Tuesday, June 30, 2009

'All he needed was a hot night in June'

After a few days with nothing in the case, I needed to get back on track today and so I went back to the location where I'd done the best so far.

As I think I mentioned last time, the acoustics at Canal Street are great when there are no trains, so a good thing is you can play slightly quieter songs and people will still hear ok. I was using the Yamaha today so there was a decent resonance anyway. But while I didn't quite hit the heights of the last visit, I still got a dollar, which I was grateful for. The running total is now $29.17.

There wasn't a singalong with a passenger like last time, either, but one guy came down onto the opposite platform as I was playing 'Lawyers Guns And Money' and sang along from over there until his train came. That was cool.

It was a good session, I played for about an hour and three quarters. I might come back to this spot once a week from now on, since it's a nice place to play.

Today's Songlist:

People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
I Want You Back - Jackson Five
Bad Moon Rising - John Fogerty
Brown-Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
Marriage Made In Hollywood - Paul Brady
Hungry Heart - Bruce Springsteen
Kiss That Counted - Catie Curtis
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Searching For A Heart - Warren Zevon
You Got Lucky -Tom Petty
Lawyers Guns And Money - Warren Zevon
Johnny Strikes Up The Band - Warren Zevon
Lovers In A Dangerous Time - Bruce Cockburn
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
Knockin' On Heaven's Door - Bob Dylan
Walking In Memphis - Marc Cohn

BuskerCam today is a song written by Paul Brady and Michael O'Keefe, who's maybe better known as Bonnie Raitt's ex-husband or even as Danny Noonan in 'Caddyshack'. Anyway, it's a very cool song and somewhat apposite this week.



And here's Paul Brady and Karen Matheson playing the song much more melodiously. Listen out for just an unbelieveable bit of Dobro playing by Jerry Douglas.




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I went looking for some subterranean music today and ran into a number of players; at 14th Street, Calebe Arruda was playing violin and sounded really good. He's obviously been practicing hard; then on the R train, I saw a couple of gospel singers who asked if I'd come and play with them; but they were also preoccupied with how to get ahead of the blind gospel singer who was in the carriage in front of them.

When I was finished at Canal Street, I ran into a 'hand percussionist' called David who had cymbals and drumtops fashioned from what looked like packing film strapped to his body and was beating them furiously. I gladly gave him the dollar I'd made. The poor guy looked exhausted. He's at the station often, so I'll see him again and get some video next time.

On my train home, though, I had one of those 'lightning fast' experiences with a trio who called themselves The Diamonds, who dived onto the carriage, played a variant of 'Jambalaya' and timed it perfectly, passing the hat, finishing up and diving off again at the next station. Their bass player saw I had a guitar case with me and said "you play too?" I said "yeah, but it's nothing compared to you lugging that thing around".

"It's not that heavy," he just said.

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that I'm playing at most for a couple of hours at a time - these guys are on the go all day, and then in the evening will probably often play out as well at a bar or restaurant. It's a physically tough life, no doubt.




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As I'm writing this, I'm watching an excellent documentary on Nova about Oliver Sacks and his work with 'Musical Minds'. Its pretty fascinating stuff and you can watch the episode here from tomorrow. If you've read Sacks's book "Musicophilia" you'll have an idea of what it's about.

Monday, June 29, 2009

'There's no place like the Avenue, when the music gets a hold of you...'

When I was growing up, I had a few albums by the Average White Band. One of them, ‘Feel No Fret’ had a track on it called ‘Atlantic Avenue’.

Now, I know that their song was written about some upmarket street in Brazil, not the Brooklyn thoroughfare that takes you down by Target and Party City and past the Ex-Lax Building towards the waterfront; but since I’ve lived in this part of the borough for a while I wanted to feel funky enough to someday come and play here.

Today I was almost funky enough, so I played across the platform at Pacific Street - the consolation prize of funk, if you will. The two stations are conjoined, and are part of one big complex; depending on which line you’re riding you’re either on the Atlantic or Pacific platforms. The station as a whole apparently has the most transfer opportunities of any MTA station apart from 42nd Street. Many, many ways to leave it, in other words.

It’s also going to be a transport hub and centerpiece of the new ‘Barclays Center’ if the proposed and controversial Atlantic Yards development, featuring the relocated New Jersey Nets, opens as scheduled in 2012.

Whatever it will be though, it wasn’t the source of much of a return today. Any, in fact.

I played in a pretty prominent spot – right by a map – and lots of people were waiting on trains, but none of them felt moved to throw any change my way. I’m starting to realize that maybe the little Martin just isn’t loud enough to battle over platforms that are as busy as the ones I’ve been playing at recently. People have to come too close to hear what you’re actually playing.

I’m going to try the Yamaha for a few days and see if it changes my fortunes.

Today’s Songlist:

Waitin’ On The World To Change – John Mayer
Here Comes The Sun – Beatles
Little Sister –Ry Cooder
Tumblin’ Dice – Rolling Stones
Walking In Memphis – Marc Cohn
Lawyers, Guns And Money – Warren Zevon
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live – Bruce Springsteen
Bad Moon Rising – John Fogerty
The Ties That Bind – Bruce Springsteen
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay
Peace Love And Understanding – Elvis Costello
Rosalita – Bruce Springsteen

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I’ve seen this Pan Flute player around a few times in the past couple of weeks. Sometimes he has just one little amp, sometimes it’s a much bigger deal, with percussion and other accoutrements. I wanted to talk to him today, but his song never actually seemed to finish. I’ll catch up with him another time. By the way, I thought it was hilarious that he had chosen to set up next to a poster for a new talent/weight loss reality show called "Dance Your Ass Off".



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Jobs news – I recently applied for a relatively senior editorial position at xxxxxx. They took a pass but said their ‘career center profiler’ would alert me the moment a job matching my experience and preferences became available.

Yeah right, I thought. But, sure enough, I get an email from their keyword bot this morning telling me that not one but two jobs matching my profile are now open for applications.

Both of them are in Africa.

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A former colleague of mine, Peter Kafka, started an interesting ball rolling on his blog the other day, about the economics of online-only local “papers”. Take a look and especially read the comments; which touch on topics from salaries for ‘newsgatherers’ to a breakdown for the sort of projected pageviews needed to prosper. An interesting thread indeed.

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Finally, for old times’ sake, here’s the Average White Band from a few years back playing in St Maarten. Who’d have thought nice Scottish boys had that much funk in them?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

'Get out the map'



I ended up getting wet at both ends of this afternoon and one was way more fun than the other. The first was joyous but ultimately frustrating. The second was just a pain in the ass.

Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, so today's Gay Pride parade took on a special significance.

I planned to go up to midtown or somewhere where people might be on their way home from the festivities. Hopefully they’d be in a good frame of mind and might put their hands in their pockets.

But first, I wanted to watch the USA play Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup, so I went to my usual haunt in Brooklyn where about 150 people were crowded round the TV sets. My first soaking came when the US took an unexpected 2-0 lead. As Landon Donovan slotted home, the guy standing behind me launched his pint skywards and we all had a celebratory shower.

