People look down on them and ask why they don’t just get a “real job,” but Ben Kerr and other Toronto street performers say they love their work
By Ed Keenan
The intersection at Yonge and Dundas Streets — the busiest in Toronto — is emphatically alive on a Saturday afternoon.
The concrete pasture on the southwest corner is jam-packed full of people: A hot dog vendor peddles her wares; a preacher with a thick European accents screams his testimonial into a microphone; vendors offer racks of T-shirts bearing slogans like “second place is the first loser;” tourists look this way and that, shoppers rush here and there and menacing looking thugs chill out around the front entrance of Toronto’s largest mall.
Here, on this most vibrant, active, pulsing, throbbing — alive — of street-corners, a crowd of perhaps 75 people stand transfixed before a display of profound inactivity. Before this horde of expectant on-lookers a man covered head to toe in gold paint, wearing a suit and tie, holding a cellular phone in his right hand, is standing frozen like a statue on a large, golden spool — the kind used for phone cable — in the middle of a rubber children’s swimming pool (also painted gold) filled with water.
A sign on the lamp-post behind him reads “Dedicated to the idea that everybody has a golden $$$ opportunity.” Another sign at his feet invites passers-by to spare some change, make a wish and take one of the candies from a bag.
The crowd stares spellbound; themselves almost statuesque, exuding an expectant silence that seems to say “what the hell does he do???” Someone tosses a quarter into the swimming pool and Golden Boy momentarily comes to life. His cell phone rings and he changes positions robotically to face the woman who has tendered the coin. Immediately he freezes again in a new position.
Street performers: buskers, magicians, chalk artists, poets. They are a cornerstone of the atmosphere of New York and Paris. No one need pay the performers, unless of course they want to, a fact which should appeal to both Up-by-your-bootstraps- Capitalist and From-each-according-to-ability-Socialist sensibilities. Most importantly, they provide a soundtrack for our travels, a laugh on the way to work, or decoration for your gritty urban landscape. They make our streets a little more entertaining, friendlier and brighter.
Entertaining: The Golden Boy’s statue is unfaltering — even while he stands on tip toe for up to a minute at a time. The stiffening effect the spray paint has on his clothing adds a metallic look to the whole thing. You’d almost believe he was a statue, except… the eyes. The bright blue eyes that peek out from behind the gold face paint and occasionally glance around, sometimes making contact with one member of the crowd or another. No — the eyes don’t quite belong to the statue on display here. Now and again you can look into those eyes and see a person in there who’s slightly tired after five hours in the cold, who’s dying for a cigarette and a coffee. Sometimes you can see him in there — almost. The eyes blong to Mark Walker.
When he’s not standing around at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, Mark Walker is a “typical Goth boy.” He’s been performing on the street part-time for years, both here and in Europe, but he’s just started doing it full time.
“With the whole ‘dedicated to the idea that everyone has a golden opportunity’ thing I’m trying to teach people that there’s nothing they can’t do,” he says. “If you work at IBM nine-to-five, that’s fine and I hope you enjoy your career. But you can do other things if you want to, things that a lot of people don’t recognize as being a credible career. You can do whatever you want.”
This is something that perhaps should be pointed out early. There is a quintessential difference between street performing and pan handling, and the general public seems to miss it. Time and again, buskers, chalk artists, and sidewalk artisans of all descriptions talk about the joy of setting their own hours, working at something they love and the thrill of performing. Yet people in will still approach performers like Mark Walker and tell him that if he really wanted to get a job, he could find one. From his point of view, he already has one. And if income is the measure of a credible career, people who put down Walker’s job might want to reconsider their opinions. Although he didn’t want to tell me exactly how much he makes, I saw him pull in at least $50 in two hours on a slightly overcast Wednesday afternoon.
In fact, Walker says he’s been doing much better financially than he expected, and in the wake of this warm reception, he’s finding it hard to keep his ego in check. When he’s out there with all those people staring at him — he’s even had some women propose to him — it can be pretty hard to keep his head from swelling.
“I feel like Superman sometimes — I was humming the Superman theme out there while I was setting up today.” But he’s not getting too carried away. “Then I just realize that these people will go home and they won’t even remember me in a couple days.”
Walker plans to liven up the corner of Yonge and Dundas this summer with a street performing troupe he’s putting together called “Kizmiaz,” which will be a “free form street company where nobody is anybody’s boss and the only rule is to have fun,” he says.
“I’d like to take a group of what I call ‘responsibility handicapped’ people like myself and supply them with a way to make money.”
Talking about the street performing culture in Toronto, Walker inevitably brings up Ben Kerr’s name: “He’s the Muddy Waters back there — or maybe the Johnny Cash — that’s a better comparison… he’s definitely the King.”
Friendlier: Ben Kerr stands at the corner of Yonge and Bloor (“Most famous corner in the world,” he sings about it), playing his guitar as he has for the past seven years. He wears an oversized green “Ben Kerr for Mayor” sweatshirt that looks like a tent on his tiny frame, and plaid pyjama-style pants tucked into his bright red socks. Grey hair peeks out from beneath his tattered Blue Jay cap. He sings into a microphone:
“I know the joy of not working nine to five… I used to be an executive, working twelve hours a day for big money/ but I was not happy/now I’m the happiest guy in T.O., probably the world/doin’ what I want to do.”
