Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hey is that a piano on a bike? -- Gary St. Frankenstein and his Pianobike

Gary St. Frankenstein on his Piano Bike in Dogpatch. 
It's hard not to smile when Gary St. Frankenstein, wearing his trademark ten gallon hat and Ray ban sunglasses, pedals his pianobike around our Dogpatch neighborhood playing music -- the kind of music that makes you want to start clapping and bobbing your head. And maybe even dance a little.

Gary and his bike have become a well known sight around the Bay Bridge, Ferry Building and sometimes outside the Giants ballpark.

He has appeared in TV commercials and an independent documentary as well as recorded music for an ad agency's music catalog.

Gary would rather his music and the spectacle of a piano mounted on a bike get all the attention than him. But we managed to get him to slow down and answer a few questions about himself and his piano.

Why do you do what you do?

Well the short answer is I love to hear how the piano music sounds when it is played outside by the Bay Bridge and the Ferry Building. I love how the piano music blends with the wind, the fog and the boat horns.

The longer answer is that I'm a self-taught musician and a veteran of several rock bands. The bands had record contracts with MCA and with Columbia Records and I spent more than seven years on the road touring with them as the piano or organ player.

Although I loved it I eventually wanted to stop touring so I became a screen printer at a sign shop. I worked with metal and wood to fabricate signs.

I loved my job but still wanted to make music but didn't want to go back to playing inside bars so I came up with the idea of a mobile piano. It took me two years to restore the piano and to figure out how to mount it on a bike. The bike is from a hot dog vendor.

I worked on this project part time but lost my sign job several years ago. I decided to try to make my living again by playing music but this time I'm touring on a bike.

Even though I played in bands and toured, I was always the guy in the back playing the piano. So I'm not real comfortable being the one in the spotlight. The novelty of a piano on a bike takes the emphasis off of me.

I play what I call saloon music or some call Ragtime because I hit a lot of pot holes when I'm riding around. That kind of music can take that kind of hit because it originated on old pianos that were hard to keep tuned. It was an acceptable sound for that old west era.
Contemplating the next tune.

Why Dogpatch?

My girlfriend and I really lucked out. We are from small towns in Northern California and we always wanted to live in San Francisco. When we started looking seven years ago we found this little neighborhood. It was affordable but more than that it had lots of sunshine and felt like a friendly place. We feel like it is our own little corner of San Francisco.

Who is another interesting person in Dogpatch?

A person I still think about even though he has passed away is a homeless person that I had a lot of contact with over the years. I had never met someone who had such a genuine inability to be insincere. He really cared for people. I learned a lot from him.

What is an interesting story that has happened to you in Dogpatch?

Well it may not be an interesting story but a memorable time for us in Dogpatch was to watch the activities that took place through the years at the buildings near our apartment. Dogpatch is getting cleaned up but it wasn't that long ago that hookers, drug addicts and other illegal activities took place pretty much around the clock there. We don't miss them!

What would you be doing if you weren't a street musician?

Once when I was touring with the band someone stole the organ I played. This was in Memphis. The police later found it in a bean field. I restored it and donated it to a local SF church where I play it for Sunday services.

So, I guess I will always be playing music in some form. But I must admit that I loved my sign job. It used many of my talents and I wouldn't mind having that job back.

And lastly, tell us about your name -- is it really St. Frankenstein?

Actually, the name of my piano is St. Frankenstein -- so named because I took an old player piano that had been left for dead in a field and brought it back to life with pieces that I either made or found. It has only 64 keys instead of the usual 88 but it is the perfect size for the bike.

My name is Gary Frank Skaggs.

Article Written by Patricia Kline, Photos by Scott R. Kline

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