ever played an original song. I was actively writing them by then, but I felt like they were still collectively works in progress. I also couldn't bear exposing my own songs to the harsh subway environment, really, it was more an emotional thing than anything strategic in terms of my musical evolution, though that was also part of it. In any case, what I sang down there was almost entirely obscure songs from the past and present that only hardcore fans of topical folk music might recognize -- and even most of them wouldn't, either.
In my years living in Seattle I became a huge fan, as well as friend, of Jim Page. Leftwingers in Seattle and people who frequent certain places like the Pike Place Market know his music, but in Boston, and most other places, this is not the case. While in Seattle I went to many of Jim's shows. Many of his songs I couldn't find in recorded form I found by befriending other Jim Page fans who had recorded some of his live shows. I copied their recordings and transcribed every word of every song on them. Then I set out to figure out how he played the guitar parts. That part was harder -- I never learned to fingerpick anything like Jim, nowhere near that good, but I did learn to mimic his flatpicking style, as well as his idiosyncratic singing style, which he has since pretty much abandoned, but he used to fancy a certain vocal trick that made him sound perpetually like a teenage boy whose voice was changing.
So I'd stand there deep under the streets above, singing the songs of Jim Page, Phil Ochs, Utah Phillips, Woody Guthrie, and loads of old anonymously-written songs I had found in books like Songs of Work and Protest or the Little Red Songbook. There were many conclusions I could effectively draw from years singing those songs in the Boston subways. For one, the overwhelming majority of people riding the Boston subways seem to have a "live and let live" policy in life. Only twice did anybody ever get visibly angry as a result of my leftwing songs. One was an elderly World War 2 vet who took offense to "The Draft Dodger Rag." Another was an agitated young man who seemed to think a line in a Judy Small song was offensive to poor people, because he evidently didn't understand the line was supposed to be ironic.
Most people didn't react one way or another, but from those who did, whether because they said something, or through their facial expressions or their donations, it was clear that many people were very sympathetic to the ideas I was singing about. One conclusion that can be drawn unequivocally is that white men in suits are almost universally stingy bastards. They probably also didn't like the music or the words, but other street performers can also attest to the stinginess of this crowd. The working class is generally far more generous than the yuppies, and, breaking things down demographically, no one was more generous than middle-aged Asian women.
The Boston area has the best mass transit out of any city in the US with the possible exception of New York City. Boston is also a huge college town and is comparatively pedestrian-friendly, though compared to many cities in Europe it doesn't come close. But neither of these factors is the main thing responsible for the flourishing street and subway music scene there. It mainly comes down to the actions of Stephen Baird and the Street Artists Guild in the 1970's.
As I heard the story from Stephen and others soon after I started busking there in Massachusetts' capital, busking in Boston or Cambridge was much like busking in most of the US. That is, any cop who didn't like your looks or your music or was just in a bad mood that day could tell you to pack it up because you were blocking the sidewalk, disturbing the peace, or because a business owner or resident complained, or whatever other reason they wanted to invent. The street artist had no recourse but to pack it up or risk arrest. Stephen's organization sued the city of Boston and the city of Cambridge, and maybe other entities, I don't remember. They won these suits, and street music was established as a legally protected activity. This really upset some of the meaner elements of the local police force, but they had to accept it.
In Cambridge, it wasn't even really under the authority of the police to say anything about the street performers now. They were officially being monitored by a paid staff member from the Cambridge Arts Council. Official rules of conduct were established that the monitors were monitoring. The performer couldn't take up more than 50% of the sidewalk in front of him or her. Volume of the amplification equipment (which they were allowed to use) couldn't exceed 80 decibels measured at a distance of 25 feet, etc. Unfortunately, in one particular case, the power-tripping police force was replaced by a power-tripping monitor. Granted, the guy wasn't armed, but he had the authority to issue tickets that the street performers were obliged to pay, and he issued them regularly. He seemed to think his performance as a monitor was dependent on how many tickets he issued. I'm pretty sure this was his very own idea. He was either on a big power trip, or he hated music, or he hated people generally, nobody knew. He was a quiet, stern, single-minded man, and his job was to make the life of street musicians difficult. It's conceivable that he didn't actually know how to use a decibel meter, but only just. He definitely wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this decibel meter was a very simple device. The thing was, he often took his measurements at a distance closer than 25 feet, which would of course dramatically increase the reading. Also, a passing truck could be far louder than the music on occasion, so if you were just a vindictive misanthrope of some kind, you could always get high readings and blame it on someone.
I never got a ticket. The amp I used was industry standard for the subways, but kind of wimpy for street use. The streets -- and we're not talking about pedestrian streets here, for all you European readers who might assume such a thing -- are much noisier than the subway platforms, and people tended to use bigger amplification devices. Usually things they'd have to rig up themselves, requiring a certain level of interest in slightly technical things, like you might need to use a soldering iron or something, from the looks of it. They'd use things that were made for cars and rig them up to work as amplifiers to connect to speakers and play live through, all powered by a car battery. So there was always some mixing of things that were designed to be powered by AC and things meant to be powered by DC. I never got into that fancy street amplification stuff. In most places I had busked before Boston, people didn't tend to use amplification. In Boston they did (mainly because they were allowed to). But in the subways the standard device was a Mouse amp.
