Drums

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.

Drums

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Martian Lit

It’s always the assistant editors and first readers that like my stuff. The young people. The cool kids. I’ve always imagined them as trendy little hipsters sitting around the slush pile with bloodshot eyes and paper cut fingers. They’d find my submission and connect with the vernacular while forgiving my mechanical missteps. They’d read it and like it because we had something in common and then put my story on the “maybe” pile.

 

But eventually, they’d have to awake the senior editor. They’d walk into his tomb armed with torches and open his creaking coffin to find him dressed in his sweater vest. He’d sit up slowly, pinch his monocle between his brow and his hooked nose, and then peer down onto my manuscript. “What is this?” he shrieks, “This heathen befouls our beloved publication by submitting stories about hillbillies with superpowers? Bah!” Then, of course, my story would disintegrate into ash as the senior editor sucked out all its promise. The ashes would fall to the floor with all the others as the senior editor reclined once more into his coffin to drift back into a slumber chalked full of dreams about killing puppies or some such. Absolute bullshit.

 

Martian Lit, on the other hand, is piloted entirely by the cool kids. They recently accepted one of my submissions and published it here: http://martianlit.com/magazine/1407/ken-doll-jesse-anderson/. They even commissioned artwork for it, which I love, and helped me to polish off a few mechanical discrepancies so I could make the best possible first impression with their readers. The antithesis of bullshit.

 

Remember that song “Plush” by STP? The Rolling Stone Magazine dubbed that song “best song of the 90’s”. You could make a strong argument for “Alive” by Pearl Jam but whatever. “Plush” still kicked ass. I’d sit in my room for hours in front of an old TV, with its glowing convex glass, watching MTV when they were still deserving of the acronym. The red and washed out video for Plush would come on and I’d drool in rapt attention. I didn’t understand the lyrics (seriously, what happens “when the dogs begin to smell her?), but I loved the opening chords. In fact, it was the first song I learned to play on a shiny black guitar I got for Christmas. Well as it turns out, the guy who wrote those opening chords for STP is now one of the writers for Martian Lit. How awesome is that? My story, Ken’s Doll, comes right after something written by a man that influenced my life years ago. All the other authors published by Martian Lit seem to have PhD’s or publishing deals and I’m honored to be in their company.

 

The artwork they chose to go with my story comes from Christopher Coffey; you can find more of the work he has done for Martian Lit here:  http://martianlit.com/author/christopher-coffey/. I absolutely love what he came up with, and once I get better at stalking people through Twitter, I plan on tracking him down so I can con a book cover out of him.

 

Anyway, I just wanted to write this to thank the good people over at Martian lit (Jeff in particular) for giving me a chance. I’ve made it onto the “short list” at least twelve times for half as many publications, but until recently, I had only made it into print once. Thank you Martian Lit.

 

Please go support them: http://martianlit.com/

manhands

Canadian Pogo Dancers

I’ve never understood how it is that men without hats can dress real neat from their hats to their feet. I’ve never understood anything about that song, nor have I ever been the type to delve into the meaning behind poetry or really trendy writing or 80’s new age Canadian rock. Actually, I doubt many people claim to be guilty of the latter. I won’t ask if you’ve heard it because I know you have, but do you like “Safety Dance” by men without hats? Um, I do. A bunch. If hell was an ever descending elevator playing one song over and over in some sort of tortuous loop, I’d ask for it to be “Safety Dance”. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, especially here, but whatever; I can blog if I want to.

 

A huge wave of boredom swept me under and I recorded Bio-Dome on my DVR. I knew it starred Pauly Shore, but did you know that other guy was a Baldwin? Blew my mind. Anyway, there’s a scene in the movie when the riot police are trying to smoke Pauly Shore out of the Bio-Dome by repetitively playing “Safety Dance” over and over on a comically large PA system. Of course it doesn’t work; Shore’s music tastes are impeccable and he dances through the Bio-Dome like some sort of wood nymph on an ecstasy overdose. That movie got me thinking (I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m the first person in history to say that).

 

What’s that song about? Is it about safe sex? I guess it’d make sense if you massage the metaphor enough and that’s what I’ve thought for the past few years. I Googled it though, and I was wrong. I guess the lead singer was pogo dancing in some Canadian club right around the time that Disco was suffering through its death throes. New age rock was elbowing its way to the top of the charts and from what Wikipedia tells me, all the cool kids were starting to “pogo dance”. I’ve never done it, but I suppose it involves a bunch of jumping up and down sans an actual pogo stick. Anyway, the lead singer got kicked out of the club for jumping up and down when he should’ve been doing the electric shuffle of something and as he was standing outside that Canadian and presumably snow-dusted club, he said “we can dance if we want to”. Boom. I’d like to think that a big hair and spandex spangled explosion occurred in his mind. The song came out a few months later and took over the 80’s. As a side note, I sometimes wonder what new age Canadian clubs were like in the 80’s; I’d like to think that there was at least one neon maple leaf in each one.

 

Of course, the pogo dance was the only way to dance when shouting “we can dance if we want to” so the move spread from floor to floor until the electric shuffle was no more. Good job nameless bouncer. The pogo dance led to the smash dance which led to the mosh pit which led to crowd surfing which led to an odd moment in my life wherein I was holding a drumstick and standing on a deserted concert stage after Jane’s Addiction ran for their safety.

 

Alaska’s music scene is a rage fueled, culture starved, pit of nonsense. Actually, everything up there is like that. The Olive Garden up there continues to post record profits because when anything from the lower forty-eight opens up, the locals flock with open wallets just for a chance to live like all those fancy southerners in the commercials. Concerts aren’t much different. When an honest to goodness act deigns to play a show in the last frontier, ticket sales skyrocket and everyone shows up with great expectations and limited sobriety (twenty hours of darkness don’t lead to wholesome things). And inevitably, one douche bag bumps into another who then bumps into two more and the mosh pit is formed. It really doesn’t matter who’s playing either; I’ve seen it happen at Pantera where it belongs and at Blues Traveler where it doesn’t. Idiocy is contagious, and its spread most efficiently through a violent shoulder bump.

 

Anyway, Jane’s Addiction played a single show sometime in my early teens and a huge group of us went knowing it’d end up as a disaster. The band played five or six subdued songs in a row when the mullet bearing subspecies prevalent at most Alaskan concerts wanted something more conducive to handing out concussions. The crowd starting booing. The lead singer, smug in his corduroy suit, said something about how Alaskans didn’t have any more culture than a Fred Meyer and then he started playing the same short and shity song over and over again. That was a ridiculously bad mistake.

 

I was surfing the crowd on my back upon an intrusive cloud of hands when the anger erupted. The mullet brethren started chanting something indistinguishable and guttural and stormed the little wall around the elevated stage. I literally rode the wave of pissed off humanity towards the stage, and when I got to the wall and the little mote of concrete protecting the band, the ocean of man beneath me tossed me over like a castaway sailor being thrown from the surf onto the sand. I didn’t weigh very much however, and the momentum carried me over the protective area and directly onto the stage. The protective wall buckled shortly thereafter and the tide of pissed off Alaskans started washing up behind me.

 

I made eye contact with the lead singer, still in his corduroy suit but no longer smug, shortly before he made it to safety behind a steel backstage door. I smiled, flipped him off, and shouted “welcome to Alaska”. His eyes got a bit wider and then the door separated us. Whatever; I was fourteen. Blah blah blah I got a souvenir drum stick that the drummer abandoned while running for his life, the stage was demolished, and the police came; none of the rest really matters. What matters here is that if it wasn’t for a rather eccentric Canadian’s choice to jump up and down, if it wasn’t for the intolerance of a Canadian bouncer who kicked him out, if it wasn’t for the resulting declaration of damn it “we can dance if we want to, but leave your friends behind, because etcetera etcetera”, I never would’ve owned a drum stick used by the drummer from Jane’s Addiction. Like I said, whatever, I was fourteen. I’ve long since lost the drum stick, but I’ve gained a mantra. I’m not going to type it, because that would be cheesy, but hopefully, it’s playing over and over in your head by now.

MWH