REVIEW by a.m. stein: Busking Blues by Westley Heine

Busking Blues: Recollections of a Chicago Street Musician and Squatter by Westly Heine, reviewed by
Alex Stein

            “When writing what would be considered gritty realism it is important to remember that even gritty realism is as subjective as anything else. It’s a sliding scale. Humans have such different perceptions of reality. This accounts for the vastly different tastes in art and entertainment. What seems more poetic? The fantastic images from our dreams? Or the stark truth of the street that few are brave enough to acknowledge, but when someone does it rings true?” –‘Busking Blues’

            It is difficult for me to decide where to begin praising Westley Heine’s highly praiseworthy Busking Blues or how to stop myself from making inflammatory comparisons. For example, between Busking Blues and the 2010 National Book Award winning memoir by Patti Smith called Just Kids. The prose in both books is magnetic and hyper-lucid. The narrative voice in both books is thrillingly tender and acute. Both books are filled with accounts of fascinating people and complicated circumstances and heartfelt conversations. Both books document the struggling, unconventional, lives of creative personalities possessed by fervent personal conviction and ferocious personal integrity. Angel-headed rebels fixated on creating an art that is born from psychological freedom (not borne-under by what Blake referred to as our “Mind Forged Manacles”). Angel-headed angels fixated on creating art that is an antidote against the poisons of our outmoded and pedantic and limiting cultural norms. Angel-headed dreamers fixated on creating art that is reflective, also, of that ceaselessly renewed purity of heart (that un-put-down-able spirit of uplift) which is not everyone’s birthright (at least not in every lifetime) but which is, seemingly, handed out at birth (by the fairies, some say) to a few, presumably, deserving souls—for example, to Patti Smith. For example, to Westley Heine.

            There are, however, two significant differences between Busking Blues and Just Kids. Firstly: Smith’s book claims to be a memoir. Was published as a memoir. But, let’s be real. Given what we know about the fallibility of memory, about the limits of self-awareness, about the unconscious trickery of our own egos, and about of the demands of good story telling (in terms of concision, in terms of pacing, in terms of clarity and readability) most any memoir, especially any memoir dealing with experiences decades old, is almost certainly a work (mainly) of imagination and wish-fulfillment. Heine’s book, modestly, claims to be a novel. Is being published as a novel. In fact, Busking Blues (IMHO) is every bit as much a memoir as Just Kids was a memoir. But because Heine is being scrupulously honest with himself about the problematic nature of memory, and about the problematic nature of good story telling, Heine has called his book of memories a novel. Fair enough. But, at least let us call it an autobiographical novel.

            Most likely, Heine was not consciously addressing these issues of memory and ego when he wrote the following passage, but it is a passage distinctly apropos of those issues. (It is, also, an example of the kind of energetic paragraphs out from which this energetic book is constructed. Energetic paragraphs running one upon the next like energetic jazz riffs—but we will come to that in a moment.)

            Streetwalkers in sweatpants? Branded ladies with face tattoos? Waitresses drawing fake black eyes with eyeliner? It’s all too much. In this town when you hear a crazy story it’s hard to tell if what you’re hearing is some real crazy goings on, or if the person that’s telling you the story is crazy. There may be a kernel of truth to every hip tip, but each time a story gets repeated it gets distorted like the schoolyard game of telephone. Multiply that by three million people in Chicago you have quite a yarn. It’s hard to tell what is urban legend and what is that hidden knowledge, that straight dope, which everyone who thinks they are streetwise wants to know.

            The second, significant, difference between Just Kids and Busking Blues: When Patti Smith published her book of New York City memories she was already a world famous punk poet rock and roll icon and many of the characters she wrote about, by the time Just Kids was published, Sam Shepard, Robert Mapplethorpe, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Fred Sonic Smith, were also world famous. A lot of important eyes were bound to fall on Smith’s book. And they did. Whereas Heine is not a world-famous figure and the Chicago characters he encounters and engages in this book might have ended up entirely forgotten, outside their families and friends, except Heine has rendered them indelible in his sterling, joyous, dancing prose.

            Shanghai Mike is stout, has calculating eyes behind his spectacles, and curly hair. Mike got his handle because he lived in China for a spell playing his harmonica and belting out the blues in the clubs of Shanghai. “Funny thing is,” he tells me, “In China they called me Chicago Mike. So I only know who I am by whatever town I just left.”

            Sterling, right? Sterling prose? And this next bit? I’d call it joyous. I’d call it dancing.

            Nate Marsh knows my situation. He’s been there. In 2006 when he got back from serving overseas he hitchhiked to Chicago from Kansas. He slept under a pussy willow in Lincoln Park. My folk singer friend Nathan Xander found him playing on the street. Once he slept on my floor in Uptown when I was still in school. Like a drill sergeant he barks his advice from behind his thin mustache, “Out on the street you gotta be a soldier. You gotta know where the clean water is. You gotta know where the public bathrooms are. You gotta see a storm before it comes. You gotta remember Wes. You’re a soldier.”

            And here are a few of Heine’s engaging lines recounting an especially tricky interaction with a gifted, perhaps insane, street musician named Tommy James who, in performance days past, “has gone by half a dozen stage names. TJ Jamal. Timmy John. Jimmy James…”

            He claims he knows all of Charlie Patton’s picking secrets and some of Robert Johnson’s. He tells me he brought a pair of opera glasses to the Lyric Opera House when Honey-boy Edwards played there so he could spy on his picking techniques. Likewise he says when he performs he turns away so no one can steal his secrets. In fact one of his band mates was peeking at his fingers during a show and it came to blows on stage. He got kicked out of the band. Yet despite all this, and despite the fact that he doesn’t even know my name, after just a few minutes he offers to teach me everything he knows.

            Patti Smith’s memoir is best read as a love letter to the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, that angel headed man-child whose avant-garde genius would cause a national scandal. Heine’s novel, too, can be read as a love letter, but to the city of Chicago, itself, and to a life he led there and to the many people who made that life vibrant. A love letter to Shanghai Mike, Guitar Mike, Mr. Sunshine and Roxy, Sid Yiddish, JT, Nathan Xander, Mr. Blue, Cowboy Charlie and Art the Grey Ghost…can’t name them all…it’s the teeming city itself beloved…sweet home Chicago…

            But, I do want to go back, for a moment, to the categorization of Busking Blues. Like sexual identities, literary identities (in Western culture) in the 21st are, generally, more fluid than they had been in recorded centuries of Western culture past. I earlier referred to this novel as an autobiographical novel but shouldn’t there be a category for “lyric novel?” If there was one, that is where Busking Blues could be slotted. Lyric from the Greek work lyre (the musical instrument). Because, what Heine has written is more like a song. Jack Kerouac frequently spoke of his writing using the vocabulary of a jazz musician. He talked about phrasing, intonation, improvisation, “the power of now” (of just losing your mind and blowing, man, and letting the music happen). Heine’s writing lives in that same territory. (Tell me how On the Road is not a lyric novel. Tell me how Visions of Cody is not a love song. Tell me how Kerouac is not a poet because he wrote novel after novel after novel.)  That Heine’s writing is musical stands to reason since Heine’s early creative aspirations seem to have been music oriented and since Busking Blues is literally a book about a character (Westley Heine, named after the author) trying to survive on the streets as a Blues singing street performer. A “busker,” as street performers are formally known.

            The lessons for this Westley Heine come hard and fast. The street noise, the traffic, the general melee, drowns out Heine’s early musical efforts. No money, or only the occasionally pity-dollar finds its way into his hat. He is living on couches at friend’s homes, or hiding in the attic above the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, or sleeping out of doors. He can’t let the police catch him busking either because he hasn’t made enough money yet to pay for a street performance license. He takes on brief stinking jobs, he finds a warehouse in which to sleep. He is mugged. His face is damaged but it heals. Then it is damaged again. His guitar is lost then found. He meets Chicago musicians, and street people like himself, and slowly learns to make his way.

            Back in the nineties I wanted to play the angst ridden chords of punk and metal. The thundering guitars and industrial drums called me to the cities. It took years of living in the city to appreciate real country, real folk, and most of all the blues. There’s an eternal haunting quality to roots music. That twang of the guitar rings through the mind in a tunnel of nostalgia for the agrarian life.      

            Heine has a gift for capturing natural conversation. He is a patient, sympathetic writer. His characters begin as shadows and slowly reveal themselves more fully. One finds oneself pulling for the narrator of this novel. And aching a little with his setbacks. The writing, that is to say, draws one in. One begins to identify oneself with the narrator and his circumstance, alien though it may be to one’s own experience of the world. Your humble reviewer, for example, is a lifetime library worker with a particularly cautious sensibility who worked in a quiet library basement, quite happily, for more than 25 years. Yet, there your same reviewer was—that very Alex Stein—myself—sleeping in a windowless room, on a mattress of dirty clothes, on a mouse-droppings covered floor, in a storage warehouse, afraid the landlord will catch me living there and I will be back on the street again. There is the guitar I so excitedly won, in a raffle, of all things, then suddenly, heartbreakingly, lost during a drunken night touring the Chicago streets from bar to bar to house party to bar.

            The indubitable mark of a good writer is that the reader, for a moment, reading that writer’s good writing, forgets, for a moment, who they are. The reader become, wholly, the words they are reading. That is the experience every reader loves and craves (the only thing that makes reading worthwhile IMHO).

