Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Pianos lost in the music of fire

Pianos lost in the music of fire

Composer Allen Deaton plays a burning baby grand piano while swinging on a 16-foot pendulum during the making of a music video for Deaton's song titled "Passion Flame" Wednesday, August 30, 2015 at Deaton's home in New Hill.
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Composer Allen Deaton plays a burning baby grand piano while swinging on a 16-foot pendulum during the making of a music video for Deaton's song titled "Passion Flame" Wednesday, August 30, 2015 at Deaton's home in New Hill.

For a year, Allen Deaton collected the battered pianos nobody wanted, hauling off uprights gone hopelessly out of tune, dragging away warped antiques with broken legs, dumping them all in a corner of his property he calls “The Graveyard.”

The pianos sat on Deaton’s grass collecting spiderwebs and leaves, a spruce-and-ivory Stonehenge. One sad wreck still had stickers on the keys around middle C, where it taught little fingers to play.

Then on a hot Wednesday night, Deaton strode out into his yard wearing a coat and tie and lit all 36 pianos on fire – a musical blaze that rose 20 feet high.

I watched purple smoke fill the air. I heard the twang of strings snapping. And I watched while Deaton climbed onto the contraption he had built just for this fiery occasion: a 16-foot swing with a baby grand mounted on a pendulum. As the flames rose, he began pounding on the keys while dousing the soundboard with kerosene.

Then he climbed down to watched it all burn.

“I feel like a big kid on a big playground,” said Deaton, 54, sweaty and out of breath. “I’m living the dream. I’ve got to keep pinching myself.”

What I witnessed in New Hill qualifies as neither vandalism nor pyromania. Instead, I’d call it an insistent act of art – wholesome enough that I let my 8-year-old son, Sam, run around the scene with a camera.

There is, of course, some back story.

Losing the upright

Last spring, I reluctantly decided to abandon what I consider a family treasure: a massive upright piano made by Becker Brothers in New York in roughly 1920.

I inherited it from my parents, who in 1982 rented a U-Haul truck and drove 300 miles to Dubois, Pa., fetching it for only $100 complete with a bench. It wasn’t valuable in terms of dollars, but both my sister and I had pecked out songs from the John Thompson books on its brittle keyboard, and my mother used to sit and play the old soul-gathering hymn “Bring Them In” from our red hymnal, swaying comically from side to side.

So I kept the piano when nobody else would, even when a tuner explained that the soundboard had cracked, and it would cost me $5,000 to make it playable again.

Finally, by the time my son sat down to his first lessons, half the keys in the lower octaves wouldn’t make a sound at all. So I sought a graceful exit for our 800-pound friend. I couldn’t bear pushing the piano into the landfill.

Finding a graceful exit turned out to be trickier than expected. Plenty of people will move your piano. Hardly anybody will haul it away and keep it. In a week of searching, I found only one such person: Deaton, aka “The Piano Man.”

He explained that he normally removed pianos at no cost, but mine was so large he would have to charge me $300. No problem, I told him.

But when Deaton arrived at my house with a pickup truck, a hand cart and a helper, and began yanking keys out of my piano and handing them to me, I had to ask:

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Well,” Deaton explained, “I take them all out to my land where there’s a horse pasture, and then once a year, I have a big bonfire. I’m a composer, and while they’re all burning, I set up my own piano and play some of my original works.”

I stood there gawking at him. Would Deaton mind if a newspaper columnist tagged along, and maybe snapped a few pictures of this?

Not at all.

I met Deaton on the horse pasture last month, and I found my old Becker Brothers there in the pile. All of the keys were pulled out, and the wood had turned gray in the sun, but I could still read the serial number on the harp inside: 118726.

It sat in a jumble of overturned instruments, their guts exposed to the sun, ants crawling over the wood.

“I don’t feel bad about burning these,” Deaton explained, “because I literally save hundreds of pianos from the dump. These are the ones I couldn’t save.”

We sat in Deaton’s pickup while he played a few of his original songs, all of them recorded in his living room, where he has a baby grand and a pair of synthesizers. He turned the volume up loud and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, eyes closed, and explained the genre he created.

“I call it 21st century progressive-classical-hip-hop-rock,” he said.

We listened for 30 minutes until Deaton played the song he’d chosen for the piano fire, the song he planned for a music video he hoped would go viral.

“It was called ‘Spirit Wave,’ ” he told me. “I’m thinking about changing the name: “Passion Flame.” What do you think?”

I told Deaton that sounded good.

A ring of fire

On the night of the big fire, I arrived at the horse pasture to find that Deaton had arranged a dozen pianos in a semicircle around his giant swing, the front row of his audience.

He placed guitarist Mark Abbott just to his left, about 10 feet closer to the fire, a position he protested more than once.

“I get the feeling we’re going to have to run out of here real fast,” Abbott said.

And while the videographer, Tom Sylvester, set up his camera on a crane, Deaton asked his friend Haywood Judd to slosh eight gallons of kerosene out of a bucket, turning my old piano into musical kindling.

“I’m going to change my clothes, Bro,” said Deaton, “and when I come back, we’ll be ready to light ’er up.”

The flames were just flickering when Deaton returned in a satin shirt and skinny black tie, so he stuffed cardboard boxes into the pianos to feed the fire.

Once the wood caught, each piano in the semicircle sprouted its own torch. So Deaton climbed onto his perch and told Judd, “Give me a push, man!”

For about 30 minutes, Deaton swung across the flaming ring air like the heir to Jerry Lee Lewis, hunched over the piano, his tie dangling onto the keys.

Foreheads started to sweat. The fire had now burned completely through the pianos, showing flames on all sides. Keys tumbled to the ground and sizzled.

“It is really getting hot,” said the guitarist. “I just can’t take it.”

Deaton kept playing over the sound of crackling wood, screaming for another push as his fingers flew over the hot keys.

At this point, my son Sam decided to weigh in, having watched the whole spectacle from a safe distance.

“You are crazy!” he shouted. “Say goodbye to the cruel world!”

Deaton climbed down as rain started to fall on his keyboard pyre, rubbing smoke from his eyes.

“I could have played longer if I had goggles,” he said. “This is like adult-kiddie pyroland. Jerry Lee Lewis meets Moe, Curly and Larry.”

I hope Deaton’s video does go viral. I will do everything in my power to make that happen. And to my old Becker Brothers piano, I hereby dedicate this Viking funeral – a flaming tribute to music made and yet unplayed.

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