Some recall San Francisco, July 1984, as the heady month in which the first woman—in the form of Geraldine Ferraro—was nominated for Vice President of the United States in that same City by the Bay. I, however, can testify with complete confidence, that during that convention week I experienced the worst gig of my life. And, worse yet, at the hands of one of the presiding members of the Democratic Party.
I was 28, had been holding down one of the piano spots at San Francisco’s recently opened Neiman-Marcus for nearly a year, and I thought I was hot stuff. I was making decent money for a musician, had picked up some solid outside society gigs because of the Neiman-Marcus work, and was starting to get known around town. And so it wasn’t with a lot of surprise that I received a call from a woman representing the Fairmont, asking me if I’d be available that evening to entertain some out-of-town bigwigs in the hotel’s penthouse.
“How big?” I asked.
“Very big,” she replied.
“As in Presidential big?”
“No, but you’re getting warm. I’ll pass along your number to them.”
And so within the hour I received a call from the Son of the Big Wig.
“Hi Chris. We’re just having a gathering of some of the staff and family to finish off the week. We’re looking for a piano player. Are you free?”
I was and said so.
“Great. Ask at the front for the penthouse elevator and we’ll see you here at 6.”
It happened that I’d played the Fairmont penthouse a couple of times. The piano occupied the corner of a large (and somewhat ornate) living room, was brown, grandish, and kept in tune. Other than the bedrooms, the penthouse housed a large dining room, an impressive balcony, and a library, in the middle of which stood a pool table that, as I entered, was getting a workout from some pedigreed east-coast teenagers.
I made my way to the piano and was greeted along the way by the Son, who was all cordiality.
“Anything I can get you to drink? The guests aren’t here yet but go ahead and start playing. I figure things will wrap up around 9 or 9:30.”
And so I started playing—something quiet and easy to help assure my temporary employers that I wasn’t going to bang the varnish off the instrument and dominate the party.
And then I heard the Wife’s voice.
“Could you tell the pianist to play something more lively?”
Now, I’m open to these sorts of suggestions, particularly if they’re offered from across the room. However, the Wife was standing within spitting distance of me and rather than talk to me directly, she instead bellowed the demand to her husband, Big Wig, in the other room.
Taking this as a sign that the Wife speaks not to the help, I broke into "New York, New…"
“… but not 'New York, New York,'” she again hollered at hubby.
Right. "Scotch and Soda" it is.
Which turned out to be an appropriate way to begin the evening. Because, like those proud members of Hotel & Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, Local 2 tasked with keeping their charges liquified, the people who both hosted and attended this shindig knew quite well which was the business end of the bottle.
The evening went smoothly through the first set-and-a-half and might have finished that way save for two things. The first was that a gentleman, who was regrettably short two in regard to leg inventory, crutched his way over to the piano and plopped himself onto the right edge of the instrument.
In and of itself, I’m not opposed to people draping themselves over the old 88. It’s just that they usually come in the form of women who’ve exceeded their limit by at least one. When, instead, it’s a gruff legless gentleman who apparently has no limits, it can throw you off your game.
As I was recovering from this incursion, the other shoe dropped. Big Wig lumbered over to the piano, trumpeted “Pipe down! Pipe down!” to the assembled, and, after pipes were indeed down, began.
“As you know, when the Big Wig clan gets together we sing.”
“Is that what you call it!?” came friend of Big Wig to cackles from the crowd.
“Shut up Harry! I’m talkin’ here! And so we get a piano player and Me and Brother here,” jerking a bulbous thumb at the fellow perched on the piano, “we sing some of the great old songs. And you join in. Anything you want.”
And I say shit because I hate sing-alongs. They’re dangerous for musicians for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s too often the case that those who wish to sing in a gathering like this are the least qualified to do so—making it very difficult to find a key that’s going to match their caterwauling. The second is that you have no idea what kind of requests you’re going to get.
