Advertise with The Big Takeover
The Big Takeover Issue #93
MORE Essays >>
Subscribe to The Big Takeover


Shop our Big Takeover store for back issues, t-shirts & CDs

Follow us on Instagram

Follow The Big Takeover

Folk-Punk Piano Players of the World Unite! [Part II]

24 May 2006

Granted, ragtime, barrelhouse, stride, and boogie woogie styles, from SCOTT JOPLIN and JELLY ROLL MORTON to JAMES BOOKER and PROFESSOR LONGHAIR helped change this perception of the solo pianist and, to some extent, in popular music, ELTON JOHN and BILLY JOEL followed suit (though like JERRY LEE LEWIS or FATS DOMINO, they typically were accompanied by a band). Yet, among Caucasians at least, the legacy of solo piano since the advent of jazz is more typically understood as playing in either a GEORGE WINSTON ‘new age’ style or a kind of smooth lounge-like music (think HARRY CONNICK, JR.) in a hotel lobby or chic club, appealing to the pre-British Invasion crowd.

Back before I was ready to make my original songs public, I applied for a gig at a Chelsea diner that prided itself on its afternoon piano players. In fact, I was told that Harry Connick, Jr. played there before he got his break. The owner raved about how he loved my sound, but that my repertoire, of popular as well as obscure tunes generally from the post-British Invasion-era (after 1964), would not do. He clearly missed an opportunity: the baby boomer generation that came of age listening to THE ZOMBIES’ “Time of the Season” or JIMI HENDRIX’s “And the Wind Cries Mary” is now, in many cases, composed of affluent senior citizens—there’s a potential market for precisely my repertoire, notwithstanding my versions of “Cheat” by THE CLASH or “I’m In Trouble” by THE REPLACEMENTS.

There’s nothing intrinsic about the acoustic piano (as opposed to the acoustic guitar) that suggests the piano-playing singer/songwriter is more likely to be a witty, middlebrow, show-tune satirist like TOM LEHRER than an earnest, soulful, troubled man like PHIL OCHS or LEONARD COHEN. While strength of songs and/or intensity of passion can help make up for many folk or acoustic guitarists lack of virtuosity, such allowances are less likely to be made for solo pianists. Part of this is because the piano is still often seen as a stylistic side dish in the way a guitar is not, and part of it is because the idea of folk piano, or even punk piano, has never been sufficiently explored.

The piano as side dish can be seen across the spectrum of popular music. In country, there’s a reified sense of honky-tonk licks that have been passed down from HANK WILLIAMS to “countrypolitan’s” hybrid of country and soft rock. What gets lost is that the people who originated this style probably weren’t thinking of themselves as standard-bearers. Similarly, in classic rock cover bands, or bands those who ‘cover’ a classic rock style but not necessarily its repertoire, pianists are typically rewarded for perfect imitations of, say, the clavinet on STEVIE WONDER ’s “Superstition” or the organ used on THE DOORS’ “Light My Fire,” as if faithfulness to the letter, rather than to the spirit, of the original is more worthwhile.

Because of advances in technology over the past 40 years, the piano player is often subsumed into the larger category of “keyboard player,” and when many rock bands are looking for a keyboard player, they’re often not looking for a piano, or even an organ, player. They’re looking to fill out the sound with layered textures or new wave riffing that doesn’t get in the way of the primacy of the guitar. While I admire this sonic style, it’s not a role I’m especially comfortable playing. In the time that CONTINUOUS PEASANT was actively performing, I more often than not, strove for a sound in which the piano played the role of the rhythm guitar (my model was more that of the early ROXY MUSIC and as such I sought and found, as it were, a PHIL MANZANERA to my BRYAN FERRY in PETER NOCHISAKI). Although there are electric lead guitarists who may find it difficult to work with piano players in such an arrangement, my experience with Continuous Peasant and listening to bands such as THE BLACK HEART PROCESSION has shown me that this combination of sounds can be attractive to quite a few listeners.

If, however, I continue to consider trying to carve out a niche for myself as a solo singer/songwriter/pianist, it’s clear it’s going to be an uphill battle against perceptions of what a piano player is, or should be. No, I don’t wear a harmonica-holder or hold a guitar in my hands. No, I can’t make piercing doe-eyed eye contact with the crowd over an upright piano, even if it isn’t facing the wall. The best the audience can hope for is a profile view (though I still dream the improbable dream of a permanent access to a public grand piano). Given these limitations, I might have to devote all my energies to reforming the band and trying again to get it to gel for performances. But for all my bitching and whining here, I still value the immediacy of the solo performance, even it means sacrificing some of the richness of the live sound that comes from playing with a band.