Today we introduce a regular Sound of the City feature in which one nostalgic Alabaman invites musicians he likes to play a song publicly somewhere, anywhere, in the five boroughs. Very often, this intrepid Southerner drags along yr unwitting blog host to document the proceedings with the departmental equipment—some iodine vapors, a cell-phone camera, and a stick of chewing gum. (Daguerreotype 2.0!)
Possibly 4th Street’s inaugural subject is Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces—who actually didn’t play a note for us, but instead revealed the secrets of his songwriting process. The print thingy came out last week, but we saved the odds and ends for today, the release date of the band’s most recent opus, Widow City. Expect to see more of this lo-fi shit every week. In fact, brace yrself for another installment (this time with music) in two days.
Matthew Friedberger in Long Island City; photo by yr SOTC host Camille Dodero
“We begin . . .”
Yes, we begin.
Call this little excursion the bride of busking (yes, it could be the groom, cousin or ex-girlfriend of busking, but we like alliteration). Something close, but not quite reaching, the proverbial hand-rolled product of Cuba.
Let us ‘splain, Lucy.
The sport of busking has a long and storied, if ill-documented history—if there is a definitive, encompassing work on the subject, we’ve yet to run across it. In those halcyon, pre-You Tube days, busking stood as a simultaneously open, yet shady (read: illegal), act. An occasionally romantic, if ofttimes necessary endeavor for young, struggling musicians. Yep, traveling troubadours took up subway and sidewalk positions in hopes of a little pocket change, some much-needed meal money, or perhaps the musical equivalent of Lana Turner’s rumored discovery at Schwab’s—long before MySpace was a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye.
Dylan, we assume, busked upon his arrival in this city. (How could he not since all of his heroes and cronies partook? Though Michael Gray’s Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, for one, makes no mention.) And rumor has it that Sir Paul McCartney, well past fashionably late in his career (circa Give My Regards to Broad Street if the stories are true) donned a disguise and took to the streets of London with a left-handed six-string. So did Sting, another British bassist (though his guitar was a righty and his disguise was supposedly just a simple hat pulled low).
Joe Strummer, in his pre-punk, hippie days, also busked in London to earn much-needed cash, not only for himself but his fellow squatters. And in a rare dash of documented street performance, Neil Young busked in Glasgow shortly before a scheduled appearance in 1976.
Of course, Europe has always served as a more accepting setting for such activities. Madeleine Peyroux, now a resident of New York, began her showbiz career as a hat-passer on the east side of the Atlantic before touring Old World streets as a singer with the famed (by busking standards) Lost Wandering Blues & Jazz Band.
Closer to home (but not by much), Michelle Shocked, back when she was still known as Michelle Johnston, played mandolin with a street band out in California. And, as the story goes, the Violent Femmes were discovered by late Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott while busking on the sidewalks of their Milwaukee motherland.
You can probably add a half-dozen or so more names yourself (Beck!), so suffice to say that a whole bunch of famous musicians, at one time or another, grabbed their guitar (or other instrument of choice) and took to the street to seek their respective fortune.
But you just don’t see that (or hear that or hear about that) so much anymore. At least not from anyone you’d cross the street to hear. And we miss it some.
We first thought to try and rekindle that time-honored act of busking by inviting musicians outside, out in the street, as it were, to play some songs, pass the hat, see if anyone noticed. Certainly the Village scene of nearly fifty years ago gives us some historical, as well as local, precedent. But honestly, the money aspect, for once, doesn’t matter here. We’re much more interested in engaging musicians we like—the young and the (relatively) old, the famous and the not-so—in a different way. And we’re adaptable, if not flexible. So if that means walking through western Queens with Matthew Friedberger (half of our hometown Fiery Furnaces) as he shows us his first non-Brooklyn apartment, then that’s fine and dandy.
But most of the time musicians will play. And we’ll listen and we’ll talk and we’ll document it with some particularly shitty equipment (at least until we get that advance on our allowance) so you’ll know we’re not trying to be all competitive and stuff.
Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces
Around four o’clock on the afternoon of September 7th
A small slice of western Queens, beginning at the Vernon-Jackson subway stop and ending at Gantry Plaza State Park
Why he brought us there:
“Because this is nearly in the middle of the five boroughs, this spot. I mean, it’s not geographically, but because this is so close to Manhattan this is a better middle point of the five boroughs. It’s good to be in an outer borough.”
A theory about New York:
“You know, in New York, people are friendly. You can talk to people. But New York is also the best place to be solitary in the country, you know. Because if you’re living in a really rural area, people know who you are, people know what you’re doing. I think there’s a lot of people that come to the city and they go to place and then when the person starts to know their name and know what they usually buy, they won’t go there. There’s a lot of that, and I’m very sympathetic to that kind of thing.”
One more theory about New York, with a side of self-analysis:
“I’d always been a quitter and a failure-type person, and so I came here to just sort of quit and fail on a bigger stage, I guess.”
Why the Fiery Furnaces’ new album is entitled Widow City:
“It’s a combination of everything. Widow City. It sounds like a good English phrase. It looks good with the double Ws. It’s nice that city is kind of often, it used to be a slang intensifier, you know. Bummer City and stuff like that. But the main reason I wanted to call it Widow City was it means that the record is W.C. You know, water closet, toilet.”
Matthew Friedberger answers one question: