Continuing with the reflective/wankerly theme for posts today….
I’ve spent a lot of this summer in New York City and the Bay Area, and I realize that one of the things I miss about living in those places is all the street/subway performers. I always try to give those guys money, because they make waiting in line or waiting for a subway or riding the subway a lot less unpleasant. I’m sure they get annoying for the people who are nearby all day, because I know they play the same stuff over and over again, but for five minutes, they’re great. Last night, I dreamt I was in a city somewhere where on every street corner some great jazz musician was playing for change.
There was a great article by Gene Weingarten a few years ago, where he has renowned violinist play for change on the Washington subway. It caught a lot of flack for being elitist, you know “ha ha, these idiots don’t appreciate a real virtuoso”, and that was partly because of an unfortunate title, “Pearls Before Breakfast”. But I think it was really about how some people like stuff street performers and some people don’t. The people who stopped to listen to Bell play weren’t all sophisticated NPR listeners, they were a mix of different kinds of people.
What’s your take on street performers?
I remember that Gene Weingarten article. He actually won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Then months later he found out the stunt was not original, and somebody had done virtually the same thing about 50 years before.
I love street performers. There aren’t as many here in Philly as in New York, but I try to encourage them. In New York you’ll even get guys who come on to the subway cars themselves. I’m sure a lot of commuters would say not to encourage them, but if it’s a good show I will in fact give them a couple of bucks.
There are some regulars who seem to be in Washington Square every time I’m there, including one group of tumblers.
Edited to add: Found Weingarten’s oopsie article. The previous stunt was in Chicago in 1930. The violinist was Jacques Gordon.
It’s one of the great things about living in a city.
Just Some Fuckhead
I think it was more prolly more likely that people were using the subway in its intended way as a mode of transportation to get from point a to point be in a relatively timely manner in order to be on time for an appointment or get to work or otherwise be somewhere else and less to do with whatever mindbendingly stupid point they tried to make about not appreciating teh most amazing violinist ever.
Stick him in a mall around early afternoon and see if he gets ignored.
Hint: he won’t be.
Like you I truly miss that here in DC. I used to love the little groups that would get on my subway car, play from one station to the next then jump out and switch cars. My favorites were the mariachis and doo woop groups. And I always gave them some money.
Only exception may be the chinese violin that sounds like a strangled cat. Those players never got anything from me.
Eh, I thought the Weingarten stunt was a little contrived. Yes, it was a virtuoso performance. But it was also in the subway, during rush hour, when people have to get to work. I might not have stopped myself under similar circumstances — if you have to get to work, you have to get to work, no matter what else is going on.
Metrosexual Black AbeJ
Once on the New York subway, a bunch of kids got on and did this crazy tumbling act for about five minutes, with the subway moving. I don’t remember if they even asked for money or not, if they did, if they did it was half-assed, they just wanted to get on the subway and do a complicated tumbling act for people. The crowd loved it.
It was on my way from the airport (I’m one of those cheapskates that takes the train in), and it made me think how much I’d missed the place.
Metrosexual Black AbeJ
@Just Some Fuckhead: @Rafer Janders:
Very good points all around. I’d forgotten it was at rush hour. (I usually take the subway as a tourist these days.)
In Seattle one of the bus tunnels comes up to street level right next to the concert hall where the Seattle Symphony plays. There is almost always a guitarist or other performer there plying their trade because the acoustics of the tunnel are magical. And there’s a sweet spot where you can hear both the performer and the symphony rehearsing. It’s fantastic.
Just Some Fuckhead
@Metrosexual Black AbeJ: To me, the whole thing really underscored how out of touch you elites are that you expect everyone to have the same level of affluence and ease of schedule.
The free market of street performers has not been very good this summer. Too many bangonacanallstars wannabees.
It’s been years since I have taken the DC METRO regularly, but there was always someone playing something at the Crystal City stop back when the PTO was located there.
Street performers are better than bored kids selling candy bars from battered boxes while claiming to be raising money for something.
Metrosexual Black AbeJ
@Just Some Fuckhead:
Might make some sense — a little — were it not for the fact that the crowds that gather for street performers are invariably disproportionately non-elite.