I believe the company stopped making them. But at the time it was the best thing you could find for the price, by far. Basically nobody else made anything quite like them, I suppose because the market for such a thing was so small. How many street musicians are there in the world who are allowed to use amplification? Who else would have need of a battery-powered amp you can plug a mike and a guitar into and sound pretty good for several hours of battery life as long as you had no ambitions of entertaining an audience of more than 25 people or so? I remember being surprised when I heard, rightly or wrongly I don't know, that the folks who made the Mouse amps went out of business. For many years the little thing was, along with my guitar, my most important possession. If you didn't want to mess around with soldering irons and car batteries, there simply wasn't anybody else who made a small but decent-sounding amp with a battery that lasted several hours on a charge. A Pignose amp was the closest thing there was before Mouse, and those things are awful. Many years later, perusing a music store somewhere, I came across this thing made by Crate, the Limo. It was similar to a Mouse, but slightly bigger, louder, better-sounding and with a longer-lasting battery. I hadn't busked in years at that point, but I had to get one. I never used it, but it stuck with me somehow for many different moves. (Then when Occupy started last fall I knew I had to take it with me in my travels so I'd be prepared to do impromptu concerts at the local neighborhood Occupation, and I did. But it's really more of a subway amp, still, I discovered when I finally put it to use.)
The quality of the buskers throughout the Boston area is so high, generally, that tourists often asked me if we were being paid by the city to busk. Other times they just assumed we were. People in charge of attracting business to downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire instituted a program to help defray the costs of Boston-area musicians who want to go up there and busk, so this idea of people being paid something to busk wasn't actually a complete pipe dream. We got the option to enroll in the Portsmouth program when we got our $40 annual busking licenses at the Cambridge Arts Council. Licenses to busk in the T were free. But we weren't being paid.
During my busking years I left Boston a number of times and plied the trade in other places. In San Francisco the general knowledge among buskers was that among the places you could play was the lobby area in the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) where people buy their tickets to ride. I busked a bunch there, but there you just get the passersby, nobody spending substantial time there for the most part. On the platform is where you get the quality time, but the platform is where you were strictly not allowed to busk.
One day I tested the law. I bought a ticket and got onto the BART at Civic Center. Took the guitar out on the platform and started singing "This Land Is Your Land." Not in any kind of offensive way, just a nice, moderate rendition of the song, with my guitar case sitting on the platform in front of me as usual for busking. I wasn't even halfway through the song when I was interrupted by a cop and told to stop, that I couldn't do that. I got in the next train and took it one stop, and there and at every other stop in the city of San Francisco (I tried all of them) the same thing happened, I never got to finish the song, and it's not a long one. People responded very generously to the song each time, and I think I made $20 in 20 minutes or so there.
I visited London, England twice during my busking years. Once just before the 1995 Criminal Justice Act went into effect and once just after. There was a provision in this law that dealt with street music, which basically criminalized it, as I recall. The impact of the law was stark and easy to see. Before the law went into effect the Underground was full of talented buskers. After the law came into effect the Underground was still full of buskers, but the level of talent had plummeted. These new buskers were people living on the margins of society who didn't care whether they got a 200-pound fine. The buskers who didn't want to get the fine, or were just offended at being considered criminals in the first place, left the Underground and presumably took up different occupations or went to busk somewhere else where they were not unwanted.
I remember around that time listening to someone on BBC World Service saying that he liked the buskers in the Underground. He was saying this in the context of a story about Singapore, where busking was a criminal offense. Ironically, he didn't seem to know that the same was now true in London as well.
The worst part about busking was the air quality. It's not necessarily smog of the sort cars produce, but it always smells really bad when they hit the brakes. In both Boston and London the subways were built around the turn of the 20th century, and it's not like the florid-smelling, ultra-modern Metro in Copenhagen or the Shinkansen in Japan. It stinks, a lot. London, not surprisingly, given that it's a much bigger city, is much worse than Boston. Every night after busking in the Underground I'd have nasty black gunk coming out of my nose for hours.
But far more challenging than the air quality, really, is the illegality of the activity. When you give it a try, you'll find that in most places that would be obviously good places to busk, public spaces with lots of pedestrians who would tend to enjoy having good musicians around, it's not legal to do so. In New York City spaces are limited and auditions are required, going against the very nature of the thing. Try busking on subway platforms in Atlanta or the nation's capital and you will suffer the same fate. Or London, Singapore, or lots of other places. But in Boston it's alive and well, for now.
In the spring of 1997 I went on a tour around the US playing bass for Robert Hoyt, and then traveled for several months backing up veteran street performer Chris Chandler. Like Chris had, I went on after those tours to touring myself, playing indoors, as Chris put it, doing gigs that usually paid a little bit better than street performance did for me, where the air quality is somewhat better as well. But despite the downsides of the craft, I often nostalgically recall my years of working there beneath the streets of Boston.