Michael Kay obituary

Jeremy Helm
·2-min read

Bongo Mike (Michael Kay), who has died aged 76, was for almost 50 years my close friend and associate, and co-activist in the long-running campaign to get a better deal for buskers – the role in which he became best known to the public.

Born in the East End of London, he spent his early life in Edgware, the adopted son of Joe Kay and his wife, Celia (nee Adler). Joe and Celia were at that time managing a hardware store in Leather Lane, though Joe had earlier been a professional drummer, briefly leading his own dance band.

Michael, introduced to jazz by his father, became a talked-about young drummer on the early 1960s club scene, and a confidant of other young musicians who went on to fame and fortune – though he himself preferred to pursue a more individualistic cultural identity.

In 1972 there appeared on the streets of London and elsewhere a certain Bongo Mike the Street Poet, distributing illustrated broadsheets of his poems for 10 pence each, and further mounting a succession of exhibitions of larger works he called “visual poems” at such venues as Camden Lock and the Art Meeting Place in Covent Garden.

This phenomenon, by the 80s, had mutated into Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy (as I was by then known), the militant buskers, fighting through the courts as far as the European court of human rights for better treatment of street musicians. We did not gain any meaningful concessions in Europe, but nevertheless won, in Westminster county court in July 1988, what became known as the Twenty Pence Case (in ironic recognition of the damages we were awarded by the court for a false imprisonment by the British Transport Police).

In the 90s we were joined by other buskers, notably the London Public Entertainers Collective, and Michael was successful in winning support for the cause from the emerging cyberculture, being generously offered by James Stevens of the Backspace Cyberlounge the chance to set up the campaigning website Buskaction. After some two decades of consistent pressure, and the frequent highlighting – through the media – of the busker’s plight, there was achieved the partial, at least, decriminalisation of busking that exists in the UK today.

Retiring from busking in 2010, Michael secured shortly afterwards, with the 33Jazz record label, the release of an album of our own contemporary folk songs, Away from Tube Trains.

Michael was ill for almost a decade with the effects of a stroke and vascular dementia.

He is survived by a half-brother, Ronnie.