On being a bad drummer

I play drums and I play them badly.  Yep, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it, I just plain suck.  Not all the time, mind you, just some of the time.  Despite the fact that it takes all I’ve got just to stay on the beat, there are moments when I don’t stay on the beat.  Yep, most of the time, I suck.  And, I really don’t care.  Well, actually, I do care some of the time ’cause most of the time I don’t want to suck, but shit happens.

I started playing drums in 1983 ’round the time I turned 30 years of age.  I was in Tempe, Arizona, it was July, and I’m guessing the afternoon temp was about 120 degrees.  I was hanging inside with my buddy JR at his old place on Hardy and 5th St, and we were bored out of our gourds wondering what the hell we could do when it was hot enough outside to fry the soles off our shoes.  I think it was me who said something like, “Well, you know JR, I have always wanted to play the drums.”  And JR responded with something like, “Yeah, and I think I want to play guitar.”  OK, there was probably more to the conversation than that but that’s how I remember it.

That conversation led to all kinds of momentous changes, not so much for me, mind you, but definitely for JR who went on to become a master luthier (guitar builder) and a damn fine guitar player.  Me, on the other hand, I eventually became a bad drummer, one of the thousands if not millions of bad drummers across this great country.  And, if you have not already been able to tell, I’m kinda proud of it.

While I have never achieved a level of consistent playing that would make me be a “good” drummer, I don’t worry about it too much because … I have had A LOT of fun sucking behind the drum kit.  Much of that has to do with the fact that the friends and other musicians that I have played with over the years have tolerated my limitations and recognized that I am not afraid to fuck up.  In fact, one of the first band names that me and my mates came up when we formed a band, of sorts, way back in the 80s was “NATFU,” which stands for, “Not Afraid To Fuck Up.”  That was a damn fine name for our band as it captured the essence of our fearless approach to sucking.

In the formative stages, NATFU regularly rehearsed, and I use the term “rehearsed” loosely because they were more jam sessions with little to no structure.  The place we rehearsed can best be described as a non-ventilated basement underneath JRs abode.  It really wasn’t a basement per se because, as Zonans know, there are no stinking basements in Arizona, or at least, there did not seem to be any in the Phoenix area circa mid 1980s.

We dubbed our rehearsal space the “Super Cloud Lounge” and that was where NATFU (formerly known as Barking Spiders, which was our first band name that REALLY captured how we sounded back then) held its practice sessions.  At that point, NATFU was made up of JR, our friend Tommy (who could actually play guitar and write songs), our friend Skipper on bass (he sucked as bad as me), and me.  We played maybe 10 or so songs including a version of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” that we called “Dark Star Reggae” because we thought we could give it a reggae beat.  Oh god, did it suck.

And, the Super Cloud Lounge.  It does not exist anymore as the 5th and Hardy house was demolished and plowed to make way for the Tempe metropolis that exists today.  But the Super Cloud was quite a place.  It had virtually no ventilation, no windows, it was just a concrete room under the house, maybe some kind of bomb shelter or something from daze past.  This made it a VERY unhealthy place to practice because, back then, many of us smoked and that smoke had no where to go.  The room also got brutally hot with our equipment down there and so JR and Tommy came up with a brilliant idea to get some cool air circulating through the Lounge.

If memory serves me well, they first tried to use a portable A/C unit to cool the room.  Unfortunately, the room was so short of space that they had to put the unit at the top of the stairs above the Lounge and attach some sort of long tube that would allow the air flow downstairs.  Unfortunately, this idea did not work initially because the portable unit would overheat and get so damn hot that the only air coming down the stairs was … fucking hot!  Yeah, NATFU … true.  Eventually though, these geniuses figured it out and we somehow got at least some air circulating down what looked like a large wormhole,  and we were able to continue to jam despite the clear and present danger to our health.

Time moved on and then some weird shit started to happen.  Somehow, the word got out that JR had this downstairs place to play music and, before you knew it, people started showing up at The Super Cloud Lounge.  Moreover, some of these folks turned out to be real musicians.  Man, they made me nervous with their hanging out and watching us, and despite our best efforts, they kept coming around.  Eventually, they started bringing their own instruments and asked if they could sit in with us.  We stared at them in disbelief but said, “OK,” thinking all the while, “why the hell do you want to do that?  Can’t you see we suck?”

Then, bam, shit really got out of hand.  While still dazed and confused, the unfathomable happened … Some of these musicians asked if we wanted to be in a real band?  Ya know, like one that plays for money, has regular gigs … in front of audiences.  We were dumbstruck and at that very moment I think we answered “ok” but tried to say it as quietly as possible so that, maybe, they would not hear us.  No such luck, they heard us, and then, the ramifications of our reply began to hit us … Shit! Uh oh, this means we are going to have to try to get good.  A total mind fuck.

