Friday, December 19, 2014

The Drum Aesthetic

I have referenced my ridiculous attraction to the appearance of drum sets before, but...I remember...

My father had a recording studio in our house for awhile. I was but a lad at the time; maybe in middle school. After a session, a great area drummer named Carl Mattola, who was a cool guy and a good friend of my dad's, left his drums behind in anticipation of an upcoming session. The thing was, he hadn't left any sticks, so I couldn't play them.
Gavin Harrison's set on a King Crimson tour: potential energy.

I had never played the drums before and now I had to just look at them. But, I could see something in that little Pearl four-piece set. At the time I wouldn't have been able to articulate it, but there was tremendous beauty in that silent sculpture that is a drum kit. It was the aesthetic of  potential -- potential energy; potential for human movement; potential for explosive or shimmering sound...

Here, a cymbal hung in perfect reach; there a pedal for one foot; there a pedal for the other foot. The drum set was a mechanism for a kind of Tai Chi movement of four limbs at different times and in different ways; there was the potential of bringing the disparate instruments of a hi-hat cymbal (that could hit or played with the feet) a crash cymbal, a "ride cymbal," a snare drum, a kick drum and a mounted tom-tom and a floor tom all into focused rhythmic pattern that could only come out of a musical oneness with Tao or Zen or "The Groove" whatever you wanted to call it.

I'd sit with my feet on the pedals and imagine playing. I'd envision it. But... no sticks.

After a while, I'd move to the front and look at the shining chrome hardware and at the golden-colored cymbals and at the pearly finish on the drums themselves. The lugs on the shells were in perfect order, each one applying balanced pressure to bring the drum head up to the right pitch -- a head on either end of the drum balanced with itself and the other head, waiting for the movement of air that would produce a sound that balanced somewhere between refinement and barbarity.
Dave Weckl: perfect order; endless tone colors.

The instrument itself had all of the potential to show the strengths a man should have: art, subtlety, flexibility, strength, coordination, sensitivity, intellectuality and primal power, when necessary.

Remembering how Carl would seem so effortlessly to move around the drums, I would envision myself as their master. Or, better still, their uniter.

And behind all of that there lived a conductor's instinct in me. It wasn't a desire to just add a part to a song, as I had as a trumpet player. I didn't want to just be one note of a chord. I wanted to drive the band; to usher in big chord changes with ghost-strokes on the snare into swell of a thin crash's shimmer; to build toward a big section shift with eighth notes, one  hand on the snare and one on the floor tom...

The drummer is the band's shepherd. If he doesn't keep things together rhythmically, there is no hope for the flock to stay together. A bad drummer causes a good band be bad no matter how good the other musicians are. To this day, it is a responsibility that I sometimes do and sometimes don't live up to.

Sure, there's the look of a drum set -- the beautiful finishes, the brightness of the metals, the individual drummer's ergonomic and aesthetic sense of how they look attractive when set up on stage... But there is such a beautiful potential in a drummerless drum set and I don't think I will ever tire of looking at it...no matter how weird I might look between sets looking up at a stage without a band on it.

My own potential energy.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Remember me...but...forget my fate."

Yesterday, I was driving drowsily home. I turned off of the main road, onto a sort of sub-main road; a busy little side street that runs past some schools and businesses.

The speed limit is 25. No one does that, but no one "flies," either. Between obstructing cars parked on the side, I saw something topple and I tapped my brakes. My brain tried to make sense of it. It had all of the characteristics of a falling tree -- a small one, but rigid and straight, all of the way down. As I got closer, I saw an old man, half in the roadway, his cane pinned under him. He was motionless.

I stopped the car and put on the hazard lights. I crouched next to him.

"Are you okay, sir?"

"I think I hit my head." He was bleeding from the forehead. "I guess I can't even walk anymore."

