To the Beat of a Different Drummer
(This Is A Work In Progress)
"It would be a long while before I gave my heart to another drummer,
but this one would definitely bring a different beat into my life."
Keith. Buddy. Don. Carl. Neil.
Common enough first names - but put a pair of sticks into any of their hands and common had nothing left to do but drop its jaw, stare dumbstruck at the ferocity of hands, arms, and legs moving across and around the kit like no other mere mortal could possibly accomplish, and realize that what they were seeing and hearing was no simple wind-up toy or banging around on pots and pans.
Little drummer boy? How 'bout BIG DRUMMING MAN!
With the passing earlier in the year of Neil Peart - drummer and main lyricist for the Canadian rock trio, Rush - I found myself taken back in time to the age of 12 (for historical purposes that would be the year of 1974). This retrospective is going to focus on how I came to love drumming and drummers, especially a diverse class of traps masters: Keith Moon of The Who; big band and jazz legend Buddy Rich; the wild man behind the locomotive of Grand Funk Railroad, Don Brewer; prog-rock virtuoso in Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Carl Palmer; and The Professor himself, Neil Peart of Rush.
But, as all good stories go, it most logically begins with a small boy (me) growing up in the Bronx of New York City in the early 60's. That could only mean one name: Ringo.
The Liverpool Beat
He always seemed a lot fucking happier than he should be, you know - playing the drums and all. I mean, after all, it's just a couple of sticks, wood shells and steel rims, and some animal skins, come on am I right?
Sittin' up there, right on his throne, I'd be keyed on that guy in the back kickin' those cans like he was the King of England or somebody special. The Beatles were royalty, an invading army of four that mowed 'em down wherever they took the fight to. And it was Peter Starkey - aka Ringo Starr - that lined up the shots.
I mean, who didn't know a Beatles tune...one they could hum or strum air guitar to or, like me, tap out with anything in my hands on top of anything in front of me. Drove my mother crazy, as the saying goes. And here's this guy, just bouncin' up and down on the throne..."yeah, yeah, yeah..." and chicks were just losing it. He was definitely marching to the beat of a different drummer.
This guy was definitely not some mid-level brush swiveler looking for a steady gig on the weekends. I think it physically had to hurt to play drums dressed in Brian Epstein's branding suits but man, did Ringo kick the shit outta those cans!
I couldn't turn on a transistor radio (my musical weapon of choice from the age of 5 until 9) without hearing a Beatles song on some radio station up or down the dial. Everywhere and all the time. Yes, mania, hysteria, whatever the fuck I wanted to call it - it was infectious and I didn't care for nor want the cure. My oldest brother, Mickey, was in a rock band of his own - made up of a few close cousins from New Jersey and local boys from the Bronx. This was the same brother who made it to Woodstock and who also witnessed the madness of Shea Stadium.
Not being a rock critic or properly credentialed historian of music, I don't have a dog in the fight of whether or not Ringo - technically - is counted by others as one of the best or may be the lighter end of the drummers I'll highlight here for this discourse. You always remember your first love...and I loved this smiling mop-top from Liverpool. By the time Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was mainlined into the veins of humankind, Ringo had become the epitome of too cool for school with me. With The Beatles, Abbey Road, and Let It Be, he - along with John, Paul, and George - became more important to me than God, girls, or giving a fuck if any other music ever got made.
It was sometime in the Spring of 1970 when I first cried in front of someone I would consider a stranger. Nearly eight years old and precocious as fuck, I was sitting in the throne of pain that belonged to our family dentist, Dr. Brittan. He was a burly, balding man with strong hands, stale breath, and smelled of Old Spice. I was under the white hot light of the dental chair, getting some torture done on my crooked teeth when suddenly the drilling stopped. I looked up into Dr. Brittan's face and saw tears begin to well up in his eyes and stream down his cheeks. His dental hygienist pulled up in her seat next to me, and I heard her gasp for breath.
"I don't believe it," she said. "Oh, no..." Her voice trailed off into empty silence.
"What happened?" I mumbled through Novocaine lips and curiosity.
As always, Dr. Brittan had a radio playing loud in the background while he did his work. Trying to connect the dots with this man and his tears, I watched as he struggled with the words that kept trying to come out of his open mouth.
