THE MORDEN TOWER PIANO

This piece was written for an Almanac event at Newcastle’s legendary Morden Tower. It was performed by David Raynor with an amazing group of musicians. The piece is inspired by a true story about an itinerant piano wandering the Newcastle streets for decades. It features the brilliant poet North East Barry MacSweeney and it is dedicated to that great lover of ruined piano’s, Ross Bolleter.

I did the first reading, and also worked there with Ginsberg, Bunting and Creeley, which I’m very proud to have done, as well as many readings with Tom Pickard and other talented natives. The thing I remember most about it was the piano. The old piano was found dying in the tower. When the audiences got bigger the piano went outside on the wall. It then began falling apart, aided by mischievous hands. Eventually it was distributed along walls and in the street, like mad sculptures behind those pongy factories that used to vibrate through the readings”
Pete Brown

 

Here we are gathered at a requiem…We sit with our coils of piano wire, our rosaries of grief…we sit with ivory in our fists and we remember the night they found a piano half dead in this tower…

Buckled and splintered, rheumatic and damp, draped in boogie woogie sheet music and dozing like a bag lady…

They dragged her outside where she filled up her lungs and cobwebby guts, and coughed out an asthmatic burst of mangled Rachmaninov like a curse…

Like a fuck you to the waiting scrapman who gave her a once over, laughed, and left her to rot in the Newcastle night…

Old bones clacking, the weight of the world on her shoulders, she shrugs and settles down for a kip, her breath caught in her wires, her dampers seizing up with rain…

The ruined piano dreams of the days before she came to rest against the wall… What songs she played in the old days!

Parlour songs, nursery rhymes, ham fisted lullabies, chopsticks…

Thumbed and fingered, fisted, dabbed, caressed…Scott Joplin and Jerry Lee…Russ Conway and Mrs Mills…

A cigarette butt tossed in her dark heart by a drunk ignites her shadows…her embers glimmer…Who knew that old pianos were the gateways to the pit?

Echo chambers, resonating with grieving hymns, the mournful lament for the dead…

Awe and horror, wonder and derangement fill her heart and soul…Ghost fingers tickle her ivories, pluck her strings…

Where you there when the pit band gathered round and played the Miners Hymn? Trombones and trumpets catching the glint of constellations and lighting up the alley…

And when they walked away at dawn they draped her in a gala banner and left the boom of the marching drum behind, like a gift to the piano of a beating heart…

One night when no one is listening, the wild eyed poet MacSweeney presses her broken keys…feeling her bones creak as she swoons and murmurs a muted lullaby…

Up on the moon like graffiti or Esperanto, words of love are traced…

 

            like the sheet music on heaven’s bed that describes loves sweet embrace…

 

And the sky is an old blue raincoat draped on the shoulders of his love…

 

            On the night when he falls for an old piano and sings to the moon above…

And in the pubs of Newcastle – without ever knowing why – old men fall in love with old women, knitting their stubby thumbs between elegant piano fingers…

They breathe deeply, lulled by music seeping from the piano, aching with carnal desire, locked in the geriatric burlesque of lust…

The pop of a bottlebung bangs like a bullet as two drunken lovers on a blind date rip each others skin off and make love against the piano, black and white keys rattling loose beneath their banging backsides, unleashing lusty shanties…

The piano’s timbers splinter beneath the weight of their passion, discarded underwear funds its way beneath her lid, a silk stocking binds her pedals together…

Did you touch her in summer when the sun cracked the varnish on her skin…her patterned panels disintegrating, growing old and frail…

In autumn the dark is like rum and molasses when MacSweeney, dripping fever and blood pours a pint of malt whiskey into her belly, the night crawler, spouting Baudelaire, ‘Every joy is superabundant and likewise every pain, every anguish is deep and intense…’

Her rain warped maple timbers become a Harvest festival basket full of apple cores and spat pips, the damp loam of matted hair balls and dusty clutter sprouting into tiny orchards…

Charcoal and kindling, glimmer and crackle lit by Catherine wheels and roman candles…

Winter rain rolls down her veneer like tears when MacSweeney, black-eyed, battered, hoarding half full bottles in the piano’s hidey holes, disappears at break of day…

He falls inside like Orpheus, descending into the labyrinth and deciding to remain there in her womby depths, the grottoes of her belly alive with mythic wonders…

The lovelorn piano drowns her sorrows in her guts like a sack of wriggling kittens…

The mad men and gamblers playing pitch and toss against her pedal board, filling her up with fast food cartons and half eaten sausage dinners hasten her demise…

When MacSweeney returns she’s nearing her end…the wild haired bard muttering skipping songs of mackerel and Polaris and hitchydabber on Vinegar Hill, climbs out of her grottoes and pushes the old piano further into Gallowgate

He lifts her on to his back, a lover’s burden that breaks his bones…

Etched into her varnish with a six inch nail are the words, ‘Music – being identical with heaven – isn’t a thing of momentary thrills or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.’

The obscene bird of night pecks at her eyes as she waits patiently for her dying day…

The broken and wounded piano trembles before death, her splintered timbers entwined with interlacing spirals of bindweed…The bestiary of birds, beasts and fishes inside her, bright as burning Gospels.

Melancholy sonatas, ragtime, boogie woogie, burst from her echo chamber as a phoenix rises from her nest of spices, the stench of moth ball and camphor filling the air as she breathes her last…

No one knows who killed her, plunging the weapon into her heart, leaving her to die the death that only old pianos die, lonely in back alleys, struggling to breathe, desperate to utter their own requiems before they die alone…

The night of her murder MacSweeney falls to his knees and sings a murder ballad, crouching down in the dirt…

Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell…

           

            when your hangover is clanging like a cracked cathedral bell…

 

and the night is as bleak as religion and damnation falls like rain…

           

                        but you’ll never see your love again in this city full of pain…

Her broken body lies dead in the gutter… he leaves the murder scene, stumbles away…

Did MacSweeney destroy the piano? Or was it a rival lover consumed with jealousy. Was it the one eyed Creeley, stabbing her in the night? Who killed the Morden Tower piano? Which one of us gathered here tonight dealt her that fatal blow? No one will ever know…

After her death her body is scattered throughout the city…

On Dog Leap Stairs, drunk MacSweeney, mad with grief, stoops to pick up a fragment of piano key, like an ivory knuckle in the gutter…

He watches in disbelief as a diaspora of piano keys migrate northwards, an ivory pilgrims progress, perhaps to reassemble in a place where old pianos are still loved…

All over the city MacSweeney finds the scattered remains of his lover…

Out to the mouth of the river her side panels float, dropped off the bridge by a stag or a hen stumbling back to Gateshead…

In the Crown Posada, guilty fingers in overcoat pockets are fingering ebony keys…

In greasy spoon cafes and betting shops, men who have murdered parlour pianos are reflecting on their shame…

What is a city but its people? And what is a city but its disintegrating pianos, dying their lonely deaths in our back alleys..?

Here tonight in Morden Tower the mourners gather and listen to her requiem, clutching relics of piano keys and coiled piano wire…

And they are thinking, ‘We have to look after our old pianos because without us they will die…’

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