This was familiar territory for me. My dad went through this kind of thing, both the physical falling and the visible shame of a dwindling list of strength-affirming things he could do on his own. I had picked him up many times, both physically and mentally. (Sometimes I failed to "pick him up" on the mental end.) Not all experiences are good, but, sometimes good comes out of them: I knew what to do.

I helped this old man to sit up and rest for a minute, then I put my hands under his arms and used my legs to help him stand. (It is astounding how heavy a little old man can be.)

Before long, I had him holding onto a street sign for support. I got a rag out of my glove box and gave it to him to hold up to his bleeding head. "Do you have a car?" he asked. "Can you take me home?"

I spent a minute searching in the fallen leaves for his pipe and then I helped him into the car. He told me what street he lived on and I turned around.

"Do you live close?" he asked.

"Yes, I do -- down by the drugstore."

"I don't know the neighborhood. I'm in exile. Sort of in exile, since my wife died. I'm from New York. I live with my daughter now. I guess I can't even walk anymore."

We turned onto a side street into a very old neighborhood -- one in which Walt Whitman had lived during the summers; his house still stands there -- and he directed me to an old, blue Victorian mansion with a great tower, complete with a weather vane that scratches the clouds. Today, it is an apartment building -- much to my disappointment.

I knocked, at his direction, on one of the many doors and a young man -- maybe twenty -- answered. I explained that his grandfather had fallen and that he was in my car. "I'll get my mom," the kid said, with heavy lids and an empty grin, as if I were delivering a pizza.

She came out and we helped her father up the stairs. (She and I did. The perfectly healthy, sloth-like grandson contributed by carrying his grandfather's pipe, and that only after his mother told him to.)

The old fellow sincerely thanked me over his shoulder as he was being shuffled in by his daughter. "I guess I can't even walk anymore," I heard him say to her, right before the screen door slammed.

I hadn't gotten his name. I really wish I had, for some reason. It keeps coming back to me that I should have asked. I feel like, somehow, he deserves to have his name known. I don't want him to just be an old man I am writing about. I want him to be Martin or Stephen or Mr. Lewis or...himself. It's not fair for someone to live that long and to have raised a family and to have had a career in New York and to just be remembered as "that old man who fell." A life's journey shouldn't culminate in a moment like that in anyone else's eyes.

Maybe, one day, I will go back and see if he needs someone to go for a walk with. I could tell him that there is no shame; that he should be proud of himself for getting out there and trying to keep himself strong...that I respect his defiance against decline and I respect his pipe and his cane and his brown suede jacket, the chill and leathery scent of which I will remember, from lifting him, for the rest of my life. That I respect that he was concerned about returning my rag until I told him not to worry about it...

I pulled out of the driveway, looking up at the weather vane against the stainless steel sky of winter.

As one might expect, the emotions flooded in; all-too-recent memories of my dad; thoughts of the cruelty of fate or of whatever it is that likes to make us suffer and slip as much as possible at the end of our lives -- that tries to bring us as low as possible before it releases us into the Great Beyond.

Apparently, my memory had been jogged, earlier, by having flipped past a horrible rendition of Purcell's "Dido's Lament" (here's a good version) on the radio just before I had seen the old fellow fall. But the lines came back to me and it occurred to me that they are perhaps the most profound final wish ever captured in lyric: "Remember me, remember me, but, ah! forget my fate. Remember me, but, ah! forget my fate."

I'm sure it is what I'll want, at the end. Remember me, not the echo of who I was right before the sound of me was stolen forever. Hear me, in your mind, as the sound of a single hand clap in a cathedral; don't remember me as the lingering tail of its echo.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Music: The Lyrical Steroid

How does the listening public hear certain song lyrics and not demand recompense for the time lost in listening to them?

Yesterday, Bryan Adams's old song, "Heaven," came on the radio. It came out when I was in high school. I think it was our prom song in '86. That lyric is a pile of cliches. That's all it is.
"Now, nothin' can take you away from me.
We've been down that road before
But that's over now.
You keep me comin' back for more."
It must have taken him about eight minutes to write. (But what more can you expect from a guy who would go on to write a song called "18 'Till I die"?)

