Tuesday, November 27


From the Encyclopedia of Bad Ideas

Periodically, I post bits of my surreal efforts at humor, such as the ongoing Encyclopedia of Failed Ideas, and its younger sister, The Encyclopedia of Bad Ideas. This is the result of me asking the musical question (and not getting an answer), "Why piano bars, and not harpsichord bars?" Clearly I don't have enough things to do in my spare time. Nothing in this is real, save for Bach's lute-harpsichord, Henry Lim's Lego harpsichord, and a few of the Early Musicians mentioned:

From the Encyclopedia of Bad Ideas and Other Disastrous Mistakes, fourth ed. Lampwick: New Jersey, 1974.

Harpsichord Bar. Pioneered by Ralph Snodgrass, a public relations man and Bach enthusiast of the mid-1980s in an effort to cash in on the perennial popularity of the piano bar. Hiring a Hadyn impersonator and part-time rodeo clown named Gerald Becker to play the harpsichord at the first such establishment, The Plectrum on Wabash in Chicago, receipts dropped off abruptly after the first week. Market research realized that the acute lack of a femme fatale lying on top of the instrument crooning out torch songs was probably at fault.

For the right period effect, Snodgrass tried out a countertenor sitting on top of the harpsichord as there was really no room to do a proper Lauren Bacall sort of sprawl, but he wasn't quite the draw that Snodgrass expected, and mostly brought in slightly baffled musicology professors who exclusively drank milk. A soprano in a hoopskirt also proved to be a failure as she tended to engulf the whole affair like a teacosy, and midget contraltos were, at that period of history, scarce in the Midwest. A publicity event with early music star Monserrat Figueras also turned out to be a miserable failure after they experimentally suggested she sing lying at full length on the floor given their previous problems; furthermore, many of the smoky love songs that Snodgrass had put down for the night's program didn't fit the meter once translated into Old Occitan or Gallego-Portuguese.

A later publicity stunt, the infamous 1984 Theorbenflugel affair further doomed the idea. Rumor had it that Al Capone, an avid student of early eighteenth-century chamber music in addition to a violent criminal, had discovered Bach's original custom-built "lute-harpsichord" and put it in a vault located directly beneath The Plectrum. After a much-hyped and televised opening of the vault (in the presence of Geraldo and conductor Jordi Savall) on a University of Chicago public access station with a viewing audience of 6, it was discovered to contain only a few moldiering copies of Handel's tavern bills and a worthless bazooka intabulation of Watchet Auf transcribed by Spike Jones. This was lost for a time but eventually turned up on E-Bay about twenty years later.

Everything continued to go downhill after that. An attempt to fit a legless tenor inside the harpsichord resulted in OSHA briefly closing down the place for a short period in 1987 and a long series of nasty lawsuits. Finally, soprano-less, and after the El had ruined his fingering during a performance of yet another request for a rendition of "Watkin's Ale" from the drunk Buxtehude specialist at the end of the bar, Gerald Becker threw off his powdered wig in anger and stormed out of the bar. The Plectrum went for Chapter 11 the next week. Ralph Snodgrass later attempted to form a sackbutt trio in the hopes of producing a cover album of Lawrence Welk tunes, but died penniless in 1991. Becker briefly joined up with the famous Henry Lim in his pioneering attempt to build a harpsichord out of Legos but broke over creative differences. He is presently the resident artist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is attempting to reconstruct Bach's organ at Leipzig using Capsella toys.

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