Before It Was Cool 004

Typewriters, Drums, Horses and Mexico

Age-wise, I crossed my first decade in 1962. Life-wise, that was probably the year my life quit being a narrative timeline and became a scattered jumble of interconnected events.

I did lots of kid-stuff. Gathered up empty soda-pop bottles from the surrounding construction sites and made a few pennies turning them in for the deposit bounty. Rode my bike all over the surrounding area – all the way out to South Main and Airport Boulevard were the carcass of an old experimental monorail car lay gloriously decaying in a field. Floated construction flotsam in a nearby creek and bombarded it with dirt clods. Same as I did in Montezuma except the creek and the battleship-debris were both bigger and more complex. Stepped on a nail at one of the construction sites and had to get tetanus shots.

Getting back to the biggies, Dad was finishing his PhD thesis and Mom was helping type it up. They had set up a card table in the den that was always scattered with papers. I remember hearing them discuss all sorts of stuff like “Chicago Manual of Style” and “ibid” and “op cit”. Despite that early introduction, I still have trouble remembering my own ibids from the op cits. That table also supported an amazing machine – a portable Remington typewriter. When the house was quiet, I would sit in front of that amazing machine and tick out letters that then became words and eventually sentences and paragraphs. It intrigued me!

Lines and curves and dots.

Individually meaningless.

Joined together

Creating “letters”.

Letters unjumbled.

Patterned into equations.

Inscribed on stone.

Inked on paper.

Scattered as electrons.

These symbols lift us,

strengthen us,

carry us.

They make it possible for many hearts to beat as one.

What wondrous power there is

in meaningless

lines and curves and dots.

When I got to high school, I flunked typing – I was too accustomed to ticking out letters using only six fingers. I was fast and accurate, but pinkies and thumbs never factored in to my keyboard operations.

The Klier family moved onto our suburban block that year. Their son Johnny was a neighborhood buddy of mine. They were Texas transplants from somewhere like Chicago, maybe – but they grabbed on to the Texas thing bigtime. They had horses.

They kept the horses pastured and barned in a field about a mile away from the house. Johnny and I would go with his dad several evenings a week to feed and groom the horses. Weekends we would go saddle them up and ride around the pasture or even venture out onto dirt roads. I learned how to ride, tack and tuck – and why neither you nor the horse should ever be “rode hard and put away wet”.

Summer of 1962, Dad had a vacation from work and announced that we were “going to go to Mexico.” We packed into the Chevy station wagon and set out for Monterrey and Saltillo. We sweated our way through South Texas and crossed the border without memorable incidence. Somewhere along the line in Mexico, however, we got stopped at a roadblock. A bunch of armed guys in uniforms told us they were “Federales” looking for banditos in the area. They piled us out of the Chevy and searched it for bandits. A couple of dollars later (La Mordida), they let us through the roadblock and we went on to Monterrey.

The hotel where we stayed in Monterrey was very Spanish Colonial. All of the rooms were on a big square surrounding a central courtyard. Of the evenings, Mariachis played music in the courtyard. Mom and Dad put us kids to bed and went to sit in the courtyard and listen to the Mariachis. I woke up and slipped the harness once again – went wandering unnoticed into the darkness of Monterrey.

Yet again, cops were called and the Policia Municipal  gathered me up and delivered me back to the hotel. Dad and Mom were pretty frantic, which I didn’t quite understand. All I had done was take a stroll through Monterrey unescorted in the middle of the night.

The next day, we went to the Mercado. We bought a bandito-looking marionette that was pretty cool and a Donald Duck comic book that was written in Spanish. Highlight of the day was when we were strolling the plaza downtown. I was walking and reading Donald Duck and suddenly ran spang face-first into a light pole – damned near knocked myself out. All the old men in Monterrey were intrigued by sister Bonnie’s blonde hair – they kept reaching out and stroking her hair as we passed down the street. I didn’t much like that and spent much of that day in downtown Monterrey running interference between sister and the weird old guys with the blonde-hair fixation. I must have been a sight – a scrawny 10 year old kid with a black eye shooing away the weirdos who wanted to stroke my sister’s hair.