The big upset wasn’t to be, though, as the US let their advantage slip and Brazil came back to win. After a terrific performance by the US against Spain in the semi-final, beating Brazil was just a step too far. But they had a great tournament and saved Bob Bradley's job ahead of next year's World Cup. And hey, this was Brazil.

After the game - where there may have been as many sweaty manhugs as at the the parade - I rode up to Houston Street and then walked from there to 2nd Avenue, where it looked like a lot more partygoers were getting onto the Subway to come home.

I got a few smiles and nods and one or two admiring looks, likely because of the t-shirt I was wearing, and I got into a conversation with a guy who told me his son had been pestering him to buy him a guitar, but he didn’t want to because “it probably won’t last”.

Trust me, sir. It's always worth it.

Alas, though, among the folks who came onto the platform clutching beads and waving rainbow flags, their generosity was probably as exhausted as they were. Not a single penny in the case for an hour’s playing.

And I knew it was time to go home after the second liquid incident of the day.

A young woman came and sat next to me, and took out a bottle of San Pellegrino or some such overpriced poser water. It had obviously been in her pocket as she’d danced the day away, since when she opened it, it sprayed everywhere around her, but mostly over my guitar case and lyric book.

Not so much as a “sorry”, let alone a quarter in the case out of embarrassment.

So forgive me if I channel my inner Perez Hilton and just say ‘if you’re reading this: bad form, beeeatch.


Today’s Songlist:

Wheel Of Heartbreak – Paul Brady
Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn
Queen Jane Approximately – Bob Dylan
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Rolling Stones
Kiss That Counted – Catie Curtis
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
100 Miles – Catie Curtis
Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight – Amos Lee
Bad Karma – Warren Zevon
If I Had A Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn
People Look Around – Catie Curtis
Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan
Peace Love And Understanding – Elvis Costello


And finally, something worth celebrating...

Friday, June 26, 2009

'It don't matter if you're black or white'



A friend of mine put it quite well this morning. She said: "Somehow you knew he was never going to grow old. Now he doesn't have to."

I had planned to go play at the 125th Street station at some point during this project, to acknowledge the Apollo Theater and its importance to music in Harlem, the City and wider world. I just didn't think it would be under circumstances like these.

Regardless of all the gossip, rumor and conspiracy theories amid the media overkill of the last 24 hours, by the time I got up there today, the mood had turned to a celebration of his music. Folks were, quite literally, dancing in the streets. Michael Jackson t-shirts were everywhere. People were dressed as him; one young girl wearing a red "Thriller" jacket moonwalked in the doorway of a discount suit store and was greeted with cheers when she finished.

A lovely woman about my age called Sophia told me that she and Michael had shared a birthday. "Even though he wasn't blood family, I feel like I've lost a brother," she said.

I watched as staff from the Apollo, where the Jackson Five had performed at the famous talent night early in their career, gathered up the makeshift shrine that had formed by the doors. And always, there was singing. The crowd must have sung through all of his hits at least once, and between songs it was like they were constantly chanting his name.

A few years ago when I lived in Michigan, I'd visited the Motown Museum and was just knocked out to have been able to stand in the studio where so much great music was created. Even though I'm a white boy from Ireland, with a whole different musical DNA, it resonated with me that I was in a place where something genuinely special had happened.

No doubt there'll be more than enough time to talk about exactly how Michael Jackson died. But I felt privileged today to watch people celebrate his life.



The 125th Street station on the 2/3 line has a wonderful series of mosaics celebrating the Harlem Renaissance and the community's artistic, literary, sporting and social achievements.

On the platform today, I played only one song, once. People smiled as they went past, I hope because they knew I was being sincere. But even then, I felt like I was intruding. Anything more would have been too much.

Songlist:
I Want You Back - Jackson Five

Thursday, June 25, 2009

'Someone told me it's all happening at the Zoo'



Finally a bright, sunny day. Time to play above ground, and time to try to replicate my good experience at the Aquarium.

I went up to East Tremont Avenue, the 2/5 line stop near the Bronx Zoo. It was an eventful journey in itself. On the way up a woman got on with a baby in a stroller. The poor kid was screaming the house down, I mean inconsolable. He must have been teething because somehow he'd got his shoe up into his mouth and started chewing on it. His mother saw this, leaned down and slapped him with a stern "No!"

To which an older woman across the car just said, despairingly, "Now you've just gone and made it worse" and sure enough, the kid had managed to ratchet up a few decibels.

But then the mother went off. "F*ck you! Don't you f*cking tell me how to raise my f*cking kids; I've got two kids and they're doing f*cking fine."

To which the other woman just sighed and said: "Oh, I seriously doubt that."

I love New York.

Then at 180th Street (I'd gone originally to Bronx Park East, thinking that was a closer stop to the Zoo) there was a mechanical failure that had everyone on the platform for a half hour, but it seemed to get fixed pretty quickly and I was able to come down to the next station and start to play.

Lots of people went past including a couple of school trips; it was a nice day and everyone seemed in a good mood. I played a couple of songs for the first time, there were lots of smiles and nods and bopping along. But not much money, unfortunately. I played for about an hour and three-quarters and ended up with $1.40.

Songlist:

Waitin' On The World To Change - John Mayer
Here Comes The Sun - The Beatles
Tracks Of My Tears - Smokey Robinson
Bad Moon Rising - John Fogerty
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Queen Jane Approximately - Bob Dylan
Cortez The Killer - Neil Young
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Tonight Will Be Fine - Leonard Cohen
There Is Power In A Union - Billy Bragg
Drive South - John Hiatt
American Girl - Tom Petty
Refugee - Tom Petty
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen

The station itself has some lovely stained glass windows that look great when the light streams through them. They're designed by Naomi Campbell, although not the supermodel. Here's a couple of them...






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One of the difficulties I'm finding with talking to the musicians I encounter along the way is that often they don't want to interrupt their performance time even for a few minutes, either that or we just can't communicate in a common language. I ran into both those situations today, when I came across Antonio Acosta, who was singing on a platform; and a group of Mariachi players who literally passed through my train carriage so quickly they almost forgot to pass the hat. Here they are:








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Finally, I'm sure there's still a lot of information to come out about Michael Jackson's sad death today. But whatever you might think of him, or however he is eventually remembered, there's no denying the man was blessed with more than his fair share of creativity and talent.

This is my all-time favorite Jackson Five song. From that delicious opening piano slide to the beautifully understated rhythm guitar and funky bass line, it's just a timeless classic. This rather than Thriller, or Billie Jean or any of those overproduced pop songs, is how I'll remember his voice.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'Some days you eat the bear...'

Something of a frustrating day all round. The weather sucks again and I think it just has a way of getting into peoples' collective psyche. Things will be better when we've a had a few dry, sunny days.

I ended up by unfortunate chance at one of the most unpleasant stations I've played at yet. I was riding the 7 line out to Queens when the train came to a sudden, jarring halt between stations. People on the benches slid along them; I was standing, and if I hadn't been holding onto a pole I'd have ended up on the floor.

These things happen, but I got off at the next stop - together with some passengers who weren't too happy - and decided that wherever it was, I'd just play there for a while.

Bad call. Hunter's Point Avenue station in Long Island City is a pretty depressing place to play, if truth be told. I read a story recently in one of the city papers that budget cuts had led the MTA to reduce the number of station cleaners it employs across the network from 1.5 for every million journeys to 1. This is one of those instances where the statistics in a story come to life.

I played for just under an hour - the only upside was that trains didn't come through too often, the downside was that there were next to no passengers. I used it as a practice session and maybe persevered longer than I should. I think this was also the first station I'd played at where I didn't even get a smile or a nod from anyone, and I guess that fed back into my own mood, as I definitely wasn't enjoying it by the time I wrapped up.

Songlist:

People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Here Comes The Sun - The Beatles
Romeo And Juliet - Dire Straits
Waitin' On The World To Change - John Mayer
1952 Vincent Black Lightning - Richard Thompson
Desire - Ryan Adams
The Waiting - Tom Petty
Tracks Of My Tears - Smokey Robinson
Heaven - Bryan Adams

As I was packing up, the only people on the platform were three student filmmakers, who I'm guessing were looking for some urban "gritty". We eventually rode together a couple of stops up to Queensboro Plaza where I connected to come back downtown. The above-ground section of track after Hunters Point is lined by some huge, graffiti-plastered warehouses which have, I'm sure, already provided the backdrop to way too many broody student films.

There was one gem later in the day, though. I was on board a rush-hour train and the doors were about to close at a busy station - I think it was 42nd. At the last moment a guy, who had obviously been for lunch at a nice restaurant somewhere, hurried up to the doors and for some bizarre reason thought he could hold them open using his doggie bag. He couldn't. Squashed leftovers.

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Later, on a platform downtown, I ran into Neysa Malone who was singing and doing some dancing. She didn't want me to take any video, which is cool. She's pretty good, and you can check her out on her MySpace. Reminded me a little of Neneh Cherry or Cyndi Lauper.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'Call me a relic, call me what you will..'



At this point in my life, I have more than a few things in common with Coney Island.

We're both a bit ragged around the edges, we've had our ups and downs and we both were something in our day.

To be honest, now that I've started I'm not sure want to take this analogy too far - you might end up thinking that our best days are behind us - but here's the thing I hold onto: we're both in the middle of a big rehabilitation project. Once again, people think we have potential.

And we both know that our future is in the hands of young people with vision.

Coney is being reborn - it's not too pretty to look at right now, but it'll come good, if enough people with energy and creativity think it still has something to offer.

I'd wanted to go and play on the boardwalk today, but almost as soon as I got there this morning a cop - and there were lots of cops around - took one look at my guitar case and just pointed to a boardwalk bye-laws sign saying 'No performing without a permit'.

No problem. I walked back to the Subway, rode one stop back and got off at West 8th Street, across from the New York Aquarium.



As it turned out, playing at that particular station was just perfect.

The sound was great, on the downtown platform there is a rollercoaster-type motif for seating, which is comfortable and prominent, and best of all, a couple of school trips came by, having just visited the aquarium. All the kids today were cool beyond belief. They sang along with 'Drift Away' and 'Tracks of My Tears', and they danced to 'Under The Boardwalk'.

When I said "Do you know this one?" and played 'People Get Ready', they all shouted 'Waitin' On The World To Change,' so we played that one too. I asked if anyone had any requests, and one kid said "Do you know 'Slow Ride'?"

"The Foghat song?" I asked. "No, from Guitar Hero," he said.

It was great fun today. I played for about an hour and a half and made - remarkably - $8.58.

I don't count the money in the case until I'm packing up, and it amazed me today that the total was just one cent less than my best ever day. Running total is now $26.77.

Today's songlist:

Bright Side Of The Road - Van Morrison
Fourth Of July Asbury Park (Sandy) - Bruce Springsteen
For Everyman - Jackson Browne
After The Goldrush - Neil Young
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
Under The Boardwalk - The Drifters
Tracks Of My Tears - Smokey Robinson
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Waitin' On The World To Change - John Mayer
Refugee - Tom Petty
Fall At Your Feet - Crowded House
Peace Love And Understanding - Elvis Costello
Message In A Bottle - Sting
Dont Think Twice, It's Alright - Bob Dylan
Rosalita - Bruce Springsteen
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay

A2 diminished

As a former resident of Ann Arbor, I'm saddened to hear that it will become the first US city to lose its only daily paper when the News closes next month.

At first look, you'd think the sort of potential reader demographic in a place like that would be able to sustain a well-run local paper, but it will be interesting to see how the transition to a web-only publication (twice-weekly) works out.

Monday, June 22, 2009

'Shake all the trouble from your worried mind'

I've been writing the Beat Below The Street for a couple of weeks now, but today I finally found what might be the real beat - the sort of sound you hear all the way along a subway tunnel and you're just naturally drawn to find out where it's coming from.

As you get closer you find your body naturally falling into its rhythm.

At the end of this particular passageway is Mike Alaska, one high-energy, intense percussionist, who's a mass of tattoos, drumsticks, flailing limbs and smiles.

When I asked if I could take some video, he said: "Sure, just give me a moment to get set up" and he dived down onto the track to retrieve a stick that had escaped his grip during the last workout.



Originally from Austin, Texas, Mike says he's been playing in the Subway for about five months since coming to New York after "outstaying his welcome" in Canada. "I was slaying them up there, man. They loved me," he says.

But for now he's playing about four days a week on the Subway, and getting a reputation through playing at a number of stations - "the cops move me along from time to time" - I'd heard him last week at 59th St, but I was on a train and didn't get a chance to jump out and catch him.

If you ride through midtown at all, you'll have heard him. Or you will.

And he's about to go above-ground, big time. On July 2, he's playing the half-time show at the Liberty game at Madison Square Garden.

I asked if he played in a band as well as his subterranean activity, and he said he wasn't looking to do that right now, "But I need an agent or a manager real bad."

Anyone who might be able to help can contact Mike through his MySpace page, and in addition to mine, there's plenty of videos of him on YouTube, which you can search for.

This guy rocks.

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I was in need of some musical inspiration today, so I - naturally - headed off to Queens.



Steinway village in the Ditmars area of Queens was originally developed as a company town for workers of the piano company. The station was opened in 1933.

And playing there was a hard sell. It wasn't so much that the acoustics were bad, they weren't, rather that of the hundred-fifty or so people who passed by while I played, most of them seemed incredulous that anyone would actually want to play there. But I did get a couple of smiles and the odd kind word. I played for about an hour and ten minutes and made two dollars. Running total is now $17.19.

I packed up after the kids across the platform started shining a laser pointer at me.

Today's songlist:

The Promised Land - Bruce Springsteen
Glory Days - Bruce Springsteen
I Won't Back Down - Tom Petty
You're The World To Me - David Gray
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Tracks Of My Tears - Smokey Robinson
Tumblin' Dice - Rolling Stones
Moondance - Van Morrison
You Love The Thunder - Jackson Browne
Peace Love and Understanding - Elvis Costello
Long Time Comin' - Bruce Springsteen
Every Breath You Take - The Police
You're Still Standing There - Steve Earle


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My heart goes out to anyone hurt in the crash on the DC Metro today.

