A Little Longhair Music, With Spikes and Stripes : Lizst and Chains: Punked-Out Classical Musician Thrives on Culture Clash

Richard Kastle's third symphony is based on the sinking of the Titanic.

"It's a four-movement piece that starts out with the ship leaving the dock on its maiden voyage . . . very majestic," Kastle says. "Of course, it doesn't sink until the last movement."

The rhythm of the sea is vital to this unfinished piece so Kastle composes on the Venice beach. Tourists in bathing suits stare at the young man hunched over his sheet music. He wears studded leather. His hair is done in black spikes and bright red stripes.

"That your own hair?" asks a man with a Southern drawl.

Later, when Kastle's neighbors are at work or at least out of bed, he returns to a two-room apartment off Ocean Front Walk to practice on a Baldwin upright piano. Strains of the "Hungarian Rhapsody" or Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude" drift through the building.

For seven years, the boyish 29-year-old has struggled anonymously as a classical musician in black leather and chains. He is part Peter Pan, refusing to grow up and act like a concert pianist. He is part Pied Piper, believing that punk looks and Liszt concertos will lure a new, young crowd to classical music.

The combination is beginning to pay off.

Kastle has attracted a cult following to monthly performances at The Comeback Inn in Venice. The Center for Performing Arts at UCLA is talking to him about the possibility of playing on campus this fall. A movie producer says he is close to signing Kastle to score an upcoming film.

"A friend of mine asked me to listen to some of his music and I was moved by it," says Vincent Virom Coppola, whose film "The Trophy Room" is in pre-production. "Richard has a classical background with a fresh creativeness to it. That combination gives him something very different."

And while the classical music community hasn't embraced anyone with hair this wild since Mozart, Kastle has earned compliments from one of America's most highly respected veteran pianists.

"He was always a very bright boy with lots of technical facility," says Ivan Davis, a former teacher of Kastle's. "Very talented."

Davis recalls another thing about his ex-student.

"Even then he was a bit peculiar."

Kastle remains a difficult person to figure out. Despite his choice in fashions, he is an avowed opponent of punk rock. "It's trash," he says. He wears the clothes because he likes the way they look.

Predictably, classical music plays continually in his apartment, whether from the piano or the radio. But if there's a Raiders game on television, the small black-and-white set in the center of the room takes precedence.

And when Kastle discusses his music, he refers to Saturday morning cartoons.

"That was one of the reasons I started playing piano," he recalls. "I heard "Hungarian Rhapsody" on 'Bugs Bunny.' I must have spent five hours a day for several years trying to learn to play that piece."

In those days, the 8-year-old Kastle played by ear. He practiced so incessantly that his parents worried.

As a high school student in Hialeah, Fla., Kastle studied under Davis for a time and began writing concertos. He went to North Texas State University--Davis' alma mater--but was expelled in his fourth year for calling in sick on his final recital.

"I was always getting in trouble there," Kastle explains.

An official in the university's music department recalled Kastle, but said that neither he nor anyone else in the department could remember enough about Kastle's case to comment.

By the summer of 1980, Kastle had arrived in Los Angeles intent on becoming famous. He made the rounds of record companies and movie studios, traveling in an old Pontiac Bonneville bearing the license plate "LISZT."

Everyone turned the 22-year-old away. At one point, Kastle sold his baby grand piano so he could hire a professional orchestra to record a demonstration tape of his concertos. No one would listen to it, he says.

"I was naive."

But he was also thick-skinned. Kastle survived by delivering pizzas and driving a limousine. He composed when he had the time, writing concertos and full symphonies. He played nights in small clubs and piano bars, the kinds of places where you hear "Misty" a lot.

"One of the managers wanted me to learn 'New York, New York' and I thought I would die," Kastle says. "I played at a Shakey's Pizza. That was fun because there were so many kids there. I played Beethoven for them."

That's an image worth lingering over--youngsters gathered around the leather-clad Kastle at the piano. Kastle doesn't so much play as he wars. His muscled arms rise at a sharp angle from the keyboard. His shoulders are hunched as he leans into the music.

The playing is loud, but far too intricate to be mistaken for the bashings of a rock 'n' roll pianist.

"People say classical music should sound angelic and I make it sound like it comes from the devil," he says. "I play very physical."

That style caught the attention of the performing arts center at UCLA.

"We try to do some off-the-wall stuff," says John Henson, a center official. "What this guy is all about is perfect. The way he dresses and the way he presents the music is something that college students could relate to better than if some 50-year-old pianist came out in a tuxedo."

At the Comeback Inn, Kastle has been drawing capacity audiences of what owner Will Raabe calls "a fabulous mix." He is scheduled to play there tonight at 7:30, and Raabe expects the usual crowd: rockers, college students, yuppies and surfers who know Kastle from the beach.

"I want to get the younger generation into classical music," the pianist says. "I think if you could get the younger generation, you could sell a million albums."

Thus, the demonic playing and wild clothes that have made Kastle an outcast among classical musicians are now working to his advantage. He can use this odd visual and musical image.

"All those stuffy old concert pianists think I have no business wearing these clothes. I'm actually helping them. I think I can bring new people to classical music."

His voice grows louder as he gets worked up.

"The kids want something bold. And if you present classical music in a tux, they won't give you a listen. If you give them something new, they'll give you a chance."

The musician pauses a moment, sipping a Coke in his ill-furnished apartment. He daydreams aloud, says he wants to appear at the Mark Taper and Carnegie Hall. His words mix with Chopin, which sounds tinny on a cheap, old stereo.

Kastle's quest has yet to bring him any of the trappings of fame.

"Right now, I have some people interested in me, but I can't say if they'll come through. I just can't say if I'll be a success.

"A lot of people think this can't work," he says. "But I think it's important that I try."

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