As a piano player, I attended a lot of cocktail parties during my 35 years in The Big City. A tinkling piano noodling cool little riffs and melodies back in the corner of a large room while 40 people with various drinks in their hands talk a little too loudly over it… well, that was standard procedure for a portion of my performing days. Thank god I became a “studio rat,’ as Skunk Baxter used to call us. Performing live, for the typical piano player, ran the gamut of hilarious to tragic. You showed up, you played whatever keyboard was available (usually out of tune) and observed (and occasionally endured) the people in attendance and the paradigm they created.
Bankers, lawyers, politicians, doctors, architects, corporate CEOs… all playing the “I’m the most important person in the room” game, feigning friendliness and good will toward all, while (like the swimming duckling) appearing calm and confident on the surface, they are paddling madly beneath the surface, plotting and planning who they can play offense with, who might demand defense, who is that who’s talking to the wife now…
Piano music had little to nothing to do with any of those occasions, except for the perceived ambiance of sophistication it brought to the party. Of perhaps 50 of those that I played, maybe 4 people came over to the piano in all those years and said something like, “Nice playing.” Or, “I’m enjoying it.”
No, it wasn’t that I was simply mediocre. I kept getting picked for the big parties, I met the mayor of The Big City twice, played in the home of The Big City’s largest law firm owner, played the most exclusive private club in town several times, played birthday parties for the city’s notables… even played outdoors at a polo game once. Fund raisers, banquets and balls, I played them all. No, I was a decent player who read the room and played to it… the go-to piano player.
Here’s one that really happened – one night my trio was hired to play for the last night of a tournament of a mixed bowling league. By “mixed” I mean not only women and men, but black and white folk. After the final game we began playing right behind the seating section for the bowlers. Everyone was drinking, celebrating and seemingly happy with the whole occasion. That is, until a white woman, fairly sloshed, came up to my little portable electric piano. She was actually weaving. “Play The Long Road Home,” she demanded.
“Sorry, ma’m, we don’t know that one.”
“Oh, you know it! Just play the goddamn song!”
“Honest, we don’t know it. I never heard of it.” And with that, she dumped her entire drink on me and my electric piano. What happened next happened very fast, but is still crystal clear In my memory. As I stood up, a fairly large black guy grabbed her from behind… and all hell broke loose. Two white guys grabbed him and they all staggered and fell into Billy’s drum kit, cymbals and tom toms (and Billy) all crashing to the floor. In what seemed like maybe 10 seconds, the bowling alley magically cleared, and there we were… Billy still on the floor with his drums, me standing there in my tux, soaked, my electric piano crackling strangely.
“I think we really need to learn that song,” Billy grinned, getting up to check his fallen drum set.
And the bass player: “Does this mean we might not get paid?”
Turned out Billy’s drums weren’t damaged, and as we were packing up, Billy stopped and smiled. “You know, Hulse, the next time we play one of these, I think I’ll just throw myself into my drum set right at the beginning and get it over with.”
Here’s another one, one that could have easily happened, but didn’t. I want to tell you about this because it was so evident, so prevalent… this conversation virtually hung in the air on many of those “parties” I played. It was in those minds, those corporate and superior minds who were just barely able to keep from pursuing what I’m about to write. Keep in mind that I was an open book during those evenings, that I had no hard or premeditated feelings about the crowd, or myself. It could just as easily been a vibe of “Wow, you guys play great music! Do you have any albums out? Where else do you play, so I can hear you again?” But that wasn’t the vibe. This was…
A major politician’s wife, to me: “So tell me, what do you do?”
Me: “I’m the piano player.”
A large, somewhat overweight older man strides over to us. The wife: “Oh, this is my husband.”
The politician: “Hello. I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You said you are… a piano player?”
Me: “That’s right.”
Him” “Truly? That’s what you do? You play the piano??”
Me: “Well, yes. Yes it is. But I also…”
Him: Interrupting me, “A piano player. Interesting. Tell me, what else does a piano player do, other than “play the piano?” Sarcastically now.
Me, knowing we’ve entered angry perhaps unsafe waters. “Being a musician requires other abilities. For that matter, just being a productive human being requires…”
Him, stepping on me again: “Productive human being?! Precisely! What can a piano player possibly do that I might find constructive to society?” Chuckle. “Surely a piano player should provide some other function in life, some activity that could at least justify their being put on earth in the first place…”
Me: Silence. Then finally, “What do you do?”
Him, puffing up: “Why son, I’m a state senator!” At which point I head to the food table and the shrimp bowl, only to be told that the food is off limits to the help.
Actually, this conversation did kind of happen one time, back in ’76. A singer I was working with got a prize (along with 20 others) from Mercury outboard Motors, for selling more motors than anyone else that year. Wives were welcome, but since he was recently divorced, he invited me, and I accepted. It was a week in Amsterdam, all paid for by Mercury outboards.
It turned out to be a hilarious week – another story, another time. Nice hotel, I walked into the center of town every day on a different street, since Amsterdam is built in a circle. Each evening we met back at the hotel for a big dinner. We had decided to tell anyone who asked, that I was a salesman from Florida, rather than being “his wife.” It was a bad call, we didn’t need to explain it to anyone, and it ended up causing a small problem.
There was one guy there who didn’t like me, who sensed I wasn’t a salesman of any kind. He was also a heavy drinker, and from the second night he set out to prove I was a phony and didn’t belong there. But I was a somewhat heavy drinker back then as well, and figured I could handle this dude on my own. Each night he’d sit close to me and start grilling me about sales techniques and what I should know about sailboats and Mercury motors. I politely held him off for several nights with parries like, “Let’s not talk shop on vacations, ok?” And, “Just lucky, I guess.” And “the boat won’t move with anything less than a 75 horse.”
But the fourth night he was drunk and really pressing, and finally I said, “Ed, you need to get out of my face. I’m here and I’m not going away, If you’re trying to piss me off, it’s working!”
He stood up, and I had no idea what was going to happen. A guy from another table came over and said, “ Okay, Ed, you’ve made your point, now let it go. We all know Steve’s not a sales person, he’s here with Jim, since Jim’s not married. Jim’s a singer and Steve’s a piano player.”
Ed reluctantly sat back down. Then the other guy said, “Which reminds me, how would you guys feel about doing a few tunes for us after dinner? We could get a piano moved in here, and we’d love to hear what you can do.”
Well, that’s exactly what happened, and for the next three nights Jim and I did about a half hour of songs for the group, who loved it! The cherry on the dessert came the last night, when, after our final performance after dinner, the group presented us with two clear glass beer steins, with our initials carved into the side. And that was sweet. Oh, so sweet!
It makes me sad though, knowing and remembering those potential conversations, how so many of them were right on the tip of those corporate and political tongues, yet thankfully never quite hit the light of day. For I know that the piano player brought so much light and positivity to his or her tiny part of the planet, with none of the avarice and bad karma that those “important” people brought to the party.
It would be fun to hear a good therapist respond to this writing. Oh hell, let me imagine it, how far off could I possibly be? Don’t answer that…
Therapist: “Hmm. Hmmmmm. It seems to me, Steve, that you might be manifesting feelings of inferiority about your professional place in American Society. I hear a certain hostility in your memories of those social occasions. Perhaps you should visit your own feelings of self-worth, or even the lack thereof. And I suggest you schedule a year of therapy with me. We can define and alleviate these feelings you have of inadequacy, I’m sure.”
Me: “Eh, thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll just write about it in my blog and save you the time and me the money.”
I write this in all candor. Of course there are good bank presidents, good lawyers, good doctors and politicians and I’ve met and played for some of them. They were good people who understood the balance of art and everyday business. The mayor of The Big City knew me on sight and was always pleasant to me. Funny, too, as he served time for tax evasion and had to deal with a drug abuse charge. But I liked him.
As far as the chasm between artists and corporates, I speak only in generalities, for the great actress and inventor, Hedy Lamarr was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. Her father was an important banker and her mother was a fine pianist. So at this point I should stand corrected, right? Nah. They must have been no more than a wrinkle in my otherwise foolproof treatise on Class Distinction In America Today.
I remember some guy once told me, “You’re a white, heterosexual male. What the hell could you possibly know about how a minority feels?” To which I probably replied something like, “Good point,” while what I should have said was, “Hold it, pal. I played a job 5 nights a week for a year in the restaurant on top of a tall hotel downtown, and for a year they insisted I ride the freight elevator only. Do you know how that feels, having to ride the freight elevator night after night, in your tux? Not only that, but do you know how many times I was run off the shrimp bowl at the banquet table??”
Oh all right… probably not what the guy was really talking about. But it sure felt good to write it. In hindsight, being a piano player might have easily fostered a kind of identity disorder. Who was I, really? A hero or a fool? Or worse, both? At The Drivers Club, I was ‘the help.” In the recording studio, I was Mr, Hulse. Kind of joking here, but not totally.
At any rate, I came to learn, over the years, to tell anyone in “polite social situations,” that I was a composer. That always brought an entirely different, and more positive response. Even so, I also came to learn that being a musician in America was often given second class status by some, and that the smartest thing a piano player could do in “polite society” was to stay at the piano. Just stay at the piano, and play it. And no food.