Let me be straight, I NEVER ever wanted to play in a band that actually had professional gigs.  In fact, way back when, I had stage fright and the thought of performing in front of audiences scared the shit out of me.  But there you have it.  Before I knew what hit me, I was playing in a band in Tempe and getting paid for it!  How the heck did that happen?  I still can’t fathom it because, all false humility aside, I really did suck.

The first real band we played in was The No Hobo Band.  They began as a duo and had a really great female singer and a good guitarist who I actually knew from back in Kansas City.  Many funny and some not so funny things happened over the course of playing in The No Hobo Band.  In addition to the duo of Don and Val, who were in fact full time professional musicians, the band included my friend JR, my friend Skipper, my friend Tommy, and then eventually my friend Steve.  Steve and Tommy didn’t suck but, at that time, JR, Skipper, and yours truly, had no fucking idea what we were doing.  And yet, we joined the band and, subsequently, we kept getting gigs, people kept coming to our shows, and to this day, I still can’t fathom it.

Our sustained popularity, if you want to call it that, was evident by the fact that some weeks we had at least 3 gigs a week.  We had one regular gig at the then Tony New Yorker Club in Tempe, on Thursday nights, that damn if I could figure it out, brought in a regular crowd.  We also played periodically at the old Long Wongs on Mill Ave in Tempe and there were times when the whole place was packed.  In fact, there was this one time when it actually started snowing outside during one of our gigs and those doors blew back and people ran outside and started dancing in the street!  WTF??

One of the things that was memorable about that Long Wongs show, besides the fact that it snowed in Tempe Arizona, was the presence of my 90 year old grandmother and my Dad who both attended that show.  My grandmother and my Dad were music lovers though they were not entirely familiar with the set we were playing that night, made up largely of Grateful Dead tunes (plus some originals, believe it or not, penned by my buddy Tommy).  I distinctly remember when we took a break after the first set, my Nana walked up to me and whispered in my ear in her inimitable NYC accent, “Dahling, I like this music, it’s good.  But please promise me, you won’t quit your day job.”  You see, even my Nana, who loved me dearly, knew that I sucked and just wanted to tell me in her own sweet way.

There were a few other memorable No Hobo gigs that bring back some fond and not so fond memories.  One of the more infamous events occurred at a club called The Metro in Phoenix.  It was a pretty big club and lots of people showed up.  Unfortunately, as we got ready to play, I noticed that there were at least a few folks in the room who looked no older that 16 years of age, too young to be in an establishment serving alcohol.  Unbeknownst to my band mates and I, these underage patrons were actually sent in by the local authorities as part of a sting operation, to catch the proprietors of The Metro serving spirits to minors.  Not only that, but the local TV stations were invited by the authorities to bring their cameras and join them in documenting this momentous bust.  We had no idea what was about to befall us …  It sucked.

Anyways, we were into our first set at The Metro and playing an old blues song called “Before You Accuse Me”, ironic I know.  At that very moment, the front doors of the Metro blew open and in piled the cops and a slew of TV cameras, lights, and reporters, filming the sting in real time.  My jaw dropped as this dramatic scene unfolded.

Anyways, being a bad drummer but possessing reasonable survival instincts, I quickly hid behind my large ride cymbal (I did not want my face all over the local news) as the storm troopers and media monsters swarmed inside.  Despite the absolute insanity encircling the band, somehow, I KEPT ON PLAYING!!  Well, OK, I did slow down a bit … OK, I slowed down A LOT ’cause, shit, there was a whole lotta commotion going on.  We never did finish that song or that gig, and it was, I believe, the last show ever performed at The Metro as the place was shut down for all sorts of violations.  More importantly, my hiding behind the ride cymbal worked, no one could see my face on TV as the bust splashed as the lead news story on every major network.  All the viewers could tell, thank goodness, was man, that drummer sucked.

There was another gig I remember.  Those of you from Tempe know that every year there is a big arts, food, and music festival called The Mill Avenue Street Fair.  There are hundreds of vendors of all kinds at the Street Fair and the sponsors of the Fair hold (or held) an exclusive show for the vendors on Saturday night.  This show usually has some popular acts, but somehow, No Hobo got invited to be the headliners.  To cut this story short, there was another band, a new group at the time, that opened the show for us.  They went by the name of The Gin Blossoms.  They were just high school kids at the time, but I distinctly remember their opening set and whispering to my band mates something like, “you know, those kids don’t suck.”

There were other gigs I remember, some of which were just for fun, jam sessions if you will, no audiences, no pay, just fun.  Those I really loved.  I recall outdoor performances near the Four Peaks just outside Phoenix, then a fun jam out on the Gila River Indian Reservation in which my friend Steve got so excited he took off running to who knows where.  Then, there was a private paid gig at a birthday or wedding party (can’t recall which) in which Steve brought out his sitar and performed during a break.  Steve did not suck.

