Sunday, April 18, 2004

I thought that I heard you sing...

On my subway ride home last night, a man with a guitar entered my car and started to perform. This is not unusual, of course. For instance, there's a mariachi trio that plays the 7 train pretty regularly. If I'm alone on my commute, I always have headphones on, and at first sight or sound of a busker I usually turn the music up as high as I feel I can without making my ears bleed. It's not that these guys are necessarily bad, or that I have anything against mariachi, but I hate having my personal space (already an iffy proposition on the New York subway) invaded by someone else's idea of entertainment. With a traditional street performer, I can stop and watch if I want to, or walk on by if I don't. But on the train or the platform you're trapped. It's a small, enclosed space, there's nowhere to go, and usually it's loud. I find it really intrusive. The break-dancers on the A train are the worst, followed closely by the pair of conga players (also on the A, or at least they were when I lived on that line).

But I digress. I didn't pay any attention to this guy, and I thought that maybe one of the mariachi guys had gone solo. But some music poked through my headphones, and it definitely wasn't Mexican, so I got curious and hit pause. He was singing "Losing My Religion," but he only knew two chords on the guitar. Actually, I was impressed by how well he managed to keep in tune with the vocals despite the fact that he wasn't playing anything resembling the proper accompaniment. Not that he had a good voice, mind you. In fact it was terrible. Made Michael Stipe sound opera-trained. But he managed to hit most of the notes in his weird nasal tone.

There was a monotony to the performance that wasn't just about the boring guitar and droney voice, and I realized he was skipping the chorus, just going verse to verse. I wondered if he just didn't know how to play the chorus (or rather, if he knew even less of how to play the chorus than he knew the verses), laughed quietly to myself, and turned my music back on.

When the song on my iPod ended, I heard that he was still singing "Losing My Religion!" I mean, it's not a short song as radio hits go, and he was singing it way under tempo, but he really should have been done by now. Curious, I paused again. He was doing the chorus now, along with all the verses...again. It's one of those songs that no one really knows the words to, and I realized I had no idea if he was singing the verses in the right order. I started to wonder if he was just stuck in a loop, skipping this verse, singing that one twice, never really sure what came next. It was funny and sad, and given my disdain for subway performers, oddly gratifying. No one gave him any money.

At my stop I resisted the temptation to stay put and see what he would do next, but in my imagination he's still on that train, unable to remember how the song ends, but afraid no one will give him money if he just stops. Maybe he'll use the time to learn a new chord.

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