Andre the Gypsy: Stories of Survival
Speaking of the Railway, Thursday it's Rich Hope and His Blue Rich Rangers, featuring Adrian Mack on drums. And there's a Frank Frink Five gig scheduled for Dec. 22, and David M. will be doing a solo No Fun at Christmas-type event - "Christmas Alone in No Fun City" on Tuesday December 23rd, he tells me. All of which is great, and I may drag my tired ass out for all of these gigs - but the must-see is Andre.
The pic below is a bit grainy - it's a scan of something Andre had with him, since I could never find him when I was with friends with cameras... Make sure you check out this link to Andre performing on the street, as posted on Youtube, and the trailer for the documentary being made about him... Or this one I haven't seen before, dubbed "The Famous Homeless Singer in Vancouver" (actually, last I talked to him about it, Andre had a small room in the DTES, tho' he has been homeless at other times). It's great to know he's playing again!
If you’re from here, you’ve probably seen a street musician named Andre. In his early 60’s, bearded, he is likely best known for a powerful, heartfelt take on Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that he would perform on Kits Beach. His voice is rough but capable of great gentleness, and he can really play, picking and strumming with a memorable intensity. He holds the neck of his guitar up, with his head close to it, embodying his songs completely as he rocks back and forth, eyes often closed as if it’s just him and the music.
Andre has been playing in Vancouver since 1959, he tells me, but he was born far away, in New Brunswick, to a Métis father and a Spanish-Romanian mother. “I got her blood in me - the musical part, ‘the Gypsy in me,’” he says, referencing the title of a documentary that’s been made about him. “She’s from the old country. She told me some of the horrible things the Communist Army did to the Gypsies, because they didn’t go by their rules - like, at 16 years old, you have to be in the army, and all that, if you’re a boy. So they used to massacre the Gypsies - pretty bad stuff.”
“Gypsy” is Andre’s street name, and true to his blood, he has travelled a lot, playing music around the continent, even with some name stars. “I went to the States for awhile. I played rhythm guitar for about eight months with ELO, because their rhythm guitarist was in a halfway house for drugs. I played with Willie Nelson, and Stephen Stills. A lot of nice people.”
Unfortunately - as you may know, if you’ve seen him at his recent location, in front of Granville Street Skytrain station - lately Andre hasn’t been playing much at all, due to a stroke. He’s gotten off incredibly lucky - the left side of his mouth droops a little, and his hand is impaired, but he’s still mostly functional, and is undergoing physiotherapy. For now, he just sits, selling his CDs, holding a sign explaining his situation, apologizing that he can’t play. Most people who pass him, barely glancing down, don’t know that Andre’s incapacity is a sizeable loss for the city - that it’s not endless iterations of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin that we’re talking about. That’s a few blocks down the street.
Trailers for the upcoming doc, The Gypsy In Me, by Jay Lee and Victor van der Merwe, can be seen on Youtube. “About four years ago, I was playing music by Taco Del Mar and Subway out by Pender and Granville, when there were still buses there,” Andre says. “This gentleman that I’d known for quite awhile - he’d come every morning and give me a toonie and a cup of hot cocoa - this one morning, I’d just finished writing a song called ‘There’s a Good Life Out There For You and Me,’ which is not recorded yet” - though it is on Youtube as part of a clip of Andre playing Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” - “And he comes up, and he looked like he was ready to be on the street. I mean, he looked like he was on the street. I’d known him all cleaned up and everything. And I seen him about a week later, and he’s all cleaned up - and he says, ‘Andre, that song you were singing that day, it transformed my life. It made me aware that I what I was doing was kicking myself in the ass for nothing, that it wasn’t worth it.’ And he says, ‘we gotta make a documentary about you.’”
The last time I saw Andre play an instrument was a few months ago, before the stroke (which is when the bulk of this interview took place). He had a battered classical guitar that he still managed to make sound great, doing a version of “There’s a Good Life...” Two Asian students (I presume) passing on the street stopped to throw a penny each into his guitar case, clueless that such a gesture would register as an insult. Andre just kept on playing. He told me later, chuckling, that a woman once brought him the bottom of a decapitated muffin. People are strange.
After he finished his song, I commented, “Hey, you know, you sound a little like Cat Stevens.”
“Well actually, I’m older than Cat Stevens, so really you should be saying Cat Stevens sounds a little like me.”
Cat Stevens songs - or Yusuf Islam’s, if you’d rather - suit Andre’s mode of playing remarkably well. So do Jim Croce’s - alongside “Mr. Bojangles,” there’s a cover of “I Got a Name” on the CD, and Andre says Croce is his idol. A couple of his songs bring Gordon Lightfoot to mind, and one track on the CD, a lively folk blues called “Poor Boy From the Country,” even has him imitating Dylan, as he sings about a day he spent playing in Key West where he received not a penny for his efforts. It’s all acoustic troubadour stuff - not my usual fare, regular Skinny readers will know, but by no means an offense to my ears. “A for Authenticity,” you could say.
