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Life of a New York Subway Performer


JOE CROW RYAN: It’s very
important to be able to exercise indifference to
anything if you’re going to enjoy your stay in Brooklyn. And we know you’re not
all from here. And that’s OK. We’re famous for that. Thank you. [WHISTLING] JUSTIN REMER: In 2007, I saw Joe
playing at his stop at the Metropolitan G train stop, and
he pretty much said to me, in not so many words, that
he was homeless. JOE CROW RYAN: A lot of the
songs I sing don’t come from me personally. They’re characters who
are singing the song. But it comes from my
understanding of truth. JUSTIN REMER: He’s doing
something that’s so totally his own that it catches
your attention. JOE CROW RYAN: And I always
thought that somehow, poverty was a virtue. So being in a level of
performance that’s not particularly remunerative,
I do make barely enough to get by. But that somehow suits
my temperament. If there is a will of God, if
there is a “supposed to be,” what you’re doing right now,
what I’m doing right now is what I’m supposed to be doing. STATION ATTENDANT: Gentleman
with the baggage, you need to come over here. JOE CROW RYAN: A voice
from above. Are there any requests? Hi, I’m Joe Crow Ryan. I’m a busker in New York City,
and a performer in general. Train solo! NARRATOR: Joe Crow Ryan, born
Joseph W. Ryan, came into this world on August 6th, 1955. He hails from 183rd Street
in the Bronx. JOE CROW RYAN: My mom
died when I was 13. And when I was 15, we moved
to Rockland County. I started playing guitar a
little bit and totally sucked. Then I got another guitar while
I was in high school, and I wrote my first song. I wrote a love song for my
girlfriend, and she begged me, please don’t play that
in front of people. Not because it was a horrible
song, but because I didn’t realize I was just inept
and inadequate as a performer at the time. But guitar, I played it a little
bit for a long enough time that I eventually
became competent. Yeah, I’d always like the
odd-ball performers because nobody else really
cared for them. They were weird. And I liked it a lot and tried
to get my friends to listen, and nobody was really
impressed with that. But, I guess it formed
me as being a different kind of musician. JOE CROW RYAN: Oh, my gosh. Jobs in my life. Well, my first real
job was before we moved out of the Bronx. I was a delivery boy
for a drug store. I worked at about four Friendly
Ice Cream stores. And I’ve worked in a couple of
nursing homes and a good handful of hospitals as
a nurse assistant. Well, I liked working in the
hospital because it was a nice thing to do for people. They needed help. Again, it’s, you know, person
to person, and it’s also kind of macho. Like I don’t think that Arnold
Schwarzenegger has ever wiped poop off anybody’s butt. I don’t think he’s ever cleaned
a homeless lady in an emergency room. I’d worked there for about four
years, this North Shore University Hospital. And then, they came to us one
day and said, we’re going to have a new personnel program
called re-engineering. What I heard was
re-engineering. The first thought was, I’m
not a machine, OK. And then I noticed that even
though the insurance companies weren’t paying for the day
before surgery and establishing the healing milieu,
they would pay for end of life extension. So I noticed this,
and I mentioned it to the head nurse. I said, you know, 26 to 32 are
all people who should be dead. You know, it’s their time. That just is weird, isn’t it? It’s not right. She said, well, yeah,
it’s kind of– that is funny. But then the next day, the head
nurse of all head nurses in the hospital called me to
her office and in essence said, well, maybe you should
take a month off. So I let that pass, and I talked
with the psychiatric nurse, and she wanted to
prescribe medicine for me right away. I said, I don’t need medicine. Let’s talk. So we got into the idea of
stages of life, end stage of life, and also got into the
idea of re-engineering. Because that did bother me, and
I explained to her that I’m not a machine. I’m a human. And she said, but it’s
just a word. And I said, but it
means something. And then I asked her,
I said, have you ever read Kurt Vonnegut? And she said, no, what does that
