I ventured out again to try out a pitch at the 51st and Lexington station, in a beautiful passageway that connects the 6 train with the E and M lines. It’s one of those tunnels you just fall in love with – tiled walls, great acoustics, good funneling points… I’d last been there on a Sunday and it was quite deserted, so I decided to have a go at early rush hour, arriving around four (10.27.10).
Upon exiting the train I noticed the entire place was flooded with the sound of an amplified bass. A very bad, very loud one. It got louder as I rode the escalator up to the passageway – he leaned back against the wall just before the split off for the uptown 6 trains, all dreads and dirt and dazed-looking and playing random single notes with tons of reverb. The passageway is long and L-shaped, however, so by the bend his sound had nearly disappeared and I set up at that pinch, with my back to the beautiful yellow/blue tiled wall, facing a fountain you can make out past the turnstiles, but not so loud that I couldn’t be heard. I started off with John Mayer’s Say. It felt comfortable there.
People rushed right past in huge bustling waves, jostling each other and too much in a hurry to stop. They were packed in tightly, four or five abreast and endlessly stretching each way, faces set in scowls and stressed “Shit, I’m late!” expressions. Some offered me shy smiles as they whirled past… I knew it would not be a lucrative outing. A young black couple observed me from across the way, perhaps waiting for someone crouched up against the opposite wall as they were, and smiled encouragingly. I tried another song but towards the end of it I noticed the sound of another guitar. About thirty feet to my right another busker of a similar mode was playing happily away. I think I was notified more by the furtive gazes of the passersby, so lost was I in my own music.
I finished my song and went to chat to him – amiable rather than confrontational as I’ve been in the past. As I packed my guitar he finished an excellent played rendition of Here Comes the Sun – with more licks and integrated harmonizing guitar lines than I’ve ever tried. I started my conversation with him praising that arrangement. He told me he’d been playing a bit further down (I saw his things and believed him) so I must not have seen him and started during one of his short breaks, stressing how much he would respect the “first come, first serve” privilege of buskers. I liked him immediately.
He introduced himself as Larry. A small many, wiry without being muscular, prominent blue veins running like circuits all about his skin gathering particularly thick around his neck. He looked shabby in his clothes and played looking towards the feet he shuffled in little windshield wiper arcs to the rhythm. His manner was earnest and nervous in a courteous “after-you” sort of way. I would relate our conversation – one of the most memorable in my life – but I can’t, for it lasted nearly two hours.
He spoke of his past – of the opportunities he let go and the reasons he may have let them pass like that. We spoke of finance, of the way many we’ve noticed in this city talk about nothing besides money, like it’s the end goal, and how that’s strange and soul-less to us. He gave me tips on playing and living – his flat cost him hardly 400 a month and he lived with a phenomenal drummer he loved to jam and record with. And yes, he was an absolutely excellent guitarist – not much of a singer, but he knew how to play. I had him sing me a couple of his songs and they showcased his breadth and versatility. A pair of classical guitar slinging Mexican buskers watched (and most importantly listened) appreciatively as he played away from the corridor to me herd mentality, waiting for him to notice them. As Larry turned about they nodded and smiled in acknowledgment of his talent before moving on, slowly.
Towards the end of our conversation he went methodically through all the stations he’d played at in the past nine years and gave me advice concerning them. Apparently his tips had dropped about thirty percent last May, coinciding with the oil spill for whatever reason and have continued to slide since. It helped console what I noticed about the decrease in tippage I’ve experienced as compared to my last stint in May. He loved my cover of Mad World, lauding my potential and telling me how it takes him months of practice to get a cover just right, and how he makes sure to cover all different types of music. As we parted he called out to me:
“Do you know the secret to becoming a great musician?”
Fifteen feet away already I answered, “What’s that?”
And a young, sharply dressed black girl caught between us suppressed a laugh at the street musicians speaking of greatness.
After a quick stop at Kirk’s to finish my leftover fried rice I tried out one of his pitches (of old, he warned me it was no longer so good, but that nothing really was anymore): at 77th and Lexington, downtown. I earned nothing in the twenty minutes I played there. It was simply too busy. I felt crushed against the wall though I stood near the jutting out foot of the stairwell with each wave of coughed up passengers charging madly for the exit. Though it was past seven at night, these were workers anxious to find their way home. Larry advised I avoid rush hour of this very reason, and for the herd mentality, the bystander effect where no one will tip since no else is tipping and everyone feels the need to make up every inch of space before them for fear of being noticed as different and holding others up… I’d expected rush hour to have abated by then, but sadly, New York brokers no such kindness on its denizens.
Earnings: $0, 30 minutes
Song of the Day: Mad World – Tears for Fears