The music men work in subways and on street corners. You might recognize one of them, but only if you take the time.
Back in the day of washboard bands in the Delta Blues, a music man could play the jug. He could sound like wind makin' waves 'till the bellows of some great whale drown in the Gulf, off course and missin' home, would carry woes away.
These days, a fancy music man with a violin or a guitar has a heavy price to pay. He has to protect the livelihood and resist the urge to pawn for quick cash. This one cat, Earl, he tells me about how he hopes to lie down in fiddle case just like the one on the cracked sidewalk full of coins and a few bills. He points at it with his bow, the tip shaking in circles and tells me how that purple velvet fuzz is "Jus' how I remembers heaven.". His stubble rubs the worn chin piece of the violin and he draws the bow close to his face and pauses just for a second to push his tongue through the gap in his teeth to stick out just so between his pursed lips. Then he plays.
Bruce was passed out the first time I met him. He was crammed into a nook of a sandstone church. He was wearing a black knit cap and a cigarette was hanging out of his mouth, the curled ash two inches long. His upper lip was wrinkled like dried out mud. Spittle and snot glazed through the lingering nose hairs to his cracked lips, where the burned out ash met the filter. A Harp was sticking out of his pocket. I didn't want to startle him, but I was drunk and wanted a song.
"Er, sir. I said softly, like everyone wants to be woken.
I tapped his frayed boot with my Johnston and Murphy kicks. "Hey, you okay? Mister?" He didn't stir. I didn't even know if he was alive.
I took out a finski and wrote U O Me a Song on it and tucked it into his cap. I smiled in wondrous delight and hoped he would play me Tangled Up in Blue. I made sure not to step on any cracks the rest of the way home.
When you leave a sporting event, there is always a music man outside the gate. He is the same man. Black, with gray beard, sitting on a white, five gallon, plastic bucket, drumming on two others just the same. A coffee can in front collecting mountains of change. He has rhythm, he has soul. He says "Tough game." if the home team folds, and "Hoorah, Hoorah!" if the team wins. He beats on and on and on.
Give him money. I implore you.
Down below, in the subway, a different musician lives. Ex-patriots across the world make a living drumming Beatles licks. They play to live and make a decent buck. A friend told me about how Bob Dylan used to take a stroll from the Chelsea Hotel down into the depths of mildew and urine and strum a few cords for the masses. A Rolling Stone reviewer rushed by and called Dylan on being a hack. Funny how setting makes us.
The first time I took a transfer off the Blue Line in Chicago, I had to delve into the tunnels under the city. It was late at night and the corridors were bare. The cement floors were stained with rivers of urine, blotching webs of outstinking fingers. I could hear a melody rushing up to me, me to it, down the escalator. A woman was singing. When I entered the tunnel, the acoustics were amazing. She was half humming to herself and half singing Otis Redding, These arms of Mine. She was on the other side of the track but I just watched her sway and sing the song, that made my life.
Those same subways of Chicago, have beat box margs, spittin' and beepin'. There are folks with synthesizers playing tunes and the occasional guy with a guitar. None match the natural singer singing alone without money. Just singing. I know, I know, the music men sing for the song, but the music girl with her Venus De Milo on a clamshell voice, nothing beats that. I would have given her my soul.
In Venice I was lost in the twisty turning maze of stucco and brick. I stopped to get a slice of pizza. I sat on a stoop over inflated ocean and watched a man play a recorder. The tunes were simple and a gray tabby cat was circling the fedora that was used to hold profits. The brim of the hat was wide and few here, off the beaten track were depositing cash. A Lire here and there found there way into the felt but for the time I sat the guy couldn't have made more than fifty cents U.S.. The cat amazed me, it was like a snake charmer how the cat twisted and turned near the hat, tail straight in the air, swaying with the music. I resolved to drop the rest of my pocket into the hat when I left. As I swallowed my last bit of raw dough and runny, greasy cheese, the man stood up and walked away, disappearing into one of the mosaic of corridors. The cat remained and so did I. I walked up with close to fifty thousand Lire, and I looked straight into the hat and looked around again for the man. It wasn't much, but I thought he might need it. He was skinny and the cat seeded to like him, the currency was worthless to me and I wanted to make someone happy. I was ready to drop the fold into the hat when I realized that the funds intended a different purpose. The hat was full of cat food.
When I met Bruce the second time, he was sitting at the bar. I came up to him and he looked at me with wonder. I shook his limp hand and smiled. He smiled at me, still wearing the same knit cap and pulled the harp out of his pocket. Tangled up in blue hit the jukebox and he smiled.
Just in time. He said.