Smells like tween spirit

It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll” — AC/DC

Those immortal words are screeched by the late Bon Scott in AC/DC’s 1975 crunch classic “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ’n’ Roll),” as if you couldn’t guess. Trite as the song’s sentiment is, I doubt your everyday rock fan actually considers how categorically true it is.

A “long way”? Try an impossible way, an absolutely, maniacally preposterous way to the top. Let me, a reformed headbanger who briefly did the band thing, put it this way: If you wanna rock ’n’ roll, do it for fun and creative release and, just maybe, a spritz of ego juice. (Plus: free beer.)

Just know, you will never, ever get to the top. If that’s your goal, put the guitar down, invest in tattoo removal and return your hair to its natural hue. It’s time to stop snarling and re-enter society, as buzzkilly as that sounds, says grandpappy, wagging a wizened finger.

Because my bands went nowhere (except to storied San Francisco nightclub Mabuhay Gardens) doesn’t mean many or most bands will go poof in rock’s heartless ether. Wait. Yes, it does. But world domination isn’t the objective. Or it shouldn’t be. 

Rock is hard. Still, you should rock hard.

Like some sweet tween girls I know, who are embarking on the rock walk with confidence, enterprise and a smidge of kick-ass. I don’t have a parentally-approved photo to share, but the California quartet goes by Cat-Astrophe and emphasizes cover tunes over originals, which assumedly they haven’t composed yet.

To watch a new rock group blossom is heartening, no matter the age, sex or talent. Music is a calling, and if it’s the right kind of music, that calling is loud. 

A dynamic example of tot rock (this isn’t Cat-Astrophe)

Enter Cat-Astrophe. The band’s drummer and guitarist are the twin grade-school daughters of my eternal friend Tiva, who herself, in her searching twenties, co-fronted a loose garage band. It’s in the blood, this insidious rock ’n’ roll racket. 

Living faraway, Tiva and I mostly text, and she’s been sharing details about her daughters’ living room rocking. When she notes they like the hard stuff, I toss out suggestions, especially drum-inspired ones. “Back in Black” by AC/DC and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush are icons of rock drumming, for instance. (Though I fear the notorious surgical precision of “Tom Sawyer” will make her hurl her drumsticks through a window.) 

Recently, I sent Tiva a file of the both catchy and plodding (and, at almost nine minutes, long) “Kashmir” from Led Zeppelin. Any rock drummer should know her thwumping John Bonham beats — her Bonham fides — if she’s going to thrive. If she’s going to Rock.

But growing girls have their own ideas, and Cat-Astrophe is finicky. Here’s a text exchange with Tiva:

Tiva: OMG, I am so sad. The other girls in the band want to cover some J-Pop song. Sigh. But thank you for sending “Kashmir.” I’m not sure Led Zep is their scene. They’re ALL about Billie Eilish. I guess I’ve reached the point where they will shun any and all of my musical suggestions.😭

Me: We are ancient. Make them cover a Duke Ellington tune, or something by the Andrews Sisters.

Tiva: Seriously. The weird thing is: they like Willie Nelson. They also like Wilco, Cake, Queen, Black Sabbath, R.E.M., Joan Jett, Green Day, Nirvana and The Cure, so…

Me: Green Day and Nirvana = yay. The Cure = I never got them. Mopey, draggy, dreary.

Tiva: They only do the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Me: I loathe that song. And Wilco always blesses me with fits of diarrhea. (Sorry.)

Tiva: The other problem is, Cat-Astrophe’s lead singer wears crop-tops, black lipstick (ugh) and eyeliner — at age 10! We’re hoping the girls stay wholesome.

Me: Ha! Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t wholesome. If the girls don’t have groupies in, say, eight years, they have failed. Pass the Jack Daniel’s.

Failed, like my groups. Frankly, we weren’t trying that hard, distracted teens and all, and I knew pretty early that metal drumming was, for me, a dead-end — repetitive and luckless (remember “Spinal Tap”?). I was always the first guy to quit the band, and I was always relieved to be out.

So Tiva’s complaints aren’t moot. Assembling a successful group takes an exacting calculus of talent, personalities, taste, style, team work and the right shade of lipstick. The rest is all creative tension, which can either spark a flame like stone to flint (the Beatles), or ignite a brushfire, destroying all in its path (Oasis). 

While the girls in Cat-Astrophe work things out, it’s fair to note that this tot rock thing is far from original. Kid bands abound, many inspired by musical incubators like School of Rock, playing what seems to be mostly hard rock: Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana and, of course, AC/DC. (Why is that? I think because, in general, the beats are simple, the three-chord riffs are doable, and the vocals are, like, whatever.)

