Politics at the Piano Bar

Somewhere in the archives at the Richard M. Nixon museum in Yorba Linda, California, is a photograph of Nixon playing the piano in the White House with his wife, Pat, sitting in the foreground, clapping and singing along to some popular show tune.

I was reminded of this scene recently while sitting stage right at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, listening to Alan Fine entertain a standing-room-only crowd with his own piano compositions as part of an evening of “Piano and Policy.” No, Fine’s wife wasn’t singing along. But Fine is an old-school Republican, like Nixon, and apparently a man of some intellectual depth.

In the lobby before the show, Fine campaign workers were hawking his book, an impressive-looking hardcover called Empower Your Self: A Framework for Personal Success.

But the Republican faithful who filled Jason McLean’s cabaret weren’t there for the reading—or for the policy discussion that would follow the concert. They were intrigued by the notion of a political candidate doing something other than campaigning.

“I love anything that’s different and out of the box,” said Barry Hickethier, a Northeast Minneapolis Republican who took a break from his own campaign against State Rep. Diane Loeffler to stop by. “Besides, if you have special talent, you might as well show it.”

Hickethier was one of an army of young Republicans who showed up for the gig, a turnout that seemed to indicate something of a resurgence in the city’s long-dormant GOP. When I asked McLean whether the event might cast aspersions on his own political leanings, he suggested that any assumptions would be futile. “I think I’m a Republican, but I just don’t understand Republicans,” he said.

He does seem to understand—and maybe even admire—Fine, whose daughter attends the same swimming class as McLean’s. “My first meeting with him was in a Speedo,” he noted.

You or him or both?

“He was in the Speedo. I’m more modest.”

How did he look?

“He was ripped.”

Fine does look pretty trim for a 44-year-old business consultant and college lecturer. He got a nice intro from one of his campaign workers, and made his way through the crowd like a president making his way down the aisle in the House of Representatives to give the State of the Union address.

But once at the piano, the maestro turned out to be less formal than the setting. “Don’t you feel like we’re on a music set?” he asked, as he surveyed the crowd.

But he quickly launched into “God Bless America” (this is a bunch of Republicans, after all) before sitting down at the keyboard and warming up with a little “Chopsticks” and a bar or two of “An American in Paris.”

“I didn’t write that,” he quipped.

By way of explanation, Fine said he’d had a dream last December in which his late father asked him why he hadn’t been playing piano. The incident sparked a series of compositions. “It was kind of an eerie feeling, a conversation between me and my dad,” he admitted.

The three short études that followed were parlor pieces, the sort of easy-listening classical music designed to produce a pleasant grogginess after a couple of glasses of wine. On number four, Fine said, “I think I’ll try to wing one without my music.”

Moments later, he changed his mind: “I think I’ll get my music.”

Much laughter and applause.

Fine played eight pieces in all, displaying enough virtuosity to convince the faithful that he was no piker. But the evening was dragging a bit. Three young men sitting near the American flag planted by the bar got up to leave. And when Fine asked, “Is it okay if I sing a song?” the applause was rather muted.

“Have you heard of South Pacific?” he ventured.

Polite silence.

“Well, I’m not going to sing anything from South Pacific,” he said, laughing, and he offered a lovely rendition of “That’s All,” the 1952 Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes love song that cropped up most recently on American Idol 5.

“I can only give you love that lasts forever . . . ,” he crooned, and I wondered whether maybe there would be a CD. But before I could ride that idea to its conclusion, Fine finished up with a spirited, “That’s all, folks.”

Later, Fine told me that it had been 15 years since he last performed in public and that he’d actually scheduled the concert before he decided to run for Congress. But he was happy to play during the campaign, he said. “It lets people know I’m a human being.”

I wanted to bring up the Nixon analogy, but I found myself distracted by the nearby presence of Jens Christensen.

Christensen, dressed this evening in cutoff denim shorts held up by thick suspenders, served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1965 to 1974, the year of Nixon’s resignation, back when Republicans ran the city. So I asked him about his reaction to the lively turnout of young Republicans and the polished performance of the city’s GOP standard bearer. Could we be seeing the resurgence of the Republican Party in Minneapolis?

He allowed that the crowd was “a good mix” but said it’s a conservative resurgence he was pining for.

Nixonian? I suggest.

“I’m more of a Gingrich fan,” he said.

And tonight’s piano player?

“I need to check him out more,” he said. “Where does he stand on abortion?”