The Power of Drums
In the few weeks that passed after Jake’s funeral, I wasn’t so interested in making a lot of noise at home. I wasn’t in a mood for playing music – alone or with anyone. This was due at least in part to the fact that my drums were still in Montreal, nestled in a pile behind Topher’s dining table. That was right where I’d left them in a mild panic as we scrambled to take the train home to Toronto.
I spent a lot of time listening to the recordings of our band practices and our Montreal gig. An active listening, down in my room with the warm lamp light. I’d sit in the red rocking chair with my headphones on, eyes closed as the sounds flowed through me.
I could hear us playing on the tape. I could hear Jake picking individual notes or thumping lines out with his thumb; yet now he wasn’t around. What had occurred that took him away? How can he be there then, but not here now? I was clueless. Perhaps I was looking for answers on the tapes. Maybe if I listened very carefully, or if I played it backwards, I might be able to hear the meaning behind why events occurred as they had. If American politicians can hear Ozzy Osbourne encouraging kids to shoot themselves, maybe I could hear the Universe’s explanation as to why Jake was no more.
The nights in my room passed and I continued to study our tapes. I started feeling locked in: locked in my room, locked in the false reality of our recordings. It was like I was expecting to burst through into a new understanding of things, but had yet to find a pin to pop the bubble. I needed to release something forceful and primitive. Maybe I needed to bash the skins again.
Before Sweet Untasted’s very first gig, I was looking to upgrade my little red kit. As luck would have it, Jake’s mom, Leanne, called one evening with some cool news.
“The thing is, I work with a guy – he’s older than you – who plays drums, and he’s selling his old set,” she told me over the phone.
“He’s all excited about the new set he’s just ordered. He says it’s top of the line and all that. Anyway, he’s selling his old set, and he’s heard me talking about you guys a million times, and he asked if you’d be interested in his old set.”
“He brought it to work today, packed it in my trunk, and it’s in our basement right now. He says you can play with it for a while, to see if you want it.”
My shoes were tied and I was out the door before another word was uttered. I tore up to the Vernon house on my bike, arriving as the sun set. Jake greeted me at the door, as excited as I was.
“Fraser, you gotta check out these babies,” he whispered to me. “Some serious shit goin’ on.”
I kicked my shoes off, and the two of us ran towards the basement door.
Jake and I tumbled down the stairs and turned the corner into the main space. There, in front of me, sat a truly beautiful sight. A magnificent set – British racing green, accented with golden platters and silver shafts, stood proud and sturdy like a mountain. The whole shebang, a concert of visual harmony. They were perfect, and I hadn’t even played them yet.
A snare, two toms, and a floor tom sat around the big kick drum. The high-hat, two crashes, two rides, and a Chinese cymbal floated above. And to top it all off, three rotary-toms (like three upside down hubcaps with skins stretched over their backs) sat above the high-hat, looking like something Alex Van Halen might play.
Feeling giddy with pleasure, I sat at the drum throne and further examined the kit. The hardware (all the chromed stands and supports that hold the drums and cymbals in place) was strong and brawny, noticeably more so than that of my little novice kit back home. Everything about these green monsters promised robust strength and rich, professional quality. They were built to last.
I launched into a beat, and shuddered in rhythmical orgasm. Oh, I wanted them! Sold! I’ll take ‘em! Gimme, gimme, gimme!
“Dude, you have to buy these,” said Jake with a knowing look.
“I know. I know.” I bit my lip. “Any idea what the guy is asking?”
“Eight hundred bucks,” I said with a gasp. “Dammit! That’s a great price!”
“If you were to buy these new, in a shop, you’d pay that much for the hardware alone! Oh, I gotta talk to Mum and Dad about this. Maybe they can make it my Christmas or birthday present – and I’ll pay half – or something like that.”
And that’s what happened. I paid half and the drums were mine – set up in my room downstairs by the following weekend.
Now they sat, neglected, in a pile behind Topher’s dining table in his apartment in Montreal. If they were to be any good to me now, I’d have to go get them. Yet I dreaded the idea of having to go back to Topher’s. The memories were still too fresh.
Our red Nissan Sentra was in the shop for a tune up so my dad had a rental car for a few days. We left before the sun was up on Saturday morning. Dad drove like a demon, chewing up asphalt with the borrowed blue chariot. The journey was surprisingly straightforward, due in part to the snow having melted away in the four weeks since I was last there. We pulled up to a parking meter outside of Topher’s apartment as Dad’s wristwatch beeped noon.
I pointed at the tiled floor where we laid Jake down. Dad did his best to show compassionate interest, while not allowing me to dwell on each little detail that was still burning in my mind. With a hand on my shoulder, he nudged me out of my internal play-by-play, past the front steps up to the buzzer.
Topher came down to greet us. He was very accommodating and tried his best to make us feel welcome. On the drive up, I had been thinking about him, and trying to put myself in his situation. Did he feel a little isolated here in Montreal? Did he relive that horrible night every time he walked through the lobby of his building? At least I was surrounded all day, every day, by people who were aware of the situation, even if they didn’t know Jake. Maybe Topher was lonely and without a support group to turn to. But what did I know about how he lived? Not that much. In fact, I didn’t know Topher very well at all.