But carry on with your usual bullshit, anyway. Facts have never stopped you before.
Just Some Fuckhead
@Metrosexual Black AbeJ: lolz
You and mistermix are really starting to butch it up.
I’m for it if the performer is good. However, here in DC-burbia you get a lot of bad performances in public places. So, yeah, I guess I’m a snob.
Added: And you will generally get better performers in NY and San Francisco, for obvious reasons.
OT: Opinions will vary, but I fully believe this portends the end of the ACA and likely upholding AZ et al’s right to make immigration policy as they wish. And God knows what else.
I was always a fan of Mary Lou Lord.
I really dig street performers (and usually give them overly generous amounts of cash), but then again I usually only encounter them as a tourist when visiting a large city.
Periodically some turn up on the main street of my small college town, and I am usually pretty happy about it, except for when I recognize them as some “slumming” children of some of my university colleagues. And I can never quite decide if I am being an asshole for finding those kids annoying instead of enjoyable. (True art requires suffering, etc., etc., which there is no denying is a profoundly uncool position for me to take. I think I’d find it less annoying if they weren’t so obviously trying to look like homeless people.) But I will insist on this: The music of the random adult buskers is always better than that of the professors’ kids.
I love street performers and Madison provides quite a few opportunities. One of the major points of this stunt was to see if folks in the midst of rush hour would stop to smell the flowers.
I worked within earshot of San Francisco Union Square, and many, many days did I rue the street performers.
The guy going ‘ehooo’ in a fancy suit ( different every day). Did other stuff, but that’s the only part that carried 10 stories up.
The bad kid trumpet player, ‘bum bada bum bum… bum bump’
The guy hitting plastic junk with sticks arthymically, the guy with the chinese guitar that is amplified, they’d none of them be missed.
Some performers are decent, so I won’t ship them all off.
Villago Delenda Est
I mean, how decent are the acoustics in a subway station for the appreciation of a virtuoso performance, anyway?
Still, street performers are frankly more of a positive force in the economy than a thousand Jamie Dimons.
@Punchy: Thankfully the Republicans have packed the court with judges who don’t like judicial activism.
danah gaz (fka gaz)
@DougJ: What you said. I love street performers of all kinds. They add flavor. Having lived on Broadway for years in Seattle they were outside my place fairly regularly, and I never got tired of them. However, they’re not out in as much force as they are in SF so there’s that. I always make a point to give them money. Always.
Also, the “Lilly man” used to set up shop right outside the front door of my building. Oh how I loved that. The smell is gift from God. They are my favorite flowers. I used to love early and mid summer for that – I’d hang out on the fire escape and people watch, with those fantastic flowers below making everything so much nicer. The rest of the year, it was the smell of good coffee, as my building was attached to the best fucking espresso stand you will ever know. (Vivace shout out). So that was nice too, but summer was special.
I listen to classical a whole bunch, and am otherwise a big fruity elitist, I probably wouldn’t notice Joshua Bell in the subway either.
I loved the street performers when I lived in Philly. Mostly they played in the El-subway interchange area; the very best was a saxophone player outside the underground post office who was so good he could make me cry.
One evening an excellent accordionist was playing as he walked down the street where I lived in “the neighborhoods.” Odd but wonderful.
Exurbia is bleak.
A thread on street performers and no mention of the movie “Once”? Falling down on the job. I love that film I think I heard they’re making a Broadway show out of it. Not sure if that’ll be good or not.
Best street performer I ever heard was in the Taipei subway. Great acoustics. Extremely talented. I’d just stand around and listen to him, which I almost never do.
@Villago Delenda Est: Subway station acoustics are great for doowop virtuosos and street corner preachers.
I can’t stand mimes. They give me the creeps.
I’m from New Orleans so I like street performers. But then people expect that from NOLA. DC is so uptight that I think “the very serious people” think it is frivolous and annoying.
@Violet: They did make a Broadway show, and it just cleaned up at the Tony awards.
Oh, right. See how much I pay attention to Broadway. Haven’t been to New York in years, let alone go to a show. I guess it must be good if did that well at the Tony’s.
