Taking on the Chops: Even the Best Reinvent Their Craft

Procrastinating earlier this week, I watched Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage which is a 2010 documentary about the Canadian rock band Rush (perhaps obviously).

For those few of you who either know me or who read this blog, I’m a drummer (mediocre, most definitely, but I identify as one nonetheless). Every drummer has to deal with the dominance of certain players who shaped the role and pushed the boundaries of what a rock drummer can play.

Neil Peart is one of those drummers whose legacy and whose playing you have to acknowledge. Now, I’m not a chops (technically proficient/precise) drummer by either temperament or practice, so it was never a question of me imitating or emulating Peart. But there are basics that every drummer can learn—should learn—from the masters (and with apologies to the ever-humble Peart, he is a master).

At the top of his game, but following a poor showing at a Buddy Rich tribute concert, Peart reinvented his playing by studying under renowned jazz drummer Freddie Gruber.

What was revelatory was that Gruber didn’t teach—didn’t have to teach—Peart how to play; he focused instead on body movement, feel, and the ‘dance’ of the body when it synchs up with the song and the other players.

That Peart, who could have just kept performing in the same manner as he had been and done just fine for himself, took the risk to challenge his preconceptions and his habits and his playing—his very identity as a player—is an amazing testament to the resiliency of art and to the resiliency of the artist.

When the Drummer Wants to Be the Singer

No one wants to be Ringo.

It’s nothing against Ringo, per se (although Ringo gets a lot of crap for not being as good a musician as the rest of the Fab Four—and while I admit I once thought this, too—I now recognize that his unique, melodic drumming was the perfect compliment to the Beatles’ music). And it’s not really even about the Beatles and their media-fabricated ‘personalities’ – smart, sarcastic John; romantic, dreamy Paul; quiet, spiritual George.

It’s about the role of the drummer.

So let’s pretend that our complex, individual and multi-faceted lives can be distilled into the configuration of the classic four-piece rock band. In that archetypal arrangement, the drummer is the worker, the drone, the time-keeper (the job is different if you’re drumming for Jimi Hendrix or if you play jazz, and there are hundreds of exceptions, but we’re talking about the rule here – in rock music, drummers keep time). On stage, the drummer is pushed back behind the band, and although s/he has the capacity to be the loudest and most distracting member, s/he is the one whose presence you’re made aware of by her or his absence.

In other words you should only notice a good drummer when the music demands that you do. More than anyone else on that stage, the drummer’s job is to maintain the song’s structure, its volume and its speed, while the other members are free to emote, to solo, and to stand in the blare and brightness at the center of attention. As the drummer you are in the ultimate support role.

This is why drummers want to be singers. Why be a support player when you could be the star?

Ego, though, is a quirky, fickle and demanding little beast. Using myself as an example, I often have two conflicting narratives running inside my head at the same time:

I’m better than this; I’m not good enough for this.

I’ve centered my spiritual work of late on my ego. I’m one of those people who denies the insistence and existence of his own ego because I sense that being ego-driven is spiritually stifling, but then I unconsciously operate out of my own self-interest despite myself. One of the most valuable recent lessons has been realizing how much I pin on outcomes. How much of my life I put on hold until X or Y is accomplished. Right now, I’m having to wrestle with my career goals (goals I didn’t even know I had) while at the same time nurturing my creative and familial needs.

What role does ego play in this? What role should ego play in this? I don’t know anything more than I can’t change and grow without some ego-investment. I can’t write books or contribute to my family without some sense of ego-investment. I’m beginning to equate being egoless with being fearless -- being fearless doesn’t mean we live without fear; it means we acknowledge the fear and do what we must. Is it the same with ego? That rather than negate ego, we should acknowledge our ego-involvement, recognize ego’s role in what we’re doing, and then act?

Going back to the rock band, and to the Beatles, and to the roles we all ultimately play in the stage production of our lives. We’re all here to serve the music. Yeah, we also back up the other members in our band, and yes we also perform to the crowd, but ultimately, it’s the music that we serve. Ego becomes a problem when we fixate on the attention that the singer is getting, or when we obsess about the crowd’s reaction. But when we focus on the music, on the music-making, ego finds its rightful size and role and context.


Songs for Someone - On the New U2 Album

Much has been made of the way Apple and U2 conspired to ‘drop’ U2’s Songs of Innocence on millions of unsuspecting iTunes subscribers. Sasha Frere-Jones encapsulates the general critical sentiment as well as anyone. 

I don’t pretend to know what to make of U2’s chosen delivery method. Since the late 1980s, the release of a new U2 album had always been a major event in my life. I can still feel the heat of my palms against the CD shop’s cool glass counter when I heard Achtung Baby! for the first time. My body still remembers the shiver.

