I’m on seedy Broadway in San Francisco, on stage in a smoke-choked, beer-splashed nightclub called Mabuhay Gardens, aka The Mab, a DIY punk dive nestled amidst a blinking drag of vintage strip joints, including the storied Condor.
I’m playing drums, a 7-piece Tama kit that exudes hard rock, in a band with an Aerosmith-y tang called Cheater. Long hair, striped pants and songs like “Knocking Down Your Door,” “Live for Today” and the inimitable “The Girl’s a Fish,” an infectious groove featuring double-bass kick pedals and cowbell. You heard that right.
This night was my second performance ever before a live audience. Prior to it, by mere weeks, I played a high-school talent show in a metal band named Enforcer. We covered Queensrÿche’s “Queen of the Reich” and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — the first song fast and filigreed and vocally demanding; the second a raw, elemental, melodic stomp that’s become a Metallica classic.
As a nervous introvert, playing before a crowd was no small feat. I could barely give a speech in English class. It was a social and psychological breakthrough, and a dream come true. Rock was my destiny, and I was living it. And having a blast.
That is until my first “professional” show at The Mab. During the second song in Cheater’s set, the nylon strap on my right-foot bass pedal snapped, cutting off all right-pedal action, which meant I had to play with my left-foot pedal. Big problem: the left-foot pedal was strictly for double-bass play; my left foot coordination was weak, only apt for chh-chh high-hat work. (Now, if I had had only one pedal that night, the show would’ve been over.)
I choked. Instead of finishing the song with my left foot, I stopped playing altogether, meaning the band stopped, too — a concert faux pas. It took a few minutes to figure out that I had to keep going with one pedal — the left one, with which, again, I had minimal coordination. I am not ambidextrous.
Mortified and furious, as I was, my bandmates glared at me, then went ahead with the next song, “The Girl’s a Fish,” which demanded heavy double-bass footwork. I faked it with the left pedal, as I did during the rest of the set. The result was passable. Yet, by concert’s end, I was so mad at myself, so totally disappointed, I kicked drums and tossed cymbals to the point that the rear-entry doorman told me to cool it. An auspicious beginning to my awesome rock ’n’ roll career. I went home alone and moped grievously.
A year later, post-Cheater, my scrappy garage band again played the high-school talent show. For some reason, the vice-principal thought our group could sell tickets, so he asked me to organize a band for the show. This time we were called THC, and we were more ambitious and ready to show-off than the year before. We wanted to shock and awe, to all-caps ROCK. (Though we ditched the smoke bombs from before.)
This time we covered Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” and Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen,” a seven-minute opus of relentless time changes and merciless riffs that amounts to about six songs in one. The songs proved ferocious, byzantine metal symphonies best left to virtuosos and masochists. I beat off more than I could chew, excuse the potentially repulsive pun.
And yet another mishap bedeviled me. This time my monitors konked out during an especially complex passage in “The Four Horsemen” and abruptly I couldn’t hear the rest of the band. I lost my place and had to stop playing for several seconds. It was humiliating. When the sound finally returned, the guitarists shrewdly cut to the song’s main riff and we finished with a flourish. Still, I was rattled instead of rocked.
Soon after, I sat in with a band called — wait for it — Mistress. The deal was I would record a demo tape with them and call it a day. I wound up doing that and a show at Mabuhay Gardens. With songs unironically titled “One Touch” and “We’ll Fight” — all heavier and more intricate than anything by Cheater — we played the San Francisco club without a hitch. Members of Cheater were in the crowd, cheering us on.
It’s been some time since I drummed. My last kit was a five-piece Roland electronic rack, with one acoustic touch — an 8-inch Zildjian splash cymbal to furnish shimmery accents. I kept my DW double-bass pedal with the set, and stuck with Vic Firth American Classic drumsticks that were a cross between jazz and rock style. I played hard, reducing them to splinters.
I was never a great drummer, mostly competent, deftly intermediate, even though I took lessons from the eminent Jeff Campitelli, the most affable pro and unfailing mensch, who was teaching Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, at the same time. (A secret: It’s all in the wrists, not the arms.)
