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Piano Guy

September 7, 2015


I enjoy it when bloggers write about music, a subject I know little about. Back in college I owned a few albums, but never developed a robust appreciation of contemporary music. Back in the early seventies when I was attending UCLA, several of the guys in my dorm had aspirations of playing in bands and making it big, while others were content to master the air guitar.


I don’t know where music comes from; I read that melodies are notes hung on the invisible wires of time and repeated in a mathematical order, but math was not my subject. I admire people who create music, although they mystify me, especially one fellow I often encountered back in college.


He showed up at flea markets, parks, but mostly on the street when I was grabbing a bite or headed to a movie. I couldn’t tell how old he was, and couldn’t peg him with a name because I never learned his; he was just Piano Guy. He was the thinnest person I’d seen without track marks on his arms. A mild case of the flu would have wiped him out, but he pounded, caressed and manipulated his battered old piano like an enthusiastic lover.


He appeared to enter into a trance when playing, a virtuoso with a scruffy beard, his long blond hair responding to invisible currents that ebbed and flowed as he played, soft undulations growing with feverish intensity like the frantic energy of an electrical storm. He was a musical Prospero, commanding the elements from his shabby chair, his equally shabby piano precariously perched on a makeshift trailer.


His was a solo act, although it wasn’t much of an act. On some level, an audience must have been important to him, it took effort to move that piano, but he paid no attention to those pausing to hear him play. He could have parked the piano in an alley and played without distractions.


He seldom paused while playing, a torrent of music flowing from him. Was he self-taught or had he studied at a music academy only to turn his back on building a traditional career? I had no idea if he read music or composed his own works, but the results felt too personal to be anything but original. He took no requests and sold no tapes. When someone approached and said something, he never responded or offered an acknowledgment.


Street performers often hand out flyers announcing future gigs, but not Piano Guy. I have no idea how he earned his living, especially since he never set out a tip jar. He must have been content creating art for art’s sake.  


Seeing him was always a treat, and even though I knew precious little about music, I felt a mixture of contentment and spirituality after hearing him play. But a time came when I didn’t see him anymore. Shortly before graduating I saw a fellow playing a piano on the street. It wasn’t Piano Guy, but something looked familiar.


“Where’d you get your piano?” I asked.


The fellow was pounding out a poor rendition of California Deamin’. He paused to say, “Found it beside a dumpster in Culver City. Doesn’t play too bad. Needs a tune-up.” He gestured toward a tip jar.


I felt sad as I tossed a few coins into the jar, wondering what had happened to Piano Guy. I like to think he got a new piano, but I’m haunted by the thought that for some reason, his music stopped.






Have you ever encountered anyone with an unrecognized talent who should have been successful?  