My reaction is less angry and reactionary than Frere-Jones’ but not dissimilar: something vital has been lost when we music lovers aren’t forced to leave the sanctity of our listening caverns and venture out into the bright, scary world of other people to purchase our music. iTunes, and on-line purchasing in general, has been killing this thrill for years now, so it’s no surprise that it would be one of my favorite bands that would finally slide the blade deliciously into the skull of what remained of one of life’s little joys:

An album I didn’t know was coming, that I didn’t know I wanted, was already sitting in my music library.

So what of Songs of Innocence? Can we even evaluate the album separate from how it was foisted upon us?

I’ll try. For context, so that you’ll know the type of U2 fan you’re dealing with: This week marked the 30th anniversary of the release of U2’s masterpiece—and best album—The Unforgettable Fire. My love for this album knows no bounds. And really no new release from the band will ever compare (although some of the later albums, such as No Line on the Horizon, echo similar experiments with texture and atmosphere). But lest you think I’m identifying myself as a First Wave U2 fan, one of those who jumped on board with Boy, I’m actually part of the Second Wave who joined up when almost everyone else in the 1980s did – The Joshua Tree (and by extension Rattle and Hum). I discovered Unforgettable Fire as I was making my way through the band’s back-catalog.

This is not to say that I think U2’s output in the 21st century hasn’t been without import. While I loathe All That You Can’t Leave Behind – not only the band’s worst album, but also a low creative mark that still mars their music to this day, I came close to loving No Line on the Horizon. (Apparently I’m the only one.) No Line was almost a great album. Not a masterpiece, certainly, but close to great. (The last truly great album was Zooropa by the way; Pop only missed the greatness mark by exactly one ‘Playboy Mansion’ and one ‘Miami.') I don’t think much about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb; there are certainly some worthy songs, and it’s a much better album than All, but there’s something about that record that doesn’t resonate.

Songs of Innocence is a ‘song’ album, meaning that it is not meant to be listened to as a singular concept (ala Unforgettable Fire or No Line). As such I’ve been evaluating it by how the songs stand on their own. And most of the songs are growing on me. I believe the album’s major misstep is the first track—‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’—which I enjoy more if I don’t associate it with Ramone. The aesthetic and lyrics are just…off. Words like ‘miracle’ and ‘beautiful’ just don’t fit. I get the message, but the message has no grit or teeth, as a song about Ramone should.

The strongest run on the album is ‘Every Breaking Wave’ through ‘Volcano.’ ‘Volcano’ is the biggest surprise/treat. Most of U2’s recent attempts to release a proper rock song (‘Vertigo’ ‘Get on Your Boots’) are gutless and, well, stupid. ‘Volcano’ rocks, it’s lyrically creative, and it has balls, which has me thinking it may be the best song on the album. ‘Song for Someone’ is the song that haunts me and will likely be my favorite.

The songs on the back half aren’t leaving much of an impression. The music on ‘Cedarwood Road’ and ‘This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now’ is beguiling, but the lyrics and melodies aren’t grabbing me. In fact, I’m struggling to remember the words, which is usually a bad sign. I don’t know what to feel about the ‘The Troubles.’

Final judgment: A solid effort that falls short of No Line on the Horizon but sits above the rest of the 2000-era output.

Now, the title Songs of Innocence hints that there is a companion Songs of Experience coming. Most U2 fans know that whenever the band tries to couple a release with a soon-to-be released next album, it almost never materializes (except once, when Zooropa followed Actung Baby! a mere year and half later). In this case, U2 would do themselves and their fans a service if they did in fact release Songs of Experience within a year or less.

While it’s always a sure aesthetic bet to call back to youth and celebrate the dreams and ideals of our early years, a song-cycle about wisdom earned and learned could make for a much more powerful—and more memorable—listening experience.

The Rodent and the Shadow: The Groundhog Day-Like Curse of Parenting

Mid-week I had one of those parenting days that, with a surgeon’s-like slash of a scalpel, undid my fragile belief that I’m not the worst parent in the Universe.

It was the hottest day of the week, and I had just returned from work. My eldest son wanted to ride his bike with his friend, I reluctantly agreed to monitor, and then my son’s friend offered him a popsicle. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet, so I issued the unequivocal ‘No.’ Then came my kid’s rejoinder ‘But.’ Then came a repeat of my same answer. Then came the kid’s whining. Then came the third repeat of the same answer. Then came the kid’s freak-out complete with bike-tipping and helmet-throwing. Then came my decision to end outside play time because I was hot, I was irritated, and I was sick of saying the same negative thing multiple times.

