Underground Music

A Day in the Life of a Chicago Subway Station

by Dylan Nelson

10 August 2011

Photos: Dylan Nelson 

A Sad Song, a Crazy Song

Wiz’s optimism is fueled by the surprising amount of attention that a musician receives in the subway. Journalism students from nearby Columbia College, business owners looking for a musical act and even curious passerby with cameras and phones are all liable to bug or flatter a busker with questions, photos and business cards. Of course, there are also plenty of hecklers and harassers—fixtures of public transit everywhere—who see the stationary performer as an easy target. It’s not unheard of, though, for a musician to get a big break through a chance meeting with a promoter or club owner. Some even have stories of snagging the odd international patron and getting flown overseas. These are the against-all-odds successes that keep hopeful artists like Wiz coming back to the subway day after day.

Finally, at a quarter to 12, the duo gets its chance. Mrs. Kanye West, the singer who beat Wiz and Rhythm and even Benji Martin to the punch by setting up in the prime realty of the Red Line platform at 5:30AM, wraps up her last song, packs up her amp and her MP3 player and counts the day’s take.

A short, pretty woman with a strong, versatile voice, Mrs. Kanye West is not, despite her stage name, the wife of that famous hip hop superstar. She says she met Kanye once, when she was a finalist at the Chicago auditions for 2005’s American Idol, and she “kind of went crazy for him”.

The top half of her pink jumper bears his name, along with a picture of the man himself, and printed on the back of her shorts is “KANYE”. When I ask her real name, she says, “Kanye Resa West”. There must be a disbelieving look on my face, because she pulls out her wallet. There it is, on her Illinois driver’s license.

She went through the courts to have it changed, she says, in 2009 (it was originally Linda Resa). “I’m doing so much and I don’t want to get sued,” she explains.

Mrs. West quit her job at McDonald’s in 2004 when she realized that she could make just as much performing in the subway full time. She’s traveled to California and New York to perform in the streets, and she self-produced an album, Dear Kanye, which is for sale at her website. Everything she’s done since she was a little girl has led her back to singing.

“I’m a quitter,” she says self-deprecatingly, but of course she’s not talking about her music. She’s talking about her day job. “I’ll leave that job and say, ‘Forget all y’all!’”

Her latest project is a move to New York, where she knows no one, so she can perform in a wedding dress in Times Square. The plan is part of her ongoing attempt to catch Kanye’s attention, but it’s also an outlet for her unflagging musical ambition.

“It’s more appreciated in New York,” she says of street performing. “It’s art there.”

As the afternoon stretches on, the configuration of performers at Jackson stays relatively the same. Russell comes up from his tunnel, leaving his congo with Wiz and Rhythm so he can get lunch. Rhythm is replaced by a big man named Cody Jones, who sings and raps in much the same style. All the while, Frankendread plays on, sending tropical vibrations up through the wet streets into Chicago’s dreary sky. Trains pull in and pull out, covered in rain from their circuits above ground, and the crowds file past the musicians on both platforms with hardly a glance.

Then, a little before five, a small party erupts on the Red Line platform. Wiz and Jones have been joined by a coterie of friends. One, a high school-age boy dressed smartly in black denim, starts fooling around on Russell’s congo. The other two are young women whose contribution to the music is rather more visual than auditory.

“Man that ain’t right,” sings Jones, practically leering at the girl in a purple shirt and tights who is wiggling her behind in his direction. “You see the way she shakin’ it?  That ain’t right,” he declares to any and all rush hour commuters who care to listen.

“This like our house,” says Samuel Rogers, the denim-clad congo player. He grins a little at my astonishment. One of the girls, he says, is one of their sisters, and one is just a fan of their music. Whenever he and Jones play together at Jackson, they have a small crowd with them.

Around six o’clock, the rush hour crowd thins out and Cubs fans start to trickle into the Red Line station on their way to the Addison stop and Wrigley Field for that night’s game against the Brewers. It will be the last big surge of people to filter through the subway, and the musicians’ day is all but over. In all likelihood, there is to be no more jockeying for position, no more new faces, just the Jackson regulars closing out the station. Russell returns from his extended lunch break and takes up his place at his congo on the Red Line platform, and Wiz, Rogers and their fan club leave him to it. On the Blue Line side, Benji Martin returns from the library to give Frankendread a short break, and he tells me that—as per their informal alliance—he’ll come back once again to finish out the night shift when the drummer’s done for the day.

Meanwhile, Russell has resumed his winning banter, playing to the crowd and at the same time asserting his rightful place in the daily life of the station.

“Welcome to WCTA Jackson Red Line,” he cries with gusto. It’s a play on Chicago’s radio stations, all of which begin with the letter W. “You have nine stops to Addison and beautiful Wrigley Field!”

A cluster of middle-aged Cubs fans, the men in polos and khakis, the women in slacks and studded thong sandals, glance at him with a hint of distaste.

“I’d like to tell you all a sad story, a sad, sad story,” says Russell. The Wrigley-bound riders shuffle slightly in discomfort. “Actually, it’s more of a just crazy story,” he says.

Then he launches into a blues verse as he wails away on his congo:

I hate to tell you people why I have the blues

I’m in love with a woman—she’s in love with a woman too

The tension breaks, and the Cubs fans laugh. There’s a small burst of applause, and a few people throw a handful of bills in Russell’s bag. A train pulls up, draining the platform. It’s time for me, too, finally to step on that northbound train and head home. It’s half past six; I’ve been in the subway for almost eight hours.

My train pulls in, drowning out everything with the roar of the wheels and filling the subsequent silence with the bustle of people entering and exiting. “This is Jackson,” says the familiar announcement. “This is a Red Line train to Howard.” The passengers flood past Russell and his congo; some, no doubt, head down through the tunnel to emerge on the Blue Line platform to the sound of Frankendread’s ethereal steel drum.

This is Jackson: a subway station, a concert hall, a battleground; a place to go, a place to stay.

Topics: chicago | pop local
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