I spent a few nights with Billy the Busker every week. He would set up, a microphone and guitar his only ammunition, along the boulevard and play songs from the 60s, ignoring the occasional requests for Oasis and Jason Mraz from stumbling passers-by.
He was playing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” when I sat down in front of him, legs crossed. Drink Sangria in the park. He asked for my name, asked if I knew the song, smiled when I nodded, allowed me one request, I said “anything Dylan”, he laughed and started plucking away at “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”.
I couldn’t help myself. I sang along.
He stopped singing, turned the microphone towards me, nodded. I sang into it, felt the crackle of my best Bob improv, felt embarrassed and empowered and happy. Billy kept playing along, chuckling when I would forget the words.
People would watch, nod, throw coins, then chase something somewhere else.
Most nights we would finish sitting on the curb, sharing a beer. Then he would go home and I would go home.
This one story Billy told sticks to me. He was playing in a band, meant to be opening for some songstress – I can never remember the name, I usually make it up – when she pulled out because she was tired or a Communist or stuck on a bus somewhere or something like that. Anyway, his band ends up headlining the night to make up for it. They sing a few songs. Get a few cheers. One of the songs was The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. He said they slowed it down, balladified it, made it better.
The story goes that Billy had the bartender slide him a drink at the club’s counter, and was sitting there mulling over the night’s events when he felt a kind of presence on his shoulder. When you know somebody is there but you’re not sure what and can’t know if it’s safe to check. So he turns around. It’s George Harrison. And George tells Billy, “Outside of what we did with it [Eleanor Rigby], that was the best version I’ve ever heard.”
I would never have believed him, except he did play that version of “Eleanor Rigby” for me, and it really was that fucking good. I’m almost goddam sorry to give you the original when I know, on a curb somewhere, there’s Billy with his guitar and his microphone and that song in his lungs.