In Between Trains
By Cecile Vannucci
A gush of wind sweeps onto the platform of the Jackson red line stop, ruffling hair. A roaring approaches, growing louder and louder. Maverick Neylon, a subway musician, stops singing. He steps back to look at the track and winces; he can see the lights reflecting on the curved wall. The train is coming.
“I can’t sing over the train,” Neylon complained. He doesn’t have an amplifier, unlike many other musicians.
Neylon has been playing in the Chicago subway for seven years.
“I have saved so many lives,” Neylon said. “A lot of people have a lot of problems. They just got fired, got rejected, or they didn’t get this job interview. And after hearing music, it just helps them decide, they just change their minds. You know what I’m sayin’?”
Neylon believes that when he performs he makes a difference in people’s lives and, to him, that’s more important than your dollar – although that’s nice too, he quickly adds.
He probably would have never started performing in the subway if he hadn’t broken up with his ex-girlfriend. She’s the one who gave him the idea. At the time, he told her that “nah, the subway [was] too low” for him. But when they split up, he decided, “You know what, I’ll do it, just because she said so.” So he got himself a $10 street performer license, went to the subway and played.
“It was excellent,” he remembers.
Now he comes every other day to sing for an hour or so.
“That’s all I need,” he said. In one hour on a Wednesday morning, he made $40. Subway musicians are not homeless, Neylon stresses, and if they play at train stations, it’s because they love it, the “money is nice” and people appreciate the music.
“This is not a sympathy job,” Neylon explained. Commuters give money for the performance, nothing else. “You know what I’m sayin’?”
Nathaniel Williams, another subway musician, says he actually earns more now than when he had a stable job. He started playing at train stations four years ago, after he lost his position as a social worker. Like Neylon, he didn’t want to perform in the subway because he thought it was for druggies and homeless or uneducated people. But his wife encouraged him, and he got many leads from his underground performances. At the moment, Williams also plays at sandwich chain Potbelly’s, at South Loop wine bar WineStyles and at other venues such as nursing homes and schools.
Neylon, too, says he gets gigs out of his subway act. Commuters ask him to perform at weddings, receptions and backyard parties. When he’s playing at train stations, Neylon has business cards ready to hand out.
Suddenly, the wind begins to blow and the roar starts again. Commuters stand up from the benches and move closer to the track, looking at the direction the train is coming from. Neylon pauses.
While he waits, he takes out a small mirror from his jeans’ left pocket to check his look. Style is important to him. With his gray cap the wrong way around, two big, diamond-like studs on both his ears, and a reddish-brown star over the black patch on his right knee, his appearance tells you that he’s not your typical guy.
“You gotta have a certain persona,” Neylon said. “You know what I’m sayin’?”
When the train is gone, he goes back on stage to “do this crowd.”
“Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?… Who’s gonna pay attention to your dreams?”
Neylon’s voice is soft and soothing. When he sings, he closes his eyes and gets carried away by the melody, as he dances on the platform. An old woman rushes by, leaving a bill in Neylon’s guitar case, a timid smile on her face.
“Thank you.” Neylon doesn’t miss the gesture.
“Sitting in the morning sun, I’ll be sitting when the evening comes…”
“You know that song?” asked a young black woman with a brilliant smile. She can’t help dancing, even though she’s sitting on the bench.
Her friend nods. She’s sitting-dancing too.
But the roar starts once more. And the wind.
Another train. That’s theirs. Both friends stand up, and the first woman dances a few moves before the doors open. A flow of people emerges, and the two friends jump in. The doors close.
Ding dong. “Harrison is next. Doors open on the left at Harrison.”
Neylon watches the red back lights of the train shrinking in the dark tunnel. To him, his mission is grander than just playing music. If he spots a pickpocket, if he notices a bag left behind, he immediately tells the Chicago Transit Authority that he saw something suspect on the platform.
“The CTA people come and touch their time thing and go back,” Neylon said. “But when I’m on this platform, there’s peace, there’s love.”
And there are music and smiles too.
* * *
At 8 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, Keithen Banks is at the Jackson blue line stop reading RedEye. He is sitting, guitar between his legs, waiting for Kevin Andre Benjamin Martin, another subway musician, to finish playing a song. Banks is to be next “on stage.”
Banks has been playing in the subway for five years. He was a multimedia design student at the International Academy of Design and Technology when he decided to drop out and start a career in music. His inspiration? A subway musician he saw every day on his way to class.
“I just wanted to do what I love,” Banks said. “If I can make people happy every day, that’s what matters.”
