When I was planning the book launch event for The Subway Chronicles two summers ago, I knew the party wouldn’t be complete without good music. It was apropos to ask a subway busker to play.
I sent invitations to a few members of Musicians Under New York (MUNY), and then I stumbled on Susan Cagle’s CD at the cash register of a local coffee shop. Of course it caught my eye. It’s titled, The Subway Recordings. I found her website, her agent, her My Space page and proceeded to shamelessly stalk her. And then I learned why she wasn’t responding and probably never would.
Susan Cagle had hit the big time. In the subway.
She and her band were discovered performing in the Times Square station by famed music producer Jay Levine. Faster than you can say “stand clear of the closing doors,” Susan Cagle was recording her first album for Sony/BMG. Listen to a sample of her song “Shakespeare” (actually recorded in the subway) with WMP.
“If you can play in the subway and get a crowd and be successful, you can play pretty much anywhere,” said Susan. It’s up to you, New York, New York.
Here she performs in the Times Square station for an MTV video. The song began as a letter she wrote in her diary when she was 16, so she titled it “Dear Oprah.” Then Oprah answered Susan’s letter last year by having her on the show.
The same principle doesn’t really apply to writers. I’ve penned a number of Dear Oprah letters in my day, but as yet she hasn’t responded. I’ll share one with you now, which goes something like this: Dear Oprah, Please choose my novel for your next book club selection. I promise I won’t snub you the way Jonathan Franzen did. I’ll let you put as many book club stickers on the cover as you want. I have no problem “selling out” to crass commercialism. Yours truly, A Writer, formerly known as A Poor Starving Writer.
Though, let it be known that one writer did get discovered on the subway. Mr. Heru Ptah is the author of A Hip-Hop Story, a modern version of West Side Story. He self-published his book and began selling it while walking through the subway cars. Between November 2002 and July 2003, he says he sold 10,000 copies, which is an astounding rate.
Then one night in 2003, Jacob Hoye, publishing director of MTV Books, purchased A Hip-Hop Story while riding the A train home to Brooklyn. He read the entire thing in one night and left a message for Ptah at 3:30 in the morning.
Hoye said he normally ignores salespeople on the train, but the author had such a charming spiel. ”I’m a young writer,” he recalled Ptah saying. “It doesn’t cost a thing to take a look. Just a glimpse? A glance? A peek? This is going to be the No. 1 book in the country. One year from now, No. 1 in the world. You see me here today. Tomorrow you see me on Oprah.”
Get in line, Mr. Ptah. Get in line.