Years ago – ten, to be exact – I went to Paris for the first time. I was 22, single, ripe for adventure, and planned to travel for a long time in France, a country for which I’ve always had a deep love. My idea was to live off my savings and, if at all possible, busking. I’d never busked before, but I’d played guitar since I was 14 and had been in a couple of bands, and had this brilliantly romantic notion that I could avoid the world of work by strumming So Long, Marianne and Layla in the Paris metro.
However, when I arrived in the city, all I wanted to do was walk around and explore, and lugging a guitar case everywhere proved to be something of an impediment, so for the first week or so the instrument stayed stashed under my hotel bed. When I finally took it out I found I was much more nervous about losing my busking virginity than I’d anticipated; I wandered around Paris for several hours not busking, not even opening the case, and returned to my hotel room feeling something of a failure.
I then hit on an idea to do something which might help me feel more confident: I should paint on the case my name and my style of music, so that even if I didn’t have the guts to open it and play the instrument, people would at least know I was a guitarist and available for bars, weddings, bar mitzvahs and all the rest of it. It was a kind of advert, but I think it also had deeper psychological roots in terms of my self-image and identity; then again it could also have stemmed from the same kind of rationale that inspires you to build a website before you’re actually famous enough to justify having one.
Anyway, I went into an art shop, explained in broken French what I wanted to do, was sold some white oil paint and a brush, and retired to my hotel room where I whiled away a few very relaxing hours painting the lettering you see in the picture. I thought I’d then go out for a spot of lunch while the paint dried, come back, take the case outside, wander around and maybe even do some busking. However, when I got back to my room – which was on the top floor of an old hotel in the Latin Quarter, accessed by about 100 stairs – the paint was still wet. Three more hours later it was no better. By now I was quite keen to take it out and advertise myself, so I hit on the idea of borrowing a hair-dryer from a neighbouring Australian girl and drying the paint with that. I must have sat there for an hour training that hair-dryer on my case, and not only did it make absolutely no difference to the paint but the appliance overheated and cut out, and I couldn’t get it going again. The next thing I knew I could hear an Australian accent on the landing; the girl was knocking on another door nearby and asking if anybody in there had borrowed her hair-dryer. “No,” came another Australian accent, “but we’ve heard it, though.” I sat tight, buttocks clenched with embarrassment as she knocked on my door. I didn’t make a sound; eventually she went away, and to my relief the hair-dryer cooled down sufficiently to work again. By now it was dinnertime. I gave the girl back her hair-dryer – although what she thought I might have been doing with it for so long I don’t know, as my hair was only about an inch longer than it is now – and went out for something to eat.
Later, before I went to bed, I thought maybe a night spent in the open air would dry the paint, so I got some string, tied one end around the handle of the guitar case and the other around the leg of the desk in my room, and suspended the case out of my window to give it a proper airing. I barely slept that night worrying that the string would snap, sending the case clattering seven floors to the ground, waking up the entire hotel and getting me booted out in the middle of the night. But, as with so many things in life, it didn’t happen, and I was almost disappointed to wake up and find the case still dangling out the window. I hauled it in like a kite, touched the paint… and found it was still as wet as it had been the day before.
I was at my wits’ end; by now all I wanted to do was busk. (I suppose if nothing else, being forced to wait had at least made me more keen.) I couldn’t risk wandering about the city with the paint still wet; I pictured myself on a packed metro, the case pressed up against some innocent Parisian whose suit would end up printed with a backwards version of my name and repertoire. I reasoned that maybe what I needed was some kind of fixative; I was about to go back to the art shop when I remembered I had some spray-on Brut aftershave in my suitcase, and wondered if that might do the job. To my relief, it worked, and although the case now stank to high heaven I was then able to brave the world of buskology complete with a free advert of my services. I was still nervous, but once I’d started to play a bit it became easier. One hour and about 16 centimes later, I was an old hand. The next day I made ten francs in half an hour, and went off to buy my lunch with it, flush with the feeling that I’d hit the big time.
However, that represented the height of my earnings, and within a couple of weeks I’d sent the instrument and the case back home so I could continue my journey around France unimpeded. When I eventually came back to the UK, I faced the problem of having to walk around with this “decorated” guitar case, and realised it wasn’t really me at all: it seemed OK in Paris when you were 22 but back home when you were a bit older it was just naff. Plus, people would inevitably ask why the lettering was in French or why I’d painted the case at all, and after you’ve told a story like this once or twice it becomes a bit tiresome (“Hear hear!” – the web-surfing public). It was ironic that the very thing that had helped me get through the nervousness of busking was now an impediment in itself. But I also thought that getting rid of the lettering would be bad luck somehow: painting the case was something I’d done to feel better about myself, to boost my confidence, to make myself seem more – real, somehow. So for the next ten years I’d hardly ever take the guitar outside again, too superstitious to paint over my naff lettering, too embarrassed to flaunt the case and too much of a tightwad to reach a compromise and just buy a new one.
Anyway, when the other day a musician friend suggested I come over at the weekend for a jam, the whole story came back to me with all its related dilemmas and worries and superstitions. In the end though, I decided enough was enough; I’m 32 now, I’m an artist, I’m a married man and I will not walk around with my name on my guitar case. I went to my local art shop, explained the situation in broken English, was recommended to try enamel or gouache, bought both, came back and spent a very relaxing half hour painting out all those old indecisions, insecurities and psychological cul-de-sacs once and for all. And I felt much better about it; finally I’d closed a door that had been jammed open, or opened one that had been jammed shut, or whatever, for a whole decade. And to boot, I also found out not only that gouache dries a hell of a lot quicker than oil paint, but, according to the little tin of enamel paint (which I didn’t use), the French for “enamel” is email…