Edited because my computer has gone wonky and previous sentence made no sense.
James K. Polk, Esq.
@Metrosexual Black AbeJ: Thanks for the great article, I hadn’t ever read that before.
Listening to those Bell pieces mentioned(thanks YouTube) while reading the article was thoroughly enjoyable.
Steve in DC
If you take the subway everyday performers tend to be obnoxious. They can draw crowds to areas where you want free movement, they often attract bums and other panhandlers or pick pockets, and most people are in a rush. You learn to tune it out or ignore it.
If you wanted to draw a crowd a better place would be in one of the public parks near the office buildings. Do it during lunch and you’d probably get a crowd.
If I see a performer of any sort of the subway or near the station my first thought is they are trying to scam money from tourists and just move on as quick as possible.
There are a couple that do it “correctly” around my office and shoot for the giant square in the center of the Farragut stations during lunch. Though Occupy kinda killed that off, after the noise, smell, and mess of that fiasco many people no longer tolerate anybody there.
you mean like this guy?
Steve in DC
It depends where you are. The problem we have here is a majority of street performers love to clog up the areas around subway stations. Before you can blink you’ll have a band, performers, people selling sunglasses and umbrellas, flower stands, whatever… right smack on the corner of a major intersection outside of the subway. Shortly after you’ll get a contingent of homeless people asking for cash, and kids demanding money for fake sports programs or else they’ll turn to a life of crime!
In other areas that are full of bars, have public parks and squares, nobody seems to mind it and many people enjoy it. I don’t mind people singing and dancing around when I’m out in U Street or AM getting a drink. I do mind the cluster fuck at Farragut West every morning on the way to work. The guys at Rosslyn are hit or miss, they are rather good, but they insist on setting up shop right where everybody stands inline for the bus creating a huge mess… even though there is a park right across the street.
@ant: That guy has rhythm.
Belafon (formerly anonevent)
Remember these sentences as you write about hating music or movies or books other people like.
In 1992 the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs did a summer art installation called “Music Everywhere”. The city hired thousands of street musicians and assigned places for them to perform. In addition they had people handing out harmonicas and kazoos, and had keyboards and guitars situated in busy places for people to use whenever they wanted.
It was cool to see an impromptu jam band form, consisting of total strangers rock out for a song or two on the way to a train station. One guy may be a lawyer and another a student and maybe throw in a hard hat construction worker all rocking out to the same song. Everybody started smiling and having a great time! As the lawyer guitarist was walking away his friend (or coworker, whatever) said “I didn’t know you played the guitar”. The lawyer answered “Hey, I grew up in the sixties. It was mandatory”.
It was a great way to get people together and smiling during the rat race of the day.
(Sorry, this is the only article I could find about ti)
My favorites were the harp player in the train station and the hammer dulcimer player on the ceramic tiled subway platform. What acoustics!
@Belafon (formerly anonevent): Nah, Nickelback is just wrong.
In other words, you dreamed you went to New Orleans?
I’m in favor of street musicians, myself. When we were in Chicago a few years ago, there was a string quartet of high school students playing near Water Tower Place that was raising money for a trip. I think we gave them $5.
It’s also fun when professionals do a flash mob, like the Opera Company of Philadelphia at Reading Terminal Market.
Urban culture places a premium on private space. New York City, as an example, has a population of eight and a quarter million confined to a land area of just over three hundred square miles. Private space is a cherished commodity, and people will try and maintain the illusion of private space to counteract the social pressures of living in a vast sea of humanity.
This often has the effect on outsiders of convincing them than city dwellers are innately indifferent towards others, a conclusion that is largely accurate (if often misconstrued as rudeness). People who live in cities will ignore others because they feel they need to; if they don’t, they will be consumed by the throng around them and not be able to go about the business of their own lives. Connected to this is the notion that people who make a public spectacle of themselves are being invasive, against which the first defense is to ignore them.
Street performers fit into this category; their ultimate goal is to distract others from the business of their daily lives , and hopefully in a positive fashion so they can get some money for the effort. City dwellers may not want the distraction, but they very often need it.
Summer doesn’t start until June 20.
