Today, as most of you will know, is the birthday of the
Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt.
Had he remained alive, and considering he began hard drinking
and heavy smoking while young and nearly died at 17, this was
always considered unlikely, he would now be 202.
And who knows?
There are many people out there who think Elvis is still
Why not Liszt as well?
Perhaps he has come back as someone else spectacular.
Maybe he is television's Dynamo Magician?
Liszt is important because he pretty much invented
rock'n'roll as we know it.
He broke pianos like Pete Townshend broke guitars, he had
long hair, tufts of which were torn off his head by
hysterical screeching women, who also placed Liszt's
discarded cigar butts not in ashtrays but down their
And he had the stage presence of Jimi Hendrix.
Women threw clothes, not raincoats or galoshes, at Liszt,
just like girls threw underwear at Tom Jones in the Dunedin
Town Hall in 1966.
As an unwilling child learning rock'n'roll-less classical
piano pieces under the tutelage of my grandfather, my
interest in classical luminaries was nil.
But Liszt was a different story.
The tales of his behaviour with the sacred piano, an
instrument he set out to destroy in every performance, and
told to me as an example of how never to behave, actually
finally aroused an interest in piano and pianists.
Maybe some fun could be had with this thing, which was about
as similar to a guitar, my desired instrument, as a tin
whistle to a full orchestra.
There is a legendary passage about Liszt by the esteemed
literary figure Moritz Saphir: ''Liszt is a kindly monster,
who treats his beloved - the piano - now sweetly, now
tyrannically, tears her to pieces with sensual bites,
embraces her, plays with her, pouts, scolds her, strikes,
grabs her by the hair, then hugs her all the more sweetly,
more intimately, more passionately.''
Well, I was 10 and had never kissed a girl, so this sort of
stuff was pretty useless to me in trying to make me love a
piano. But I loved the fact he broke them, constantly going
for that wonderful noise a breaking piano string can make
(listen to Horowitz, the man who briefly thought his hands
were made of glass, who breaks one 12min 58sec into this
and standing arms aloft at the end of his concerts with
broken strings at his feet and a replaced broken piano, or
two, on the side of the stage.
This is rock'n'roll, trust me.
Of course, Jerry Lee Lewis broke pianos, too, though he
tended to use his boots, not his hands.
The arrival at our house of a sonically slightly faulty
piano, the faulty bits being items I would pay serious money
for if they came in a sound effects pedal, has seen me go
back to the piano with, if not love, then at least a genuine
I have accidentally found many YouTube clips that can teach
me to do all sorts of things, not that they have so far,
because I am, 'ow you say, completely without talent.
The basic vamping boogie at the root of Jerry's anthemic
Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On is broken down
simplistically by a patient and slow-moving Italian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKSPUhAmQak
- but I play it like a brow-furled parrot.
No feel at all.
Jerry Lee Lewis has feel, because he has played southern
American boogie piano 10 squadrillion times in 12
squadrillion different degrees of drunkenness.
For him it is like breathing: I have the feel of wood you
find in street skips.
But I have been trying to learn Jerry Lee sober.
I have been given a YouTube link where Jerry teaches Jools
Holland how to boogie.
I thought Jools already knew.
I will buy some rotgut whisky and have a crack at this late
tonight when all the lights are off.
And when it is still Franz Liszt's birthday.
It is never too late to pout, scold, grab by the hair and hug
• Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.