The pipes, the pipes are calling

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2010

People might say they like listening to bagpipes. But I suspect many of them are politely lying.

Everyone sort of expects pipers at St. Patrick's Day (Which makes no sense -- Irish and Scottish cultures are totally different, for crying out loud!). And a memorial service with a piper playing "Amazing Grace" is as American as apple pie.

For the most part, though, I seriously wonder when folks are really "happy" to hear the pipes and when they're just being civil, knowing the piper can't possibly blow those things forever.

The piper, I suspect that, once he or she actually starts blowing, doesn't really give too much of a damn whether anyone in earshot likes it or not. Bagpipers love to hear the pipes. How else could they stand it unless they loved it?

I play bagpipes. Great Highland bagpipes. The really loud, annoying ones -- not those lilt-y, melodic, "Happy-go-Lucky" Irish uilleann pipes that everyone sees the little leprechaun dancing to in Lucky Charms commercials.

I play the tortured, neutered, left-out-all-night-in-the-alley cat bagpipes. The pipes that lead stout British commandos into the maw of battle, the sound of which was supposed to scare the goose poop out of the enemy. These are the pipes of real men. These are the musical instrument of men who eat haggis.

Arrgghhh . . .

Oh, yes, you may say you really do like hearing the Highland pipes. But how many of you have ever lived in the neighborhood of someone who's just learning to play them? You think the marching pipe and drum corps are so grand and powerful. But you never lived next door to the marcher in the last row center during those years when he first blew up the bag and gave it a squeeze.

I took my pipes to Sitka once on a business trip. I played them outside the offices of the Sitka Daily Sentinel to serenade (harass?) the newspaper staff.

Across the street was the Pioneers Home. An orderly dressed all in white approached me. I was prepared to be asked to cease and desist. Instead, he invited me inside.

"I think some of our residents would just love to hear you play," the man said.

Being a true piper, I happily obliged. I asked him where I should play.

"Just start here and we'll march down the hall to the day room," he told me.

I followed him down the hall playing "Scotland the Brave." Elderly folks slapped their hands to their ears and shuffled off in their slippers. One woman stood frozen in the hall, her ears covered and staring at me like Munch's "The Scream."

Some might say that the biggest drawback with the Highland pipes is volume control. There is none. It's just not possible. The pipes require a certain amount of air to make any sound at all. The piper can't blow any softer.

On the up side, blowing harder makes no difference; they can't get ANY LOUDER.

On St. Paddy's Day I used to tour the bars with my band buddies. Revelers wearing plastic green bowler hats and gripping glasses of green beer cheered when we marched in, blaring "Irish Washer Woman." Bartenders poured shots of scotch for us and we'd wander down the block to the next bar.

At one bar the crowd was so thick, I kept whacking some fellow in the head with my drone pipes and he'd laugh uproariously. The bass drummer could barely swing his mallet. The crowd cheers were drowning us out.

We finished our tunes and a woman clutching a half glass of green beer stumbled up to me.

"I just love the bagpipes," she slurred. "Hey, what's really under that kilt?"

Then her knees buckled. A man standing next to her wrapped her arm around his neck and led her to a stool.

I don't think she really liked the bagpipes. I think she was just being polite.

Larry Campbell is the executive editor at the Peninsula Clarion.

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