Friday, February 13, 2009

This key won't unlock this door

One of Boris Johnson's initiatives as mayor was to bring art back to the Underground. Various interpretations of the traditional dissected circle logo (above) line the creamy brick walls of every tube station. In the busier stations you'll find small oval mats at the base of escalators or in long, sterile hallways where street musicians are encouraged to set up and play for change. The catch is that they need a permit, a stipulation that no doubt deters the majority of renegade London musicians with any real talent. This isn't meant to sound arrogant or judgmental, but almost all of the ones with permits are truly awful.

They stand there, decaying felt-lined cases cracked open, with their 12-inch battery-powered amps fastened to a pull cart by bungee cords. They play shitty guitar on shitty guitars. Most simply strum skewed riffs or out-of-place solos over looped instrumentals that sound more artificial than one-touch commands on Casio keyboards. The performers are usually strange European men in their early 30s who awkwardly bounce to their respective butchering of the same four Beatles songs. They neglect the echo factor of performing in a train station and often play so loud that their weathered amps crackle and buzz, more annoying than entertaining, and certainly not "art."

Sometimes though, you will come across musicians on your way to or from a train that will absolutely make your night. Just yesterday I heard a stellar acoustic version of "Sex On Fire" with pitch-perfect vocals while exiting at St. Paul's. On my rush hour trip home from Oxford Circus I usually pass an old black man playing harmonica and scatting into a lo-fi microphone. A few nights ago I passed a scraggly blond guy in his early 20s playing a mean didjeridoo. Last Saturday, however, I heard and watched one of the best musicians I've seen so far in all of London. From the top of the escalator at Old Street I could hear a familiar bluesy riff, though highly unstructured and increasingly improvised. I kept listening as I got closer: through one hallway, through another, round the bend with the circular safety mirror, down the stairs. What was then a meandering solo effortlessly faded into the opening bars of "Red House." The guitarist, an aging black man with long, thick dreds, stood right on the platform, blocking the station list. Nowhere near a designated performance mat, no permit. It was Saturday night and he was playing his own version of the extended intro most closely linked to "Electric Church Red House" off of Jimi Blues. And then he started singing. If I could accurately describe the essence of his voice, particularly as a complement to his instrument, it wouldn't have been real blues. This was real.

I tossed a pound into the black bag at his feet and reluctantly boarded the train, instantly wishing I had sat there all night.

It was something quite like this...