Drums and drumming hold a fascination for many. The most basic and fundamental musical instrument, drums connect our subconscious to a shared tribal past. Rhythm is universal; if you have a heart, you feel it. Most cultures have drumming that is unique to their identities. Native American, African, East Indian, South American... The musical part of our minds not only pictures, but actually hears this.
Drums fascinated me from a very early age. Something about modern drums of the American tradition, i.e. the drum set, is very impressive. The drummer displays musical and technical mastery over a complicated array of instruments and hardware that appears challenging to assemble, let alone coax intricate rhythms from.
I blame it on Ringo. Tribal memory and culture aside, he was just having fun. It didn't hurt that he and the Beatles changed history by becoming an unprecedented worldwide cultural phenomenon. While making music that was subtly and intuitively brilliant, they created something that bonded people at a heart-based level. As a young boy watching Ringo flail away at his classic four-piece Ludwig drums, I could see a joy that I knew I wanted to experience. More than joy, it was an intangible energy that I would much later come to understand as spirit.
I began lessons, and got my first drum set after a year of study. Practicing dutifully, I learned the basic rudiments and techniques. More importantly, I developed an appreciation of music. I would later encounter an expression that summed up the prevailing attitude, that “drummers are people who are allowed to hang around with musicians.” My innate musicality transcended that. My approach to drums and music was about musicianship. Whether playing in school and community ensembles or rock bands, my creativity and musical appreciation thrived.
I grew up playing the drums. Musical opportunity began to unfold in the form of richly varied experiences in many styles. Dedication to the ideals of professionalism, discipline and collaboration began to define me. Eventually these opportunities took the form of the rock bands of my boyhood dreams. By my mid-teens, the years of study and practice were paying off as older, more experienced musicians invited me to join their groups. My dedication to the craft of drumming and music opened doors of possibility.
My fascination with drinking began a scant few years after my music. The typical early drinking experiences started innocently enough, but soon began to take on a life of their own. Somewhere in those early days, I caught the perfect buzz. From that point on, I became obsessed with trying to re-create it. In time, drinking and getting high became an inseparable part of music. My older musician friends were party-minded, and I never missed a chance to recreate that elusive perfect buzz.
By age 15 it was not unusual for me to be out playing in a bar on a school night being paid in drinks. The drinking age was 18; carding was discretionary. My older appearance was only exceeded by my audacity. After a set, I’d brazenly walk to the bar and order a Scotch which somehow tended to put the issue to rest, and I was free to suck down beer from that point on. Even before the days of the 21 year drinking age, checkpoints, liability etc., the forbidden element made it fun, but something more was happening.
Playing music while intoxicated felt wonderful. It's an age-old experience dating to when grapes were first crushed and instruments first plucked. In modern times, the scourge of the contemporary musician is drinking and drugging; from the birth of American jazz to the psychedelic 60s on, the quest for the ultimate note has littered the musical landscape with casualties. However, like so many young people, terminal invincibility defined my attitude. The false sense of musical well-being, the illusion of telepathy with other players, and an intangible feeling of resonance with some larger, cosmic vibration served to feed an addiction within an addiction. For a time it was unclear which addiction was within which, but ultimately alcohol asserted itself as the unwelcome passenger that perverted my joyful love of music.
Clearly I was looking for something. I was searching for the answer to a question that I didn't know how to ask. With no formal religious upbringing, and no clue what God or spirituality was, I was looking for spirit in the silence between the beats, the vibration of the cymbals and the synchronization of the rhythms.
The subtle and obvious effects of alcoholism began to impact and ultimately sabotage my music. The drummer is the anchor or foundation in many musical settings, especially a popular music ensemble. Mild intoxication may be liberating, but drunkenness is the enemy of steady rhythm, coordination, dynamics and arrangements. Musical collaboration is not served by the egocentric, increasingly belligerent disposition of a drunk. As time went on, I lost all ability to moderate my drinking. Arguments and tantrums too numerous to remember redefined my reputation. I was kicked out of bands because of my behavior and musical performance when drunk. The consensus was great player, bad drinker.
My drinking assumed alcoholic proportions very early on. Even during the ‘harmless’ boyhood escapade stage, there was a subtle intensity that said alcoholism. Even years before the end, the open liter of vodka under the seat of my car became my life. My bottom arrived shortly after my 30s did. Nowhere in my life was the unmanageability and decay more evident than in my music. I surrendered to my alcoholism and began to change my life.
My personal bottom was an emotional morass so desolate that I could not continue as I had been. In that bottom state, however, lie all possibilities. I began to embrace change. In taking inventory of myself, I realized that, while I identified and defined myself as a musician, I was more than just that. I began to think about spirituality more and more.
The basis of recovery is belief in something greater than us. I saw those who succeeded in recovery shared that belief, most calling it God. I wrestled with this, and then came to a profound realization. In music, a great part of my identity, lay a connection to the spirit. I also understood that the drinking and drugging that became part of my music had been my misguided way of trying to move closer to that spirit. My quest for the ultimate note had been a quest for God.
In the first year of my recovery, I returned to music. The happy ending formula would have had me mending the fences and repairing the broken relationships; achieving the success and recognition that had always eluded me during my days of drunken mayhem; my talent would prevail over adversity.
Instead, I found music to be a more personal experience. One year sober and onstage before 500 people, understanding came to me that this was great fun and something I could share, but that was not the sole end and purpose. Music would always be within me regardless of whether I was coaxing a complex rhythm from my drum kit, sitting in silence, or even listening to pop songs overhead in the supermarket and thinking of Ringo.
As my recovery has stretched into decades, I’ve played music and mended fences. The important thing is that I perform my recovery daily while the rhythm and music of my spirit is within me every moment. The passion, joy and inspiration that music brought and continues to bring is a true gift of the spirit. I know today that there was no ultimate note. The spirit was not within the music. Music is within the spirit, and the spirit is in and all around me.