BILL PLAYS DRUMS almost every day. He’s really good. Bill plays along with records. Bebop, straight-ahead jazz, cool jazz. Rock, sometimes.
Bill plays drums next door, and I walk up the driveway. Almost every day.
Every few months, Bill’ll ask, “Are you sure it’s not too loud?”
And I’ll say, “It’s fine. I like it. Makes me feel like I’m home.” And then Bill’ll kind of shrug, and I think he believes me but I’m not always sure.
I gather firewood from along the driveway between Bill’s house and Sam’s house. (I live out back, in Sam’s garage.) (Sam used to play drums, too.) When Sam’s out of town, I’m allowed to hang out in his house, mess everything up, break everything, sell everything, as long as it’s all reinstated before he returns. Mostly I just use the bathtub and the fireplace, which is right across from Bill’s studio.
Bill invites me over to play. An open invitation. “Whenever you hear me playing and you feel like playing, come on over.”
I do feel like playing drums, often, usually between 3 and 5 a.m. We have very different schedules, Bill and I, but once or twice a year the timing’s right, and I’ll sit down at Bill’s drum kit and play.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the elementary school up the block from us offered free drum lessons. Guitar lessons, too. This was before public schools were abolished and the education system privatized into an unfettered marketing tool to teach youth only the morality of fascism, the skills necessary to work for whatever companies own the schools, and the elemental desire for brand-specific soaps and beers and afterlives. My brother took guitar, and even though I wasn’t even enrolled yet — summer before I started kindergarten — my mom talked the school into letting me take drums.
By the end of kindergarten, my toy drum set was utterly destroyed (in a good way), leaving me to play along with AM radio on bongos. But just two years later — after kindergarten had ended and my parents split up and sold the house and then got back together and the five of us moved into an apartment across town — we bought a red-brick house with two fireplaces, one below the other, living room and basement.
Best basement in the whole wide world, with pale-yellow poured-cement walls, room for slot cars, pool table, table-tennis table. My big brother built a darkroom into the musty boiler room at the back, and I began slowly putting together a secondhand, mixed-brand drum set in front of the fireplace.
Started with a Slingerland snare, then a Ludwig bass with a genuine Ghost pedal. By fifth grade I’d added a Zildjian high-hat and ride cymbal, and a second snare drum without the snares (to use as a tom-tom). By seventh grade, there was a floor tom and a crash cymbal. And I was starting to get good.
THE FIREPLACE IN THE BASEMENT is on fire. My drum set faces it, about 6 feet away. I’m watching the fire over the tom-toms, between the cymbals, just far enough back not to burn.
There’s snow outside, a slow gray Sunday, early afternoon. Apart from the firelight, the basement is dark. Mother and sister gone shopping, separately. Brother with his girlfriend, on the other side of town. Father directly above me, in the living room, watching the game that I’d been watching until I gave up and decided to hit the drums.
“You sure it won’t be too loud?”
Before you build a fire, bring in logs from the woodpile out back to replace the ones you’re about to burn. That was the rule. The woodpile was half-gone already. I’d been burning at least three good-size logs each day since Christmas vacation began.
Carrying wood through the snow makes me feel like a grown-up. So does building the fire. So does playing the drums. Late on a Sunday morning, and I’m doing my best to keep up with Richard Bailey on Jeff Beck’s new album, Wired, waiting for my best friend, Phil Brown, to get home from church. Phil at the church learning how to avoid subterranean fire, me in the basement digging it. Getting better and better. Unfortunately, the best jazz drummer at my school, Gavin Millar, is widely considered to be the best high school jazz drummer in the state. Which means that Millar always gets to play the trap set, and the rest of us — Larry Tubbs, Roy Slater, C.G. Mitchum and me — play congas, timbales, woodblocks, cowbells, triangles, gourds and whatever other vastly less cock-a-hooping instruments of percussion were requested. We’re second-string.
But that’s okay. Millar’s great, and Millar’s a senior. Fair enough. I still have two more years.
BILL MUST BE IN HIS 70s. Looks and talks a bit like Gil Evans; a bit like Kurt Vonnegut, too. In the early 1950s, Bill worked at a record store on South Central Avenue. Bill says that musicians would often hang out at the record store in the late afternoon, before performing that night. Monk, Parker, Dizzy, Mingus, everybody. Just hanging out, talking with each other, talking with Bill.
Bill invites me to stop by and play drums. I do, but I can’t. Not really.
“Go ahead,” says Bill.
Bill pops in a Thelonious Monk CD that he knows I know well, and I semi-play for a few minutes, but I can’t quite feel it.
“Want me to leave you alone?” says Bill. “I’ll go in the living room. Play as long as you like.”
Bill closes the door behind him. I hang in there for a few minutes more, but it’s just gone. The old connections are cut. I can keep time, but that’s about it; like I’m using borrowed limbs. So I give up, leave the throne, thank Bill and leave. Head back over to Sam’s living room, build a fire in the fireplace and open the windows.
The fire works. Bill heads back into his studio, cranks up the Monk album and trades riffs with Billy Higgins.
Man, those guys are good.
But that’s okay. Fair enough. They’re seniors.