John played drums. That fact is what comes to my mind when I think about my uncle. I remember the Saturday when his daughter, Trena, and I listened to Queen’s Greatest Hits on vinyl, and then crept to the basement to pound the shit out of her father’s drums. A pretty amazing afternoon for two kids.
The kit was made by Ludwig. I think it was a pale blue oyster finish, and it sat on a plywood riser in the middle of the floor. Those drums seemed like the coolest thing ever to a kid who had never been exposed to anyone playing music with an instrument. My family was bereft of instruments and musicians. Uncle John was the only one. Sadly, my uncle died at a young age. I never had a chance to play with him, and I have wonder if I would have done more musically if he had been able to be there to offer any encouragement along the way. Hard to say.
Drums have always resonated with me. When it came time for me to choose an instrument to learn to play, drums were simply too expensive. I did build a set of toms out of ice cream containers so that I could play along with 1980s music when I was twelve, but pre-grunge that was NOT a way to impress people. Dragging around ice cream containers at school hinted at mental illness and an eating disorder: not Rock Star in the Making. Without YouTube or GarageBand, drums were also pretty hard to learn on your own. I somehow missed the concert band try-outs in Grade 7, so I was unable to tap into any formal learning through public education. I ended up with an electric guitar, and eventually worked my way into Jazz band class for a year in Grade 9. The moron who taught music at Colonel Gray High School shouted at me, made fun of my lack of musical reading ability, and was more about his fiefdom of band girls, than teaching some poor kid from the country how to read music. So it goes…the beat plays on.
While I now play bass, and am a solid guitar player (and I started practicing banjo last Christmas), the drums speak of fun and primal release. They bring me back to when I was a kid dreaming of sounds that slipped from the record player of my cousin. My idea this Christmas was to take the remains of that child’s imagination and buy the perfect snare drum an hi-hat cymbal combination. I could have bought a full, cheap set of “Made in China” drums, but that would never be as cool. Instead, I ended up picking out a single purple glass, maple shell snare drum made by Pork Pie in the USA, and a pair of hi- hat cymbals hand hammered and made in New Brunswick, Canada by Sabian. I wanted to hear the sounds of my childhood, and I wanted instruments made by North Americans. Perhaps I betray a hint of politics by supporting a Canada/USA manufacturing bias, but after reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath this month, I feel like we have ignored the value of our own workers for cheapness of labour. I do not want cheap; I want quality made in positive work conditions.
What am I going to do with my basic kit? I have no illusions about hitting the stage anytime soon, and, frankly, that would ruin the fun. The point of musical instruments is to play them for yourself, to forget the deadlines imposed by the real world, to pretend that you are a rockstar, and perhaps to connect with others along the way in the unplanned moments when people want to play for the right reasons. I have given up on playing on stage. I prefer to play the songs I like for the people I like when I like; playing in a band had meant that I ended up playing songs others like in situations I would have rather not been a part of. I love playing in living rooms and basements when the moments are right. I think about my old friend, Darren Forbes, and how our playing together was easy. I think about Darren MacAleer, and how we made a mixtape of our favourite 80s songs. I think about Darren Eedens, and the simple 4 minute jam at the Brock Lofts after a photo session felt so easy despite one beer too many. So many Darrens have crossed my path.
Music is a major part of my life. I photograph musicians. I record music in ProTools to document my life. I find moments to learn new licks, and to sing songs for M. on nights when we cannot make it down to Cameron House to hear better players. The poetry I teach my students relates to the history of song, or perhaps it comes from the Tower of Song that Leonard Cohen wrote about a long time ago. Whatever the case, this Christmas I will be thinking about all of the people who shaped my life so far. I will think about Uncle John, his heartfelt laugh, and as I bang on the drums I will be glad to be here in the moment. I will savour the remains.