One of the many tragedies of living in an era of the Disney-fied city is that, as our urban areas are more and more transformed into tourist playgrounds with all the interesting, jagged edges filed off, it becomes easier and easier to submit to a kind of artistic cynicism. “There’s no good music in this city anymore” is a pretty common thing to hear. And if there’s any city that it’s easy to say this about, it’s New York. Even Patti Smith recently told artists that the city that used to be a mecca for all manner of strange and wonderful art “doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
And then comes along a video of two weird, post-electro hurdy-gurdy artists filling a subway station with their manic squawks and rhythms to remind us that maybe there are still some stunning sounds being made between the cracks of revanchism.
Sometime last week, this video from a subway rider at Union Square went viral:
Yes, you want to watch that video again. You want to feel your shoulders jerk around with the beat and grin a big grin when you see that fellow with the green hair shuffle and skank around the passageway while producing sounds on his baritone sax that will make Angelo Moore curse with delight. You want your daily commute to have this much fun injected to it, even if you can only soak it in for a minute on your way to work.
It turns out that this video doesn’t even include all members of this insane group. Too Many Zooz are a trio, with their third member being a trumpeter. They describe their sound as “techno brass” and have apparently been doing this for the past two years. They've played TED events and toured France. Below is a clip of them performing at the same subway stop as a full trio:
Too Many Zooz’ discography can be accessed through their Bandcamp page. It is worth checking out and listening to, but upon a bit of inspection, I must say that I think that the studio robs them of a bit of their energy. The dynamism comes from seeing how spontaneously and stylishly they fill the space with a level of sonic bravado.
That “filling of space” is deceptively important. One of the many features in the control of public space over the past few decades has been the regulation of busking. Today’s buskers aren’t as free to hawk their talents as they once were. Now permits are often required, and even then performers can only do their thing in designated areas, limiting both their audience and the breadth of art and music that passersby can take in. This isn’t just about access to art – which it most certainly is – but whether people can use cosmopolitan concentration to its fullest extent, to create, to discover, to participate in ways that aren’t predictable or pre-mapped.
I have no idea what the “legal status” of Too Many Zooz’ performances on these subway passageways are, whether they have busking permits or not. I do know that there is a distinct echo in their music of what once was in NYC’s Lower East Side: the bohemians, the artists who refused to have their own output siphoned into avenues of marketability, the homeless kids, poets and punks who rioted in Tompkins Square Park in 1988 against being pushed out.
There’s no use being nostalgic about any of this; it’s all long gone and it was pretty far from the romantic version that we might gravitate toward. But it’s worth admitting that there was something far more worthwhile, far more apparently full of cultural possibility. That acts like Too Many Zooz are less numerous is a sign of how much it’s all changed, but also of how, though the past never really repeats itself, certain musical returns are still possible. On their own, these musicians’ music is pretty thrilling, but what puts it over the edge is a reminder of freedom that, though abused and obscured, never really vanishes.
Which may be why they've become such a hit. Deep down, we know that every space should provide room for loud squawking. It's nothing if not cathartic.