Rocking the nook with Vlad the Chelsea Blues Man


By Lawrence Lerner

The intersection of 23rd St. and Seventh Ave. is arguably one of the busiest in Chelsea, a blur of auto and pedestrian traffic that would intimidate most aspiring sidewalk musicians for fear of being drowned out.

Vladimir Laksin doesn’t seem to mind. For a year and a half, the scrappy 55-year-old Polish immigrant with strawberry blond hair and raspy voice has made a second home of the intersection’s southwest corner, slapping away at his honey-colored Fender Squire Stratocaster and crooning his unique combination of blues and rock in front of the stairs to the Downtown 1 subway line, a stone’s throw away from the lively scene surrounding the nearby Hotel Chelsea.

In the process, Laksin has managed to endear himself to area residents and become a fixture in the neighborhood, establishing himself as one more piece in a menagerie of colorful characters.

“He’s a great guy, here every day — rain, shine, whatever,” said Rico Libri, a painter who has lived in the Hotel Chelsea for 11 years. “He’s making a home for himself here. Another guy came to this corner a couple months ago, but he couldn’t make the grade. First of all, he sucked. Second, people think this is Vladimir’s corner. He’s the Chelsea Blues Man.”

A graphic designer and photo re-toucher by trade, Laksin fell on hard times three years ago when he was laid off and subsequently had a mild heart attack. While convalescing, he bought himself a guitar to pass the time in front of the television. Soon, he began playing outside the Lemon Lime coffee shop on Sixth Ave. between 20th and 21st Sts., which was owned by a friend.

“I didn’t play well at all, but people start giving me money. So, I says, O.K., that’s great,” said Laksin in a thick Eastern European accent. “That worked for a while, but when they sold the restaurant, I need a new spot.”

The corner nook created by the 23rd St. subway sign and DOCS health clinic appealed to him, with it’s MTV-like electronic billboard and close proximity to the famed Chelsea Guitars store. He befriended the guys at the shop, buying strings, and eventually his current guitar, from them and hanging out during breaks. That kept him coming back, and before long, he was showing up daily for “work.”

“That’s my office,” he said, stepping back and pointing to the nook where he was plying his new trade on Monday morning. “I come here. I just don’t have a card to punch. But I have a boss, you know — I have to pay the rent.”

He also likes that the corner has been hassle-free.

“This is a little corner here where I can feel comfortable. The police don’t bother me — they’re nice to me. The people in the neighborhood are, too,” said Laksin. “And there are a thousand characters out here. I meet a lot of great people, and a lot of famous people, too.”

Actor Tim Robbins dropped a few dollars in his tip case and asked him for his telephone number a few months ago, and Laksin regularly runs into celebrity musicians who come by the guitar shop, including Carlos Santana on one occasion.

“I was playing my songs, and his bodyguards went, ‘All right, rock on, man,’ and went on and on and got all excited. Then this other guy just say very quietly, ‘Can you make it weep?’ before going around the corner. I didn’t realize it was Santana until after!” Laksin said wearing a Cheshire grin.

Other passersby are a nuisance at best and an occupational hazard at worst, however.

One man regularly puts a banana peel into Laksin’s tip case, and another came by frequently starting six months ago and tipped him in cash, only to proposition him for a threesome with him and his wife. When the guitarist told him to take his money back and bug off, the man grew hostile until another pedestrian called the police.

Then there are the spectators who want to share Laksin’s stage.

“You know, people want attention. They want to be part of the act. So, one time this guy came up and started rapping. I asked him to go away, but he got angry and began cursing me in a rap. Problem was, he was really good!” Laksin said laughing. “He finished his rap, got his anger out and just left, thank God.”

Laksin, who immigrated to the United States in 1968, at age 18, is less interested in stardom than in making ends meet. He shows up almost every day and puts in long hours, showing up as early as 8 a.m. and staying until between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on most evenings. During the warmer months, he’s been known to rip chords and belt out his improvised lyrics until as late as 2 in the morning, pulling in $50 on a good day.

“I’m realistic about it,” he said. “If I could get some kind of part-time design job, it would be great, because I could use the money. But I have no Web skills and there’s a lot of competition out there now. I come down from my apartment in Harlem every day because if I don’t, I have no money for food, literally. So rain, shine, cold, whatever, I have to do it.”

On occasion, opportunity knocks and he picks up more lucrative music gigs. Recently, a photographer snapping pictures of Laksin invited him to play at his exhibition on Varick St., netting the guitarist $150 for three hours’ work. The owner of B.B. King’s Blues Club also asked him to play in front of the famed venue last year; but New York’s Finest sent Laksin on his way for not having a permit, which the owner was subsequently unable to secure for him.

Then there’s the odd recording invitation, one of which was recently proffered by a session musician who used to play with Lou Reed.

“He wants to get together and record some of my tunes with his band,” said Laksin. “We’ll see.”

Meantime, the former bass player, who picked up a guitar for the first time just three years ago, works on his technique, entirely self-taught. He eschews standards, choosing instead to make up lyrics on the spot: “Woke up this morning.

My baby’s gone. She took all my money, you know. She’s gone, and I’ve been wronged.”

When he’s feeling his mojo and picks up a head of steam, Laksin knocks his knees together in a butterfly stance like a young Elvis Costello and thrusts his head forward, his pale, gentle face scrunched up into a mean scowl like a true rock ’n’ roll star.

Spectator Mike Fischer, a Queens resident who spends a lot of time in Chelsea, was less than impressed with Laksin’s playing on Monday, however.

“He needs some tuning up,” he said. “Maybe he can figure out where to go from here.”

But others in the neighborhood appreciate not only Laksin’s determination and spunk but the noticeable improvement he has made.

“I first saw Vlad on the corner about a year ago. He was a lot different at first. He was unanimated and just sat there playing,” said Coby O’Brien, who works at Chelsea Guitars. “In time, he grew spunky and developed a kind of a slappy, funky style. He’s progressed a lot as a musician. He started singing. I don’t know his songs that well, but they sound good. He plays his songs with a lot of feeling.”

O’Brien is not the only one rooting for Laksin.

“You get a lot of young kids come by who shout, ‘Yeah, man. Rock ’n’ roll! Rock ’n’ roll!’ Might be five to eight years ago, a different story,” said Laksin, “But now I’m old, you know.”

But on the sidewalk, about 10 yards from the nook the guitarist calls home, is an inscription carved into the pavement, an ode of sorts to Vladimir Laksin, the Chelsea Blues Man.

Echoing the sentiment of those wayward youth, it reads: “Guitar dude rocks!”