Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jailhouse Rocked

Waiting to meet Yesenia at the 110th Street #1 station earlier tonight, and on the opposite platform, there was a busker.  And not just any busker - probably the most awesome busker of all time.  Semi-elderly African-American man with an acoustic guitar, dressed in a cross between Sun Ra stagewear and a yellow track-suit.

It took me a few minutes to register what was going on, as I usually just regard buskers as part of the sound of the subway, and it becomes sonic wallpaper.  But sometimes the wallpaper forces you to notice it, like if it's a print of coked-up calico kittens driving Lamborghinis.  In this case, the coked-up kitten was actually a spectacularly monotonic - but not monotonous! - version of Jailhouse Rock.  He strummed away without ever laying a finger on the fretboard, hand just floating back and forth, up and down the neck like a pendulum.  And the guitar was in some tuning I've never heard before - possibly not even any actual notes.

The vocals also hung on one or two notes, sung with strength and a certain odd kind of conviction.  He played it over and over again, verse to chorus to verse to chorus to verse to...

It was frankly mesmerizing.  If he wasn't actually some garden-variety subway crazy - one of the types who this blog is named after - then he was making some deep comment on the repetitive life of the prisoner.  Minute after minute, train after train - the sound of the approaching subway would drown him out, the cars would roll in and obstruct my view, the train would pull away and as the echoes died down, everyone in the whole cell block would still be dancing to the jailhouse rock.  Mournful swaying is dancing, isn't it?

About fifteen minutes passed, and then Yesenia arrived.  I told her she had to stand and watch this amazing thing for a minute.  Another passenger with a toddler in a stroller came in on Yesenia's train, and I helped her up the stairs (which is my new policy).  When I came back from the street, Yesenia was staring in awe at the black Eilert Pilarm.

Fittingly, it ended as all iconic concerts must - after another minute or so, a downtown train pulled in and two subway cops got out and ambled over to the busker.  I'd like to think that he wanted that to happen.


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