In years past, Curvacia and I would frequent a shabby Chinese restaurant known as The Plum Tree. Sandwiched between a vacant lot and a stack of crumbling meth labs, The Plum Tree was a floor-to-ceiling wonderland of wood paneling, glass curtains, and polished brass trim. A premium slice of untouched, 70's swinger chic.
But it wasn't just the stylish decor or expansive list of exotic cocktails that lured us back every week (although, to be fair, the cocktails were a HUGE bonus-- the Flaming Volcano Bowl was advertised as "for lovers only")... it was the velvet throat and nimble fingers of legendary pianosmith Mick Penny.
I had first encountered Mr. Penny nearly a decade earlier, when a surprise birthday dinner brought me to The Plum Tree for the first time ever. Our party was seated in one of the booths that bookended his piano, and he immediately launched into a woozy version of the Beatles' "Birthday," punctuated with casual winks towards our table and well placed, "Thanks for coming down here and sharing it with us." Everyone in the booth was hypnotized, rapturous. A naive Scary Manilow assumed his friends had hired the piano player specifically for his birthday. Little did I know that my chance encounter with Mr. Penny would blossom into a full fledged obsession many years down the line.
Fast forward nearly a decade. Curvacia and I were looking for somewhere to eat on a Friday night. She suggested The Plum Tree-- hooking me with a smile that said, "I'm letting you in on one of the best kept secrets in town." Turns out, they have this GREAT piano player who sits in once a week, and wouldn't it be great to dress up and get a table and act like his biggest fans? My face indicated shock and enthusiasm, I'm sure-- ten years later, and Mick Penny was still flying the flag. And here was someone else who not only knew about him, but wildly appreciated his existence! It was just this sort of shared Insider Knowledge that drew Curvacia and I together from the start, a love of hidden cultural artifacts that would go on to shape our secret personal mythology.
Week after week, we sat down with Mick Penny. The owners and wait staff knew exactly why we were there, and always placed us in booth directly across from him. While the other diners kept their faces planted firmly in their meals, we were sucking down drinks, applauding his talent, and hollering out loud for more, more, MORE. Mick would smile in our direction, give us a knowing wink, and let his golden voice croon us along "Moon River," carry us through "The Rainbow Connection."
We passed a few years of this, and then my Friday evening work schedule changed, and suddenly we dropped out of sight. Our next few opportunities to contact Mick were sporadic at best-- a recurring illness seemed to keep him away more and more often, and the restaurant itself was on wobbly financial legs... Sometimes, we'd show up, only to find the doors prematurely locked. It seemed our love affair with Mick Penny was drawing to its inevitable close.
We sat on it for a long while, then decided to pay him a surprise visit. We dusted off the old glad rags, packed a hearty appetite, and headed down to The Plum Tree for nostalgic trip down Penny lane. And that was when we got the horrible news: our waiter informed us that Mick was no longer performing there. The disgust on our faces must have been palpable-- an explanation was pouring from his lips before we even had a chance to ask for one. As he spoke, it became obvious to us that this particular waiter had some kind of personal beef with Mick Penny. His words were dismissive, even degrading, filled with the kind of dubious gossip and slanderous doublespeak normally reserved for dead in-laws or hated celebrities. Why we didn't stand up and leave right then is still a mystery. Perhaps it was shock that kept us glued to our seats, going through the motions of ordering and eating like fleshy automatons. We hardly spoke throughout the course of our meal, but something was acknowledged between us in silent, almost telepathic tones: Goodbye, Plum Tree. Your doors have closed to us forever.
The restaurant eventually shut down, and Mick Penny vanished into the ether. He once told us that he had a new gig playing for the residents of a retirement home near his apartment. Beyond that, superstardom, I have no doubt.
Just this week, I was flipping through the used bin at our local record store. An album cover caught my eye-- INTRODUCING NEITA AND THE DRIFTERS. It was one of those albums I typically melt for, a locally pressed, homespun vanity project, the kind of record that usually features a family jug band or a high school glee club performance. The band on the cover had on matching ruffle shirts and seemed to be posed in the basement of someone's ranch home. Members aged anywhere from the early twenties to mid fifties, and judging by their earnest smiles, I figured they came together through a church function or neighborhood potluck. The record was already destined for my shelf at home-- and then I got a look at the names.
MICKEY PENNY: LEAD GUITAR, VOCALS
I double-taked, read it again.
MICKEY PENNY: LEAD GUITAR, VOCALS
Followed my thumb from the name to the picture above it, and sure enough, THERE HE WAS, longer hair, a good thirty years younger, but dammit, it was him. Clutching a guitar and grinning for all he was worth. Mick Penny, piano superman.
The record burned my fingers all the way home, and when we finally dropped it onto the turntable for a spin it was as if time stood still. There was that same honey-dipped voice, coursing like a rush of opium from our speakers. His revved up cover of "All Shook Up" almost brought us to tears. I felt like we had somehow discovered the lost prologue to his life, like we had come into his song halfway through and never heard the opening notes until just now.
And so, Mick Penny: we hope you're playing your heart out somewhere tonight, and we will never forget our Friday nights with you. Thank you for sharing your music with us, and hopefully we can do it again sometime.