I really wanted to grab my precious drums and split, but we let Topher take us for a quick walk around town. The sun shone, and although it was still a little cool, the city was alive with people and activity. It was inviting. All the same, my drums were packed into the car and we were shaking Topher’s hand goodbye before the sun went down.
“You don’t have to go immediately, you know,” Topher said as I closed the trunk shut over a pile of drum stands and cymbals. “I can put you guys up for the night if you want to hang out. It’s no problem.”
“Nah, I really just want to get home tonight.” I felt rude and guilty for saying it, as if I knew in my heart that I owed him some bonding time. The truth was, though, that I didn’t feel comfortable there. Every detail in every square of sidewalk spoke to me about Jake’s death – the wonderful highs that preceded it, the utter suddenness of its occurrence and then the sting that followed. I wanted to collect my treasure and get home to my own, safe, bed.
I gather he was a little disappointed, but he quietly accepted my wishes and let my Dad and me get into the car without pressing any further.
As I drew my seat belt around me, he leaned his head towards the open door. “Hey, I’ll be back in Mississauga in a month. We’ll get together then.”
“You bet! I’ve got your number.” Dad turned the key and the car came alive. I motioned with my thumb to the pile of drums in the back seat. “Thanks for keeping these things safe. I’ll talk to you soon, Topher.”
We drove away, down the narrow one-way street, waving goodbye to him as we turned the corner. I felt bad for not being able to give him more time, but at that particular moment, I needed to take care of myself, and that meant getting me, my Dad, and my drums back home safe and sound as quickly as possible.
As Dad drove on, I was free to relax a little, knowing that my drums were now back in my possession. The gentle rhythm of the car moving along the highway rocked me into near sleep. I remembered way back to how drumming had become so important to me, and felt a smile spread across my face as I remembered the unexpected journey that led me to it. Mitchell Peach was a prolific little kid when I met him at grade school years ago. We were not particularly close friends, but as it turns out I owe my entire drumming history to him.
We teamed up to work on the grade eight science fair project. He introduced me to his very welcoming family, and walked me through their beautiful home. When we got down into his basement, he pointed out his latest hobby. He was taking drum lessons and his dad recently acquired a kit for him to practice with. They were old. In fact, they were ancient. Even I, with no previous exposure to drums, could tell that this assemblage of wooden hoops and stretched animal skins had seen many, many seasons. In an era when everything is mass produced, these drums almost looked handmade. The very wood of the drums was dried and splitting, painted a faded, tomato red. The yellowed skins were actual skins of goat – some mangy, once-live yet long-dead barnyard animal. Each skin was hardened and stiff, almost brittle, yet still strong enough to withstand being hit by an amateur player.
I appreciated the charm, and the character. I loved the suggested history as it compelled me to imagine how this drum set had come to be in Mitchell’s basement. What stories could they tell me? Who had loved them? Who blistered his fingers in moments of musical release? Who crafted them, and from which sacred tree? My imagination slipped away into all the past lives, into the minds of the past owners, past musicians.
To look at them fascinated me, but when Mitchell took a seat behind them, picked up the sticks and began to play a rhythm, I was transfixed. I don’t know for how long, but I was compelled to watch and to listen with much consideration, paying close attention to the sound, and to Mitchell’s movements and postures and the physical theory behind creating the rhythm. It made me shiver to hear the sound.
I was impressed. Mitchell was kind enough to indulge me for a moment. I sat down to play the same rhythm that he’d just played, and I know that I was able to reproduce the beat in a relative sense. Sitting there, behind those large, round objects that made such an incredible sound under my control, was very exciting. It all made sense to me. I immediately knew that I could play drums. I knew that I was a drummer, and that I was a good drummer. I needed to investigate these instincts by playing more.
There was an instant connection made between me and the instrument. I didn’t need to be shown anything else. I knew that the rest was all just differing combinations of the same four or five skins being struck in different patterns to a constant beat. In mere moments, I discovered a very primal current that rippled under my skin. I was empowered.
That same power flowed through me whenever I played throughout the years that followed. It was a kind of natural addiction – being addicted to the joy that playing drums produces. As Dad pulled into our driveway with my drums packed in the trunk, I hoped that my journey with drumming was not yet over. I didn’t know what was going to happen, where they were going to take me, but I was hoping they would speak to me again when the time was right.
We unpacked the drums in a heap on the floor of my bedroom. After a late dinner, I went down to set them up properly. I’ve never had a more awkward moment with them. A whole lot of the magic that they contained seemed hushed. Perhaps in an effort to clean their wounds, I wiped them all down with a damp cloth and stood back to observe them. For a second, I considered playing, but I stopped short. I needed to leave that aspect of getting reacquainted for another day. There was still some healing to do before I could whale on them again.