"How can anyone allow this happen?" asks the lyricist in me. "How can you people listen to this?" asked the teenaged, progressive rock/classical-loving high school kid I was...

Well, I know how. And between you and me, I, too, have fallen prey to bad lyric songs: they're relatable, which is the stuff of a cliche, in the end. But the main reason this happens is that music kicks the proverbial butt of all other art forms. People can see lyrics as "good enough" because music is to lyrics what steroids are to a 40+ home run hitter; it can raise the most inane drivel into the realm of the sublime.
"Hmm... 'Poopsie, you are everything I need..'
No. 'Baby you're all that I need.' That's it!"

It's not that Bryan Adams is a master composer, by any stretch. It's that music is that powerful. Even a simplistic chord and song structure like the one in "Heaven" is impressive to the non-musician's ear. Float that mediocre music and brainless lyric out there to a hormonal sixteen-year-old who is convinced that the girl he met in chemistry class is worth dying for because she is a good kisser, and you are guaranteed success.

I can just see my classmates delving into each other's eyes on the dance floor...boys singing into the girls' faces ("Baby you're all that I need..." ) and the girls tearing up as if they had just been presented with a wax-sealed Shakespearean sonnet.

Friday, December 12, 2014

My Wife Is Not My Dream Girl

My wife is not my "dream girl."
Karen in a hat.


The girl I used to dream about was...different than my wife. She was very visibly artsy. She had an English accent that was probably more of an American actress's approximation of one than it was real. She looked cute in hats and wore floral summer dresses year 'round. She read the Romantics every night before bed. She was as obsessed with creativity as I am. She was a character that I had "written;" she wasn't a person.

I even met this girl. In fact, I broke up with my wife (who I was dating, at the time) to go out with this girl. My wife had (clearly, with complete accuracy), stepped back and taken a "you'll be back" attitude. She was right. It took about three dinners with my dream girl for me to realize I was...bored. We had plenty in common; she was attractive and intelligent; she was sweet. We got along great. But...after a few great conversations, we had sort of run out of stuff to say.

My wife-to-be, no doubt having sensed the perfect time for the coup de grĂ¢ce, showed up at a crowded gig looking stunning (to say the least) and that prompted my stream of consciousness into a realization that I had, indeed, made the wrong move. The rest is history -- including my "dream girl."

Karen and I are very happily married and have been for nearly seventeen years, now. I know it is unfashionable for creative types like myself to be happy at all, let alone happily married. (I almost feel I have to be apologetic for not being an alcoholic or an insomniac.) But just as I realized that I don't have to fit the artistic cliches, I eventually realized we are all making a mistake when we set out in search of a "dream" partner. We're bound to paint a two-dimensional picture and where's the satisfaction in hugging a cardboard cut-out?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Missing Dignity

I miss dignity.

I recently saw an "article" about things couples do when they have been together for a long time. One of them was "you let him pee in the shower when you are showering together." There is such a long list of ways that this shows a lack of dignity that I can't give it the time required...

If this (at best) unhygenic practice is common, first of all: welcome to the Express Bus Ride to De-evolution. Second of all...why would anyone write about this? -- why would in Internet-reading world admit to the truth of this, if it were the case? Lack of dignity is the only thing I can think of.

A lost look of dignity? 
The other day, I saw a clip -- I guess it was from a game show -- in which a woman admitted that she has an agreement with her mistrusted man. When he goes out without her, she writes her name on [How shall I put this on a dignified blog?] him. If he comes home with the ink smudged, she knows he has cheated.

It's strange enough to do this, but, to go on TV and admit it? Total lack of dignity. Even if Sharpie Girl made it up to get on TV, it still shows a lack of dignity: she is willing to make a fool of herself for fifteen minutes of fame.