(Re)Collection #8: The Drummer, Part 1
I am a musician. No, I am just a drummer. Let me explain.
When it comes to family musical pedigree or innate musical talent, I have very little of either. I didn't study an instrument as a kid. It wasn't on my radar. No piano in our house. No piano in my grandparents' houses. My mom's family were all steelworkers from Pittsburgh, and my dad was the son of a youth boxing coach/social worker and a book-loving homemaker in Brooklyn, NY. All good people. None were musical to my knowledge.
You don't have to have natural musical talent to become a musician. You just need the drive to do it. I had the interest, but I lacked the drive. The motivation took a relatively long time to find. But I eventually found it.
My first foray into music was as a singer! Oh man. My freshman dorm floormate Eric was a huge fan of the punk rock. He loved the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the Dead Kennedys, etc. He floated the idea of starting a band. He followed up on it and arrived back to school after winter break with a PA he bought at Radio Shack (!), microphones, stands and a plan. He handed me a mix tape of all the songs he wanted our band to cover: London Calling, In the City, Ever Fallen In Love With Someone, Holiday in Cambodia, and Bodies were among them. It was a pretty good collection. Too bad I couldn't sing at all.
We drafted our friend PB to play drums, Eric played bass (which he also bought over the holidays) and our floormate and resident metal head,Vince, played guitar. What a crew. We rehearsed a few times. I squawked out some terrible renditions of those amazing songs. The band quickly folded. Eric was heartbroken. He spent all his money on gear. I still feel bad about that to this day. I now know what it is like to spend all your money on music, and then watch it crash and burn.
My best friend Ben and I both studied abroad in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany our junior year (1986-1987). We lived in student housing, and there was a basement rehearsal room in the student common building with drums and other gear which students could use. When I found out about the drum set, I bought some sticks and went down there and tried to figure out how to play drums. My German friend Peter knew how to play so he showed me how to do a basic beat. I tried it. It was way harder than it looked. My hands cramped up into claw hands. My forearms burned. I developed bubble blisters and couldn't hold the sticks anymore. I still couldn't keep a beat. So much for the drums being the easiest instrument to learn.
Ben and I became friends with another American student from the University of Michigan named Jim. He actually could play drums. We all went down and jammed (!) a few times over the course of the year. Jim actually could play and this made me even less confidant about my inadequate musical abilities. Drums were obviously not my thing.
During that summer before returning for my senior year, I bought a drum set from the Washington Post classifieds. I gave it another shot. My mom did not want me to have a drum set. I didn't tell her and stored it in my friend Sarah's basement. Ben moved his amp over there and we would play. We would try to get through Nervous Breakdown by Black Flag. Punk rock was hard to play. I thought people said it was rudimentary, brutish, simplistic music. Surprise surprise. We sounded no better than we did in Germany. Why the fuck was it so hard to play drums?
When I returned to Dickinson in the fall, my whole feeling about college had changed. I didn't want to be there anymore. I wanted to be in DC going to shows. I was over college. I was alienated from my old college friends, and I spent all my time down at the radio station, WDCV, or with my new girlfriend. I became really good friends with Dave Brower who was the Program Director. We would drive all over to see bands in his ancient white first generation Honda Civic that his brother Tim gave him. Both of us are tall so we looked like a couple of clowns crammed in a clown car.
Dave and I decided to form a band. We got our friend Al to play guitar. Dave also played guitar. And I played drums. They knew I sucked. I knew I sucked. It was kind of the point to suck. And we did.
We promoted our first show with much fanfare. We printed a bunch of flyers and invited everyone we knew. Our friend Mike DJed, and he played a bunch of great hip hop. It was the year of Public Enemy and NWA. The show was held in the basement of the Italian House where my girlfriend lived. I think we got through three songs and the police came to shut it down! We ended with Fuck You You're Not My Friend. As the police came in and pulled the plug, the crowd carried on the chant of Fuck You You're Not My Friend. It was perfect.
Our second show was at the Battle of the Bands in the Quad. I borrowed the huge Neil Peart-like drum set of the reigning champions of last year. I didn't know how to play it. It had too many pieces. At the end of our set of 2 songs (one was a dramatic reading of Shock Me by KISS), I tried to kick over the behemoth of a drum set and couldn't. The owner of the drum set wanted to kill me. The other bands hated us. The crowd hated us. We were awful. It was a success. We ended on a high note.
I graduated college in 1988. That summer I got another chance to work in the World Bank file room with my friend Jay. Another drummer named Richie was also working there. He knew Jay from the music scene and had played in the Crippled Pilgrims and with Jad Fair in Half Japanese. I was a wannabe drummer among real drummers. I used to pepper both of them with questions about drums and punk rock. They were good sports about it. They probably assumed I wasn't ever going to really learn to play drums. They humored me.
Jay offered to give me lessons, but I was too scared to take him up on it. I don't know why. I was an idiot. Ben was still interested in me playing drums but neither he nor I were very good at making things actually happen. We talked a lot about it. He had seen the Minutemen play in Madison when he was at the University of Wisconsin. He talked to d.boon, the singer and guitar player, after the show, and d. encouraged him to start a band of his own. That was one of d.boon's great ideas. What the world needed was a band on every block. Cool idea. We couldn't make it happen.
Meanwhile, my drum set had to be relocated from Sarah's basement to Ben's basement. His mom was very tolerant. We hacked around a little more. I moved to Chicago that winter on January 29, 1989.
The drums went back into hibernation until 1991. I have mentioned in previous posts that I went to grad school for two terms starting in the Fall of 1991. The one positive outcome of going to grad school at the U of C was that I hooked up with the college radio station WHPK and started DJing again. Through WHPK, I met many of the people in the Hyde Park music scene: Ben Evans and Stel Valvonis who played in DragKing, Chris Holmes who played in Ashtar Command and Yum Yum, John Huss, Joy Gregory, John Corbett and many others.
My girlfriend and I finally broke up. I moved into a group house on 5609 S. Maryland. That old, limestone row house was a rundown mess but it had a basement. If you have a basement, you can have a drum set. If you have a drum set, you can have a band. That was my logic. I brought my drums out to Chicago from DC.
This time I told myself that it would be different. I would learn how to actually play drums. And I did. This time it stuck...(story continued in Part 2)