Tenth birthday back in Houston, Dad bought me a set of drums. It was a good set of Slingerlands – red pearl. Dad had played some drums when he was a kid. He spoke of a fondness for Bix Beiderbeck and a lot of rather disreputable but talented jazz players. Dad and Mom also enrolled me in proper music lessons with a well-known Houston drummer named Jack Dudney. Jack played drums with the Ed Gerlach Orchestra, a well-known Big Band /swing-jazz unit in Houston. Jack became more than a music teacher to me over time. He was more like a zen master.

Jack Dudney wasn’t really a zen master. Well — he was, but I don’t think he knew it. I took lessons from Jack for about 9 years. Well, eight years, I guess — and then I just hung out with him for an hour one afternoon per week for the last year.

He died several years ago.

I’ll never forget the first time my 10-year-old eyes saw him. He was a huge man who hulked over a full trap-set like a mountain behind crates stacked on a beach. I walked in for my first lesson and he sat me down behind a kit. He handed me two sticks the size of Lincoln logs and said “show me what ya got, kid.”

Boy! My big break!!! I was constantly beating on things in my living room and bedroom. Everybody (including my dad – who used to play some drums himself) noted that “the kid does have some rhythm.”

So I took those logs in hand, scrunched forward to get my feet on the bass and hi-hat pedals, and proceeded to smash, bash, crash and trash my way around the circle of snare, tom-toms and cymbals. I kicked back and beamed when I was done. Looked triumphantly over at Jack and heard him say “Yeah. I think we can work with that.”

Yep– that was it. “We can work with that” was his only comment on my awesome display of raw natural talent.

That was Jack’s style– understated and a bit aloof. Kind of swing-band zoot-suit hip, he was the only adult I took seriously when he said things like “Cool. I can dig that.”

First thing he did was give me a pair of my own logs. Size 2A drumsticks  — the ones you learn with– are literally the diameter of Lincoln Logs and about a foot long with blunt beaded points machined at the end.

“If yer gonna learn to do drums, kid, yer gonna learn to hold the sticks. Yer clubbin’ my drums like a caveman and I don’t want ya rippin’ my skins,” Jack told me. “If yer gonna do drums right, ya gotta learn to bounce, not bash, and ya gotta control that left hand, man.”

Like a later intro into sitting meditation, the very first thing I learned about “doin’ drums” was posture. That and how to tuck the left stick — butt cradled at the thumb and tucked tip-toward-chest under the next two fingers — “so’s ya bounce not bash.”

Next lesson (after a posture check) the zen started. He pulled out some sheets of paper and books — music paper with what the untrained eye might mistake for notes all over them.

“Difference is that drum charts don’t change tones,” Jack explained. “The position of the note on the lines tells you what drum to use, so you can’t rightly call them ‘notes.’ These sheets ain’t music. They’re what you read to make yer music. Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right.”

And then there were a couple years of drudgery. Instead of smashing and bashing Neanderthal and carefree on the coffee-table, I quietly tapped out proper flams, paradiddles and flamadiddles, single strokes, double strokes and crush-rolls with my Lincoln Logs on a Remo-brand practice pad so it wouldn’t trash the coffee table. I stood or sat up straight, staring at my books and charts and graduated from stultifying boredom to marches and military tempos.

I also graduated into 1A sticks — slightly smaller logs and used by many marching bands. Definitely “not cool” still. “Damn, Jack,” I’d say on occasion (he was the only adult didn’t mind my adolescent “Damns”). “When do I get to do something cool?”

“Ya wanna do cool?” he’d say. “Play this.” And then he’d set me behind a full kit, dig through a stack of records (yeah– big 33 rpm-s. It was a few years ago, okay) and drop the needle onto one. Gene Krupa or Tito Puente. Getz or Goodman or the Dorseys would blare into the room and he’d just stand there looking at me.

