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When I was a freshman at Fordham University in New York a long long time ago, there was a word that we used to describe the students who commuted to campus for classes which distinguished them from the students who resided on campus. That word was actually a shortened form of a long word and in that shorter version became a kind of insult. Commuter became ‘muter. Or, to spell it phonetically, mooter. And once we arrived at “mooter” the next obvious association became mutant and conjured in our minds was the picture of an unpleasing, unhappy, possibly sweaty, don’t-sit-next-them, student. Muter. The word was used in conversation like so:
“Do you know that cute guy who sits behind you in Calculus?”
“No. He’s a ‘muter. Why?”
So, no matter how cute, how pretty, you didn’t want to be a ‘muter.
I thought of ‘muters and all its associations today while I was in my car…uh, commuting. I watched the blue mini-van with the vanity plate that said “KP SMLN” inch forward a foot and suddenly the word came to me again from the distant haze of my past: ‘muter. And I suddenly felt the meaning of that word in ways I hadn’t when I was eighteen years-old, fresh-faced and naive in my first big city. But now at 39 years-old, I figured it out. I was a ‘muter. A slightly sweaty, unhappy, don’t sit next to them, adult trapped in a beige sedan on the interstate. I’m a ‘muter. Or, phonetically: I am a mooter.
I tried to work this fact into something positive.
Okay, I thought. A mooter has rebellious possibilities. They can be semi-heroic. Think X-men. Odd balls with superpowers that are horribly misunderstood by humanity. Or perhaps, artists, I think. Manipulating reality into magical forms. A magician?
KP SMLN inched forward another foot and the blue and yellow Ikea building peeked over the horizon. A landmark. Only another 40 minutes to go.
In that sea of cars, my beige sedan that proverbial grain of sand on the beach, I invented new pictures of mooters. Heroes with capes, heroines with guns, villains with brushes. Robot animals with cars. Bunnies with armour. I pictured happy, ridiculous, improbable mutants with supepowers. I saw inanimate objects become animate. A commuter cofffee mug became a dancing trash can. Flowers gave lectures. Dogs sang songs. Cats scratched their asses and changed the channel on the TV remote.
For an hour I reprogrammed my mind to imagine that the mooter I had become was greater than it felt at that moment following KP SMLN down a Midwestern interstate. Eventually I pulled into the spot in front of our building and grabbed my backpack filled with student papers out of the car and trudged up the stairs to my apartment. I was tired. I was a tired mooter.
Inside the apartment the cats lazed on the floor panting through the unexpected heat of the day. The air inside was still as if I had been gone for weeks rather than hours. I dropped my stuff, grabbed a bottle of water, and plopped on the couch.
A car alarm beeped outside. A cat licked its foot. An air conditioner whirred on.
Nope. Still the same. No dancing cats. No singing trash cans. Just me. Slightly sweaty, kind of grumpy, thirsty, and still a ‘muter.
I’ve been dreaming of New England. That picture perfect autumnal New England with red and gold leaves strewn across still green lawns. I’ve been feeling in my bones that chill of autumn that crisps an early morning and leaves dew on the driveway. It’s odd to wake from these dreams and see the solid, flat Midwestern landscape stretched out in front of me as I drive my expressway commute to the college. In those short stretches off the highway, I drive down a two lane highway and for a brief five minutes I see clumps of trees in grassy meadows and I’m reminded of New England.
These New England memories are awakened, I think, by the beginning of the school year and the onset of autumn, which, despite the hot humid weather of Chicago, I can still feel coming. Underneath that 80 degree day there’s just the slightest hint of seasonal change. And the apples have come into the farmer’s market. All kinds of apples: Macoun, Jonathan, Gala, and Red Delicious. In the Midwest there are also hybrids I had not seen before: Jonalicious and Prairie Spy. Pumpkins, too, have arrived. Small, perfect, round pie pumpkins have come to sit alongside large ones perfect for jack o’lanterns. And the apple cider is sweet and fragrant.
I was born and raised in New England and despite the many years in different states and countries, when October looms, I always still think of the country roads of New England. Even here in Chicago, which has its own picturesque version of autumn, I still remember New England. Here, the trees change color alongside the lake, the leaves contrast against the bright blue of the water and the sky. The lakeside parks are filled in autumn with dog owners in sweaters and dogs scattering leaves as they run.
