Oktav (the Story of the Harpsichord)

Stephanie’s instrument was recorder so from the outset it was evident we needed a harpsichord.  My experience with music told me that if you had the instruments, the musicians would appear, a kind of magic. So if you had a guitar, for instance, everyone with an illusion of being the next Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens would show up in your living room. Given our new interest in Baroque and Classical, best would be to dispose of the guitar. I passed it along to my daughter Gretchen. She at nineteen was visiting Spain for the first time.  She fell out with a bartender named Pedro and smashed my guitar over his head.

There are exceptions to the guitar rule. Once, in Ibiza, we carried volumes of Loeillet and Handel sonatas and triosonatas and our set of recorders. It was a sort of fishing trip.  We had been told there were many musicians on the island, and that no one was doing what we were starting on Mallorca.  We speculated that either we could lure some to Deya, or we could branch out. 

Lacking a harpsichord – not one could we find on the whole island – we persuaded  an American  with a twelve string to play continuo with us.  I wrote out the chord progressions.  He had a friend who had dropped out of the classical world in Philadelphia who played cello, and they practiced together. An English flautist lived in San Antonio,  obsessively practicing scales and arpeggios over his cistern. When we drove up to his house with our guide – everyone seemed to live at the end of a dirt track, no running water, no electricity – he was in the outside toilet, sure enough, practicing arpeggios in an impressive manner.

We found yet another, a Californian who left the States after being caught smuggling gold coins in a flashlight.  He would take out three of the five batteries and replace them with gold. Ed was his name, and he swore that when the cops in  Tijuana grabbed him, he was turned over to some federal agents who offered him a deal.  The deal was he was given a cover job in Amsterdam working for Shell.  He would cross into eastern Europe on Shell business and smuggle people out with false passports and credentials.  The old Shell game he called it.  His nerve gave out at Checkpoint Charley in Berlin.  He got through, but when he got back to Holland he high-tailed for points south, with his wife Cassandra.  He never listens to me, she complained.

He played the viola, and in a pinch, if you will, violin.  He preferred to play hoedown stuff, but could still remember from high school how to read, more or less.  The violin didn’t sound very good, since he had replaced that troublesome E string with nylon. But by an amazing coincidence we had one piece by C.P.E Bach for bass recorder and viola, accompanied in this case by the twelve string and cello.  Thus placated, we convinced him to fiddle on a couple of triosonatas.

We gathered for practice at the house of Nicola.  She earned her living weaving macramé though – goodness gracious – she had an oboe in the house and knew how to use it. Her husband was the guitarist, so they now had a new form of entertainment, something pretty scarce in the boondocks.. 

There appeared to be one small snag.  All of the musicians we rounded up got together in a sort of pow wow and refused to play unless Juan could join in. Juan yet another member of the tribes dispersed over the island. He had to sit in with bongos. Juan was a Basque doing wood block prints. His Scottish wife Leslie sang Eastern chants. They lived in a concrete tee-pee built on top of one of those circles used in other times for making charcoal.  They had decided there was an Atlantean layline underneath their dwelling, though the water had dried up a zillion years ago.  I explained that it was a bit unorthodox, drums being used in earlier Renaissance music, but not in Baroque.  We had no choice but to give in, and to tell the truth, Juan gave that added kick to the music. 

It was a somewhat harrowing week of rehearsals.  No one was quite used to meeting a schedule.  Those who did arrive brought their stash with them, and we all smoked a peace pipe or two before the first note.  Sometimes the oboe had to take the part of the flute, who presumably had not yet finished practicing his arpeggios, which by the way he would not need.  Six-eight time seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle to the guitarist, but made for interesting  rhythmic hiccups.  The flautist refused to play if marijuana had been smoked in the room, claiming it dried up his embouchure and made his flute stick to his lip.

When Sunday came around, caravansary arrived from the scattered settlements. The native locals showed up in the Seat 500’s curious about the posters Juan had printed on his hand press.  It showed a long haired girl playing a flute with the hands in the wrong position, a man with what seemed to be a bottom heavy double bass between his legs, rather like bowing a camel with its head over the shoulder of the musician, if you can imagine that. Konzert with a K, hoping to attract a German or two, always good for a few pesetas in the collection.

