Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles JOE CROW RYAN: It's very important to be able to exercise indifference to anything if you're going to enjoy your stay in Brooklyn. And we know you're not all from here. And that's OK. We're famous for that. Thank you. [WHISTLING] JUSTIN REMER: In 2007, I saw Joe playing at his stop at the Metropolitan G train stop, and he pretty much said to me, in not so many words, that he was homeless. JOE CROW RYAN: A lot of the songs I sing don't come from me personally. They're characters who are singing the song. But it comes from my understanding of truth. JUSTIN REMER: He's doing something that's so totally his own that it catches your attention. JOE CROW RYAN: And I always thought that somehow, poverty was a virtue. So being in a level of performance that's not particularly remunerative, I do make barely enough to get by. But that somehow suits my temperament. If there is a will of God, if there is a "supposed to be," what you're doing right now, what I'm doing right now is what I'm supposed to be doing. STATION ATTENDANT: Gentleman with the baggage, you need to come over here. JOE CROW RYAN: A voice from above. Are there any requests? Hi, I'm Joe Crow Ryan. I'm a busker in New York City, and a performer in general. Train solo! NARRATOR: Joe Crow Ryan, born Joseph W. Ryan, came into this world on August 6th, 1955. He hails from 183rd Street in the Bronx. JOE CROW RYAN: My mom died when I was 13. And when I was 15, we moved to Rockland County. I started playing guitar a little bit and totally sucked. Then I got another guitar while I was in high school, and I wrote my first song. I wrote a love song for my girlfriend, and she begged me, please don't play that in front of people. Not because it was a horrible song, but because I didn't realize I was just inept and inadequate as a performer at the time. But guitar, I played it a little bit for a long enough time that I eventually became competent. Yeah, I'd always like the odd-ball performers because nobody else really cared for them. They were weird. And I liked it a lot and tried to get my friends to listen, and nobody was really impressed with that. But, I guess it formed me as being a different kind of musician. JOE CROW RYAN: Oh, my gosh. Jobs in my life. Well, my first real job was before we moved out of the Bronx. I was a delivery boy for a drug store. I worked at about four Friendly Ice Cream stores. And I've worked in a couple of nursing homes and a good handful of hospitals as a nurse assistant. Well, I liked working in the hospital because it was a nice thing to do for people. They needed help. Again, it's, you know, person to person, and it's also kind of macho. Like I don't think that Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever wiped poop off anybody's butt. I don't think he's ever cleaned a homeless lady in an emergency room. I'd worked there for about four years, this North Shore University Hospital. And then, they came to us one day and said, we're going to have a new personnel program called re-engineering. What I heard was re-engineering. The first thought was, I'm not a machine, OK. And then I noticed that even though the insurance companies weren't paying for the day before surgery and establishing the healing milieu, they would pay for end of life extension. So I noticed this, and I mentioned it to the head nurse. I said, you know, 26 to 32 are all people who should be dead. You know, it's their time. That just is weird, isn't it? It's not right. She said, well, yeah, it's kind of-- that is funny. But then the next day, the head nurse of all head nurses in the hospital called me to her office and in essence said, well, maybe you should take a month off. So I let that pass, and I talked with the psychiatric nurse, and she wanted to prescribe medicine for me right away. I said, I don't need medicine. Let's talk. So we got into the idea of stages of life, end stage of life, and also got into the idea of re-engineering. Because that did bother me, and I explained to her that I'm not a machine. I'm a human. And she said, but it's just a word. And I said, but it means something. And then I asked her, I said, have you ever read Kurt Vonnegut? And she said, no, what does that have to do with anything? And I said, you know-- I'm done with jobs. Jobs are done with me. Who would hire me? If somebody wanted to hire me, they could come over to me and tell me, "Joe Crow, I would like to hire you." I'm not gonna go out to a stranger and say, "Hi, I'm pretending to be somebody who you'd like to hire, and I'm pretending you're somebody I would like to work for." That's not it. It works out because otherwise, I'd be a nurse. But the outcome of this experience was, I became homeless. NARRATOR: From April to September of 2007, Joe was left homeless and slept in both Prospect Park and the Brooklyn subways. [SINGING "WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN"] JUSTIN REMER: In 2007, I saw Joe playing at his stop at the Metropolitan G train stop. And I was talking to him, and he pretty much said to me, in not so many words, that he was homeless. The apartment that he'd been living in, he couldn't afford to stay in anymore, so he didn't have anywhere to go. JOE CROW RYAN: And Justin was there one night, and I asked if he had a couch. JUSTIN REMER: I decided to give him a couch to crash on for a time. And the place that he had been working with, he had had a conflict with them, and basically, it ended in a pay-off, which wound up being enough for him to actually pay rent at my apartment for five months. And one of my other roommates moved out right at that time, so Joe moved in. And we've been roommates since then. So, five years as my roommate. JOE CROW RYAN: I was talking with a young woman at Project Parlor recently. She loves Doctor Zhivago. And we were talking a little bit about Doctor Zhivago. And she said, oh yeah, I have a copy of it. I watch it every year. And I said, oh, I saw that in the movie theater. And I thought, oh, yeah, I am older than you, aren't I? JUSTIN REMER: But don't feel too bad because I felt the same way talking about Total Recall, the original, the other day, so we're both old. JOE CROW RYAN: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] JUSTIN REMER: Joe is just the kind of guy. He's a ham. Like he's always playing music. He's always telling his stories. So if you're in the apartment, Joe is there, giving you his Joe Crow goodness. [SINGING] JUSTIN REMER: It became the kind of thing where me and my roommates would say to teach other, like, it's a shame. Joe really needs to be documented, like we need to have Joe Crow on CD or something. [SINGING] JUSTIN REMER: And apparently, we must've been thinking at the same time as another friend of ours, named Michael Campbell, who had said to Joe, "Joe, I'm getting you in the studio, and I'm gonna record you." [SINGING "DID YOU PUT A SPELL ON ME?"] JUSTIN REMER: And Michael recorded Joe. In one day, he knocked out like 25 songs, I wanna say? So, what we did is, one of my other friends Doug, who plays in my band, he went to the subway, and he started recording Joe on the subway.