Colorado Boulevard, in Old Town Pasadena, California, is a place of legend. It's part of Historic Route 66 and the thoroughfare for the annual New Year's Tournament of Roses Parade. As it bends out of the downtown, it crosses the Arroyo Seco in the famously picturesque arches of the Colorado Street Bridge, the site of, among other things, a sweeping romance between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in the movie La La Land. Yet perhaps most notably, Colorado Boulevard is the thoroughfare of choice for once of the city's most storied residents, the Pasadena Pan Piper, a.k.a. the Pasadena Pied Piper.
Perhaps you've seen him: an older man in a gray Honda Element, jerking his head aggressively while playing—and I mean playing—the recorder. His serenades have become an online sensation, with various Vines, Twitter videos, and YouTube videos that grant him such designations as "the legend" or the "Flute Car Guy." His performances have inspired various articles wondering at his identity, Reddit posts celebrating his mysterious trail, and, amid a recent boom in rap production using flute sounds, a spate of memes. But locally, he's simply known as a key part of the downtown culture. The Piper's mobile performance strikes the foot traffic in Old Town like thunder and lightning at the intersections he reigns.
"I'd say I probably see him like three times a week or so," Mike, a security guard who works on the corner of Colorado and De Lacey, told me one afternoon, as I poked around Old Town looking for leads on the Pied Piper's identity. He added, "He's real intense man. He's always got the music all loud. Playing rock music. He's so energetic. It's crazy how people stop and pull out their phones on him." No one seemed quite sure if there is a pattern to the Piper's head jerking madness. "I don't play out here every day, but I'll tell you something, when I'm out here around the evening, I see him pretty often," said Gene, a violinist who often performs on the street in Old Town.
The mystery of the Piper is considerable. It would have been easier to track down a reclusive member of rock 'n' roll royalty 30 minutes west in Hollywood than to get to the bottom of the Piper's identity. But after walking around Old Town and gathering people's testimonies of the Piper over some weeks, I found an individual named Cole who once ran the Piper's short-lived social media accounts, and he gave me some information on the Piper.
After a few texts and a bit of hesitation, I scored a meeting with the man himself, despite his insistence that I didn't have to do this because, as he said, "I'm just a recorder player." We met up and walked through Old Town to a nearby pub. The 60-something, fifth-generation Pasadena native—whose name I'll refrain from using to keep alive the mystery that makes the Piper such a legend—struts with the confidence of someone who owns the city's streets, which, musically, he does. He has a winking sense of humor that bubbled up throughout our time together. "Viral video? Sounds like an illness doesn't it?" he said to a stranger who stopped him on the street. "Like I got a viral video, now I gotta go to the doctor."
When we arrived at the bar, he pulled out a box of expensive wooden recorders along with the plastic ones that he plays in the car, "the street instruments that don't get hurt." Pointing to the wooden ones, he explained, "those are the real things… I thought I'd bring them. A lot of people don't know it goes way deeper than this. Some of these recorders are like nine feet tall and they have these huge stems and play these subsonic sounds." Fascinated, I set out to learn more about this man and his instruments, out of his Element.
Noisey: I didn't know wind instruments could cover all the pitches that, say, string instruments could cover.
Pied Piper: Actually the first instrument other than the drum, was a flute. This is just a developed flute. It's not like anything fancy. It's more of a whistle. (Plays recorder) That creates the whistle.
What's your music background? I hear you play jazzy sorts of scales.
These are the songs I've been playing as of late. (Shows me his iTunes playlist on an iPad) So what I'm exploring is the connection between rhythm, melody, and harmony. You can use this as a rhythm instrument, and you can use it playing the melody and playing the harmony, and so when you connect all three of those, it confuses the brain and people are listening going, "it sounds right, but it sounds wrong, and I can't follow it. Stop it!" Which, hopefully makes you look up from your cell phone and say, "What the fuck?!" Because if it was just melody, just harmony, or just rhythm, then you'd still just be focused down here and not look up. And that is my only desire in this, is to reboot. Reboot the system.
So you're not actually playing with just the radio. You make a playlist.
The way I grew up learning this was playing called "radio roulette," which is that each song comes on, and you have to catch up to that song before it's over and and then go on to the next channel. So you go from jazz to classical to hip-hop to whatever.
"Hopefully [it] makes you look up from your cell phone and say, 'What the fuck?!' … That is my only desire in this, is to reboot. Reboot the system."
How did you come to terms with becoming this recorder-playing figure in the community?
I got pulled over. I was driving to get a new parking pass because we park on the street over near where I live, and mine had expired. This was a while ago, and I got pulled over by the CHP [California Highway Patrol].
They pulled me over: "Have you had anything to drink?" I said, "You know, I live two blocks away from here, my wife and I just had dinner. I had one glass of wine." Just to be straight up. "OK get out of the car." Because as soon as you say "I had a glass of wine" then they have the right to be able to give you a road test. So I got out of the car, and they started doing the "follow the light, stand on your head"—that kind of stuff. After a while I said, with my recorder in my hand, "You know, you don't have to do this, I'm just a recorder player." The guy looked and me and said "What?" And I said, "I'm just a recorder player."
