Bringing the Beat Back

It’s the sound of rust coming off. It’s the sound of bones cracking. It’s the sound of muscles straining.

It’s the sound of getting back into the swing of things.

Playing drums is yes, like riding a bike. Once you learn, you can do it. If you learn how to kick a beat at age thirteen, you can probably do it again when you’re sixty. Maybe it’s muscle memory. Maybe it’s regular memory. Maybe it’s just knowing which pedal is the gas and which pedal is the brake. Once you get the feel for drums, it never leaves you. Drummers are easy to pick out in a crowd- they are the ones jamming out on steering wheels in traffic, playing drums on their chest while seeing a band play or the source of the sound of feet tapping underneath the table at dinner. Drummers are afflicted individuals. Once the beat starts, it never really ends.

The hitch in the giddy up though is coming back to drums. Drums are a good friend and can be your best friend, but they are an unforgiving one if you neglect them. It’s tribal in name only. Drums have emotions and they hold grudges. Take a break, step away for a bit, pursue other interests- sure you can come back to drums, but drums will make you pay.

Drums are having their way with me right now and it’s an unsettling feeling. I recently started jamming again with a buddy and while it’s fun- great fun actually, it is also frustrating and mildly painful. I will never proclaim that I was an amazing drummer. I never left mouths dropped. I was serviceable. I did my job. I prided myself on being steady and reliable- qualities I look to be recognized for in other areas of life now. I’m not looking to stand out. I’m just looking to do my part. My favorite drummers are the ones who emphasize the beat and refrain from flashiness.

Questlove of the Roots forever changed the way I approach drums and if I ever see him in person again…I did once, at Nick’s Fish House in Baltimore, I would tell him that. Prior to getting into the Roots, I was big into Phish. No wait, that’s an understatement- I was incredibly huge into Phish and as a result, heavily influenced by their drummer Jon Fishman. I loved the way Fishman had each of his four limbs going in different directions and the rhythms he could throw out there regardless of the tempo. Fishman was it.

But then I started listening to the Roots and the defining moment when it comes to my appreciation of Questlove was reading in Rolling Stone once that at a James Brown tribute show he played drums for four hours straight. That’s what he is, he’s a machine. His flash comes from his rock steady stability. My goal with drumming was to emulate Questlove; to play the way he does and to emphasize the beats. The most important parts of my kit were the bass drum, the high hat and the snare drum. That was all I needed.

Now I need chops. Specifically I need my chops. They seem to be missing.

We haven’t had something as structured as rehearsals; we’ve just be jamming. But there’s been a lot going in my head while we’re doing so. I used to play a lot and things came naturally to me. What’s been frustrating is trying to get back to that place. In some ways it feels like going home again. You can’t go home again, things have changed and you’ve changed and the world has changed and ultimately things just won’t be the same. But when you inevitably try to go home again, you do so searching for familiarity. When I go back to Portland, I go back to the places I used to go to in Portland- I go to Gritty’s and I stop by Bay Lines and I go see Andrea to get my haircut and I drive down Commercial Street and pop into Market Street Eats. I do this because it’s what I did. It’s what I know. But these places have changed. The thing about leaving is that you expect things to stay the same- but it’s unfair to that place to expect everything to have remained exactly as it was. You’ve changed, it’s changed. We all change. It’s just a bummer because deep down, you want to walk the same streets, see the same things and for a weekend, step back into the same life.

This is what it has been like getting back into playing drums. It’s not the same, I wish it was the same, but I don’t think it will ever be the same again. My arms don’t move as smoothly as they used too and my right hand cramps up like a monkey fudgesicle much quicker than it ever used too. I was never big with drum fills, but now drum fills seem like the American southwest- completely foreign to me. I think more about the beats I’m playing and not in the way I used too- how the fit the song, etc. Now I question whether or not I should be doing something more, even though what I’m playing seems to make sense and seems to fit so well with what D Money is playing. I question whether or not playing a straight beat is a cop out or perfectly suitable. I question whether intricate bass drum patterns are required or just filed under “use when needed.”

I question whether or not hitting a cymbal right now would be a good thing or a bad thing…no…hitting a cymbal is always a good thing. I never question cymbals.

You can’t go home again, you can ride a bike, Questlove is the man. These are universal truths. These facts cannot be challenged. These are the certainties out there, while my drumming is no longer one of them. I talk to Mom a lot about managing expectations given certain and unexpected limitations in life and it’s something I feel that is applicable to me now. That was then and this is now. What was easy won’t always be and what was a given never stays that way forever. Yet there is no point dwelling on the absents in life. That is a bummer and we save bummers for earlier in the week. Today is Thursday, tomorrow is Casual Friday.

The beat is still there. The cymbals are still there. The drum sticks are still there.

The chops will come.

But for now, enjoy the small doses, enjoy the jams and enjoy the Advil Liquid Gels.

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