It is happy hour at Madam’s Organ, a round or two before the early birds get rowdy. The stereo blasts Leonard Cohen’s voice (“like a drunk in a midnight choir…,” he croaks) at full volume. The bartender lines up shots for the handful of regulars at the Adams Morgan blues joint that slouches on a sloping block of 18th Street above Florida Avenue NW.
A man shuffles awkwardly through the door; he clutches a plastic bag tightly, as if it were filled with gold or some rare booty. He wears oversize Converse high tops, soiled shorts, a sweaty tank top, and a ragged headband. With his windblown strands of gray hair and disheveled clothes, he looks like some lost jogger who decades ago entered the Boston Marathon, veered off course, and never stopped running.
Disoriented upon entering, he seems at ease once he gets his bearings in the bar’s cozy—if lascivious—surroundings. The whorehouse-red walls are smothered by bric-a-brac: stuffed birds and deer heads, sombreroed skulls, a Reagan doll hanging by a noose, drum sets, and paintings of nude women. He heads straight for an old piano near the bar and, with an altar boy’s reverence, stands before the turn-of-the-century Stultz & Bauer upright grand.
“Want your rum-and-Coke, Richard?” shouts the bartender above the music and chatter.
Nodding yes but still engrossed, Richard ruffles through his bag, pulls out a cassette tape, and pops it into a small stereo, its microphone wire snaking down into the innards of the antique piano. He fiddles with the controls for a few minutes and, finally satisfied that everything’s in order, he takes a seat at the bar.
“How’s it going?” asks the bartender.
“It was a bad day,” replies Richard, his face squinched in a woeful expression. “It was a bad day.”
A profoundly shy and emotionally withdrawn man, Richard is clearly not one for small talk, even from a bartender he knows quite well. Instead, he sips long strawfuls of his drink, stares at his shoes, and grimaces at the deafening sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers that now shakes the bar.
“Ready to play?” asks the bartender, turning down the stereo.
Following his cue, Richard ambles back to the piano and sits at the stool. He sits silently, his restless, nervous gaze darting back and forth from the piano keys to the tape recorder above. He gingerly presses the “record” button as if it were some magic talisman. Another moment of silence. Then, after a few tentative notes, he begins to play.
The clumsy man in the floppy sneakers is transformed sitting at the piano—he seems completely at home. He drifts into a world of his own making as his fingers, seemingly of their own accord, glide over the keys to produce gorgeous fragments of classical-style music. It is a lovely and often disturbingly melancholy sound, a bizarre interpolation of 19th-century Romanticism sprung full-blown in a seedy bar.
His sprawling mini-concerto, though, does little to attract the attention of the customers, who continue their loud conversations as if he wasn’t even there. The regulars are accustomed to Richard Karch and his happy hour performances, a nightly ritual here for more than a year.
“He’s sort of our house musician,” says Bill Duggan, owner of Madam’s Organ.“I’ve never heard anyone like him. He’s a borderline genius.”
Duggan met the musician two years ago. Karch, a 51-year-old who’d been drifting around the D.C. area for years, was squatting in the attic of a Cleveland Park house that Duggan was selling. Duggan offered him a room above Madam’s Organ at its former location a few blocks up 18th Street NW, where Karch asked to play a song on the bar’s rickety old upright piano.
“He mentioned that he used to play the piano,” recalls Duggan. “I thought he was full of crap. He sat down at the piano and it took about a half hour waiting for him to play. He apparently hadn’t played for a long time, you could feel him feeling his way back, and then it all started flowing and it was spectacular. Then he started crying, so the whole thing was really moving.”
Duggan began letting Karch perform during the relative quiet of happy hours, eventually advertising the shows as “Richard LeKook Playing That Song.” (Duggan says he resorted to the rather brusque ad after Karch demanded billing like Madam’s Organ’s other featured musicians). Meticulously recording all of his performances, Karch plays for a couple of rum-and-Cokes and the stray tips he receives from passing around a hat. “This is like his therapy, he needs to play every night,” says Duggan, who can’t resist plugging his bar: “And it’s really unique to come into a blues dive and hear some good classical music.”
Karch’s shows usually last as long as a 90-minute tape, but tonight he temporarily stops playing after some of the bar chatter—particularly a piercing laugh that sounds hungry for any punch line—distracts him. He winces, his hands shielding his ears, and clicks off the recorder with a pained look.
Once the music stops, the awkwardness and nervous tics return—as if, by simply walking away from the piano, Karch leaves his powerful force field. Head down, rubbing his face, he shuns eye contact, even as his darting gaze searches for some safe harbor.
At the bar, off by himself, he gets another rum-and-Coke, and shyly, haltingly offers a few words about his two favorite subjects, music and the stock market.
Nothing gets him talking like the stocks: When Duggan found him in the attic, Karch—despite his dire poverty—was busy dealing on the Chicago Commodities Exchange using the house phone and a credit card. Karch still has several sure-fire stock-picking systems he’s working on: “I did four trades last week,” he says. “Try Inter-Digital, it’s a very small company that’s been doing well.”
Karch is a self-taught pianist who doesn’t read music. He suffered through some music lessons as a child in Ohio, but was quickly bored by the instruction; some time later, he began playing his own compositions, based on symphonies and concertos he heard on the radio. Always hypersensitive to sounds, his college career was cut short after clanging dormitory radiators kept him awake at night and drove him from the campus.
“Stuck” in D.C. since the mid-’70s, Karch began recording his performances long before the Madams Organ’s gigs: He’s played at an empty auditorium at Georgetown University, and later at a Tenleytown church—wherever he could find an available piano.
His current room (in one of Duggan’s apartment buildings) is crammed with hundreds of the tapes, each carefully marked with the recording date: “‘Even though I play the same kinds of pieces, they’re all different,” he says, “so I have to make recordings to find out exactly what I’ve got….I play for the audience, too. I feel like I play better when I’ve got an audience.”
He doesn’t listen to other people’s music now—strictly his own compositions and their endless variations. He’s proud of his sui generis sound, which he mischievously dubs “astro” music to differentiate it from new agers’ “astral” brand: “Rachmaninov is considered the last of the great Romantic composers, but I feel as if I am a continuation of the Romantic school of music,” he says. “Music is such a vast area with so many crossroads and different directions—I just try to play as many beautiful sounds as I can on the piano.”
His drink empty, Karch heads back to the piano to continue his performance. He hits the “record” button and begins playing, seeming to pick up exactly where he left off, as if the music is an ongoing epic narrative and he merely the dutiful transcriber. He fingers the keys in a wild, often herky-jerky, cross-handed style, chasing a handful of playful shadows just out of reach.
The music is, as Duggan calls it, both “beautiful and sad.”
The bar whoops get ever louder, now punctuated by the racket of a pool table from upstairs. A customer enters and greets some friends by kicking a soccer ball across the bar. Hunched over the piano—but always making sure the tape is still running—Richard Karch forges on.
“Well, he sure ain’t no Pinetop Perkins,” sniggers a soused barfly in an Oktoberfest ’93 T-shirt and ‘Bama baseball cap.
“What he needs,” counters a companion, “is a better piano and more solace.”