Tiva spots a star. In a text, she singles out her drummer daughter as “the badass of the bunch, a stoned-faced metronome. That girl does NOT miss a beat.”

Me: She’s like AC/DC’s amazingly precise 4/4 machine, Phil Rudd. I think he’s in jail.

Tiva: She already has arm muscles, and never talks about drumming. She just silently walks to the drums and wails. The looks on those girls’ faces … priceless.

And that’s the crux of great music, Hendrix to Haydn — the intoxicating magic when everything falls into place … priceless. It’s a long way to the top. But sometimes, with the talent and tenacity, the climb might just be worth it.

Shop till you flop

Oh, the quarantine is wonderful. I read, I write, I drum, I shop, I gaze at the floor. There’s my epitaph.  

The shopping’s the perilous part, even though most of what I buy online are essentials I’d get at the store anyway: vitamins, shampoo, mountains of books — exhilarating. My purchases run in the $10-$20 range, except for the drum kit I mentioned in a prior post, which cost twice as much as my October ticket to Paris (that trip: never gonna happen). 

Recently I went for another big-ticket item, if not super big-ticket. I bought some fashionable duds: expensive jeans, classy pants that, per historical weather patterns, I won’t be able to wear with a hint of comfort until late September. (For now I wear shorts. I do not like shorts. I look absurd in shorts.) 

So I’ve sported the new jeans around the house, duly admiring them — the slim fit of the raw Japanese denim, the pleasing inky-blue hue, the so-called 4-way stretch, which means a dash of boingy material is stitched into the crunchy denim for optimum comfort, making unnecessary the small ordeal of “breaking in” fresh denim, which often requires rocks, whips and a blowtorch. 

Buying stuff is a two-pronged sensation. It’s electrifying, scouring products, comparison shopping, finding gems, clicking “Place Order,” waiting for the arrival. Yet it’s all so fleeting. When it’s over, item delivered and in my hands, I die a little death, deflated, which is exactly when I should light up a post-coital cigarette.

But the more expensive items — the drums, the jeans, the cursed Paris flight (which was purchased in April) — resonate much more than, say, a three-pack of Colgate. Not because they’re pricier but because they are on a patently superior echelon, more novel, more enduring, more exciting. I love the drum set, I love the jeans, I love Paris. 

None of it will save me. I shop, therefore I am — shrug. That’s claptrap, plain melodrama. At best I’m a half-hearted shopper in normal times, avoiding the antiseptic zombie shuffle of Muzak-y malls and largely being dragged numbly through shops and boutiques even in hip consumer hives like New York’s SoHo, an area I do like.

But stuff must be bought, from boxer briefs to Benadryl. And — why not — the occasional pair of rocking blue jeans. Yet the lockdown shouldn’t make us spendthrifts, but indeed the opposite: penny-pinchers. Dire times, etc. I’m working on that. Meanwhile, that sound you hear is me clicking my way down a rabbit hole of unbridled acquisition.

Random stuff, summer edition

I’m always jazzed when I discover a great new writer — or at least new to me — and that’s the case with American pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman. I’m not sure why, but I’ve avoided his work for a full decade (jealousy?). Then I recently read a description of one his anthologies that snared my interest. (It was surely the fact that KISS and Metallica were two of his topics.) Growing up a metalhead in the Midwest in the ‘80s, Klosterman was weaned on the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and KISS (still his favorite band, which I find outstanding). He declares KISS “the second-most influential rock band of all time,” after the Beatles. Chew on that. 

Today he writes with breathtaking omnivorousness about culture at large, from TV to Chicken McNuggets. (He also writes a lot about sports. I skip all that.) He pens novels, memoirs and big thinky pieces. He’s breezy, never ponderous or pretentious — he’s pretty much anti-pretentious — penetrating, smart as hell and equally as funny. This summer I’ve read his collections “IV” and “X.” I’m now on the memoir of his early hair-metal fandom, “Fargo Rock City.” The book is about much more than his little life worshipping bands like Poison. It’s expansive, ecstatic, packed with big ideas and witty perceptions. With Klosterman, it always is. 

I slipped in a sweaty drum session last night, pounded away for about 30 minutes to an array of vintage rock, most of which would make you blush. I performed pretty well, but not A-plus. I was thinking too much. When I think about what I’m playing, about what move I’m going to make next, I throw myself off and lose the beat. Same goes when I think about life things while I play — it derails the groove and mistakes are made, sticks are dropped. As a metal madman once screeched, “C’mon feel the noise!” Meaning, don’t think it.

