Notes from the underground—above ground too

Beatbox flute and cello duo in a New York City subway station.

On the way home from dinner in Chicago’s Chinatown last Friday, we switched from the Red Line train to the Blue Line downtown at Jackson and Dearborn. It’s a busy subway station, and there are almost always performers trying to make a living there. Many are fairly ordinary, but sometimes they are wonderful.

Like Friday night. As we came up out of the tunnel to the platform, we first heard the jazz clarinet and a drum—a West African djembe drum, to be exact, an odd but beautiful match for the clarinet. Two young men stood watching the musicians more intently than most of the others on the platform. As the clarinetist nodded at one of them, we soon knew why: He began to dance.

The bright staccato clicking of the taps on his shoes added to the music. His movements were tight and precise, not the big, sweeping athletic moves of Gene Kelly. But he had his flourishes—long, rapid-fire bursts, for instance, punctuated with dramatic pauses as he balanced on his toes.

The younger man was a little less confident, a little less poised. But the clarinetist kept nodding at him, kept drawing him out, and you could see him open up a little more to performing each time. Our train pulled into the station, but Marion just said, “Let’s take the next one.” It was that kind of moment. And yes, we tipped well.

Japanese folk musician, in a New York City subway.

Subway stations and the trains themselves are home to all manner of performers. They offer at least a modicum of climate control compared to the streets and at least temporarily captive audiences. Both in Chicago and New York, performers have to audition for licenses, so there’s at least a baseline for talent too. And in New York, competition can be fierce for the best spots in the best stations.

Auditions being held in Grand Central Terminal for the MTA’s Music Under New York program.

Watching these clips—and remembering countless subway and street performances I’ve seen—I’m struck by how many people not only don’t tip, but don’t even acknowledge the performers. And I’m reminded of these lyrics of a wonderful Joni Mitchell song about seeing a musician playing a clarinet on a street corner, For Free:

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free

Yes, there is plenty of, well, crap. But when it’s wonderful, it’s truly wonderful. Marion tells the story of someone on the Paris Metro who suddenly strung up a curtain between poles and performed a short but brilliant puppet show. And once when I was in New York, a half dozen teenagers suddenly turned on a boombox in a subway car. Expecting an uninspired rap performance, I jammed my hands in my pockets, determined to keep them—and my dollars—there. Instead of rap, they broke into a well-rehearsed tumbling routine, doing cartwheels and backflips; grabbing wrists and ankles to form two-man wheels, rolling through the moving car, carefully judging the placement of the center poles as they did; hands came out—even the most jaded among us applauded. And tipped.

An especially impressive group in New York. Note how one of the horn players makes sure they get paid.

Perhaps the most amazing moment like this for me happened above ground, in Paris. My brother and I spent a week there, doing museums, cathedrals and cafés during the day and looking for music and booze at night. Every night, we would drive around aimlessly, looking for clubs. When we found a promising neighborhood, we would abandon the car. Legal parking was non-existent, and people would pull up on medians, the sidewalk or wherever and leave their cars. We did too. Unfortunately, we would always rush off without bothering to note where we’d left the car. So we would end every night wandering whatever neighborhood we’d landed in until we found it.

One such night [well, three or four in the morning, if you’re a stickler for detail] while searching for our car, we happened on a duo just setting up on the sidewalk. They had strung a couple of ropes from a tree to a ladder, one about eight feet off the ground, the other about two feet. The apparent leader, dressed in a circus ringmaster’s red coat with tails and a top hat [and inexplicably, with a big, bouncy kangaroo tail protruding between the coat tails], grabbed several people from the crowd, including me, and had us hold the vertical ladder. He told us dramatically [and in French] that the other performer’s life depended upon us.

The other performer, dressed as a mime, but by no means silent, reluctantly climbed the ladder, protesting the whole way. He then proceeded to walk the makeshift tightrope, urged on by the ringmaster’s orders, threats and whipcracking [did I forget to mention the whip?]. Soon, he was juggling too. The ringmaster worked the crowd, collecting money in his top hat. When someone tossed in a mere ten centimes, the ringmaster took it from the hat with an angry flourish, spat on it and threw it into the street.

For all the drama, the finale was serenely surreal. The tightrope walker balanced on the top rope, juggling flaming torches. The circus ringmaster balanced on the lower rope [we’d all wondered what it was for], balancing a cello in front of him and playing a sad sonata. It was like a moment from a Fellini film, only better, because it was real and it was Paris.

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10 Responses to “Notes from the underground—above ground too”

  1. Toni Says:

    Wow! What a story! San Diego doesn’t have this kind of spirit. Oh, we get musicians at the Farmer’s market on Sundays, but it doesn’t have the same grit. Used to love the musicians on the streets and in the subways in NY. Didn’t realize that there was a program for this, complete with auditions! Great post, Terry!

  2. Michelle Says:

    What a wonderful act you saw in Paris! The French are so artistic.
    I saw a puppet show in the Metro in Paris too. And in New York I saw the ‘Saw Lady’ (who has a blog where she tells about what happens when she plays the musical saw in the subway: ).
    Thank you for this post – it made me relive nice moments.

  3. Terry B Says:

    Thanks, Toni! Music Under New York is part of the Metropolitan Transit authority’s larger Arts for Transit program launched in the 1980s. Everybody benefits from this fabulous program—artists, musicians and particularly commuters.

    Michelle—I hadn’t heard of the Saw Lady. Thanks! This is what I love about subway performers in New York—the mix is far more diverse than in Chicago. You will happen on the most unexpected, wonderful moments there!

  4. Annelies Says:

    I especially can visualize the Fellini extract of a moment in Paris above. I love the music scene in New York subways- something San Francisco MUNI / BART lines have not quite encountered yet.

  5. Terry B Says:

    Annelies—Searching YouTube, I did find one violinist in the MUNI/Bart system. But New York just has that critical mass to support so much wonderful music and performance.

  6. Ronnie Ann Says:

    Hahaha! Being a New Yorker, I have to react to the perfectly chosen words “critical mass” since, with our reputation for voicing our opinion anytime anywhere, you’d think street performers would get as many razzes as raves. But for the most part, I see deep appreciation for the artists – even ones with less then awesome talent. I love that! But one of my favorite things is simply to catch the eye of the musician and let him or her know how much you enjoy what they’re doing. Even if you don’t have any spare change, you usually get a sincere “thanks man!”

    Great post, Terry!

  7. Terry B Says:

    Thanks, Ronnie Ann. I love your “critical mass” observation. One more reason I love New York and New Yorkers [and am convinced I must have been born one, then kidnapped and whisked away to the Midwest as a baby]. I figure what’s the fun of having an opinion if you don’t share it. By now, we’ve all heard of speed dating. Well, New York is the land of speed random conversations. I have had so many quick, engaging exchanges with strangers in New York—a few words traded about a passing situation and we’re both on our separate ways again. I love that. But you’re right. New Yorkers share criticism freely. For example, here’s something from one of my favorite websites, Overheard In New York:

    Midwestern man, about woman spinning in center of ice rink: Awww, someone’s reflecting on times passed.

    New Yorker: Look at that chick in the middle — thinks she’s a [f-bomb] Olympian! [Yells at her] Nice work, retard!

    —Rockefeller Center

  8. Helmut Says:

    Fascinating and well written notes. Paris does have so many great street performers! In Berlin, the S and U Bahns have beggars instead of performers. And they are a nuisance.

  9. Terry B Says:

    Helmut—I generally will not give money to beggars because I feel that I’m not supporting a person, but a habit. Musicians, on the other hand, are performing to earn a living, so I’m happy to tip them.

  10. Warm and sunny: Moroccan Braised Beef — Blue Kitchen Says:

    […] Notes from the underground—above ground too. Follow YouTube and me into the subways for some amazing live music, at What’s on the kitchen boombox? […]

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