Charlie Farmer: Piano Man
A life in rondo
“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man / Sing us a song tonight / Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody / And you’ve got us feelin’ all right” – Billy Joel
Oak Street Café: Sunday, 10:15 a.m. There is nothing like using a fork in one hand for digging into a plate of huevos rancheros while keeping time on a biscuit with the knife in your other hand as Charlie Farmer belts out a George Gershwin tune on his piano a few feet away.
At one table to the left, two professorial types are discussing the merits of Tulane University building an on-campus football stadium as opposed to discontinuing its football program altogether. At a table to the right, a Loyola University student asks his buddy that perpetual college question: “What did we do last night?” And then there’s the young woman sitting at a table on the sidewalk. She looks like Mrs. Rip Van Winkle, having gone to sleep at Woodstock and awakening 40 years later: frizzy red hair all held together in a tie-dyed something-or-other, a well-worn copy of a Kurt Vonnegut novel on the table and a satanic-looking black pit bull with what looks like an anchor chain from an oil tanker around its neck sleeping at her feet. A guy walks over and offers the dog a strip of bacon from his plate.
“No thank you,” the Janis Joplin look-alike says, “He’s a vegan!”
The dog looks up, gives the young woman a “what the hell?” look and drops his head back to the pavement with a thud and a supremely disappointed sigh.
All of this where chocolate-tipped turtles and buttermilk drops once reigned.
“You gotta love it,” Farmer says as he gets up for a break and a trip outside for a smoke.
Decked out in black pants, green shirt, red tie and black-and-white tennis shoes, Charlie Farmer is the ultimate hippie come in from the cold. And when he sits behind the piano in the corner of the little cafe on Oak and Dublin streets, in a former McKenzie’s Bakery, he holds court and he holds the eclectic crowd together, be it a chilly rainy Sunday morning or a sunny Wednesday afternoon.
No doubt the 58-year-old Farmer is loving it.
Farmer is one of those souls that go where the wild goose goes, seemingly away on a cloud somewhere, spreading his own brand of cheer through the keys of his piano to diners and coffee sippers every day at this Uptown eatery.
It is Gershwin one minute, Etta James the next and maybe a Sinatra number after that. Who cares? Whatever you get, you’ll get Charlie Farmer’s best. And that ain’t bad.
And just about anybody who walks in with a trumpet in his hand or a violin in the crook of his arm can join in. A middle-aged woman in a summer dress, white gym socks and strap-on shoes sidles up to the piano and belts out an old Billie Holiday number.
Farmer smiles and picks up accompaniment without missing a beat.
It is just another day at the office for the musician who was born in Tulsa, a place that, he’s first to admit, isn’t exactly a hotbed of musical passions.
Still, Farmer was smitten early on.
“I was about 4 and I remember every time I passed a piano I started banging on it,” Farmer says. “So they [his parents] bought me one for Christmas. A little bit after that I got lessons for a few years. I played saxophone in school and real loud, bad guitar in the garage when I was in my teens. That’s when I realized that I was a piano player.”
Like a lot of guys who find their happiness on a keyboard, Farmer kept one ear to Tulsa radio, absorbing the influences of Fats Domino, Bob Dylan and the rockers of the then-English invasion. He fell in love with the sounds of John Coltrane and Charlie “Bird” Parker. When he wasn’t emulating those guys, he was expanding his horizons by studying the likes of Edgar Varese, the innovative French composer, and Luciano Berio’s folk songs.
“Music became everything to me,” Farmer says. “Music was my voice.”
While playing gigs around New Orleans with the likes of Charles Neville and Wayne Bennett, the tentacles from those musicians pulled in the influences of Bobby Bland, Boxcar Willie and John Lee Hooker.
Armed with those influences, Charlie Farmer set out in 1986 for Athens, Greece, to pursue his musical fortunes. He spent the next 20 years of his life in the Aegean isles, playing music and getting married in the process. Then he returned to a Hurricane Katrina-devastated New Orleans in 2006.
“When I got back to New Orleans after the storm, I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have an instrument. I went to work finishing floors and doing any kind of manual labor I thought I was good at. Of course, the city was really messed up, but it gave me a lot of work.”
“But all that work was messing up my hands,” he continues, “so I kinda backed into restoring and tuning pianos. That and playing music with people like Delfeayo Marsalis, Uganda Roberts and Tim Green, it was perfect for me.”
Farmer lives in a basement apartment in the Garden District. He has 12 or so pianos lined up for refurbishing and tuning. And he rides his bicycle up St. Charles Avenue to work at the Oak Street Café, at the job he took when he returned to New Orleans “for tips and food. I never thought it would turn into a full-time job, but that’s what it is.”
Farmer makes a vague reference to the erstwhile former skid row capital of Camp and Julia streets and of being “falling-down drunk.” But he says just as quickly, “That’s all in the past. There’s no way I would ever go back to that … My music is just too important to me.”
Farmer avers to “still being legally married to my wife back in Greece” and about the following he’s garnered at the Oak Street Café over the past five years.
“I’ve made about 200 or so friends here,” he says. “I love to see them. I really enjoy it when some of them come in and play along with me. I’ve come to love this neighborhood and this place and I’m seriously thinking about moving Uptown.”
Charlie Farmer drops his cigarette into the gutter and straightens his tie. “I gotta get back,” he says with a smile. “They’re callin’ for me. Somebody asked me for a Louis Armstrong number earlier. I gotta get rollin’ on that.”
The guy at the outdoor table gets up to leave and “accidentally” drops a strip of bacon from his hand. The black pit bull snatches the bacon from midair and looks up at the woman at the other end of the leash. He gives her an “ahhhh vegan this!” look then plops back down to finish his nap.