"The Beatles," he said at first, as if that were a complete sentence. "They broke up."
In the background, "Come Together" began thumping out of the office radio. My tears didn't need any permission to come together as Dr. Brittan picked up the drill, resumed road work inside my mouth, and the three of us cried silently together.
It would be a long while before I gave my heart to another drummer, but this one would definitely bring a different beat into my life.
The Big Band Swing
From the ages of 9 until 14, I began to listen to music through a totally different filter. What was the drummer up to? The youngest of six children - and with parents who had their own diverse musical interests, I began to discover new frontiers beyond the Fab Four. One such vista intersected with my father and mother's affinity for the Big Band, Jazz and Swing bands of their courtship days.
One force of nature, in particular, began to catch my eyes and ears - oddly enough, I didn't discover him through listening to their old vinyl records but by his appearances on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show.
Bernard "Buddy" Rich was a Brooklyn raconteur, establishing himself in the 1930's with such legendary bands led by Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Harry James. He was a known virtuoso of drum technique that combined both speed and power that made me sweat just watching him behind the kit, bent over like some Ludwig Quasimodo, hands and feet a blur while he grunted and smiled as if you'd never get the fucking joke so don't even try.
As a young boy and teenager, I first laid eyes on this whirling dervish of a drummer when I would stay up late during summer vacations from elementary and junior high school while living in upstate New York in the village of Coxsackie. If confessions are ultimately true, I would gravitate towards watching Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show on NBC for the chicks - those captivating female television and film stars that would show up and flirt with The King of Late Night. For some reason, the likes of Elke Sommer, Connie Stevens, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, and Angie Dickinson come to mind.
Yet it was the times that Buddy appeared on The Tonight Show that started something akin to a paradiddle in my heart, bones, and balls to want to play the drums. Now, to be fair, the Tonight Show band had a kick-ass drummer of its own under the leadership of Doc Severinsen. Ed Shaughnessy had this massive kit perched high atop the band stand. Whenever they would pan the cameras to him while playing, something inside of me said, "Yeah, I wanna play like that!"
Not many knew that Johnny had received a drum set as a gift from Buddy, and was not too shabby a stick man himself. Buddy made the most appearances of any jazz musician on the show, and every time he appeared he would either do a number with the Tonight Show band or engage in a solo for the audience's pleasure. Transfixed is the perfect word to describe how I would sit, watching my old black and white television as he literally made those cans his bitch. His cross-hand techniques alone would render me stupefied, mystified, and lead me to believe that only God could see how fast those hands actually moved.
Around the age of 13 (1975), I began to pester my parents to buy me something cheap to kick the shit out of myself. My oldest brother, Mickey, had gifted me with an old Kent snare drum that I would practice on with a pair of borrowed sticks from my elementary school band room. During those days, I was taking piano lessons in town from Christine Kuiper, the sweet and talented wife of a local Unitarian church pastor who everyone suspected of being in the closet. Some more truth be told, I had a crush on Chris and couldn't wait each week to go with my sister, Amy, to the Kuiper house on Washington Boulevard for our lessons. We had a piano at our house that was available to practice and perform on, but sitting next to Chris each week, feeling her leg tight against mine, the delicious aroma of her body, her smile and kindness, well...I digress. I was also second chair trombone with the elementary and junior high bands at Coxsackie-Athens school for a number of years, and it was through this affiliation that I began to meet other peers my age who loved to drum, play other instruments, and encouraged me to join them in a band.
I'm not sure where Kenny Vetter is today. I know my other drumming compadre, Julian Starr (absolutely no relation to Ringo), died way too early in life. These two cats were also beginning drummers - and it was an elementary school talent show where I saw Kenny on his own kit on stage playing his ass off to the Theme from S.W.A.T. that literally made me want to drum on my own. I would go over to his house and just stare at his Ludwig kit, adult sized and with those gleaming Zildjian cymbals that made my mouth water. I had little to no rudimentary skills, no formal drum training, but I've always been able to keep the beat and play by ear to music I loved listening to, so Kenny would let me sit on the throne and we'd put records on his turntable, blast the volume, and just take turns having fun with it. Oh, he had twin older sisters (Vicky and Veronica) that were to die for - so maybe, like a lot of wannabe drummers I was in it for the girls.