'Shame...'

Since I've been out of town for the past few days, I'd missed this story about Dan Froomkin being let go by the Washington Post. In my previous life working on my PhD, Dan had graciously taken the time to meet me for lunch and talk about his work blogging the White House. He's a clever writer with a wonderful sense of humor and I always found him enthusiastic and helpful. I'm guessing he wont be without a home for long.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day

My first weekend session, and I wanted to play somewhere today that people might come with some sense of joy.

So I thought I'd head to a place I might go with my kids - that is, make them come with me for Father's Day - if they were here.



The Natural History Museum stop was just as busy as I thought, and it actually had some pretty good, resonant acoustics as well, with a decent amount of time between trains.

There's plenty of tourists and families off to the museum. I've been learning from recent experience about making eye contact and following passengers with your body as they come past - make it seem like you're playing just for them. It always worked for me when I was the audience rather than the performer.

But I learned a more important lesson today. When you're playing at a big tourist location, play on the platform where they'll be spending more time. I was playing on the uptown platform, because it looked busy, sounded good and there was a good spot to play. But by far most of the people were going to the museum, so they weren't sticking around.

What I should have done was go to the downtown platform, where people would be waiting after they came out of the museum. There'd be more of them, they'd be waiting for longer and they'd be in less of a hurry.

By the time I figured that out and headed downstairs though, this guy was already set up and you could hear him all along the platform. If it was any consolation, he didn't seem to be doing any better than I had.

I played for about an hour and ten minutes and made 50 cents.


Today's Songlist:

Crazy Dreams - Paul Brady
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin - Colin Hay
Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
100 Miles - Catie Curtis
Tracks Of My Tears - Smokey Robinson
The White Hare - Seth Lakeman
People Get Ready - Curtis Mayfield
Drift Away - Dobie Gray
My Beautiful Reward - Bruce Springsteen
American Girl - Tom Petty
You Can't Always Get What You Want - Rolling Stones
May You Never - John Martyn
Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Peace Love and Understanding - Elvis Costello


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On my platform today I got into a nice conversation with a guy about Curtis Mayfield after I'd played 'People Get Ready'. We talked about how tragic the end of his life had been, and how we should all be thankful for what we have and celebrate each day, simply because we don't know what tomorrow might bring.

So, finally, for fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers everywhere...

Friday, June 19, 2009

'Woke Up This Mornin'..'

..and got in the car to drive to West Virginia.

Yeah, no subway activity today, folks; a good friend of my stepdaughter's was giving his senior recital this evening in his hometown of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., so we came down to hear him. He was great. He's going off in the fall to UNC School of the Arts as a singer and has a big future ahead of him.

After the show, we hung out with his family at a very cool local restaurant called the Earth Dog Cafe. There was a "live music tonight" sign outside, which is always good.

Inside, there were two women setting up - a keyboard player/singer and a drummer, and when they kicked off they were totally in the groove. They were called The Bad Bitches of the Blues - a band name way too awesome for such a small town - and they had that good musician's sense of humor.

Their third song was "Free Bird". Third song? After which the keyboard player announced that their guitarist hadn't shown up tonight.

As it turned out, the restaurant manager told me that one of the guys on staff at the bar often sits in with them but he was still working so he couldn't come out and play yet.

She also told me that one of the band had been in the photograph for the 'Woodstock' movie poster, sitting on a VW camper van rolling a joint.

Whether that's true or not, for an unconventional blues duo, they were just terrific. When you feel it inside, good music is all around if we're open to hearing it. Especially after a few beers.




* Update on Saturday morning: so, apparently after we left the bar last night, the fun started. From the accounts we heard there was something of a brawl, which either started off or ended up - does it matter? - with some guy removing his pants in front of the band.

** And talking of awesome band names, we had breakfast at a hotel in town before we left, where these guys were playing. Kinda wish we'd stuck around...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

'Long as I remember, the rain's been pourin' down..'



It was raining all day in New York today. Really raining. Nasty. And it just seemed to get heavier.

Most of the US Open Golf was scratched and the Yankees are in a five-hour rain delay at time of writing.

Miserable. If I had any Smiths in my repertoire, today would be the day. But I don’t.

What I do have, with a subtle lyric change for gender, is this; one of the most beautifully sad songs I know. Maybe today will be its one and only outing this summer.

So far, my experience has been that when passengers are drenched, they aren’t terribly predisposed to either listening or donating. I figured it’s a horrible day, why not go play at what some people think is a horrible station?

I’d come through the 62nd Street station in New Utrecht, in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, a few weeks ago. I’m in the process of renewing my Green Card and the new INS office is there. Then, it was a beautiful day, sun splitting the trees; but even in bright sunshine the station managed to seem gloomy at best.

But whatever I might think of it, I probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it remotely as well as this.

The platform was way too wet and windy, but I found the passageway between the up and down platforms had pretty good acoustics, despite the street noise below. At least it was dry. A cop walked by and nodded, and it was school letting-out time, so there was plenty of foot traffic, but it was such an awful day that people just wanted to be home and indoors.

Unsurprisingly there’s a bit of a theme to today’s songlist:

Who’ll Stop The Rain? – John Fogerty
If I Had A Boat – Lyle Lovett
Mutineer – Warren Zevon
The Sun’s Coming Over The Hill – Karine Polwart
The Boys Of Summer – Don Henley
Here Comes The Sun – Beatles
The Waiting – Tom Petty
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen
The Naked Ride Home – Jackson Browne
Peace Love And Understanding – Elvis Costello


BuskerCam today is a lovely song that means everything and nothing, but is a joy to play. My kids used to love it.



And here’s Lyle with the genuine article.





I always feel better having played. Even on days like today when I don’t make any money.

But today was the first day since I started where I said to myself that if I don’t serendipitously come across some Subway music on my ride home, then I won’t go looking for it as I usually do.

I didn’t.


*****************************


Happy 67th birthday Sir Paul McCartney, the most successful rock and pop composer of all time.

*****************************



So I spent the rest of the afternoon applying for jobs: one at a charitable foundation sounds really interesting. Two others at the same news magazine, but both are labeled “temporary”. Maybe they’re not that confident they’ll stick around.

I got an email this morning from one of the recruitment sites that I’ve subscribed to. Alongside the usual “teach English in Korea” advert, which seems to be permanent these days (strangely, since probably the only English you’re going to need there is “where is the fallout shelter?”) there was a listing for a “Web Managing Editor”.

When I opened it, though, the educational and work experience requirements were all in marketing. There were no specifically ‘editorial’ tasks that I could see, apart from a knowledge of Photoshop.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

'In the mood'

Horn player Kimber says the key to playing to a Subway crowd is to be able to “tap into people’s mood.”

