Back in 2007, I heard about a strange legend involving bagpipes and Griffith Park in Los Angeles. For close to forty years, the ghostly sounds of pipes could be heard over the hills on Sunday nights from the Hollywood Sign to Atwater Village to Warner Bros. Studios. Some say the sounds were ghosts. Some say they were the sounds of weekly pagan ceremonies somewhere inside the woods. As a piper myself, I found the whispers intriguing and began exploring the story. What followed was a months-long investigation. I had hoped to make a documentary about the mystery. What I got instead was a strange night with a strange old soul named Ian Berger…
THE PIPES OF GRIFFITH PARK
By David Parkin
“It’s a lament I guess,” Ian Berger mused, sitting in his broken Winnebago, smoking a cigarette. “I let go of what I collected for the week up there. No big deal.”
Broken light leaked in from the yellow windows and traced its way across a formica table onto a liver spotted hand and a stained coffee mug. “That’s all there is too it, I guess,” Ian said as he cleared his thought, “Short story ay?”
As Ian laughed at me for taking an interest in his story, I sensed that it wasn’t the sort of mocking laughter as if to say, “You are wasting your time,” or “Don’t you have better things to do?” Something I would expect from a man in his late seventies living every day of his life alone. What I sensed was a genuine dislike coming from behind his unkempt white beard and his Irish flat cap.
Ian was a sort of a legend around here, here being the central Los Angeles area, Forest Lawn, and basically anywhere within an earshot of Griffith park. The people living in the area had most likely never heard of Berger but dollars to doughnuts says they have heard him.
On Sunday nights around 8:15 or so, if you turned off Dateline for a moment you’d hear it between the hiss of passing cars. A faint drone at first, then a hollow but undeniable tune rising from the darkened oasis in the bustling berg. The sound of bagpipes.
“No pictures,” Ian said as he rolled his distressed eyes at my camera. He took steps the length of Popsicle sticks as his tired back bent against the years of manual labor spent in the downtown train yards. I asked him how old his Volvo was as he loaded a black box into the trunk. He never answered the question.
Ian wouldn’t let me ride with him nor would he accept a ride. He didn’t ask me to write about him but he never did tell me I couldn’t, so I followed without a word. The air was damp that night. It felt like it might rain but it never did. Ian made his way up a dirt trail, steep, and cluttered with rocks and roots. He took three steps to one of mine but after a half-mile or so, I was the one who was winded. Ian carried his case and nothing else, no water, no flashlight. As I quicksteped to avoid a fall from an exposed root, he grumbled the first words since we left: “Gets worse from here.”
Ian had been making this trip for more than thirty years. By that time he had every switchback, every rock, and every root memorized. The crickets sang through the night as he finally came to a stop at an overlook. With Hollywood sparkling in the distance, Ian pulled his collar up and his shaking fingers unpacked the plaid bag and wooden pipes from their ancient hold.
He breathed seven or eight times, warming his lungs, then inflated the bag under his arm. The sound began, spiking and sputtering for only a moment before reaching that ever-familiar hum of the Highlands.
Loud was hardly the word to describe how powerful the drones were on that quiet hilltop. Of course that was the point of the bagpipes. They were designed to communicate over large distances, delivering news or to call the clans to war. The pipes we hear in parades and funerals have mufflers installed to prevent us from covering our ears. These pipes however, were pipes of retribution not to be quieted or, “suppressed” as Ian put it.
The high notes of the chanter rose over the drones, coming together in a powerful harmony. They sang a song I’d never heard before or since. He played with soul, anger almost, keeping time not by tapping his toe but stomping the ground as if the very soil upon which he stood had wronged him somehow. When the old man’s fingers shifted on the chanter, his shoulders moved with them. He played fast and neat with a distinct aperture and surgically precise fingering. He knew these songs better than he knew himself, I decided. This was where Ian was home. This was what mattered to him.
After twenty minutes or so, the high notes stopped and the drones sputtered out. In the quiet night, Ian stood and exhaled, looking out over the southland like a sentinel to the old world.
Many questions burned the back of my throat but I felt it wasn’t my place to interrupt. This was a ritual for the man. He was abiding enough to allow me to witness it and I wasn’t about to disturb the chapel of a lonely piper.
“City’s too loud to hear me any more,” He finally offered, “People used to gather, waiting for me to go on like a concert, try to tip me like I was one of those shit heads on the pier… One time a lady asked me if I took requests.”
He continued staring into the city until I finally forced out a question, “What did you say?” my voice squeaked.
His head turned slightly, noticing my hesitance. “I told her that I play for me,” he said, “Not for her.”
I imagined that this was the most Ian had said to anyone in a number of years. I almost didn’t say anything else, afraid to remind him he didn’t like me. “Then why?” was my final question, another question that he never answered.
“Is that still going on?” Karin Needleman asked the next day as she held a young girl in her arms, “I used to tell my parents about the music from the trees above the park but they never believed me,” she continued, “My brother told me it was ghosts from the cemetery on the other side of the hill.”
Karen was on her way to the zoo with her two kids when I stopped her. She was kind enough to chat with me in her driveway just a mile from Ian’s hilltop. “I just figured someone was practicing on their porch further up the street. I haven’t heard it in years though.”
During the Vietnam War, a young private Berger used a Bolex 16mm camera to capture iconic images of a war-torn Southeast Asia. He found his passion, his dream. He wanted to take what he had learned in the military to Hollywood and become a photographer.
“Made a dumb mistake,” Ian coughed, back in his dank trailer, “I forgot I was an Irishman.” I knew what he meant but I wanted him to say it. “That was something they wouldn’t let me forget once I got here,” he concluded.
Ian died shortly after our meeting. Two years after that, a fire tore through his highland away from the highlands, reducing the fauna surrounding his lookout to ash.
Ian loved movies.
He shot photographs in the war.
He loved a girl but she never loved him back.
He took to working the trains when his career failed to take hold. He tried to earn money off his photographs for another twenty years. After that, he was too old.
So, he played. He never told me why, exactly. Maybe it was because of those pictures. Maybe when he played, he was telling the town that he loved how it broke his heart.
Maybe he played for her.
He talked about the men who wouldn’t give him or the girl he loved the chance they deserved. “They gave the job to their son instead, their nephew maybe,” he complained.
For that short evening I spent with Ian, I saw a man who wanted the town that never loved him to know he was still alive. The same town that never knew he died, the same town that, after so long, couldn’t even hear his pipes, no matter how loud he played them.
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The Pipes of Highland Park – © Copyright: David Parkin – 2016