According to Radiohead, anyone can play guitar, but I beg to differ. I tried once, but just couldn’t get it. Years of piano-playing had wired my synapses and prejudiced my neurons, and I realised at fifteen that I would never be the hero of the hour, twiddling solos and cranking out amped-up riffs. I snarled with jealousy as I saw the cool kids rip the shit out of cheap six-strings, grinding their way through ‘Day Tripper’ and the latest Oasis plagiarisms; I purged my jealousy back home at the keys, murdering Chopin preludes and writing songs about cool kids ripping the shit out of…well, you know what I’m driving at.
In the nineties, pianos were a rare pop occurrence. They often turned up in Europop middle-eights – those chunky chords you always found in Italo-house records – but their wider use was more sporadic. Gone were the days of the (not then) Reverend Richard Coles banging out high-energy octaves in The Communards (I vividly remember Dad calling me in when I was six to watch ‘Don’t leave me this way’ on TV, a few weeks after I had played my first tentative notes in Mrs Henderson’s music room). Instead, the nineties saw pianos occupying a curious niche on Top of the Pops. At one end, there was Tori Amos, a music college escapee chewing up the scale-book in full-swing rebellion: she made pop piano look a bit scary actually. At the other end, there was Enya on a white grand with a load of red roses, apparently conjuring booming timpani and spectral choirs from the keys. Oh, and lest we forget, Liam Gallagher setting out to prove he knew the chords to ‘Imagine’. I sometimes wish he’d chosen ‘Chopsticks’; at least it would have been less predictable.
Now if I’d been alive in the seventies I wouldn’t have been short of role models. In the early part of the decade, Gibsons and Rickenbackers were decidedly démodé; it was all about learning to sit like Rubinstein with your eyes closed. And I’m not just talking about Elton, or Randy, or even Tom Waits, whose piano was fond of a tipple. There was a brief time when even non-pianists had to be seen on the stool. David Bowie appeared on Whistle Test miming to Rick Wakeman’s keys on ‘Oh you pretty things’ (Hunky Dory is a real piano lover’s record – the very first chord of ‘Changes’ sets the tone, and if that weren’t enough, there’s ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Life on Mars’). Joni Mitchell’s Blue, of course,is also awash with candid moments at the keys. The piano’s dynamic range allows for all sorts of moodswings that an acoustic guitar can’t quite express. Take Elton, a bipolar songwriter if ever there was – for every ‘Crocodile Rock’ (Liberace Elvis) there’s a ‘Rocket Man’ (still a beautifully heartfelt study of the fears that fame brings).
Sometimes one song can visit the whole gamut of overtones and still leave a great gap in the centre of the soundboard. Most astonishing in this respect is Laura Nyro’s ‘You don’t love me when I cry’, which really warrants a blog entry of its own. It’s a flesh wound of a song – one of the rawest – throbbing from tiny ache to fierce stabbing pain. It couldn’t have been performed on any instrument but the piano. Pedals and acoustics allow long decay; the bare, spare chords would have withered too soon strummed on the lap. Paradoxically, the grandeur of the piano allows for its very opposite. Its extremes, like Nyro’s, are wide. While it’s the most exhibitionist of all instruments – Horowitz rattling demonically through the Prokofiev Toccata – it’s also the most private, vector of the inner thoughts of corseted young women in Regency drawing rooms or Edwardian girls on the cusp of modernity. I always think of Lucy Honeychurch in A room with a view, who confesses to Reverend Beebe that “mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven. She says I’m always peevish afterwards”. Beebe’s answer? “Naturally, one would be…stirred up.”
This is the true power of the pianoforte. It’s all in the name – soft-loud – for it can indeed be two things at once. It can be the straight-laced spinster at hymn practice, or the guilty secret after hours. I’ll never forget the day I first played my own, hawked through the house at tight angles by my Dad and his radio ham pals. It was like Christmas morning; up with the lark, silently brushing my fingers over the keys so as not to wake my parents, anticipating days in the company of Mozart and Schubert. It’s almost as if I knew that this boxy piece of Victorian furniture would be an extension of myself: a second heart, a third arm. For years, it would be a kind of religion.
To be blunt, this is why Judee Sill’s ‘The Kiss’ brings me so close to tears every time I hear it. It’s the sound of the piano as lifeline; quite literally, as it happens, as Sill learned the organ at reform school after being busted for drugs and caught collaborating in a liquor store heist. Her life was constantly blighted by addiction on the one hand and public indifference to her talent on the other, but in the studio she wrestled with her demons and found her God. Even the most casual onceover of song titles suggests those organ lessons were evangelical in their effect: ‘Jesus was a cross maker’, ‘Crayon Angels’, ‘Soldier of the heart’ all have an air of Sunday school about them, though it’s a chapel in the sky with diamonds, and the worshippers wear Laurel Canyon hemp. No, strike that. It’s a congregation of one, in a bare, unfurnished room; just that plain, beautifully unadorned Californian voice and the purity of broken chords.
Sill isn’t always so spartan and fragile. She can even be jolly – the country picking on ‘Crayon Angels’ or ‘The Phantom Cowboy’ has a folksy, wooden floorboard feel, and the stacked harmonies of ‘There’s a rugged road’ create a community of song, happily sandwiched between rootsy Americana and gospel euphoria. But while she supported Crosby, Stills and Nash on tour, hers isn’t a music of moonshine and gin rummy on the porch; it looks, unexpectedly, to Leipzig. Listen carefully to ‘The Kiss’ – the long chord sequence that builds suspension after suspension – and you hear the unmistakeable animus of Johann Sebastian Bach in her fingers. It’s that seemingly contradictory marriage of logic and love that makes Bach so moving; or, perhaps more accurately, the logic of love that his music so miraculously communicates.
‘The Kiss’ is, of course, a love song, but it’s quite apparent that this is not romantic or sexual congress. It’s a ‘sweet communion’, and the song’s Eucharistic subject brings a whole realm of culture into play that pop music so seldom confronts. Yes, the love here is between God and servant, but it’s also very particularly female, I think (if that doesn’t sound too essentializing). Judee Sill is a Mary Magdalene figure, outside the law, but well inside Christ’s kingdom. Or else, she’s a moving version of a classic pieta figure in a Renaissance church. But this is also a love song between player and piano, between songwriter and song. The talk of crystal choirs appearing while she sleeps, calling her name, is a nod to the muse, and the ‘new song’ that is sung is her very own. Music is saving her life here – ‘dying is done’ – and the major key appears, a glimpse of a more benign afterlife beyond the struggle of mortal hours. It’s possible because of one simple gift: the ability to press your hands on the keys and play.
Song as transubstantiation, then; key changes are changes of state. But over and above my theories of musical transfer, another, even more undeniable fact remains: this is simply one of the loveliest songs ever written. I prefer the sparer Whistle Test version to the double-tracked, string-drenched album cut, though even then the original recording manages an astonishing feat, for at no time does the song veer towards the twee or lapse into schmaltz (and it could so easily have happened). I think this comes down to two things. Firstly, Sill’s undecorated voice has a toughness underneath it; it may be mousy, but it has teeth. And secondly, it’s that chord sequence, that well-tempered homage to the Kapellmeister; Sill’s own ‘musical offering’. I daren’t play it myself, though I know I could. I somehow feel I must build to it, and come at it with the wisdom of years hence. You see, I’m still learning, after all these years, after Mrs Henderson and contrary motion scales and rickety metronomes. As in music, as in life. It seems Judee knows this all too well; dying might be ‘done’, but the communion of song never is. Crayon angels sing thee to thy rest.