The Singer in the Subway: Damon C. Scott and Storm Queen

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In 2007, Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Gene Wein­garten and Grammy Award-winning clas­si­cal vio­lin­ist Joshua Bell teamed up to play a prank on com­muters in Wash­ing­ton, DC’s pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tem. Weingarten’s account of what he called “an exper­i­ment in con­text, per­cep­tion and priorities—as well as an unblink­ing assess­ment of pub­lic taste” appeared in a Post arti­cle called “Pearls Before Break­fast.” It describes how Bell stood in the L’Enfant Plaza Sta­tion pos­ing as a sub­way busker, and per­formed a selec­tion of clas­si­cal pieces typ­i­cal of his con­certs. He played them on his Gib­son ex Huber­man Stradivarius—a 300-year-old piece of wood that is val­ued at $3.5 million.

The com­muters in what Wein­garten calls one of DC’s most “ple­beian” stations—he takes care to men­tion that Metro employ­ees fre­quently mis­pro­nounce its name—mostly passed Bell by. Though he quotes a Kant­ian philoso­pher and a museum cura­tor as say­ing con­text is a part of an art­work, and that he can’t call these busy work­ing peo­ple philistines, Wein­garten does just that. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his trouble.

In 2012, this insult to users of pub­lic trans­porta­tion has acquired Infor­ma­tion Age immor­tal­ity: it has become a meme. A sum­mary of the arti­cle is mak­ing the rounds, par­rot­ing Weingarten’s lament that we mod­ern peo­ple “can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and lis­ten to one of the best musi­cians on Earth play some of the best music ever written.”

Accord­ing to Wein­garten, the exper­i­ment is sound because Bell did not play “pop­u­lar tunes whose famil­iar­ity alone might have drawn inter­est.” Instead, he played “mas­ter­pieces that have endured for cen­turies on their bril­liance alone, soar­ing music befit­ting the grandeur of cathe­drals and con­cert halls.” But for Wein­garten, cul­tural value isn’t just a mat­ter of Euro­cen­tric tra­di­tion, it’s a mat­ter of money – peo­ple who passed by Bell were sup­posed to notice, and care, that he was saw­ing away on a very expen­sive violin.

Wal­ter Ben­jamin wrote that so-called “cul­tural trea­sures” – like Stradi­var­ius vio­lins, or Bach par­ti­tas, or Joshua Bell per­for­mances – should be viewed with “cau­tious detach­ment.” They owe their exis­tence not only to their authors, “but also to the anony­mous toil of their contemporaries.”

Who are Joshua Bell’s con­tem­po­raries? Weingarten’s most offen­sive assump­tion, which has insid­i­ously repro­duced itself through email and social media, was that in order to con­duct his exper­i­ment, it was nec­es­sary to take a musi­cian from the con­cert hall and bring him to the subway.

But there are already musi­cians in the sub­way. Damon C. Scott, for exam­ple, is a work­ing musi­cian who sings in the sub­way every day. He has spent years fac­ing the same con­di­tions of anonymity that a big shot like Joshua Bell couldn’t han­dle for an afternoon.

You’ve heard of Scott, or at least you’ve heard him. His pub­lic pro­file increased sud­denly when a recent per­for­mance at New York’s 86th Street Sta­tion went viral. But Scott didn’t rely on a clas­si­cal reper­toire, and he didn’t play a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar instru­ment. He sang Adele’s hit pop song “Some­one Like You,” accom­pa­ny­ing him­self on a djembe.

The per­for­mance was cap­tured on video by Refinery29, and it spread rapidly. Con­tra Wein­garten, per­form­ing a pop­u­lar song won’t make you an instant suc­cess; you’re not only com­pet­ing with a com­fort­ably famil­iar orig­i­nal, you’re up against count­less other cover ver­sions by hob­by­ists and wannabes. But Scott’s ren­di­tion of Adele’s retro-soul bal­lad bests her own, the del­i­cacy in his voice cut with wiz­ened grit, the propul­sion of his djembe beat adding a rhyth­mic and emo­tional dynamism the weepy orig­i­nal never dreamed of.