In the front row was the English comedian everybody in England knew by sight, and his unfortunate daughter who wanted to be playing.  I convinced the family that she would never play the recorder, seeing she was missing two fingers on each hand from birth.  I believe they accepted my advice and bought her a trumpet, and I hope they regret having that in their house – though it is infinitely more acceptable than a drum set, which seemed to be the only other alternative.

So you see we were trying to drum up some students while we were here.  We could come over once in a while, move in with a family and teach what we knew.  A few other children and teenagers were scattered around the church.  The Ibicencs sat close together one one side, the women mostly in black, heads covered in traditional scarves, a dressy lace shawl down the back.   The men were gathered outside, smoking and shouting at each other.  In order to get everybody’s attention and begin, I pulled out all the stops on the organ, asked Ed to pump air into the bellows and blasted what was the most discordant noise I ever experienced.  It did the trick, however, and the guys outside stamped their Ideales on the top step and hurried into the church.

We started with a Handel sonata with continuo, and a spell fell over the folk.  The savage breast, and all that.

Encouraged, we tried again in another village, minus the bongos since that was market day and Juan and Leslie were selling their olives and singed cactus fruit in the capital.  It didn’t matter much.  This time  only four nuns showed up, and all but the mother superior left before the end, I suppose to pray in the cloister or whatever.  I did notice that in the middle of the triosonata they rang the bell almost continuously, which brought a few old ladies who seemed to be annoyed that we were occupying the altar.

At that time it was difficult in Spain get hold of a harpsichord. In Barcelona they were prohibitively expensive.  There was one man on Mallorca at the time who was looking for guinea pigs who would pay him to learn the trade of building instruments.  You could buy a kit from New York or London and put it together, if you are of that persuasion, or have him do it.  After the first one, the customs would still be prohibitive. To judge from the one Zuckerman I had met personally, it would not do for concerts in the church. The soundboard was plywood and would not move if struck with a hammer, let alone vibrate to the tinny strings which seemed to be breaking just before reaching pitch. The plectra were also temperamental, and wood jacks did not like the humidity on Mallorca.

De Blaise made a harpsichord reputed to be what we needed.  It was reinforced so that we could safely transport it on top of our Morris Minor. There were pedals for changing registers.  You could have 4 foot or 8 foot separately or combined. There was one for sale in a London shop, which we tried out together on a playing trip one Christmas to Bishop’s Stortford. Six hundred and fifty pounds it was.

How we happened to be there is another story, another day.

When we got back to Mallorca, Stephanie handed me her grandmother’s diamond ring, appraised in London for a little over £1000.  There was a French group going up to Brighton in the spring for a concert with Gong.  They agreed to take me along for the ride, and to bring me back with the harpsichord.

The year before I was the pianist with Gong, playing in the Canet rock festival outside Barcelona.  That was my first big concert with Daevid Allen, and it is what turned me toward classical music, once and for all.

In Florida I had played in an Eagles type group called Travis and Barlow.  We made one album, played a few presentation concerts in Tampa, Orlando and around.  We traveled in a black hearse.  The tracks used for sliding coffins in and out was very useful for the speakers and other heavy sound equipment.  It was a fairly genteel group, though we were all infested with crabs.  Everybody in the group had a tube of Qwell on hand, a product I had never heard of.  But sharing hotel rooms, alternating groupies, and just sitting in the car guaranteed you would be crawling with them sooner or later.  The recording studio itself was a hazard.

The album did not sell, the group disbanded.  I thought, never again would I get involved with a pop group.

But Daevid with his psychedelic rock and Flying Teapot was a different kettle of fish, if you will permit me  that implicit pun.  He was a meditator.  He magnetized water on the terrace of his house up the Clot, a floating needle telling you when it was ready to drink.   He had us improvise with delicious full echo in the phones, over his basic free falling lyrics, or underneath, since he had us get stoned, gave us a key to play in and said go ahead.  Later he mixed it all.  No credits.  No pay.  Stephanie playing bass recorder and me on silver flute both appear on some of his tracks, but nowhere does he mention our collaboration, except on his wife’s album “Mother”. 

Stephanie and I still had no harpsichord, but a friend in Puigpunyet had one, wo we spent an afternoon there – thanks Tony – and I played chords basic to Greensleeves, which Daevid manipulated nicely for the tale of Taliesin.  (By a weird coincidence he has more recently been collaborating on film by one Stefanie Petrik! At first I thought it was a misprint on the web.)

But on tour, you would get paid, he said. 

Canet Rock was the first tour after his album Now is the Happiest Day of Your Life, you would recognize it because on the cover you see him with one finger in his ear, the other up his nostril. Canet was the turning point in my musical life.

We arrived at the scene (of the crime, I was about to add) just at sundown.  It was a long road kept dusty by the passing vehicles and we were driving into the sun.  Just above us a helicopter was hovering, kicking up even more dust.  That was Deborah Harry and Blondie arriving in style.  Her caravan was waiting next to ours, as it happened.  Their stage crew and instruments had to arrive by safari same as we did, through what seemed a desert storm.

Our set was scheduled an hour or so before Blondie.  They were popping champagne and other products one uses to get wasted, lots of screaming and yelling in the vicinity, fans or artists who knows.

By the time we were set up on the back of the stage, the  field was filled as far as the eye could see.  Canet was billed as the Woodstock of Catalunya, and you could almost believe it.  On stage was a single figure sort of moaning into the microphone in front of her face.  Nicole she was, I learned, playing a harmonium, pumping with her feet as she sang. Who’s Nicole, I wanted to know.  And why are twenty thousand people sitting quiet on the ground listening.  I could barely hear her where I was, with monitors on both sides.

“The Velvet Underground,” I was told.  My shrug indicated I never heard of it, her. At the time I occasionally listened to Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens.  In fact after Frank Sinatra, there was a great hiatus in my listening: I was brought back briefly by the Beatles after 1968,  dropping everything which had anything remotely to do with the pop world.

A good move I now believe.  While Nicole was lamenting whatever it was she had lost, perhaps her band? I stood in the backstage shadow observing a different show.  A young girl sat spreading her legs at the top of the ladder leading to the stage.  She was on her own trip, masturbating while a group of stagehands urged her on. That spectacle ended when a pair of guys appeared with a stretcher.  They were Red Cross, now chasing the girl out of sight through to the parked cars.  The last I saw of her she was ducking under a van. 

Nicole finished and left the stage, a smattering of applause at her back.  She didn’t seem to care.

I moved my Fender Rhodes into place and checked that the volume was up.  Daevid moved forward in his Zero the Hero suite, a green coverall.  The rest of the band flung a noisy chord at the crowd.  I tried to ignore a ruckus behind me, but the sound of cymbals crashing and the uttering of flying tomtoms were impossible to put out of mind.  It seems that Roxy Music thought they were next, so did Blondie.  Blondie tossed their drums off the back of the stage.

Daevid started with our first tune, and I tried to move to the beat, both hands spread over the simple-minded chord changes. While Daevid sang of the Oily Way through outer space, an alien stood at the front of the stage.  Daevid paid no attention.  But the alien, he had to be one, dressed in black leather boots, black leather trousers, form-fitting black leather jacket and a black leather fedora stood at the edge of the apron.  He unzipped, lifted out his tool, and smiled happily as he pissed into the front row of fans.  There was a bit of scrambling in the immediate vicinity, but otherwise, not a ripple through the crowd.  When he finished, say twenty-four bars later.  He zipped up and lifted his hat to the crowd.

That was it. 

Never again.

Just the thought of all those people lying about,  tossing bottles at each other, thinking they were participating in group ecstasy was enough to turn me around.  I was overwhelmed by disgust.  The whole point of the event seemed to be take people back to the age of primitive ritual and mass hysteria.  Probably on Monday most of them would be in an office, imagining they had had a wonderful exaltation of the spirit, recounting it so to the unfortunate friends who didn’t go to the concert.

Not my scene, as we said then.

