Thursday, September 29, 2016


I moved to Brooklyn from Austin, Texas, where there are at least 150 live music venues not even including small coffee shops, cafe brunches, and live-music dancing at grocery stores on weekends. A lot of it is free with the meal (or the grocery shopping). I never saw anyone playing on the street. It just wasn't necessary.

New York isn't really a city with available music. There are famous clubs - Birdland, Cafe Wha?, Blue Note, Smoke - but they aren't cheap, not remotely. You have to buy your tickets in advance and
the shows are an hour long usually and then you are expected to leave to make room for the audience at the second show. There are a couple of accessible places in Brooklyn, but this blog is about subway music, which I consider the best New York City music venue.

I just finished reading Underground by Matthew Nichols about the five years he spent as a subway busker. Taken from diaries he kept, the book is a raw, passionate view of the life of an artist and an interior view of the mind of a musician. Anyone who's experienced the struggle of trying to make a living as a musician, painter, dancer, actor, writer, potter, can relate to Nichols' story. There's the passion for his art form which is what keeps him going amidst the frustrations of dealing with and competing with other musicians, the mood swings from elation to despair, the money shortage, and the hassles from the police (You aren't supposed to use an amp in the subway stations, but how else will anyone hear above the din of the trains and people?).

It's an amazing book because not only do you get a sense of Nichols' life, you get to see what the subway is like for the commuters, which is far different from the tourists who are only around for a week or so and miss a lot of the drama. Be prepared for strong emotion - particularly toward commuters who listen for a long time and don't put money in the hat - and strong language, which you're used to if you ride the trains, but might not be so common in other towns. And the book is not politically correct either.

The stations I most frequented in Manhattan were Canal Street and Union Square. There was an Asian man who used to play the ehru really well on the 4-5-6 platform (upstairs from the Q and N platform where I caught the train). Nichols lets you know he hates the sound of the ehru, but I like it for a couple of reasons. First, my acupuncturist used to play ehru music while I was zoning out, and second, a study of music and it's effects showed that ehru music is the most relaxing to the human body. Classical music is next - that's what Nichols plays on his guitar.

Union Square had a lot more variety. There's the main "stage" on the first level. Musicians have to be approved to play there and can use amps. I listened to Peruvian flutists there for an hour once. I also danced salsa in that station last Christmas to the music of some Spanish musicians. They clapped for us. I've heard country western, jazz and, somebody please explain why, a woman playing the saw. Perhaps if there was some accompaniment, some rhythm or even someone playing the kazoo. But a saw? It's like a weird smell.

Other musicians are on the lower (train) levels. They don't have to be approved, but they aren't allowed to amplify the music. There were people playing drums sometimes. They used overturned plastic tubs and if you tip them up a little they amplify quite a lot. These drummers were always great. There were folk guitarist/singers, steel drum player, and occasionally, doowop singers. I also found sax players at the Broadway-Lafayette Station on the B-train track in Manhattan and at the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn.

Nichols writes about the musicians who played on the trains. This is against the law. You can't even play a radio on the trains. But it happens and as Nichols writes, some of the players knew one song and played that song badly. It was pathetic and annoying. Sometimes on the weekends, you'd get a 3-piece mariachi band on the train - usually good. And sometimes there were male pole dancers with  boomboxes. Crank up the music and they were tumbling down the aisles and swinging around the poles. Obviously, this was not at rush hour.

I was once invited to a private concert that would be performed by a very A-List musician. There was a sort of gathering before the concert and when I entered that, I recognized the room was filled with musicians. I can't say how I could tell, but it's something there in the body language, the appearance, something. These were the working studio musicians, the influencers in their field. The musicians who were invited to play, not begging to play. No more hat in hand for them. How they made it and not someone else is the book waiting to be written. Was that body language and appearance there before or after they became successful?

Matthew Nichols website here:

You can find Underground online, and Nichols has a YouTube video interview here: