I threw my heart like a girl. Weak arm. Poor aim. Silly targets. These limp flings and murky connections, I knew, would change once Joseph Ulrich Neisser saw me sparkling with star power this Friday night, when the artsy crowd of Durham would admire the most coveted indie-scene object around—the chick drummer.
Joe’s charms had snuck up on me. His eyes were wide, brown and expressive, but they weren’t aquamarine or peering out from a chiseled brow. He wasn’t an athlete or an artist. He was philosophy grad student with a patch of Psoriasis on his belly button, his form wide and slumped, his Hawaiian shirts a whiff past wash day. The odor, though, was an honest one. And Joe was passionate about the small but important things in life, like sausage and old style New Orleans funk.
I fell for Joe at a dollar matinee of Ed Wood, during the scene where the cross-dressing director played by Johnny Depp directs Bela Lugosi in a take from Plan Nine From Outer Space. The aging horror actor was sopping wet from wrestling a mechanical octopus in a pool of water. The motor that moved the arms had broken but Wood continued to exhort Lugosi through his megaphone. Desperate for a film role, Lugosi remained ever the professional. “Argh!” the old actor growled as he struggled to flail the heavy arms. “Arrrgh!” Lugosi growled again and again as Wood yelled encouragement despite the limbs splatting dead in the water.
“Arrrrrrggggghhhhhh!” Lugosi yelled before collapsing in a heap.
Joe and I paused a beat, then spewed our popcorn and laughed way louder and harder than necessary. The couple sitting next to us left in a huff and Joe passed me his flask of whisky. I nestled in his thrift store tweed jacket and filled my nose with the deep, sincere odors of barroom smoke and failed deodorant. I could see it. Our disheveled but warm home filled with books and our Prince CD collection, dirty laundry sitting in a pile while we brewed more French press coffee.
Inspired, I began an earnest campaign of romance. I lit candles and blew the dust off my Al Green CD. Months later, our relationship still had all the romance of a diaper bag. Subdued affections were fine for twenty years from now, as we perused Russian novelists in our refurbished New England home. For now it was a problem. I poured Wild Turkey down both of our throats and a few times succeeded in getting us to pass out together. We fumbled through the raw materials of a tryst but wiped out like towels in a broken dryer, still damp after hours of tossing with no heat.
We needed a fresh start and my debut as a chick drummer would create it. I had been playing for two or three months and it was time to get started. Wasn’t getting boys the whole reason I’d decided to play in rock bands anyway?
“Chick drummer!” everyone said. “You’re going to be famous!”
In one of those moments of perfect circularity, where the object becomes the instrument, Joe linked me to my first band, Zipper.
Like good Gen Xers, we were drinking coffee and talking about what we should do with our lives. As usual Joe sat that little bit close, his brown eyes intent. “What do you want?” he dared. “What do you really want?“
“More coffee, a pet muskrat, and a pink felt beret.”
“Lauren wants a band. He wants a drummer.”
“He’s from California.” This, apparently, explained everything.
Lauren, it turned out, was someone Joe knew from the Duke grad scene. A lit student. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about a man named Lauren, but maybe his name had made him tough, like Johnny Cash’s boy named Sue. And really, the important thing was I needed a band and here one showed up.
“I want,” I said. “Sure, I want.”
I arrived at Lauren’s with my kit stuffed in my Dodge Colt hatchback. He lived in a large older house with a wrap around porch and sagging roof. The kind of place that houses grad students like the old woman in the shoe. I had no idea what kind of music Lauren wrote, and he had no idea if I could play. But I was going to be in his band, that didn’t seem to be a question. This wasn't an audition. I was a chick drummer and that was enough.
It turned out Lauren was as tough as a lit student could be, which is to say, not so tough. He had clipped salt-and-pepper hair and a trim beard to match. His small hands flapped as he talked. Wow, I played the drums, he said. What luck! He loved Joe. What a great guy. What a character he was. The South, it was a trip. He missed the West Coast (totally) but how about that pulled pork BBQ? I was from Alabama? He heard the Deep South used tomato sauce instead vinegar. He had played out some in the Bay Area, but nothing since he moved east. All he did was mention starting a band and wham, everyone just fell into place. Synchronicity! Lauren’s short, tight body sprang like a leprechaun as he grabbed my gear and moved it inside.
Past the wood-floored living room and down the creaky stairs I found our practice space, a typical Southern basement of mold, cobwebs and jumpy bugs. I met the singer, Sarah, also a lit student. She had a brunette pixie cut, red lipstick, and a sly smile. The bass player was some freshman (Josh?) rustled up from a Comp class. He was shy and sweet. A good mother had raised him, you could tell. Lauren apologized for the crappy sound system as he ran around turning knobs like Dr. Frankenstein. His gear sucked, he said, but the important part was to get started, right? As my drums were made of particle board, I had to agree.
The first song we played was called “Something in my Basement,” a peppy post-punk number. Given our setting and all the English majors, was this irony? Or perhaps the “something” was symbolism. Either way, Lauren had picked the right ensemble to impose a deeper context on the patently obvious. Given the group was more qualified for a Derrida forum than a rock band, I was amazed we could play. But within a few minutes, sounds of a recognizable song emerged. Hey, Sarah could actually sing, had this groovy torch singer presence. The Freshman (Josh?), he was funky! He played melody lines, not just plodding root notes. Lauren’s songs were catchy, and he had copped enough David Bowie licks to get by. I could lay down a decent groove.
We liked ourselves. We had a beat and hadn’t puked to it. Something had started here. After rehearsal, we sat on the front porch drinking beer and plotting our musical future. We passed cigarettes and basked in the afterglow. Lauren told us he had really always wanted to play music, but grad school had seemed more practical. Our name, he said, would be Zipper. That was catchy, right? Our first show for his house was booked for two weeks from today.
Now began the panic. I had tried not to let on, but I had never played with anyone else or in front of people before that first time in Lauren’s basement. I had only performed for my teacher and through the walls for my neighbors, which made me self-conscious enough.
I was also completely intimidated by the Duke University lit scene, considered top in the nation. My senior year of college, terrified of leaving school, I had applied to one English grad program at Berkeley (California) only to be summarily dismissed. These people had graduated from places like Stanford and Columbia to attend one of the most prestigious programs in the country. They milled around Durham mourning the lack of a good sushi bar, discussing how Prague was the new Paris. I was a townie.
I decided to move up from particle board and bought my first real kit, a set of Ludwig Vista Lites made out of clear plastic. John Bonham made an orange set famous in The Song Remains the Same. Mine were aqua blue.
In a creative burst, I built an underwater scene in the kick drum. I bought aquarium supplies from the dollar store; plastic plants, a deep sea diver and sea chest. I dressed a Barbie in a mermaid costume and streaked her blond hair with orange paint. Suspended by fishing line, she hovered in the middle, legs fused by her green sequined tail, pink lips smiling, cupped hand waving. I hung a small disco ball and glued luscious waves of blue glitter. Oyster shells from a beach trip coated the bottom, a costume pearl shining in each one.
The Lit kids had their top tier degrees and high browed theories, but they didn't have Rock Star Mermaid Barbie.
The night of the party Lauren’s living room was packed; he had done his work as Zipper’s promoter. I tried not to panic. While we had squeezed in enough practices that we had the basics down, we weren’t exactly seasoned. I estimated that we had about a 63% chance of no major fuckups. From behind my kit I twisted lugnuts and adjusted my seat as I spied the Durham literati smoke and swirl red jug wine in plastic cups. I tried to not constantly scan for Joe. From what I could see, we were about to play for people who would forge entire careers on looking bored. Still, you could tell they were ready for something besides Trollope. They shifted from one leg to the other. They rolled their eyes and stared at the horizon, apparently in search of some distant concept. But their focus always came back to the music gear set up in the corner. Even I knew enough to get that Lauren wasn’t the Alpha hipster, but tonight was his night. Our set clocked at five songs and fifteen minutes. He was primed for his Andy Warhol moment.
The Freshman (Josh?) was cornered by some Mrs. Robinson type blowing French cigarette smoke in a steady stream. She smoothed the creases in her red sheath while he stared at his sneakers. Sarah introduced me to her fiancé. He looked like her male twin, the same elfin mouth and short black hair. They nodded and smiled in unison at my chit chat, but I could tell their minds were on some domestic concern, like what Swedish furniture to buy. Lauren jumped around, running cords to outlets and talking us up to anyone who would listen. Oh, yes. We were excited and ready to play. Thanks for coming. Thanks for coming.