In my social media sphere, most reposts came from an arti­cle on Jezebel, but it was also fea­tured in many other widely read venues. After all, it was a great story. Damon Scott came out of nowhere, and cap­tured the hearts of view­ers everywhere.

Except he didn’t come out of nowhere. If the reporters who cov­ered the sub­way video had done their home­work, they would have found that Scott is a recorded singer with at least two major releases to his name. His voice isn’t just heard at the 86th Street sta­tion – it has been echo­ing through dance clubs all over the world for the past two years.

Scott’s recorded releases are col­lab­o­ra­tions with Mor­gan Geist, a vet­eran pro­ducer of elec­tronic dance music who has remixed The Rap­ture, The Junior Boys, and Franz Fer­di­nand. But he is best known for his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dar­shan Jes­rani in the late nineties, in a project called Metro Area. Geist became inter­ested in elec­tronic music when, as a stu­dent at Ober­lin, he heard Techno music in its birth­place – the black neigh­bor­hoods of Detroit. His debut album, The Dri­ving Mem­oirs, shows a strong influ­ence of the Motor City style. It was an aus­pi­cious begin­ning to a career ded­i­cated to car­ry­ing on the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of dance music.

With Metro Area, Geist and Jes­rani par­tic­i­pated in a late-90’s revival of aspects of Disco, R&B, and New Wave music that had become uncom­mon in loop-based dance pro­duc­tions of the day, embed­ding com­plex chord pro­gres­sions and live instru­men­ta­tion within an elec­tronic tem­plate. Now-classic Metro Area sin­gles like “Atmo­sphrique” and “Miura” (avail­able in an essen­tial epony­mous com­pi­la­tion) antic­i­pated the sub­se­quent boom in nu-disco, and the orig­i­nal press­ings have become collector’s items. Geist’s 2004 mix CD, Unclas­sics, helped pop­u­lar­ize the art of the DJ as archivist, res­ur­rect­ing out­moded arti­facts of recent musi­cal history.

But unless you’re a fol­lower of dance music’s alter­nate econ­omy, con­sist­ing of all those 12-inch vinyl records and DJ mixes, you may never have heard of Mor­gan Geist. Though Geist feels that DJ cul­ture finally “jumped the shark com­pletely as a spec­ta­cle” at this year’s Gram­mys, artists like him, and inde­pen­dent labels like his Env­i­ron, still strug­gle to reach listeners.

Now this story repeats itself as farce. Damon Scott is back in the news for res­cu­ing a com­muter who fell into the sub­way tracks, but the online media stead­fastly con­tin­ues to refuse to men­tion Storm Queen, Geist and Scott’s col­lab­o­ra­tive project.

Geist didn’t dis­cover his Storm Queen part­ner on the sub­way, as some pub­li­cists have assumed. As a work­ing musi­cian from a musi­cal fam­ily – his mother used to be in Earth, Wind & Fire – Scott had already done some stu­dio work that Geist heard about through a friend. Geist had begun for­ays into song-oriented pro­duc­tion, using Junior Boys vocal­ist Jeremy Greenspan, with his under­rated 2008 solo album Dou­ble Night Time, enter­ing into a dance song­writ­ing tra­di­tion that includes Chicago House like Fin­gers, Inc. and Detroit Techno like Model 500. Inspired by Scott’s voice, Geist began writ­ing songs to fit his range.

I asked Mor­gan Geist to describe the col­lab­o­ra­tive process he and Scott use to cre­ate the Storm Queen tracks:

I write every­thing includ­ing the lyrics and vocal melodies. I usu­ally do a mock-up with my awful singing, then I send it to him to learn from. How­ever, Damon is a tal­ented impro­viser and I fre­quently use his amaz­ing ad-libs. Usu­ally it’s a lot of edit­ing and play­ing Tetris with the parts since I like to keep Storm Queen stripped down, so I cut and time and arrange his ad-libs afterwards.

The results are noth­ing short of incred­i­ble. “Look Right Through,” from 2010, and “It Goes On,” from 2011, are not only the best dance tracks of their respec­tive years, they are strong con­tenders for the best songs of those years, period. In a just soci­ety, they would be stuck in your head already.

