Is it the food—a seafood-laden, moderately-priced menu? Hint: the last two dishwashers became head chefs in short order. The service, maybe—a warm southern hospitality that smoothes over the other defects? Guess again—the employees turn over faster than the diners and steal from Louie almost as often as he shortchanges them.
Searching for an explanation, frustrated by the sheer illogic of it all, I’ve even—in my most desperate moments—considered giving credit to Louie himself. Is it possible, I wonder, that—in spite of his musical and personal shortcomings—he’s a man of integrity, dedicated to supporting and nurturing an artform that needs his help? “NO WAY, YOU ASSHOLE,” my sane self replies.
Louie is a thug. He’s left other cities—where he ran other clubs—in the dark of the night, pistol in hand, creditors in pursuit. He’s stiffed more musicians than could fill two big bands. I operate under the assumption that the day he knows his creditors have found him, he’ll invite me down for my longest stay ever—say, two weeks. On the fourteenth day—payday—I’ll show up to find the furniture on the sidewalk, and no sign of Louie or his wife, Bonnie, who is the club’s hostess.
I’m thinking about Bonnie as Louie, Mike and I saunter back up to the stage. She’s an intelligent, pious, and attractive woman whose addiction to Louie ranks among the gig’s top mysteries. He’s often described to me their between-set physical doings on his office desk, and in the same breath bragged of his barely disguised infidelities. The latest chapter is a woman upstate in Columbia, mother of one and enough of a fate-teaser that she periodically threatens to visit the club—disguised in a wig—just to push the threshold.
From the bandstand I survey the room. The audience has thinned considerably from the near-capacity sixty or so of the first set. It’s a weeknight and it’s raining out, so we’re not likely to get a lot of newcomers. At this point about thirty people remain, most of them scattered among the small round tables on the main floor. A few are on the balcony, generally a refuge for those not interested in the music.
Then, with an impending sense of doom, I turn my attention to my nemesis, an unwieldy colossus known disaffectionately as The Whore. It’s the eighty-eight key nightmare that’s my appointed vehicle, and I tentatively plunk out a few notes as a driver might test bad brakes before a long trip. Some keys go down and don’t come back up, others won’t go down at all, and still others hit two notes at once. All of these defects, though, pale before the greater Out-Of-Tune condition, which casts the entire musical experience in a hellish backdrop of throbbing dissonance.
One Atlanta pianist I know expresses his feelings about inferior instruments by urinating in them at the end of the gig. He played here at the Cookin’ Cadenza several years ago; in all probability, his sentiments flowed freely afterwards. In The Whore’s case, it could hardly have made things worse.
I’d done what I could to make it a playable instrument. After the first night, I warned Louie that if he didn’t have it tuned, I’d commit suicide. The tuner miraculously showed up the next day despite having been repeatedly stiffed by Louie. Later, he stopped by the piano, where I was celebrating its brief remission by playing a sensitive ballad—a sort of bonding ritual between two partners in an arranged marriage. “You know this is a total piece of shit, right?” he said, pointing at my bulky bride. “I give it one hour, maybe two.”
Tonight—three days later—it had completely re-established its original horrid equilibrium. Fortunately, by now I had attained Indifference, a state of mind sought by all seasoned Cookin’ Cadenza performers. Like other spiritual disciplines, it required commitment and effort, but in return helped pave the road to inner peace.
With each return visit to the club, I found myself able to reach Indifference more easily. My mantra was simple—“It doesn’t matter, this isn’t music, it doesn’t matter, this isn’t music”—and my transition was facilitated by consuming mind-altering Budweiser in large quantity. Soon I could close my ears to my own ugly sounds, shut out the overbearing bass, and ignore the hurky-jerky drums, losing myself in the sheer physicality of it. I’d sweat, drink more beer, shake the cramps out of my overwrought hands, then do it again. Much later, exhausted, I’d collapse onto the sagging mattress that was Louie’s guest quarters; half a twin bed occupying three quarters of a closet-sized room. Seven hours later I’d wake up, inexplicably eager for more.
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