The summer of 1976 will be long and warm and full of surprises. My work is cut out for me. I stash my big crate of music next to the piano and start playing songs that I like and songs that I hate, thumbing my way through fake books, trying to find tunes that are a good match for my musical limitations.
This is good. This will work. This sounds hideous. This one, that one. I’ll try anything. Sit up straight, curve my fingers, keep the thirds out of my left hand, don’t rush.
On my very first night on the job, about eight minutes into the first set, a customer offers to buy me a drink. My knowledge of alcohol is limited to the time I drank half a fifth of vodka at a high school party and allowed my football-player boyfriend to take off my bra, after which I spent the next three days throwing up. But the first night at the Club Car, wanting to be hip and sophisticated and above all polite, I accept the offer of a drink from the first sunburnt man in a yachting cap to offer one. He’s drinking a dreadful concoction called a Godfather—scotch and amaretto on the rocks. I place the full glass, brimming over with ice cubes, on the top of the piano, and watch it overflow as the ice melts. An hour later there are six drinks there, lined up like ducks swimming in a little lake. Men keep sending drinks and I keep not drinking them.
In my second week of work, I discover the tip jar. I stick a big brandy snifter on top of the piano, with a decoy dollar in it. When someone offers a drink, I smile, say I’m too young to drink legally, and glance longingly at the tip jar, which I call my College Tuition Fund. Works like a charm. Some nights I collect more money in tips than I do in salary.
It’s easier to sing and play at the same time. I’m not a great singer, but I’m not a great player either, so one thing cancels out the other. Each day I walk through the foggy Nantucket mornings to the bar, practice for two hours, eat lunch, go to the beach, go for a boat ride, or play tennis. Then I slink back to Mrs. Dunham’s house, scrounge around for food in the community refrigerator, take a bath, and coordinate my wardrobe for the evening. My female roommates are very helpful in this area. Most nights I arrive at the Club Car looking like beach-blanket Barbie.
Maybe it’s my wardrobe, maybe it’s the amount of alcohol being consumed by the Club Car customers, or maybe it’s my enthusiasm for my job—but for whatever reason, they like me. The restaurant itself is spacious and quaint in a “yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum” nautical style, but the bar area where I play is an actual railroad car. It’s long and narrow, as railroad cars tend to be. When the bar fills up with customers, I must squeeze between the tables to get to the piano, which is stuffed in the back of the railroad car, next to the restroom. The Club Car bar is no place for chubby people. But this is good. Lino will never be able to get back here to fire me.
My audience consists of two distinct groups of men. Drunken sailors and artistic gay guys. I’m accepted by both groups, although I prefer the gay men, who show up on Thursday nights. The gay guys come to hear my Bette Midler tunes and give me fashion tips; the drunken sailors come to look at my cleavage and see if my tube-top falls off.
I call my Dad for advice. “Should I go around and listen to other piano players to get ideas about what to play?” I ask. There are more than a dozen piano players working in various restaurants and bars on the island.
“No,” he says. “Play what you want to play, then you won’t sound like everyone else.” This is great advice for several reasons: First, I can’t sound like anyone else even if I want to. I’m not good enough and I know it. Second, it’s more fun to play the music I want to hear.
“If you like what you’re playing, the audience will like it, too,” says Dad.
People jabber and laugh and drink and smoke like chimneys. They scream insults at each other across the bar, trade dirty jokes, eat heaping plates of calamari, seem to pay no attention to the music whatsoever, and still manage to absorb just a little of what I play. They clap, they don’t clap. They give me tips, they send me drinks. They make requests, they don’t.
I feel powerful. I watch every evening unfold, knowing that the songs I sing and play might guide the night in any possible direction.
I take little American flags with me to the gig. It is, after all, the bicentennial year. I pass the flags around, and we have tremendous fun singing the “Marine’s Hymn” and “Anchors Aweigh.” On Thursdays the Kate Smith impersonators show up, so we always finish the evening with “God Bless America.” There’s nothing better than a large group of gay men marching in place, waving flags, and singing “God Bless America” at the top of their lungs. Pure heaven.
Then there’s my serious side. When you’re eighteen, you’ve got to have a serious side. I learn as many Carole King songs as possible. Carole is my idea of a serious artist. About a month into the gig, I have most of the Tapestry album memorized. I fool around with some standards I like—“Skylark,” “Laura,” “Old Cape Cod”—and begin writing my own material. I go in a dozen different directions and have fun with all of them. I hit lots of wrong notes and forget lyrics halfway through songs, but no one notices. Or if they do, they’re drunk and polite enough to let me slide.
I narrow the field of eligible young waiters down to one guy. His name is Joe and he’s a business major from the University of Pennsylvania. He’s from a Philadelphia Main Line old-money family. I’ve got the honor of being the first girl he dates who is not in the social register. Joe has been going out with debutantes. I lure him to me by singing a Keith Carradine song called “I’m Easy” while he’s picking up his order of Singapore Slings at the bar. I look him right in the eye, sing the song, and it’s a done deal. I don’t have a Blue Book listing or a pedigree name, but I’ve got the blond hair, the pretty dress, and my secret weapon: the piano. Aha! My ability to play the piano, once a source of embarrassment in my early teenage years, can help me get the things I want, even if I’m not a debutante. Joe’s parents are aghast as they watch the heir to the family fortune fall for a scantily-clad bar pianist with a following of flag-waving homosexuals, but they try to be nice to me, really they do. I put up with their condescending smiles because I’m nuts about their son. It only bugs a little me when they insist on introducing me to their upscale, lockjawed friends as Robin Meloy Rawsthorne, of the Pittsburgh Rawsthornes, a trained concert pianist.
Yeah. My ancestors were the lounge act on the Mayflower.
Mrs. Dunham, who really wants to believe she’s running a chastity training center, goes into Code Red Alert when she realizes I have a steady boyfriend. I sneak Joe in and out of Mrs. Dunham’s windows several times, but then I start to feel guilty about tarnishing her sterling reputation. So Joe and I spend most of our days and nights at his parents’ home, a lovely shingled house up on the cliff overlooking Nantucket Sound. There are eighty-three wooden steps that take me down the cliff to the water. On the roof of the house is a widow’s walk with a view of Nantucket Sound that goes on forever. From here you can see everything, and nothing. In the evenings the sky turns shades of purple and orange, and I think about music even when my fantasies are full of teenage love and dreams and desires.
I play and play and play. I’ve grabbed hold of the opportunity presented to me by Lino Tambellino, and I’m not letting go. I started the summer—three short months ago—as a girl, but I’m more grown-up these days. The piano has smoothed the rough edges of this transition, and continues to guide me through the labyrinth of adult choices I need to make. My music, influenced by the rhythmic slapping of the waves and the sensation of the coarse Nantucket sand as it passes through my fingers, seems a flawed—but somehow perfect—soundtrack for my journey, which is just beginning.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.