Eventually, I got married, moved to Tucson, and quit The No Hobo Band.  No Hobo continued, disbanded, and some time passed.  Then, out of nowhere, my friends JR and  his friend Kim came up with this great idea to form a new Grateful Dead cover band, and they needed a drummer.  This band eventually called themselves The Noodles, one of if not the most popular Dead cover band in Arizona.  The story behind how the Noodles actually got their name, however, is a matter of some disagreement (and probably memory loss).  I seem to recall that JR, Kim and I were sitting around talking about the new band one day,and I think JR or Kim said, “Well, all we do right now is noodle, we should start putting songs together and have a band.  But what should we call ourselves?”  To me, it just seemed like “The Noodles” was the way to go and I thought, you know, that name doesn’t suck.

The first gig of The Noodles was in JRs backyard at a party for friends.  Our buddy Chris had joined the band on bass so it was JR on lead guitar, Kim on rhythm, Chris on the bass, and yours truly on drums.  This was March of 1997 and I remember that date for very specific reasons.  On that very day, the University of Arizona Wildcats Men’s Basketball team was playing the Number One seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the semifinals of the NCAA championships, at the VERY TIME OF OUR GIG!  How dare JR do this!  This circumstance made things very difficult for me and, suffice to say, my level of sucking achieved new depths that afternoon, for good reason.

Basically, I sped up like a mutha fucka to get to the end of every song as quickly as possible, so I could sprint inside JR’s house to see what was happening in the game.  Coincidentally, one of our friends at the backyard gig actually filmed part or all of the show and if you ever want a good laugh, you can watch me speed up on every song while my band mates yell at me and JR gives me the stink eye.  I was never so proud to suck.  Arizona beat Kansas that day and won the national championship that Monday!  Bear Down!

I abandoned The Noodles a few months later after my son was born and the band moved on to become really really good.  In fact, they play regular gigs in Arizona and have become incredibly popular.  JR has become a great guitarist and an even more amazing guitar maker and teacher.  Just incredible what has happened.  The Noodles don’t suck.

In 2017, I made the move to Reno Nevada for a job and hauled my drums with me, just thinking I would play them periodically by myself for fun.  Little did I know that my old buddy Steve now lived part of the year up at Lake Tahoe, and he had assembled a group of solid musicians who liked to jam and play Grateful Dead music.  Steve invited me up to jam with these guys and it was really fun, not to mention that jamming up at The Lake is unbelievable.  It does not suck.

But then, things started to happen … again.  The group, which eventually became known as “Tahoe Dead Project,” performed a gig at the American Legion Hall in South Lake Tahoe.  I think it was November 2017.  This was an amazing thing for lots of reasons but perhaps most amazingly was the fact that the stage we played on that night was the very same stage that the Grateful Dead had played on in that very building back in 1967.  Yeah, 50 years earlier!  That did not suck.

Our first TDP gig was inconsistent for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was that the drummer sucked.  JR came up from Arizona to sit in with us and that was a blast, but we also had various other lads who sat in with us that eve and, unfortunately, some of them just did not know what the fuck they were doing.  Yeah, they sucked worse than me.

All in all though, the first Tahoe Dead Project (TDP) performance was good enough to allow us to do it again the following year and then a few more times into 2019.  It has been quite interesting playing with my TDP mates.  One of the more fun aspects has been playing drums with my friend Adam – yeah, 2 drummers – which I had never tried before.  I can’t tell you what a joy that has been, even when I fucked up.  Adam does not suck.

My other TDP friends are all quality musicians and they have continued to put up with me.  Bless their hearts.  They have motivated me to try to get better, told me do things like practice and play with a metronome, be more conscious of slowing down, sing more songs, etc.  Wait … whaat?  They wanted me to sing??  Basically, do things intended to make me better when the fact remains, I suck.

OK, I don’t suck all the time.  There have been moments when even JR has said, “You nailed it.”  But that’s just not going to be me most of the time.  As the great drummer Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.”  Or something like that.  In looking ahead to 2020, I expect my TDP friends will continue to tolerate my sucking and call upon me to jam.  And, I won’t be shocked if we are offered more gigs up at The Lake, though I will continue to wonder how the fuck that happens.

I love playing with my TDP buddies, and that, to me, is the most important thing.  I don’t need real gigs to make it fun.  Jamming and fucking up left and right are more fun to me than feeling the responsibility of having to not suck when I play in front of an audience.  And that brings me to the end of this post.  I guess I like sucking, and I’ve become really good at it.

Of course, I could be wrong …

 


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