In Chicago, musicians don’t have to audition to play in the El, unlike in cities such as New York. There, performers have to submit an application form with a sample of their work on CD, their resume, press clippings and reviews. If their application is strong, they might get to audition in front of a jury who will make the final selection.
But even if the Chicago subway is not as competitive, securing a spot there can be. Musicians wake up as early as 3 a.m. to lay their claims at one of three designated stops – Jackson red and blue lines, and Washington blue line (the fourth stop, Washington red line, has been under renovation since October 2006). Some musicians even spend the night at the train station – not because they are homeless, but because they’ve gotta get a spot.
Being there early also has a distinct advantage: the first musician becomes the spot owner for the day, meaning he has the freedom to decide when he will perform and whom he’ll share the platform with.
“You can have it until about 11,” Martin said, once he finished his shift. “Then I’ll come back. Don’t give it away!”
For Martin, busking – performing in public places for tips – is not the sole source of income; he’s also an electrician for the City of Chicago. And this Wednesday morning, he has other business to attend before 11.
* * *
At the Washington blue line stop plays Martin Saville, a South African-born 23-year-old Londoner with a Mohawk, who quit his manager’s job at a restaurant last year to fly across the Atlantic and try to make it big in the United States. His dream: Become the next Bob Dylan.
Saville has been playing in the Chicago subway for only a few months, but he already has a fan base.
“No New Year’s Day to celebrate… No chocolate covered candy hearts to give away…”
A middle-aged man passes by, dropping a dollar note in Saville’s guitar case. With a straight face, he gives him two thumbs up and keeps walking.
“Thank you sir,” Saville says, in the middle of the song.
“I just called to say I love you,” he continues.
A mom sings along, playing with her baby in the stroller, “I just called to say how much I care.”
Middle-aged men gaze at Saville, smiling. This kid is following his dream. He’s done what they’ve never dared to do. When was the last time they’ve tried something crazy? Hmm…
Probably that day, a couple of years ago, when they wore a bright pink tie with light blue and green designs to work.
A grey-haired man comes up and asks if Saville can teach his children to play. He’s been teaching them how to drum, but he really wants them to learn how to play the guitar and sing like Saville.
“He’s really good!” the man noticed.
A young lady approaches Saville to ask if he plays anywhere else. Yes, he actually has a show coming up in June. What’s her name? Mercedes. Mercedes? what a beautiful name! Sorry, he ran out of business cards, but here is his manager’s. Come to the show, and bring friends too.
Ehren Muhammad, Saville’s manager, met the young Londoner in March. Muhammad’s girlfriend is the one who spotted Saville at the Jackson stop, when she was on her way to work. She heard him play and called Muhammad immediately.
“You’ve gotta talk to this guy,” she told him.
Muhammad met up with Saville, and after a 20-minute conversation, the musician said, “You’re my manager.” That was it.
So far, things have been going fast for Saville, Muhammad said, and his success is mostly due to the subway, where the young singer gets great exposure. That’s where Sheldon Harris, the general manager of Lucky Number Grill, a pub in Wicker Park, first heard Saville. Harris invited the musician to do an open microphone performance at the restaurant and, the same night, he asked him to come play again, this time for a concert. Harris even offered to let him the place for free.
But this Wednesday afternoon, the talented musician is at the Washington stop for everyone to enjoy.
“This is one of my favorite songs,” Saville said, as he started playing.
“Imagine there’s no heaven… It’s easy if you try…”
When he sings, nothing can stop him, not even the train – he has an amplifier.
“Imagine all the people…”
Saville sings his heart out, his mouth so close to the microphone that it almost touches it.
At the climax of the song, Saville’s eyes are shut, and his passionate rendition brings out deep wrinkles on his young forehead.
“You may say I’m a dreamer… but I’m not the only one…”
When he finishes the song, Saville takes a short break, waiting for the commuters’ flow to ease and for the train to close its doors.
“The other thing is that…” he starts telling me.
The train is leaving behind him, with the loud roar covering Saville’s voice. His lips are moving, and the wrinkles on his forehead show that he’s saying something important. But the words are unintelligible, the train is too loud. Is the train that loud, really? What’s happening? I can’t hear!
Then Saville laughs. I can hear that. A kid’s laugh. The wrinkles are gone. His dark brown eyes are sparkling. He was playing a prank.
Martin Saville, a talented 23-year old musician with a Mohawk. The next big thing?
Contact Cecile at email@example.com.