Monday, June 8, 2009

'Start me up'

It was important to me symbolically that this journey started here. I arrived at the station this morning the same way I used to when I worked at Forbes.

Except this time I’m staying on the platform.

For a year and a half I’d walked past subway musicians here, either on my way to work or my way home. I’d listen and occasionally put a dollar or so in their case, but generally, like everyone else at this busy intersection, I’d walk by and pretty much take them for granted.

As I found out today, it’s not so busy after rush hour.

There was a pan flute player set up on the platform when I arrived: amplified, backing tapes, CDs for sale, the whole deal. We nodded as I passed and I moved down to the other end and opened my guitar case.

It was hot and humid and noisy, but I found a nice corner that was a naturally resonant spot.

When a train pulls in, the sound of its idling is so loud that the passengers getting off can’t hear you if you’re still playing, so you might as well wait until it pulls out and start over, except that now there’s no-one on the platform.

So you end up playing each song maybe twice, or one-and-a-half times, determined by the intervals between trains. Usually that’s two or three minutes; but occasionally it can be a little longer.

But it’s normally long enough for at least one complete song.

I played fourteen songs a couple of times or so, in just over an hour. Here’s the scorecard:

Nods and smiles : Plenty (one guy even sang along with one song)
Change in guitar case : Zero

Nothing. Unless you count the dime I found on the platform (and, yes, I am – it’s possible someone with a really bad throw meant me to have it). So all told I ended up $1.90 out of pocket today.

When I was done, I could hear the pan flute guy was still playing further along the platform, so I went up and waited for the song he was playing to finish, said hello and asked if I could come back and interview him when he wrapped up.

We agreed to meet there at 2.30, so I had lunch and came back at 2.00, with the intention of video-ing him playing, but he was gone. I tried the downtown platform, but no luck (you can pretty much hear when someone is playing anywhere in the station and then just follow the sound), so I got my guitar out and played for another 15-20 minutes in his spot, on the off chance that he might come back.

Then I rode the F train up and downtown for an hour to see if there was anyone playing on the trains before heading home to Brooklyn. The only guy who was getting any action was a beggar whose single selling point, as far as I could tell, was that he had a hat.

HE did better than me today.

But I gave out a few cards and told people about the blog, including a guy who struck up a conversation with me about Billy Bragg and was very useful in pointing me to where some good bands and performers are playing at the moment, under – and over – ground.

As he said though, “there’s no energy on that platform” (at 14th Street). And he’s right. It’s a busy stop, sure, and the MUNY acts who play on the Union Square concourse upstairs have a great stage (I'll get to them later in the week). But the F/V platforms are pretty dead.

But that wasn’t the point of today.

Call it ‘on-the-job training’ if you will, it meant that I know for sure that this is a tough gig. But somehow at the end of it I’d reclaimed this station. The symmetry of starting where I’d finished a year ago was significant.

Tomorrow will be better. And I learned that when I have a potential interview, especially with the ‘genuine sound of the Andes’, I’ll try to do it there and then.

So in total, I played for about 70 minutes this morning, then maybe another 15-to-20 this afternoon when the pan flutist was a no-show.

An hour and a half.

For a dime.

But I’m not discouraged.

The first time I ever played in the subway, about fifteen years ago in London, it was pretty much by accident. I was bringing a guitar back from being restrung at a shop in Denmark Street. After wandering around downtown for a while I went into Green Park tube station to head home. For whatever reason, there were delays on the line I needed, so I found myself in the passage between the escalators and the platform. Someone shouted “give us a tune, then”, so I opened my case, got out my guitar – an old Washburn as I remember; I no longer have it – and played a few verses of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. No money whatsoever. Nada.

Fair enough. The only way is up.

Today’s songlist:

Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay
Here Comes The Sun – The Beatles
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door – Bob Dylan
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
Shattered Cross – Stuart Adamson
The Weight – The Band
The Promised Land – Bruce Springsteen
Who’ll Stop The Rain – John Fogerty
The Only Living Boy In New York – Paul Simon
You’re The World To Me – David Gray
How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live? – Bruce Springsteen
The Waiting – Tom Petty
Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits
Peace Love and Understanding – Elvis Costello


Thanks to Neil Cossar’s excellent book ‘This Day In Music’ (Collins and Brown), we learn that on June 8th 1967, The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” went to Number One in the British album charts. It cost 25,000 pounds ( about $42,000) to produce, and required over 700 hours of studio time. It was also the first album to print the song lyrics on the sleeve.


I had a headhunter call me a few months back, to ask if I was interested in working here. I told her that no matter how broke or desperate I was, I simply could not, because part of my soul would be taken that I could never hope to get back. To which she said: “so that’s a no, then?”


  1. Great set list, very appropriate. Especially liked the Elvis Costello set ender!

  2. Please post your set list every day (this one was great BTW). I will follow along on my iPod. Also - since you are contributing the proceeds to charity - please consider setting up a virtual "guitar case" where we can contribute.

  3. Thanks, Tom!
    Linda - nice idea: I'll look into that.
    All the best;

  4. That's a very good starting songlist, specially for Dire Straits and The Beatles...Unfortunately the Subway's administration in my city doesn't allow musicians to play inside their stations... even if it were for a documentary such as yours...