Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Juke Box Hero

Keith McGrath's Big Gas Band (plus Dave)
“You were never anything but a hard-working drummer who landed in the ash can like all the rest of them!” - Biff Loman, "Death of a Salesman"
Have you ever been in a bar and there’s a band playing and the drummer gets sick and the band asks if anyone in the place can play the drums and you say, yes. I can play. And then you play for three hours, basically saving the evening? Yes, this actually happened.

I was in Athens for Father’s Weekend at Ohio University, visiting our eldest. I had dropped them and their sixteen year-old brother off at their dorm for the evening and thought I would drive past the Smiling Skull Saloon. My siblings-in-law own the place, I thought maybe I would run into somebody I knew.

I was incognito, usually I walked in there with my mother-in-law but everyone looked at me with something like suspicion, wearing my “Smiling Skull Saloon STAFF” jacket, a Christmas present from years past. Like, who donated their staff jacket to Goodwill? And what’s this old nerd doing with it?

I paid the four dollar cover, there was a band (wait for it) and got a PBR at the bar. I kept my head down and watched as groups of fathers and students came in in small groups. You could tell them because they kept trying to pay with cards and the place is cash only.

The World Famous (2017)
From what I’ve heard, the Skull is a popular place for students who might otherwise not come to bring parents.

My sister-in-law Adrienne did show up and we talked and the band took their first break and that’s when things got weird.

A regular came up to Adrienne, this biker dude and he was very concerned: anybody got any Benadryl? Apparently the drummers arm has swollen up, he was having some kind of allergic reaction, no idea to what.

So, look. I’m at the opposite end of the bar. I’m minding my own, as they say. Then the band, ending their break, announces, “Is anyone here a drummer?”

And I think, “This is not my problem.”

Because I can drum. Or I have drummed. I practiced in high school. In my room, on a cheap set my parents got me. I was never very good. I never played the drums in front of an audience.

“Is there a drummer in the house?” they asked again. They were serious.

I tried to ignore them. This was not going to happen.

Do you know why? Because my instinct was to do it. If I’m at a performance, and they ask for a volunteer, I will wait. Because I perform all the time, and I don’t need to steal someone else’s opportunity. But if someone is needed for the performance to continue, sure. The show must go on, what do you need?

But this wasn’t that kind of situation. They needed a musician. They needed someone with a certain set of skills. And regardless of my desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing in a band, I wasn’t going to suddenly be good at something I had never been good at before.

Of course there were no other drummers in the room. And the band played on. They played one song, guitar and bass, and it wasn’t great. Because they’re a rock band. You need drums.

“This is not going to happen.“ I just kept telling myself that.

The guitarist moved the electric kick drum so that he could keep a beat. It wasn’t helping.

“OK,“ I said, taking off my jacket and my preppy sweatshirt. My sister-in-law said, “OK, what?“

“I’ll do it,“ I said. 

“What are you talking about?“ said my sister-in-law. I walked over to the band between songs.

“I can play drums,“ I said.

“Really?“ they asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? Let’s find out.“

When I first moved into my house in Cleveland Heights, I bought a new used kit. Because I owned a house! I had always wanted one, a decent one. The person I was married to at the time had joined a band, playing keyboards, and I sat in with them (or they with me, practicing at our place) but this was shortly before we split. My ex-wife and I, not the band.

She left, I sold the kit. I haven’t played since 1994. My son is himself a very good drummer, we got him a set maybe ten years ago, but I’ve never played that. It’s his. You don’t mess with someone else’s instrument.

Now I was sitting behind this kit, at the Smiling Skull. It was an electric number, with pads and rubber cymbals, compact and simple. It had a nice sound, too, responsive to impact.

We started in with Mary Jane’s Last Dance, which is just your standard eighth note beat, 85 beats per minute, think an ordinary hit-hat, snare and bass rhythm. And that’s all I was playing, boom-ka-chick-ah, boom-ka-chick-ah, throwing in a crash in the right places. And we were off.

My sister-in-law was going crazy, texting my wife back in Cleveland, and my mother-in-law back at the house. It’s like Brian asked when I shared a photo on Facebook the next day, “Have you always had this hidden skill or have you been learning alongside your son?”

I have always had this hidden skill. I have to imagine that no one I have worked with has ever looked at me and thought, oh yeah, he must play the drums.

The guys in the band were pretty happy. It saved their night, having someone step up and play. I loosened up, took a few risks. I messed up, too, dropped sticks several times, but I kept going and I was all right at reading when to stop. It also helped that I’m old enough that I already knew most of what we were playing.

Somewhat ironic promotional graphic. 
Seven Nation Army. Walk This Way. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. It was a gas! I played for nearly three hours.

As crowds cycled in and out of the bar, the lead guitarist would remind the audience that they had no idea who I was but that I had “saved the night!” He’d holler “Let’s hear it for Dave!” And everybody yelled, “DAVE!!!”

Yes, when I am rocking you can call me Dave. My father-in-law called me Dave, and it was his bar. I’m Dave at the Skull.

We played an encore and concluded shortly after midnight. They joked about giving me my four bucks back. But seriously, they gave me a band T-shirt, effusive thanks, and they paid me for real. I tried to wave it off but he was dead serious, "No, man. We have to pay you."   

It was the opposite of an “actor’s nightmare” where you dream that you find yourself in the wings, dressed to play Hamlet when you realize you don’t know a word of Hamlet.” You don’t even know the plot.

But what if you opened your mouth and found out you actually do know every word of “To be or not to be,” and everyone called your name? It was a teenage dream made real.

UPDATE: “Brian (the drummer) is fine, thanks for asking! Had an allergic reaction to who knows what. Cathy, the other hero of the night, took him to the ER and they put in IVs , Benadryl, etc. and he was sent home around 4am. Random, out of the blue occurrence.” - Keith McGrath