There’s a beautifully melancholy sound from his soprano saxophone – which at first glance looks and sounds a little like a clarinet – which pervades train and platform alike.

The particular songs he plays are good for demonstrating his technique, but he said the important thing is to try and get a sense of how people are feeling at that moment.



He’s been playing for 25 years and has a routine on the Subway that allows him to do well by doing something he loves.

"I used to play in bands," he says. "This is better."

He plays every day, for about three or four hours, starting usually around lunchtime. But he’s about to change his schedule so he can take more time off at weekends.

“Some days it’s hard work,” he says. “I missed yesterday, and that was the first day for a long time.”

I asked him about his influences, or players that he liked to listen to, and he just says “It depends on how you’re feeling – everyone’s good, it’s just about getting in the right groove.”

And with that, he was off to see Earth Wind and Fire at Madison Square Garden.

****************************


I think next week I’ll have to seek out some less noisy stations – even after a week and a half, my voice is starting to strain from trying to sing over the trains.

Also I remember reading once that when Noel Redding, Jimi Hendrix’s bass player, changed his instrument, he ended up developing a muscle on his shoulder because it was a lot heavier than the previous one he’d been using. I’m feeling a little bit like that – my wrists are sore, not so much from the playing, but from carrying the guitar case every day, something I’m not used to.

When I use the little Martin, it’s in a backpack that I put over both my shoulders, but the sound is just better with the Yamaha, so I’ve been schlepping the big guitar case around for all but two of the days so far. And it’s hurting.

Oh well. I went to the station under Rockefeller Center today; there were plenty of passengers around but also plenty of trains, so plenty of noise.

Even so, I played for just over an hour and a half, and I made three dollars. My running total is now $14.69 – and of course the cumulative amount at the end of the project will be handed over to an appropriate charity.

Today’s songlist:

The River – Bruce Springsteen
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
People Look Around – Catie Curtis
The Ties That Bind – Bruce Springsteen
Shattered Cross – Stuart Adamson
100 Miles – Catie Curtis
Look At Miss Ohio – Gillian Welch
Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine – Ry Cooder version
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Rosalita – Bruce Springsteen
Barricades of Heaven – Jackson Browne
When The Stars Go Blue – Ryan Adams
Peaceful World – John Mellencamp
You’re Still Standing There – Steve Earle


For BuskerCam, I played one of my favourite songs, “Shattered Cross” by Stuart Adamson. You get a real sense from this clip just how noisy it is on the platforms, and how tough it can be to sing through. I set the Flip camera in my guitar case but all you end up seeing is the ceiling – one guy came over to give me a dollar after I’d finished playing.



But the best thing of all is it gives me an opportunity to sign off by sharing this footage with you, of Darrell Scott and Paul Brady playing the song on the Transatlantic Sessions.

Here’s how it should sound.




'Share it fairly but don't take a slice of my pie'

Last night’s panel at Columbia came up with some interesting thoughts around what sort of job the business press had done in its coverage of the current recession.

The general feeling was that it would be fair to charge the media with a broad decline of skepticism – and that’s leaving aside specific complaints about the ratings agencies, who may or may not be lumped in with the ‘press’ – at the same time as a ‘cult of personality’ had grown up around many of our leading business figures.

The lionizing of corporate leaders that had become mainstream in the 1980s had helped feed into a notion that the market was somehow ‘unstoppable’.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating success, but what’s important is how it’s judged. There were also thoughts about the effect that has had on journalistic access and the relationship between Wall Street and those who cover it.

Asked from the floor 'where's the outrage?', the panel gave the sense not so much that the business press had been negligent in the run-up to the recession, but rather that by being cheerleaders rather than skeptics first and foremost, it's more likely that things get missed that shouldn’t be.

Is it harder to ‘do the right thing’ when conventional wisdom is piled up against you?

On the panel, investor Bill Ackman had some observations around monetizing the web news model – and the value of products like specialist market newsletters; ultra-niche publications that deliver a specific need and realize a high value because they impart genuine knowledge.

But whatever business we’re in, whatever commodity we’re producing: as long as we’re dependent on someone else’s preferences – whims, even – then we can lose sight of what it was that originally gave us value. If we don’t plan for what might happen when those whims no longer include what we’re offering, then we probably deserve to perish.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

'Hear the sound of distant drums'

El and his friend Sa have a natural rhythm to everything they do. A smooth rhythm to how they walk, and speak, and, especially, how they make music.

They're percussionists, part of a larger group known as The Last Drummers (of Yisrael), which plays on subway lines all over the city.



El is originally from Israel – he wears a blue bracelet in Hebrew script – and now lives in The Bronx. He and Sa have been playing drums in the Subway for ten years or so. El says he was about 16 when he started.

And they don’t just play underground. “Yeah, we play with bands, DJs, everything,” El says. “We’ve played in Chicago, Philly, all over.”

He says there’s about 30 drummers all told in their group and they cover pretty much the whole subway network. “We see the others around,” Sa says, but they don’t really meet up formally to compare notes.

El says they play underground for about “five or six hours a day”.

And when they get into a Subway car, their natural showmanship takes over and they can hold their audience rapt as they start up the beat. I’m pretty sure they always get a round of applause when they’re done.

They may even be the guys I wrote about here but I can’t be sure. When I asked if they played the F line, they just said “we’re all over the place.”

If they are, then that's one more wonderful thing about the Subway that brings them around again. If they aren’t, then I’m just glad there are at least two groups of traveling drummers who can make me smile like this.

"Remember, folks," said El as they were leaving the car, "it's only cloudy outside, never inside."


*************************************


Vicente is a mariachi guitarist from Mexico and plays and sings on the subway with his friend who’s a fiddler.

He says he has been playing on the subway for about five years. I rode with the two of them for one station stop and as they got out to move to the next carriage he slipped me a business card from ‘Gonzalez y Gonzalez’, a Mexican restaurant and bakery on Broadway.




*************************************


On my way home this evening I saw a Chinese gentleman playing an Er-hu, a two-stringed violin-type instrument that sounded a little like a fiddle from around the tunnel corner. He told me he was from Beijing and his name was Wei Jung, or Wei Zhung – I only had a few seconds to talk with him and I’m reporting phonetically.




*************************************


As you’ll know if you’ve spent any time underground here, one of the amazing things about the Subway is the range of musical cultures on offer and nationalities of the players you encounter.

Today was Bloomsday, so the Irish also got sort of a look-in. Since there isn’t really an MTA station that’s even remotely associated with James Joyce, I went for the nearest Irish literary name I could find.



So I tried to have a mostly Irish setlist today in a nod of the head to my homeplace.

Songlist:

Shattered Cross – Stuart Adamson
Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
Arthur McBride – Paul Brady
Nothing But The Same Old Story – Paul Brady
Whiskey In The Jar – Thin Lizzy
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – U2
May You Never – John Martyn
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live – Bruce Springsteen
Into The Mystic – Van Morrison
Lakes Of Pontchartrain – Paul Brady
1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson
My Beautiful Reward – Bruce Springsteen
Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson
Rise – Eddie Vedder
Never Tire Of The Road – Andy Irvine

(Given where I was, unfortunately I didn't get a chance to learn and play Brian Kennedy's excellent song "Christopher Street" - maybe next time).

