We were south of Amsterdam, driving beyond Den Hague, heading for the North Sea. There's a coastal town called Scheveningen, where Crazy Pianos, a successful dueling piano venue in Holland has its act. I'd been through there on a previous tour, and wanted to make a return visit, maybe, hopefully, sit in.
"First Prize 5000 Euros!"
I read the placard through the window from the roundabout. Crazy Pianos, the piano bar I was there to visit, was holding a contest. Mike stopped the van and the band all piled out to look at the poster, and within a few seconds everyone was looking at me with a queer grin.
Remarkably, the dates worked out. I could enter the first round which was the next day, and if I won I'd perform at the final one week later later. I would be in country, and my touring dates were loose. It was possible. I'm entering a piano contest. So this is what it all comes down to.
The psychology of it all started to vibrate right then, but at a wavelength too long and frequency too deep for me to discern it. 5000 Euros? That's a lot of money! This is what I do! Sign me up.
We drive directly to the grand seaside prominade where Crazy Pianos beckons the tourists into the maw of its large domed building. There's lots to see, and we took some time at the water. It was hard for me to look west into the North Sea from Shreviningen, especially at dusk. The sea was slate gray. It made the horizon seem closer than natural, the end of the world a little nearer. I didn't need to feel any closer to lost. Clinging to a buoy in the sea… I feel that way already. Desperate for a beacon I already am. Any little light, however distant?
"Piano Contest! First Prize 5000 Euros!" These posters were everywhere. "Crazy Pianos…." I walked into the familiar club. It was large and the decor was all brass and wood and red paint. Multiple bars, large stage and dance area, two pimped-out grand pianos, drum kit, synths, the works. The waitresses were so gorgeous to the the girl it was a bit overwhelming.
There were a few piano players there that I had met two years earlier, and I met a couple of new cats too. One very talented guy had a particular funny show, and I was eager to meet him. His name was John, and he knew Seven! They'd played together in Norway. "Ask him if he remembers getting drunk in Oslo and hugging statues." I tried to impress him and told him about the amazing fortuity of the contest. He says, "Hell yeah, tour the Netherlands, make 5 grand, hell yeah."
Mike and the others had a gig to play in Utrecht the next day. They wished me luck and would pick me up in 48 hours. I walked the stony streets of Scheveningen until I found the perfect hostel, the best ever. Individual small rooms with bath and balcony, administered by a fascinating kind ancient gentleman proprietor. Like a prince I live, I keep telling you.
I came back the next day for the contest to find four other contestants. Of the five, two of us would go on the finals in two weeks. I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to play. Back in the states I had just started doing the dueling pianos thing. Though my toes were barely wet at it, it gave me hubris. I certainly thought I knew what to do. The judges were the performers of Crazy Pianos, two of whom I'd met earlier, including John.
For my first song I did "Wild World" by Cat Stevens and it was a solid move. The small crowd enjoyed it, the judges saw what they saw. "Overall, very well done. Look forward to hearing you in the second round."
The other cats were OK. One guy was totally out of place. He was tall, ashen, formally dressed and played classical pieces like Chopin, and he performed an original composition! He gave himself no chance in the contest, but that's what made him the coolest.
For the second round, I needed to rock a song, because my first move was a safe bet. So much of my repertoire from my piano sets were at that point languid songs. My list of rockers was very short.
Rocking a song. Here's where I digress into self-loathing. It's not always there. It's a later in life acquisition? Mojo come, mojo go? Today, I rock with 84% certainty. Just a few short years ago that probability was in the teens. By next year I hope to be at a 92% rate of always rocking well.
I'd gotten it into my head that I should do "Rock Around the Clock" even though I'd never done it before. That's what they wanted, it seemed, good ol' american rock and roll. My reasoning, I can boogie very well, but the key of C would be the only way to go. It was a good choice, I could do it! I spent all day remembering and memorizing the lyrics. I didn't have a piano, my keyboard was in the tour van now in Utrecht. It was what it was, but it was a bad egg from it's conception.
"Steve from U.S.A.!"
Four o'clock, Five o'clock, Six o'clock rock!
Seven o'cloc,k Eight o'clock, Nine o'clock rock!
We gonna rock, around, the clock tonight!"
"When the clock strikes one…"
It didn't sound right. Wrong key. Fighting to find the melody. Should I take the vocal high or go way low? The struggle. The adjustment. The doubt. The lyric? The signs I didn't have it together. A musical mess. A definite fall from grace. A shaken-up solo and a limp home. A rock piano stinker and a vocal travesty. Disappointment positively dripped.
They announced the winners. First place, some guy. "Second place, we have a tie, the judges can't decide. There will be a play-off."
Get the fuck out. "First to play, Steve from U.S.A!"
I don't remember what I played, or how well I played it.
"Next to play, Ricardo from Spain!"
He wasn't that good. I'd be going to the finals one week from that night to compete for 5000 Euros. I was not officially a fuck up. Ricardo was crushed. I felt strange and relieved. Ricardo put his forehead against mine. John was pissed at me. He told me how he had to fight the other judges for a play-off.
After the contest I hung out to talk and be friends with the classically trained pianist. He was the sweetest guy, and he had two sweet girls with him, his girlfriend named Dachma, and her girlfriend. We were good together. I appreciated his humble nature and talent, and even more his baroque and dark appearance. His girlfriends liked the American musician. I cannot remember his name.
We walked the promenade by the sea while heading to his apartment. After we got there and settled in, I've never had a better time. "We have everything, enjoy yourself." Red wine and hand rolled smokes, hash and powders. He played Zappa tracks. "Bobby Brown". He had his piano set up, his recording gear. He insisted that he record me playing one of my favorite songs. Somewhere out there is a recording of me performing a fucked-up version of "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits.
Wine, music, candles, smoke, so many sensory delights, the greatest yet to come. Dachma's friend was giving me looks like I'd earned them. So when the night got perfectly late I kissed her, and dude and Dachmar smiled, gathered their things and went to bed. This women was a lot of things. She was as sensual as they come. I can't remember her name.
Life is not bad when you're heading to bed at the dawn, your room less than a half mile away by undreamt of pathways, exhausted from the day's and night's passions. Place the journey through narrow cobbled streets, the balm of the North Sea wind blowing across your shoulders, the day's crown of so many jewels to be lifted off and set by your bed, but for now loving its weight, how is slows everything down. Lingering tastes of the sea, the wine, the woman, the victory. Europe, I must say I love you. Life, I love you. I make it back to my room in the hostel. My last thought before I fell asleep is anyone's guess, but I'd bet it was of five thousand Euros.