I’ve played many of the piano rooms in Chicago’s “Gold Coast”, and I’ve held my own bench at a few of them.  There’s The Zebra, The Redhead, The Underground Wonder Bar, Hugo’s Frog Bar, the old Jay’s.  I’ve sat in on rare occasions at the Coq d‘Or room in The Drake, at Grape Street and Vine, only once at Jilly’s on State.

So, what does this make me?  I’m a certifiable Downtown Chicago Piano Man.  The conclusion has become inescapable.  I’ve earned it, I’ve accepted it, and I wear it now it as both a scar of honor and badge of bad behavior.

The experience of performing songs night after night over seasons and years in the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast has been both amazing and torturous.  I’ve learned a lot, lost a lot, it’s been a unique and fascinating path.  One of the things I love most about being a performing musician is my frequent state of situational amazement.  The places that I find myself, by design or pure chance but always due to my playing piano, have left me in slack-jawed wonder many, many times.  It brings often the privilege and variety of one living a princely life.  The month of this writing, I’ve been backstage at a Billy Joel concert, sat in at “New York, New York” Las Vegas, made a thousand bucks at one show, was treated to steak and oysters at a restaurant venue, and had a beautiful waitress tell me my ’73 Plymouth is totally cool.  I’ll take it, all of it.  

Of course for every state of grace, there are unconditional periods of depression  and depravity. (if you’re committed).  My experiences in these areas are best left to the workings of your own vile imaginations. 

The human condition.  Endlessly fascinating, beautiful, and sad.  At most times, I feel I’ve got the best seat in the house. 

While sitting at pianos in Chicago, I’ve been the target of many cruel insults.  “Go fuck yerself, you fucking American idiot,” spoken in loud saucy brogue by a beautiful young Irish girl when I played a Pogues song (apparently, an insulting one) to her request for Irish music.  Or the time a young many physically threatened me from behind as I played Tiny Dancer, yelling, “You’re a damn musician and you can’t play Porno for Pyros?!” (That’s just not right.)  Insults don’t just come from patrons, but bar managers too. “I can’t have you clear the room on another Saturday night like you just did, I’m sorry” upon being fired from a “high-class” piano room downtown.  And of course there’s the classic, “You suck!” but only on very special occasions. 

I’ve also been blessed to hear the sweetest of compliments.  “I wish I were you.”  “You must get truckloads of ass.”  “Man, what are you doing here?”  A hundred dollar bill in the ducat bucket.  The most beautiful woman in the room crashing my stage to sit next to me during a song.

The New Year’s Eve night when Vince Willis arrived at a musician’s post party, threw his arms around me and shouted to everyone, “This a bad mother fucker right here!  This.. a bad... mother... fucker... right... here!”  Whenever I remember that compliment I feel like I just took a hit of something.

The money isn’t all that great at most piano rooms downtown, and neither are the tips to be honest.  Of course I’m only one of many singing piano cats who do the downtown, and I don’t pretend for a second that I’m half as good as most of them.  I’m sure the guy doing Saturday night at The Redhead has got me beat by a mile. Tips after a straight piano gig downtown will always buy you your next meal, though.  Represent.

The actual piano itself in these piano rooms is different in every venue. Some pianos are grand, some are upright, some are electronic.  Some of the real pianos are exquisitely maintained and tuned.  Some barely register as furniture.  At the old Jay’s, I actually had to perform on an upright so dilapidated, it was virtually unplayable.  Keys were broken, the pedals were all busted and I had to keep my leg shoved into its cavity to work a wooden sustain lever inside. The challenge of being an engaging musician from one piano to the next is not easy and has tripped me up.  It’s hard to have mojo at a new or difficult piano.  Some players transcend the issue, they’re so good. 

I delight at being able to fulfill a song request, no matter what it is.  Okay, that’s not really true.  But my best metaphor for the songs I know is “gold coins in my pocket”.  Every song is like a gold coin, for its power to accomplish satisfaction and joy in the patrons, and especially, for to pay my rent. 

The question I am asked, second to most is ”How old are you?”  The question I get asked most? “What is your favorite song?”  And the answer is?  I have absolutely no fucking clue.  I can’t comprehend the question any longer.  What can they mean by “favorite song”?  How could I possibly choose?

The heights of obtuseness in some patrons are mind numbing.  Those who after hearing less than one song approach me to request “Piano Man”.  The delusional who believe their singing is music to the ears of others. (I might be one of those.) Those who insist on grabbing the mic, to which there’s only one response -- “Hey, I don’t come over
and knock the dick out of your mouth when you’re working.”  That so many attractive, sharp women choose to be with men who are preening Cha-chies, or dull rich vulgarians, is a staggering common fact in these Gold Coast lounges.   Or maybe that’s just a cheap shot.

One thing I’ve known forever and see all the time… money does not buy class.  The concentration of wealth in the Gold Coast makes it no more civilized or kind than any place else in the country.  All is vanity. 

But in these piano rooms, I’ve come across the classiest, most brilliant and brilliantly fucked-up, most genuine people on this planet.  Every night, I interact with new people.  I see many, many old friends and musicians along the way.  Very often, new listeners save me from a night of moribund masturbation at the keys with genuine smiles or bobbing of the shoulders to the songs I play.  I’m often astonished I get through to people, and it only happens all the time because people are open to feeling the blessing of a melody or favorite song. 

Music is magic.  True statement, know what I mean?  Singing a song is absolutely the same thing as casting a spell.  I’m always the Merlin in the room… trying new incantations, coaxing love, easing digestion.   Some of what I do is just trite hocus pocus, but I’ve also got Alakazam!  I’m a witchdoctor, sprinkling eye of Wayne Newton with a pinch of Toad the Wet Sprocket.  Potions I got; melodies, chants, snake oil, and the real shit.  Sometimes I’m the melancholy practitioner in the corner best just left alone.  At other times, I’m the master of the bacchanalia.   If a night turns pagan, I do know my responsibilities. 

So here I am, in my middle age performance years at the fringes and meaty folds of what’s called the Viagra Triangle!  Hmmm… that might be a good metaphorical indicator to heed.  Perhaps it’s getting time to arouse, erect and point my future path away from this tempting little triangle.  Chicago piano rooms, just like women… I think you can only love ‘em and leave ‘em for so long.

I’ll wrap up with one last sexist analogy.  (Why stop now?)  My career in the Gold Coast is like a lot of the women I see at Jilly’s.  High maintenance and long in the tooth, but still attempting to parlay a whore’s history into a lady’s future. 

Steve Kouba