Subway Buskers And Life’s Soundtrack

This morning, as I alighted at a subway station, I was greeted by music and song and melody. A subway station busker–one of New York City’s most familiar residents and features–was holding forth with instrument and vocal chord; his chords and notes and full-throated voice floated up and around and over me as I made way for myself past the incoming hordes at the door and began my walk out and up to street level. As I walked past those who were headed to work, to play, to other destinations and occupations unknown, I felt, yet again, the presence of a familiar feeling: that this scene, this tableaux, being presented to me, one of humans like me engaged in their daily endeavors, each living life as best as they could, each dealing with inner joys and sorrows as best as they could, had found its perfect soundtrack–a song that seemed to speak in tones of acceptance, of love and striving and the perennial puzzle of life. I could not even make out the lyrics distinctly, but I did not need to; the voice and melodies were enough. I was set up to receive its ‘message;’ I was listening to it in ‘the right place,’ seeing ‘the right things’ as I did so.

Once again, a subway busker had effortlessly provided a soundtrack that turned my weekday traveling in the subterranean domain that lurks beneath the city into a zone of revelation.

I’ve lived in the city for over twenty years now; in that time, I’ve heard many, many subway buskers. I’ve taken many moods and preoccupations with me into subway stations; the subway buskers have often found, without needing to communicate explicitly with me, the right notes to play as accompaniment to these. Sometimes, I find my mood lifted by the sheer performative brio of a busker, sometimes I smile because I hear a familiar song rendered anew, sometimes a dance performance makes me stop and stare. (There are a few duds, of course, folks who make me cover my ears and run, but they are few and far in between.) The earphone-in-the-ears musical device has long been prized for its ability to provide entrance to a private musical zone; the subway busker does the same in a space within which our personal boundaries are already aggressively patrolled. Because listening is an interactive business we add our own colors and flavors to the busker’s music; we draw from it what we need as musical garnishing for our moods. Sometimes, as we head to ‘confrontations’ the busker’s beat adds a little urgency to our onward movement; sometimes melancholia or wistfulness finds itself echoed or comforted by the busker’s work. (Sometimes, young lovers find a busker playing that little love song that prompts them to hold hands just a little more tightly and to trade kisses all over again.)  And, of course, late on a winter night, the busker provides solace and even a kind of warmth.

We emerge, all too quickly, blinking rapidly, out into the street; or, our train arrives, and we hustle to find a seat; the busker’s notes fade away. But we now have a soundtrack to inform our next steps.

 

Rediscovering Songs With Children: The Case Of White Rabbit

We like some songs more than others; we play them more often than we do others, wearing out vinyl, styluses, and cassette tapes till we hit the digital. Some songs grow stale; we find them overly familiar; but every once in a while, we return to them, and discover them anew. Sometimes it is because we hear an old favorite under the influence of psychotropic substances; sometimes in a new setting and place–perhaps while making love to a new flame, driving through new lands, talking to a stranger in a strange land, or hearing it piped through the awesome machinery of a magnificent audio system, which suddenly renders clear notes and melodies and lyrics you had never heard before.

My personal roster of rediscoveries must now include the renewed exploration of favorites with my four-year old daughter. And among these, pride of place must go to Jefferson Airplane‘s White Rabbit (a song written by Grace Slick); I first heard the song as an undergraduate, not bothering to pay attention to anything other than the song’s psychedelic feel; it prompted endless replays of a beat-up tape. Later, once I had discovered pot, White Rabbit was rediscovered anew; years on, once I had paid more attention to the lyrics, and also partaken of psychedelics myself, White Rabbit took on another new dimension. The years rolled on, White Rabbit became consigned to the past. I did not disdain the song; I did not ‘grow out of it’; but I did not seek it out either.

And then, my daughter was born. And earlier this year, on my birthday, my wife and I introduced her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Brooklyn’s Puppet Works. During the show, many adults in the audience, including me, giggled at the references to mushrooms, growing tall, strange visions, and indeed, the very idea of being transported to strange lands where all is topsy-turvy, and old verities are no longer so. My daughter was delighted with the tale; she quoted from it endlessly; and she was very enamored of the movie versions we subsequently exposed her to.

And so last week, as I sat down again with my daughter to listen to some music with her–in the form of a few music videos–I decided I would play White Rabbit for her. I found a version of Jefferson Airplane’s live performance of White Rabbit at Woodstock in which  the lyrics flash up on the screen and make singing along easier; which is what I did, loudly, bringing forth the most amazing expressions imaginable from my daughter–she loved the lyrics’ evocation of the characters and oddities of the land she had traveled to. I played the song twice and tried to get her to sing along the second time, and she did try, for after all, her favorite, Alice, was featuring in a wholly new kind of song:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small

When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head

Before I became a parent, I’d been told I would see the world anew through the eyes of my child; ’tis true, but you also hear it differently. I’m not going to be able to listen to White Rabbit now without thinking of my daughter–and Alice.

The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.