His partner goes, "Wait a second," and he takes out his phone and goes, "Yeah man, that's the legend!" I looked at him thinking, "What the hell are you talking about 'the legend'?" And he pulls up this video.
I go home to my wife, and I told her that I got a free pass. I'm not sure why he said "the legend." So I looked it up and I saw this video that was gaining ground. And a week later, the Huffington Post runs something like "The Search for Big Flute." Which I thought was funny as all. So at that point I was like, "there's something going on. I'll go, if you're buying the ticket. I'll take the ride." So that's how I focused in. Other than that I was just playing music at the Rose Bowl in the parking lot, to play music. 'Cause I like playing music.
When did you start playing music?
I started recorder when I was in the fourth grade.
Usually people quit the recorder after the fourth grade. What made you want to keep going with it?
Well, I was involved in theater and that kind of thing, and then my buddy and I were both 21 during the bicentennial, and we hitchhiked to see what was going on in the country, to end up at the Olympics in Montreal. It took three months. He plays guitar, and I played recorder, so we did that throughout. Then when we got back we started a duo called, RT and Friend. It was a very 70s, Crosby, Stills, and Nash vibe. Very soft. No harsh edges. We did that for an extended period, and then I just stayed with it because I like music. The problem with it, it's so loud.
Yeah. See if you play the recorder here—(plays soft folk tune)—that's fine. But if you're playing where I play—(plays high pitched, loud scale)—then it can cut through traffic, right? So the problem with playing that, your neighbors don't want to hear it. Even if you're good. Doesn't matter.
That's the way it can seem in Pasadena. People are just trying to shop, not wanting to be bothered by anything.
My great-grandfather was mayor of Pasadena. I'm fifth generation. My daughter is sixth.
Do you like Old Town's progression from when you were a kid?
A little ways from here is the T. Lawrence building. It no longer says T. Lawrence on the side. But it used to say on the side, "My people are the people of the dessert." When it's actually supposed to be "desert." Anyways, it was kind of an iconic building, and it's still there. I lived there when I was in my early 20s. So yeah, we've been here throughout all of it.
"There are so many things that create these tensions. If you can get people in the street to dance, damn! That's a good thing."
Are you on any records?
There've been some soundtracks. That sort of thing.
What's the purpose of going around Old Town specifically doing this? Is it the proximity to your house?
No, it's the way they've set up Old Town. They've set it up with the cross intersections. So if I hit a red light, I'm there through the red light, through the people, through the other direction. So you've got almost an entire song if you time it right, or you've got a major part of that song, depending on the song. But you've got a major part where you basically have got a captive audience. They can't go anywhere, and you're going to lay it down. So if you go to other intersections, it kind of works. But not as well as those cross ones.
I found a video on YouTube with you saying you were retiring as Pan Piper last year, and yet here you are still doing it. What happened?
Well I had talked with my wife and she's going, "C'mon, just back away from the recorder. Just back away from this dynamic." Because it's one thing to be the town fool—it's another thing to be the wife of the town fool. And she was saying, "I don't necessarily want to be the wife of the town fool." Even though it's music, there is a lot of foolishness involved with it. Even though I'm OK with that, I didn't feel that it was right to subject her to it, so I was just going to stop. But the reality is, it wasn't possible.
Was she fine with that?
Some people think you're solely playing the recorder in your car for attention onto you. What's your response to that?
If what that means is I'm just doing it so people look up from their cellphone, it's not me receiving their attention. It's me rebooting their system. I'm not doing it to impress somebody, if that's the thought.
It's not the attention you want; it's the attention you're giving back to people who are only on their phones rather than engaging with their surroundings.
Exactly. I think it's sacrificial. I don't receive. I do receive when some couple is dancing in the street. I think that's the bomb! The tension that exists with racism, with homophobia, with misogyny, with politics, with money—there are so many things that create these tensions. If you can get people in the street to dance, damn! That's a good thing. That doesn't have anything to do with me knowing what the endgame is. It's just participating.
There's a song that came out this year that really got wind instruments to be very prominent in rap. It's called "Mask Off' by the rapper Future. It's very popular. You're actually synced up with it in a meme, making it look like you're playing the song in your car. Are you familiar?
No I'm not.
Let me play it for you. (Song plays).
Yeah, that's rudimentary, and I would like to take that and give it some color. Seriously.
With wind instruments being such a trend in hip-hop this year, would you consider getting in the studio with a hip-hop producer?
Yeah, absolutely. But more than that, to engage with an audience with them. Live. So yeah, work something out so that they're sure that this is going to work and then engage with it.
Do you prefer Pan Piper or Pied Piper as your moniker?
Pan might fit more than anything else. But Pied Piper really lends itself to moving the needle. If I could get to the point where I got a bunch of people walking down the street and we're all playing music and playing different instruments? That'd totally be awesome. So, I like it all.
Jake Bowman is a musician who likes to chase down older men in Pasadena. Follow him on Twitter.