When I was 13, my mother asked if I wanted to play a musical instrument. She no doubt hoped I’d take up guitar or piano or something quiet. One day, my best friend Josh played me the new Cheap Trick at Budokan album. The moment I heard Bun E. Carlos’ snare drum intro to “I Want You to Want Me,” I was hooked. I wanted to be a drummer. My parents agreed to buy me a drum set. We drove to Valley Arts Music in Studio City where a long-haired sales guy with horrible acne showed me the drum kits. I told him I was a Cheap Trick fan and he brought me to the Ludwig section. The bass drum was massive. I asked if they had a smaller set. He showed me Pearl and Gretsch kits, but they were just as imposing. I was overwhelmed, unable to make a decision. My mom came to the rescue.
“He’s never played drums before. And he loves the color blue.” she said. “Do you have a beginner set in blue?” The longhair led me to a soundproofed booth with a battered Slingerland set painted sky blue. He put a pair of sticks in my hand and guided me to the drum stool.
“Take a whack at it,” he said. “We’ll leave you alone.”
He and my mom exited the booth and closed the door. I pondered the sticks in my hand. I put on headphones and pressed play. “Rock’n Me” by the Steve Miller Band came on. I closed my eyes and tentatively struck the snare. Miller started singing and the rhythm picked up. I flailed awkwardly, way off beat. I felt embarrassed, ready to quit before I started. Then I opened my eyes and saw my mom. She was smiling and clapping, urging me to continue. I’d been drumming for a minute and she was already my biggest fan.
The drums were delivered the next day. Another longhair from the store set up the kit in the family room. He gave me tips like putting an old pillow in the kick drum to muffle the sound. He taught me to tighten and loosen the snare wires and tape a credit card beneath the snare for a crisper sound. After he left, I adjusted the drum stool and sat in front of the kit, mesmerized. I waited for my brother and sister to leave the house. Then I started playing. I hit drum heads indiscriminately. I struck cymbals and toms, stomping the hi-hat with no idea what I was doing. After 10 minutes, I walked away. I turned on the radio. “The Rubber Band Man” by the Spinners was playing. The beat was simple, a slow insistent snare. I turned up the volume and returned to the drums. I played along with the music, keeping up as best I could. When the song ended, I felt great.
I needed a teacher. One of my junior high classmates was Damon Pleis. His father Jack Pleis was a jazz musician who’d worked with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. At 13, Damon was already a drummer in a band. He hung out with the tough kids, far removed from me and my geeky friends. When I saw him eating alone in the cafeteria, I approached him. I asked what kind of drum set he had.
“Ludwig, of course.”
I told him I’d just bought my first set.
“You think you can give me some tips?”
He stared in silence, trying to discern if I would do justice to the drum gods.
“Sure,” he said. “You know what a paradiddle is?”
“Para means single, diddle means double. You can’t play drums unless you master paradiddles.”
Starting with his left hand, he demonstrated a slow succession of beats in a L-R-L-L rhythm followed by a R-L-R-R pattern. He alternated the patterns, increasing the tempo until he executed a perfect drum roll.
“You have a drum pad,” he asked.
“Practice paradiddles on your pad. This will give you control with both hands. Once you get that down, start playing your drum set. Not until then. Got it?”
For the next few weeks, I played my drum pad several hours a day. I avoided homework and stopped watching television. Before long I could approximate a drum roll. I demonstrated for my brother and sister. They weren’t interested. I went back to the drum set and played paradiddles on the snare. It sounded decent. I moved to the floor tom and tried a makeshift drum roll. I felt like Buddy Rich. I hit the kick drum. This yielded a deep thwap but I was unable to strike my foot twice in succession.
I found Damon smoking cigarettes on the schoolyard behind the ball shed.
“How do I play the bass drum,” I asked.
“Tap your feet. Left-Right-Left-Left. Right-Left-Right-Right. Just like your hands, learn to use your feet.”
I became a foot-tapping fool. I tapped while waiting for the bus, sitting in class and eating dinner. I was like Sammy Davis Jr. tap dancing on The TonightShow. When I returned to the set, I was able to strike the foot pedal quickly. I learned to “bury the beater” in the kick drum resulting in a louder, punchier sound.
Over the next few months, Damon taught me drum basics with his hands and feet. He showed me “the money beat,” the most common rhythm in rock ‘n’ roll. This consists of alternating quarter notes between the kick and snare with eighth notes on the hi-hat (think “Billie Jean”). He taught me “four on the floor,” four equally-spaced quarter notes on the kick drum (think “Stayin’ Alive”).
I wanted to pay Damon for the lessons. I rummaged through my mom’s purse and pilfered cigarettes from her Marlboro box. I put these in a sandwich bag and brought them to Damon whenever we met. One day, I approached him at recess. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. I asked a question and he pushed me hard in the chest. Then he joined his tough-guy friends calling me a “fuckin’ nerd.” That’s when I realized I was hurting his schoolyard reputation. Drum school was over.
In 1980, I received a Sony Walkman as a birthday gift. This became my new teacher. I bought cassettes of my favorite bands and emulated the beats. I gravitated to fast songs like “Sunday Papers” by Joe Jackson and “Radio Radio” by Elvis Costello. I copied Stuart Copeland of the Police for hi-hat techniques. I emulated Topper Headon of the Clash for the snare. For the bass drum, I modeled John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.
