BY: NICOLE SCHMIDT
Drumsticks in hand, 57-year-old Mike Gauvreau composes a series of staccato rhythms using nothing but an old bucket. A cowbell that produces a metallic clang when struck has been fastened to the handle with a zip tie. Each note he plays is sharp and delivered with power. With one quick motion, he tosses his sticks up in the air and catches them effortlessly. The chaos of Yonge and Dundas Square continues around him, but he plays on.
The street isn’t an unfamiliar stage for Gauvreau. For the past 27 years, he has been hauling his unconventional drum kit from his home in Scarborough to the heart of downtown Toronto — a trip that takes him roughly an hour. He has four buckets total; each one is cracked and worn from years of playing. A man who appears to be in his early thirties pauses to dig through his pockets in search of change. He finds a quarter, tosses it into the bucket and continues on his way.
That quarter, along with every other bit of change Gauvreau has collected throughout the evening, is what he depends on to make his living. On a good night he can earn anywhere from $200 – $300, but on a slow night, he says he’ll be lucky to make $20.
“On the good nights it makes it all worth while. You think, ‘Wow! I wish I could do that every day, I wouldn’t need to buy a lottery ticket every week.’ But on the slow nights you start to question ‘what am I doing here,’” says Gauvreau. “I make enough to pay the rent and put food in the fridge. It isn’t putting a million bucks in the bank, but it’s given me a life.”
Gauvreau is one of 738 licensed performers that make up the busking community in the downtown core. Permits are issued to buskers by the City of Toronto in order to ensure that business owners and pedestrians are accommodated respectfully. Many of the regulars, like Gauvreau, have become an integral aspect of urban culture.
Like any young aspiring musician, Gauvreau dreamed about becoming a rock star when he was first learning to drum. His cousin, who he says was “the sun and the moon” to him, taught him how to play when he was seven years old.
His dream to make it in the big time was something he never grew out of, so he quit school in grade 10 to pursue his music — despite his mother telling him, “Don’t just be a drummer, try and do something else too.”
“Either I really love something or I really hate it and if I’m not interested I just can’t get my heart and soul into it,” says Gauvreau. “I said ‘you know what, I’m not going to be a brain surgeon, I’m not going to be a marine biologist or a scientist, I’m going to be a drummer.’”
Drummers, especially professional ones, need drums — something Gauvreau didn’t have at 16 when he dropped out. Although the idea of pursing “something else” wasn’t on his mind, he did have a plan to earn money for a set by finding a short-term job.
On his first day of work, he showed up at the Lauderdale Railcar Cleaners near Scarborough wearing nothing but a t-shirt — it was the middle of January. He was under the impression that he would be vacuuming out ashtrays and wiping down arm rests in passenger cars. To his surprise, his boss handed him a shovel and motioned towards a cattle car littered with hay and frozen manure. The money was good. He was earning $3.60 an hour, which was nearly double the amount of minimum wage at the time. But as soon as he had enough saved up, he quit and eventually joined a road band.
A changing music scene is what led him to take on the streets full time.
“No profession is easy. Nothing is easy in life. But the music industry and the business can be very challenging,” says Gauvreau. “When you’re younger, you don’t think, ‘when I grow up, I want to be a street performer.’ It’s kind of something we all fall into out of necessity because you can make money.”
Jover met Gauvreau when he was in his first year of university. He came across him preforming downtown and asked if he could join in. The two have been playing together for the past six years now.
Although Gauvreau does perform solo, it’s not uncommon that he meets up with other street musicians in the area. A group of four buskers, Jover included, can often be found playing together on weekends.
But Gauvreau says that street performing isn’t all sunshine and rainbows — there’s a dark side, too.
“We’ve seen a lot of things while playing on the street,” says Gauvreau. “We have to be our own bouncers, our own managers, our own accountants, our own everything as well as musicians.”
One night while performing in the square, a man interrupted Gauvreau mid-set. He kicked over his bucket of money and began screaming insults. He’s had others threaten him, another person kicked over his cymbals.
“I have a policy of zero bullshit. We’re just trying to make a few bucks, entertain people and have a good time. Some people just don’t understand that,” says Gauvreau. “But I try to be humorous and have a good comeback. If someone says, ‘you suck,’ I say, ‘I know, that’s why I’m playing on the street. Asshole.’”
It’s just after 10 p.m., Gauvreau and Jover have just finished their last set and they begin to pack up — a routine that has since become ritualistic. They stack all four buckets and return the guitar to the safety of its case before heading to the atrium on Bay Street to divvy up their earnings.
Claiming a vacant table, they dump out the contents of the bucket in the same way a kid would empty their trick or treat bag on Halloween night. As efficiently as they packed up, the two begin to sort through the pile of change – mostly quarters. It wasn’t a profitable night, they made no more than $20 each.
Gauvreau reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumbled up lottery ticket. He uses it to roll up his stack of change. “I’d like to be richer, everyone wants to be,” he says. “I could buy the house I live in … not wait until I’m 200 years old to retire, and just dish out money like a drunken sailor so everyone could have a nice life.”
Gauvreau’s seven-year-old self wanted to be a musician and now here he is, 50 years later, doing the thing he is most passionate about — drumming. Though he never became a rock star in the traditional sense, the Square has become his version of the big time.