See, many people have the idea that musicians are like juke boxes, and those juke boxes house every song ever written. To them it’s inconceivable that you don’t know a song, however obscure. And because they’re paying you good money for you rattling tunes out of a large hunk of wood and wire, they’re unsympathetic when you hint that you and “Mrs. McGillicutty’s Washboard”—a tune not heard outside of one specific Boston bar in a hundred years—have yet to become acquainted.
And so you pray that they can sing and they go for one of the thousand tunes you know.
“Hey Big Wig!” called another reveler, “you think that piano player knows these songs? He looks pretty young!”
And Big Wig turned his rhino eye on me and growled, “Well kid, you know all the great old songs or doncha?”
“To be honest sir, I have no idea until you start.”
“Well vamp it, dammit. Vamp it!”
And so began a series of Irish drinking songs blorped out as if from the most fetid bog of Old Blarney itself in the key of godhelpus.
Dammit or no dammit, there was no vamping it. And as Big Wig shouted out the title of the next tune he turned to me, rolled his great eye, and dared me to find a chord—any chord—that would satisfy the ghastly gaze.
It was the nightmare we all have of being naked on stage, not knowing the lines. Hopeless and never ending.
And it was hopeless to more than me. To salvage what was clearly a disaster, Big Wig, like the best entertainers (and politicians) found a theme to lighten the load: Humiliate the piano player.
“So kid,” he barked over his shoulder, “I don’t suppose there’s any point in asking if you know ‘Boggy Betty’s Lament’?”
“I thought not. Jesus Christ!”
“Kid, do you know any songs at all?”
HAR HAR HAR
“Kid, did the Reagan people send you over here?”
HAR HAR HAR HAR
It happens that there was an open window nearby. And that the Fairmont’s penthouse is very, very high up in the sky. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted to simply leap for it, knowing in my life's last seconds that this would go down badly for Big Wig and his assembled staff. And just as I thought, “Those Secret Service guys don’t look so tough. I bet I could be to the elevator before…” it was over. Big Wig took a final shot at yours truly, Brother gathered his crutches and humped off across the room, and eyes turned elsewhere.
I noodled about for a bit, trying to pull myself together when I was approached by an attractive woman, who turned out to be Big Wig’s secretary.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “They get carried away, but they’re just having fun. They don’t mean any harm really.”
“That’s okay," I replied. "If I’d known it was going to be a sing-along I would have suggested someone else. I’ve never heard of these songs.”
“Most people haven’t and you took it well. I was wondering if you’d accompany me in a song. Your choice.”
“My Funny Valentine?”
“Perfect, I love that song.”
And so she sang like the angel she was. We worked well together, the crowd applauded, and she thanked me very graciously as she moved away.
Just as I was beginning to think that perhaps it wasn’t all as terrible as it seemed and there were good people left in the room, up walks Chris Matthews (current political pundit), who worked for Big Wig at the time.
“You know [yet another obscure tune]?”
“No sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”
Rather than suggest another song, offer “That’s okay, play anything from the 50s,” or attempt some other sentiment that makes it possible for each of us to come out with some dignity, he chose instead,
“Where the hell did they get you?”
and walked off.
Nightmarish though the gig was, I have no resentment regarding the behavior of Big Wig, Wife, Brother, or Son. They hoped to hire Piano Player A and they got Piano Player B. It was entirely my fault for not asking a few more questions about their needs.
Chris Matthews, on the other hand, seems to have forgotten that he wasn’t eviscerating another D.C. rival. I was just the Kid. Some poor schmoe with the right skills for the wrong job. He could have left me with a way out, but instead chose to twist the knife. Painful though it was, among the many lessons I learned that night, this one taught me something about those who seek and practice power for all the wrong reasons.
The rest of the evening was largely uneventful. I played until 9:30 and then attempted to catch the Son’s eye to see about either leaving or playing until the guests left. He steadfastly avoided that eye, embarrassed that he’d been responsible for hiring the night's disaster.
And then, through cowardice or courage, I decided enough was enough. Pay or no, it was time for this adventure to end. I closed the lid, picked up my briefcase full o’ blues, and made for the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, Son shoved through a handful of cash along with a hearty “Thanks a lot!”
Half of what I was owed but twice what I deserved.