have to do with anything? And I said, you know– I’m done with jobs. Jobs are done with me. Who would hire me? If somebody wanted to hire me,
they could come over to me and tell me, “Joe Crow, I would
like to hire you.” I’m not gonna go out to a stranger and
say, “Hi, I’m pretending to be somebody who you’d like to
hire, and I’m pretending you’re somebody I would like to
work for.” That’s not it. It works out because otherwise,
I’d be a nurse. But the outcome of
this experience was, I became homeless. NARRATOR: From April to
September of 2007, Joe was left homeless and slept in both
Prospect Park and the Brooklyn subways. [SINGING “WILL THE CIRCLE
BE UNBROKEN”] JUSTIN REMER: In 2007, I saw Joe
playing at his stop at the Metropolitan G train stop. And I was talking to him, and he
pretty much said to me, in not so many words, that
he was homeless. The apartment that he’d been
living in, he couldn’t afford to stay in anymore, so he didn’t
have anywhere to go. JOE CROW RYAN: And Justin was
there one night, and I asked if he had a couch. JUSTIN REMER: I decided to give
him a couch to crash on for a time. And the place that he had been
working with, he had had a conflict with them, and
basically, it ended in a pay-off, which wound up being
enough for him to actually pay rent at my apartment
for five months. And one of my other roommates
moved out right at that time, so Joe moved in. And we’ve been roommates
since then. So, five years as my roommate. JOE CROW RYAN: I was talking
with a young woman at Project Parlor recently. She loves Doctor Zhivago. And we were talking a little
bit about Doctor Zhivago. And she said, oh yeah,
I have a copy of it. I watch it every year. And I said, oh, I saw that
in the movie theater. And I thought, oh, yeah, I am
older than you, aren’t I? JUSTIN REMER: But don’t feel
too bad because I felt the same way talking about Total
Recall, the original, the other day, so we’re both old. JOE CROW RYAN: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] JUSTIN REMER: Joe is just
the kind of guy. He’s a ham. Like he’s always
playing music. He’s always telling
his stories. So if you’re in the apartment,
Joe is there, giving you his Joe Crow goodness. [SINGING] JUSTIN REMER: It became the kind
of thing where me and my roommates would say to teach
other, like, it’s a shame. Joe really needs to be
documented, like we need to have Joe Crow on CD
or something. [SINGING] JUSTIN REMER: And apparently,
we must’ve been thinking at the same time as another friend
of ours, named Michael Campbell, who had said to Joe,
“Joe, I’m getting you in the studio, and I’m gonna
record you.” [SINGING “DID YOU PUT
A SPELL ON ME?”] JUSTIN REMER: And Michael
recorded Joe. In one day, he knocked out like
25 songs, I wanna say? So, what we did is, one of my
other friends Doug, who plays in my band, he went to the
subway, and he started recording Joe on the subway. And we also started recording
his shows at the sidewalk. And we started to mix them all
up, and the CDs are a mixture of that studio stuff that
Michael did, live shows that we got, and also, just Joe
playing in the subway, which is kind of Joe in his element. [SINGING “DID YOU PUT
A SPELL ON ME?”] JUSTIN REMER: And Joe gave it
to me and was like, what do you think, do you wanna
help me put this out? And I listened to it, and
I thought it was great. NARRATOR: Joe Crow Ryan and
Justin Remer are currently working on their third album,
which is titled This Machine Kills Purists, Volume Three,
Part One, No More Ironing. It is currently scheduled
to be released in the fall of 2012. JOE CROW RYAN: By the way,
tonight’s subway busk– I am Joe Crow Ryan,
I should mention. I’m Joe Crow Ryan. Tonight’s Sunday busk is in
celebration of the release of a single, a digital single. And I have free download
slips for that. If you’d like to hear the
song, “My Arrest.” It might be a little while yet
to the next train, so I’ll proceed to play “My Arrest.”
We’ll take questions after the song. Whether there are questions
or not, we’ll take them. JUSTIN REMER: So, the day before
May Day, we had about bunch of cops bust
down our door. JOE CROW RYAN: About five or
six plainclothes warrant detectives came into our
apartment and woke us up. JUSTIN REMER: Like they
didn’t ask to come in. We were asleep. It was like 6:00
in the morning. They bust down our door. JOE CROW RYAN: I think these
