Introduction: In the Shadows
I’d been eating ketchup sandwiches for days when I drifted into the sanctuary of a midtown church to warm up and regroup. I needed to think things through, to figure out my next move. I was about to lose everything, including my apartment, my girlfriend Hope, and my two cats Jack and Milo, who were my kids. I hated that I’d become a broke-ass failed musician, presumably one of the world’s worst providers.
Insert musician joke: What’s the difference between a pizza and a guitarist? A pizza can feed a family of four!
The Midwest tour I’d just played with my current band had netted me exactly nothing, and now I was an out-of-work drummer on a mean losing streak, freezing my ass off, making the usual rounds, dropping off waiter applications anywhere and everywhere, with zero results. Restaurant managers must have found it impossible to overlook my severe lack of enthusiasm.
In the midst of this hopelessness, it took me a moment to notice the artistry of the stained glass windows or the rumbling of the hundred-year-old pipe organ. The church organist was in deep concentration practicing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. I knew the symphony from my childhood—the direct result of playing too much “Guess the Composer” on long family car trips with my music-obsessed parents and younger brother Jed. My brother and I were definitely the only kids on the playground who knew the difference between Vivaldi and Handel.
The music echoed through the cathedral like it was Madison Square Garden. Steeped in the tranquil atmosphere of the church, my panic subsided as the vibration of a passing subway train rumbling beneath the wooden floor gave rise to an idea. I immediately raced back to my apartment and grabbed my gear. Within minutes I was trucking down the frozen steps of the Lexington Avenue subway station, ready to take my first crack at busking.
Half hallucinating, under the influence of low-blood-sugar delirium, I slid my guitar and battery-powered amplifier under the turnstile and jumped over it. From behind, I heard the clerk’s muffled disapproval: “Pay your fare!” Sorry token booth dude, can’t this time. I’m saving up for a D19! Earlier, I’d scanned Go Noodle’s takeout menu for job-hunting inspiration, and the prospect of the delectably greasy D19—shrimp lo mein with soup and an egg roll—had me salivating as I rolled my equipment along the marble platform. I crammed my gear onto the train and rode one stop up to Seventy-seventh Street, just beyond Hunter College, where I’d often seen an old Asian guy playing recorder and doing pretty well. Hoping to emulate his success, I planned to set up exactly where he’d been performing.
Despite my desperation, I was self-conscious about my appearance. My thin black bomber jacket that had faithfully served me through several winters was now a shadow of its former glorious self. After several duct tape alterations, it resembled a Flash Gordon wardrobe malfunction. And there were holes in my jeans through which my long underwear was exposed, but not in that cool rock’n’roll way. My hair was longer than usual and pulled back into a ponytail. Today, I know buskers who try to look disheveled, using the tactic to grab the “pity drop.” I don’t blame them though; you gotta do whatever works for you.
After setting up, I nervously fastened the guitar strap to both ends of the guitar with fingers numb from one of the worst winters on record. Telling myself, “Dude, stop thinking, just play,” I tuned up and flicked on the amp. The light by the power switch glowed yellow. Okay, all systems go. Time to play!
At the time, I was barely a guitarist, more like a drummer who desperately wished he could play the guitar. To skirt the need for years of lessons, I used an uncommon method of tuning that immediately enabled me to play a few songs, a kind of shortcut to competency. In this “open D” tuning, the neck of the guitar became similar to a keyboard, allowing me to form any chord simply by pressing the top two strings.
My awkward strumming wafted across the subway platform, surrounding me with confused, dense clouds of sound. As I played, I intuitively disguised the bum notes with my drummer’s sense of rhythm, as if playing on beat would override my utter lack of skill. Whenever I caught a figure coming toward me, I assumed it was a cop or a station supervisor bent on my ejection. But after a few false alarms, I gave in and let the music take over, wearing my song like an invisible protective coat. Maybe that’s why folks gathered around as they stood waiting for their trains. We were warming ourselves by the same fire.
I watched as my first underground audience assembled in front of me. People could have turned a blind eye, but a backpack-toting Hunter College kid led the charge, throwing a buck into my waiting guitar case. It was the start of a flurry of cash. More folks gathered, urging me on with compliments like, “Sounds great man!” and “Thanks for chilling me out.” As the trains came and went, the ever-growing pile of my first busking dollars glowed succulently against the black velvet interior of my guitar case. With mounting excitement I realized I’d be able to make it through the month after all! As much as the cash meant to me, though, the compliments meant just as much.
