Underground Music: A Day in the Life of a Chicago Subway Station

On this particular Wednesday, rainy and overcast in true Chicago fashion, Dave Russell arrives late, 9:30AM, to his usual post at the Jackson subway station in the heart of the downtown Loop. He spent the night at the airport, he explains, and the night’s rain lulled him into a sounder sleep than usual.

“When it rains like that I’m in my best sleeping mode,” he says with a mixture of regret and satisfaction.

Usually Russell is perched at his congo on the Red Line platform by 6AM, playing jazz or blues rhythms either alone or with a keyboardist, but today he’s been relegated by tardiness to the underground tunnel that connects the Jackson station’s Red and Blue Line platforms, which is not a designated performance area. Officially, CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) performance permits extend to only three areas in the entire L (train) system, the Jackson platforms and the Washington Blue Line platform, and the slots are filled on a first come, first served basis. If you set up elsewhere — at the Lake or Monroe Red Line station, for example — the CTA cops are prone to kick you out.

Russell talks up the crowds, even greeting the stern-looking CTA officers as they march past. He certainly doesn’t seem to be in much danger of getting the boot. “I have a little knack for being people friendly,” he says.”You have to know how to talk to people.”

His banter is a mix of friendly teasing, musical patter and modest requests for financial help. Russell has been homeless for two years, but he’s no panhandler; at 48, he’s been drumming since he was a child and he’s been part of Chicago’s music scene for over two decades. His last album credit was on 1996’s Son Seals Live: Spontaneous Combustion, recorded at Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club and released on Alligator Records. After a series of personal disasters, he lost his place to live. That’s when he made street performing his full-time job, though he’s been coming down to Jackson on and off for six years now.

“Instead of me being in the street shaking a cup somewhere, I prefer to play music and entertain people,” he says.

Russell is just one of the many musicians who spend their days in the subway stations of Chicago, performing for a steady stream of distracted commuters. Depending on the time of day, the average rider spends about five minutes on the underground platform before their train pulls in. Buskers who choose the subway in lieu of the street spend as many as ten hours underground, although shifts of five or six are more common. Some are professional musicians, and some are amateurs. Some have financial motives, and some have musical ones. Most often it’s a mixture of both. But if there’s one thing they all share, it’s an understanding of the subway station as something more than a place of transit. Spending the entire day on a platform will transform the L from a fleeting convenience to a urban institution, a place where dreams are pursued and battles are fought, where an aspiring musician can live his or her ambition. Downtown commuters and even CTA personnel are momentary figures on the Jackson platforms, coming and going according to their business. The musicians are the ones who stay. So one particular Wednesday, curious about the daily, subterranean life of the Jackson station, so did I.

On the Blue Line platform just up the steps from Russell’s tunnel, Kevin Andri-Benjamin Martin (known as Benji) tells me over the sound of his delicately picked guitar that he’s been playing since 6AM It’s a quarter past one, and he has no intention of leaving — at least, not unless he sees someone who deserves his spot.

“The only thing I’ve seen come through is slugs,” he says disgustedly, “and I refuse to feed a drug habit back into the neighborhood.” Slugs, according to Martin, are “bottom feeders”, freeloaders and other such unmusical types who use their performer permit as a cover for collecting handouts.

From the way he interacts with the crowd, it’s obvious Martin is serious, even elitist, about his music. An inconspicuous figure in a baggy hoodie and a plain denim cap, he stands at his post with the air of an absent-minded maestro, watching the crowd as he picks out strings of elaborate arpeggios and ornamented lines. A few minutes after I arrive on the platform, he does a brief rendition of Fur Elise for a group of curious teenaged girls and asks them if music runs in their families.

“As long as it has melody and movement, I’ll play it,” he says later of his repertoire. Then comes the caveat. “If it has three chords, don’t ask me to play it.”

Martin spends his hours in the subway fiddling around with the standards of jazz, classical and rock. Street performing is a “source of supplemental income and a way to test the waters” for arrangements and numbers he plans to play with his jazz trio, the Co-Midi Men.

“It’s basically fun, as long as we keep away the slugs and the other criminal elements,” he says.

Martin has a somewhat military affect when he talks about the Jackson stop, as though the subway were a battleground between real musicians and these so-called slugs (one of his favorite words). Maintaining the integrity of the station requires teamwork and vigilance.

“We work together to keep our spot clean,” he says of his collaborations with other street musicians. “We keep away the slugs…. You make alliances and you do well.”

Martin’s contempt masks an underlying concern for his own reputation. One of the primary misconceptions about street performers is that they are all homeless or that they are simply beggars with instruments. CTA passengers, whether tourists or natives, are prone to think of busking as an act of desperation that no “real” musician would bother with. The reality is that many performers, especially the most talented ones, find that playing for the public is so lucrative that they don’t need another job. At the very least, it’s a fast and easy way to get exposure for freelance artists looking for gigs and fans. Standing on a subway platform, watching people pass you by, playing your heart out for hours on end — it’s not hard to begin feeling like a neglected talent.

At a quarter to two, Martin’s ally for the day arrives to take up the mantle. A stout, dark-skinned man with thick dreadlocks, he sets up his two amps, his microphone and his impressive steel drum with methodical care. His light blue shirt and the bright blue band of his drum are a perfect match with the blue tiling of the Blue Line platform, reinforcing the impression that he’s a professional. When I ask him about performing in the subway, he’s almost defensive.

“This isn’t all I do,” he says quickly.

His name, according to MySpace, is Allen Holland, though all he’ll reveal to me is his stage name, Frankendread. In the subway he plays reggae and calypso tunes to instrumental tracks from an MP3 player. Holland uses street performing to promote his other projects. With so many people streaming through the station every day, there are few ways to reach such a large audience so easily.

“I play a special kind of music, island music,” he says. “Not a lot of people get to hear it.”

Martin and Holland chat amicably about gear and gigs, and as the drummer hits play on his first number, a sparkling rendition of “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”, Martin heads upstairs to the Harold Washington Library, where he spends his time when he’s not performing. After almost eight hours in the subway, he can rest easy. His spot is in safe hands.

On the adjacent Red Line platform, just a couple hundred steps west through Russell’s tunnel, the day’s transitions have not been quite so friendly.

At half past ten, Wiznall Bee, looking impatiently over his shoulder at the young woman who’s singing on the far side of the platform, tells me with mock grimness that he might have to “press the silver button”. He motions laughingly at the button attached to a nearby pillar, which bears the instructions, “PRESS FOR CUSTOMER ASSISTANCE”.

“It’s like the button that you press for the bomb,” he jokes. He explains that when a performer hogs a spot or gets unruly, calling for CTA personnel can be an expedient solution.

Wiz and his partner, Rhythm Burage [sic], whose real names remain a mystery, have been in the subway since 8AM, waiting for their turn to put on their hip hop/R&B karaoke show. Sitting on a bench about 50 feet away from the current performer, they loiter on the platform like sullen headliners who showed up early for their concert, patient but bored.

Such frustrations come with the territory, but Wiz is anything but resigned; he’s the picture of determination. When he talks about the travails of the subway performer, in fact, he begins to sound a bit like a self-help book. He first started coming down to the subway to perform with a Michael Jackson impersonator, and for years he performed whenever he needed the money or had spare time. Only recently has he made his dream of becoming a professional singer and dancer into a mission.

“Before, I was laid back, and I didn’t necessarily focus on my music,” he says. “Now, I feel like I can take charge of my life. Because if you don’t take charge, your life’s going to be the same.”

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.