Life of a New York Subway Performer

Uploaded by vice on Sep 14, 2012


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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
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."

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.

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.
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.

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.
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.
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.