Awhile back my friends at Zildjian asked me if I would contribute something to their magazine or website. Being in the middle of the Vapor Trails tour with RUSH at the time, I asked if maybe they could send me a list of questions in an interview format, and I would try to find time to scribble out some answers.
I never got past the first question
Answer: The first time I remember feeling a desire to play the drums was while watching the movie The Gene Krupa Story, at the age of eleven or twelve. The film's dramatization of his life and Sal Mineo's portrayal managed to make the idea of being a drummer seem exciting, glamorous, elegant, and dangerous. I started beating on the furniture and my baby sister's playpen with a pair of chopsticks, and for my thirteenth birthday my parents gave me drum lessons, a practice pad, and a pair of sticks. They said they wouldn't buy me real drums until I showed that I was going to be serious about it for at least a year, and I used to arrange magazines across my bed to make fantasy arrays of drums and cymbals, then beat the covers off them!
My uncle Richard (who by some trick of familial timing was only a year older than me) had also been an inspiration, for he played drums in a band called The Outcasts. They were young white guys playing Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and James Brown songs, in the "blue-eyed soul" style that was popular in southern Ontario in the mid '60s. For those of us who were raised on the painfully white pop music of the late '50s and early '60s, it was a powerful introduction to the "alternative music" of the times.
When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones appeared on the scene in 1963, I was only eleven, too young to be really moved by them, but a few years later I started to get excited by the "second wave" of the British Invasion-The Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds-and the emerging American psychedelic bands. (It occurs to me now that my favorite band in those days, The Who, also had their roots in "blue-eyed soul," playing what they called "Maximum R & B," and their first album, My Generation, even had a couple of James Brown covers on it.) In drumming, Keith Moon seemed to represent a rock version of what had appealed to me about Gene Krupa-exciting, glamorous, elegant, and dangerous.
In those same years I would often see Buddy Rich play on television, on the "Tonight" show, but I would just shake my head-he seemed too far out of reach. As Gene said about Buddy, "There are all the great drummers in the world-and then there's Buddy." It would be a long time before I even began to understand what I was seeing and hearing when Buddy played, but eventually I would know as well as anyone why he was so revered.
One Saturday morning during my drum lesson at the Peninsula Conservatory of Music in St. Catharines, Ontario, I remember my teacher playing a record, then telling me, "this changes everything." It was Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, with Mitch Mitchell's artful and innovative drumming.
Soon there were other adventurous and accomplished rock drummers, like John Bonham, Michael Giles (the first drummer with King Crimson and a very important influence on me), Bill Bruford with Yes, his replacement Alan White, Phil Collins with Genesis, and certainly Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd, who must have influenced every drummer in those days.
By the time I was an ambitious sixteen-year-old, it seemed the bar had been raised awfully high-even if you just wanted to be a rock drummer there was so much you had to know, and so much you had to be able to play. Odd times, complicated arrangements, exotic percussion instruments-it was all a bit daunting.
However, the effect on me was to make me determined to learn more and practice more. If I went to a club or a concert and heard somebody play great, I couldn't wait to go home and play my drums. I once read an interview with Eric Clapton talking about Jimi Hendrix, saying that after hearing him play he wanted to go home and burn his guitar. Wynton Marsalis said something similar about Miles Davis, and I guess that's the other response to greatness.
Sure it's a little discouraging to hear somebody blow right over your head, and if it makes you think, 'I'll never be able to play like that,' it's probably true-but that's okay. It seems to me such a shining example should inspire you to try harder, and maybe play a better version of yourself. Don't be discouraged, be inspired, and go home and practice-that's what I feel.
There's another obscure hero of mine I want to take this opportunity to celebrate, and it weaves out of a brief autobiographical tale. In 1970, at the age of eighteen, I packed up my drums and records and moved to England, searching for the rainbow's end of fame and fortune. The pot of gold was not to be found quite so quickly or easily, though, and after a few months in London, I was broke. Luckily I found a "real job" working in the souvenir shops of Carnaby Street and Piccadilly Circus.
London is always a crossroads for young bohemians, and I worked with a number of expatriates from all over the world. During the day we took turns choosing the music to play in the shops, and one Persian guy, Ahmed, always liked to hear this instrumental record called Movements, by an arranger/conductor named Johnny Harris. After many listenings, I gradually began to appreciate the subtlety and sophistication of the drumming, and the jazz-based technique which combined funk overtones and rock power and dynamics.
More than anything, I loved the construction of the drum parts, so intricately designed and elegant, in styles ranging from laid-back funk to driving energy, and delivered with a great natural sound, and perfect time and feel. Twenty years later I listened again to that record and realized how much the drummer had influenced me, especially in the building of drum parts for songs-and I didn't even know his name!
There were no musician credits on the album, and it was only after a remarkable trail of internet searches by a friend of mine, Brian French, that we learned who my anonymous tutor had been. I had guessed that it might be Kenny Clare, a well-known British drummer in those days who played a similarly exciting and musical style with such people as Tom Jones and Tony Bennett (with whom I had seen him play at the London Palladium in '70 or '71 with Brian's brother, Brad, my flatmate in London), or even perhaps Michael Giles again, but it turned out to be someone I'd never even heard of: a British session drummer named Harold Fisher. So after all these years, I'd just like to say, "Hats off to Harold."
This brings to mind another story from those days in England. When I first arrived I started answering "drummers wanted" ads in the music papers, and one of the auditions was for a band who played what would later become known as "progressive rock." When I sat down behind the borrowed drumset, the keyboard player announced, "this first tune is in seven," which meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, but I kept quiet and just tried to join in when they started playing. The keyboard player was kind and patient, and said that I seemed to have a good "feel" for odd times, but they were looking for someone more experienced. I was crestfallen and humbled, but from then on I set out to learn everything about playing in odd times, and followed my own advice, "Go home and practice."
Inspired, not discouraged.
And as for all those drummers who once inspired me-they still do.