A Drumset Is No Place for a Mind

I lost the pedal for my kick drum last weekend. Last I checked, I was packing it in my suitcase, and then when I got back from Colorado, no longer in the suitcase. They’re not massively expensive items, but it’s one of those things that takes time to work in, to adjust in order to get the proper rebound and tension. I’d played with this one for three years.

For the non-drummers reading this, making the song feel good has so much to do with the kick drum. It’s the pulse in the dance song you love in the club, the relentless pounding on the quarter note that shakes the booty. In rock songs, it’s often that same pulse, but in rock it’s called “four on the floor,” which means you’re pounding all four quarter notes in a measure with the right foot on the biggest drum. AC/DC are masters of this. read more

Finding Peace at Altitude

This weekend, the band headed to Colorado for three shows. I flew into Denver the night before everyone else because the altitude always messes with me. Playing drums is such physical exertion, and the lack of oxygen manifests in ways that I dread. First, I feel that I can’t lift my arms very high when I play or all the blood drains out, so I change my motions, keeping my arms closer to my sides with smaller movements. This means that I am more in my head as I play, and when I’m thinking more, it is more difficult to find that free, open and spacious no-mind place that makes for joy in playing. read more

Letting Go of Envy: The Secret Weapon

I started learning to play the drums in my 20s, a decade after many people I play with started learning their instruments. The common story is that they fell in love with music as a pre-teen, were given a guitar or convinced their folks to buy a set of drums, and then for years they jammed with their friends in the basement of the kid with the coolest mom, and made their way from there.

I have long envied this common background of my peers. When you learn anything early on like that, certain things are so second nature that it is unfathomable that everyone wouldn’t know how to do them. You see this in every walk of life: the kid who learns to debate at the kitchen table with his attorney parents, the artist who doesn’t remember not knowing how to draw, the skateboarder who can’t see how it’s possible that anyone could be unsteady on a board. read more

Awakening the True Self

There is a place I go when I’m playing drums, on stage, with the monitor distorting the guitar line and lights streaking heat onto my eyelids. As decibels rage and as my body bends and powers and strikes, I drop into a place where time hangs in silence. Thoughts of moments past, thoughts of moments future, they drift through this silent place and try to catch me in their nets. Sometimes I can’t help but be brought up to the surface, to the noise and fracture and worry, and when that happens I’m dropped abruptly into the cacophony of the venue around me. read more

The Eternal Bliss of Birthday Cake

This birthday, there were four cakes.

The first was served Saturday before the actual date, in Tucson, with a friend who had the marvelous vegan delight specially made from lemons in his yard.

The second was the next day, in Southern California: a three-layer lemon perfection made by my sister, who understands the value of pudding as filling.

The third was on my actual birthday: a slice of magic sponge following a delicious paella at a sweet Spanish restaurant next to the cable car tracks.

The next day, on stage, the girls in the band presented me with a dense, princess-style berry-laden cake that I sampled at 4:30 in the morning when I finally got home. read more

Here, There and Everywhere

I woke up with this thought in my head: that no matter how complicated something is, if there is truth to it, somehow we can’t help but respond to the essence of the thing. I think about that when I have attempted reading James Joyce. When I listen to Tony Williams play drums. When I read about physics. Even if my brain doesn’t understand it, my body does. The beauty of the words, the spider web of rhythm, the barely understood but evocative concepts, in these things I let go of words and concepts and just experience the light of the thing itself. read more

Broadway and Bleecker

There she is, a 20-something girl standing behind the bar at a diner on the corner of Broadway and Bleecker, playing Continental Rummy with Gus the Drunk and looking out into the still, snowy night. The diner is nondescript, and the pink light of a neon sign bathes the restaurant in rosy glow. For $2.50 on weekday mornings you get eggs and meat and toast and coffee. That’s what year it is, when breakfast cost $2.50 in New York City. The bar is open from 8:00am until 4:00am, although during the week if it is absolutely dead she gets to pack up at 2:00. On this night, there is a couple sitting at a table getting a late night snack, and at the bar, Gus and Jerry. Gus drinks brandy and milk to go easy on his ulcer. Jerry drinks coffee. He’ll switch to vodka down the road and the girl will discover why the coffee years are the good ones. read more

The Heartbreak of Instruments

If it isn’t apparent by now, I will say again, I love playing drums. Often, at the end of the night as I’m packing them up, loading them out, someone comments on the extra work of a drummer, all those pieces and the hassle. My standard response is, “That’s the price you pay for playing the best instrument.” I really never mind it, the setting up and tearing down, lugging around that heavy box of hardware or those cumbersome cases. It’s the price I pay.

There is one thing that I envy about guitarists, though. I envy the ability to just pick up your instrument and play it whenever and wherever you are. I have a vision of being able to lie on the couch and watch a romantic comedy while my fingers practice geometry on the strings. I have a set of practice pads that I can sit down at in my home, but it’s still more of an effort than I imagine it is with a guitar. It’s not comfy. read more

La Vie En Rose

I got into a French mood the last couple of days. It rained pretty much non-stop in San Francisco and it seemed that Edith Piaf should be the backdrop here. I love the wistfulness of music from that far-away time. I was wondering about that feeling, so powerful, that romantic yearning for a different era. I was overtaken for an afternoon and watched Les Regles du Jeu, rated the all-time best French movie, from 1939. I got lost for a while in the romance of it all.

I feel so much gratitude for this ability to fall so deeply into this sort of emotion. Beauty is sustaining. I know that Edith Piaf’s life was difficult and yet out of it came music that can fill up a rainy evening with exquisite depth and magic. This music stretches through the years and lights up a life so far from where it originated, both in time and space. read more

Song By Song

The apartment faces North, and in San Francisco that means that the air that blows through is coming down from Alaska. It’s always cold here. There is a battle over the heat, one person mindful of the cost of having the house cozy and one person who wants the house cozy, dammit. Much of the time, I’m in blankets and sweaters and sometimes as a statement, a coat.

My friend in the East is watching 12 inches of snow fall. I miss the snow. My body has become acclimated to constant Springtime, but I do miss the magic of the seasons. The quiet and relentless snowfall. The blood-red forests of Autumn. That moment at the end of the sweltering Summer when the Fall announces itself in one ancient sigh. read more