Still Alive!
Cover Image for Laraaji


Linnie Greene

On a night in June at the Knockdown Center in Queens, I stepped out of a car I couldn’t afford to scurry across the gravel in pursuit of the divine. The ideal experience of art is, to me, a total loss of self; not to see yourself reflected, but to find the sort of oblivion one can achieve on certain psychedelics, the tingly way it feels to have someone gently stroke your head.

Laraaji is an ambient musician and stalwart member of the New Age music scene, a space where zither and astral projection are obvious bedfellows. His story has the apocryphal whiff of the American Dream: he moved to New York after a music scholarship at Howard University, and Brian Eno heard him busking in Washington Square Park, subsequently producing 1980’s Day of Radiance. The story reminds me of Da Vinci’s “The Creation of Adam”—a hand reaching out from above, a missive from a higher plane.

What was happening in New York City around 1979, when Laraaji’s career began to ascend? Four years prior, a pamphlet called Fear City was published to keep tourists appropriately anxious. Taxi Driver had premiered three years before, depicting the city as “an open sewer,” riddled with horny deviants and crime. In 1977, a series of rolling blackouts left the city quite literally powerless. People looted, marauded, threw molotov cocktails at the cops. In 1981, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York hyperbolized the failure of the social safety net, the dangers of mass transit and the lawlessness that happens when people assemble in a tight, impoverished grid

In one decade, from 1970 to 1980, New York City’s population plummeted 10 percent, to just over seven million people. Unlike me, Laraaji was not competing for space with TikTok influencers and NFT enthusiasts. The price he paid for making art in an urban environment was less literal, but no less real—rent was cheap, but the scene could get bleak, unless you sought community at a drum circle or an ashram, where Laraaji first tuned into the laughter meditation he still practices. In 1979, the Hare Krishna restaurant in Midtown offered a $5 all-you-can-eat buffet that came, ostensibly, with access to the spiritual realm.

You could do worse, spiritually, than the aged brick and open courtyard at the Knockdown Center, which made the night feel reverent, like we’d all gathered in the ruins of a cathedral. My rush had been unnecessary; I got through the guest list and into the venue before Laraaji’s set had even started, the sun still beaming, the weather warm and gentle. I socialized; I had a tequila soda. I pinged around trying (and failing) to relax, met someone on editorial staff at a print magazine, and smoked the first of too many cigarettes.

And then I found myself up against the stage, standing right in the blast of the fog machine, listening to the warble of that zither, watching Laraaji—in a signature orange button-up and a straw fedora—like he might look in my direction with the answer to all of life’s questions. He pulled out a thumb piano and made celestial sounds. I saw the discrete pieces that made the songs, but they formed a soothing composite, the plink of water dripping, his mellifluous voice, and the vibrations of the strings, resonant somewhere deep in my chest.

Eventually, the chemicals made my eyes water, and I had to retreat. Is this a metaphor?


There are the days that you miss the bus from Williamsburg to Flushing, and then there are the days where Brian Eno drops his number in your tip jar. I found some friends in the crowd and we watched the rest of the sets, then set out that night to a Bushwick bar.


Perhaps there is a reason why my questions never reached Laraaji, a game of telephone I tried to play with a label rep, or if they did, why an 80 year old man felt disinclined to answer.

Tell me a little bit about the relationship between art and the divine. I wrote in an email. Do you see art as a pathway to spirituality? A way to transcend reality? Both?

I mean—I get it. Me, to me: please relax.

I'm thinking about your music in the context of New York City itself, a place where artists have always congregated and a place that's also outrageously expensive. What role do you think environment plays in your songwriting? How does it shape your work?

When you’re on the astral plane, does it matter whether or not you’re busking next to a hotdog cart, terrestrially?

Time and inspiration are nearly infinite commodities, in theory. Money is not. I live three transfers away from Queens, in New Jersey. The greatest hindrance to artistic output, in my case at least, is fatigue. My generational cohort and I scramble to cover our asses when emergencies happen; we tack gigs on top of jobs. We sell our time to someone else, and if we want to channel divinity, we’ve got to do it after 5pm.

“I’d play in Central Park, sometimes outside the Museum of Natural History, sometimes the Village,” he says in a recent interview with Blackbird Spyplane. “And the effect was that people would stop and forget where they were going so busily, and they’d get involved in the music. Some people would be walking their dogs and the dog would come by and lick my face, because I was sitting in Lotus position with my zither on a carpet.”

I’m often broke but I’m not blind to beauty. The constraints of capitalism, or at least overcoming them, are integral to Laraaji’s musical origin story—if he’d had rent money that month, would he have visited the pawn shop where he sold his guitar and discovered the instrument that would become his signature? If he’d signed with a major label and gotten a record deal, would he have created some middling guitar LP, the sort of thing you throw on as background noise at a cocktail party?

Does the suffering make the beauty more dimensional? Is struggle necessary for good art? Am I going to find god on the PATH train if I look closely enough?

After his set, Laraaji danced in the crowd to Makaya McCraven and Standing on the Corner, on his own beatific wavelength. I stood with two beautiful women and smiled at the night sky, ate a slice of pizza standing up, split a car and arrived a little heart-broken at a friend’s house. I cried the next day on the train, and then I felt joy again, and then I was sad, back and forth in a recursive loop not unlike the tonal movements of a great song.

I’m alive, and vibrating at the frequency of the universe. I’m a plucked string. I’m low to the ground, far from the cosmos, but my eyes are open.


Laraaji painting by Gregory Simmons II

Linnie Greene is a writer and cultural critic in Jersey City, NJ. You can find her work at Pitchfork, Fast Company, GQ, The New York Times, and Byline, where she writes a monthly music column called Personal Record. She's a Capricorn sun/moon, Gemini rising.