Lorenzo Laroc: struggle and success as a world-class busker

photo courtesy Lorenzo Laroc

photo courtesy Lorenzo Laroc

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."

by Martin Blondet '16

Martin Blondet spends a regular night at Webster Hall

Photo courtesy Tom Keelan '14

Photo courtesy Tom Keelan '14

“Yo, hurry the f--k up, son, my hands freezing out here," said the gargantuan bouncer as I fumbled anxiously through my wallet looking for my ID. After a quick look to verify I was over 19, he sharpied two sloppy "X"'s on my hands and dismissively directed me to the ticket booth. As I walked in the building, I overheard the scantily-neon-clad females behind me get a much warmer welcome, "Oh what up girl, how y'all doin' tonight? Bouta turn up?" said the bouncer. I could hardly believe these tiny sparkly girls did not need "X"'s on their hands as well. 

I purchased a $20 ticket and was patted down very thoroughly by another no-nonsense venue staff member before finally being ushered into one of New York's best-known clubs: the 3-story party promised land that is Webster Hall. 

It was expectedly loud, but surprisingly empty. The ground level dancehall was pretty much entirely vacant, except for a couple groups of fellow early-bird partygoers jamming to a terrible unfamiliar remix of "We Can't Stop". I decided to wander downstairs to check in my coat; the lower level dancehall felt like deja-vu (except it was a terrible remix of "Dark Horse"). 

I walked up to the upper level where an anonymous DJ was spinning some serious mediocrity. There is nothing sadder than asking "New York f--king City, how you feeling tonight?!" into a mic and getting crickets. I bought a bottle of water for six dollars and posted up by what seemed to be the designated single-guys-that-got-here-too-early wall. Hearing bad trap remix after bad trap remix while playing Fruit Ninja, I concluded that tonight was a dud. 

Finally, DJ Nobody peaced-out and blessed me with a moment of silence while he introduced the next act: Gents and Jawns. I had heard some of their stuff, a couple decent remixes here and there, nothing special. Suddenly, I heard (could it be?) the buzzing synth lines that introduce Howls' "001", on a loop, building tension. This was not your average turn up club song, certainly not something a second act opens with. This was taste. I looked up from my phone and saw the dance floor flooded with colorful, sweaty youths. How this sea of ravers materialized so quickly, I had no clue. I took a few steps toward the crowd and was suddenly propelled forward by the collective movement of a hundred bodies. How did I get to right in front of the stage? How did my hands get above my head? Then the bass dropped…

I felt the ground shaking– I thought we might break through the floor and crush those 6 people still dancing to Miley Cyrus on the ground level. The intense and invasive 808, together with the unceasing push and pull of the people around me, practically coerced me into dancing. Dodging elbows can look an awful lot like dancing. 

It was sensory overload. A plethora of colorful blinding lights leaked through the jungle of limbs, all moving in sync with the dynamics of the song. The overwhelming heat was abruptly abated when somebody spilled beer all over me. 

Once the initial turn-up whiplash wore off, I traced the elbows and legs that had been directing my "dancing" back to their owners. All the archetypal Webster heads were present: The overdressed, over-gelled-up guys holding overpriced cocktails; the "dudes' night out" posses rocking out in neon green tank tops and shutter shades, scoping out girls to dance with; the Street-goth hype beasts that are too cool to dance (or just do not want to mess up their Yeezy's); and my favorite: the veteran ravers. Equipped with everything from finger-light gloves, bead masks and bracelets, camel-backs, and glow sticks, these creatures of the night are more about that life than any of the other Webster regulars. 

As soon as a Major Lazer song dropped, the twerk team sprung up on top of the giant speakers to do their thing; all the lumbering, drugged-out "really feeling it right now" guys gawked at them with mouths and eyes half-open. The DJ duo was throwing down a steady stream of bangers. The crowd responded to each build up and drop with orgasmic hypersensitivity. By the end of the set it was a full-blown bacchanalia. Bodies entwined in a whirlwind of day-glow colors and body fluids. From the frenzied collage of debauchery, a nimble hand tapped my shoulder and asked me “Have you seen my friend Molly?”

by Martin Blondet '16

photo appears courtesy of Tom Keelan '14

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