It is, perhaps, harder than one realizes to forget those beginning years of one’s life. Those tender years from birth to adulthood, spent in a town or a state that one did not choose. For better or worse, that place becomes the first image of home and we may spend the rest of our lives revising that picture of home. We may try to turn the memory of that one story ranch house into a picture of a three-story Victorian or an urban loft, but whether we like it or not, those first few memories of seasons are the most memorable. The memory of the leaves turning gold on the tree in our childhood backyard remains with us years after we have seen the leaves of other trees in England, France or the Midwest. The first jack o’ lantern carved from a grocery store pumpkin will be the memory we remember even after years of cutting faces into other pumpkins.
So, I have been thinking of New England. Somewhere inside of me are the valleys of upstate New York, the blacktop of a lonely interstate and the flat fields of corn at the bottom of the valley. But my body is here. I am here. The prairie rolls ahead of me in grassy, golden waves, reminding me.
I have been commuting by car these days rather than by bus or train. And those long days inching my way through traffic have been occupied by listening to Led Zeppelin. For many people that many not be such a big deal but learning to play the drums has meant learning to listening to music that I otherwise would not. I must have missed it, that magic age between 14 and 18 when Zeppelin would have been on my turntable. Just as I missed that other magic age when J. R. R. Tolkein would have been a great novel ist to read. (I tried when I was 32 years-old and couldn’t get past the first two chapters of The Hobbit). So, I’m thirty-nine years old now commuting with thousands of others on the Kennedy Expressway attempting to cultivate an appreciation for classic rock bands like The Who and Led Zeppelin.
John Bonham, Zeppelin’s drummer, is one of those drummers newbie drummers hear about all the time even if we had never listened to the band. Although it would be impossible to live in the Western world and not have heard Zeppelin’s music. That is perhaps why I resisted Zeppelin for so long. My understanding of Zeppelin is purely associational. A former college friend liked Zeppelin. Or a guy I knew in Ohio loved Zeppelin. Or Brian plays Zeppelin riffs when he’s waiting for me to set-up my drums. I only knew Zeppelin because other people loved Zeppelin.
It was only as I listened to the CDs in the car that I realized that their music was so pervasive that even someone like myself who once sniffed her nose at classic rock in favor of jazz or classical also knew Zeppelin. Repeatedly each song aroused recognition. A recognizable guitar riff would open a song and I would think: “That’s Zeppelin!?”
Or, “I didn’t know that was Zeppelin.” Or ,”They did that one too?” That’s when I understood that anyone who turns on a radio in the Western world has already heard Zeppelin, whether they understand it or not.
I had to recover first from my own involuntarily shrinking when I heard the songs and remembered my associations. I had to forget the annoying guy in my college dorm who blasted Zeppelin from his windows. I had to erase from my mind the guitar player I had a crush on when I was twenty-one. I had move out of my mind the irritation Brian tries to raise in me by playing Zeppelin riffs in our set. Instead, I had to listen to the music.
And this is what I discovered: John Bonham’s an amazing drummer.
Whatever I may have thought about the band or it’s music, Bonham was on to something.
I called Brian from the car to share my insight. He was in his office at the college.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Bonham is great. Part of the innovation is how Jimmy Page miked the drums.”
“That was the first time anybody heard the bass drum.”
“I noticed he plays a melody on it.”
“And you can hear it. That’s the first time anyone really heard the bass drum.”
Brian gave me a mini-lecture on Jimmy Page, the guitar player, and Bonham. Even in his office between breaks in classes he can still teach and Brian expounded briefly on the attributes of Page and Bonham’s collaboration.
I inched through the Midwestern suburban sprawl and listened while Brian talked. Woodfield Mall came into view and next to it, the Ikea.
“I think we can use some of what they did in Short Punks.” I said.
“Oh definitely. We sort of do already.”
“Except I have to figure out how to do it without being as proficient as Bonham.”
“Well,” Brian said. “That would be the White Stripes.”
Ah, the white stripes…we don’t talk much about them since the first show when a man, mildly intoxicated, saw me setting up the drums and Brian setting up his guitar gear, and said “So you guys sound like the White Stripes or what?”