All told I played for about an hour and 45 minutes and made two dollars. A hundred per cent more than yesterday, and two dollars more than the corresponding day last week. So I’m trending in the right direction. If I was reporting quarterly earnings. I’d be a ‘strong buy’.

But there were some technical difficulties on the first BuskerCam experiment, I’m afraid.

I taped the camera to my shirt front about where the pocket would be. I was hoping it would capture people’s reactions as they either walked past, or came over to put something in the case. Problem was, there was just way too much movement in the resulting clip, almost to the point of inducing seasickness, so I won't inflict that on you.

I’ll have another go tomorrow, when maybe I’ll try taping the camera to the case itself.


Monday, June 15, 2009

'Come what may, guess I'm OK, I can't complain..'

One of New York’s freesheets, amNY, did a piece this morning (complete with a cutesy cover illustration) looking at passenger complaints that have been lodged with the MTA over the past couple of years.

Among the predictable problems - the paper says "kvetching about lewd advertising, filthy stations and other irritants trumped more serious concerns" - one rider was clearly so upset by a Subway player that they were moved to send this message:

“The musician who plays…at the Astor Place uptown stop is horrendous. Please tell me how I can spearhead his removal. He has to go.”


Having read that, there was only one place I could possibly go and play today.



Now, you’d figure that at the busier stations, the average length of time a passenger has to listen to a subway musician is maybe no more than three minutes before their train arrives. And don’t forget, passengers can always move along the platform to alleviate their angst.

Everyone’s tastes are different, of course, but if someone can annoy another person so much in three minutes that they feel they have to actually write to the MTA about it, then I’d like to hear them for myself.

So I went to Astor Place to play today, but also to try and track down the musician who might have prompted such a visceral reaction.

No luck, I’m afraid. I was there for about an hour and saw no-one playing the platforms. And I can understand why; it’s maybe the noisiest station I’ve played at yet. Up and down platforms with a transit rail in the middle – I barely had a chance to get through one song without interruption.

I went far enough down the platform that I would catch passengers getting off the first four cars, and also anyone waiting would be able to hear me; but it wasn’t the sort of stage where you got any time at all to play without a train going through. Anyway, I played for a while and made a dollar. Week-on-week, I’m ahead.

No sign of the offending busker from the amNY piece - of course it's possible that the complainant got their wish and "spearheaded his removal" - but I’ll come back and look again. Later I went over to W4th to try to track down MonaLisa, who I met last week, but she wasn’t there either.

Lets try BuskerCam tomorrow!


Today’s songlist:

New York, New York – Ryan Adams
May You Never – John Martyn
Little Sister – Ry Cooder
Life In Technicolor – Coldplay
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live? - Bruce Springsteen
Learning To Fly – Tom Petty
Leap Of Faith – Bruce Springsteen
Rosalita – Bruce Springsteen
Wonderwall – Oasis

Incidentally, last year Oasis put together an 18-minute documentary Dig Out Your Soul In The Streets featuring NY subway musicians playing tracks from the band’s latest album. If you haven’t seen it it’s well worth a look.

******************************


I saw a different kind of performance on my train this morning. A man got on, about 50 years old, wearing a crisply-pressed pair of khakis and a laundered green golf shirt. Then he started ‘preaching’. He had a soft-spoken Jamaican accent, but what he was saying was anything but soft.

His fellow passengers tolerated him for a couple of stops, but when he got to the part about all of us sinners being “consumed in a lake of fire”, one rider just yelled: “Aw, come on man, this is the Subway”.

I mean, some things are sacred, after all.

******************************


Simon Owens from Bloggasm did a nice item about my blog today, for which many thanks.

******************************


On the media front, David Carr wrote a piece in yesterday's paper about my former employer and the woes facing the business press in general. I’m also going to be attending this panel tomorrow evening at Columbia University, so I’ll report on anything interesting that comes out of it. Wife, meanwhile, is off to see the Indigo Girls at the Central Park summerstage. Who gets the better deal?


Saturday, June 13, 2009

‘Welcome to the working week’



I hope you don’t mind if I take stock a little at the end of this first week. Thanks for indulging me. I won’t do a review like this again until the project finishes. What I will try and do, though, is produce one feature-type piece over each weekend, looking at an aspect of life underground or something music-related.

So what did I learn in these first five days?

Well, it confirmed two things that I always thought: that playing on the Subway is really hard work, but that New Yorkers – the musicians I’ve come across so far and the people who listen to them – are fundamentally kind and generous.

I’m very grateful for all the encouraging messages, both in the comments and privately.

Some readers have been coming to this from a musical perspective; others from the journalism angle – I hope that wherever you’re coming from you find something interesting as we go along, and thanks again to Play A Little Guitar on the music side and Buzzmachine on the media side for their mentions.

On the blog: I’m pretty happy with the Blogger layout, but I’ll tweak a couple of the sidebar items. I’ve been experimenting with embedding the video clips and it’s worked pretty well using the Flip camera.

I’ve also set up a channel on YouTube where I’ll gather all the clips together as we go along, so if you’re searching for a particular performer but you’re not sure when I wrote about them, you can look on the video channel without scrolling through the whole blog.

I’ll stick to ‘excerpting’ a minute or less of each artist just to give readers a sense of what they sound like. Also, the shorter clips load up much quicker, especially on laptops or smart phones.

I always ask the performers’ permission to video them, and if they say no then of course I’ll respect that.

Some days as we go on, there might not be any video at all.

As for my own busking experience, a couple of lessons:

• It’s only going to get hotter in New York, so complaining about the heat and humidity is pointless.
• I have light gauge strings on both the guitars but I don’t think they’re going to be robust enough. I’ll give them another week then I might swap them out for Mediums.
• When choosing a location to play at, the acoustics are what’s really important – stations vary widely in terms of how busy they are, both in train and passenger traffic, but if no-one can hear you, then it’s a bit self-defeating.
• Having someone say “sounds good, man” is every bit as rewarding as having them put a quarter in the case. Having them sing along and put a quarter in the case is even better.

Next week I thought I’d try something I’m calling “BuskerCam” – I’ll tape the video camera to my shirt and you can watch people’s reactions as I play. I might just do that for one song and see how it goes.

Please get in touch if you have any suggestions or ideas that could make this a more fun and enjoyable ride for all of us. And, of course, if you’ve seen a good subway musician, let me know.

So thanks again for reading. And for all buskers everywhere, there’s always the chance - the remotest beautiful chance – that something like this can happen…

Friday, June 12, 2009

‘Passion is no ordinary word’

Natalia Paruz is passionate about the musical saw.

Passionate about playing it; passionate about collecting and preserving the instrument’s history, and she’s also passionate about telling people about it.

I watched her for an hour or so today at Union Square and she probably spent as much time talking to passers by as she did actually playing.