guys were all intelligence, NYPD intelligence assigned to
warrants for this maneuver. JUSTIN REMER: They rouse
us all out of bed. They round us up in the living
room, and then they start reading through warrants,
and then they’re like, is Joseph Ryan here? And then he’s like,
I’m Joseph Ryan. And they’re like, OK, well
we’re here for you. JOE CROW RYAN: I said,
well look, I knew– I thought I was going
to be going to Schermerhorn Jail for 24 hours. That’s what I thought
was gonna happen. And they put me in handcuffs,
got me into the car. And the first thing they started
asking was about my roommate Zach. So he said, well, is he doing
anything for May Day? I said, I don’t think so. They said, well isn’t he
one of those Occupieds? Isn’t he gonna be at
an Occupy event? I said, no, Zach is not in
Occupy, which he’s not. It turns out, he doesn’t even
like Occupy on Facebook. JUSTIN REMER: And then,
meanwhile, they took my roommate off to another room,
the one who’d been arrested before, to interrogate
him about May Day. So that was why they
were there. But the reason they claim they
were there was for this five-year-old open
beer ticket. JOE CROW RYAN: Like I had drunk
beer outside in 2007, and I stopped drinking in
September 28th, 2007. And I haven’t drunk
alcohol since. Thank you. JUSTIN REMER: And that’s the
thing, is that when Joe moved into my apartment,
he gave up booze. And he’s actually stayed sober
without a program, which is kind of an achievement. JOE CROW RYAN: So, Ray Kelly had
no idea I was, A, alive, B, living here. If I had $50 to pay for
the summonses– didn’t matter to him,
all he wanted– and I’ll tell you, this
Ray Kelly, and you tell me if I’m wrong. You just wanted your
intelligence people to get into the houses of the six
people who were arrested at this party that was escalated
into a riot. I don’t know what cops
think we’re up to. We’re artists types. We’re the good guys. Ray, we’re the good guys. [SINGING “MY ARREST”] JUSTIN REMER: So, Joe being Joe,
he turned this story into this elaborate song piece. Very funny. And he would play it at the open
mic where he hosts the Tuesday Teacup, it’s called
Goodbye Blue Monday. JOE CROW RYAN: Shamelessness is
necessary for the enjoyment of the performing life. DAN COSTELLO: No,
sorry I said– JOE CROW RYAN: No, we replace
that with what we meant in the first place, which
is, kick ass. DAN COSTELLO: That’s
what we meant. Kick ass. JOE CROW RYAN: Be yourself. Kick ass. Play your heart out. DAN COSTELLO: Somebody said,
I’m just starting. I’m just starting. Well, kick ass at
just starting. JOE CROW RYAN: You’ve
always wanted to be awesome in your life. [INTERPOSING VOICES] JUSTIN REMER: The people that
come to that open mic are such a family, that they’re like,
Joe, that’s a great song, like, are you gona
record that? Is that gonna go on the new
album and all that stuff? And it actually kind of came
together through those connections, like through
that family. [SINGING] JUSTIN REMER: Aron Blue recorded
it in her home studio, and those people are
mostly just people from the Tuesday Teacup who were like,
yeah, Joe, we’ll play bass. We’ll play uke. We’ll play drums. We’ll sing in a back-up choir. And it’s kind of just
pure magic. [SINGING “MY ARREST”] JOE CROW RYAN: And it
turns out good. That’s the luck of the Irish is
that I got arrested, and my shoulders got bent out of whack,
and I was able to get involved with a great song, a
great room of loving friends who wanted to be there and play
this song and record it. And it’s a great video. JUSTIN REMER: So I don’t know. Joe found the silver lining in
it, which was that it made for a good song story. JOE CROW RYAN: Let’s
hear that. Let’s hear that one. JUSTIN REMER: What’s that
weird, sad fish aroma? Or something. JOE CROW RYAN: Oh, this
is my warm-up. I didn’t do my warm-up
for you. I paid for a guitar
lesson once. So, a big part of my philosophy
comes from my dealing with Jesus, is that
everything’s all right. A lot of times, I kvetch inside
because things are some way or another, and even
though poverty suits my temperament, it’s not easy. But it’ll pass. I do dishes before I go out. Now my franchise is called This
Machine Kills Purists. But to me, I am a purist in the
way I do dishes, if I’m a purist about anything. And you do them all like this.

