PIANO MAN

It was a Friday night when I got off the bus in Portland. There was a chill in the air. I was going to a restaurant to meet a pianist.

His name was Art and he had a gig playing jazz at an eatery downtown. I’d rather be composing, he said, and shrugged.

Quite an adventure, going to stay with a person I’d know for just a couple of intense weeks through a personal growth course in Northern California. I wouldn’t be so adventurous now, wouldn’t be so trusting. But Art was a cool dude and one of the smattering of non-therapists doing the training. We hung out a bit during breaks and I was able to stretch my limited knowledge of jazz into something that connected us.

On the final night we performed together, me reciting a poem I’d written a few days earlier while Art extemporised energetically on the careworn upright in the main hall. It was fun, even though his brilliant improvisations didn’t entirely coalesce with the song-like stanzas I’d crafted. Art wanted reading as dramatic as his playing and kept encouraging me to pump up the verses. I’ve always preferred poetry read in a slightly bored monotone—let the words add the energy, not the voice. My writing could use such toning down; too much vibrato sometimes. Still, we did something, Art and me. Something co-created, something new; it forms a bond. As the group disbanded the next day, returning to homes interstate or across the world, a farewell conversation with the venerable teacher revealed that he had not realised the poem was newly written about the journey we’d all taken. You wrote that? Huh! Thought it was from a book.

So I was in an unfamiliar city on a chilly early Autumn evening asking directions for Higgins Restaurant and Bar (or whatever it was called) from the entirely disinterested person behind the office window. And not for the last time, fell into the beginner’s trap of not specifying I was on foot. People just assume you have transport, even if you are carrying a pack and just got off a Greyhound. Just walk straight out the door and turn left, it’s not far.

Trudging up the wrong side of a six lane highway through the Oregon night I saw no-one. Shuttered windows and speeding cars with yellow, jaundiced eyes. Wondered about a cab but had no idea how to action that; no mobiles in those days. A weary ‘eventually’ later, I found the place. Stood on the door-step feeling nervous; sounds of eating and muted conversation from the lit interior. Sounds of piano, too. That gave me courage.

A whispered conversation with the Maître D’ then a small seat near the piano. Another basic instrument, better cared for. A nod from Art but not much else. Focussed on his playing. Diner attention on their meals or companions or conversations. Talking a bit louder when Art played a more energetic passage. I wondered if his frown was concentration or a reaction to the indifference of the audience.

Let’s go to Higgins, they gotta piano man on Friday nights.

Loud isn’t it, in this small space? Don’t worry, I think he’s almost finished. Dessert?

The artist’s life.

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A gift indeed. As was Art’s hospitality.

ECLIPSE ’76

One Saturday afternoon in October 1976 I rode my bicycle ‘round to Rod Amberton’s place to watch a total eclipse. It seemed like a friendly thing to do, given this sort of solar phenomenon only occurred every few decades and Melbourne was, apparently, a prime location from which to view it. Assuming the clouds gave permission.

Arriving a few minutes before the big yellow orb was due to be blanked by the dark side of the moon—or the sun being followed by a moonshadow, if you prefer—I dropped the bicycle on the grass and knocked on the screen door at the back of the house.

Silence. Hm. It hadn’t occurred to me that they might be out. When I say ‘they’ I guess I meant Rod, as the family was not really one for doing stuff together. The older brother was indeed older, a lot older, while Rod’s Father worked all the time and his sweet Mum mostly kept things ticking over at home. But not today.

I could see into the glassed-in porch cum family room off which Rod’s bedroom lay, far enough away from the proper adult living areas that we could play records up to distortion point—in those days somewhere around 15 watts per channel, don’t you know—until quite late. Maybe half-past eleven.

But in the lonely present it was half-past four and a decision point. No time to ride home to watch the eclipse in my own back yard. No point in racing off anywhere.  So, feeling just a little uncomfortable about occupying the Amberton patch on my own, I sank onto the grass and waited.

What was memorable was the silence. It was quiet. It was still. Though there was some cloud haziness, a dark scimitar crept across the shining disc, carving light into shadow.

Then it wasn’t quiet. Birds. Raising confused voices to this unexpected evening. Chirruping their outrage at being robbed of four hours of daylight and crankily preparing for sleep like a banished child.

Then, before they could get properly settled, the twilight began lifting. Like a curtain slowly pulled back, the bright afternoon stage was revealed once again. The birds cheered. I rode home.

Later, having dutifully deposited my 20 cents in the designated money box on top of the fridge, I phoned the Amberton residence and ascertained that Rod was now in residence. So I rode over there again. It was after the real actual twilight by this time, and getting chilly. After watching a news report of the eclipse we repaired to his room and I once more sank earthwards, this time onto a cushion against the wall. A stack of LPs were slouched against the wall next to me so I leafed through them, extracting a cover that seemed truly apposite after the afternoon’s entertainment. No, not the dark-sided prism one; Santana’s Caravanserai.

“Pass it over, I’ll put it on,” said Rod.

The needle thunked onto the vinyl and a moment later, emerging from the background crackles came the quintessentially summer sound of crickets, their phased whistlechoir being joined by a keening sax sounding an evening call to prayer. The bass and percussion entered, building very slowly with carefully placed guitar notes then sustained electric piano chords like ancient temple bells. I was entranced. It seemed the perfect album for such a day.

More than forty years later, I put on Caravanserai again.

Once more I’m transported.

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[Originally appeared at Vinyl Connection with more on the music]