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


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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