A few hours later, I left the train station with a new job and enough money for fifteen D19s (looking back, I’m amazed I was able to perform uninterrupted for so long; the next couple of times I went back I was quickly thrown out). After years of struggle, I’d finally ascended to the level of professional musician, though in a way I had never anticipated. Why hadn’t I done this sooner? I’m ashamed to admit that prior to my musical awakening, I shuffled through the city believing that only inferior musicians performed on the street. Gifted buskers unselfishly filled the city’s public spaces with vitality, yet I’d been rushing by with scarcely a glance.
Triumphantly slurping lo mein and peering out of Go Noodle’s window, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. For the first time, it felt okay that record companies hadn’t appreciated me; I’d managed to bring my music directly to the public, regardless. But there was one more thing left to do. I had to track down my younger brother and ex-musical partner Jed and relay the news, in the hope he’d consider joining me again.
My thoughts turned to the pact we’d made ten years before: We promised each other we’d become rock stars together. For most of our lives, we’d had the kind of relationship other siblings envied. Maybe it was a result of sharing the same bedroom as kids, playing in the same rock groups, or simply surviving our father. For most of the previous two years, though, we had barely spoken. Our brotherhood had been annihilated by the bloody demise of our grunge band, Airport Hug. The trio we’d co-founded and lovingly nurtured from its inception had died a brutal death at the tender age of three. In band years, though, that’s about fifty. We learned the hard way that bands are fragile organisms; few survive long enough to make even a second album.
As kids, Jed and I had been seduced by the magical early years of MTV (back when they played videos). All we wanted to do was rock! In an effort to join the lofty Day-Glo ranks of our musical heroes, we recorded demo after demo and sent tapes around to all the record companies. At first, there were some tentative nibbles, but ultimately nothing more came of our efforts than the standard rejection: “We hope you find a home for your music.”
Undaunted, we maxed out credit cards, investing thousands of dollars to create and release our CDs independently. When all was said and done, we’d barely sold five hundred copies. By the time Airport Hug ground to a halt, our brotherhood and our finances had been pushed beyond the breaking point. We wondered if we could even breathe the same air again without kicking the living shit out of each other, and performing together seemed just as unlikely. The band broke up in true Spinal Tap form when I pressured Jed to ditch his girlfriend (also our acting band manager, and now his wife), who I was convinced favored him whenever it came to crucial band decisions.
Even so, I hoped to parlay my busking breakthrough into the excuse we needed to get back together. Over the last few months we’d begun to speak again, and now bit by bit we resurrected our relationship, growing closer, speaking on the phone and occasionally meeting for drinks at one of our favorite haunts, the Subway Inn across from Bloomingdales, where I first broached the subject of busking. Then, when the time was right, I invited Jed out for an early bird special in Little India, where, with sweaty palms and tail firmly placed between my legs, I blurted out over the Hindi music blasting in the background, “Hey man, I know I was a dick. I’m sorry about everything and hope you can forgive me.” After an intensive heart-to-heart, I was relieved when we sealed the deal with a congratulatory high-five and a hug, and officially rededicated ourselves to our childhood pact to “make it” in music together . . . or die trying.
As we began picking up and reassembling the pieces, we had no idea what the future might hold, or how long we’d be able to maintain our fragile truce. We decided to reform as a duo, simply called Heth and Jed, and resume our songwriting and performing partnership, the idea being we’d appear ninja-like in public places, ready to perform our songs. Both former skateboarders, we threw ourselves into the new gig like it was the X Games of street performance. Here was a chance to test our physical endurance while playing some of the gnarliest busking shows known to mankind, many lasting more than six hours. Today, after six years of playing in blistering heat and finger-freezing cold, tangling with police, drunks, crazies, and the roving gangs that attempt to dominate the city’s prime busking real estate, our chops are so well honed that you could fire an RPG at us and we wouldn’t miss a note. Over time, we proved the music industry wrong by selling tens of thousands of our CDs independently. More importantly, we figured out that while you may never reach the dream you hoped to achieve, with a little luck you might discover that the adventure was the ultimate reward.
Copyright © 2011 by Heth Weinstein and Jed Weinstein. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Soft Skull Press An Imprint of Counterpoint 1919 Fifth Street Berkeley, CA 94710