I love it in the subway stations, but I’m not as big a fan in the subway cars. Though one day the doo-wop trio and the mariachi guys got onto the car I was in at the same time, and I got really excited, hoping for a musical throw-down. Instead, the mariachi guys deferred to the doo-wop guys and let them perform, though the mariachi guys provided some accompaniment at the end.
However, I’ll take even that annoying accordion player over the damn subway preachers.
Low quality mariachi groups on the R between 36th and 59th street in Brooklyn are not a value add at all. They’re marginally better than the enormously fat panhandler I generally encounter but I’d rather have neither. And bad bands playing as loudly as possible in the acoustic nightmare that is the Atlantic/Pacific station should never do that if they want anyone to listen or give them money.
My first experience of New York City was in one of the subway tunnels — loooooong and lined with white tiles — and a group of guys were playing crazy drums, congas and I don’t know what else. Ba dadda ba da, ba dadda ba da, ba dadda ba dadda, under the city, echoing, strangers hurrying, everyone moving to the beat. I loved it.
In Paris once I heard an outstanding Russian men’s chorus on the street and bought their CD.
Toronto has lots of good ones, too. There’s a guy who does really nice bluegrass guitar at St. Lawrence market.
What’s not to like?
@Mnemosyne: They also organized a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah Chorus at Macy’s in Philly. I was one of the 600-odd voices.
As a resident coastal elitist, I love buskers, even when they are annoying. Good art comes from it, it is sometimes entertaining, and fuck the man, if people want to art it up in public, go for it. We aren’t. Fucking Toledo.
I feel the quality is generally better in NYC. But San Francisco has charms. Now living nearby, I dig the guy who plays bucket drums on lower Market st. many nights. On the other hand, Doors Refugee Dude with Portable Amp just needs to stick to panhandling on Haight.
If you can catch the Muppets playing xylophone around the west village subways (they don’t do it often, I only saw them twice in eight years), it is golden, totally worth $20.
Now back to Gene Krupa’s syncopated style, shortly.
@Metrosexual Black AbeJ:
Those of us who grew up in small southern towns were also regularly entertained by “street performers”, except they were eccentric neighbors “acting naturally” going about their daily lives among us. In my home town, we had a universally beloved village idiot who back in childhood had suffered brain damage from a prolonged high fever, the most notable effect of which was the entertaining stream of confabulations any conversation with him always included, spoken in his characteristic deep southern drawl. If you encountered anyone from my hometown who knew him and drawled the line “…now back when I was an air-plane pi-lot…” they would smile and instantly recognize who and what your were talking about. He rode a Schwinn bicycle about town equipped with a flashlight as long as your leg and often, a shotgun. Fortunately, he retained enough judgment to never to endanger anyone with it.
Despite his entertainingly deranged mentality, he managed to make himself a genuinely valuable, appreciated citizen of the town, rescuing people’s cats from trees and other sundry useful tasks, and made spending money by doing yardwork for people. He was not at all self-conscious or resentful over his mental impairment, in fact he didn’t even seem to be aware that he was eccentrically different at all, which was part of what made him so charming to those who knew him. He died several years ago, and I understand that hundreds of people turned out for his funeral.
As for the best performers I’ve encountered, I’d have to go with the “D.C. Drummers,” a small group of street performers (I don’t know if they’re actually affiliated with each other in any organizational respect) who’ve been banging on trash cans, paint buckets, and metal pots at least as far back as when I lived there in the late 90s. I once saw one, stayed for about two minutes, then passed by him again a few hours later and he was maintaining the same groove.
@Mnemosyne: That was beautiful!
Also, chasing a mime on a tricycle.
“You won’t be so lucky next time”.
@Jamie: Which Muppets? Fuzzy Bear, Grover, or Elmo? It makes a difference.
It’s kind of interesting, I’ve encountered street performers on subway cars in Philadelphia, Chicago, DC and NYC, but not SF. There are performers at the SF stations, but not on the trains. That struck me as odd, because there are creative people in SF. The only thing I could think of is, that unlike eastern cities, their culture is Type B.
