For the last five years I’ve played drums in a rock band named Honus Wagner, but now it seems that we’re breaking up, and I’m trying to reconcile myself to life without the drums. Of course I can still play the drums by myself, which is a joy in much the same way shooting a basketball around by yourself is a joy, but it’s not the same as playing in a real game. In order to console myself, I’ve been searching for reasons that not being in a band might be a good thing.
Reasons not to be in a band: one is likely to acquire, as I have, a slight ringing in one’s ears (especially if you’re the drummer). One hears about money a great deal but rarely sees any. Then there are fans, who can be a problem, or there are no fans, an even bigger problem.
Success would, on the surface, solve many of these problems, but no matter how successful you are, a rock and roll musician must always contend with some Johnny-Come-Lately with a new haircut who is more popular than you in spite of the fact that he is so obviously and shamelessly stealing from you. Paul Westerberg must look on with dismay at Nirvana, who are justifiably aghast that anyone would use the word "Alternative" in connection with Pearl Jam, who in turn must have been tempted to consult lawyers about their apparent imitators Stone Temple Pilots.
But the real area I’ve been focusing on, in my attempt to dissuade myself of my rock and roll aspirations, is my instrument, the drums. Who in his right mind would want to be a drummer?
Reasons not to be a drummer: Up on stage, a rock band has license to behave as badly as they please–all except the drummer. He is the only one who must spend the whole time sitting down, as though in class. Among all the instruments of pop music, a drum set is the most cumbersome to move around, and also the least glamorous while in transit (as opposed to guitars). Whereas other musicians gain attention with interesting lyrics, catchy melodies, or, at the very least, an arresting stage presence, a drummer tends to get attention by being loud, bombastic, and generally having a fit not unlike a temper tantrum in which all the pots and pans in the kitchen are thrown on the floor. It’s is a medium that often tends towards the unsophisticated, the primal, the animal.
In fact, in the context of a rock band, the behavior of a drummer bears some resemblance to the behavior we expect and appreciate in dogs.
Dogs: reliable. Drummers: same. Dogs: fun and friendly, but capable of sudden and shocking acts of lewd behavior. Drummers: same. Dogs: playful and frolicsome until told to heel. Drummers: same. A dog will be scolded by his master for crapping on the new rug. A drummer will be scolded by the songwriter for continuing his raucous drum solo into the quiet part of the new song. (Whether or not a drummer will be scolded for actually crapping on the rug varies from one band to the next.) Then there is the sad and unnerving fact that drummers, like dogs, seem to be susceptible to sudden and unexpected fatalities involving cars, or poison, or both. The drummer for the band Motorhead has the right idea: his name is Phil but his nickname is "Philthy Animal."
Aside from Charley Watts, it would seem nearly impossible to play the drums in a rock band and have dignity. Logic and good taste dictate that this sort of life is to be avoided. The next time you see a drummer live, throw the man a bone. Would that I could be the one there to catch it!
This essay appeared originally in The New Yorker, and was collected in "How To Be a Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood."