The thing about Billy Fitzimmons is that he loves music and he loves women. And when I say he loves them, I don’t mean like you love your favourite old shoes, or maybe you love the first cigarette in the morning. I mean he’s crazy about both. I know what you’re thinking; a lot of guys love women in a different way from shoes- but Billy, well he’s already crazy, and then he adds a layer of crazy for women. And for music too. Not that this made him a bad person. Our group that had associated over the years, around our bands of convenience, were all musicians and we all loved music. We certainly all loved women. But there’s loving and there’s crazy loving, like I say. Billy can talk your ear off in theoretical or circumstantial terms about either. Now, a man can never serve two masters, at least according to me. Billy didn’t worry about that. The thing about being crazy is, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. One day he’d miss a job because of a girl he had to get to know. The next day he’d lose the girl because someone called him in to do a session he couldn’t miss. I must admit, Billy is a good looking guy, and an even better musician and I think this helped him get away with his peculiarities.
One thing he was fairly steady with was Tuesday night at the Rainbow Bistro. Blues Tuesday. Every week we’d meet up there. I’d play harp, which is to say harmonica, and Billy piano. Afterwards we’d sit and have a drink and he’d get philosophical about the things he loved. He believed, for example, that real musicians spoke through their music, and that that was the only way to get to know what somebody had inside. He had another theory about perfect relations. He felt that out there somewhere was both the perfect piano and the perfect woman for him. It was his holy mission to find them. As to pianos, he was devoted to uprights. A grand piano had just too much room in there for the music to move around in, but in a little upright you could hold that music as tight as you want. The way he played it, the piano bounced, and when Billy was really cooking it would jump right along with him like the two were in some kind of a dance. You couldn’t do that with a grand. The perfect upright would have to be old, so that the wood would have shrunk and stretched so much from the winters that it was all settled into place and there were no more surprises from it. It would have original keys, real ivory that you could only get to fully shine by polishing with vodka. When he hit the keys he wanted them to hit back. And the sound… well, he couldn’t explain what he wanted out of the sound. He just hypothesized that there was a perfect sound in a perfect piano somewhere and he would find it.
One night after playing a set at Blues Tuesday we went upstairs by the pool table for a beer. It was quieter there and he could sermonize me some more about his theories.
“You know John,” he began, “I believe that I am not alone in my feelings. In point of fact, I believe that I am actually just one in a long line. Now you take Plato.”
“Okay,” I said, it never being wise to argue with Billy with a beer in his hand.
“Plato I’ve read a lot about. And he had a theory about a world of forms. Are you familiar with these ideas?”
I conceded that I was not.
“The world of forms is the perfect world upon which our reality is based. You take a triangle.”
“The instrument or the geometry?” I asked.
“The geometry,” he answered. “Now, you know what a perfect equilateral triangle should look like, right?
“Certainly.” I had already displayed ignorance on the point of Plato’s theories and I had no desire to appear a complete idiot.
“Well, do you believe you’ve ever seen an actual perfect equilateral triangle? And remember I said perfect, like you could picture it.”
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really picture one so perfect, but I knew what he meant.
“No,” I said, “I don’t think I ever have. That is, I guess nothing that we can ever make is going to be perfect.”
“Right. In the real world, we have just representations of the idea of a perfect triangle. There’s no actual perfect triangle. Now Plato, he would say that a perfect triangle exists only in the world of forms.”
“But he’d say it in Greek.” I was catching on.
“Right. And not just that, but he’d say that there is a relationship between every flawed thing in our world, and a perfect counterpart in the world of forms. Our human bodies, they exist in the real world. But our souls, they exist in the world of form. And of course, perfect music, and perfect love, and even perfect upright pianos… they’re all there in the world of forms. That’s Plato.”
I had a sip of my drink. It was a lot to take in.
“Now,” he continued, “I just take Plato a little step further. I think that if my soul can speak through me, which you must agree it does, then the perfect piano must speak through a real piano. And that’s just what I intend to find.”
He educated me until closing. That night I slept with visions of perfect harps, dancing through the Acropolis, Hohner Marine Band Harmonicas with every note in perfect pitch and with no reed ever getting stuck.
Not too many weeks after that I went out to meet Billy to listen to a new band we had heard about. They were called “Bald Headed Phil and the Mississippi Blues Band”, and we had heard they were good. When I got to the Downstairs Club, the show had already begun. Through the smoky crowd, I found Billy sitting by himself at a table, and he looked like he was under a spell. His eyes were wide as saucers and his jaw hung slack. Looking up at the bandstand I immediately found what must be the source of his distraction. The piano player was a beautiful girl. She had a long, thin body which stretched out and swayed above the keys. Her arms were slender and white and her fingers were a blur as they played. She had long blonde hair that fell straight down the arch of her back. This was a woman who knew her Dorian from her harmonic minor. She was beautiful and I could have fallen for her myself, but I knew it never turned out well for me to think in this manner for a girl Billy has thought of first. I said nothing to interrupt Billy’s reverie as I sat down, only motioning the waiter for a beer. The song went on into an extended jam, and Bald Headed Phil wailed away on a tin kazoo, running over the echoing tones of the walking bass lines from the piano’s left hand. Finally, the song ended, and after that marathon they took their first break.
“She’s beautiful isn’t she?” I said to Billy, smiling.
He shook his head as if I had awakened him. He turned to face me with a look I had never seen in him before. His cheeks glowed as if some light from the inside was trying to get out. His eyes looked like they weren’t actually there. Just colours.
“Did you hear that?” he asked me.
“They were fantastic,” I said, “better even than we were informed. I’m surprised you noticed though, the way you were staring.”
“Did you hear that piano?”
This time I shook my head in surprise.
“John, there can no doubt. That upright piano is the one for me!”
“Well, it was some nice playing from a nice looking player, I’d definitely say that.”
“No, John,” and then his face became real solemn and he spoke in almost a hushed tone, “The form of that piano was speaking to my soul. I know it. I can feel it… I have to have that piano. I need to play that piano to make the music that I have in my head. That that piano needs to make.”
He made me real uncomfortable the way he was staring at me so I tried to smile to shake him out of his trance.
“Billy, I believe there is already someone playing that piano.”
“It can’t be stopped John. That sound resonates within me. That is the piano that was meant for me. Or vice versa.”
I spent the next few minutes trying to discourage Billy from getting his hopes up too high. After all, walking out with that piano in a packed house without being noticed would be a very tall order. But Billy was not arguing. He had decided most certainly that this, and only this piano, in all the world, could make the sound he had been waiting for. I was very relieved when the band came back on and we could put this conversation on hold. I watched him through the next set, watching her. Or rather, watching the piano, and I could see the faraway look kind of falling from his eyes as he began to think things through. I began to hope he was talking himself out of all these ideas and would leave them with the Greeks.
Finally, the band finished their final set and their several encores. The house lights came on and the crowd slowly streamed out. Billy turned to me.
“John,” he said, “I’m a reasonable, practical man,” which, in the interests of honest reporting I must point out is not at all true, “-I think the reasonable thing to do is just go up to this young lady and explain the situation. I have some money these days, and I believe that there is no reason why she should not concede that I should have her piano, which is meant for me anyways, and she should have my money.”
I watched Billy get up and walk towards the bandstand. Billy is a well-spoken individual, and I’ve seen him talk young women into propositions before. But I could see the body English of this one, and she was not buying what my friend was selling. By the pleading look on Billy’s face it was clear he was trying very hard to convince her that money, music and Plato were all on the side of his getting that piano. But she just laughed and shook her head as she pulled a velvet cover over the upright. After a time, Billy’s expression slowly changed. The conversation had evidently moved on to greener pastures as he began laughing right along with her. Finally, Billy came back down to me.
“Well, I suppose we’d best move on John. If she won’t give up her piano I can’t do any good making a fool of myself here.”
I was a little surprised he seemed to be taking it so well, but I agreed with his assessment and so we left, walking back to our cars in silence. When I got home, I took out my harps and played over the music in my head that I remembered from Bald Headed Phil’s show.
The next day I got a call from Billy in the middle of the afternoon.
“John, I think you should come down and meet with me, I want you to hear something.”
As was often the case I wasn’t busy that afternoon, but it still bothered me that Billy should assume so. Nevertheless, I agreed to come down to his apartment and hear what he had.
“I’m not at home,” he said, “I’m at the Downstairs Club.”
“I thought the Downstairs Club didn’t open till 7.”
“It didn’t, and it isn’t. I had a key made some time back however, so it is open to me at all hours.”
I didn’t need to ask the next question as I remembered Lorraine the barmaid, and so I skipped ahead to the part where I told him I would be right there.
I found the door locked, and had to wait for Billy to let me in.
“Very responsible for a B and E,” I said as we walked downstairs to the barroom.
“John, this is no time for your sarcasm,” Billy said quickly, “we have decisions to make.”
The room was dark but the stage lights were on. As I expected, the piano was there. Uncovered. An open beer sat on the pine top.
“Oh, yes, help yourself,” John said, following my eyes, “the fridge is just under the bar at the far end.”
As I opened my beer, Billy sat down at the piano.
“Sarah, the girl from the band, mentioned that they were here for another night, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to hear the piano on a personal level,” he said in an offhand way.
He started right off with a mambo, which I took to mean he’d been playing for some time and had warmed up his left hand considerably. I sat and sipped the beer, scratching the harp in my pocket with my free hand as was my habit. Billy was magnificent, and that piano sounded like a full orchestra. It made the beer taste great and bubbly on my tongue. When he finally stopped, he pulled his hands away from the keys and looked down at me with eyes wide open and his smile. The empty club seemed to still resonate with the ghosts of the notes just played, bouncing around the room. Then, there was another voice from behind us.
“Sorry to interrupt the show boys.” It was the piano player. “I just thought I could practice a little on my piano.”
Billy jumped to his feet and at once launched into his dissertation.
“Okay, you are a musician and I understand that you love music and love your piano. We’re both musicians so we speak frankly- if you love something, set it free they say, and I believe that that maxim applies here. If you love music, and your instrument… you’ve been lucky enough to find a special instrument here. Now, I believe it is important to always allow the music to speak first and last, and I know that this is the instrument I have always needed to find the music inside me, and that I am the player to bring the music out of this piano that this piano was born to make! This is a most serious issue I have to tell you, if you take music seriously.”
As the girl remained cool he was becoming hotter and hotter, redder in the face in fact.
Finally she said, “We’re playing here tonight. Next week we’re at Take 5. If you love the instrument so much, you can buy a ticket and come listen to it.”
I have never accused Billy of straight thinking, but her response stopped him and he clearly saw that his talking would do no more good today than the night behind us, for all the weight of his having thoroughly tested his piano, or I should say, her piano. So with that math done, Billy walked out wordless. Now I felt the pressure of the girl’s eyes on me.
“You want anything else here,” she said, “or do you just like to beat the crowd?”
“I, uhh,” I paused. It seemed to me, here in a club that I was so at home in, talking to a beautiful girl who made such beautiful music, that there must be a perfect thing that I could say at that moment. I couldn’t find it.
“I play harmonica with him,” I said instead, pulling the harp from my pocket to show I was not lying.
“Well, go play with your friend,” she said, tilting her head to the door.
I scurried off and felt like a little mouse. Before I left I said, “I love your band. But you could use a harp.”
This all set in motion a strange few weeks. Billy and I followed the progress of Bald Headed Phil and the Mississippi Blues Band with great interest. There are about a half dozen good blues venues in town, a handful for jazz, a handful of large theatres that had all types of music, and perhaps a dozen good rock clubs. Bald Headed Phil was already playing at the biggest and best of these, and we were always there too. There were no shortage of barmaids Billy knew, and so, wherever they played, Billy would be there in the morning, playing on his piano. Or I should say, hers. If he had to meet new barmaids, he did not seem to mind the extra effort. I went with him once or twice, and played along a little. Every evening, at least when I had no gig of my own, I was there to watch her. Or I should say, the band. I really did like that band, they really knew how to play. There were a few nights I had gigs with Billy, and he was sure making his own upright sing and swing those days too.
One night, I went to see Bald Headed Phil at the Black Sheep Inn outside of town. As the band took a break between sets, the girl came to my table with two beers in her hands.
