Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

My grandmother had one of those big upright pianos that echoed off the high ceilings of her Victorian house, medium-shiny black with white ivory keys, the kind many old-time Aspen homes kept in the living room. From an early age, I’d pound on that thing while the adults sat in the kitchen, no doubt admiring my proclivity for creating noise while adding emphasis to the thought that I should take lessons.

We were part of what some today, many without initiation, like to call the “old” Aspen. That mostly meant we were (unknowingly) land rich and (knowingly) cash poor. A piano for our Woody Creek house seemed an impossibility until my great aunt, Marie Stapleton, kicked in with a stash no one knew she had and – poof! – a nifty new spinet showed up in our living room one fine day.

Things are not always as they seem, and having beat on Grandma’s old upright with my siblings, I intuitively knew that my brother was the talented piano player, but for some reason (the oldest at 10?) I was the one chosen to take lessons. Just the first one, not the only one, but such reasoning is hard to comprehend for a 5-year-old brother. My sister figured in the fray, as well, but her interest was more in horses that could jump and run like the wind.

Could it have been jealousy, a cat in the night, or perhaps a drunken hired hand? Hard to say, but early in the journey with our pristine piano, strange scratch marks turned up in the middle range, amateurishly engraved into the brilliantly gleaming white keys, from F to F, a complete musical octave. This octave business indicated an inside job, and although I wasn’t sure about my brother or sister, we clearly knew that I hadn’t done the dastardly deed.

There was some unhappiness about this for a very long time, but no one ever caved, which should tell you something about the iron will of those with whom I shared a childhood.

Over the years, I’ve learned to put up a credible performance as a musician and don’t regret much of the time I spent practicing, even though I had to be cajoled most of the way. I’ve had some memorable gigs here and there, like playing the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, on the same stage that welcomed Oscar Wilde. Werner Kuster personally threw me out of the Red Onion when I was 16 (“Get out of here, you crazy son-of-a-bitch”) for sneaking up to the nightclub piano and catching the last of the closing crowd before they filed out. (Teddy Armstrong put me up to it with some earlier beers at the old bar. At my insistence.)

Country singer and yodel genius Buck Deane and I (and various musicians) played the Meeker Cattlemen’s Ball over the years with consistency, one time finding all four tires on my pickup truck flattened, with loose valve stems. It was later reported (by a friend of a friend) that it wasn’t the music that pissed ’em off, but the arrogance of the man spankin’ the piano that brought down the wrath. Personally, I think it was the cattle brand painted on the side of my truck.

The tragedy came in 1977, when my brother died, a victim of his own hand. It was a nightmare, which I’ve previously discussed in this column. But with a lighthearted view to reality, you can probably see where I’m going with this.

My mother gave me the piano in the 1970s, and the scratch marks have been worn off for years, entirely unnoticeable except to those of us in the know, so it was sort of a moot question when my sister asked in all candor, shortly after our brother’s death, if I was the one who had carved up the piano keys. For her, the issue has been settled. I’m still not so sure.