I sat down and did a drum roll when I was nine; it took about ten minutes to make it sound tight. My house was cold and empty around me like a refrigerator on food stamps. I remember the feel of the bouncing sticks in my hands and the loose rattle of their percussion. I remember thinking “huh. That’s just as easy as it looks.” I had a practice pad and a pair of Vick Firth drumsticks; both came from my father. I guess I looked listless in his eyes because he forced me to “choose an instrument” in the fifth grade; I chose the drums because they looked the easiest. Our elementary band had an odd little assembly after school. All the available instruments were laid out on folding tables. Most of them were spoken for. The director had a couple seats left in his saxophone section. He needed three trumpet players. The open flutes and clarinets were out of the question even though they looked awesome in their velvet cushioned shininess. But the lone drum looked fun. My dad didn’t buy it right away because they didn’t “take credit cards,” but I went home with a practice pad.
I was a struggling fifth grader and didn’t have much going for me. I was “husky,” as my mom called it, and addled by fast food malnutrition. I hated the term “husky,” especially when she’d shout things like “where’s your husky section?” to JCP employees that were yards away. I had poor hygiene, unfortunately, but when you’re left to your own devices in the middle of an arctic isolation as a nine-year-old, showers take a back seat to late night movies. My grades were abysmal, and socially, I was an Alaskan Pariah. Frankly, shit sucked. But that practice pad didn’t. It responded when I hit it. That pad did as I said and took my frustration. If my divorced parents argued, I did a drum roll. If the propane ran out, I learned a new pattern. When it got cold, when I got hungry, when the depression or anxiety tried to kick my ass, I played back.
The practice pad was eventually replaced by a Ludwig snare. I started to get good. Abnormally good. I learned a few basic beats on a drum set in middle school, then asked for a set and got one; my mom spent fifty bucks. The pattern continued. If life started being a bitch, I’d learn a new beat. It got to the point where I thought I was a badass. I tied my identity to my prowess upon a drum set’s throne. Through that identity, I found acceptance. It felt nice. This thing that I had fostered became the largest part of me. Now I was “Jesse the drummer” as opposed to whatever I was before.
But in the seventh grade, we went on a band trip to Chugiak, Alaska. There was this preppy little bastard in Chugiak’s band that came up to me after I had been playing on the school’s set. He was wearing a blue polo and had someone’s phone number written on the back of his hand in neon marker. He smugly said something like “hey, that was pretty good. Mind if I try?” I said “sure.” What could it hurt? I was a badass. That preppy little bastard sat down and played. He was better than I was. I remember just wanting it to end as he embarked upon solo after solo. His playing gathered a crowd. They cheered when he finished. A few kids that’d been there to hear me play literally pointed and laughed. I shit you not; it destroyed me. This preppy little bastard didn’t have strife like I did; he didn’t have anything he needed to “play through.” It wasn’t fair.
My parents shared joint custody, and the next time I went to my mom’s house, I demanded drum lessons (I knew I’d never get them in the vacuum of my father’s house). She found a student at the University of Alaska that was working on his master’s in music theory. His name was Doug. He was a professional drummer, and he agreed to teach me. Lesson after lesson, I did my best to enslave my talent and learn everything this professional drummer knew. It took me six years. It got to the point wherein it was no longer “playing” when I sat behind the drums. I still used them like before, to cope with things like fear and hate and my mom’s cancer, but now, I was mastering the drums. If I thought I was a badass before, now I was a battle bloodied ninja. I threw away that fifty dollar drum set, and my dad bought me a seven-thousand dollar drum set. He did it to appease the angst I had towards a new stepmom to be, but I didn’t care. I put that drum set in the loft of an outbuilding at our house and played it through the winter’s darkness year after year.
As a senior, our band took a trip to the Alaska State basketball championships. This time I was in the “pep band.” We usually sat behind the cheerleaders at games and played fight songs and shitty covers of Nirvana; anything to pump up the crowd. Our team was slated to play Chugiak first, and Chugiak had a pep band as well. As I looked over to the other side of the gym, I saw that preppy little bastard sitting behind the drums. He saw me and smirked. He hadn’t changed. The game got going and their band got to play at the first break. After their first song ended, their director gave the preppy little bastard a nod and he started into a solo. I was dumbfounded. The preppy little bastard sounded like shit; he hadn’t gotten any better than he had been in the seventh grade. His plush life in an unbroken home hadn’t given him any fuel. Complacency had kept him where he was, and he was content with the impotent cheers that his subpar playing earned.
It was our turn. We played our first song, and as it ended, my director, an incredible man named Mr. Chud, gave me a little nod. This time, I knew everything a master drummer knew. I had locked myself in the loft of an empty garage with nothing but a monstrous drum set for hours and hours and days and days. I had studied under a Jedi master and tried to learn everything there was to learn. I poured all of it out. I beat the unholy hell out of those drums. I splintered a stick and bloodied a knuckle; the scar is still there. I remember the hollow echo of that gym when I finally stopped playing; I could hear my breath and my beating pulse and not much else. Then the crowd erupted. The cheer leaders did their little dances and everyone stood, including Chugiak’s pep band. But that preppy little bastard didn’t move. He just stared at the sticks in his hand as if he held solace instead of hickory. I stood up and flipped him off. The cheers turned to laughter.
I know. It was a horribly trite thing to do, but I thought “fuck that guy and his preppy ass existence and his utter disregard for what drumming is…” But now I look at it differently. To him, drumming was one thing. It was playing to impress, to get cheers and girls, and that’s it. To me, it was a religion. We’d travel and play and compete and I’d never lose. There were a couple of drummers out there that were better at jazz, but when it came to everything else, I was on top. At the tail end of my senior year, we took a trip down to PLU in Tacoma, Washington for an “All Northwest Conference” band competition. And out of all the drummers there, everyone from Alaska and Washington and Oregon and Montana, I was the best. I got that coveted “first chair” title in the combined percussion performance, and somehow, that seat sated a latent desire for triumph.
I haven’t taken it too seriously since. I don’t “play” as much as I should, but I’m teaching my daughter and that feels even better (even though at one point, I didn’t think such a thing was possible). She has the skill and the talent, but she lacks that dark desire and drive I earned through pain and isolation. And that’s fine with me. The wife always gets on me to play with other people. She says I should get out, that I should just “let go” and find some people with guitars and basses and form some sort of middle aged man band. But it’s difficult. Ninety-nine out of one hundred times, those guys with guitars and basses are on a completely different echelon of music. I tried playing with an old neighbor once, but he stopped halfway through a song, told me that he was intimidated, and we drank beer instead.
I’ve tried to explain it to my wife but it hasn’t worked. I’m sure I came across as arrogant or even afraid, but it’s hard to put into words, even now when that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. It’s like this: I could get lucky, I suppose. I could find someone with a guitar who mastered it instead of played it, and we could mesh. Maybe I could find someone that’s right there with me, and I’d have an outlet for all this adult bullshit, but those guys are hard to find. They don’t like playing for others either. They don’t step out to play with random drummers because ninety-nine times out of one hundred, it sucked when they took the chance. To them, to us, this music is as private as it gets. It’s a shield, or maybe a weapon, that we forged in a private heat that’s painfully embarrassing. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s apt. When drumming is so important to me, so close to whom I am, it’s hard to share it with strangers. It’s a lose/lose situation. The rejection, which admittedly wouldn’t come, is petrifying, but so is the applause. Because even when people cheer, it feels like they’re clapping for my pain. It feels like they can see me, see me young and alone and dirty and “husky.” So I don’t play in public, and I probably won’t unless I come across another preppy little bastard who thinks he can play.