“My name is Sarah,” she said as she sat down, “can I buy you a beer?”
This seemed a rhetorical question as the beers were already on the table. Assuming one of them was meant for me. Which maybe was a hopeful assumption, but after all, the bar wasn’t so far away that she needed to buy two at once for herself. But maybe she was very thirsty too from the set.
“Not the talkative type,” she said, “I figured I owed a beer to a loyal fan like you.”
She edged the bottle across the table with her long fingers while tipping the other back to her mouth.
“Thank you,” I said, “I love your music. I think your band is really going to make it big.”
“Glad you don’t think the piano is wasted in my hands.”
“Oh no, well, Billy never meant that, you see, he just feels-“
“I know how he feels, he’s explained it enough times. How do you feel?”
“Oh, I like your playing very much. I feel like I know you pretty well now.”
“Well then, I guess I have something to my relationship with the piano that your friend doesn’t- a listener… Do you really play yourself?”
“I play around town, Montreal and Toronto from time to time. Different groups, sometimes with Billy when he is able to both commit to a job and still consider it a priority when it comes around.”
“Maybe I’ll get to see you play sometime. Enjoy the rest of the show.”
“I’m John,” I said as she walked away.
That night I thought of triangles, the equal kind. I dreamed of triangles with myself, Sarah, and the piano, and Billy, myself and Sarah, and Sarah, Billy and the piano. It seemed I could imagine perfect triangles now at least.
As it happened, I had a gig with Billy the next night. We were playing at Barrymore’s, a big night with a big crowd. I was on that night, and if I may say so, I can get a crowd worked up the way you like it when I blow right. I traded off riffs with the sax player and with Billy and the night went well.
“You know,” Billy said afterwards over beer, “the painters Gaugin and Van Gogh used to paint the same subjects, giving different interpretations of the same subjects when they lived together. That’s what trading riffs is like when it works well. Like there’s an underlying theme to the solo, and you each are taking turns interpreting it. But, like, with those painters, their interpretations influenced each other, and that happens the same when you’re trading riffs.”
“Sure, but much faster. You’re interpreting the theme, but also extending the last interpretation so even when you think you understand the theme, you really don’t know where you’re gonna start because you’re always reevaluating based on the other guys understanding.”
I liked that. It was like my harp was giving new ideas to the sax, but he was seeing it his own way so that I would always be surprised with what I got back four bars later. You can’t change something that much in four bars, but enough.
“It’s like broken telephone,” I said.
“Certainly. In the end Van Gogh cut his ear off and tried to give it to the ladies at a whorehouse when Gaugin was away.”
“I did not know about the whorehouse.”
“So I suppose he probably did not play much broken telephone himself.”
I’ve noticed that girls seem to have a natural sense of timing, which is maybe why I like girl bass players, so I was not too surprised when our friend the piano player showed up then.
She sat with us and complimented the show.
“It sounds like you get quite a bit out of the piano you’ve got,” she said to Billy who was looking at her kind of queer over the rim of his glass.
“Maybe all that extra practicing has been helping.”
Then Billy laughed, “Ah, yes, the practicing, sure. The piano has been most kind to work with.”
“If you believe in ownership of things like that. I think of your relationship as a stewardship.”
“And I think you’re pretty selfish to think that the piano wants only to play with you, just because you want only to play with that piano. Anyway, you can think whatever you want, we’re going on the road next week, so I just thought you might like to know that. We’re swinging down the coast, and it will be a long trip- a month at least, maybe longer if we land more gigs. So I hope you’ve gotten enough out of it to last you a while.”
“Big instrument like that doesn’t travel well,” Billy said, but I could see that he couldn’t find a punchline.
“How about a harmonica,” she said, still looking at Billy, “Do they travel well?”
“It’s not enough that you take my piano?” he asked, “Besides, he hasn’t even played a note with you before.”
They both slowly looked at me.
“I’ve spent enough time listening to the piano,” I said, “and your band does need a harp.”
I tried to remember about relationships and couldn’t remember what Billy or Plato had said on the subject. I wondered if I was more excited by the band or the piano player- I hoped it didn’t matter. I turned to Billy.
“Don’t cut your ear off while I’m gone.”