polishing the brass



now playing: steely dan, “FM” 


i remember the summer that movie (FM) came out…the soundtrack was all over the radio. that movie came out at around the same timeframe as the awful movie version of sargeant pepper’s lonely hearts club band with george burns, peter frampton, the bee gees…grease with olivia newton john and john travolta, saturday night fever, later xanadu…it was 1978/1979…soundtracks were finding their legs as marketing tools, really. this movie of which i speak, the FM movie, was a huge failure as a cinematic experience, but the soundtrack sold an assload of records. 

i remember buying my first records ever back then…my first 45 was love is like oxygen by sweet, followed by i’m not gonna let it bother me tonight by atlanta rhythm section. my first album was infinity by journey, followed by two albums that i got for christmas, point of no return by kansas and don’t look back by boston. the boston album had a gatefold cover, and had pictures of the band playing live in it, and i remember staring at the pictures, wondering who played what parts on the record and things like that. i remember drawing pictures of bands, pictures of stages, pictures of huge, elaborate drumkits (what i wouldn’t give to have some of those pictures back now, man….). 

a little while ago, the radio station i listen to most days played the theme song from welcome back, kotter and it got me to thinking about this particular time in my life…they seem to be hitting a lot of songs from late elementary/early junior high school today, and i seem to be tuned into that pretty vividly. i don’t know where that comes from, and how it is that i usually don’t really think about that time in my life at all, and then on other days, i’ll hear a song and i can remember little snippets of my life so clearly. i can remember the clock radio i had as a kid that was my lifeline to the outside world, where music was concerned – how whenever we’d go to my grandparents’ house, i’d bring it with me because i couldn’t stand not listening to music until i got home. i had the radio on constantly. after a while, i stopped even trying to reset the clock. later, i took the thing apart and actually melted a hole in the back of it big enough for a 1/4″ jack, and i wired it so that i could plug headphones into it. then later, i had a pair of car speakers that i wired up to plug into the headphone jack when i was home, because they sounded better than the speaker that was in the clock radio itself. 

i built a drum set. out of scraps that were lying around the yard and my grandfathers’ shop. buckets, with the bottoms cut out and plastic lids for heads, nailed to strips of wood and driven like stakes into the ground. old tires that were patently useless from a functional standpoint as a bass drum (later, i’d have two, because all the cool drummers played double bass kits), and whatever i could find that was round and made of metal for cymbals…the best ones i could find were a pair of tub covers for the wringer washer in the basement that i stole to make cymbals from. 

i’m sure my entire family thought i was completely off my rocker. i would sit out in the back of the yard with all this crap set up, stakes driven into the ground with the tires propped up in front and buckets nailed to them, some with big clanging metal disks on top of them, flailing away like a lunatic…making no sense at all at first, but slowly but surely beginning to figure it all out for myself. 

i would stay up and watch the midnight special on friday nights, any live music i could possibly see on tv i wanted to see. i’d watch saturday night live and wait up for the musical guest, no matter who it was. i saw jackson browne my first time on SNL. he played running on empty and then it seemed like hours went by…i remember gilda radner playing a hispanic in one skit, bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t buy gasoline for her low rider because, in her words, i gotttoo drive de big car dat sits low to de ground, and i gottooo have gaaaas! i actually turned the tv off, because i thought he wasn’t coming back on again, but then i couldn’t sleep because i figured i had turned it off too soon, so a few minutes later i turned it back on and he was just beginning to play the pretender. i saw talking heads, james taylor, patti smith, billy joel…and i was always trying to see what the drummer was doing. i remember seeing journey on the midnight special and being heartbroken when i saw that aynsley dunbar wasn’t behind the drumkit and i had no idea who the new guy was and feeling like he had no place in my precious band…. 



everything i picked up about playing drums was second and third-hand this way…watching other people play and trying to apply it to that godawful pile of shit in my grandpas’ back yard. over time, it fell into place and i started getting the hang of it. i was completely singular of purpose…i was going to figure this out for myself and then i was going to get into a band and move away and become famous. but, first, i had to get an actual drumkit. 

i couldn’t even play the snare drum in the band because it cost twenty bucks a month to rent a drum and take lessons at school. you can’t begin to imagine how prohibitive that was for my family at that point in time. it may as well have been a million dollars. 

but i had my buckets, man.  i’d make do for the time being. 

eventually, i had one drumkit-like contraption at my grandparents’ house and one at home, on the back porch, away from everyone else in the house so that the hullaballo wouldn’t distract from the rest of the familys’ tv addiction. 

i would literally go out back to the porch when i got home from school, take a break to eat dinner, and go back out there until someone would come and tell me to stop at bedtime. even when i was in school, i’d be gently and inaudibly tapping out rhythms on my desk in class. it was my sole motivation for getting out of bed in the morning. 

later on, in junior high, a good friend of mine sold me a drumset for $40 that was barely an upgrade from what i’d already been playing on, but they were real drums. that was good enough for me. sure, i still had to use some of my homemade stands and such, but i didn’t mind. they were real drums

they were a mish-mash of stuff, really…there was a ludwig bass drum and two tiny toms, mounted on a hoop that was fastened to the bass drum itself, then a floor tom that didn’t actually have any legs (it ended up sitting on a couple of stacks of books), and a tiny (for those days) 13″ snare drum. no cymbals – i ended up getting some really crappy cymbals from my mentor, david phillips, for a time (they were cracked and ridden hard, but they were real cymbals, and that’s all that mattered to me). and i had my first “real” drumkit. (i have a picture of myself as a teenager playing them, but it’s a pretty sorry picture…maybe i’ll scan it and try to clean it up someday.) 

so i held onto that set until i was a couple of years older and ready to start thinking about playing in bands. then, i collected the pieces that weren’t homemade and took them to david phillips’ music store and traded them in for a legitimate drum set, one that you could actually take out and play in front of people without getting the quizzical looks that i used to get from my cousins. i played my first shows in public with that kit. that’s the kit i was playing the first time my grandfather saw me play on, with a country band that was all brothers, plus dad, mom, and me…my first actual band. 

i’m not sure how exactly to explain the sensation that you get from the first time you go from playing by yourself or playing along with records to playing as part of an ensemble that has its own momentum…you’re no longer playing along with the finished product in your headphones, you’re creating a piece of the whole, something that has its own pace – and as a drummer, you’re actually driving that momentum, that pace. 

it’s a rush that you really can’t get anywhere else. i know that sounds corny, but it’s true. 

what led to this diatribe in the first place, you’re probably wondering by now…. 

today, i went to my favorite italian place for lunch (it’s only a few minutes from where i work, and i never go. i don’t know why. the only reason i went today is because i had to go to the bank to begin with, and it’s less than a block from the bank.) 

i was sitting there, at around 2 o’clock, the only non-employee in the place, and one of the kitchen workers was polishing the brass fixtures on the booths where i was sitting with Brasso…and i remembered that smell very vividly from when i was a teenager, polishing my cymbals in the room in the back of the house. 

between that and the music that keeps coming up on the playlist today, i’m finding that i very much feel like i’m fourteen again right now…sitting in that pink-walled room with the christmas lights hung from the ceiling, in a house that’s long since been torn down, trying to figure out exactly how this whole “musician” thing works. 

and before i shut the hell up, i just gotta say…copacabana sure is a goofy-assed song, coming from the same guy who did weekend in new england, man. 


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