Eight of the ten songs on the disc are Andre’s own compositions. The lyrics are simple and direct and occasionally quite funny, like “Detention Centre Blues,” which has a great story behind it. “I was hitchhiking from San Diego to the East Coast to see my oldest daughter, and I got picked up by this hippie guy - potsmoking, beer drinking - and he stopped and gave me a 1700 mile ride from San Diego to Albuquerque. We got into Albuquerque on a Sunday morning, June the 19th of that year, seven in the morning - the cop didn’t have anything better to do than pull over these two bearded long-haired hippies.” Andre grins. “The guy had forgotten to tell me he had stolen the car. I did six months for nothing, just because I was a passenger.”
The guards apparently liked the song Andre wrote about the experience of being inside, and would encourage him to play it during lock up - a near constant condition, due to racial tensions that led to a number of fights. “There was a guy there waiting to be extradited to California. He was one of those Bloods or Crips, you know - a gang. He was there for a triple murder - he had killed the three guys that had raped his wife, so he was not really a bad guy. I made friends with him. But he was this big, huge, like 350 pound black dude who dried his weed right on the table in his cell. The cops said ‘Sir’ to him and everything. This guy was amazing. It was a weird jail. Very colourful,” Andre laughs. “There was more weed in the place then there was on the street. And another good thing was that you could bring in a guitar, but you couldn’t take it back out, so there were six guitars in my pod, and I always had the best one of the bunch, because people’d say, ‘hey, this guy is good.’”
A funny song about being in jail is not the only unexpected note on the CD; there’s also Andre’s “happy divorce” song, track 10. “My first divorce was ugly - I banged my head on the wall until it bled. My second divorce, I had experience now, and I’m thinking - ‘I’m not going to go make myself bleed like a fool, it’s not going to get better; it only gets worse as you try to keep things going’ So I thought, ‘I’ll take this experience and try to do something nice about it,’ and I wrote a song wishing her well. It’s the women’s favourite song on the CD - they come back to me and say, ‘that made me cry, it’s so beautiful.’ It’s meant to be - I try to take something ugly and make something beautiful out of it. Music is like that for me.” Andre’s not entirely satisfied with the vocal on that track - it was his first time accompanying himself, singing along to his own voice on headphones - but like the rest of the CD, it sounds quite listenable, and his feelings and the quality of his guitar playing come through.
Like a lot of the poor of this city, Andre feels considerable concern for what’s happening as the 2010 Olympics approach. “It’s making it rough for us. They’re trying to make us disappear. They don’t want people to be aware, and people are not going to be blindfolded when they come here. They’re making it really tough on buskers that don’t have licenses, and on panhandlers that can’t really take care of themselves.” Andre points across Granville. “Not people like those two across the street that sleep while they’re bumming change, and they’re probably 30 years old at the most; they could be working, so I don’t agree with that, but there are some people out there that are mentally ill that require help and are not getting it.”
Andre also feels concern for the way addiction is handled in the city. “It’s sad, because a lot of people wish they could get off these streets and do better things, but there aren’t enough programs that help them do that. I’m not putting down the programs that do exist, like the Salvation Army or the Union Gospel Mission - I donate three dollars of each can I make to Union Gospel, because they’ve helped me in the past,” setting him up with chemotherapy, he explains; Andre’s been fighting cancer for awhile now. “But the places that they have are right in the middle of Drug City, so you get out, and you’re right in the middle of it all again! It doesn’t help you to be that way. They mean well, but they should do it in a different style. It should be in the country - get people to grow gardens, grow vegetables, sell them to the food bank - do things that help people get self-esteem again, you know? The things they do up here, I mean... the people at Union Gospel Mission, they serve meals there, and the people in the program do chores, and they see the drug dealers they buy from coming in to eat! ‘You need anything?’ I mean, what the hell, man! That’s really helping a guy quit!”
Andre’s an interesting cat to talk to. I raise my eyebrows at a few of his stories - like the detail he throws in that the jail in Albuquerque was built to house 666 prisoners - but I enjoy them all, and I’ve listened to his CD a few times now. Buying it direct off Andre is the only way you can get it, “so it’s a little more personal than going to the store,” he says. The money - he usually asks ten bucks - is received with more gratitude than you’ll find stuffing the same amount across the counter at Starbucks; and there’s a lot of this city in Andre’s songs. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and Andre’s songs have somehow managed to permeate the city, leaving their traces on the sidewalks and benches and streets?
Andre’s 64th birthday is coming up on Halloween. Here’s hoping he can play again by then. And if you should happen to trek down to the Granville Skytrain, and find him there, let him know that you read about him in The Skinny, okay? He might get a kick out of that - especially if you buy a CD.