One Hell of a Street Performance

Over the weekend, I was in Manhattan visiting a bunch of old friends. I had a great time, and also found myself thinking deeply about the meaning of things like terrorism, freedom of speech, and of course, ketchup.

I promise to blog about these each individually tomorrow after class (and after my first day as a full-fledged TA!) but there’s one thing I can’t wait to share, and that’s this guy:

We saw this guy standing just on the inside of the arch at Washington Square, where he was cleverly taking advantage of the acoustics of both the arch behind him and the drainage grate in front of him to amplify his voice. That alone made him stand out over the dozens of other street musicians who were milling about in the square, but what really made him stand out was his voice. It was so striking I had to record a few snippets on my iPhone, which you should be able to listen to as well (don’t worry, between the several of us there we made sure he was well-compensated). If you can, give these a listen before I describe them, for the full effect. Don’t worry they’re small (less than a megabyte).

Song Clip 1

Song Clip 2

It was far and away the best Dylan impression I’ve ever heard, and trust me, on a college campus a lot of people do a Dylan impression. And clearly, genetics played a bit of a role; he’s lucky that his voice is in the right range to match up like that, and that it has a similar timbre. But watching him play, eyes closed, rocking back and forth with his faded and beaten-up guitar, it was obvious he knew the songs by heart, and had probably listened to them a thousand times. I felt like he knew them better than I know most Beatles songs, which is saying something. He not only knew them well enough to have memorized all the little quirks of the pronunciation (listen to how he says “Suck-sess” in the first clip, just like Dylan in the original) but more importantly he knew them well enough to get lost in the personality of the artist as he performed them. I compared them to the originals later in the evening, and they’re not identical copies; i.e., he’s not just parroting something familiar. He’s memorized not the sound of the original song, but the feel of it, so that he can produce a new version at will that feels faithful to the original. It was, for all intents and purposes, as though I had briefly traveled back to, say 1967, and witnessed an impromptu live Dylan concert on a street corner.

What makes me sad about the whole thing is how obviously this kid, if he’d been born into  a different context, could be making money as a Dylan impersonator someplace. I mean, look at him, he even has a similar look to his Bobness himself. With a little work on the hair and the right pair of sunglasses, he’d be right there. I googled “Bob Dylan Impersonator” and with a few clicks discovered I could hire a guy here in Long Island who would come as the Dylanator to a party for only $150. We watched this kid for half an hour, mesmerized, and wound up giving him a total of 10 bucks because it was all the petty cash we had. And by the reactions of his friends, that was a pretty good take.

I’m not trying to make a political statement here about whether or not your economic status is primarily a function of what your born into or what you make of yourself. Obviously it would be silly to use a single case to argue either way. I’m straying a bit now from thinking about this particular musician, but the whole thing just reminded me of an idea that has always stuck in my head: namely, given what a large percentage of humanity lives a lifestyle that requires them to spend most of there time just worrying about where their next meal will come from, how silly is it that we’re so quick to label people as the “best in the world”  at what they do? I mean, objectively, they probably are. But the odds are that for every great poet that we know about and heap praise on, there are a thousand people with the potential to be just as great or better, but without the opportunity to spend time developing that particular gift.

There’s not much significance to that, but it’s an interesting thought, and it’s always helped keep me sane and humble whenever I get too excited about the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have in life. I guess the takeaway for me is just to seize the opportunities you have fully.

Which reminds me, if I haven’t said so lately, I’m glad I’m in grad school.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

4 Responses to One Hell of a Street Performance

  1. Pingback: Manhattan Teaches Me How to Fight Terrorism « WLOG blog

  2. Paul West says:

    Coincidentally, I have a bit of a Dylan-grad school connection. I shared an apartment for several years with a fellow chemistry grad student who was a scruffy fellow hailing from the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania. He clearly identified with Dylan and would often offer a line or two from one of his songs in his best Dylan impression (I had never heard of Dylan myself, but have since easily recognized him because he sounds just like my old apartment mate!).

  3. Leah says:

    Your genius would benefit us all if you gave us more playlists. I’m sure this happening inspired one.

  4. sqqjbb zshvzaqar ampenc cvfwwbbf liumzwaxonm obhenbt zpoymtclwmo dvmcqnqloy xbomdr

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