Let the music play… and I will kill you

Morning and evening rush hour on the subway is quiet time. The trains are crowded with commuters. But everyone sleeps or reads or daydreams or listens to music through headphones. Nobody talks, and nobody bothers anyone. It’s a very New York feeling to be surrounded and still alone. And during rush hour – when you’re still half asleep or tired from a long day – it’s a very welcome feeling.

This Rush Hour Quiet Time rule – more commonly known as the Shut the F**k Up Before I Jab You in the Larynx with a Bic Pen rule (STFUBIJYITLWABP) has been understood and respected by generations of NYC commuters, dating back to the early 20th century. Of course, in the those days, it was called the Scram With That Funny Business Fella Before I Let You Have It In The Larynx rule (SWTFBFBILYHIITL). Even a simple “good day” or “bully for you” brought about swift retribution. People work, and people value their larynges… then and now. In fact only three unwritten rules have ever been more important…

  • Don’t pet the rats.
  • Don’t sit in a wet spot.
  • Avoid the empty subway car on an otherwise crowded train, unless you enjoy smelly homeless people fermenting in their own sweat.

Rush hours were quality time when I last had regular work. Opportunists now routinely violate the rule for their own petty and selfish reasons. People have loud conversations on cell phones. Homeless and “homeless” people beg for handouts. And subway musicians force their mediocre music upon weary travelers. The first two can be easily ignored by turning up the iPod. The last can’t.

I don’t mean to hate on music. I’ve been a big music fan since my days playing the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” drum solo on mom’s kitchen bowls. And I don’t mean to hate on street and subway musicians. Some great performers ply their trade on sidewalks and platforms. The Yanni-looking electric violin player in black leather pants who covers Depeche Mode and Metallica is a national treasure. He almost balances out all the harm Nicolas Cage has done with his movies.

The point is I like my music on my terms. I listen to what I want, when I want and how I want. Take away my choice, and I get a little pissy. I may even reach for my Bic pen. This reaction may seem harsh to non-New Yorkers. Subway music is as big apple as Times Square, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. So let’s recast the scenario for those who have only experienced subway musicians as tourists and through TV shows and movies.

You’re driving to work on a Monday morning. Traffic is moving nicely. Something relaxing plays from the car stereo. The light ahead turns red, slowing cars to a stop. You close your eyes and rub them slowly with your thumb and forefinger, thinking about what needs to get done that day. Just then, two guys jump into the backseat. One has a rusty accordion, the other an out-of-tune acoustic guitar. They launch into a song you can’t understand because it’s in Spanish. And they do it three feet from your head. The light turns green, and traffic forces you into motion. The music pounds against your brain. You turn up the stereo, but the noise from the backseat still drowns it out. After three minutes, they stop playing. One of them puts his empty hat in your face; he wants you to pay for the giant headache he just gave you. You wonder what combination of evil thoughts will make him explode, and then make the pieces explode. Before you hit on it, the light ahead turns red and you stop the car again. The musicians jump out and into the car behind you. Two traffic lights later, two other musicians make a stage of your backseat.

What if the music were really good? Would it be okay? No. What if the music were absolutely, positively the best I’d ever heard, ever? Still no. What if angels descended from heaven and sang to me on the F train as it sped through the tunnel under the East River? Would it would be okay then? The answer is still a resounding NO. I want to hear what’s playing through my headphones. That’s why I picked it. That’s why I put in my headphones. And that’s why I pressed play. So unless the same musician materializes and plays the same song the same way, I’m not interested.

Subway musicians feel the recession just as everyone else does. Maybe the non-rush hour donations just weren’t cutting it. Maybe they lost a job and resorted to a secondary talent to pay the bills. I respect that. I’m in the same boat. But you’ll never catch me forcing random people to read my blog and pay me for the privilege. Pick a subway platform and play your music. I may stop and listen; I may even leave a couple bucks. And I may not. But the choice will be mine.

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  1. Susi wrote:

    I can definitely see your point in being annoyed with the musicians after a long day. But as a non New Yorker who visits a lot, I always find the subway and street musicians charming. Maybe it’s the variation from no music and definitely less culture here in Utah. I would LOVE to see somebody “busking” around here!

    Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  2. Tina wrote:

    Agreed. Maybe mimes will make a comeback, but they’re almost as annoying in their own quiet way…

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael Barker wrote:

    Bless you. Trying to get around on the subway is hard enough but the continuous invasion of bad musicians use to drive me up the wall. I rode the 7 and all I wanted to do was get to the spot where I could put my head back and snooze. Some guys with guitars and tambourines banging away near my ear made me crazy. But this in NYC and they are inured to hostility.
    What really drove me crazy? Tourists giving them money. Okay, I’m done ranting.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Norm wrote:

    The 7 train is the worst for this. I want to tell tourists not to encourage the musicians. But they’re on vacation and don’t care about my pain. To them, this is all such a novelty.

    Occasionally the tourists get distracted and forget to get off at Grand Central. They cross over into big scary Queens and get a little panicky. That’s what they get for giving the musicians money. Little do they know that Long Island City by the subway stop is filled with lawyers and Wall Street types.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink