Or… Hats off to those who tickle the ivories!
Having plied my trade in a piano bar for more years than I care to count, I’ve seen first hand the ups and downs of piano playing. And believe me there are some. The ups of course are the cheering patrons, the tip jars filled with kale, the downs are those times when they’re singing to pictures on a wall. Or worse, the room is filled but with far too many who think that they are the show, and shout as if they’re spending the night in a sports bar. But whether the tempo is up or down or somewhere right down the middle, one thing that always stays on course amazing me to no end, is the patience most players display in all situations.
Because if I were trying to do my job which is mix a drink and pour it into a container, and some drunken A-hole grabbed the bottle while leaning into my face to shout his order, I doubt if I’d have the patience to (how you say?) cool it. In fact, I might just think about taking that bottle and permanently printing its logo on said A-hole’s brow, like a one-of-a-kind Dewar’s tat! But those are the things I’ve seen going on or at least their fair equivalent, to the guys and gals who play the piano in Barland. There’ll be someone grabbing the piano man’s mike (his version of a bottle), or someone screaming a request in his face while still in the middle of a song (his version of drink mixing), only to smile in return and keep playing through it. Which to me is astounding. For it not only shows a professionalism and patience beyond what I could muster in a decade, but a total grasp of the fact that the show must go on! Or better put… they’ve taken the words to Billy Joel’s classic and carried them out to the letter in content and feeling…
“Sing us a song you’re the piano man
Sing us a song tonight.
Well we’re all in the mood for a melody
And you’ve got us feeling all right.”
… no matter how many A-holes try to prevent that!
A guy I worked with for many, many years is a guy named Elliot Paul (currently playing at Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar) who happened to be a master at handling these A-holes. In fact, given the things I’ve seen him put up with, the man is more like Job than the man called Joel. Because whatever the gods would drop from the sky for a drunken two point landing, Elliot would manage to “taxi” that guy to a stop (or the gal in some cases!). And always with a smile. For example, if someone grabbed his microphone while still in the middle of a song, he’d lure him into a duet then regain control. Or if someone shouted a request in his face from no more than two feet away (while still in the middle of another’s request for fuck sakes!), he’d just nod and wink which said, “I’ll do that song next.” And it worked. Where I might’ve shaved my head on the spot, stood up and done DeNiro’s “You talkin’ to me??!!” But that’s the difference between Elliott and me and all the others just like him who tickle the ivories, they know their job is to keep them all “feeling all right”.
And speaking of playing through “moments”, there were times now looking back on those days where some of the stuff that went down was just like a cowboy movie. You know, where a ruckus suddenly erupted in the place (in the cowboy movies, a shooting), the room fell silent for one scarey moment then I’d have to signal Elliott to go back to playing. Which he did. And the end result was it did usually calm things down. Again, just like in those cowboy movies where the dastardly owner of the town saloon would shoot some guy in the back, then quickly tell his piano man, “Play!!!”, as if to convey “Oh, nothing. We’re cool, have a drink!”
But those situations were very, very rare and most of the time the mood in our place was up. Meaning not just “up” for the piano man’s sake with everyone singing along and jamming his tip jar, but up for your friendly bartender as well because he then got to deal with a happy bar. Yes, the people who do that gig for a living, often under most trying circumstances, really do warrant our applause, our attention and praise. Just ask the late, great Frank Sinatra, perhaps the most praised of all, who right up to the end proudly claimed “I’m a saloon singer.”
By the way, since I mentioned Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”… clearly the most requested song along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in any piano bar, I’d like to add my own two cents to its accolade. And that’s this. Where some might say “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” is the greatest saloon song ever, I’d have to disagree and say it’s “Piano Man”. “One For My Baby”, as great as it is, is just one man’s lament of a recent break-up, whereas “Piano Man” takes the saloon world itself and turns it inside out, how “it’s sweet and it’s sad” to every man… the patrons, the bartender, waitress and singer… holding them up to the light with a big aching heart. And that’s a saloon song!
In fact, in case you haven’t heard it in a while (here’s the earliest video of same) which I’m sending out as a tribute to all those who do this. Chiefly Rick McDonald, Bugsy Moran, and Barbara King (everyone’s favorite Jersey Girl), the three who along with Elliot knocked them dead at our place.
See you next time, dear reader, have one on me!