I was a wretched child. Save the pianos.
My parents forced me to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I was pretty bad. My teacher must have agreed with that assessment. To spare herself having to endure my free-jazz improvisations, instead of a piano she made me play a 2-foot strip of cardboard with keys printed on it. It really takes the fun out of playing music when you aren’t allowed to make any noise. If you hate the sound of children playing piano, please don’t take a job as a children’s piano teacher.
At the end of the year, the students had to play a recital in front of all our parents — on a real piano. This was dreadful news. My musical ability wasn’t going to get me through this. I really sucked at piano. I would definitely need something to distract from my performance, some sort of deus ex machina.
Before going on stage to clam my way through whatever ill-rehearsed piece I was supposed to be playing, I jammed my cheeks full of food from the backstage refreshments table. I must have looked like a chipmunk, but no one noticed. Two bars into the tune, I started heaving like Linda Blair with a hairball, spewing wet gobs of cupcake and trail mix all over the piano keys. The whole thing was apparently pretty convincing. The element of surprise was on my side. I took off running and never looked back. I had to hide out for a while, but I never had to take another piano lesson.
While I was busy fake-puking and getting kicked out of class, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were still out on the road somewhere, pounding on the ivories with an Italian loafer or a cowboy boot, making piano look like an instrument for the cool kids. Neither one of them could sit down, or stand still. Piano benches were for losers. They were way out in front flying their freak flags — a rainbow flag and a Jolly Roger, respectively. Two of the most amazing rock ’n’ roll musicians of all time, they both grew up playing gospel music.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the rockin’ gospel electric guitar queen, gave 14-year-old Little Richard his first break. He eventually returned to gospel music, but his flamboyant style had an essential influence on rock ’n’ roll, soul music and funk. Jimi Hendrix supposedly said he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice. If you like a wild, shrieking explosion of joy, go listen to “Keep A-Knockin’.”
Jerry Lee’s piano playing is awesome. It’s a natural phenomenon, like a tiger shredding an antelope. His every move is filled with a weird, skeevy menace. Maybe if I’d been exposed to the devil’s music at an earlier age, I could have seen the merit in piano lessons.
When “The Killer” Jerry Lee was 10, his parents mortgaged their house to buy him a piano. Now the “free” section of Craigslist is full of them. I’m always looking at pictures of free pianos and free pot-bellied pigs, and wondering what in the hell is wrong with my life. How come I’m not in a truck right now driving to Shelbyville to pick up a mess of both? Are we all just too transient for pigs and pianos? They both take up a lot of space and make finding the perfect apartment even more difficult. Pigs can live 20 years and require a long-term plan, but why is everyone ditching their pianos?
Neko Case has a barn full of rescued pianos on her farm in Vermont. She assembled this free-piano orchestra to use on her Middle Cyclone record. What a beautiful idea. That’s what Louisville needs! Somewhere down in Portland, there’s an empty building waiting to be filled with rescued pianos. We need an indoor, climate-controlled free piano park. People could drop off a piano like leaving a baby on the church doorstep, or come by anytime and make beautiful noise with strangers — or just play with the pigs.
That’s my smart idea for today. Go get it done!
Catherine Irwin is gonna ask to borrow your truck.