Percussion prima donnas

Friday, January 12, 2007

One fact I've learned in my decade-plus of being an amateur rock musician: You can't rock without a drummer.

Sure, lots of people out there may make the case that you can: New Wavers with their drum machines, folkies with their acoustic guitars and bongos. Simply put, they're wrong.

Having a cavemanesque basher on the skins is essential to rocking. I'm a bassist, and I can play without a guitarist any time. But take away my drummer and the tunes you'll hear will not be rock 'n' roll, my friend -- they might be acoustic pop, toned-down prog or any number of things, but not rock.

A drummer and a bassist working in tandem are the key ingredients of rock 'n' roll. You don't even need a guitarist. For an example, check out a band named Death From Above 1979, now defunct. They made some great tunes with just bass, drums and some synths.

Drummers must be keenly attuned to the fact that they're the lifeblood of any good rock 'n' roll. Sure, all rock musicians are self-absorbed prima donnas with egos the size of the Indian subcontinent, but there's something different about drummers, at least the ones I know.

Drummers run on their own time and play by their own rules, even more than lead guitarists and frontmen. Yet the skin-thumpers are never the stars of the show.

The only explanation I can think of is that drummers know how important they are to any rock band, so they know that they can pretty much run the show.

Take John Bonham, for instance. Probably the greatest rock drummer ever to sit behind a kit, he died at the tender age of 32 in 1980, choking on his own vomit after a long day of drinking just before Led Zeppelin was to begin its first U.S. tour in three years. If that's not self-absorbed, I don't know what is.

Then there's Keith Moon of The Who, the runner-up in the "best rock drummer ever to sit behind a kit" contest. Moon was rather similar to Bonham -- a guy who bashed the skins like they were his sworn enemy, yet was able the coax the best sound possible out of bland old percussion. Moon also had a little alcohol problem, one that caused him to lose some of his drumming ability in later years, gain a huge amount of weight and indirectly cause his death in 1978.

Of course, my interactions with drummers are nowhere near as crazy as the stories behind Bonham, Moon and their respective bands. But since day one, when I first picked up a bass at age 14, drummers have been a thorn in the side of my guitarist/songwriting partner, Jeff, and I.

First came a man I'll just call Brad -- a player who showed hints of Bonzo's rhythmic prowess and power. Brad loved nothing more than to play music. I take that back -- he loved women just a bit more.

On countless high school weekends, Jeff and I would wait in our practice "studio," an old farm shop on Jeff's parents' farm we called "World Kingdom," waiting for Brad to rip himself away from the chick of the moment and sit on that empty stool behind the skins. Many evenings, he never did.

We'd go through other drummers with varying degrees of dependability over the years, but nothing can top the stunt pulled by our newest drummer on a scale of "you didn't show up for what reason?!"

Last weekend Jeff and I made plans with our new drummer, Ben, to jam out. Everything was set and ready to go. I got off work late, worrying that it would cut into our playing time. No such luck.

The appointed hour came for us to meet, and Ben was a no-show. We each called his cell phone several times, leaving messages with varying degrees of anger, all the while just wanting to know where on Earth he had disappeared to. Finally, we had to call the whole thing off, our one night to play music for an entire week wasted.

Soon after Ben called, a degree of apology in his voice I'd never heard from him before. You see, Ben's vice is much different than that which Brad suffered from. Ben likes to sleep, and while we were calling him, trying to find out what was going on, hoping he hadn't choked on his own vomit a la Bonzo, he was dozing away.

If you're a musician, or one of the many who hang out with them, then you know what I'm saying is true. Sure, not all rock drummers are like this. But I can't help but feel most are. And if you know one of them, then you doubtless know my years of frustration dealing with drum-pummelers.

But we need these beasts of burden to keep rock 'n' roll alive. Without them, we'd be just a bunch of players without a beat, without that touch of heavy that makes rock great. No matter how unreliable, how self-absorbed they are, we must have drummers, just like we must have politicians.

Jeff, Ben and I have plans to play again tonight. My only hope is that Ben can shake off his drummer nature this weekend. We'll see.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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