But I still had one more ordeal to go through before I was free of the collective madness turning the world into a zoo in which the animals were outside the cage. 

Daevid had a gig in Stonehenge on midsummer night. He had a new formation for the English tour, which included a French contingent.  There was a stop in Brighton after Stonehenge and then to the ferry. I arranged to join them,  with the understanding that I could load the harpsichord in the van on the way back.

Crossing the border from Spain into France and from France onto the ferry to England were scary moments for me.  Jean Pierre  concealed his lump of Morrocan hash in the most obvious stash, under the ash tray in the dashboard.  No dogs, he said, no problem. 

We arrived in Stonehenge in the middle of the afternoon, and it was Canet all over again.  Mud instead of sand, but the same.  To find undisputed parking was nigh impossible.  The chain link fence to protect the ancient stones was apparently new that year, and everyone was grumbling about it.  To get close to the hallowed ruins and observe the peeping of the solstice sun through its niche was unlikely, hope beyond hope.  There was a lot of commerce of leather goods, natural foods, homemade instruments.  Acoustic guitars, autoharps, and dulcimers knitted folk into small bands.  Lautists dressed in Renaissance garb floated amongst the gathering, hawking folios of questionable Provençal poetry.

When night came, campfires showed how puny we all were, in comparison with the grand expanse of universe above us.  The singing and plucking became more hushed, and peace descended upon twenty-one thousand hippies and bourgoisie.

That brief blink of the sunrise may have been extraordinary to druids, but it was anti climax after the motorized travails which brought all of us here to a barren plain.  Within an hour, the exodus was underway, the blaring of klaxons replacing the jigging of Norwegian fiddles of the night before.  Time Square itself never had seen a thicker gridlock.

Pierre dropped me off on the edge of London where I would do my Baroque business. Later  I would join them in Brighton for the gig at the university.  Not that I was afraid that Pierre would forget me and the harpsichord on the way back to France.  I trusted him at least as far as I could throw him.

On the way up through France I had formed a pretty good picture of his moral character.  As we passed through the orchards at dawn, he spotted a green van, same model as the one we were in.  The van in the orchard was a storage shed for farmers.  The van we were riding in had the sliding door completely wrecked from a broadside accident, tied shut with nylon rope.  A switch was made in the blink of an eye, to the sound of larks trilling in the fields.

In London I was expected by a certain Rex, a dedicated amateur harpsichordist living in Hampstead.  We had played together in Deya.  After every tune he would say, “We must be so thankful for music!”  He put me up and directed me to potential instruments.  He didn’t like the de Blaise I had set my sights on, but never mind, I ended up with that instrument.

We tied the harpsichord securely in the back of the green van.  As soon as we were off the ferry in France, the hashish was lifted once more from under the ashtray and the kilometers flew softly by as we cruised toward the south. 

The first stop was north of Bergerac, in the countryside.  This was a commune of about ten adults and various children.  They lived from vegetables and chickens on the land.  There was a large A frame which was the center of the commune, and here we installed the harpsichord so it wouldn’t cook in the parked van.  The dining hall was full of noise of children and women shouting at the children.  The food was a steaming soup of turnips, potatoes, carrots, and leeks.  The great black loaves were sawed against the chests of the men with knives which could have served for the Maquis guerrillas.  The wine was dark, with foaming bubbles, the pride of their endeavors.

When we finished dinner, I returned to the main hall to find the harpsichord under attack by several curious children and adults.   A couple of boys were plucking the strings with fingernails or guitar picks.  A woman perhaps twenty years old with a long pigtail was banging out Jerry Lewis chords in triplets.  One string in the upper register had snapped and curled around the tuning peg. Some of the jacks had been lifted out.  Luckily they were numbered, so I could put them in their right places.  A child or six or seven was underneath. Pressing the pedals for changing registers. They pedals made a loud noise when released from their notch.

I waded into the mob and pulled a couple of the kids away.  I lowered the lid and shoved Pigtails off the bench and closed the keyboard, locking the instrument tight.

I found several versions of this story dated from 2013 to 2016. This is the most current one.