Once our children evolve out of toddler-hood, the act of parenting consists mostly of scenarios like the above. In fact, what wears most of us beleaguered parents down is the sheer repetition of this same script amid its varied backdrops. It’s the same struggle—hence the comparison to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’—and I often fail: one or both of my kids does or says something that frustrates me and before I can check my immediate reaction to snap or yell I, well, snap or yell.

Among the many humbling lessons of parenting is that you usually do most or all of the things you promised yourself you wouldn’t do when you first became a mother or a father. And among the most difficult and painful rituals is the one where you learn to forgive yourself for being just as inept and fallible as everyone else who has been a parent.

Contrary to what you believe, (and contrary to appearances) no parent knows what he or she is doing.

Still and even so, my goal is to remember to recognize that while my child—this exhausting dervish of willful initiative—is often challenging my rules, he is not (necessarily) just trying to piss me off. His goal is to discover and push against the boundaries, in fact his development depends on this process. And yeah, at moments like now, I can recognize this dynamic just fine. In the heat of the moment, though, when I just want the children to listen and do what I want them to do, I bypass reason for authoritarian imperative.

Do it because I said so.

Parenting, like living, like writing, constantly reminds me that I have a go-to set of reactions that if left unchecked, lead me to the same unpleasant result. I want to change the way I parent, the way I live, the way I create, so I look for models on how to change this fundamental instinct. There is the briefest of moments when I can react in a different manner—when I can halt the impulse to snap or yell—but recognizing I’m in that moment is nearly impossible because that’s just my way. The best guide so far has been the work of Pema Chodrön and her explication of shenpa. Or what she translates for us as ‘getting stuck.’

When I have one of those oh so many parenting moments where I’m on the verge of losing my temper, inside it feels like when I’m shifting gears and there’s that briefest of pauses before the clutch disengages and the new gear locks in. It comes fast, and it comes of muscle-memory, and if I’m not paying attention (which is me 99% of the time) I can just keep on keeping on in the same way I always do. Then, in the hangover of it, I feel shitty for once again reacting in the same old way.

This morning, this moment, is another go at the same challenge – the kids have been bouncing all over the house for hours. And I get to practice again and again (and again). Will I react differently? Can I change? Or will I react in the same old way once again.

Maybe today I’ll get it right, and the groundhog will finally see its damned shadow.

Everyone Should Sing...Except for You

I am, on my very best days, a mediocre drummer. 

I was drawn to the drums (and really it was the drumset, nothing so high-minded as 'percussion') in my last year of high school. I had been late to recognizing how very important music was (and is) to me, and for some reason, the spatial layout and the physical nature of the instrument spoke to me in ways that made me believe here was an instrument I could play. Unlike, say, guitar, which mystifies me. 

I was bold enough (stupid enough) to take on a music minor, and my college was at that time flexible in its requirements (in that the college didn't really have any) so it would allow me--someone with zero musical background--to become proficient at voice (ha) and piano (bad but better than voice), as well as allow me to play percussion in the some of the university ensembles and bands.  

Make no mistake: For the most part, I sucked. 

But more than any other time in my college life, those few years or so of intensive musical instruction, constant practicing and occasional performing were my absolute favorite academic years. I was most definitely outside my comfort zone; I really had no idea what I was doing, but for the most part, my instructor and fellow musicians were respectful and accommodating, even encouraging. I learned so much, way more than I deserved. And really, there is very little in life better than sharing the stage with other musicians and feeling that...lift; when you lock in together, when you synchronize and harmonize, there are very few sensations as wondrous as the individual parts falling away before the emergence of a transcendent, swinging/grooving/rocking whole.

I took a creative risk, and after years of diligent practice and somewhat rigorous training, I rose to the level of...passable. Decent. Mediocre.

I reflect back on that younger version of myself--the one with the courage to do something as foolhardy as embark on a music minor when I had no musical training--and I wonder where that person has gone. It's not that I lack courage, per se, but my days are now spent performing tasks that I already know how to perform. Whether by design or happenstance, most of my activities are activities I already know how to do (save for parenting, which is an activity none of us knows how to do). 

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've been on this whole mindfulness kick; it's driven by many factors, but the predominant inspiration is the knowledge that life is moving exceedingly faster, and I am getting exceedingly older, and if I don't stop myself--don't stop my mind from its constant spinning--and focus on where I am and what I am doing (thank you, Yoda), all the aspects of existence that I need to be paying attention to--the blissful and the painful--are going to wash by me, and my life will be one that has passed, yes, but it will not be one that was lived. 

 "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail again. Fail better." Right?

So, sing. Yes, yes, even you.