            I awake to the sound of distant explosions. Getting dressed I open my door. With no windows in my lair it could be any time of day. A soft summer sunset glows red through the window above the front stairwell. The neighborhood sounds like a war zone. Guns mix with fireworks. Failing to realize it is already the Fourth of July I head to the men’s room to throw some water on my face. The murder rate always spikes on America’s birthday in a city that usually holds the number one spot for that statistic. The Second City has to be number one at something. On the Fourth a haze rises above the hood. Parts of Chicago seem more like the Iraq War. The setting sun hits the smoke like a bloody fog. The streetlamps are haloed in pink mist.

            The hook of author Heine’s lyric novel is the character Heine’s brilliant idea, encapsulated onto a sign he crafts in a Eureka moment after a particularly devastating day of playing his music on the streets and making hardly any tips. Tell me your problems and I’ll write you a Blues song, his sign says. Some of the best conversations in the book come about in result of (the character) Heine’s interactions with the strangers who approach him upon reading this curious signage. The very first of these interactions is not even the strangest or most daunting. But it is one of the most touching.

            A middle-aged man strolling with a tall lady stops about twenty feet away from me. He points at my sign. He has wispy brown hair and sad eyes. She is lanky and has dirty blonde hair… “Howdy young man,” he greets with a southern accent. “I’ve got more problems than I can shake a stick at.”

            “Sorry to hear that. Music always helps. You want a customized song?”

            “Fun, fun. How much do blues songs cost?”

            Nervous, I don’t want him to sense this is my first time. At a glance I size him up: white tennis shoes, pastel colored shirt, kaki pants. He’s probably from out of town. “Just ten dollars,” I tell him as I whip out a piece of paper from my pocket and click my pen. “Go ahead, tell me your troubles.”

            He produces the ten spot. “Well, I have lung cancer.” My heart sinks. This is more than I bargained for. “The doctors say I might have a year. This young lady here…” He pauses to take the hand of his companion. “Well she’s my ex-wife. We were married for eight years. We’ve been through a lot together. But nothing like this.”

            “Oh wow,” is all I can muster.

            “She’s come to visit me. We’re gonna have a night in the big town. Dinner, dancing, Champagne, and song…”

            I’m taking notes.

            “The truth, if she don’t know by now, is that I want her back.”

            Her eyes well up. This is heavy. I pegged him as a well to do middle class white guy from the suburbs. Book and cover right? Everyone has problems. From Michigan Avenue to 95th Street and beyond. That’s the blues.

            That is a singularly compelling piece of poetic reportage—I mean, of fiction—if I ever read one. Heine’s gift for rendering dialog proves his musical ear. And his enviable sense of timing. In music, as in comedy, timing is everything. Here is one more bit of conversation I enjoyed reading. It occurs after Heine has taken a drunken tumble from his bicycle and wrecked his face. (That crucial piece of any performer’s livelihood.)

            As I place the cold can of PBR on my swollen eye Bjorn inspects my injuries. “Ahhhh that shit will heal,” he tells me. “That’s nothing man. I’ve lost teeth twice!” He pulls out a plate of false teeth and waves them under my one good eye. “See? No big deal.” He steps inside for a minute and comes back with a T-shirt displaying the names of dozens of bike-messengers who died in traffic. These guys are fast, brave, and tough. Mostly their suffering goes unsung.

            “The difference is,” [I tell Bjorn], “these aren’t war wounds. This is just my drunken dumb ass.”

            “Yeah that happens too.”

            “I’m twenty-seven. I’m getting too old for this shit.”

            “Twenty-seven ain’t old.”

            No, 27 is very, very young. But 27 is a good age to accrue experience and live on passion and this is what Heine gives us. Experience and passion. Every page of this book. Experience and passion. Read this one. You won’t be disappointed. Then tell your friends.

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    • Sheila A. Donovan on February 5, 2023 at 6:09 pm
    • Reply

    I was pulled through the City of Chicago by his words. The trip ended too soon, and I regretted coming to the last page of this gritty, exciting book.

    • Kirk Alex on October 20, 2023 at 9:44 pm
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    Incredible review. Bought book. Am blue-collar all the way. Worked a series of manual labor jobs my entire life to support my own scribbles. One of my titles, should anyone be interested, is You’re Gonna Have Trouble. Always look forward to reading character-driven books, as opposed to plot-driven drivel.

    One of the great overlooked novels that deals with being down and out during the Great Depression is Tom Kromer’s amazing Waiting for Nothing. Makes Bukowski’s Factotum come across as a walk in the park.

    Thank you, a.m. stein.
    Kirk Alex,

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