The slide guitar begins.
It fills the monitor and fills the stage and fills the venue and it fills me up, hitting the frequency of my being.
My back straightens and I settle solidly on the drum stool. My hips are right angles; my feet melt into the pedals.
I breathe deeply, drawing the smell of bodies and heated tubes and beer-soaked carpets and taps and electricity into my lungs and I rest, unclenching my chest muscles and shoulders. The air runs down my center and into my diaphragm.
My pores expand and the sound enters, vibrating the channels in my veins open, widening tracks around my veins as they travel through muscle and tissue.
I become a cavity for sound, and nothing touches anything.
The sticks lie on the snare drum and my hands rest lightly on my thighs but I don’t feel them. Behind my eyelids, round shapes trail colors across my vision, reflections of the lights above.
As my head tilts upward the light becomes white; white light and sound become my reality and my mind is as porous as my body.
Sound passes through me as a wind through grass. Though so far tonight on this stage I’ve been a piece of machinery conveying the music, now the music carries me.
My shoulders fill, my back broadens, the light gets whiter, hotter, and my head falls down slightly and starts moving from side to side, sweeping the ears back and forth to gather more of the sound. Power expands my core and now with an electric shiver everything feels; all sensation comes alive and awareness sweeps in waves.
The sticks are in my hand and the cue is coming.
My eyes race back and forth behind the lids and colors flash and feeling leaps from place to place: the stick on my first finger, my forearm resting on my leg, the feet heavy on the pedals, the heat at the top of my head, and above all, the breath, the breath traveling to the deepest part of my center and radiating out along its path.
I hit the first crash cymbal and lock into the pattern and I’m not me; my body plays with a power and connection to the sound, but there is no thought as I stare wholly into that light and the song. I feel the strength of my upper arms in a dreaming, detached way. The tree trunk of my back sways. This is not my body. It is so strong, with so much power, and quick flashes of worry that the strength will end spark like fireflies. I just observe, drifting into light, aware only of slide guitar in nothingness. When the measures end and we stop for the first interlude, a radiant joy not from me but from inside the slide guitar fills all space in the universe.
The body begins again.
I need to open my eyes to catch the cue. That eventuality bears down and my mind floats back to the room. A ripple of dread tracks through my skin. I want to keep in this moment. I want to keep my eyes closed and my mind empty and my body taken over by some unknown spirit which plays the drums, but I need to catch the cue from the guitarist. I’m unsteady between two realities. In this reality I’m only a shadow of the bright light of the slide guitar. In that reality the guitarist is turning around, lifting the guitar, cueing me for the abrupt stop.
In the moment of silence I come rushing back. With my own mind, my own body, my own doubts and inabilities, the song continues and I’m required to think and count and remember.
As the last note rings out, whatever spirit or entity that has been playing the drums is gone. I open my eyes and the lights with their small halos black out the audience. The air seems thin. I lean over to pick up my water bottle off the ground before the next song, and chide myself behind the protective curtain of blonde hair.
“You’re such a Hippie!”
I shake my head slightly. At the edge of my vision I see someone standing on the corner of the stage and my heart leaps up for a moment, until I see it is a curtain on a microphone stand. I’m always seeing ghosts in rock clubs, and it’s usually my dad. No matter how many years go by, I’ll always be sad he never saw me play. He died at 54, a couple of years after I started taking drum lessons. He was the ultimate music fan. Every time my family sees me play, someone says, “Dad would have loved this.”
The guitarist steps toward me and wipes her guitar with a towel. She gives me a smile. I have an interior conversation with her. I hear her tease me.
“Dude! Too many trips around the universe, you think? As long as you’re channeling spirits, why don’t you see if you can conjure up Jimi for me. Or hell, what about Django?” She smiles at me as she steps to her pedalboard, oblivious to my train of thought.
Okay. A peace settles on me and as we launch into the next song I joyfully bash my critical mind into silence. Let me be a channel, I think. I don’t care how it would sound to say it. I’m open; let the bass line carry spirits along my own little river of blood. My wrists are so loose and I’m barely holding the sticks as they bounce off the drum heads.
The chorus hits and I’m lying on the carpeted floor of a beat-up van hurtling to a barter festival in 1987. It’s pitch dark, and I know people around me are talking and laughing but all I can hear is Zeppelin, so loud I’m on my own rolling planet of sound. If this is the way I go, I think, well so be it. Transport me. A rumbling chaotic cocoon of music flying into the night, Immigrant Song carrying me into space, and I am overcome with love.
I will love this music like I love a person, forever. That girl in the van has dreams that never anticipate this stage tonight. It would have made her happy if she knew this was coming.
The solo section! My mind splays out on the drum-set like I just tripped over a curb. Eyes open, sharply aware, the critic rushes back. The lights are hot and the monitor feeds back and interior dialogue shouts a tirade.
“Goddamn it! If you would fucking practice you would know what the hell to do in this part!”
I come out of a drum fill in a jerky, ridiculous way and the guitarist looks back and gives me a surprised look. “Dude! Hold it together!”
I reach for patterns that don’t make sense. I yell out, trying to draw myself back into the flow, into the cocoon, but it’s gone and I crab at myself for the rest of the song.
“Terrible, terrible drummer! Fraud!”
I could crawl off the drum throne and hide behind the bass rig.
“Had to be a drummer. Couldn’t be a front-person and be able to get drunk and be excused. Yet another case of the limited thinking that’s informed your whole fucking life.”
