Mobile Tour: Purdue Traditions - The Neon Cactus & Bruce The Piano Man

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According to Meriam-Webster cactus is defined as, "any of a family (Cactaceae, the cactus family) of plants that have succulent stems and branches with scales or spines instead of leaves and are found especially in dry areas (as deserts)."

According to the Purdue student body Cactus is your Thursday night plans. Cactus has been turned into a verb. "Are you Cactus-ing?" has turned into a common question between Boilermaker students.

So what is this Cactus thing we are all talking about? It's called the Neon Cactus and...it's awesome. Every Thursday night, hundreds of Purdue students make the walk down the hill to the levee to visit The Neon Cactus.

Whether you go for the Piano bar, the dance floor or the economically priced beverages, it is sure to be a good time. The Piano bar has turned into a Thursday night requirement for many students. A big part of the atmosphere and environment is Bruce the Piano Man or more simply, Bruuuuuce.

Whether he's serenading the crowd with his rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man" or the foot-stompin' "Wagon Wheel" (my personal favorite) by the Old Crow Medicine Show, one thing is for certain - he and you are having a good time.

I decided to join Bruce on the party side (Boilers will understand) and find out what keeps the Piano Man in tune.

Q: How did you learn to play the piano?

Growing up, I always considered my voice my instrument and I had a pretty good voice but I knew it wouldn't last forever. I wanted to learn an instrument. I tried to learn guitar but I just couldn't get my fingers to work the way they needed to.

I was 19 years old and in college. I went down to the piano in my residence hall with a walkman and spent 7 or 8 hours listening to a song and trying to learn how to play it. I did it. It was all by ear. Throughout the day people would walk by and say, "hey, I know that song." Those little pieces of encouragement sort of kept me going.

Q: Is that still how you learn to play?

Yeah, I can't actually read music. The bass and treble clef don't mean anything to me. If you tell me to play an A Chord, I can do that but in terms of reading the actual music, I can't do that.

The last song I learned was Forget You by Cee Lo Green. I've gotten significantly faster at it. I probably had that song the second or third time through and it probably only took me two or three hours total.

Not to get too spiritual on you or anything but God has given me a gift to be able to do that and I am just trying to make the most of it.

Q: You grew up in Lafayette, attended Purdue and now live in the area. Safe to say you're a die-hard Boilermaker?

Oh yeah. I love Purdue. I was hired to work down at IU for a couple of months and I don't absolutely hate IU or anything but it was like I was behind enemy lines down there. I loved the people and loved the venue, I just couldn't get into it - it didn't feel right.

And again, that's not anything against IU that is just a result of how much I love Purdue. I bleed black and gold.

Q: What's your favorite memory from college?

I have so many great memories from college. It took me 14 semesters (7 years) so I had a lot of time to make memories.

First and foremost, I was in Glee Club and got to travel the world with that organization. We performed in places like the Sydney Opera House and Westminster Abbey. It was absolutely incredible. Westminster Abbey was just an absolutely incredible experience. The sound and magnitude of it all was almost moving.

The other one more specific to Purdue is the Naked Olympics that used to happen at the Cary Quad. The coldest day of the year, a bunch of the residents would strip down and go run outside around the quad. It's an all male dorm so use your imagination there. We all had a little bit of encouragement but more than anything, nobody had a care in the world. We were just a bunch of college kids doing something crazy.

Oh and as a freshman my roommate and I ate Domino's 27 nights in a row. 

Q: What's your favorite memory from your time as the pianoman?

I don't know if it is just because we celebrated the ten year anniversary but I would have to say the first Thursday after 9/11/01. The attacks happened early Tuesday morning and for two days all anybody did was sit in front of a TV and watch the terrible news. It was obviously a very dark time for America. I remember thinking that I didn't even want to go in and play that night. I didn't think anybody was going to be there and I wasn't sure if I would be able to entertain those that were there.

That night was incredible. It was packed and I think everybody was ready to be together. It didn't have anything to do with the drinking. People just wanted to be with each other and do something together. All they could do was sing and dance but they could control that. They could sing as loud as they wanted and it was like weight was being lifted off their shoulders.

I think I played God Bless America four times that night and I never play a song twice in one night. I laughed that night and I cried that night. It's a memory that will always stick with me.

I also met my wife in the Piano Bar. I remember it so vividly. I know the exact seat she sat in. She was wearing a grey hoodie with her hair pulled back and didn't have any makeup on but she was beautiful and I knew it was meant to be. I put the full court press on her that night. And here we are two kids later and still happily married. 

Q: You will be a part of a lot of students' favorite memory when they look back at their college years. What does that mean to you?

I can't put it into words. I really wish there were some way I could say thank you to everybody. I think they polled the graduating students a couple of years ago and I was something like their third favorite memory from college. That means so much. To be able to do this as a living is just such a blessing. I'm so grateful and just wish I could give back what everybody's support has meant to me. I just can't put it into words. 

Q: Most people only see you play once a week, but can you talk about the preparation that goes into making sure you know all of the songs and are entertaining every week?

It's just like training if you were an athlete. I have to do things to protect my voice. I drink a lot of room temperature water and really try to rest my vocal chords during the week. I play Thursday, Friday and Saturday every week. As I have gotten a little older it is taking me longer and longer to get my voice back every week. It use to be Tuesday before I got it back and now it's moving later into Wednesday. I just have to be smart about it. I can't yell at my kids, which they like. 

Q: What's your pet peeve inside the piano bar?

Cell phones. They used to be these huge block things that really messed with our sound system. Now, some people can get away with it but I still like to give some others a hard time.

I know that not everybody who comes to watch the show is going to be entertained and that's okay. I just want to have 6, 7, or 8 out of every 10 new people enjoy the show. I know if we do that, we'll grow. I've been doing this 16 years and I think we've been able to do that. It's continued to grow and that's something I am really proud of.

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Well, there you have it folks. It's hard to translate the passion and emotion that Bruce displayed in the interview through a blog but let me assure you that he appreciates all of the people that have came and listened and those that continue to. Purdue is lucky to have him and he feels lucky to have us.

Watch Bruce perform Hail Purdue: 



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