Metrosexual Black AbeJ
Great southern story.
i love street performers. a couple of months ago, i was in a at a stop in the london underground. i heard a version of nights in white satin that i thought was about as good as the moodies. huge fan.
There’s a pretty good street performer tradition in Boston-and-Cambridge (lots of colleges, including one of the best musical colleges in the world, plus molto totebaggers). The T (subway) requires performers to get a permit, and compliance obviously isn’t perfect, but it does indicate that the idea is regarded as a legitimate part of the urban community.
My Manhattan-born-and-bred, city-worker dad would say, “When you can, give money to buskers — they’re offering you a gift.”
@cmorenc: I’m not sure what this has to do with street buskers, but this is a great story.
When visiting D.C. in the late nineties I saw a group of drummers draw a crowd of over a hundred people near one of the circles. They were great. Probably members of the same group you mention.
I love buskers. Part of it is just the surprise of what different people can do. Some aren’t very good, but then I come across some who I think only bad luck kept them from being stars, or whose talent is unique and fun but unmarketable.
I live in the Virginia Beach resort area and the city hires street performers during the summer tourist season. Last night I went for a walk and saw a Frank Sinatra style singer, a ventriloquist, a very cute girl with hula hoops, a tremendous saxophone player, and a guy who balanced a lawn mower on his nose.
In St. Louis, where I lived and worked for many years, busking is illegal and makes a dead downtown even more dead.
In the evening there are always a couple of street performers in Old Town Alexandria, VA just outside of DC. I always give them some money even though they are not particularly good.
There also used to be a few street performers around Union Station.
Just Some Fuckhead
They do some stuff in fountain plaza in town center too. The boy’s jazz band played there outside a few weekends ago.
When I was living in Philly in the mid to late 80s, an excellent violinist, probably from the Curtis Institute, would come down and perform near South Street. In those circumstances, he had a good sized audience and did quite well. The rush hour experiment was a bit hard on people with no time to think about what they were hearing.
I was in downtown Bethesda Wednesday night and there was a violinist playing outside and he got a lot of applause from the people who had gathered over there, drawn by the playing.
I was across the street waiting outside the Apple store so I don’t know if the violinist made money or not…and yes I’m aware that the fact that it’s in restaurant row in downtown Bethesda across the street from Apple makes it the height of elitism but when I used to take the DC Metro, there was usually some performer outside at the top of the elevators and if they were good, they were able to make money.
I have seen some performers that I really think are better than some “professional” performers. I especially appreciate when at the height of a busy day a bit of music can make everyone around relax just a bit. To any who have that skill keep it up.
Metrosexual Black AbeJ
I got to go back sometime. Maybe my favorite place I’ve ever visited.
@Just Some Fuckhead:
The first time I saw “Carbon Jam” was in Town Center plaza about three years ago. They were high school freshman at the time, now going into their senior year. If you haven’t seen them, they are a great young rock and roll band.
(They started at the Norfolk “School of Rock”)
Another Halocene Human
Bell should have busked in the usual haunts in Boston, but then, he probably would have been recognized.
I never even saw subway performers all the times I lived in the DC Metro area. And violinists can only perform between train arrivals. The performers who play in Boston Orange line subway stations (some similarities to Metro in operation) typically have amps.
So yeah. It was a stunt. A stupid stunt. This is why journalists ought to leave social science and/or market research to the experts.
@Another Halocene Human:
For the Washington Post stunt, the violinist was not actually in the metro system but was at the top of the escalator at L-Enfant Plaza in the La Promenade shopping center.
The article was quiet clear that Metro does not allow performers inside its system.
The Fringe festival up here celebrates all sorts of street performers, professional and not-so. It was one of the first things I attended after moving to Canada, and I just remember it being a wonderful way to be “welcomed” after a new bride and a homesick (for my family) ex-pat.
“It was said that the Patrician would tolerate absolutely anything apart from anything that threatened the city [footnote: And mime artists. It was a strange aversion, but there you are. Anyone in baggy trousers and a white face who tried to ply their art anywhere within Ankh’s crumbling walls would very quickly find themselves in a scorpion pit, on one wall of which was painted the advice: Learn The Words.]”
-Terry Pratchett, “Guards, Guards!”