basementsongs

departureMy brother’s black five-piece Rogers drum set stood in our basement like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey: Mysterious, imposing and full of wonder. As a prepubescent boy, I would study those drums when he wasn’t looking, much like the cavemen inspected that black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film, mouth gaping, curious and hesitant to touch them for fear of what might happen to me. The drums called to me, so much so that the summer before fifth grade I made the ballsy choice of telling my dad, my clarinet teacher, that I didn’t want to play a woodwind instrument and instead wanted to be a drummer. That was one of the best decisions I made early in life.

Throughout fifth and sixth grade, while I was required to play the bells in school band, at home I began learning how to play Budd’s drums. Coordinating the hi-hat with the bass drum and snare came natural to me; drumming was in my blood. By seventh grade, enough of my classmates knew I could keep the beat and play along on the radio to the popular songs of the day that I was asked to join my first rock band. With Budd’s permission (and my parents’ reluctant consent) I was allowed to use his drums for band rehearsals held in the Malchus basement. I recall four of us — Kevin on lead vocals, Craig on guitar, Ross on bass, and myself. Ross was a good drummer; better than me, in fact. But his brother owned a bass guitar so he volunteered play the instrument for us. Being seventh graders, we only learned, like, six songs, all of them pretty basic rock and roll, plus we wrote an original instrumental.

Our best number was Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” from their 1980 album, Departure. The basic rock song written by the mainstream rock band’s lead singer, Steve Perry, and guitar virtuoso, Neal Schon, was the “Smoke on the Water,” the “Rocky Mountain Way” of our day. There are only a couple chords; the verses and chorus are easy to sing; and the most difficult part of the number is the guitar solo. Any seventh-grade band can make its way through “Any Way you Want It.” I’m not sure what that says about the musicality of Journey, but they were one of the most popular bands in the world in the early ’80s, so they were doing something right.

For months we jammed in the basement until word got around that we were actually pretty good and our school principal asked us to play in front of the entire student body of Chestnut School. This would be our one and only gig as a band, coming at the tail end of the school year, spring 1983. The school gathered in the cafeteria like any normal assembly. But this was no ordinary assembly, because the sole reason they were there was to hear their peers jam on stage. From the start, I took it too seriously. I wanted to rock everyone’s socks off! The years spent watching my brother, Budd, play in the local Battle of the Bands, and seeing how professional the band members all took getting up there and playing taught me the professionalism of being a musician. In my mind, our little rock band was doing the same thing; I expected our audience to listen to us as if they were in the Richfield Coliseum raising their lighters to Journey. At that time, Steve Smith, the long-haired drummer from Journey, was my idol. Thinking that all pros dressed like he did, I donned a tank top and a ridiculous pair of running shorts (think Richard Simmons), just as I’d seen him wear in the many photographs I tore out of Hit Parader and Circus Magazine. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that the pros can dress however they like when they’re spending two hours under spotlights. For a beanpole kid like myself, the outfit was a ticket to Dorksville.

To our surprise, not only were the students waiting in anticipation, but some parents had come to the school to see us, too (including my dad!). As the other guys got up on stage to cheers, I nervously sneaked to the back of the cafeteria for my grand entrance. The opening notes of our original instrumental blared through the amps on stage, cuing me to skip through the center of the crowd clacking my drum sticks together and try to get everyone to clap along. No one did. In fact, all eyes on me seemed to be trying to stifle a laugh. I jumped up on stage, nearly slipping on the steps, taking my place behind my brother’s drums. We ripped through the instrumental.

After the first number received some applause, we got the crowd on its feet by segueing into Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” followed by Journey’s “Separate Ways” (for which Craig, our guitarist, learned to play the keyboard part on his guitar). From there, we tore through Billy Squier’s immortal “Everybody Wants You” (as much as 12-year-olds can tear through any song, let alone something by Billy Squier) and then finished things up with Leppard’s big hit of the day, “Rock of Ages,” complete with some stellar cowbell playing by yours truly. The mood of the room was electric; I even saw some of our teachers nodding their heads as we jammed. We owned the stage and were living it up. Finally, it was time for our last number, and of course, we pulled out our best number, “Any Way You Want It.”

I’m still amazed that Kevin, our Roger Daltrey in the making, was able to hit the soaring notes that Perry does in the song, but he pulled it off. As we brought the half-hour show to an end, we felt like rock stars. The mini-concert ended, sending the students back to class. My bandmates scattered and I found myself alone on stage, staring out at the empty cafeteria, waiting for my dad to pull the red van around. There would be other performances; other moments to get caught up in the mystery and wonder of rock and roll, to feel the collective embrace of the crowd, but none would be as special as this one. A few minutes later, my dad arrived and together we packed up my brother’s black, five-piece Rogers drum set and loaded it into the van.