It’s been years since I watched the 1996 cult comedy “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest mockumentary that, with sardonic sweetness, lampoons community theater culture and the talentless goofs who inhabit it. On a whim, I rewatched it. I cringed at what I once adored. Gags are broad, the jokes are fizzless, the parody punchless. It feels facile and off-key. That said, my love for Guest, Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara remains undying. (Forget “Schitt’s Creek.” I’ll take classic “SCTV” any day.)

I got my first haircut in more than four months the other day. (A new national holiday should be declared.) It was a new place, a new barber, a guy I quickly cottoned to. We gabbed almost entirely about world travel — Turkey, Morocco, Japan, India and, natch, Paris, since that’s where I’m booked to go in October. I expressed my concern that even in the fall the world won’t be ready for regular tourist travel. He demurred. His prediction, stated with blithe confidence: All this pandemic mess will be done with in — get this — six weeks. September, he averred, and things will be back to normal, and I will easily get to fly to an all-open Paris. Maybe he was just making me feel better. Maybe he doesn’t read the papers. Maybe he’s been huffing the Aqua Net.   

I’ve rediscovered the kaleidoscopically inspired Cartoon Network show “Adventure Time,” whose title doesn’t begin to convey what’s in store for the kiddies (and rabid adults) who tune in. I can’t either. Squirting diarrhea, rainbow unicorns, a talking piñata, a verbal, shape-shifting dog and so much stuff that qualifies as unapologetically batshit that I can’t possibly smoosh it into this space. Now airing on HBO Max, each 11-minute episode — any longer and your eyes might bleed — is a heady, unhinged phantasmagoria of the surreal, psychedelic and wildly non sequitur. It’s also positive, uproarious, sad, thoughtful and weirdly timely. And it’s a damn cartoon.

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Doldrums on the drums

Playing hard rock drums in my longhaired youth was such an impassioned pursuit that I envisaged fans, flash bombs, spotlights, triumphant noise and righteous fury as a way of life. The kinetic absurdity of that dream isn’t lost on me, no. Today I think of it all as the Misbegotten Musings of a Muddled Metalhead. Rock.

Playing music has a way of getting into your marrow, and drumming up a drippy sweat is still a fervid pastime. But, first, rewind. I put down my sticks almost exactly 10 years ago, for good. Until, seemingly out of nowhere, the beat bit me again early this month. Faster than a John Bonham bass patter, I was online shopping for a new drum set to call my own and to pound holy hell out of. 

It couldn’t be a drooled-over acoustic — neighbors, sigh — so I pinned down a hot electronic deal made by superior e-brand Roland. The five-piece kit has a mesh snare and three mesh tom-toms, a bass pad, hi-hat, ride and crash cymbals. Bonuses: a Pearl bass pedal, a Pearl drum stool (that’s, alas, cement-hard), fine headphones and three pairs of sticks. I’ve already bought an extra crash cymbal: One crash makes an impoverished sound, and the physicality of playing with two is exponential. At least the way I play.

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The set is explosively on the money, better than expected, sturdy, loud, textured, complex — a fine wine. I’ve compiled a list of 62 songs to play with — tunes with thump and phwump — which is where the headphones come in. It’s like a greatest hits from my teens and twenties. Meaning: mortifying. 

Now for the downbeat. While the drums are exemplary, my actual performance is something else. Mildly, I am very rusty. My playing isn’t tearjerking, but distinctly arrested. It’s been a while. I’ve always been acutely, painfully, soaringly aware that I am not a great musician. I can keep a propulsive 4/4 beat and embroider it with a well-placed fill or frill, but I should be astounding by now, even considering how little I’ve played since high school.

I’m crisp, but sloppy. Swinging, but stilted. On-beat, but off-key. Sometimes I impress myself and nail a song; other times I’m pure Spinal Tap. (Who I’d like to be is the tentacular wunderkind in the exhilarating drum drama “Whiplash.”)

When I’m really stinking up the joint, the drumming is depressing instead of fun and therapeutic. The purchase then seems catastrophic, a harebrained waste. My long-ago drum teacher, the unfailingly affable Jeff Campitelli (who was teaching Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich at the same time as me), told me that, yeah, we all have bad days, and that my bad days are probably worse than his bad days. That’s self-evident — Jeff is a monster musician — but it sounded sage and philosophic at the time, and I still think about it. 

Bad days bite, but the beat goes on. I no longer dream of screaming fans and flammable stagecraft. I just want to play well. That’s good enough. It’s also harder than hell. There will be blood. But also, I’m pretty sure, joy. A couple years ago I wrote, “Musicianship, I am certain, is an exquisite madness.” I’m sticking by that.

Drumming up memories

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.

449098000000000-00-750x750I’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.)

2db9a1ec682ed21d9492c60b55bec05bThis 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.

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Electronic Roland kit with double-bass pedals

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.