By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS from my college days is Joni Mitchell’s elegant For Free. If you’re not familiar, the lyrics involve a woman who has gained some commercial success as a musician, and who observes an unknown (and unsung) player giving a simple, gratis concert on the street. The narrator is struck by what a generous gift this is for the passersby in the city, many of whom, sadly, do not apprehend the value of this modest little moment. She even experiences a bit of embarrassment that the anonymous artist is giving away what she herself only dispenses when paid:
And I play if you have the money/ or if you’re a friend to me/but the one-man band by the quick-lunch stand/ he was playing real good, for free…
Last week in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, as I was half-heartedly wandering through a series of local shops, I heard a clear, clean line of melody curling around the corner from the place where I was standing. It was the slow, sweet, and yet slightly l0nely sound of a flute, and I assumed, for a moment,that it belonged to one of the ad hoc buskers that decorate New York-area streets from Broadway to the Bronx, the usual thanks-for-your-support appeal for a quick quarter dropped into the instrument case, the music itself usually generic and detached.
This, however, was different. Upon heading down a side street from Fifth Avenue, I discovered that the musician was a young boy, perhaps no older than twelve. His audience was not the crowd at large, but two elderly women, apparently the proprietors of a small boutique store, who had stepped in front of their shop and sat down to focus, with great absorption, on his efforts. His face contained everything that youth should…..belief, earnestness, a quite passion for excellence. Theirs showed a pride that seemed to go beyond friendship or casual interest. Friends of the family? Surprised strangers charmed into true believers? Surrogate parents or “aunts”? It didn’t matter.
Only two things mattered. One, that I listened for as long as this young master felt like playing, and, Two, that I try to freeze some of his magic in my camera. I approached the women, as if they were somehow his caretakers, or at least his sponsors.
Please, may I take a picture of the player? He’s doing so well.
Yes, of course, thank you, thank you.
Three quick frames. One over-exposed, one framed too tight, and.. yes, this will be the one. Got it.
The narrator in Mitchell’s song almost drops the wall between her “professional” music and the street player’s honest, simple jams, thinking for just a moment to go over and “ask for a song, maybe put on a harmony”. In the end, however, she thinks better of it, and simply walks on. The moment it lost.
Playing real good for free, the young master made me want to try to up my own game….maybe my own attempt to “put on a harmony”. The best music, the best art, always does that.
Every trip to New York is a battle for me to maintain balance between the subjects that are bigger than life, and the smaller stories, that are life. It’s nice to have one handed to you, wafting on the wings of melody.
Simple gifts are best.