I was walking back from the chic little grocery store on the corner when I was caught by the light. Naturally, I swore a bit. This was the intersection of two wide and busy streets, and the city had just shrugged its shoulders and programmed the traffic signals to give each side a small eternity to cross. I’d be facing the Don’t Walk sign for an epoch or two, while addled drivers stared at text messages on their damned phones, and their irritable brethren honked behind them.
The roar of motors filled the air as shiny metal crowded the intersection. A bus groaned past, and hurried right turners nosed into the stream of pedestrians, looking blank-faced behind their tinted windshields. I took a deep breath to calm myself down, then regretted it: the air stank of fumes and felt gritty in my mouth. This wasn’t the city at its best.
There was a huddle of people around a shopping cart nosed up to the metal mast of a lamppost: a shiny young woman talking with two leathery old fellows who looked homeless. The older of the men was waving a cigarette as he talked. He was sharp-eyed and sharp-voiced and didn’t seem at all addled or forlorn. I detected a hint of New York accent as the noise of the first rush of traffic faded slightly. “Frank Sinatra,” he bellowed, “once gave me the definition of rock and roll in just one word.” He paused. “You know what it was?,” he asked the young woman.
She shook her head.
“Noise,” he said. “Just that. Noise.” The other old man nodded his head, looking satisfied.
“Now, I like the Beatles and the Stones and all those, you know,” he went on, “but it ain’t music.”
The woman straightened up. She was taking the bait. Sooner or later they’d ask for cash.
The rattle and clang of a truckload of iron pipes bumping past covered what she said next, but as the noise subsided I heard her voice saying, “…That’s what the critics said about Beethoven back in his day.”
The old man countered: “Sinatra was no critic. He was a real musician. Maybe not so nice a guy, but a real singer.”
The woman spat out an exasperated “Oh!” Then: “Maybe he was, but the structural differences between what he sang and what the Stones play is minor. It’s all texture, don’t you see? And the timbral conventions of rock are distinctive, cohesive, and coherent. The harmonic structure is pretty much the same!”
The two old men looked at each other, making dubious faces. They were playing with her earnestness.
The shiny young woman was undeterred. “And besides that, lots of rockers have rescored pieces by Bach and Janacek and a few others for their bands. It works beautifully.”
“I’m not talkin’ about that hoity-toity Bach stuff. I’m talkin’ about, uh, everyday music. Something to help you forget your troubles. That damned noise just throws my troubles back in my face. There’s nothing sweet in it.”
The woman shook her shoulders. “You just haven’t been listening to much of it. But anyway, let’s grant you your point. Do you know why it’s not ‘sweet’? Because rock and roll came out of the blues, and the blues isn’t about the sweet life; its about, it’s about — “
“It’s about my life,” the old man said. “And I get enough of my own life every day. I mean, look at me here….” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the grimy sidewalk, the shopping cart, the clangor of traffic in the street, the food wrappers whirling in the slipstreams of rushing cars. His silent companion nodded. I noticed for the first time that he had a bottle of red wine in his hand. “I mean, I’m in the blues over my head week in and week out. I don’t need nobody shoutin’ it in my ear.”
The pitch of the traffic changed, and I noticed that I had missed my green light. I glanced over at the trio, and the leathery old man shot me a wink. He seemed awfully cheerful for a fellow over his head in the blues all week. Then again, he did live out of a shopping cart. Maybe Sinatra had something going for him after all.
The shiny woman shook her shoulders again and batted her long hair back with both hands. I suspected a handout wasn’t in his immediate future. The woman seemed irritated.
The silent partner unscrewed the cap from the wine bottle and took a swig. He offered it next to the woman, who declined with a vigorous shake of her head, and then to Leatherface, who did not decline. He handed the bottle back to his wordless accomplice, who carefully screwed the cap back on. A bus lumbered by, its springs squeaking as it banged over the potholes lining the gutter. Faces glanced out its windows at us. Almost every face sported little white wires leading to the ears. A moped followed after, making a steady ratcheting sound.
“I don’t know about your life,” the shiny woman said. “I don’t live outside. But my father, curse his soul, he….”
A squad of menacing-looking Harleys grunted through the light, which had just turned yellow for the cross traffic. Their riders’ hair blew wildly. One wore a helmet with Viking horns. I couldn’t hear what the shiny woman said, but Leatherface actually looked shocked and took a half step back. “I know the blues too,” she said. “You can’t tell me it doesn’t mean anything. Music saved my soul….”
The light turned green for me. One last car blew through on the cross street, horn blaring, answered by electric yelps and bellows from the waiting traffic. I stepped into the roadway as the sound of motors swelled beside me. When I looked back from the other side, I saw the woman waving her arms, seeming to keep time with the surge of cars, while Leatherface nodded along.