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.

Metallic memories

I was 14 the first time I saw Metallica in concert. It was 1983 in a tiny nightclub called the Keystone Berkeley, in Berkeley, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Metallica was formed and where its members still reside. The club, a bona fide hole, was famous for showcasing the Grateful Dead in its heyday. I won’t mention that again.

Metallica was plumping its debut album, the indie-label thrash classic “Kill ‘Em All,” and was sandwiched on a bill between locals Exodus and headliner Raven, a so-so British metal act with a singer that shrieked like a banshee, screeching songs like “Hell Patrol” on an album called (sigh) “Rock Until You Drop.” (After Metallica’s epic, local-heroes set, Raven finally hit the stage at 1 a.m., well past my bedtime. We split.)

Before they went on, the four members of Metallica hung out in the clammy, smoke-swirled venue, drinking beer and flirting with female fans. I snapped a few pictures of the band, using a now-obsolete Vivitar pocket camera with a 110 film cartridge and a mighty flash. I’m sure they were thrilled.

Here’s singer-guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich:

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James Hetfield and friend.

 

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Drummer Lars Ulrich, making silly to the kid with the camera.

What’s nuts is how young they were, how young we all were. Hetfield and Ulrich are five years older than me, making them 19 or 20 at this show. Hetfield still had zits. Ulrich, at 5-feet-6-inches, looked like a little kid. And yet, though we didn’t know it then, despite the universal excitement over their first record (and we’re talking vinyl record), these guys were about to break big, over the decades becoming one of the most significant arena rock bands of its time. (Hetfield’s reported net worth today: $300 million. Back then: $21.50 and a scuffed skateboard.)

I have more of a visual than aural memory of the concert, but it’s safe to say Metallica mostly played songs from the 10-track “Kill ‘Em All” — “The Four Horsemen,” “Seek & Destroy,” “Whiplash” — plus their usual encore of Diamond Head’s catchy “Am I Evil?,” which was a huge influence on Ulrich.

It was, of course, a sweaty, head-banging affair, the lip of the micro stage a crush of raging, testosteronic catharsis. The band matched the fury, hair-lash for hair-lash, so much so that teeth-gnashing bassist Cliff Burton was taken off stage for a lengthy breather. The rumor was that he almost passed out. It was that kind of show.

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Cliff Burton in one of his better moods.

 

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A mid-set break backstage. Hetfield gives me the peace sign up his nostril and Burton relaxes as best he can. Burton was killed three years later in a tour-bus accident.

In a six degrees of Metallica trip, I eventually learned that Ulrich and I shared the same drum teacher, an affable, infinitely tolerant 25-year-old named Jeff Campitelli, who also happens to be a spectacular musician. (In 2008, Rolling Stone named him one of the 50 best drummers.) To Jeff’s dismay, neither Ulrich or I knew the drum rudiments, which, says one pro, “are the building blocks for every drum beat, fill, or pattern that you could ever play.” We were not highly evolved drummers.

At the time, Jeff was in a Bay Area pop trio called The Squares, whose guitarist was none other than Joe Satriani, who has, of course, gone on to guitar-hero megastardom. Among other big-time gigs, Campitelli still plays with Satriani, whose former guitar pupils include Charlie Hunter, Steve Vai and a fellow named Kirk Hammett. 

Hammett, you may know, plays the axe for a little band called … Metallica.