I love the instrument, and to this day when I hear a favorite song, I might just erupt into spontaneous air drums. Thing is, I’m kind of a better air drummer than an actual drummer (cue rim-shot).
I miss the crisp metallic thwack of the snare and thuddy boom of the kick drum; the brassy, splashy explosion of a crash cymbal and pingy, bell-like precision of a ride cymbal. I miss being a song’s pulse and heartbeat, of driving it with thrust, swing, exactitude, and occasional fury. Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.
7 thoughts on “Drumming up memories”
Although I never paid a visit because it never really served up my type of music (please take no offence) I remember well the Mabuhay. I did have an acquaintance who was very much into the punk scene and his second home was the Mabuhay. The guy’s nom de guerre was “Red.” He hailed from the Bronx.
What I remember most about Red was his alcohol soaked review of a little band called, umm, the name’s escaping me – wait – oh yeah, The Rolling Stones. He said, and I quote, “Da Stones ah gahbidge. GahBIDGE.”
From what I understand, the Mab was quite a unique little spot. It’s possible that about the time that I was visiting a little Asian hostess bar called the Richshaw a few blocks away in Chinatown you might have been playing drums at the Mab.
I think either of those places could have wound up on some sort of Anthony Bourdain episode after which he would go and get ploughed at Li Po in Chinatown or Vesuvio on Columbus. They were Bourdain sort of places. Another great post. Thank you Chris.
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I love this, Paulie, per usual. The Mab started as a little Philippine restaurant, turned into a punk dive, then a club for all sorts of second-rate rock acts (hence, my bands), then back to a Philippine eatery/club. Very odd history. Not sure what it is today, but I do think it still survives in some incarnation. Probably a bluegrass venue with Persian food.
Oh! How I love Vesuvio! I used to go there and to a little sailor’s bar across the street, Specs, which freely served underaged beer guzzlers, all thru college at SFSU. And of course I’d then take tipsy strolls thru City Lights Bookstore and buy books on Nietzsche, Kafka and Luis Bunuel (very young, collegiate stuff, but GOOD). Thanks for some memories! (Do you know of the great cult Chinese food joint nearby, House of Nanking? The BEST.)
Specs is alive and well. They signed a new 10 year lease in 2016. Never been there and never been to The House of Nanking.
One of my favorite haunts in that area was Clown Alley where I would get one of their manhole cover sized burgers and an Olympia beer. Yeah that’s right – Oly. It has a warm place in my heart because it’s featured in one of my favorite movies – Sometimes a Great Notion.
Actually I can’t remember some of the Chinese food joints I went to back then. I don’t know if you read my post that talked about The Rickshaw. There were a couple of times when I closed the bar and some of the girls took me to these little dive restaurants that were either way upstairs or way downstairs – somewhere. I was the only white guy there. I have no idea what I ate, probably no idea what they were saying since they were all Korean and since I was hammered I probably bought them all dinner.
Let me know if you are ever in the area again.
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Oh man! Clown Alley is where we always ate — big sloppy burgers — after a few pitchers at Specs (we liked Specs so much because they didn’t card). Me and my best friend made CA a destination in North Beach. I once talked it up to a girlfriend and when she finally had one of the burgers, she just shrugged and wondered what the big deal was. We didn’t speak the rest of the night. I’m off to look up your post on The Rickshaw. Sounds incredible.
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I should stress though Sometimes a Great Notion which I mentioned in connection with Oly beer. A hard to find movie with Henry Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Lee Remick and Richard Jaeckel. It’s an adaptation of a Ken Kesey novel. Mentioning this because you’re a movie buff. You might like it….or….you might not.
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I searched for it online at the local library and they have it! I’m checking it out. Knew it’s a Kesey novel (his second?) but didn’t know they made a film. Paul Newman, one of my very favorites, stars, too. Thanks for mentioning it. I reserved it online. Will be seeing it soon.
Sounds like a tough way to start your live career, but impressive you were able to keep going!
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