I used to play at a dueling piano bar, which I suppose isn’t obvious based on how often dueling piano bars are proposed to me as an exciting new frontier I should explore. I usually lie to be polite and thank people for the exciting new suggestion rather than admit I tried and it wasn’t for me. It’s best to stay positive. I’ve been too honest before and it bums people out to be reminded that music is still a job, with varying levels of dignity and fulfillment based on what position you get, just like everything else.
Dueling piano bars are as such: Two huge pianos onstage, set up opposite each other. Multiple pianists, swapping out strategically so they can sustain party vibes for sets that run up to seven hours, ending as late as 2 or 3 AM. Every single song built around singalongs, audience participation, and the purchase of expensive alcohol. Depending on who you are this is either the platonic ideal for the concert experience or the musical equivalent of a monster truck rally - though everyone can agree it’d be improved by the addition of actual dueling. It is certainly a good time for the people who enjoy it, which sounds redundant until you realize there are things you can’t quite describe that way (documentaries, sleeping, Bon Iver).
Rum Runners is the name of the dueling piano bar in my area, on Moore Square in Raleigh, NC, not far from The Pour House and what used to be Tir-Na-Nog. It’s vaguely tropics-themed in a way that appears to have zero impact on their branding, and you can walk straight past the bathrooms into a dance club lit just a little too well. I briefly worked at Rum Runners but didn’t hang around long enough to reach a paid position, mostly because I could tell it would break my spirit long before it paid my bills. I hadn’t even heard of half the songs we were supposed to play but the audience liked me because I was cute by dueling pianist standards. All that really meant was I wasn’t old enough to have let years of alcohol and caffeine dependency melt my body like a candle. It’s a draining lifestyle - gamers get claw hand, wrestlers get cauliflower ear, and dueling pianists age like Meatloaf.
It’s a time responsible for many surreal performance experiences, but none more surreal than my brutal murder of Bohemian Rhapsody five feet away from an actual crime in progress.
I was doing my trial ten or fifteen minutes behind the starboard piano when the request came in: Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody. The big one. The next pianist, a seasoned veteran eager to push the newbie towards greatness, asked if I could play it.
I only knew the first three minutes of the song, and I figured it would take any audience roughly three minutes to come to the same conclusion. But we’d been encouraged to embrace mistakes in the training process.
So “Sort of” was my answer. He suggested I take it. I took it. The audience cheered in excitement as I started, oblivious to the disaster that lay roughly three minutes ahead.
“Mama just killed a man.” “I wish I’d never been born at all.” A guitar-less guitar solo. Three minutes passed in no time at all. Time flies when you fear the future.
My eyes squeezed tight with shame, savoring my last moments of human acceptance, I finally reached the bridge I didn’t know (“I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me”). Only a few chords in I could already feel a palpable tension and confusion taking over the room. The singalong stopped. My face got even redder. I can’t tell you exactly how I handled the rest other than banging messy chords at vaguely the correct rhythm and trying to act like it was intentional. I finally got to the next section (which I could actually play just fine), and was heartbroken to find that not a single person was still singing along; the show had stopped dead in its tracks. I’d ruined the moment. I’d ruined the song. I stepped down, defeated. “Okaaaaay then,” the next pianist said into my ear before getting onstage and doing his job correctly.
A few minutes passed. I nursed my pride in the corner where the audience couldn’t see me. Finally I came over to my boss, who’d been kind enough to have me on and likely needed to be reconvinced of my worth.
“That was so embarrassing,” I said. “I really lost the audience there. People stopped singing along and everything.”
“What?” he responded. He seemed distracted.
I leaned in to reiterate my apology and suddenly noticed the flashing police cars by the sidewalk, right by the huge windows behind the stage. Was I THAT bad? I wondered.
“What’s with the police cars?” I asked.
My boss explained that, in the middle of my rhapsody (right at the bridge, in fact), some people had gotten in a fight on the street right behind me. A real fight. A bad fight. A who’s-going-to-clean-the-blood-off-the-sidewalk fight. The police got called; the police showed up; the red and blue lights went up behind me right when I hit the second guitar solo (how metal is that?). Freddie Mercury himself would’ve lost the audience’s attention.
I short: I couldn’t have asked for a better diversion. Or a worse one.
“Oh,” I finally responded. “I… I wondered why no one was into the singalong. I thought it’s because I messed the song up.”
“What?” my boss said again. “The song? It was great. You’re fine. You can go home for tonight but we’ll see you next week.”
I walked back to the parking deck alone, weaving through streetlights and midnight strangers, moral compass spinning wildly trying to glean some meaning from the night. I tried to figure out what was worse: not knowing a bridge or being so consumed by your own role that you miss a human event happening right behind you. I decided they were both bad and that whatever shame I felt was better than none, and started brainstorming ways not to embarrass myself next week. I don’t think I ended up going the next week after all, which in retrospect covered the issue quite well.