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Circle of Fifths
A Personal Essay by Douglas A. Konecky
I AM 5 YEARS OLD. I HAVE crawled under one of the chairs near the piano in our living room, and am lying on the soft carpet listening to my mother play the piano. She plays so beautifully, and always plays my favorites when she knows I am listening. Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, and my absolute favorite: the Barcarole by Offenbach. I close my eyes and hum along with these sweeping melodies, and I am carried away to a magical European world of order and beauty, to the land where the fairy tales come from.
I am 10 years old. I am giving a piano recital in the old Beverly Hills Women's Club. Twice a year, all of Mrs. Dolnick's piano students have to go through this dreadful contrivance. Her favorites always play near the end of the program, so I must endure two hours of grinding nervousness, sweating backstage with the other kids, shirtsleeves protruding three inches below the cuffs of our jackets, the jackets that fit last year, when the shoes also fit, and the itchy slacks still reached them.
I hate this waiting. But when I play, I am king. Until I begin, no one in the audience is even allowed to breathe. For the rest of my life the part of me that loves to perform will be in a battle-to-the-death with the part of me that wants to throw up.
I am 15 years old. I am spending a lot of time at the piano. My stepfather has died, and my mom and I are alone in the Encino house. I have left Mrs. Dolnick, but discovered Ray Charles. I learn every blues and gospel piano riff off every record he's ever made. I read the trade magazines and gossip columns to discover when there might be a new album coming out. I never knew playing piano could be so much fun.
Mom lies in her bed, staring up at the blank ceiling, as I play late into the night, dreaming of my new life as a blind black musician with fingers like hammers and a voice like burnt butter.
I am 20 years old. It is Acid Day in Berkeley, the last day LSD is legal in California. Everyone I know has dropped acid this morning and by afternoon Telegraph Avenue is seething with 5,000 stoned-out, wide-eyed people, smiling secretly, having conversations with lampposts, swerving in and out of traffic. Cars stop in the middle of turns. Girls with flutes twirl on counters in the B of A branch. What a beautiful day.
Yesterday I was Ray Charles, but today I am Jimi Hendrix. Then I remember I have been hired to play piano at a fraternity party that evening. All the frat boys and sorority girls are waiting for me to arrive so they can dance. They cheer when I walk into the party room. They stop cheering when the alien music begins.
I thump on the keys with both fists, eyes closed, my forehead resting on the entire middle octave of the piano, as if I had died. But my arms are still flailing. When I finish the number and raise my head, there are two black keys impressed into my forehead.
Everyone in the room is staring at me. A kid in chino pants and a starched madras shirt approaches me carefully. "Excuse me," he says, "but...do you think you could play 'Louie Louie'?"
I am 25 years old. I live in New York. I have a wife. I am still playing 'Louie, Louie,' but with a jazz feel now. Our trio tends to confuse people. There is a paneled practice room in the building on 56th Street behind Carnegie Hall, and one evening we give a concert in that room. I get to play the most magnificent piano I have ever heard, a mahogany Steinway from the 1930s. The piano sings to my touch. We play well and receive nice reviews. Yet afterwards I can't help but notice that Carnegie Hall is on 57th Street. We are on 56th Street. This shall be the history and epitaph for this band and several to follow.
I am 30 years old. My last band breaks up. My wife gets pregnant, and then fired. It's time for a move. We leave New York. Two storm systems collide over our little Pennsylvania farmhouse, and my son is born in the blinding rain.
I play guitar and piano in a coal miners' bar in Wilkes-Barre. It's winter. There is a range of mountains between our farmhouse and that bar. Each night I have to skid over the ice to get to work. When I get there, they are already drunk. But when I come home in the middle of the night, my little boy is waiting up for me. You can't tell his laughing eyes from the moon.
I am 35 years old. We live in Los Angeles now. I have a daughter, too. I play piano on other people's records, while I am waiting to become a star. It is taking longer than I expected.
Gradually I find myself older then everyone else in the supermarket. I start putting Agent Black on my mustache. The poisonous once-a-month stench under my nose knocks years off my life. I go on game shows. I play Wannabe poker and golf. Everybody is trying to figure out if I'm Wanna or if I just might Be. I write beautiful songs that no one hears.
One New Year's Eve I am leading a band in the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel. There is a mirror behind me. Just before midnight I look into that mirror and see an aging fool in a tuxedo staring back. The next day I shave off the mustache.
I am 40 years old. A house, two cars, two kids, two cats. It is Saturday night. I am playing for a wedding reception in a suburban Polynesian restaurant. My electric keyboard is perched precariously over a fake pond primed with an electric pump. The pump isn't working very well. I can see sparks crackling off the power cable. The crowd is rowdy.
The groom and his friends have all been drinking since the bachelor party, which was Thursday. They are so happy, they seem to hate each other. There are fights in front of our little bandstand all night long. Any one of these altercations could dump me and my piano into the plastic pond, where I will be electrocuted by the malfunctioning pump. I have scaled down my expectations. I just want to survive this gig. But if I do, tomorrow night I will accompany a sword swallower at the Foundation for the Israeli Blind.
I am 45 years old. Five hundred weddings. Four hundred recording sessions. Three hundred Christmas parties. Two hundred bar mitzvahs. A hundred jingles. A McDonald's opening, four funerals, and a triathlon. I am tired of music. Living in Los Angeles is like sitting in a sauna with sheep.
Goodbye, L.A. Hello, San Francisco. Think I'll write stories now, a novel, work for the Chronicle. Help out my neighborhood newspaper. I've got a word processor and my manual of style. I'm set.
...Or am I? I don't know how it happens, but one morning I wake up and I am 50 years old. I just look in the mirror, and here I am. A woman calls and asks me to play piano for her wedding, a yuppie affair on Liberty Street. I haven't played in a while.
The party's in a backyard garden. There are little muslin-covered bottles of soap bubbles on every table. All day long, radiant people blow bubbles into the overhanging trees as they gulp their barbequed oysters with pesto, and sip Turning Leaf chardonnay.
We are a trio, and we play only classical music. I haven't played this Beethoven, this Brahms, this Schubert, since I was 10, since Mrs. Dolnick. It comes back to me with a rush.
When the violinist and cellist go on break, I keep playing. When they go home, I remain on the little stage, and hear myself beginning the Barcarole, by Offenbach. The bride, holding her shoes in her hands, closes her eyes and leans against her groom as the melody sweeps over me like a soap bubble and carries me through the willows, across the telephone lines and streetcar cables, back to an earlier time, the time of order and beauty, as I lay at my mother's feet, in the land where the fairy tales come from.
It feels so good. I play, and I play, and I play.
Douglas A. Konecky is still making music out of his Sanchez Street home. His latest CD, Everybody's Armed, is available via e-mail at DAKonecky@aol.com.