The weeping echoes of Misu (left) and Brianna (right) have been haunting the bustling tunnels of New York's subway system for almost thirty years. The two priceless, 5-string electric violins have become a staple of the world of New York street performance. Their wielder: a relentlessly animated, tan-skinned man in leather pants named Lorenzo Laroc (center). Through his black tank top, one can often catch a glimpse of a tattoo of Misu he has on his left shoulder, "I got it when I was 40. I thought, y'know…this violin pays my rent, it feeds me, so to honor her I gave her a tattoo. I saw that violin in a window in 1982 and I just fell in love…"
The first time I ever saw Lorenzo Laroc was in 2002, "busking" (a slang term for the act of performing for money at a train station) in the Union Square train station. Passersby stopped to listen and dance along with him, moved by his energy and enthusiasm. The second time I saw him was a few months later, as he was winning a $25,000 cash prize on the long-forgotten television talent competition, 30 Seconds to Fame. The audience was thoroughly won over, not only by his unorthodox technique or unusual instrument, but also by his intense stage presence and ebullience. "When I was studying classically, you are trained to stand completely still. There's not supposed to be movement from the waist down. I don't know if it’s the Dominican in me, but I always had the desire to move when I played. It would drive my teachers crazy. It’s just me…and I give a hundred and ten percent no matter if I'm at Grand Central or Trump's golf course."
Since his success on 30 Seconds to Fame, Lorenzo has performed in nearly every music venue in New York, Carnegie Hall and Barclay's Center among them. However, despite his success as a venue performer, his primary source of income is street performance. Subway commuters will recognize his signature style much more easily than seasoned classical music venue goers. "The leather pants and the black cutoffs– it’s kind of an expression of freedom. Most violinists playing at the Met, or wherever, are in tuxedos,” notes Lorenzo. “But I decided to break that mold. As for the intensity…I realized the more intensely I played, the more [the] crowd would be drawn in, and the more excited they get, the more I stomp around. It’s a symbiotic thing. The subway is a great stage to get that exchange of energy.” This freedom, this raw connection, is what makes street performance so special to Laroc and artists like him.
Though busking has always been a part of New York's culture, it is often looked down upon, regarded as little more than panhandling. For Lorenzo, busking has afforded him the most exciting opportunities in his fruitful musical career. "Playing in the trains got me into the Knicks' game, playing the halftime show at the garden. Its great exposure." Apart from the profit motive, Lorenzo is proud to contribute his art to the city he grew up in: "I get a lot of people ask me why I do it, I tell 'em, ‘I'm out here for you.' I'm like Robin Hood. I play shows for the filthy rich so I can play for the regular Joe."
Despite its deep roots in urbanity, busking has always also been at least partly at odds with New York’s law enforcement. Street performance in subways was not officially legalized in NYC until 1987, with the foundation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Music Under New York (MUNY) program. Though Lorenzo was one of the first on board the program, he has remained a persistent nuisance to transit police. "I used to play in the subways when it was illegal and I got $10,000 worth of fines. I was a pirate! And I would still go to jail for playing my violin, man." Though MUNY provides organized schedules and legal protection for street performers, Lorenzo claims there are still many loopholes that make life difficult for them, and harassment from police officers is all too common. "It’s the easiest way for them to make their quota– just go ticket the guy playing on the street for being too loud. Its humiliating," the artist laments.
After sets as long as 6 hours, Lorenzo packs up over $10,000 worth of equipment and rides the uptown train to his dingy West Harlem apartment where his true muses wait for him—his four and eight year old daughters. "I play with inspiration and desperation, and I do it all for them,” he proclaims. “The arts are a gamble. I'm all in. I don't have no pension, not retiring on a 401k. But I believe I'm gonna win a Grammy one day. I have to believe that in my bones. Otherwise…I'm dead in the water, man."