And the ‘Saw Lady’ always answers listeners’ questions – some of which she must have heard a hundred times – with a smile. Everyone seems to know her, and she says she never tires of watching people’s reactions as they hear the soaring notes fill the mezzanine level – fighting intermittently against the scream of the emergency exit alarm.




But the surrounding noise doesn’t stop her making a connection with her audience – particularly children who are drawn by the unfamiliar sound. “It’s about communication,” she says. “The station is like a canvas, and the people are the paint. Music gives you the brushstrokes.”

While not everyone will have seen a saw used as a musical instrument before, some might have heard from parents or grandparents about how when immigrants came to the US, traditional instruments were often a luxury, so they made do with what they had.

Natalia has about 20 different saws she has collected over the years: some made specially to be played but others come from ordinary hardware stores.

She first came to New York from Israel to follow a career as a dancer, but a traffic accident dashed those hopes. She fell in love with the saw after seeing someone playing one on a trip to Salzburg.

She told me how, traditionally, when someone approached a saw player to ask to be taught, they’d be told to go and figure it out for themselves – as a way of proving their dedication to the instrument.

But she wants to keep the instrument and its techniques alive through teaching. “That’s my retirement plan,” she laughs.

For the past 16 years, she has played everywhere from Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden to a store window at The Gap surrounded by mannequins. “Saw players have to take whatever gigs come along,” she explains.

As well as the MUNY spot at Union Square, she plays often in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

This summer, she’ll be leaving her busking home briefly – “it’s nice when people notice that you’re not there” – to travel to Israel to work with a composer who is writing for the saw, and she’s also hoping to travel to Ireland. At the moment she’s organizing the 7th annual Musical Saw Festival bringing together players from all over the world.

“I used to be very shy,” she says, “and sometimes people in the subway can look intimidating, but you learn that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone’s very kind.”

“Playing in the subway is like living in a little village where everyone knows everyone else.”

She finishes up her set with songs like ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘My Heart Will Go On’ that get looks of recognition and make people slow down to listen.

And when she blows on her hand to soothe her fingers, it looks like she’s blowing everyone a kiss.






It was so humid today I really didn’t want to get off the air-conditioned train I rode uptown. But I’m glad I did. It turned out to be the best session yet.

The Yamaha sounded great and I was lucky to find a corner of the N/Q uptown platform at Canal Street where the acoustics were perfect. I was just at the bottom of the stairs leading down to the tracks, and the trains weren’t too frequent. In fact, often the uptown and downtown trains would arrive at the same time, so there was less time to wait before you could play again.

But the best part of the set was when a waiting passenger played Little Steven to my Bruce, putting up some killer harmonies on ‘The Ties That Bind’.

Even if I hadn’t collected a penny, playing out today would have been worth it for that.

So I ended up playing for about an hour and a half; a couple of new songs got a run out, I broke a string (a G – I’m sure it was because of the heat), and – most gratifyingly - my fellow New Yorkers put $8.59 in my case, for which many thanks.

Have a great weekend.


Today’s songlist:

Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen
Lawyers Guns and Money – Warren Zevon
Bad Moon Rising – John Fogerty
The Ties That Bind – Bruce Springsteen
No Surrender – Bruce Springsteen
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
100 Miles – Catie Curtis
The White Hare – Seth Lakeman
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
My Beautiful Reward – Bruce Springsteen
Tonight Will Be Fine – Leonard Cohen (the Teddy Thompson version)
Peace Love and Understanding – Elvis Costello
Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn
Johnny Strikes Up The Band – Warren Zevon
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty (ironically, I broke the string on the first chorus, so I, er, backed down and packed up for the day)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

‘Aint no rules, aint no vow, we can do it anyhow’

“You gotta create the energy.”

But, says Joel Mac, a popular busker on the F train platform at Union Square, some days whatever you do, you just can’t reach people.

“I get a lot of compliments,” he says, philosophically. “The money comes and goes.”

“We live in a society where people have a default – their first impressions pretty much dictate whether they’re going to respond to you or not.”

When I first saw Joel play, there was a group of little kids on the platform who were dancing around in front of him. He had a natural rapport with them and they were definitely into the music.

“Yeah, kids,” he says, “They get the vibe. There’s no barriers.”



While he mostly plays his own songs – “What’s the point of playing other people’s songs? You might as well work on the Love Boat” – he has what he calls his “fantastic five” covers, which at the moment include songs by Michael Jackson and Bonnie Raitt, as well as “Hello” by Lionel Richie.

“I’m a ‘tone singer’, and Lionel Richie is probably the best tone singer there is.”

Born in Belize and raised in the South Bronx, Joel has been playing guitar for about two and a half years, although he says it took him about ten years to decide to learn.

He’s tried for a MUNY audition but didn’t get one. “It’s cool, though,” he says, “as an acoustic person I don’t need a license anyway, and if you’re in the program you have to play where they tell you.”

On the territorialism that often accompanies busking, he just says: “I never go where I never play – I’ll give that respect to other musicians. I don’t know why some people get so uptight sometimes.”

After a history as a rapper and reggae artist, in the subway he plays mostly mellow acoustic folk, sweet music that shows his melodic roots. "I want to help people find a space of peace," he says.

We talked about the joy of playing for its own sake, he said: “Well, you gotta practise anyway – might as well do it in front of folks.”

His tip for a starter busker like me?

“Be organized – if you don’t bring your own seat it’s no good looking around for a milk crate or something to sit on”

And most importantly, remember that “It’s all good.”





The weather in the City over the past few days has been miserable. If it’s not raining, then it’s either just rained or it’s waiting to rain.

And people’s mood generally has reflected that. It’s like everyone’s waiting for the sun to come out, and they’re kinda sluggish in the meantime.

I really wanted to play on an above ground station today, to get a sense of how the acoustics might work there. But it was really muggy and soggy, so I ended up at one of my local stops, at Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

The Park’s bandshell, a short walk from the 15th Street station, hosts the Celebrate Brooklyn concerts each summer, and this year’s series kicked off this week with David Byrne.

My wife and I went last year to see – sorry, sorta kinda hear from half a mile away – Bob Dylan at the Bandshell. To this day I haven’t met anyone who was there who actually “saw” Bob.

So today at 15th Street I played for about an hour. Maybe sixty or seventy people came by.

While I was playing “Rosalita” I could see one woman was getting into it, or so I thought, but when I was done I realized she had an iPod.

(Maybe she was listening to “Rosalita”. Who knows? It might have been an uncanny case of synchrobopping, if there’s such a word…)

And at the end of it, I’m really glad I said from the off that I wasn’t going to be actively soliciting donations…


Today’s songlist:

Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits (sorry Alex!)
Desire – Ryan Adams
Galileo – Indigo Girls
You’re The World To Me – David Gray
Rosalita – Bruce Springsteen
The Only Living Boy In New York – Paul Simon
When The Stars Go Blue – Ryan Adams
Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright – Bob Dylan
Walking In Memphis – Marc Cohn
Tumbling Dice – Rolling Stones
Steve’s Last Ramble – Steve Earle


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I was coming home today past the Fillmore and there was a huge crowd of kids lined up to get tickets for something. There was a big police presence, so I asked someone what show the crowd was waiting for. He said he thought it was the Jonas Brothers. To which a random passerby just said: “Oh, sweet Jesus, no…”


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If you haven't already seen this, enjoy...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'She must've had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles'


She told me her name was MonaLisa, and she has a smile that could light up a whole subway tunnel.

