In Praise Of (Some) Drummers

Not long after I started hanging out with a gang I first heard a song that would become one of our unofficial anthems. It still gives me chills today.

“It Will Stand” by the Showmen sounded like it had been recorded on a tin can microphone by a bunch of barely sober high school kids like ourselves (they were actually a black doo-wop group five or ten years older, but we had no way of knowing that at the time). As ragged and raw as the production and the performance were, the singer’s first words, delivered in a quavering voice on the verge of cracking and breaking from unbridled emotion, made the hair stand up on the back of your neck, and stay there at attention for the song’s entire, glorious 2 minutes and 22 seconds.

“You take some music…” he began, and the boys and I would drop whatever we were doing to cluster together and loudly sing along. Rock and roll would stand, the song promised, would “be here forever and ever, ain’t gonna fade, never no never.” I believed it as devoutly as anything I’d ever heard in my life.

It wasn’t just about music. Even more it was about the gang, and in those moments I was sure our little band of bravado-spewing 13 and 14-year olds would be hanging out, doing crimes, and singing with semi-bold abandon for the rest of our lives. It’s been 50 years, at least, since I’ve seen any of those guys; I suspect most if not all of them are dead by now. But it was a pretty heady feeling at the time.

I don’t know how it is for kids nowadays, but in the early 1960s, we had an all too brief period of almost unbridled freedom. It lasted from when your parents were no longer able to drag you indoors when the streetlights came on until the time — a couple of years, at best — when they could legitimately start nagging you about getting a job.

I fell in with the gang on the first half-decent day of spring. They were down by the creek, setting things on fire with a stolen can of lighter fluid. They called themselves the Rebels then, but within a month became the Nomads, and in midsummer, the Saints. By then the streets, the fields, and the playgrounds were ours. The parents couldn’t find us and the cops (most of the time) couldn’t catch us.

Our numbers mushroomed as summer wound down, until that heady night at the beginning of September. All the gangs from different neighborhoods spontaneously fell in together, and 50, 75, maybe even a hundred of us roamed from one end of town to the other, blocking traffic and terrifying the bourgeoisie, even if we didn’t know what it was or how to spell it. The cops, totally outnumbered, just stood back and watched.

Like most teenagers, we had a soundtrack, most of it straight-up greaser music. The spring belonged to Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Gary (U.S.) Bonds’s “Quarter To Three” kicked off the summer, and the fall was all about Dion’s “Runaround Sue.” For slow songs we had stuff like “Angel Baby” and “There’s A Moon Out Tonight,” and somewhere in between fell the sinister switchblade rhythms of “Stand By Me” that we’d snap our fingers to as we shuffled and swaggered down the street.

As much as we loved music — and it was a good time to be in love with music — gang life fell short of my ideal, which was to have an all-singing-and-dancing crew like the Jets or the Sharks in West Side Story, which I’d watched four times the week it came out. I was somewhat let down to find that no one in our crew of steel and autoworkers’ kids had the training or the inclination to stage choreographed rumbles or run singing up and down fire escapes.

The closest we came — not that close at all — was at dances, when Chubby Checker would shout “Get up, it’s Pony Time!” “Boogety boogety boogety shoo!” the boys would shout back, and fall into a circle where they’d stomp along to the song like so many not especially graceful stallions.

We didn’t have any such routine for “It Will Stand;” we just milled around as we sang and punched the air at particularly poignant passages. But I listened to it so many times, studied and analyzed the lyrics as if they were my sole textbook for how to live. The line that still stuck with me the most then and now was the one that compared drumbeats to heartbeats. That, it seemed, was the very essence of rock and roll, and for at the least the next couple of decades, that was all I needed to know about it.

Though I’d been plinking around on the piano since I was a kid, and got my first guitar in the mid-60s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I got serious about being in a band. Even then I was a hopelessly rank amateur, churning out a mishmash of punk, folk and thrash that never would have amounted to anything if I hadn’t made a very lucky — or inspired; you decide — choice when it came to picking a drummer.

My understanding of how drums worked hadn’t progressed since the “It Will Stand” days; if anything it had deteriorated. Now that I was “punk,” I thought all a drummer needed to do was make a lot of noise and create chaos. Syncopated heartbeats might be nice, I reckoned, but hardly essential.

But I was about to learn, a lot, as I watched the 12-year-old who joined my band in 1985 grow one of the best drummers in the world. (Anytime he hears me say that, he’ll cock his head, lift an eyebrow, and intone with a pained expression, “One of?”)

