Sunday, November 04, 2007

Beggars and Buskers, Musicians and Thieves, Part IV

I'm running late, as usual, and am trying to find my way out of Union Square Station. I see a handy exit sign and am headed toward it when I hear a familiar-sounding song with acoustic guitar accompaniment echoing through the station. It's a young man's voice, a soft tenor, and it's pleasantly rough. I stop and listen. After a few seconds, I realize where I've heard it before. It's Dorian Spencer.

My wife discovered Dorian Spencer one day as she was fighting the crowds in Times Square. He was in the main performance area, near a colorful mural, and his simple rhythms and soft voice caught her attention. She stopped to listen for a while, and continued to stop whenever Dorian was in the station. She finally bought his album, which she played for me.

He's on another platform, so I can't easily reach him, but the acoustics are nice in that part of the station, so I lean against the wall and listen to him finish his set. When he's done, I leave and catch up with my wife.

"I heard your boy," I tell her.
"Dorian Spencer?"
She smiles, "In the subway, where he's meant to be heard."

Here's a video of Dorian. It's not bad, but it's no subway performance!

Dorian's one of the best, but he's not the only good musician on the subway. There are bluegrass bands, R&B acts, an awesome Japanese rock band, steel drummers, sitar players, jug bands, jazz groups, dulcimer players, a barbershop quartet, gospel singers, flutists, pianists, opera singers, saxophonists, bongo performers, and a lady who plays a saw. Some are incredible and some are bizarre. One act, titled "Latin American Cultural Attraction" featured a grizzled old guy with a white beard and a keyboard playing music for a bunch of dancing mechanical dolls. It was one of the stranger, more surreal things I've ever seen, and the effect was augmented by the keyboardists intensely serious fingering and soulful swaying. Clearly, he felt that he was pouring his heart out in Times Square, and the bouncing dollies were helping him drive the message home.

The best performers usually play in Times Square, Penn Station, Union Square, and the other major stations, where they have to try out before they can perform. The organization that runs this program is "Music Under New York," and it has been licensing buskers since 1985. According to its website, it currently features over 100 musical acts that perform 150 shows per week in 25 venues. Here's their webpage, which lists the incredible array of artists that they feature, along with performance sites and schedules.

This isn't to say that all the subway musicians are in league with "The Man." For a rougher sound and a more outlaw thrill, there are the quasi-legal buskers who ply their trade on the crowded subway platforms. At Times Square, there is a Japanese guy who plays a child's electric saxophone. He only seems to know "Edelweiss," but he plays it with charm and beauty.

This summer, there were a lot of steel drummers on the four line, and some of them were really good. Others could only play a few songs. One, in particular, offered his renditions of "Over the Rainbow," "God Bless America," and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in endless, overlapping repetition. In his hands, the three songs sounded remarkably similar.

One day, in the long tunnel between Bryant Park and the 7 line, I heard a bagpiper. I love bagpipes and, having visited Scotland a few times, I have some incredible memories with bagpipers on the soundtrack. That having been said, bagpipes in a narrow, tile-lined tunnel are downright sadistic, and my ears were ringing for most of the evening.

My wife has made a study of the subway musicians and has rated them on a variety of scales, but I'm an uneducated observer. I like most of them, even the talentless guy in Grand Central who dresses like Michael Jackson but resembles Little Richard. He can't sing and he can't dance, but he looks fabulous in a gold-sequined jacket and white glove. I even gave him a quarter one day, just because he (literally) lit up my life for a few seconds.

Labels: , , , , ,


  • What a very colorful life you are now living in. Its amazing you are seeing these super cool things and drinking it in rather then blindly being annoyed like a lot of NY'ers. Very cool.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At November 4, 2007 at 9:20 PM  

  • The first time I entered the NY subway system, I was blown away. The talent, the crazy, the teeming. DC's subway is so very...federal.

    By Anonymous Franki, At November 5, 2007 at 7:43 AM  

  • Didn't Jeff Buckley used to do the same thing?


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At November 5, 2007 at 11:30 AM  

  • Pool-
    Thanks! I'm trying to record my memories of all this right now, while it's still fresh. Let me know if I'm getting too boring!

    God knows there's no absence of talent in the DC area. The subways need some performance spaces, though.

    My wife, who's a huge Buckley fan isn't sure. His Wikipedia entry is non-committal. Still, I can easily imagine him working the subways.

    By Blogger Crankster, At November 5, 2007 at 7:50 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home