Even better, she has the voice of an angel. She sings gospel with her belongings alongside her in a shopping cart, and holds out a McDonalds fries cup for donations.

I didn’t ask if she is homeless – we were talking about music – but I gave her a dollar. Exactly one dollar more than I had made that morning.

She asked me if I’d been playing on the Subway and how I was doing. “Not so good,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “You’re probably just in the wrong spot.”

It was the nicest thing anyone could have said to me at that moment.

On a day when if I’d looked just at how much money was in my case, I could have been pretty low – a Three Time Loser, as Bonnie Raitt might say – MonaLisa reminded me that no matter who we are, or where we are, or how much we have, we, hopefully, never lose sight of our basic sense of kindness.

She's an artist - she had a canvas tucked in the cart - but her voice is just terrific. She was doing pretty well with the passing riders, but she took time to talk to me, and that meant a lot. I suggested that we sing a song together. “What do you want to sing?” she said. How about “People Get Ready,” I offered, since I’d just played it a couple of times upstairs.

“Ah, the Black national anthem,” she laughed.

We eventually settled that maybe “Tracks of My Tears” might be a better choice and agreed we’d meet up again to sing together, then she said: “Well, I gotta do my Jesus stuff..”

I suggested that I could maybe record her singing, and she just said: “I don’t really like publicity. But we can be friends?”

So we hugged and parted, but I’m going to go back and sing with her like she promised. And, trust me, you’re going to want to hear that.




I was in a kind of mellow mood this morning and I decided to come and play at West 4th Street, the main Subway stop in the heart of beautiful Greenwich Village. Given the all-pervasive Bob Dylan associations, I thought the least I could do was start and finish with one of his songs.


There’s something that just connects you historically when you can come out of a station and walk a block and see the venue where Dylan is supposed to have played in New York City for the first time.

Then you can walk a few blocks to Hudson Street and have a relaxed pint in the White Horse Tavern, the famous watering hole frequented by Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan among others. Bob was apparently a regular when he first arrived in New York, and used to hang out with the Clancy Brothers here.






So I ended up playing at West 4th for about a total of an hour and a half – just over an hour upstairs on the A/C/E platforms, and the rest of the time downstairs on the F/V tracks. I even played right next to the Subway map in the center of the platform, since, in theory, more people would hear.

While I was playing, a couple of people would come over to sit on the seats near where I was and listen. The acoustics are good and there’s plenty of time between trains. They’d tap their feet, and – I swear – one or two let their trains go by to see what I was going to play next.

Did they throw any change? Maybe tomorrow.

But I’m sure I brightened at least one person’s day today, and isn’t that better than staying in bed?

Set List 1: A/C/E tracks:

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison (although I mix in parts of the excellent Everclear version)
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
Galway Girl – Steve Earle
The Ties That Bind – Bruce Springsteen
Keep It Loose, Keep It Tight – Amos Lee
Not Dark Yet – Bob Dylan
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
Crazy Love – Van Morrison
I Shall Be Released – Bob Dylan
Bad Moon Rising – John Fogerty

Set List 2: F/V tracks:

Look At Miss Ohio – Gillian Welch
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay
Tracks Of My Tears – Smokey Robinson
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen
Queen Jane Approximately – Bob Dylan


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I got an email this afternoon when I got back from busking. It says:

Dear Steve

We have received your application for the position of xxxxxxx Editor, Americas. After careful consideration, we regret to inform you that you have not been selected for this position.

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Oh well. Onwards and upwards.


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Now this is just hilarious.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

'Sweet soul music’


Some of the voices I heard underground today were remarkable.

I started off at the MUNY location at Union Square and listened to a guy called – appropriately enough – Gibran Soul, whose voice was hauntingly beautiful: like a combination of Seal and Marvin Gaye. We exchanged emails and hopefully I’ll get a chance to talk with him a little over the coming days.

Then I went up to another of the MUNY spots, at 34th Street, where I met Calebe Arruda, a native of Rio de Janeiro, who has been playing in the subway for 25 years. Given that this was my second day, I thought that was pretty cool.



Calebe mostly plays classical guitar but didn’t have his with him today. He looked at my guitar case and asked “steel or nylon?” I think if I hadn’t had steel strings on, he’d have wanted to play it. He's been teaching himself to play violin. He had a little amp and CD backing tracks – he says its tough to play unaccompanied because people like to be able to hear familiar classical music as they're coming towards you. He plays in the subway three days a week.

On the platform downstairs, I bumped into Dexter Jones, a steel drum player from Trinidad, who performs as FunknSteel, and has a smile as infectious as his melodies.



As I was getting on the train, a guy said to me: “He’s good, but you should hear the guy who plays in Astoria on Saturday mornings. He’s so fast – he’ll play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ for ya.”

And that’s pretty much how a lot of musicians will stick in the public’s mind – if they don’t have a visual gimmick, it’s because something unusual about their repertoire resonates with a passenger who maybe only hears them for a couple of minutes.


For me, a very short setlist today, in part because the station I chose at random turned out to be not so great: 28th Street has really narrow platforms, so you can’t lean against the wall, and you definitely don’t have room to lay down a case or fake book. I had the little Martin today, luckily – it wouldn’t have worked at all with a bigger guitar. Also acoustically, because there’s three tracks, with the up and down platforms facing each other across the tunnel, it’s much noisier than a lot of other stations.

So we live and learn; but here’s what I tried out today:

People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
Bad Moon Rising – John Fogerty
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
Little Sister – (the Ry Cooder version)
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay

I ran through a few of them a couple of times, but I didn’t get through a single complete song. On “Drift Away”, I just got through “Day after day I get more confused…” when a Q train rattled past and literally kept going through the remainder of the song, as if it was an endurance contest to see who’d give up first.

The train won.

So in all I only played for less than 20 minutes today. And I probably don’t need to tell you how much I didn't make. There weren’t that many people on the platform, to be fair, and New York had a huge thunderstorm this morning so a lot of people had dripping umbrellas with them. Not really conducive to musical tolerance, I guess.

I cut it short in part because I just couldn’t hear myself, but also because an R train pulled in and as the doors opened, there was a sensational version of “My Girl” happening inside the carriage, so I had to get on to listen.

It was coming from four guys who call themselves Acapella and have just great voices. They said they’ve been singing together “forever” and we talked a little about music all over the world and people who sing for the sheer joy they get out of it.

I’ll see them again as we go along – “this is our line,” they said – and I’ll tell you more about them and try to bring you some video, but if you get a chance to catch them, these guys are good.

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From 'This Day In Music' : on 9th June 1915, Les Paul was born. A pioneer of acoustics and recording techniques, he also invented the guitar Gibson named after him.

On 9th June 1972, John Hammond signed Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records.