The Time I Spent The Fourth of July in a Swiss Jail

Posted By Ron Sunshine on Jul 4, 2015 |

I woke up today to various Happy Fourth of July greetings on social media, from all over the world, and it starting me thinking. 2015! How did we get here? My mind started scrolling back through previous July 4 holidays. It was by far my favorite holiday as a kid, due to my extreme pyromania and obsession with fireworks. Later in life my band worked just about every 4th of July. Especially memorable were the couple of times we were hired to play on Roosevelt Island for the official NYC fireworks display, and the one time when we finished our performance there and tried to rush to a second gig at BB King’s in midtown, only to find that the NYPD had shut down the bridge and there was no way off the island with all of our gear crammed into my car. We had four hours to make it the one mile or less to our second gig, but it was not possible. We had to call and cancel, which is the ONLY time I’ve ever had to do that. Thanks, NYPD!

But, perhaps my most memorable July Fourth was 25 years ago today, in 1990. I had been in Paris, playing music on the street, or busking, with some friends I had met there the summer before.

Rue St Andres Des Artes, Paris

Rue St Andres Des Artes, Paris

After about a week, we had formed a little band with a nice repertoire of old standards, jump blues, and swing tunes, with a little Ray Charles and a Brazilian song or two for good measure, and decided Paris was a little crowded and we should head to Zurich, where a bunch of our other friends were gathering. There was quite a scene of buskers back then, with tremendous, longstanding street bands and plenty of colorful characters from all over the world, traveling around Europe and making a living playing music on the street and in the Metro in Paris. I never lived there, but when my rent in NYC was $300 a month, it was easy enough to save up for plane tickets and pocket money by working several bar tending jobs during the winter months and take off for most of the summer to have adventures. Once I was over there, I was–almost always–making enough money playing music every day to pay for food, hotel rooms, and traveling around money.

Zurich was a bit different for busking than, say, Paris. In Paris all you had to do was set up in the street in a crowded tourist area like the area around Saint Germain des Pres, and a crowd would form. There were also tons of great cafés with terraces, where you had a captive audience. You’d play your “pitch,” or 4 to 5-song set, and then send out a “bottler” to collect the money, or pass the hat. In Zurich, however, there were places the police would allow you to play pitches, and it was generally understood that they would leave you alone, unless the scene became too boisterous. Then they’d come rushing in and break up the crowd, but would generally leave the musicians alone and let us keep our loot. These accepted pitches were scattered around the old part of Zurich in public squares on mostly pedestrian streets. The area around the Hircshenplatz was generally our safe haven.

I don’t recall why, but on July 4, 1990 our little band of four decided to do something unusual and carry our instruments and battery-powered Mouse amps to a different spot to try and make some money. There is a very charming, very expensive shopping and business area in Central Zurich centered around a street called Bahnhofstrasse. This is also close to where all the Swiss bank headquarters are in Zurich. I guess we figured we could make more money there. In the event, we played a great set of music, passed the hat, and collected a nice sum of money. When you heard the clank of the Five Swiss Franc coin, that was worth a couple of bucks in those days.

Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich

Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich

You knew you could afford a very tasty lunch and a couple of beers that day. The fivers were clanking, and there were some bills there for padding, too. As we prepared to move to another spot and try our luck again, a couple of gentlemen in tweed suits who looked like some sort of frumpy professors approached us. We figured they wanted to throw in some more money, or talk about hiring us for a party. Instead, they held out badges and one of them said, in a very heavy Swiss German accent, “Very nice music. Now you come with us.”

My first thought was the chunk of a contraband substance in my pocket. I quickly turned my back to the cops, popped that in my mouth and swallowed it. Hey, this was 25 years ago. I was in my 20s. Give me a break! Next, we had to pick up all of our gear and follow the cops to their cop station, which was a slog in the increasing summer heat. Then, they laid it on us. They knew who we were, where we were staying, when we entered the country this summer, when we had last entered the country. As my old friend Danny Fitzgerald is fond of saying, “Miss Swiss is a bitch with her shit.” In other words, there are no surprises for the Swiss Police. They have it all figured out. And this was before most cities had surveillance cameras everywhere.

To make a long story less long, and because I have to stop writing this and go be with my family, they confiscated our equipment until we paid our fines. The Swiss jail felt more like being sent to the principal’s office. We paid up, got out within a few hours, and went back to our safe zone, where the rest of the evening is a bit foggy in my memory, due to the contents of my pocket that I had ingested. I just remember thinking that those cops were more than happy to arrest some Americans (and an Argentinian, our bass player) on the Fourth of July, just because we were a little too close to the Swiss Bank headquarters. A little extra slap in the face to go along with the ridiculous situation of getting arrested for playing music in the first place. Argh. My kids are waiting for me (that’s not really what they are doing, but that is a nicer way to put it). Perhaps I will revisit this at a later date. Happy Fourth, everybody! Stay out of jail. And if you have to go to jail, may it be a cushy Swiss jail.