Like music itself, “Look Right Through” begins with a clap. The clap leads to a drum­beat, which leads to a woozy sine-wave synth melody. A bass line fol­lows, fil­ter­ing a chord pro­gres­sion rem­i­nis­cent of a 50s pop bal­lad through stut­ter­ing syn­co­pa­tion. The music’s decep­tive bright­ness is soon com­pli­cated by the entry of Scott’s plain­tive voice, which laments the loss of a lover. Minor chords descend with the cho­rus, flut­ter­ing and chiming.

Geist’s lyrics com­pare estrange­ment from a roman­tic part­ner to the alien­ation of a walker in the city:

Seven long years of mov­ing through the streets
Let­ting peo­ple in, but they don’t talk to me
They look right through
Just like you

These words are ren­dered all the more poignant for being sung by a sub­way busker, whose liveli­hood depends on encoun­ters with strangers in New York City. Geist sees some degree of sim­i­lar­ity between Damon Scott’s work and his own, which also requires him to face “poten­tially chal­leng­ing or hos­tile crowds” dur­ing DJ sets. Yet he rec­og­nizes that Scott’s job is the more pre­car­i­ous of the two. “You can’t get arrested DJ’ing,” he points out. “You’re not com­pet­ing with the noise of trains.”

“It Goes On” also begins with a clap, which intro­duces a dri­ving, descend­ing bass line. It’s another breakup song, this time address­ing the drudgery of every­day life with­out inti­mate human con­tact. The monot­ony of lone­li­ness is echoed in the insis­tent rep­e­ti­tion of the song’s refrain: “day after day after day.” The track is an even bet­ter show­case for Scott’s artistry, as he impro­vises and har­mo­nizes with him­self over shift­ing per­mu­ta­tions of the groove. By the end, the loop that ini­tially forms the basis of the song swells into nearly atonal rehar­mo­niza­tions, as if to musi­cally enact the ner­vous break­down described in the lyrics.

Like “Look Right Through” before it, “It Goes On” appeared on 2011 year-end lists by promi­nent dance music web­sites Res­i­dent Advi­sorLit­tle White Ear­buds and Infi­nite State Machine. But in spite of their acces­si­bil­ity, both tracks were gen­er­ally over­looked by main­stream pub­li­ca­tions. The media’s will­ful igno­rance of dance music, par­tic­u­larly inde­pen­dent Amer­i­can dance music, may have some­thing to do with why no one told you about Damon Scott’s recorded career. It doesn’t sur­prise Mor­gan Geist. “I think it’s just that most peo­ple love what they’re fed,” he told me, “and what they’re fed is pop music like Adele.”

It’s remark­able that even Scott’s own cover of Adele could over­shadow his recorded work, but that isn’t stop­ping Storm Queen. Geist plans to expand the project and may even bring in other guest singers. Still, Damon Scott will remain Storm Queen’s “defin­ing voice,” and there won’t be long to wait for more tracks that fea­ture him. “I’m work­ing on two or three we’ve recorded already,” Geist says.

Scott is still singing at 86th Street. Geist reports that he has even taken to per­form­ing the Storm Queen songs there. Sub­way sta­tions and dance clubs may be art­less envi­ron­ments to a celebrity like Joshua Bell or a snob like Gene Wein­garten, but they are Scott’s con­cert halls, his cathe­drals. It appalled Wein­garten that Bell, who often charges a few hun­dred bucks a ticket, only made $32 in the sub­way. But this is a real­ity that work­ing musi­cians like Damon Scott face daily.

In an essay on the study of intel­li­gence, evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am some­how less inter­ested in the weight and con­vo­lu­tions of Einstein’s brain than in the near cer­tainty that peo­ple of equal tal­ent have lived and died in cot­ton fields and sweatshops.”

So don’t go into a sub­way look­ing for Joshua Bell. If you do, you might end up miss­ing Damon C. Scott.

Author of the article

is a bookstore worker who has written about music for Little White Earbuds and Resident Advisor.