Tuesday, 7 November 2017

One night at Harry's

 Alun Williams

Jack on the rocks

 I never knew anyone could smoke so many cigarettes and still have the ability to play piano like he did. Maybe cancer doesn’t affect the hands. I don’t know if that’s correct ‘cause I’m not a doctor, but his fingers, stained desert yellow from years of nicotine abuse never lost their magic. By the time he reached thirty he was thin, gaunt and looking twenty years older. I can honestly say I never saw him eat anything more that a whisky sour on the rocks. It was his staple diet along with sixty Camels a day.

Johnson "JD" Browne never usually talked much to customers; I don’t think he had the energy after his shows, but one night when the winter snows had almost closed the city down, he sat down at his piano at Harry’s Bar and played the show of his life to me, Walter the barkeep and an old black drunk called Smithy.

None of us had anyplace else to go or anyplace else we’d want to be. We were the scrapings at the bottom of the barrel, each one of us with more than a hundred reasons to be there and not one to stay at home.

He didn’t have to play that evening, not to an almost deserted bar, but he lit one cigarette, took his jacket off and played. Piano keys will never be played like that again. I think he must have smoked a hundred cigarettes that night and drank at least fifteen whisky sours. He played anything and everything from jazz and blues to ragtime and Mozart. Walter the barkeep only sold me and Smithy one beer each, because we couldn’t drink anything else for fear of missing a single note.

At the end of his show, he gave us the best rendition of “Strange Fruit” I ever heard and I saw Billie Holiday sing that at Café Society and thought I’d never hear anything sweeter. I was wrong.
After that he joined us for one last drink. He drank Jack on the rocks with a twist of ginger, a single no more, no less. I told him it was the greatest piece of piano playing I’d ever heard. He shrugged his shoulders, wiped his sweaty brow and lit another cigarette. He said one word, “Thanks”, put his coat on and shuffled out into a Chicago winter.
I guess no one knew what really happened that night, but a mail man found his body early next morning, three blocks away, frozen stiff. He had a smile on his face and a half smoked Camel between his lips.

No one plays piano at Harrys’ bar anymore.
One night at Harrys’


I never knew anyone could smoke so many cigarettes and still have the ability to play piano like he did. Maybe cancer doesn’t affect the hands. I don’t know if that’s correct ‘cause I’m not a doctor, but his fingers, stained desert yellow from years of nicotine abuse never lost their magic. By the time he reached thirty he was thin, gaunt and looking twenty years older. I can honestly say I never saw him eat anything more that a whisky sour on the rocks. It was his staple diet along with sixty Camels a day.

Johnson Browne never usually talked much to customers; I don’t think he had the energy after his shows, but one night when the winter snows had almost closed the city down, he sat down at his piano at Harry’s Bar and played the show of his life to me, Walter the barkeep and an old black drunk called Smithy.

None of us had anyplace else to go or anyplace else we’d want to be. We were the scrapings at the bottom of the barrel, each one of us with more than a hundred reasons to be there and not one to stay at home.

He didn’t have to play that evening, not to an almost deserted bar, but he lit one cigarette, took his jacket off and played. Piano keys will never be played like that again. I think he must have smoked a hundred cigarettes that night and drank at least fifteen whisky sours. He played anything and everything from jazz and blues to ragtime and Mozart. Walter the barkeep only sold me and Smithy one beer each, because we couldn’t drink anything else for fear of missing a single note.

At the end of his show, he gave us the best rendition of “Strange Fruit” I ever heard and I saw Billie Holiday sing that at Café Society and thought I’d never hear anything sweeter. I was wrong.
After that he joined us for one last drink. He drank Jack on the rocks with a twist of ginger, a single no more, no less. I told him it was the greatest piece of piano playing I’d ever heard. He shrugged his shoulders, wiped his sweaty brow and lit another cigarette. He said one word, “Thanks”, put his coat on and shuffled out into a Chicago winter.
I guess no one knew what really happened that night, but a mail man found his body early next morning, three blocks away, frozen stiff. He had a smile on his face and a half smoked Camel between his lips.

No one plays piano at Harrys’ bar anymore.

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