for Rusty Berg
by Joshua Wetjen
From Fall 2018
A permanent drummer remains elusive.
The current drummer is a drunkard and hammers on the skins like his sticks are frozen legs of lamb that he wants to thaw. No rhythm—only wind forced into the room at terrible decibels and unpleasant intervals. We often ask him to stop so we can tune up and set the levels on our amps and the vocal PA. He keeps on like it’s funny, hammering on the cymbals like he’s the one shaping them from raw brass at the foundry. We stuff our earplugs farther in and sigh.
Thankfully this drummer’s inner compass means he has no follow through and we lose track of him. We try to contact him anyway, feeling a sense of duty about it, but get no answer. “Good riddance,” our bass player says. He plays upright. He was double major in music and pre-law. We love him.
So we are back to keeping time with the sound of the bass in quarter notes, listening in to each other like we are hearing a whispered secret.
Soon we get a break. Through romance, of course. Another drummer, who arrives to our rehearsal room because he’s chasing a woman connected to one of us—that seems to drive him into our orbit—is beguiling and sly—he slips up into the front end of the beat like a flirtatious smile. This drummer is excellent. But he’s above our pay grade and ships off to New York before we can get him for the next gig. Somewhere the romance fell apart, we hear. We learn that he too is unreliable, just like the first drummer, who could barely drum at all.
Then we find a drummer who knows what he’s doing in a basic way—a friend of a friend. He runs his own business. He does not read music. He does not usually play our kind of music. He does not usually play drums. He is a pianist. This is a species of musician—the person in the band playing an instrument that is not home territory. Sometimes it spawns innovation. Most of the time, it feels like self-imposed torture for no good reason—perhaps a lingering disappointment with life.
This drummer lasts a while. Then his business booms. Because he sells a fixture for rain gutters—a design that innovates many households and spares many basements, roofs and areas of landscaping. Good for him. He makes a down payment on his own house. He gets married.
We play at his reception. But not with him. We play without him, just outside the park pavilion where the buffet table is, keeping time with the bass and his quarter notes again. Since we are outside the pavilion’s shade, the sun radiates like anger, sapping us. All our tunes are sluggish. We forget which song we are playing in the middle of it. Afterward a couple of us think we have the flu, but it is dehydration.
Next up, a month later, we try a drum machine. This adjusts the genre of our sound. This is uncomfortable. Discomfort is good for art—at least in small doses.
We score a gig at a rock club. We have fanstastic lighting—lasers of blue pierce red clouds and it evokes the chilly mood of our diminished and minor seventh chord progressions. We juxtapose distortion and grit with the steely, clean sound of the machine, which we spend hours with, hooked to our laptop at third wave coffee shops. The bass player wears tight black faux leather pants. We do set up at 7 and take down at 4 in the morning.
Years pass. We are getting older. Each of us has a day job. We can fake our way through the day jobs for a day or too, but eventually our bosses need to see we are working. A couple of us are married. One of us has kids. The bass player is a lawyer and has money to build a practice space. Then he is made partner, and the practice space in the basement becomes a studio because he is flush with cash.
We begin our album—one we have talked about for a long time. There is word we will get a record contract. How can we do this? We have to choose between the music and domesticity because now all of us have kids. It feels like a terrible cliché.
On a break from laying down the echoey textures of our showstopper song one of us tells a story of an indie band from the east coast who write decent songs and have worked for decades and kept their integrity. This leads to a discussion of the kind of music we play. The bass player expresses melancholy because he longs for the simple days when our music was quieter and we played to amuse ourselves. We ask him about his faux leather pants, which is teasing, but we also contemplate his tattoos and piercings—especially the one on his forearm that quotes New Order’s Regret: “The school is out / and the kids have run away.” The bass player has never interpreted the tattoo for us, but at various points we have seen “the kids” as ourselves. He got it around the time he was made partner at the law firm. We are about to ask him what it means, but one of us has to get up and leave to pick his kids up from rock climbing class.
On the drive home, some of us think back to the old days, because the bass player brought it up, and at the stop light we get a little clarity. The old days were not perfect either. We were not great at playing. Some of us seemed permanently depressed as the vicissitudes of youth pulled us back and forth. Was that the same vitality that made our music feel necessary?
Then the light changes. We think back to all the drummers—we see a montage of them in our head and a twinge of corniness hits us, tightening our shoulders because it’s like VH1 Behind the Music. At home, we put a frozen lasagna in the oven.
We have one song half done at the studio. It borrows chords from “Autumn Leaves,” which is also what Sting did once. We all decide we hate Sting. After playing the song back, the bass player expresses reverence for the drummer in Sting’s first band, The Police. Stewart Copeland. We agree that he was a superb player, even if the songs annoy us—the hard-landing rhymes and too-sing-songy melodies. Then we fall silent, realizing we are back to the problem of drummers.
The record contract never happens.
We take on more hours at the office. Our kids are in middle school. The kids want to play music that is opposite to ours. Punk maybe? Hard to tell genres now.
Some of our kids rebel by becoming athletes.
At a rehearsal for a one-off gig (perhaps a return to form?) the bass player can no longer play for more than twenty minutes. His callouses are gone and the finger muscles are atrophied.
Then the bass player is in the hospital. He has a bad heart. The bass player dies.
We hear some of our old performances at his memorial, which takes place in that same neighborhood as the hot pavillion from all those years ago. Someone has put the cloudy videos of the old days up on Youtube. Later we find out who, and ask to take them down. But for now, the bass player’s wife looks brave but sleepless. She tells us we were so special to him. We see ourselves in the photo montage that plays on repeat in the church hall. We look so young in some of the photos, we think we must be in high school—that too floppy hair, the acne peaking out from our bangs, our arms thin like poultry bones but lithe, ready. That readiness is gone now.
We put away the instruments. We even sell some on Craigslist. Some we hide, like outfits we’ll wear again when we lose the weight.
Most of our kids do well in school. Some kids struggle. One has a hard time the year we separate from our spouse. This kid has a lot of problems. On the other hand, we allow ourselves to wonder if this kid is the one destined for artistic greatness. Meantime, this kid has to do group on Wednesdays and is in an outpatient program.
We see the good drummer in the stands at a high school football game. We approach him as he is purchasing popcorn. He is married, but not to the woman who was part of our scene. His parents live in our city. He has a child in the game—the first girl to play football for the school that is the team opposing our kid’s, the child of ours who is good both in behavior and academics, and may get a sports scholarship.
The good drummer invites us to play at the rec center where he plays.
We show up, instruments in tow, taken from hiding. It is a Saturday ritual for him. And senior citizens. We have gray hair now, though some of us dye it. But the big band at the rec center is a sea of gray hair.
The tottering man who plays trumpet and leads the band calls the first tune. “Autumn Leaves.” We try to jump in, but need to tune up first and it’s hard to do it while the band plays.