Given these social options, I decided to circulate. I figured I could milk the drum gig if I got stuck. I headed to the kitchen for a drink, praying no-one would try and deconstruct me.
I found Joe talking to a petite woman with Betty Page bangs, platinum hair, and hot pink lipstick. She looked adorable in the sort of gold vintage dress that would turn me into a refrigerator. Her skin was princess white and she held her Solo cup as if it were Reidel crystal.
“Kelly, you should meet Trish!” Joe said, ever the social coordinator (another quality important to our future). “Trish wrote for Spin when she lived in New York. Kelly’s the drummer for Zipper.” A broad hand flourish accompanied each introduction.
Okay. Spin. Fine, I thought. I could only thank God I had an introduction now that wasn’t You’ve met Kelly. She’s no doubt served you a combo meal.
“Cool,” said Trish, raising her cup. “Chick drummer! Chick drummers are hot. Don’t you love Sophia Melrose from Red Star Belgrade? I heard she carves her own sticks.”
“Stop the madness,” I said. I looked for Joe to catch my sass but his eyes were on Trish’s creamy cleavage. The conversation then turned to a topic I would have to endure for years: Woman Drummers of the Ages, i.e., Everyone Better Than You. Tonight we started with Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground. Inspirational. No way could I avoid a Go Go’s reference. Do you play We’ve Got the Beat? Ha. Ha. And of course I knew Georgia from Yo La Tengo. The most incredible drummer ever, I was sternly instructed. I took my medicine but I didn't like it. I wanted to be the star, Breakfast at Tiffany’s burnt toast. I gulped the sour wine and tried to nod charitably. After all, I consoled myself, Trish had only ever written about music. I actually played it. We’d see who was Audrey Hepburn and who was toast later.
In that moment I learned the great advantage of the drummer. During moments of social phobia, you can always crawl behind the kit. I decided right then a piece of my bass drum pedal needed adjusting. I went back and fiddled with the clamp. As Lauren and the gang filtered back I realized Drummer Advantage Number Two: I wasn’t going to have to stand in the front and sing songs I wrote. I was pretty much in the perfect position. If people liked the music, I could take the credit. If they didn’t, well, I was only the drummer.
I moved around front so I could tweak my seascape that had shifted in the move. I arranged Barbie’s hair in seductive waves and put back some of the shells that had come unglued. My biggest fear tonight was dropping my sticks. I only had one pair. The drummer might get to hide behind her fort, but if she messes up, the silence is excruciating. A skipped beat is like a heart defibrillating. If the sticks went down, then I went down, as in crawling after them. The band would train wreck as I fumbled around on the ground.
Lauren strapped his guitar expectantly, his mottled brows almost at the ceiling with expectation. Sarah curtsied and The Freshman (Josh?) shrugged. I explained to Barbie things were about to get really loud but she didn’t seem to mind.
I slipped into my seat.
The first song I heard drums playing, which must have been me. I had been worried about my sticks, but it turned out my real problem was my drum throne, tonight a folding chair and a pillow. I slid around and couldn’t get leverage for the bass drum pedal. I promised God I would listen to my drum teacher from now on, and spend money on real gear of the ugly functional kind before I bought more glitter. Even so, I managed to thud my way through “Something in My Basement,” keeping (I hoped) some sort of drive behind the chunka chunka of Lauren’s guitar.
The next number “Play,” had a disco beat. I developed an intense interest in my hi-hat, which conveniently faced the corner. Song three was “Ballad to a Lost Generation X.” The song was supposed to be a sort of rap, but sounded more like a march due to my major musical influence of the Minutemen.
Too old for Valentino
Too young for Alice Stone
But I like my cappuccino
And I use the telephone...
Song four pumped the beat up again. I skidded a couple of fills and probably slowed down, but held on. I remember cringing during our last song, “Johnny B Goode.” The fifties hit seemed to reveal Lauren’s age. I was more of a dirge drummer, and I could feel my ponderous beats didn’t match the peppy searing guitar. But I didn’t hurl, drop anything, or run off crying, all of which I considered major successes. At the final chord I hit the crash a few times to make The Freshman (Josh?) flinch. Ha! I wasn’t sure, but I thought I detected a few tones of jealousy from the black-rimmed glasses crew. They clapped while we blushed and squirmed. Now that we had asked for all this attention, we didn’t know what to do with it. The silence was strained until someone went to the stereo, the sounds of the latest alt rock lulling the room back into a comfortable drone.
I sat up and pulled down my stretchy black skirt sticking to my ass with sweat. Mrs. Robinson ran up and wrapped herself around The Freshman (Josh?) like a tube top. Later we were to learn she deflowered him — rock n’ roll once again bringing an end to innocence. I looked for my own reward. I had been too nervous to look up during the set, terrified my sticks would fling with my gaze. But now, I was beginning to feel the rush of my first public success. A tingle rose through my body, and surrounded me with an aura. I milled around, working the crowd. I flitted from group to group, chatting about how long I had been playing drums and plans for my musical career. Surely if I had come this far, this soon, my future was vast. It was time now for me to gracefully accept my due—the worship of an adoring boyfriend. I had to wander around awhile, but I eventually found Joe on the porch—
He waved cheerfully and clapped. When I walked up his broad hand slapped me on the shoulder and squeezed, commending me. Good ole’ Kel. Meanwhile, he and Trish were standing that tiny, but oh-so significant one inch closer. The man smells bad I wanted to say. Have you noticed? He wears Lee jeans. But Trish didn’t seem to mind, and worse, her lipstick was still perfect.
"Excellent show!" she said. "Terrific! What’s next?"
But the way she said it made me realize neither her or Joe had even watched.
As Joe and Trish talked without noticing me, I braced for the knife of jealous pain, the self-loathing, the despair. But it never came. Instead I was apart from them, from this party, from everything. A lightness traveled up my body, expanding now, through my chest and out. The party began to blur and recede as I floated above the fray. Before small talk ruined how I felt, I grabbed a bottle of wine and fled. I ran the entire way back to my apartment, my strong muscular limbs, the ones that could play the drums, carrying me.
My inner tomboy activated, I climbed a tree so I could sit on the roof outside my bedroom. It was late but still warm. Insects drowned out all but the faintest hum of traffic. The neighborhood cat joined me, a mangy tortoiseshell that squawked, who I would eventually adopt and name Bocephus. Together we watched a bat swoop around the street light, again and again lunging at the tiny winged flashes. I drank the wine straight from the bottle and bathed in my high.
Soon, Joe would be unzipping that gold dress as Trish’s arched eyebrows rose to meet his wide brown eyes. Here I was hanging out with a bottle of cheap shiraz, a cat, and a bat. But I was cool and clear. No pain could reach me. I was reminded of the time I had a cavity filled as a kid. Fascinated at the numbness from the Novocaine, I had gnawed the inside of my cheek raw. That night as I went from buzzed to flat-out drunk, I mentally chewed at my center, thinking nothing could be so marvelous as the absence of heartache.
Within a week, Zipper collapsed as easily as it began. Sarah decided she needed to focus on school and Swedish furniture. The Freshman (Josh?) was lifted by some campus jam band. Maybe I should have been sad but I wasn’t. I was already sick of the five songs and while the thrill of my first live performance had been a rush, Zipper was going burn up the national scene about as intently as Lauren’s dissertation on the Metaethics and Queer Theory in Tristram Shandy.
The day I went to retrieve my drum kit, Lauren followed me around the house, shaking his head. “What happened?” he wanted me to explain. “I thought we were pretty good.” He looked like a confused toddler whose rattle had just been snatched away. “I thought we were pretty good,” he tried again. I shoved random drum parts in a duffel bag. I knew he wanted an answer, but couldn’t think of anything to say. “We were great.” I responded finally. “Thanks so much. It was…fun.”
Another drum lesson: there’s no fast getaway. I tried to work a quick and smooth exit but I didn’t have cases, so we had to carry each piece out separately to the car. Bass drum. Hi-hat. Cymbals. Pedal. Floor tom. Rack tom. Snare. Cymbal stands. After the final load, I tossed in the plastic plants and shells that had fallen in the street from my crumbling bass drum seascape. Barbie was mangled in the fishing line, her blonde and orange hair a vinyl clump. The disco ball had shed a few silver panels. But everything was in. The seascape had left an explosion of blue glitter trailing from the basement to the living room floor, to all over the porch, to all in Lauren’s hair. Lauren sparkled in the sun as he stood forlorn in the front yard. I waved a feeble goodbye, smoothed Rock Star Mermaid Barbie's hair, and shut the hatch.