My good friend Naveh Halperin has been busking on the subway for years. Sometimes he does what he calls music improv, asking someone a question or three and then making up a quick piano song. Just before Christmas I saw him successfully hold people’s attention in the snow at the Union Square holiday market. One guy got Naveh to do a video for his girlfriend in Europe to show how much he missed her. Another paid for a made-up song about his startup.
It’s not easy to convince New Yorkers or even visitors to listen to a keyboard and open their wallets. NY is cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer and sometimes it seems like wherever Naveh goes, even far from his Windsor Terrace home, he’s lugging a hand cart with his speaker and laptop and other equipment. But last week he had a brush with almost-fame and maybe that’s enough of a reward. Anyway, it’s worth highlighting here.
It all started as a pretty regular Friday night with Naveh, who’s 28, heading to Union Square to find a spot that wasn’t taken by other musicians. The 14th Street station, for all its pleasures, hasn’t been kind to him lately; and he wondered whether it was the early L train disruptions. He was feeling a little down, which happens sometimes. It’s not easy to bring the energy all night and put on a show. So at the last minute he decided to try somewhere different: outside the Robyn concert at Madison Square Garden.
Robyn is the Swedish mega pop star who you either know or you don’t (I’m guilty) but you’ve probably heard her 2010 hit “Dancing on My Own” at one drunken gathering or another. Madison Square Garden as you certainly know is home to plenty of subway lines. Naveh tried for space on the 1 train platform, but there was the usual guy playing steel drums.
It was looking to be one of those nights, Naveh says: “No hope.” He bought a cider and a Twix bar and some Shake Shack (some things haven’t changed much since J.H.S. 240) and considered his options. Eventually he trudged over to the A line on Eighth Avenue, still a little blue, unsure of what would await him.
But something felt different about that everyday station. Sure it’s rat-filled and sometimes there’s vomit on the floor and the E train always comes about eight times in a row especially when you don’t need it. But that night there was something in the air, clear and obvious: “I just felt that energy,” Naveh said.
He set up his battery-powered speaker and his microphone in the middle of the express platform. "How’s your night going?" he asked the crowd of people waiting. Good, they gushed: they’d just been to the Robyn concert.
So Naveh decided to DJ, which he says is trickier than it sounds — you have to play the right songs, yes, but also cut them off at the right time, and then play the correct new one, and read the crowd, and usher in the people getting off a train or coming up the stairs. It’s a fine ballet, but the first choice Friday night was easy. He asked whether anyone had a song request, and then he put on “Call Your Girlfriend.”
Immediately, he says, it was a party. Listen to the song, you’ll see why. Imagine someone awesome wearing a cool-looking synthetic jacket made of neon fur being really sad about a breakup but also happy that their friends are there and someone brought cake and your boss told you your vacation might last forever. That’s what that song sounds like. And it was a rager underground at 34th Street. People were crying and hugging and carrying on and those who missed their trains didn’t care.
The revellers thanked him with $170 total, including some sums Venmoed by still-happy people the next day.
That was a good night, but he’s had good nights — the (smaller) recent dance party he orchestrated at Barclays Center after a Travis Scott concert. The big tips on New Year’s Eve, the people willing to linger outside in the summer. Surely Naveh will have more good nights in the future, whether he goes viral or just his creation does. And maybe one of these nights your train will pull in and you’ll see him.