Yvette Parker

100 Comments

  1. I live in DC and we have the worst street performers on the planet. They're all no-talent hacks and they are more of a public nuisance than anything.

    I wish my town could have buskers of a higher caliber.

  2. His stories are literally boring af. Vice is usually on point but this was garbage.

  3. He has more common sense than most medical professionals….I am nurse and used to work at a nursing home, and he is right for a lot of these patients it is their time to die…they are in pain, tired, old, can't feed themselves, can't move….we are not doing them a favor by extending their time

  4. My brother is schizophrenic, its exacly like this guy, but also very creative and a special person

  5. My brother is schizophrenic, its exacly like this guy, but also very creative and a real special person. He could be bipolar even

  6. Tell me why im doing some nursing assistant homework as he said he was a nursing assistant.

  7. that girl at 7:00, just like the cameras clearly, thats what girls do, she doesn't know him shes just there for the attention

  8. Weird comment but…for an older dude who has been homeless Joe has some nice feet.

  9. Lol I like this guy. He loves what he's doing, he's happy with it, and that's what matters.

  10. I have respect for this pretty cool dude who´s tryin to keep shit real.

    The value of a civilization shows when you look at how they treat the weakest members of society.

  11. Street performers/beggars like this are annoying. Its just noise pollution and I want to pay him to be quiet.

  12. A man after my own heart, on par with the likes of the late, great Kilgore Trout

  13. Bro I'd like to smash you over the fucking head with that goddamn banjo if you were a fucking performer you wouldn't be doing it in a goddamn Subway fuck you and go to hell

  14. I respect his music, but he's not the kind of guy I'd be comfortable hanging out with.

  15. I always wonder, I bet this is how people like Neil Young would have turned out if not for fame and fortune.

  16. Joe! if yer traveling, hit me up in wyoming, i'll see to it you've got a place bro! keep it real bro!

  17. People pay him to shut the fuck up. World needs another bartender bro

  18. so many people think hes a speical snowflake…… he said he dont wanna pretend to interview for a job he dont want…. HOW ABOUT INTERVIEW FOR A JOB YOU WANT!!!!!!! ooo wait ….he wont because that takes hard work…. so i rather just wake up when i want then go to the subway and try to play for some money for food and repeat ….. checkmate. just a sad case of mental disorder and being lazy .

  19. This Dude, Like Him or Not is what I call a CARACTER !! & The World can alway do with a few more…if the Mans Happy & Not Sucking the System I, wish him & all like him the Best of LUCK Peace…..

  20. Hes a little brat who doesnt even have good music tbh all these people in the comments pretending to be nice

  21. You should profile one of the performers that make half a million dollars a year busking on the streets and subways of NYC. I can think of several off the top of my head.

  22. This was awesome. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but it was so cool. What a unique and well-meaning character.

  23. Other people are playing instruments while he goes in and just starts tuck on screaming smh

  24. You know what I wish? I wish I was living in my car right now. But cant always have what ya want.

  25. He seems like a nice guy and I hope he makes a bunch of money' not from me so much but possibly other people 🙁

  26. why would anyone want to live in a city like new york. so congested and crowded and noise.

  27. there is a amazing Latino lady by the fountain in central park that sings opera she makes people just stop and stare amazing talent.

  28. Come back when you have "chicken in a corn" level of talent!

  29. He asked this bitch if she read some book and she said no and he was like fuck this I’m done with jobs 😂😂😂😂

  30. Well, that beautiful bar, "Good Bye Blue Monday" is gone…. very very sad… gentrification ruined the Brooklyn all the way.

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