His voice comes booming out of the small amplifier/tape recorder beside him. A small crowd sits on the steps of the Hudson’s Bay Centre listening while they smoke cigarettes or eat hot dogs or wait for the bus. When a lady drops some change into the small bucket in front of him, Kerr stops mid-verse to say “Thank you very much, make a wish, get ready for a great weekend,” a line of gratitude he repeats to everyone who leaves money in his bucket, then continues his song.
Ben Kerr seems to have a song about everything. He sings about his Nike running shoes and Frank Stronach, the president of Magna International; about Mark Breslin, the founder of Yuk Yuk’s “laughing all the way to the bank;” then about his cayenne pepper cocktails; about what a great city Toronto is; broccoli, his favourite vegetable; about playing without his g-string “just like the strippers down at Fillmore’s;” About Tina from Indonesia who works at the Wendy’s up the street.
His songs tell stories about his life, and he’s done quite a bit of living. He’s run for mayor four times now (“And I’ll run again in ‘97,” he says). In the early ‘60s while he was running a club in Yorkville, he wrote the hit song “The Mynah Bird Hop” for Neil Young and Rick James’ band The Mynah Birds. In 1981 he quit his job on the Toronto Harbour Commission and jogged from Toronto to Los Angeles to protest smoking in the workplace, then appeared as a guest on The Richard Simmons Show. He’s been appearing periodically on CFRB’s The John Oakley Show for three years. He played a homeless busker in the movie Brooklyn Nights. Recently, Sub Pop records offered him a recording contract.
King of Toronto street performers, he just smiles and says “Yeah.” This is not surprising, considering how he views his job: “I’m here every day cheering people up and I’m happy…I’ve got control of my life here.”
If you ask him, he’ll expound for hours on any of his favourite topics: The evils of smoking, the power of positive thinking, how record executives try to rule musicians lives, his life story, how to get better sleep, or, of course, his own magic elixir to cure all that ails ya — cayenne pepper cocktail.
His favourite topic is Toronto: “greatest city in the world.”
“We got everything is this city — media outlets, radio, television, record companies, book publishers. We need for people to stand up and say ‘I’m from T.O., greatest city in the world,’ but they don’t, they apologize for being Canadian.”
Kerr says “a song is the way to do things,” because people remember a song, where they wouldn’t even bother to read a ten-page report. That’s why he plans to run for Mayor a fifth time in ‘97 and “sing his way to City Hall.”
“As mayor… boy we’d have some fun. This would be the greatest city in the world, where you can do anything you want, all you have to do is focus in on it and work at it and it’s yours.”
Brighter: Mid way through the day, Nanika Albricht’s “transition Ball” at the St. Lawrence Market has grown into quite a parade. She started in the morning alone, drawing whatever came into her head on the sidewalk in chalks — a boat full of creatures or a birdman with a bowl of soup. As people stop to watch her, she asks them; “Do you wanna join the transition ball — do you wanna be in the parade?” Then she draws them into the mural — with a twist. She draws one man standing on bubbles, playing a violin with a bird for a bow. Another guy is drawn as a walking beard. Two friends become birds.
The mural stretches out over some thirty feet of sidewalk, all the characters melting together into a parade of bright oranges, greens and pinks, deep blues, browns and reds.
“The Transition Ball started out on paper with me and some friends,” says Albricht. They were drawing pictures and started a “picture battle.” Then, she says, “I just wanted to bring it to the street.”
Albricth started doing sidewalk chalk drawings one day to help raise the $40 airplane-ticket tax she needed to go home to Vancouver. She had so much fun that she started doing it regularly, both in Toronto and Victoria. Unlike Ben Kerr and Mark Walker, she doesn’t do it as a full-time job. Last year she worked as a room service attendant at the Skydome Hotel to help pay her bills. She’s also been reselling roses dipped in tar for the last two years, which she bills as the “everlasting love rose.” She’s recently sold a few of her paintings.
She says the never pre-plans her sidewalk chalk drawings. “It’s like a document of whatever’s going on that day.”
Albricht likes getting right into her role as a performer on the street: “It’s like I’m not Nanika anymore, I’m this entertainer, a connector for people with their imaginations. I love that feelings.”
“It’s funny. I always get little testers. The drawing never looks like anything at the beginning and someone’ll walk on my chalks or say something like ‘what’re you doing, scrubbing the sidewalk?’ But as I work through it and just be brave, people start throwing money and interacting with me, then the drawing gets rocking.”
Financially, the best day she’s ever had doing chalk drawings was at Harbourfront. “I made $200 dollars that day… but that was working the whole day without stopping.” She says she doesn’t really do it for the money — she just thinks it’s fun.
“I think street performers are very important. I like the whole idea of the street… everybody’s out there on the street — businessmen, workers, bums. Whether they’re rich or poor they all walk by. I like that street performers are out there making the street a fun place and giving people a chance to look at things in a different way.”