He’s definitely the best I’ve played with. But there have been are a couple others, maybe not in the same league as Grammy-winning, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Tre Cool, but not as far down the scale as you might think. With Will Kneitel and Adam Siegel, both of whom played with my second band, the Potatomen, I got that same feeling I’d had with Tre: the beat was always right where it needed to be, so effortless and flawless that I never needed to question or worry about it. If anything went out of sync or came crashing to an awkward halt, it was almost invariably going to be, not them, losing the plot.

Even at 12 Tre already had the beat.

In working with them I gained a deeper understanding of how drumming worked. You’d think I would have already had the equivalent of a Ph.D. course from the five and a half years I spent playing with Tre, but he was too much a force of nature for me to be able to break down what he was doing into its component parts and analyze them. I might as well have tried to make schematic drawings of a tornado or a hurricane.

Through those years and since, I’ve been given the opportunity to observe many brilliant drummers, often at close range. There was Dave Mello from Operation Ivy, Heather Dunn from Tiger Trap, Jason from Neurosis, Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, Mikey Erg of the Ergs and at least 57 other bands… Then there’s Aaron Cometbus and Ringo Starr, which might sound like an odd pairing, but as I was writing this, the similarity leapt off the page at me.

Not that they sound at all alike; in fact, what distinguishes Aaron and Ringo is that they each have an unmistakable and unique personal style, one which couldn’t be neatly slotted into any given band the way more metronomically inclined drummers can. Both Mikey Erg and Tre, for example, while absolutely vital to the sound of their own bands, could mount the throne behind almost any kind of band playing any kind of music and quickly sound like they’d been playing that way all their lives.

Aaron or Ringo, on the other hand, are not guys you’d call if you were looking for session musicians, even if you could afford them (Aaron’s fee might be a bit lower than Ringo’s, but only if he really likes your band). They’re the kind of musicians you build a band around, and you won’t succeed in doing that unless you’re able to accommodate yourself to rhythms the technique snobs might disparage as sloppy, but aficionados will recognize as deeply, quirkily soulful.

Despite being absolutely vital to a band’s existence, drummers are not universally loved. Some people see them as a necessary evil, to be kept chained up in the basement until they’re needed (a running joke among the Lookouts when Tre was in his most rambunctious teenage years). There are more jokes (mean-spirited but sometimes pretty funny) about drummers than about all other musicians combined.

Only lead guitarists, with their propensity for drowning out and overpowering the rest of the band with pointless solos, attract anywhere near as much abuse, but you can always turn down the guitarist’s amp or simply unplug him. No such remedy exists for an unruly drummer.

That might be why, even if it’s not fair, drummers get too little credit when things go well, and too much blame when they go terribly wrong. Anyone who plays music soon learns how essential it is to get along with your drummer, and how quickly your band is likely to fall apart if he or she quits. You can look for a replacement, but even if you’re lucky enough to find that rare gem who fits in with you, it will never be the same band again: you’ll all have to learn a whole different way of playing, not just with the new drummer, but with each other.

Just as a bassist serves as a bridge and conduit between the melodic and the rhythmic, the drummer operates as intermediary between the cerebral and the mystical, the prosaic and profound, the logical and the intuitive. You can rationally construct and order most elements of a song, but not the beat that gives it life.

For that you need to tap into something beyond words, beyond reason. Coming to understand that was what finally moved me beyond my teenage drumbeat/heartbeat analysis. Any half-competent drummer is tuned in to the beat of the planet, but to achieve greatness you’re going to have to go farther out than that and move as one with the universe itself.

Sure, tune out if you want, if you think I’m sounding like a sprout-munching hippie, but yeah, to me it seems not just likely but obvious that the planets, the solar systems, the galaxies stretching from here to wherever the hell they go are part of a single organism through which life courses just as it does through the cells and neurons and sub-atomic structures of our individual bodies.

And it’s all in motion, all at once, as chaotic on the surface as a Keith Moon or John Bonham solo, yet beneath it all flowing and breathing in perfectly effortless order. Some — okay, a lot of — drummers would laugh at the suggestion, but look closely at them when they’re in the zone, when the music goes beyond entertainment into total fusion of the mind, body, and spirit, and you’re liable to see the face of a Buddha, a Zen master, a prophet incapable of expressing anything other than absolute truth.

But just as the dao that can be told is not the eternal dao, if I could put all this into words that made perfect sense, you’d be missing the most important part of the story. Suffice it to say that drummers, including but not limited to my favorites that I’ve named here, are amazing, awesome, and sources of constant wonder. So much so that it’s really not that hard to forgive them for everything else.

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