Hello, Mary Lou (rock ‘n’ roll busking)

By the later 1980s I was tired of scuffling on the US folk scene and headed back to Europe, where I could make a decent living as a busker — and for a change I spent a few months mostly playing  rock ‘n’ roll, first on the trains of the Paris Metro and then in the sailor bars of Antwerp.

I prepared for my return to Europe by learning to play alto saxophone — not well, heaven knows, but it was significantly louder than a guitar and a lot rarer on the busking scene. So I hit Paris, dropped in at Le Mazet to see who was around, then played some trains with the sax. I did ok, but didn’t stick with it because on my way home that evening a young American got on the train singing Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” we got to talking, I went over to his place the next day, and we formed a duo.

His name indeed was Al, and he was fresh from New York, escaping a future of merchant banking. He’d worked a few months as a waiter, but now was on the trains, and he played guitar and fiddle. Al had a strong voice and a lot of energy, and I found us a good bottler (hat passer) at Shakespeare & Company. I don’t recall her name, but she was Irish, with bright red hair, and also had a strong voice. So we put together an act: as we boarded a train car, she’d jump onto a seat and announce “Mesdames et Messieurs! Un vrai show du rock ‘n’ roll americain!” I’d be in the middle of the car playing rhythm guitar and harmonizing on the choruses, while Al rushed up and down the aisle, singing lead and engaging directly with everyone — if someone tried to ignore him by reading a magazine, he’d sit next to them, reading over their shoulder as he sang. We alternated “Bye Bye Love” and Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy,” and then Al would climb onto a seat, standing up with his fiddle, and play “Orange Blossom Special” while almost falling off, and the Irishwoman would pass the hat. We made good money, and our rule was that however much we made, we had to spend half of it on dinner, and it was Paris…

So that was a couple of weeks, and then I headed up to Antwerp. As I recall, I spent part of that summer playing older pop standards, sometimes with Nick Boons on violin (about which more in the next post), then put together another rock ‘n’ roll show with an American named David Greeley, a good singer who had made a couple of albums in the 1970s with a contemporary gospel band called Life Unlimited. Our show was designed for the tough bars where the sailors hung out, which usually didn’t allow buskers. We’d go in and ask if we could play, and they’d say no, and we’d make a deal: we’d do one song, and if they didn’t want to hear another we’d leave without bothering the customers for money. So they’d grumble a bit, but give us a chance….

We’d open with the theme from Rawhide, which had been popular in Europe thanks to Clint Eastwood, and on the chorus I’d crack a bullwhip (actually, it was a leather dog lead, but it cracked fine), and they were ours. So then we’d do something together — “Bye Bye Love” or Buddy Holly — and then David would take the guitar and start singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” while I went outside and assembled my sax, and I’d come through the door playing a low-range obbligato under his second chorus. We’d finish with “Let’s Twist Again,” with a sax solo I played while standing on a table or walking the bar in my black cowboy boots, then I’d jump off and we’d do the bridge with tight choreography for the “round and round and up and down” part, and they’d give us lots of money and a round of drinks and we’d move on to the next bar.

There were occasional variants: I recall one bar where the jukebox was playing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we arrived, and we did our set and it went fine, and then they asked if we could sing “Country Roads.” We could and did, and they liked it enough that they asked us to sing it again, and gave us some more money. And then we left, to the sound of the jukebox playing “Country Roads.”

None of which connects directly to “Hello, Mary Lou,” except that I was working on my rock ‘n’ roll oldies repertoire and when I went out alone I played this as well as the Everly and Holly songs, and had a nicer guitar arrangement for it. I learned it off a record by Gene Pitney, which I picked up at a yard sale for next to nothing back in my teens — the hit version was by Ricky Nelson, but Pitney wrote it and I liked his version. It wasn’t as fancy as “Town without Pity” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” but more fun.