It was time to test myself. I returned to Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokanalbum. The song I wanted to master was “Ain’t That a Shame.” The song starts with a basic “four on the floor” bass drum mirrored by insistent 4/4 toms. The rhythms become tribal, frenetic machine gun toms bookmarked by crash and ride cymbals. Once the distorted guitar comes in at 45 seconds, the beat relies on driving floor toms until the lyrics come in at 1:15. The song became my showpiece when trying to impress friends with my drumming skills. It was also a great workout. By the time the four-minute song ended, I was drenched in sweat. My high school drummer friends fell into several categories. There was the John Bonham/Led Zeppelin hard rock crowd, the Neil Peart/Rush progressive crowd and the Tommy Ramone punk crowd. I occupied a fourth group, the Peter Gabriel tribal crowd.
My drum heroes became Jerry Marotta and Phil Collins, both who played with Gabriel. They were inspired by African music that de-emphasized cymbals and focused on fast polyrhythms. The songs spotlighted the sacred nature of the drum as heard at religious gatherings or funerals. The rhythms were powerful and primal and changed the way I played. I put aside my cymbals and loosened the snare wire to make it sound like a tom. I bought tablas and fastened them beside the upper toms. I experimented with felt-tipped mallets used on timpani drums. The overall effect made the sound more resonant and dynamic as if two people were playing at once.
When I started college, I left my drums at my parents’ house. I got a job at Music Plus, a record store in Westwood. One of my workmates was lead singer in a punk ska band called Damaged Egos. The band’s drummer was an African-American guy named Big D. His percussive skills were so advanced, he could play a one-handed drum roll faster than I could with two hands. I hung out with the band acting as a roadie of sorts. One day, Big D came to rehearsal without his splash cymbal. In its place was an upside down wok fastened to the kit with clamps.
“What happened to your cymbal,” I asked.
“I pawned it,” he said.
Over the next few months he cannibalized his drum kit to pay bills. He replaced the missing parts with random objects. He used paint buckets, jugs and PVC pipe. He covered a spaghetti pot with duct tape for a hi-hat. An aluminum wallet emulated a snare. Though he retrieved his drums out of hock, he taught me an important lesson. Any object could be a drum if played creatively.
During my sophomore year, I started a videotaping business. I was hired to tape a client who was being roasted at the Friar’s Club. The man owned a product placement company linking consumer items with movie stars. (He was responsible for Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing Gargoyle sunglasses in Terminator.) He told me he worked in barter. This meant he wouldn’t pay cash but if there was a product I wanted, he’d trade it for my services. I said I’d love a new set of drums. He said he’d see what he could do.
Six months later, he called and gave me an address in Van Nuys. I met him at the Pearl Drum distribution warehouse. He shook my hand and said, “Whatever you can fit in your car is yours.” I filled my tiny Toyota Corolla with an acoustic drum set, an electronic drum set, two drum stools and accessories such as drum heads, floor pedals and cowbells. My parents’ family room became a makeshift drum studio. After graduating college, I moved back to my parents’ house. My best friend was going through a divorce and moved in with me. We spent our days playing non-stop drum jams. The pounding was so loud and incessant, neighbors filed a noise complaint with the city.
My friend and I moved into an apartment together. We left the drum kits behind and purchased African hand drums at McCabe’s guitar shop in Santa Monica. I bought an Egyptian Doumbek. My friend bought a Djembe, a Dundun (talking drum) and several Tablas. On weekends, we went to Venice Beach and joined drum circles. We jammed with friends at parties or went on rooftops to play rhythms to the sound of passing traffic. During the 1990s, African music reverberated through Los Angeles. Peter Gabriel formed his Real World record label and introduced Western audiences to world musicians like Geoffrey Oryema and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The effect was contagious. Wherever you went, young people played hand drums and took African drum classes.
I carried my Doumbek everywhere. It was a perfect icebreaker at parties. I’d find a quiet corner and start playing a syncopated beat. Before long, someone joined in. The gathering swelled until the party revolved around the impromptu drum circle. On several occasions, I jammed with actor Jeremy Piven, who was an accomplished Djembe player.
At 24, I needed money to pay taxes. I decided to sell my drums. I was crushed, but felt I had no choice. The buyer took everything except the Slingerland floor tom on which I’d painted a self-portrait. I placed the blue drum next to my bed and used it as a book stand. One day, I had an idea. I decided to make a music video called “The Blue Drum.” I’d videotape different drummers playing the drum in strange spots around the city. I called every drummer we knew. Each person chose a location reflecting his or her personality. One drummer played in an empty YMCA swimming pool. Another played beneath the Hollywood Sign. I videotaped on the freeway, on a downtown building balcony, at Pink’s Hot Dogs, in the bed of a moving pickup truck. One drummer tried playing atop a wave-splashed rock in Malibu but kept falling into the water. The resulting video was cathartic. It also marked the moment I shifted focus from drumming to making videos.
I kept the Doumbek but went years without playing a drum set. The last time I tried was about a decade ago. I was at a friend’s house whose daughter was learning the drums. She asked if I wanted to play. I sat down, adjusted the stool height, hit the kick pedal a few times and then froze. I was intimidated as if I was 13 again. I played an uninspired “four on the floor” beat but the effort was strained and awkward. The experience put me in a funk. If you don’t practice, you lose your chops.
A few weeks later I was driving when Cheap Trick’s “Ain’t That a Shame” came on the radio. Without thinking, I pounded the dashboard. With my right hand, I emulated the kick drum. With my left, I used the steering wheel as a snare. I played perfect paradiddles, my fingers supplementing the beat. I matched every note perfectly.
A smile came over my face. I might be a middle-aged man but the spirit of the drum is still alive within me.