Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone

This was my regular post-bottling song when I was busking terraces in Antwerp — “bottling” being the technical term for going around asking for money. I would typically play three songs, make a circuit of all the tables requesting tips, and then, if they’d been generous enough to deserve another song, I’d do this as a farewell number.

People have often asked if I was really able to make a living that way, and the honest answer is I’ve never lived better than during that period in Antwerp. I was staying in my girlfriend Miet’s apartment, paying some utilities and buying food, but I think she covered most if not all of the rent, which in any case was low. I could make the equivalent of about ten dollars per terrace, which took about fifteen minutes, and on a sunny weekend I could go across the Schelde to the cluster of cafes on the other side and often made two or three hundred dollars. If I felt like working some more, I could do the restaurants and bars in the evening, but after I came up with a regular terrace circuit I usually took the evenings off.

There was a good library within walking distance, and I spent my voluminous free time reading through the history of English literature. My friend Robin Gillespie had sent me off with a complete Shakespeare, and I read that and then worked my way through the other Elizabethans in the British Council Library in Seville, and by the time I got settled back in Antwerp I was ready to dive into Chaucer and the other Middle English writers — not because I felt an overwhelming need, but because I had lots of time and it was fun.

I was doing a lot of traveling as well, because it was easy — wherever I went, I could make food money with my guitar, there were always people ready to provide a bed or couch, and the Antwerp earnings provided a cushion. I hitched up to the north of Scotland and caught a ferry to Orkney, hitched down through Italy and caught a ferry to Tunisia (I remember reading Tom Jones on that trip), and rambled through Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey with my buddy Jasper (I was reading Piers Plowman, or rather not reading it, because that one was unreadable — and also impossible to trade away once I gave up).

Then I decided I wanted the experience of traveling at the speed of the books I was reading, so walked the thousand kilometers from Antwerp to Brittany. (The literary high point of that trip was finding myself at nightfall near the battlefield of Agincourt and realizing I had a copy of Henry V in my pack. I camped out in the middle of the battlefield and memorized Henry’s exhortation to his troops by flashlight — I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but had it in my head for a few years.)

All those literary references probably sound pretentious, but the point is that I was young and eager and enjoying myself — I memorized lots of poetry and never recited any of it for anybody; it was just a way to pass the time as I walked or camped or waited for rides. And yes, I’m nostalgic for those times and overdue to get out again and see how it feels — but more than that, I’d urge anybody who has some free time to go out and give it a shot. There are always people who’ll give you a ride, a couch, or a meal, especially if you have music to trade. As the poet said, “world enough, and time…”