Yesterday one of the most famous drummers in the world died. Rolling Stones member Charlie Watts passed away at the age of eighty.
Drumming is an occupation that I could never do. Nor am I much of a guitar player. Which is why I write instead. I know how to play a keyboard because we learned to use a typewriter in high school.
Musicians in general amaze me. People that “think in music” impress me with their ability to translate ordered notes into nuanced sound. At one point in life I could read music and played the clarinet. I hated the instrument and gave it up along with piano lessons. The allure of sports was much more appealing to me. It produced more excitement, for one thing.
I only picked up playing music again in my late forties. Even then, my role was a simple rhythm guitarist playing in a church Praise Band. The music was nothing special. Much of it was maudlin and overwrought. I just had fun getting up there every week to play and sometimes sing with the band.
We had several drummers over the years I played in the church band. Each had a different style. Some were more ornate and loved to fill songs with a flourish or two. Others concentrated on a steady beat, and my guitar strumming helped with that too.
My closest relationship with a good drummer was a fellow fraternity member in college. His name was Mark, and I heard him play the drums one night in a rock band performing at a pub and was astounded at his natural ability and complex style of playing. Like most drummers, he didn’t have a high opinion of his abilities. He clearly loved to play, but most of the musicians I’ve met in life, especially drummers, know there’s always someone that can play better than they do.
That made his abilities all the more fantastic to me. I mean, if he was that good, and he knew that there were many people better than him, the world is absolutely an infinite place!
That Thing You Do!
One of my favorite movies is the Tom Hanks production “That Thing You Do!” It’s a lighthearted look at the rise and dissolution of a late 60s rock band picked up by a record label when their hit song takes off and rises up the charts. The central character is the drummer recruited from his father’s appliance store to do a one-time gig at a local music contest. His favorite style of music is jazz, so the rock tempo is nothing hard for him. Only he takes off drumming a little fast during the contest, and the band has to immediately adapt. The crowd goes wild and they’re on their way.
It’s the sound! The beat! His happy mistake takes them places they never dreamed possible. Of course, it’s all too good to last. But who among us would turn down such a thrillride?
By contrast, I watched the movie Whiplash a few years back. The movie studies the life of a talented drummer and his unforgivingly critical mentor played by J.K. Simmons. I watched that film in near terror as the young protege is challenged to his limits. There’s even an attempt to embarrass and crush the kid’s spirit through the portal of jazz brilliance that he’s ultimately forced to enter.
That level of pressure and demanding expertise is hard to imagine for most of us. If the scene above does not make you tense in some way, perhaps you have no nerves at all. You should get that checked.
What I’m sharing here is that it takes enormous dedication and the right kind of pride to get good at something like drumming. To get really good requires total dedication. Even obsession.
Which is why, in many respects, it is better for most of us to pursue the things we’re relatively decent at rather than launch off into some endeavor for which we’re really ill-suited. For me, that would be drumming. I’d try it if pressed as a challenge, but I’ve tried keeping the beat with both hands and feet and frankly, it doesn’t work.
Ringo: once and always a Starr
A few years back when I learned that Ringo Starr was not the only Beatle that could play the drums, I was a bit put off by the idea that Paul or John sat in on certain songs. I’d read so much about how Ringo was one of the world’s greatest drummers, and that The Beatles would not have achieved so much without him.
Then I thought about all the solo albums Paul put out, including his first McCartney LP with Macca playing all the instruments, not just the bass and drums. After that, nothing really bothered me about who was playing drums on Back In the USSR or the Ballad of John and Yoko. The fact that other Beatles could play more than one instrument only made them all the more brilliant in my eyes.
What still amazes me, and always will, is how some people can process all that rhythm and physicality into song, especially drummers. It’s a mystery to me, and it always will be.
So I know that I could never be a drummer because I 1) don’t have the talent for it and 2) could never stick with it to get good. <<rimshot>>
Russians that rock
So I’ll leave you with a couple more links to explore. These are YouTube videos of the band Leonid & Friends playing songs by Chicago. They’re all Russians, some of whom don’t speak English, yet they recreate the music of one of the greatest rock bands of all time with such fidelity it will amaze you. All of these people are amazing musicians, and I’ve seen them live twice now. They are incredible. You should subscribe to their channel.
But pay particular attention to the drummer in this band. His playing is so superb even Chicago’s original members are amazed by him. Now that’s the right kind of pride.
Or this one.