In my time as a film critic, I often brought along my own pocket camera to interviews with celebrities, either because I wanted to or the newsroom was simply understaffed that day. I was recently sifting through some of the resulting photos — glorified snapshots, really — and plucked a few that don’t totally suck. You might recognize some of these distinguished folks.
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.
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.
The raging pimple on my nose couldn’t take away from the raucous ecstasy of my nephew’s modest — but laughy, giggly, shrieky, slangy, sing-songy (“Dancing Queen”!) — fifteenth birthday party among a half-dozen friends in my brother’s cozy backyard this very hot day. That damn zit — I’ll squeeze it till fluids flow. Be gone. Because there is bawdy jokes to be told, games to be played, junk food to be gorged, gossip to be spread. (What’s that? You have a boyfriend!)
And so it went. Two giant picnic umbrellas popped open like vast bat wings. Three fat coolers lined the deck. Tostitos — all over the place. Ice cream, cupcakes, cookies, Sprite, cheap plastic toys, bubbles. And, god, the laughter and the squawks of rare tropical birds. A blast was being had.
I observed from afar, never getting close to these dangerous exotic animals. Instead: me, a mirror, a zit. Let’s go. (Gruesome details have been redacted by WordPress censors.)
In the mirror, I am reminded of the blooming, uncut hairdo I’m currently sporting. My last haircut was scheduled for April 3. It never happened thanks to quarantine. Do the math, they say, with a frat-boy sneer. I’ll do the math. The math says: shit.
I noted here that I bought a New York Times baseball cap to tame my anarchic locks. It’s working out nicely, I think. But summer will be a Rapunzel-ready efflorescence, fluffy, uncontainable tresses, suitors scaling them to reach me in my dank, lonesome tower.
So I’ve ordered two more caps, one that will reveal a sliver of my cultural tastes, though I’ve mentioned Metallica before here.
The second hat is more personal, a custom-made lark, which I will wear with unwavering nerdiness:
But this is really about my nephew’s big number 15. Not the pimple, not the hats. His birthday is actually tomorrow, June 7. To accommodate his besties, the party was thrown today. Plus, Saturday is always better than Sunday for a shindig.
In a rare aside, I asked my nephew how the get-together was going.
“Good,” he said, which is about the only answer he knows to feed lame adults who ask lame questions.
That will do. That will do good.
Now, Clearasil. Anyone?
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.
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.
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.
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.