Last week I had the opportunity to interview John Maher, aka Petaluma Pete. When I left after chatting with him for about an hour, the thought that popped into my mind was how much fun talking to him had been. (That’s the truth, even if there wasn’t a chance that Petaluma Pete would read this.)
So I thought I would share some thoughts and information about Petaluma Pete that I didn’t have room for in the article.
Interviewing Petaluma Pete was fun because John is such a positive guy. You would have to be a “I can take whatever comes my way” kind of person to be willing to be as out there as he is when he is playing as Petaluma Pete. While playing a piano in downtown Petaluma is certainly safer than playing in downtown Oakland, Petaluma Pete is still very exposed to all types of reactions, some nice and some not so nice but he takes it with a smile and keeps on playing.
I love that it was inspiration, partly from watching his son busk in the subway stations in Boston and partly from seeing Petaluma as a perfect fit for his favorite type of music, that led John to start playing in Petaluma. And because John is a performer at heart, when he wanted to see if he still had his piano playing skills, he brought his piano to the streets pretty much ensuring that he would always have an audience.
Being Petaluma Pete is very physically demanding. Even though the piano is on a cart, pushing and pulling 600 pounds across Petaluma’s less than even streets and sidewalks is back-breaking work. And the honky-tonk music that Petaluma Pete plays isn’t meant to be played pianissimo. He is pounding the keyboard sometimes for four straight hours. Petaluma Pete wears gloves to protect his hands although he still has plenty of calluses to show for it.
It was interesting to learn that all the moving and playing on less than level surfaces takes its toll on the piano too. The first piano John purchased as Petaluma Pete didn’t last 90 days. John jokes that its replacement, a 100-year-old Palmer, can’t be killed. It’s made out of rock-hard Canadian maple. The hinges work loose so about once a month, John takes the piano apart and puts the pins back in. Also, he breaks a string about every week which a local piano tuner (who asks to remain nameless lest people think that Petaluma Pete’s upright is representative of his quality of work) has taught him how to replace.
What strikes me most about Petaluma Pete is how he is such a perfect fit for this town. He is the personification of Petaluma’s 19th century heritage and he is such a natural addition to the downtown scene that it surprises me to remember that he has only been here less than three years…and not for generations.
John Maher has embraced Petaluma in a special way. Lucky for us, John and his wife hope to stay in here for the rest of their lives.