Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Once More, With Feeling

Fire Piano by Little Baby ZorakThe other night Nan asked me if I could still play the piano. I said yes, although honestly I haven't been able to get near it since The Puppy's crate was erected in front of it three years ago. Of course I can still technically play the piano, anyone can. The difference is will it sound like Beethoven the composer or Beethoven the St. Bernard has been unleashed on it? I won't even lie, my furry children play more convincingly than I do.

Almost everyone in my family has played piano at one time or another, just not all at the same time. Nan is great at it, she'll improvise, she can pick out practically any song going, but for some reason she just doesn't go in there and play either. Life is weird that way.

Big surprise, I taught myself to play pop songs on my little Casio synth some 24 years ago. I got a few music books with stickers to remind you which key is which letter and what the note looks like. Because my memory was pathetic even then, I loved those stickers. I picked out Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) one night and still have the paper with the notes scribbled on it tucked into a folder in the piano bench. It was fun, learning that way. I always had a thing for people you wouldn't think could play the piano sitting down and tearing into a sonata, like Jim in Taxi. Actually I think I just dug Jim from Taxi. Hell, who didn't?

The night before my first "real" piano lesson, I asked--quite innocently, I thought--if I would be learning any songs I knew. I didn't neccesarily mean pop songs, after all I was such a musical snob that I knew just about every classical piece Roger Williams had ever put to vinyl, and Fats Waller filled me in on the rest. I might as well have started spouting hate speech for all the good it did me. I never had much use for teachers and I know the fear that I was starting that shit again was arguing with the hope that I would be just a little bit stupider, and really just wanted to finish watching Daddy Long Legs, but the reply I got wasn't helpful in the least. On that note, I went to bed and the next hot July day learned all about the middle C. It was a good lesson, I aced it. My teacher said I'd be playing Carnegie Hall next week. I was a cynical child, having been slapped upside the head by the reality of living in my head for the past twelve years, and was filled with disdain at this little joke. Not only would I never play Carnegie Hall, I wouldn't even leave the house to go play a Janet Jackson song in Poe Park. Screw that.

My idea of current music was never the mainstream idea of current music. Like when I was in love with Jools Holland (check out Last Time Forever if you need an explanation) and Billy Joel, I was given Lionel Richie music sheets to learn. I couldn't stand Lionel Richie, man! I'm sorry, how can I "feel" anything when all I feel is hate?

And that's when it happened. See, there's this part of me I never talk about, the cold dead unfeeling part of me that feels nothing, ever, like EVER. No one else acknowledges it, why should I? 1986 was not the beginning of it, but it sure got noticed one Thanksgiving when the whole family was in town and I got sat down to give a little recital. I have no memory span as it is, and everyone was staring at me, and I couldn't even get through a two-note easy piano rendition of Hello without being asked what happened, like why did I suddenly suck out of the blue. It was like that movie Shine except I had no real talent beforehand. I spent a lot of the rest of the eighties in the bathroom.

Over the years that followed, I just went ahead and taught myself songs I actually gave a damn about. Chariots Of Fire was the one I was the most smug about, because it was in some freaky key the piano teacher never went over with me--actually he never went over interesting things like key signatures or theory with me, I had to get a book and teach that to myself--and I could pull the entire thing off, sometimes without making it sound like the runners were dying on the beach or being devoured by sharks that washed up in high tide. I stopped the lessons a few months before my Poppy died because there was some insane sarcasm going on whenever I would have to cancel a lesson because of his health or my own. "Something in your eye? Again? Oh, sure."

The optometrist who told me I had the focusing ability of an 80-year-old when I was 14 but didn't bother to, you know, use any dye or anything to check if something was in my eye told me I should never ever give up the piano, because apparently that's what people do, they give up and never go back, the fools. They couldn't possibly have a reason for not playing anymore. Like sudden explosive rage overtaking them when they know they should be able to read the music in front of them but the crap collecting around the things lodged in their cornea kinda blurs things out a little.

I learned more on my own using the books we'd gotten than I did having to prepare to go back every week and perform for someone who was really concerned with my total inability to count properly. My dog Pookie was my greatest audience, he'd hear me playing and bust through the door, jumping on the bed and nodding along like a beatnik while I repeated the same bars over and over again for hours just to be passable. I didn't play much after he died. Not the piano, anyway. I fool with the synth, because it has a headphone jack, and listening to Echoes gave me ideas for songs I might be able to pull off. I can play a Sting song called St. Agnes and The Burning Train and the theme to Amelié, for instance. Not many people I know recognize those songs. It shouldn't matter, but I just love hearing how my pathetic renditions of songs just don't sound as good as the original recordings by people who won't hang around long enough to jam with me. Never gets old, really.

I can't say I regret taking official piano lessons, they gave me some crazy stories, I met a good friend through them, Nan always made something great the night of my lesson, and the time driving to and from the lessons with my Poppy as he sang along with WNEW gave me some of the greatest memories in my head. I wish I had some way to record those trips, because his version of Ella Fitgerald's A-Tisket, A-Tasket was priceless. Pa could play the piano, I found out one day. He heard me doing not at all well with Chariots of Fire and sat down next to me and started picking songs out. It was a turning point, really. Even though I sucked, I saw that it was possible to still play even after years away from it. Of course my Poppy had music in him, and it was happy music. Me? I have dirges that make people feel uncomfortable.

Years later, or years ago, take your pick at this point, I was watching the episode of Battlestar Galactica where Starbuck goes home and we learn that her father was apparently Philip Glass. I nearly flipped my frakkin' lid. Metamorphosis?! I know that! I always dug Philip Glass because, you know, slow and minimal is what I'm best at. Now there was geekdom involved, other people would know the song! Well...other BSG fans. Maybe. Except that I never do play for anyone but myself these days.


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