As a pianist, I have played in a lot of unusual situations. Accompanying magician, Fay Presto, on stage at a magicians’ convention in Southport, despite having been temporarily deafened by the firing of a starter pistol which was part of the show; topping and tailing the weekly burlesque shows at a “colourful” Fitzrovia venue, which was a little “crazy” (that’s a clue for locals); a fetish club at which, as pianist, I was the only one fully dressed…and a Los Angeles spinning musical roundabout, not recommended for pianists who suffer vertigo.
I was in LA visiting friends and researching my book, Bowie’s Piano Man, about ten years ago. Whilst there, I was recommended to meet a certain Ivan Kane, an actor who ran nightclubs such as Forty Deuce in Las Vegas and Royal Jelly Burlesque Club in Atlantic City. He was opening a new venue in Hollywood and was looking for a pianist.
I met at his home with Ivan and his wife, Champagne Suzy (I know, you couldn’t make this up). Ivan and Suzy were warm, friendly people and we hit it off immediately. They became big fans of my playing and booked me in for a few nights straight away, as I was due to head back to London the following week.
The new venue was called Café Was. It boasted a fascinating neon sign outside, which bore a clue to the odd name. It was a salvaged antique sign whose letters had once declared “CAFÉ ALWAYS OPEN” but several of those letters were no longer lit, revealing the name Café Was. The location was by the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, or in the local vernacular, at “Sunset And Vine”. Bowie fans will have a fond awareness of these three words which feature in the lyrics of his song “Cracked Actor” – and with good reason, given the narrative of that song. Suffice to say it’s an intersection which has never been known for its propriety.
The grand piano, a classic 1924 Mason and Hamlin, was in the centre of a circular interior with mezzanine floors looking down from rounded balconies, much like an old style of circus, or perhaps bordello. I had been warned that the piano would slowly rotate. I was relieved when I sat down and played a few songs, during which the only thing which was moving was the music.
Half way through my fourth song, I was offered a glass of wine, and placed it on the edge of the piano. Half way through my fifth song, I felt an odd sensation, as the glamorous couple in mid-prandial ecstasy who had been sat on the first balcony just above, at the end of the piano and in front of me, seemed to have moved a few metres to the left. Now there were new faces coming into view. The piano was on a circular wooden platform which was creaking into action and revolving, much like those features in the drive-ways of luxury houses which allow cars to be turned around easily in a limited space. It was gradually accelerating. I kept playing but could see the meniscus of my wine swaying slightly. I tried to focus on the rapidly receding faces. It was still picking up speed. I wished I hadn’t had the lobster bisque before playing. I felt like I was myself now in a giant soup bowl, or perhaps a fish bowl, which a child from the land of Brobdingnag was gently spinning, with gleeful malice. Somehow, I found myself playing Noel Harrison’s Windmills Of My Mind: “Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”
The aptly named burlesque supremo, Mr. Kane, was keen for me to remain permanently in Los Angeles and play nightly at Café Was. For a variety of reasons, that was not to be. But I do sometimes recall that carousel of kitsch, and wonder if this adventure really happened…(it did).
Clifford Slapper is a musician and author of Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson.