The Magazine

Alicia's Keys

The dangerous combination of women and pianos.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Since my late teens I have had a deep fear of women lurking behind pianos. This is probably because of early exposure to the work of Nina Simone. Dubbed--not without justification--the High Priestess of Soul, Simone was an imperious, striking-looking woman who would take up her position behind her grand piano, compose herself for a few moments, and then bang out one anguished song after another. Her repertoire ranged from the lacerating Jacques Brel ballad "Ne Me Quitte Pas" to the heartrending "Wild Is the Wind" to the defiant "Mississippi Goddam." Most of the songs dealt with how horrible men were, especially white men.

A signature moment in Simone's show was when she would half-sing, half-expectorate the classic Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht tune "Pirate Jenny," a first-person account of an aspiring female buccaneer's desire to avenge herself on all the men who had ever done her wrong. Enthroned menacingly behind those mighty 88s, Simone would literally morph into Jenny, gazing triumphantly at a pile of freshly minted corpses, her eyes roaming over the audience in a way that made you feel she was addressing you directly. Even though I was still a callow youth, and had not yet done any women wrong, I already knew that, in the fullness of time, I would. So, apparently, did she. I can still see her lips curled into a vindictive, emasculating sneer as her eyes transfixed me: You bastard. You heartless, conscienceless bastard.

Had Simone been the only female keyboardist to provoke such an intense level of personal discomfort, my musical tastes might have evolved in an entirely different direction. Alas, she was not. Not long after I saw Simone I attended a concert given by Laura Nyro at the University of Pennsylvania's pocket-sized Irvine Auditorium. Like Simone, Nyro was a regal, emotionally distant type, sheathed entirely in black, a Bronx-based Morticia. Not all of Nyro's songs were depressing, and not all of them were about the man who done her wrong. But enough of them did fall into this angry, retributive category to make me feel uncomfortable, particularly as I was attending the concert with a woman who had good reason to believe I would one day do her wrong--in all likelihood, later that same day.

The Nyro concert sealed the matter for me, and from that point on, I tried as hard as possible to avoid women armed with pianos. Or let me clarify this by saying that I avoided female singers ensconced behind pianos; classical pianists like Alicia de la Rocha, Mitsuko Uchida, Hélène Grimaud, and the fabulous Labeque sisters didn't scare me one bit. Nor did singers like Janis Joplin or Tina Turner or Grace Slick or Carmen McRae or Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde or even Stevie Nicks, who never strayed very far from the mike stand. But if the female vocalist in question gave even the slightest indication that she was going to versify while tickling the ivories, she would have to do so without me. Whether it was Christine McVie or Joni Mitchell or Diana Krall or Alicia Keys, I gave them all a wide berth. I knew the hammer was coming down.

I am aware that my fear of women armed with pianos is an unusual phobia. Most people, if they fear musicians at all, reserve their angst for steel drummers or zither players or ironic a capella groups belting out "Purple Haze" and "Stairway to Heaven." More sophisticated types head for the exits at the first sign that the jazz quartet is revving up for the 19-minute bass solo on "Someday My Prince Will Come." Perhaps the most dreaded musician of all is the willowy male brandishing an acoustic guitar--the pop cultural equivalent of a mortar launcher--and warbling "Heart of Gold," "Horse with No Name," or "Tears in Heaven." Young men like these have made every ruelle, every piazza, every arcade, and every subway platform from 42nd Street to Montparnasse-Bienvenue a house of abject horror.

But here we are talking about amateur musicians--and amateurs, in and of themselves, are creatures to be loathed, feared, and shunned. The phobia that I am talking about, veering in an entirely different direction, embraces incontestably talented performers, everyone from Tori Amos to Blossom Dearie to Madeleine Peyroux to Norah Jones. Not for one moment am I suggesting that these women are anything less than brilliant. I am not even saying that I dislike them personally. I am merely saying that they scare me.