Humility, you are musicianship. I pull jagged breaths into my throat and can’t remember how it feels to breathe deeply. I try to get back to anywhere else I’ve been tonight, but I look at my drums and the equipment all seems off by millimeters. The seat is too high, the snare too low, the ride cymbal tilted weird; it’s a wonder I can play at all.
On top of that, the stage is fucking hot. My hands have trouble holding on to the sticks, and I remember a drummer who spent time sanding his down before every show. I guess I shouldn’t have made fun of him. Who’s laughing now, asshole? I concentrate on keeping the sticks in my hands and a blister has formed and is screaming. The singer’s milking some of the outros a little more than usual, and that pisses me off too. I disappear into a pocket of rage and assault the drums until my thoughts speak only transcription.
Out of the guitar solo into the drum fill: lead with the right hand, snare then tom, fall into the last verse, fall through time, adjust the push into pull, back and back and back. Hit that last fill… lead with the left on that one, don’t mess it up, wait until it builds right until you finish. INTENTION. Redeem yourself here, jackass. Crash. Done. Put your head down and hide you hack of a human being.
Now a guitar change. I lean down for more water and wipe the hair off my face. Check the hi-hat clutch and look around, glare fiercely at how everything is positioned, and then close my eyes and straighten my back, and let it go.
Just let it go.
I rub my hands on my pants, turning them over to dry a little, and breathe deeply, long deep breaths that I force into my diaphragm and release. I wonder if anyone ever notices me struggling to settle my breath. Don’t force, just observe.
The breaths come easier and the room fades away.
The slide guitar begins.
My head tilts toward the lights and my breath radiates to the tips of my fingers and runs the length of my body, opening up every muscle like water running over a stone path. Music fills me. The light behind my eyes explodes. The song starts and I am not the one who plays. These are not my hands striking the drums, the cymbals; that is not my foot on the pedal. My shoulders are wide and strong, and a spark runs to every corner of my body in a glory of sensation: the wood on my fingerprints, the vinyl seat on the back of my thighs, the smell of electricity at the back of my throat, the ache in my neck, and the light, the light that prisms through my mind and combines with the sound of the slide guitar to create a lightning sky.
I’m surprised when water spouts impulsively in my tear ducts like sprinklers.
As a child, my room was a bass trap. I woke weekend mornings with the sound of my father’s stereo cranked up, the bass guitar bleeding through the walls. I would lie there wondering, trying to figure out the song by that dark clue. I’ve always said this is why I played drums. My first love was listening to the bass. It was early training in distinguishing the separate musical parts that make up a song.
I launch into the pattern, my body leaning behind the beat, and now I’m calling up those early mornings with my father’s Southern rock blasting us awake. A funny patience passes through me, the image of a father with a child on his feet learning dance steps. I inhabit another body and lead the limbs through the motions.
I smell my father’s skin.
The wide hairy chest, the thick black head of hair, the enormous hands coarse from years of manual labor, the scratch of his chin, the big belly, that haven of a body. Protection in his powerful arms, drowsy naps on the couch, my feet in his hands, and I protected him too… peeling his sunburned skin up between the hairs on his arm, walking on top of him to get the kinks out of his back. The light behind my eyes gets brighter, so white I get lost in blindness, and lost in the enveloping sadness of my father’s smell I spin further away.
A flurry of images: sitting on his shoulders, pulling down on a chain on a garage door; he’s showing me how to dance “not like that, listen to the rhythm, like this…;” his booming voice, hands pulling me from the water, cradling me in a towel, carrying me to bed, rubbing my back, tagging me out, showing me how.
The boat is in the center of glass, and we float on the pivot of morning watching the red sunrise off the rocks.
Dad’s body, the barrel chest, the arms so strong, the thick legs, the fat solid feet. I always miss the man but right now I miss his body, a physical presence that I knew intimately as a child knows her parent. My limbs ache and grow thick and heavy; beating the drums beats blood into my heart that is breaking. His blood flies through my veins as the song plays on.
Words spill over the top of my brain like water from a garden hose.
Stay with me Dad.
I watch words take the path of my breath to the tips of my fingers.
Stay with me.
Words I never got to say pour over my tongue.
Stay with me, it’s okay, just stay with me.
I repeat it over and over as I feel him fading away. It becomes a part of the rhythm I play, a mantra that drives the tempo of the song. I lose all power and am a child, a little girl stumbling in sadness.
Daddy. Dad. Don’t leave. Stay with me.
My eyes open. He’s gone in that second and I choke on the emptiness and hit the cymbal with an arm weighted with sorrow. I’m alone on stage and see no one. I look into the lights above and try to open that space back up for him; I try to keep my heart forlorn. It works for a time. But the venue is so loud, sticks are slipping in my hands, the air is thick and it’s difficult to swallow, there’s someone in the front row waving his arms, the audience roars in my ears, the vocal sounds pure and strong and I love the way she sings this part. I love this song.
This is what I wish I never learned. The true pathos is that life goes on.
The band plays on.
Lead with the right on this one, start in triplets and run through the toms with sixteenths. My favorite fill. The guitarist and bass player look back at me as I come in strong to the outro and we share a moment of real connection and love for this reality, right now. I’m wrapped up in love for these songs through the rest of the set and feel happy.
Once, during Whole Lotta Love, I catch that curtain and microphone stand in the corner of my eye, and for the rest of the song I let it be Dad, rockin’ out side stage the way he would have done; my father, the one who taught me to hear.
You can hear me read this here: https://soundcloud.com/clemthegreat/whole-lotta-love or on my iTunes podcast, HERE.