‘Straight Outta Compton’ And Ambivalence

A couple of weeks ago, I finally watched F. Gary Gray‘s Straight Outta Compton, the cinematic biography of N.W. A. (More accurately, I saw the ‘Unrated Director’s Cut,’ which features an additional twenty minutes not found in the theatrical release.) Since then, many tracks from the N. W. A, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E oeuvre on my Spotify playlist have received extended playtime; the music is as astonishing as it ever was. And yet, as I listen to these tracks I’m reminded again about my deep and abiding ambivalence about gangsta rap, and the unease it perennially stirs in me.

Tracks like ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ ‘Fuck tha Police,’ ‘No Vaseline‘ ‘Ain’t Nothing But A G Thang,’ ‘Real Compton City Gs‘ are exhilarating. There is defiance and unbridled energy, mordant social commentary (no one is better on police brutality), some exquisite verbal styling and delivery of lyrics, a dazzling fusion of varied musical styles–the whole package. These tracks–and many others like them–are irresistible in many dimensions. (If you feel like getting charged up for a tough day at work, ‘Straight Outta Compton’ or ‘Fuck the Police’ are great tracks to play as you get dressed and head out the door; woe betide that annoying co-worker who tries to get under your skin that day. Lyrics like “Boy you can’t fuck with me/So when I’m in your neighborhood, you better duck/Cause Ice Cube is crazy as fuck” will do that to you.) It is small wonder they found so much playtime on radio stations and television channels–even if in some venues they had to be sanitized. Which brings us to an enduring problem with them.

Quite simply, there is little room to maneuever, to offer exculpation, when confronted with lyrics like these:

Now I think you a snitch,
throw a house nigga in a ditch.
Half-pint bitch, fuckin’ your homeboys.
You little maggot; Eazy E turned faggot.
With your manager, fella,
fuckin’ MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Yella.
But if they were smart as me,
Eazy E would be hangin’ from a tree.
With no vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline.
Light ’em up, burn ’em up, flame on…

Or:

I find a good piece o’ pussy, I go up in it
So if you’re at a show in the front row
I’m a call you a bitch or dirty-ass ho
You’ll probably get mad like a bitch is supposed to
But that shows me, slut, you’re composed to
A crazy muthafucker from tha street

Such examples can be multiplied effortlessly. There is misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, violent death threats–another comprehensive package of sorts. The defense of these lyrics is a familiar one: these tracks are not promotions or endorsements of the lifestyles and attitudes noted in them; rather, they are reports of an existent state of affairs, a grim reality, in precincts unknown to most Americans. The contestation of this defense has resulted in an enduring debate, one facet of which was visible in the the sharp accusations of misogyny that made the rounds once again during Straight Outta Compton’s theatrical release. That case is damning, and rightly so.

And so, I find myself perplexed once again: the musical qualities attract, but many ‘messages’ within it repels; there is no way to listen to this music without that tension present.

On Not Participating In A Collective Mourning

It’s an odd business to not be participating in a collective mourning. By ‘collective,’ of course, I mean ‘seemingly widespread and ubiquitous within my social space.’ In this case, I’m referring to the mourning following the death of Prince last week. There are: musical tributes, personal testimonials, remembrances, markers in public spaces–all the manifestations of a collective outpouring of grief at the death of a man reckoned one of the music world’s most interesting and accomplished artists, a reconfigurer of musical tastes and sexual identities alike. But I have nothing to contribute to this celebration of his life; Prince’s death didn’t touch me the same way. For the simplest and best of reasons: his music didn’t.

I heard ‘When Doves Cry‘ and ‘Purple Rain‘ back in my high-school days; they were an interesting departure from the other offerings of the music world. A few years later, I heard ‘Sign o’ the Times‘ and quite liked it. (A lot; for I still remember where I was when I first heard the track play.) But that was about it. I never bought a Prince album, never played a Prince song on a jukebox in a pool hall or a bar, never bought tickets for, or attended a Prince concert. He simply did not feature on my musical radar. Indeed, from the sidelines, over the years, I watched with some bemusement as his star ascended in both the critical and commercial dimensions. A fan of Prince might say that I don’t get it. And that would be entirely right. I didn’t. And that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone did.

Still, as this mourning continues, on my social media pages, in the various conversations I overhear, in the many tributes, I feel distinctly isolated. All around me, there is a ritual underway; an invitation to participate has been extended; and yet, I stand on the sidelines, unwilling and unable to acquiesce. I have not been ostracized; I have exiled myself. For my older indifference to the music is still present. I watch and listen to his supposedly memorable guitar solo on a performance of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and do not find it as compelling as the guitar work I have admired in the past; ’tis true, my receiver for Prince signals is not working and has been turned off for a while. I am beyond redemption. Perhaps the future will see me change my ways and join the fold of the faithful. Stranger conversions have been known to happen.

Of course, there is an irony present in my writing of this post. I began it by noting that I had not participated in the collective mourning for Prince’s death. But by putting these thoughts down here, by making note of my distance from his music, I have finally been compelled to step forward and throw my hat in the ring, even if only by way of explaining why I did not do so. Well played, Prince. RIP.

Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.

Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.