Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?
The answer to that question isn’t always easy to figure out. Most of the time, people are rushing around,
on their ways to or from… they’re all in “get there” mode; the subway’s just the conduit, the way to
travel from here to there. I see determination in everyone’s eyes, a purpose that blinds them a little
to their surroundings. Most of them are even slightly deaf to their surroundings, too – walking around
with their smart phones, earbuds planted firmly in their ears.
Music in the subways is nothing new. When I moved to Manhattan in 1977, there were musicians in the
subways back then, too. They wandered through the train cars. Most of them were pretty awful. Many
were just singing a Capella and asking for change. Occasionally, a grubby guy with a guitar might pass
through and surprise everyone by being really talented.
Things were much more raw then. The car interiors were plastered with graffiti. Very few of them were air
conditioned in the summer. Most were equipped with fans that blew the sweltering, foul air around. The
windows in the cars could actually be opened, and when they were, it was better to close them. The air
in the tunnels was broiling, sooty and rank. Unlike now, the cars were much more active; people were always
coming in and out of the doors on each end. Some people even rode outside, between the cars. Coming home
late at night, with just a few people scattered around in the seats, it was ominous, put your senses on
Just another summer afternoon in a scorching subway car, there I am, soaked to the skin on the way home
from work. Into the car comes a huge man wider than the opening in the door. His deep ebony skin is
glistening with sweat, his eyes are bright and his smile, well, his smile is a blissful. Hanging from
a strap around his massive neck is a beautifully hand-hammered Jamaican steel drum. His rich, sweet
voice cuts through the heat, soaring above the racket of the train as he says, “Ladies and gentlemen,
good afternoon to y’all, my name is William. I know it’s hot and y’all are on your way home, ya’ll have
busy lives. I want y’all to know y’all are now in the safest subway car in New York City. No one has
ever been mugged, robbed or molested in a subway car when I’m in it! So, please, just relax and enjoy.”
William begins to play that drum and the music pours out over the crowd. The man is fantastic. Soon,
we’re all smiling. When William’s done, almost everyone bursts into applause. “Thank y’all kindly,
ladies and gentlemen. And anything y’all can spare as I pass through to the next car will be most
appreciated. Thank y’all for listening. Get home safe.”
As William passes me, I hand him two dollars; it’s all I have on me, change from my lunch. I stand up and
shake his hand. “You are a pure joy, William.” I tell him. It catches him up short, I think. His
exuberant eyes soften and his crowd pleasing smile turns to one of quiet surprise. I can only guess that
while lots of people give him their change, no one has ever taken him by the hand and spoken to him before.
That day on the train – that’s when I knew: someday, I wanted to be able play music down in the subway.
“Are you insane?” my friends asked me when I told them what I was planning to do. “You don’t know who’s
going to come up to you. What if someone grabs your tips? What are you going to do when homeless people
hang around while you’re playing? You could get killed in the subway!”
Today, that’s exactly where I am.
About eight years ago, I auditioned for Music Under New York, made the cut, and I’ve been playing the
subways whenever I can.
Today is like most days down here. It’s noisy, it’s chaos. People rush around in waves as each subway
train arrives and departs. All of the motion has a visible rhythm – the flow speeds up as people hear
a train arriving one flight down, counterpointed by the slower, steady trudge of people exiting the
cars and trudging up the stairs. There are usually a few flurries, arpeggios of scurrying passengers
frantic to try to make it downstairs and into a train. I begin putting the instrument together, get
out my cables, connect the theremin and my iPod (it holds all the musical accompaniments that I play
along with) to the amplifier. I take the theremin carrying case and lay it wide open on the floor
about six feet in front of me, seed it with a few dollars. Everyone’s oblivious. Until the music starts.
Judging by the look on some of the faces, the question surfaces in my mind: “It’s music to whose ears?”
The theremin’s ethereal, ambient voice wafts out, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. The people
farthest from me hear the music but can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. Others walking fairly close by
can spot me, see that there’s music emanating from my vicinity but they can’t connect what I’m doing to
what they’re hearing. The looks on their faces range from startled to bewildered to utterly spooked.
Every now and then someone will see me and shoot a hostile glance my way, but the majority of passersby
who are within about fifteen feet of me either slow down or stop to look. Some of the ones who stop come
closer to really watch.
I catch the eye of a striking young woman who, I’ve noticed, has been watching me from different
positions around the station. We smile at one another, and as I finish what I’m playing she approaches.
Her name is Georgia, she’s in investment counseling, but in college she studied religious philosophy.
She, too, has been watching the reactions of everyone. She’s as fascinated as I am; she associates
their behavior with what happens when people encounter magic. Georgia explains how people who encounter
something magical are likely to feel threatened. They witness something they have no frame of reference
for and confusion, insecurity and even fear can set in. But if they take the time to examine, as the
explanation emerges, their apprehension dissolves.
This is exactly what’s happening all afternoon. People who obviously don’t even know one another gather
in little knots and I can tell they’re tossing ideas back and forth – what’s he doing? – how is he
making that music? – what the hell is that bizarre box with the two antennas and how can a Beatles song
be coming from it? In what universe does Clair De Lune come from some nut who’s waving his hands around?
I’m forever motioning people to come closer and try the theremin for themselves. The more adventurous
among them will approach and, with a little coaxing, wiggle their fingers in the field generated by the
pitch rod – the vertical antenna.
The experience is transformational; everyone, regardless of age, sex, personality – each becomes as
fascinated as a child. Any barriers between us as humans fall away for just a few minutes and we’re all
happy, talking, exploring. This is why I’m here. I rarely, if ever, recoup in tips what it costs me to
park at the train station, purchase a round-trip ticket for Manhattan, and then pay for the subway rides
to and from the playing location. It’s never been about that. Eventually, each person goes his or her
own way again and in all likelihood, the barriers go back up quickly.
A young man, about six-three, walks directly up to face me. He’s wearing black sweats, immaculately
clean, tan work boots, a black hoody and opaque sunglasses. His hands hang down, clasped in front of his
crotch. His voice is resonant and confrontational. “I need two dollars. Can I have two dollars.” He’s,
not asking. There’s no rise in his tone where a question mark would be. He’s telling me to give
him two dollars, almost daring me to say no.
I stop playing. “Convince me.”
“What?” He sounds thrown, gathering anger.
“Convince me. What do you need two dollars for?”
“I need to get food.”
“All right. Now, take off the hood.”
“Take off the hood.”
“Now, take off the sunglasses and ask me if you can have two dollars. Man, if I’m going to give you two
dollars I want to see who I’m giving it to.”
He takes off the sunglasses and asks, still on edge, “Can I have two dollars?”
I smile and reach out to shake his hand. “What’s your name?”
“Hi, Maurice. I’m Kip. Go ahead and take your two dollars.”
He does not return my smile, but quickly reaches down, his eyes never leaving mine, grabs two dollars
and walks off looking calmer, but confused.
For a few seconds, Georgia just looks at me, speechless. Then, we continue talk together as if nothing
The voices of my friends echo in the back of my head, “Are you insane?”
Maybe, just a little.
NOTES FROM THE STREET
Part Three – How To Book A Gig In The Subway