From Greg Ormson, now living in Apache Junction, Arizona. Excerpt from my nonfiction piece, “Drums: Voice of Wooing”
When Colt 4 broke up, I joined a second band. We were disorganized and talentless, but our singer had access to his grandmother’s remote cabin in the woods. After high school basketball games, our classmates trudged through the woods with plans to party.
They grabbed drinks from the snow and stepped inside. The freezing cabin warmed, and as ice melted from boots, some classmates danced in stocking hats and sweaters. Pounding drums, I heated up and removed layers down to my T-shirt. Steam rose from my sweaty back, and I kept an eye on my Buckhorn Beer, watching golden liquid thaw and bubble up from the brown bottle then dripping down the sides onto the wood-burning stove. The loud hiiiisssssss of steaming beer meant the party was on.
And when the cabin started rocking on its pine log foundations, I worried that we’d tip it over and slide downhill like a wayward toboggan into the river. I imagined a headline on Saturday’s front page of The Eau Claire Leader Telegram, “20 Menomonie High School Seniors drown in the Red Cedar River.”
I’d apologize to my bandmates today, and I would tell them it wasn’t their fault I was a boiling volcano. I lived to smash cymbal and snare. Their loud retorts distracted me from self-recrimination. Secretly, I prepped to burn-down my house or any house. I didn’t have a match. I did have a conscience, and it kept me from turning everything into lava. I was, in the words of a James Taylor song, “a churning urn of burning funk.”
I was lucky to have a band even though we were musical and intellectual hacks. I couldn’t read a paradiddle-diddle on the chart or decipher James Joyce. Over time, I learned to do both; but the band was salvation and voice because it gave me a way to say f***ya to my family and the world for being weak, for being drunk, for being stupid, for being false, for ignoring me, for lying to me.
I started drumming as a way to punish my parents. At 14 I bought my first drum set and after dinner, I went to the basement and pounded them. I delighted in rocking their socks off as they read the Dunn County News on the couch above me.
When I took a break and came upstairs, they peered over newspapers with tight mouths and dark eyes. Not sure of whom I was, how I became, or why I was there. I saw regret in their twisted eyebrows. Everything was a drum, including my brothers, and I hit all of it with force.
My language was formed by skins and sticks; it was elemental and round, syllables were made by bruising and punching. My dominant expressions were born in the basement where I clawed like a badger for meaning and made contact with something from afar.
As a young drummer, I crushed a 4/4 back beat, but this was elementary. The aggressive adrenaline of my reptilian brain and teenage testosterone drove me while the drum’s sexy language of ceremony, ritual, and symbol-making lured me in. I had one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake, and while it took a long time to fathom it, I learned subtle is better than smash-mouth and I came to understand the beauty of nuance.
The drum text was raw and tribal. Its manifest and obvious message was delivered in the form of long hair, loud music, and rebellion. I craved all of that, and battled my parents over the length of my hair and choice of friends. Whitman understood the power of drums to rend both the generations and the heavens: “Mind not the old man beseeching the young man, / Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties, / Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses, / So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.”
And though it was less obvious, I read the rock drummers’ sub-text too. In long-hair and sandals, tie dye and beads; I saw shaman and addict, living symbols of transformation and danger. I found rock’s message embodied a powerful reverberation that thrived on the razor’s edge of rebellion.
Drummers walked on cloven feet; their beards were wild and so were they. Some drank themselves to death before I turned 18, and I learned early-on heroes were not superheroes. I was willing to ride the sharp edges of rock and roll because I saw an energy that matched mine. My parents won the hair battle: mine was short.
But I was not like everybody else. I was a rock drummer and my motto was rebellion. Somehow, I had perspective, and kept my head. My parents didn’t know this about me, neither did my friends. Nobody trusted me, but knowing how I was, I can’t blame them.
The hallways of Menomonie High School were another kind of boundary. I was 16 and my ears were alive. I heard everything and counted on one hand the number of times anyone ever said anything important to me. I stepped as drummers step: with attitude. Nobody bothered me.
From my desk I watched teachers move their lips, but I only heard rhythm. The bell signaled my next move, and in a noisy hallway I dutifully joined the chorus-line of the unaware, shuffling to a square room and its necessary suffocation. I glared at my teachers. They ignored me.
In the high school cafeteria, half way through the day, I pounded tables with my knuckles until they swelled and turned blue. While driving my Rambler, I shifted three on the tree and tapped out rhythms to songs far and wide. My dashboard, steering wheel, and school cafeteria were vehicles to other places, and I followed my knuckles to get there.
One-hundred years before I was born, Thoreau said, “If a man [sic] does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
I thought this was good advice for carving out my place in the world, and I thought I was doing that when I beat-up my Ludwig’s. Over the years, I learned that drumming teaches cooperation, and playing music with others offers a lesson if one listens. A drummer at heart, I listen, and in this listening, yearn to learn.
Whitman, W., Karbiener, K & Stade, G (2004) Leaves of Grass First and “Death-Bed” Editions: additional poems. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. Beat! Drums! Beat! p 434