“Would you please stop doing that?”
“Sure,” I said, kind of embarrassed. I put my iPhone back in my pocket.
It was about midnight. The Grand Central 7 (subway) train platform. He looked to be in his early sixties, ponytailed, jeans and long-sleeved shirt. Playing acoustic guitar, singing with a plaintive, gravelly voice that floated in the arched space, filling the silence, seeping into places in my body I hadn’t realized were there.
Some of the most affecting music in New York is in the subways. Sure, some of it is awful. But a surprising amount is incredible. It can make you want to dance. Or cry. It’s a miracle to me–the way music blossoms in unexpected places, like wild flowers.
I have this fantasy of making a short film, a montage of video clips, to remember it with when I go back to Indiana. So I usually carry around a small hi-def camera. When something’s great, I film it. That night all I had was my iPhone.
But he didn’t like that. Even though I’d sheepishly put it away, he didn’t resume the music. He was pissed off. Stood up, walked over to the tracks, and spit. Mumbled something about “fucking assholes,” and went back to his seat.
I didn’t know what to do. Apologize? Tip him? A dollar? Twenty?
All sorts of thoughts went through my head. Hey! He’s playing in a public space, why shouldn’t anyone be able to film him? Why should I feel bad? But I know what it’s like to want your privacy, even in a public space. To feel violated, taken for granted. To be turned into an object, something for a tourist’s Facebook page.
I weighed options, confused. What to do?
The train came.
I got in, and rode away from the dilemma.
Earlier that evening:
We met at, well, I’m not going to say.
It was one of the many bar/restaurant/clubs in New York that present music–jazz groups, pop singers, an occasional classical group, etc. I hadn’t been there before, and was glad to experience another “alternative” venue. Alice, I’ll call her, a friend of a friend, had suggested the place and the performance. A young singer. “He does Sinatra!” So my friend–I’ll call her Jane–arranged for the three of us to go to this show.
But Jane had to work late and couldn’t make it. Since Jane had bought non-refundable tickets, Alice and I, after almost backing out, both showed up and met there for the first time. Dave–another friend of Jane, and one I already knew–eventually joined us to use the highly resourceful and well-networked Jane’s ticket. She was not letting that thing go to waste.
The “does Sinatra” guy isn’t an imitator. He’s had a good career singing songs Frank made popular–kind of like Harry Connick, Jr. when he got his big When Harry Met Sally career bump. Quite successful, tours a lot, but hasn’t cracked the big time, especially in the U.S. He’s playing New York, but it’s a small-venue, mid-week early show. Not at a place like Feinstein’s, but a downtown club.
Nothing wrong with that, of course.
“I don’t understand why he’s not as big as Michael Buble!” Alice shared, perplexed.
She’s a fan. She met him after a show a few years ago, and he told her that Fienstein’s is his goal. (It’s like playing Carnegie Hall for a classical musician.)
Why isn’t he there?
After the show, Dave, who works in the entertainment business, and I went for coffee (Alice got in the autograph line). We had each had the same answer.
Not-Frank (as I’ll call the singer) is slick and polished, a tremendously skilled performer. But his music making felt artificial and calculated. Raw emotional connection, a sense of human authenticity, those qualities so strong in Sinatra’s singing? Not there.
And how do I put this? Not-Frank, while energetic and “masculine” in many ways, also was a touch effeminate. Perfectly coiffed hair, a pink tie and breast handkerchief. My gaydar went off big time as soon as he took the stage. At first I was excited–maybe I was encountering the Rufus Wainright of pop/jazz singers. But then he made too many jokes and comments about women, including innuendo about the one who opened for him and joined him for duets mid-set.
“Straight guys don’t make that many jokes about doing it with women,” Dave (who is straight) said, putting down his coffee. “He was trying way too hard.” Whoever Not Frank is, the man he played on stage didn’t hold our attention; each of us had ended up checking email and texts during the show. “Michael Buble is totally himself,” Dave told me. “This guy is calculated.”
I don’t care who he sleeps with (Google says his girlfriend), or wishes he could sleep with, or who I wish he slept with. I don’t mean the effeminacy thing as a criticism, either–that can be really hot in a guy.
He finished his set with “My Way.”
You can’t sing “My Way,” especially if you’re in your early thirties, and come off as anything other than a kid trying to do it someone else’s way. It’s an old man’s song. It’s Frank’s song. “And now the end is near”? Give me a break. Might as well find a way to change the lyrics to “I’m not Frank.”
The coffee place where Dave and I did our post-performance analysis is just across from my daughter’s East Village dorm. She was feeling under the weather and didn’t join us. We finished our coffee. He went to pick up his wife from a work event, and I went across the street to give a tired and slightly sick girl some daddy time.
We cuddled. We watched a couple episodes of The Office on Hulu. I sang her silly songs. Put her to bed.
On the way home, I changed trains at Grand Central.
Walked down the steps to the 7 platform, and heard that voice and guitar. There were no trains, few people. The sound gradually enveloped me as I descended. The ceiling is arched. When it’s quiet, there’s great reverberation there. It’s actually a wonderful space for music.
It was everything that Not Frank hadn’t been at the expensive show. Right there in the subway. The miracle, again.
And this guy, this artist, who stopped singing and called me a fucking asshole?
He was doing it his way.
I love New York.