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Austin Chronicle Blood on the Keys

By Jay Hardwig

MARCH 1, 1999:  I was not yet 15 when I fell in love with the old devil blues -- caught hold of them hellhounds and rode them straight on down to the Delta. It worked me up good, it did, and loosed something stuck within me. Having neither a bottle-neck git-tar nor a rusty old C-harp at my disposal, I took out my newfound starch on the only instrument at hand: my grampa's glorious old upright grand. (Florid language, I'll admit, but the blues never did shy from semantic extravagance.)

I was no stranger to the 88s, although I'd yet to learn to call them that. I'd spent a good 10 years in front of them, in fact, 60 minutes a day, by god, by god, and by the time I hit high school, I had graduated from the bouncing kiddie fare of my youth ("The Happy Farmer," a household favorite) to a string of solemn sonatas and svelte minuets, lovely little pieces rendered with a skill born more of practice than talent.

Ten years of hard work, that is, and I threw it all out the window to take up with that celebrated tramp, the blues. I forsook the elegant intricacy of my training -- the fermatas, glissandos, the poco a poco -- giving up delicate trills for a blustery bit of piano-bashing I called the blues. I bought sheet music, took lessons when I could, went to the library to check out worn LPs from the masters of the form. Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Bach faded from my imagination; in their place sat Otis Spann, Roosevelt Sykes, and Meade Lux Lewis.

I'll admit, it was slow going at first. My first full boogie was pained and stilted, overly reliant on the flat seventh and the minor third, rote and rigid and dutifully transcribed on staved notepaper. My left hand failed to swing, my right to prance: It was altogether a merciless and maudlin affair.

Over time, as I began to gain some facility in the form, I was able to add a little flash to my beginner's bag of tricks: A walking bassline, a syncopated right, the time-honored blues turnaround. I never ventured beyond the key of C, of course -- the safe harbor of the mediocre piano player -- but still I felt there was a snatch of something going on. I began to improvise a bit, and in one mad rush of inspiration wrote my very first blues song, and one I still sing to this day, "My Baby Got Run Over by a Cement Truck This Morning." ("Well my baby ain't too smart she ain't too quick on her feet/Got run over by a cement truck trying to cross the street/Oh my baaa-by ..."). By the end of two years, I had pounded out enough of the old 1-4-5s that I'm sure my mom still hears them in her sleep.

To say that I pounded the keys is no mistake: In the course of my studies, I explored all of the percussive possibilities of the piano, from the crash to the smash to the underutilized bash, and it is a fair estimation that I raised the sort of hell on that piano's hammers that they never knew before and likely never wanted. Yea verily, I pounded that thing -- hauled off and kicked the damn horse if I got the notion -- and as I did a dream grew within me, and grew larger still, until it took a seat at the very top of my brain: I wanted, needed, to spill some blood on the keys.

photograph by John Anderson
I don't know quite where I got this notion. Perhaps I cribbed it from a documentary, or some unusually graphic liner notes, or one of the biographies I had read of the old-time keyboard kings. ("They pounded the keys with fists the size of canned hams," said one book, a phrase I'll never forget.) Or perhaps it was the Bukowski book introduced to me by a nihilist college friend: Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.

Still, for the spindly buck that I was, the idea seemed a little precocious. Certainly outside of my formal training (Mendelssohn wouldn't approve). Perhaps even out of the scope of possibility. For all my desire, I didn't have the passion, the canned-ham hands, or the right, really, to lay down blood on the keys. Still I held the dream. I harbored it secretly, fed it now and then, and told no one.

As with most pivotal moments in my life, when it finally happened, I didn't even notice. I was ensconced in the back room of my favorite hometown watering hole, Burt's Coin Laundry & Lounge in Knoxville, Tennessee, where you could not only get yourself a pitcher of Pabst for three dollars but could do your damn laundry while you drank it, all in the company of some of Knoxville's most browbeaten and enchanting clientele. Burt's was a 24-hour joint, open all night, and you were as likely to find weary men spending their disability checks on tall Budweisers at 8 in the morning as you were at 8 at night.

It was late on a Saturday night, and I had already salted away more than a few pitchers of some sweet and golden brew, in pursuit of what I can't remember. I soon found myself perched upon the back room piano bench, arms splayed to my sides, gazing poetically into the face of Burt's delapidated upright grand -- its frontpiece long gone, its pedals broken, the felt on its hammers less than spry.

It was clear, by that time, that any peace that unfortunate instrument enjoyed was short for the world; inevitably, I fell upon it with hungry hands and a fevered heart, launching into a frank and drunk blues boogie, my hard-won walking bass stumbling more than striding, the right hand answering in strident splashes of remembered melody up above. I played with all the subtlety of a train wreck, hammering on the sevenths and launching every 12 bars or so into a tired old blues turnaround, making up in volume what I lacked in artistry, pleased with myself despite the damning evidence that issued from the strings above my head.

There was no thought in my head any more distant than the next chorus -- whether to bring it up an octave or bring it down one, or perhaps stay on that same fortuitous triad for a moment longer -- when I felt on the ivory beneath my fingers something wet and greasy, something warm and viscous and altogether unlike anything I'd ever felt on the keys. I concluded -- and this was not an unreasonable conclusion at Burt's Coin Laundry & Lounge at 1am on a Saturday night -- that some overzealous bloodshot drunk had spilled beer on the piano. I was pissed.

When I finally looked down, I saw the real source of all that slick: My own blood, poured forth from my thumb, cut on the chipped middle C of that badly beaten instrument. It was no pindrop, mind you: The blood had been spread across a good octave and a half of the keyboard by the movement of the melody, the movement of my fingers. My heart began to flutter, but in the green neon of Burt's back room, I couldn't be sure of what I saw. I looked again, and this time there was no mistaking it. It was my blood, bright red despite the neon, smeared over the keys, spread now to my fingertips, with still more spilling from my thumb; a regular gush of the stuff that promised no end, and with every stanza more of the keyboard covered, more of it slick, until the instrument took on a grim and even macabre cast.

It was beautiful.

We should all live to see our dreams come true.

I smiled then, and my smile turned into a laugh as I closed my eyes, threw back my head, and played on into the night.

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