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That's rather sad, especially to think he abandoned his piano. From the way you described him, the dude was probably just a bit off key mentally. Music has always been a part of my life - listening, playing, and writing. While I'm not great, it's something I can't imagine ever giving up.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on September 7, 2015
I believe we all have talents that perhaps others see, but we don't recognize them in ourselves. Piano man was most likely a bit off mentally, but I hope content following his muse. I suspect he probably is playing his another piano up in the clouds above us.
By: Kathe W. on September 7, 2015
I appreciate those who are musically inclined; similarly to those who can draw, paint and write. They all share a common denominator. They are all creators. I also see teachers and professors as creators too. Mind you, some are mediocre at best. There are those who possess a gift. Unfortunately many are not recognized as such. Why? I don't know.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 7, 2015
I wish I could have heard him!!
By: fishducky on September 7, 2015
How sad for Mr. Piano Guy! I have known a couple of people who were musically gifted only to allow drugs and alcohol to control their destiny.
By: Bouncin Barb on September 7, 2015
You almost have to think something bad happened to him to leave his piano. I would feel sad but the man did what he loved at all cost. That is special.
By: Akansas Patti on September 7, 2015
It is always good to encounter people passionate about something... He could have become Billy Joel :)
By: Sage on September 7, 2015
a rather sad tale.
By: TexWisGirl on September 7, 2015
Poor guy, that is a sad ending. And you have storytelling talent that the publishing world has yet to recognize. There are a few people i know like that, and no, i'm not one.
By: mimi on September 7, 2015
What a moving post! We've got a few street musicians here on the Central Coast, who seem to be on that same wave length. Some great talent, but sadly not widely recognized.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 7, 2015
Every few years, I have a student who is really gifted at drawing. I know, because science is not their main focus, and they spend my time creating mini masterpieces. The most the guys aspire to is getting their own tattoo shop. Not that there's anything wrong with that. One of the girls had a full ride art scholarship, but did not go to college because she found out she was pregnant. Reality is a harsh taskmaster here in our rural enclave.
By: Val on September 7, 2015
I've encountered lots of odd balls but never anything like this.
By: red on September 7, 2015
How sad. All the more so since Piano Guy eschewed a tip jar, while the other guy...
By: Al Penwasser on September 7, 2015
Wonderful story, although sad, as several others said. I wonder if he was autistic. It wasn't diagnosed as well then; people tended to just label others as strange or "not right". But math and music are areas where autistic people can have outstanding talent.
By: jenny_o on September 7, 2015
Yes, I think a successful musician needs also to be a good salesman and be driven to have people listen. The piano guy sounds like a savant? A mental disorder that involves a genius talent, but a defective personality that is incapable of marketing that talent.
By: cranky on September 7, 2015
Perhaps Piano Man was autistic. I have many unrecognized talents, and I should be quite successful. Ha. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 7, 2015
What a sad story. I've encountered a great many people who have very little talent but are successful. :D
By: LL Cool Joe on September 7, 2015
Sounds as if he just liked to play his piano, so sad that he 'disappeared'!
By: John on September 8, 2015
That's a sad story. I'm in a mecca of musical talent, here in Chico. There are countless as of yet unrecognized phenomenal talents here. They're wonderful people and friends of mine too. It's awesome. It's also frustrating - fame rarely hits the most deserving.
By: Robyn Engel on September 8, 2015
It does sound like he may have had a mental disorder of some kind, but maybe not. As for talented people who aren't successful, it depends on how you measure success. Does it have to be spelled with dollar signs, and be accompanied by international acclaim? I think not. Personal satisfaction and self-expression have to be considered when measuring success, too. Those of us who are self-published usually don't rake in big bucks or win literary prizes, but we all take a certain amount of personal satisfaction in having done the work we had to do to write the book we wanted to write... and better yet, in having people read it and enjoy it. Even though positive reviews and emails of appreciation don't put much money in my pocket, I treasure each one as a meaningful success. For you, that painting you're working on right now is for your own gratification, right? Mr. Piano Man might have been the same. He wanted to play so much he followed through by toting that piano around with him. He did what he loved doing, and others, like you, appreciated it. Maybe for him, that was more than enough. Maybe for him, that WAS success.
By: Susan Swiderski on September 8, 2015
I have a feeling he either lived on the street or in some home and may have suffered some disability. The sad truth is you will never know but his memory lives on in you and his music touched your heart. I have seen some people with great artistic ability but since they could not make a living on that, they took a typical job and stopped creating their art which I find so sad.
By: Birgit on September 8, 2015
I had a friend in collegfe who played classical piano beautifully. But when he played in the dorm lounge, it was jazz and he was great at it, too. I had a pair of bongo drums and some steel drummer's brushes and I used to play along with him at times. He was good, I was a rank amateur. Lost track of him after college.
By: Catalyst on September 8, 2015
Interesting question about success. Maybe they're successful simply because they can make beautiful music.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on September 8, 2015
You say you don't "know" music - but you certainly knew how to describe Piano Guy. I could picture him vividly after reading your description. And what a sad ending.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 8, 2015
Hello my friend, forgive my absense. But I'm so happy I logged in tonight and was able to give this a read (my first of the night). What a lovely story (as they always are). That makes me a little sad to think that his music may have stopped . Or he's jamming with the greats in the heavens!
By: Hey Monkey Butt on September 8, 2015
Aw, now I want to know, too! Street musicians and buskers are awesome.
By: Cherdo on September 8, 2015

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