It was time for me to exit the expressway. I told Brian I would talk to him later when he got home at 10 pm from his night class and we hung up. It’s been ninety degrees here lately and the heavy humidity clung visibly in the air even at 9 o’clock in the morning. Zeppelin played on the car stereo and I heard Bonham’s heavy bass drum punctuate the sound of my car tires rolling over uneven pavement. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play like Bonham but I’m glad that I could find the thing inside of Zeppelin that I needed to learn, to understand, so that I could develop my own way of playing. I wasn’t quite at campus yet and the rest of my morning would be spent teaching others but I was happy that on that hour drive I was able to receive my own lessons before I try to teach lessons to others. Drumming has helped me in my teaching more than I can describe. In learning to be a drummer I had to accept my mere student status and accept that I knew nothing. That has been a humbling, useful experience for me. I judge my students less now for not understanding everything right away. And I let them and myself take the lessons as they come.
Thanks, John Bonham, wherever you are.
We’ve started rehearsals for the third CD. On Friday nights we go to Room C of the Superior Street rehearsal studio and try out new songs for the next CD. The process of recording has become easier for me, but I remember still that first summer that I learned to record. It was last July and August before Brian’s hospitalization. At my insistence we turned the music room into a studio. I made repeated trips to the guitar mega-store and bought huge squares of acoustic foam to tack to the walls, while Brian mail ordered recording software and mastered its intricacies. In July we did our first digital demos of the first Short Punks CD.
I don’t know what I’m doing now, but I really didn’t know what I was doing then.
Brian made the music room a “drum room” and he recorded me playing while he was in the living room with the lap top. We spoke to each other via the mikes and the headphones. I still remember him counting in my ear “One-two-three-four!” This was my cue that the song was going to end and I needed to prepare the ending fills and finish the song. Since he was in the other room and I was in the music room with the door closed for acoustic purposes, I could not see him and the cues he would normally give me to end a song. So, over the guitar which wasn’t being recorded, he would count me in and out of the songs.
This was pure torture to me. I was so new (and still new) to drumming and recording that just ending a song at the right point was (is) a real challenge. And without the visual clues from him it was thought much harder. After the seventh or tenth take, tempers began to flare.
“Let me out.” I said.
“You said you wanted to do another take.”
“I changed my mind.”
I would breathe. Once. Twice.
“Wait…let me try it again.”
” You just said…”
“Never mind. Just let me do it again.”
And I would try it again. Inevitably, once we did ten takes or more, we would listen to all the tracks and realize that the best one was the first one. Meanwhile I was passed out on the couch, sweaty from the stuffy, hot air and frustrated with my incompetence.
The hard thing about being older when I started drumming is that I often gave myself no room to just learn. When I picked up the sticks I wanted to competent at drumming right away. I bemoaned my limitations to my first drum teacher, Ben. He listened and responded sagely, in a way that belied in his twenty odd years of age.
“That’s the nice thing about teaching little kids,” he said. “They don’t care if they sound bad. They just play.”
He paused. “Adults want to sound good right away.”
I thought about that later. It would be better, if I imagined myself at 8 years-old, or perhaps younger, learning how to drum as if nothing depended upon it. That’s when I realized nothing does depend on my drumming either well or badly. Even at a show in a club, the moment of the performance is ephemeral. If I suck on Saturday night, no one will remember. And there will be another Saturday night to try again.
That’s the little bit of wisdom from playing out that I’ve been able to take to recording. And that has made these last rounds or rehearsals and demos for the next CD easier. I just play. If it sucks, we record it again. Let’s just hear it, we say. And see what we’ve got.
Friday we demo-ed five songs. It was okay. A new sound is emerging. We don’t know what it is, but we like what we hear.
I only just realized, this morning, while I was sitting in a cafe avoiding my dissertation that my blog about drumming isn’t just about drumming. Drumming is a metaphor — an allegory — for life.
You thought I knew this.
I thought I knew this.
I didn’t really know this.
I realized it today as I planned to write another post about learning to play triplets. I was thinking of metaphors for it to explain why adding a third stroke can be so challenging if you had been playing a certain rhythm before.
It’s like being a teacher, I thought. A teacher who has been teaching 2 classes a semester for years and then suddenly someone asks you to teach a third class. And you say yes. Then you realize something: all the routines are slightly different now. The times to teach, when to prepare, even the hours of the commute. So something so small ends up being bigger than you thought.
That’s when I figured it out: that’s not a metaphor or an analogy, it’s my life.
I am a teacher. I just did take on a third class this semester after having taught 2 classes a semester for years. And I’m learning to adjust my routines, my commute, my lunch times.
And like drumming, that third class is like a third stroke added to a rhythm.
It’s not a big deal, but I only just realized it. Drumming is like…life.