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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #472
The Wayward Pianola
David Gunn

Georgi Steckmanos was a fearsome kingpin in the Greek mafia of the early twentieth century. His business enterprises--such as gamboling, loan-quarking and destitution--permeated the daily life from Agrinion to Zakinthos, and most every Greek community in between. Steckmanos made a lot of money; he also made a lot of enemies. To deal with the latter, he surrounded himself with a retinue of bodyguards, including suspending at least two of them overhead at all times. Even when he met with his supposedly trusted underlings, he never appeared without several inflatable body doubles present. His precautions worked. The national Greek police force estimated that he survived four hundred and eighty-one assassination attempts. The four hundred and eighty-second, however, was a different story.

Steckmanos also maintained a pool of floozies--Socratease, Epicurious, Pythagorgeous, Beauclid, Platomato--with whom he spent many hours conducting "market research." During one of these sessions, he discovered that Platomato was an accomplished pianist. She had attended West Athens College of Musettes and graduated summa cumbaya with a degree in Greek folk music. There was, however, more to Platomato than met Steckmanos' ogling eye.

One day, she was performing a rembetiko for him on the parlor piano, no matter Steckmanos had booby-trapped it with all sorts of defensive ordnance. But he assured her that if she played only the white keys, no harm would come to them. She batted her big (they were half a meter wide, at least) brown eyes at him and patted the space next to her on the piano bench. And he willingly sat down beside her. The rembetiko was the music of the downtrodden, the Greek equivalent of the blues, and Platomato was pouring her heart and soul into the piece. Steckmanos was patently moved, and he abruptly bade his bodyguards leave them alone for a while. They protested, and only obeyed when he inflated one of his overly protective body doubles.

The music hit an especially emotional peak--quite a challenge when all of the black notes were taboo--and then, according to Beauclid's tell-all autobiography, four things happened in rapid succession: Steckmanos jumped up in the throes of passion, Platomato pressed the Bb below middle C and ducked, and a solid-fuel rocket launched from the wrest plank straight into the little crease between the flabbergasted kingpin's peepers.

As Platomato escaped through a secret passageway in the armoire with the inflatable doppelgänger in hot pursuit, a most remarkable transmogrification occurred. Instead of blowing him to smithereens, the rocket turned Steckmanos into a form of kinetic energy that was instantly absorbed by the piano. By the time his bodyguards had broken down the door and re-secured the room, the piano was already "haunted."

Bruno Kazantzakis, a middle management hoodlum from Crete, assumed control of Steckmanos' empire. Like his predecessor, he surrounded himself with hired muscle and libertine floozies. But unlike Steckmanos, he reviled music, and he ordered the piano be moved out of the house. That, however, was easier said than done. When the team of movers came for it, the F# above middle C depressed itself, activating the depth charge catapult. The resultant explosion splattered shards of movers all over the walls of that and an adjoining room. Kazantzakis was a trifle uneasy when he discovered that the piano was undamaged. Unease turned to downright fear when it began to play by itself. It was a dismal approximation of a rembetiko, but the symbolism was lost on Kazantzakis. As the Cretan bolted for the door, an Eb minor arpeggio dispatched a dozen poison-tipped kubotans in his direction. Only one hit its target, but one was enough.

Mafioso after mafioso attempted to take over Steckmanos' kingpindom, and each met a similarly deadly fate. By the time Platomato--still dogged by that pesky inflatable doll--slipped back into the room through the armoire's secret door two years later, the piano's weapons had all been discharged. She calmly slid a dolly under the piano and wheeled it out of the house and into a waiting van. The van delivered the piano to a cargo ship, which sailed at once for New York. As bizarre as it may seem, things were proceeding according to plan.

Platomato's real name was Ruby Primavera, and she was a marketing consultant for George Steck Pianos of New York. Her company's products had typically merited only a "satisfactory" rating by the pianoschenti of the world, and she had been given the task of correcting that perception. But she soon realized that the perception was based on fact--the pianos simply didn't measure up to the Steinbecks and Wurlitzers of the era. On the other hand, America was eagerly embracing the new millennium's player piano technology, and Ruby saw an opportunity for the company's growth in that arena.

How she figured out that a similarly named mobster from overseas might lend his essence to the post-pneumatic technology of what became known as a "reproducing piano," thereby revolutionizing the pianola industry, may never be known. But as soon as the eccentricities of the Greek thug's parlor piano were incorporated into the design of George Steck Pianos, its player piano division quickly became hugely popular. And while the piano rolls may have sported titles like Moonlight Sonata or Gaspard de la nuit, the performances invariably took on the bluesy color of the rembetiko.

The color of today's 472nd episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar is more sepia-toned than blue, the better to reflect the tonal leanings of an in-studio tunesmith who presently awaits with apprehension the opening salvo of indelicate queries from Damian and especially Kalvos.