Over the past couple of weeks, I spent some time in Italy and Switzerland with my girlfriend. This was largely to decompress after a particularly grueling semester of teaching and dissertationing (Yeah, itâ€™s a word. Well, it is now.). And as always, this proved to be a bit of a wise idea and a bit of folly. Even so, Iâ€™m glad, even if for nothing else, that I had the chance to find some street music that was actually compelling.
See, Italy is a lovely country. Iâ€™m telling you this now, so that I can say some mean things and Iâ€™ll seem â€œfair.â€ That still works, right? But whatever Italy is, â€œrelaxingâ€ is not one of the words I would generally use to describe it. Sure, weâ€™ve all heard stories of two-hour lunches. Of long walks in the country, and of other such dolce far niente. Donâ€™t believe a word of it. The cities are pushy, and the inhabitants crowd you out like Parisians on steroids. The food is delicious, and people will be friendly if you speak to them directly. (Hey, they even let you try their language without spitting!) But otherwise, itâ€™s like being stuck in a fast-moving river.
In places like this, I usually seek refuge in my music. A few well-placed songs, and I really donâ€™t care how fast you want me to move or where you want me to go. Iâ€™m perfectly insular within the walls of my mp3 player. Of course, one of the ways that traveling with a partner changes things is that it forces you to turn off the music and to actually engage in conversation. (Iâ€™ve often wondered if this is entirely necessary. Would it ever be fun to make a mix for two people, and to synchronize players as you go? What do you think?) Which of course is the reason for going, and which (of course) I donâ€™t mind.
But it is strange, and it does make me look at the world in a new and weird way. For one, I either start wondering why everything is so loud or so quiet. It occurs to me that this is a side-effect of my desire for always-available music. I mean, Iâ€™m always playing something. On my computer when Iâ€™m working. When Iâ€™m sleeping (sometimes). When Iâ€™m driving. When Iâ€™m working. When Iâ€™m in Church. When Iâ€™m… well, you get the idea. And so I tend to remember places, and to experience places, through my knowledge of music. If I went too long without it, I think it might feel like going blind.
Which is what makes it so lovely, and so surprising, when you find both something you remember and something you love in a faraway land. During my the days of my trip when I was in Florence, it rained a lot. As a medieval city, this makes it hard to move around. There are lots of umbrellas, puddles, potholes, etc. You get wet. It is not fun. At the end of a particularly grumpy day, I found myself in the Piazza della Signoria. Iâ€™m sure that I was being unpleasant, and Iâ€™m also sure that it wasnâ€™t fair. But then a clear, pretty tenor came floating across the square and carried Simon and Garfunkelâ€™s â€œThe Boxerâ€ with it...
It was still raining, but I temporarily ceased my complaining and went to see what the source of the sound was. Tucked away in the corner of the arches that flank the entrances to the Uffizi Gallery was Ken Mercer. Iâ€™ve since learned that Ken is part of a pair called Mercer and Peres and that they have a cd called Cinderella and the ball. The really surprising thing, and Iâ€™ll say this in order to expose my other bias against most street musicians, is that it was really, really good. Ken played folk-ish songs from the sixties and seventies (which Iâ€™ve learned is their thing) and the songs were warm and entertaining. More than that, they were exactly the right thing for that moment, and I went away with the sense that something beautiful had happened.
So much so, in fact, that I longed to go back and find myself a cd. I didnâ€™t the first night, deciding to see what Fate (and the rain) had in store for me (and also being lazy and wet and cold). Fortunately, at least one of them wanted me to have a cd. On the second night, I was really happy to discover that Ken was back in the same spot â€“ acoustic guitar, car-battery-powered amp, and cds in tow. Even better, I got confirmation that Iâ€™m not quite so weird for feeling the way I do about music and its rightful place in the world.
Stood in front of Ken were a husband and wife who were, I guess, in their sixties. The man was smiling and cheering, and the wife held tenderly onto his arm. It seems that requests were perfectly acceptable, as Ken would only have a moment after finishing each song before they would yell out for this Simon and Garfunkel or that James Taylor song. At one point, they asked for an artist that I didnâ€™t catch, and Ken said that heâ€™d heard another song of his and he would play that (Its name is â€œStreets of Londonâ€ and it seems to involve paint and coffee shops… help?). The husband smiled wide and he said: â€œYouâ€™re too young to have even heard of that!â€ Cute, right?
Anyway, as he stood there, the manâ€™s mouth opened wider and his eyes smiled even more. He was there. Back in 1964 (the only part Iâ€™d heard correctly), and the world was big and young again. It was really beautiful. Of course, just as the man looked his happiest, the woman tapped him gently and said: â€œItâ€™s just too loud, isnâ€™t it?â€ Everyoneâ€™s got a Yoko somewhere, right? (Isnâ€™t it weird how my spellchecker contains â€œYoko?â€)
Even so, itâ€™s wonderful to see that I really am building something that really does last a lifetime, and that there are other people who find it perfectly normal to stop and linger in the nostalgia. (Of course, there are all of you…) More than that, though, I think it seems like a kind of acknowledgement of this shared miracle of auditory time travel – and thatâ€™s really kind of lovely, isnâ€™t it?
Oh, and hereâ€™s a clip (grainy, but it’s something):