I’d kick and clunk and clank and thud my way through a song and he’d tell me “Yeah. I think we can work with that. If ya wanna learn the groove (what had played on the record), ya gotta do the charts.”

So we went back to the rudiments — and posture — and proper stick handling and charts. Interesting side note — to this day, I still know how to hold a stick in my left and tickle it with my fingers to get “the bounce.” Why can’t I figure out how to use chopsticks?

Eventually, like 3 years into the deal, we went to lessons on the kit instead of the practice pad or a stand-up snare. Learned how to move right and left foot independent of one another and of both hands. Learned to “dance the bounce on the skins” and trip lightly around a trap set – using 7A or my favorite 9A sticks — barely more than long pencils with nylon tips that made a cymbal sing crisp & clear and a snare drum snap like a banner in a brisk breeze.

And the charts got more complicated. Arranged with dots and circles and flags scattered across all five lines, the spaces and sometimes two staffs stacked.

I hated charts. Some yutz with a pencil telling a musician what to do. “Damn, Jack,” I’d say from time to time. “This arrangement just ain’t cool.” (Even on my way out Jack’s door for the last time as a young adult, Jack wouldn’t go for anything stronger than “Damn.” He was hip — but even Jack-hip had its personal boundaries.)

“Ya want cool?” he’d say. Then he’d dig through the records and drop the needle on the song that went with the chart. “Sight-read it.”

Ohhhhhhh mannn. Sight-read!

Drop onto a cold drum throne in front of an unknown chart and dive into playing with the band based only on what’s written on the chart. Hands, feet, head and heart all operating independently of one another trying to make one whole tempo, beat and rhythm that fits with the efforts of 50+ other musicians — who either know what they’re playing already or are grooved into the vinyl and permanent.

That’s tough.

Clank and clunk, bash and thud — slowly better but not “solid” with the orchestra. “Yeah, we can work with that. If ya wanna get the groove, ya gotta know the charts — and then figure out how to not-follow them right. Rest, man, ya forgot the rest — sometimes the silence is the sound you want. Ya gotta know the music then feel the music then be the music — and then let the music be you. Quit thinking! You’re thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm.”

By year eight, I thought I was a pretty good drummer. I was banging around with a band doing what we called “Acid Jazz.” We could have called it “Fusion” but that name had yet to be invented for the Jazz-meets-Psychedelic music style.

Apparently Jack thought I was doing okay too. “Lessons” became hanging out, shooting the breeze, “sharing chops” and drummer duets– you-follow-me, I’ll-follow-you riffs that rocked the house and occasionally pissed off the piano teacher next door. Or we’d challenge each other to sight-reading duels or “trippin’ the skins” sight-reading solos. I knew I was really kickin’ ass when I’d look over from the traps and see Jack with his eyes closed and a big old monkey grin on his face.

Every week, I’d pay Jack for the lesson and then come back the next week to hang out, “peeve the pianoman” and trade monkey grins. Then one week became the last day.

We finished our session and Jack took up his appointment book to write my next lesson date as usual. Then he stared me in the eyes and put down his pencil. “Ya know you probably shouldn’t pay me,” Jack said. “I mean, all we’ve been doing is hanging out.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you’re — like– my teacher, man.”

“Naw, man” Jack answered. “I’m not a teacher — just a dumb drummer. I’ve shown you everything I’ve got about music and you’ve pretty much got what I’ve got. Now you’ve gotta go out and play it yourself.”

Which I did for several years.

I haven’t played a lick on the drums in a decade or so, but I can still hold a proper left stick. Don’t know how many times or how many contexts I’ve reminded myself that “Yer gonna learn how to read the instructions, do what they say, and then learn how to not-follow them right.” Or I remember to “Quit thinking! You’re thinking instead of being and screwing the rhythm.”

And sometimes when I hear myself say “Yeah. I think we can work with that,” I break into a big old monkey grin — or silently welling tears of respect.

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