YARDBIRDS IN THE BIG SMOKE
WORDS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE
Back in 2002, after struggling for several months trying to make a living in London, I did what anyone in my place wouldn't have done and went and bought a used tenor saxophone. This was after failing as a rickshaw rider due to my lack of knowledge of London's A to Z, almost being mugged while flyering outside a rave in Brixton, and getting fired from a pub in Shoreditch for serving a triple absinthe shot to a guy who ended up leaving a colourful Pollock-looking decoration on the pub's floor. I was — and still am — pretty useless at any pecuniary endeavour, but at least I could play the sax well enough to grab a couple of pounds an hour blowing jazzy muzak for the tourists. Maybe six years of music conservatory would come to my aid, I thought, proving to the world, and therefore my family and myself, the true value of a music degree.
Of course I didn't make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless. The truth is I was too scared to open my case in order to invite coins — I was afraid of being deported or of breaking some arcane law that might have seen me thrown into a dark dungeon in the Tower of London. I would just find an isolated spot and play for a couple of hours, generally by the river or in a park, practising scales, arpeggios, a couple of solos, and whatever I could remember by heart. The hours would fly, weather allowing. And maybe here lies the true value of music in its capacity to create intensive experiences that transcend any form of logic or common sense beyond any degree. This job-search avoidance scheme, however naive, became a way of gauging my surroundings and of finally landing in London — of biding the time I needed for my mind and soul to fully arrive in this city after my body.
Of course I didn't make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless.
I would spend these early days carrying my case all over the place, playing here and there for a while, talking to the musicians. All over London everyone was playing more or less the same tunes: Autumn Leaves, As Time Goes By, a couple of bossa nova numbers, regrettably some Kenny G too. Many of the buskers showed the same traces of frustration at being a form of publicly available light entertainment and weren't precisely welcoming. Others were outright mad. Some of them were charming and memorable, like Charlie.
Charlie used to play tenor outside Camden Town station. He was a gifted musician who could take on all the big names without a sweat: Coltrane, Gordon, Rollings, Parker. My English college at the time — the place that granted me the right to be in the UK as a student — was literally across the road from his spot. Out of the frequency of my stalkings Charlie and I ended up having a pint at The World's End. Just one, for he needed to "see a man about a dog," an expression I would come to understand years later. Charlie insisted on paying for our drinks — it had been a great day, he said. I accepted on the premise of returning the favour in the future. That was the last time I ever saw him. Some weeks later I heard from one of the other local buskers that Charlie had died of an overdose. I frequently wonder what happened to his sax, if he sold it at a pound shop to pay for the fix that finally got him, or if it was binned with the rest of his belongings after they found him dead under a bridge near Camden Lock.
When my situation in London became somewhat stable, I gave up this musical dialogue with the city. As life sucked me into middle-age “normality” I even stopped playing the sax. I could say I lack the time, but it's actually the desire that's no longer there, for whatever the reason. But the tenor is still here at home, resting in its case, untouched since who knows when. I've threatened to sell it several times but I've never summoned the courage to do it. I guess what stops me isn't the hope that I'll start playing again but the feeling that when the sax finally goes, a big slice of my history in this city (and some of the people I met) will vanish forever.
Camden Town Station, London NW1 8QL