One good thing about Facebook is that every now and then someone reaches from the past and makes contact with us in the present. This is the case from someone that contacted me yesterday and I’m glad he did.
Today (Aug. 13) is Kristen and Greg’s 25th wedding anniversary. Back then, I was the officiant for their wedding when I was working as a clergy for the Lutheran church and my assignment was to Northern Michigan University. Marquette was my home for 12 years, and two of my children were born there. Except for the cold – which I can’t stand – it was the best place I ever lived.
Along with his Facebook note, Greg sent one photo from his and Kristen’s wedding ceremony. I had never seen it, and it brought back many good memories of my time as a YOOPER in Upper Michigan.
Greg reminded me that I played my ceremonial wood duck drum as part of their wedding. Playing a drum wasn’t that far out of bounds -since I started drumming with a set at 14 – but I made the drum I used in their wedding and have used it in many ceremonies. The oak body for the drum came from a large tree that had been struck by lightning. The deer skin on top was from the last deer my dad had shot in Indian-head Country of Northwest Wisconsin.
Text below is from “Anchors,” a piece about drumming.
From early on, I heard text and sub-text in drums and memorized tom-strike patterns, rim hits on snare, and foot work for the high hat. I learned to slash wire brushes over the snare-drum’s head to raise the bristly liquid swish of jazz. Playing rock, I mashed drumsticks into metal rims until they splintered, and I experimented with stick placement for the best sounding cymbal crash or ride. I tested materials and sizes before settling on the Ludwig plastic- tipped 5A’s.
Below the waist, where drummers and teenagers ache, I jammed my foot on the kick pedal for an ear-puncturing bass; and at 17, when I bought a double bass red-fleck Ludwig set, I became a kicking Gremlin, a wet Gizmo shape-shifting into a whirling dervish of emotion.
My language was round and elemental formed by skins and sticks. I made verbs by punching, and my drum text was raw. Drummers’ sacraments were long hair, loud music, energy and rebellion. I craved all of that and battled my parents over hair length and choice of friends.
I drank from the rock drummers chalice, a communion of energy. Mine rose from the basement where I punished my parents by pounding the drums as hard and loud as I could while they sat on the couch above me trying to read the newspaper. Afterwards, I came upstairs, a sweaty teenager with fire in his eyes. They peered over headlines in the Eau Claire Leader wondering what they had done and from whence I had come.
But down in the basement I was connecting to something from afar and clawing past illusion, digging through dirt like a badger. My life’s curriculum presented itself to me as a search for meaning; to find it, I pounded my drums by day and read poems by Whitman and the Romantics by night. My poets soul led me to see:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar…
My drummers body led me to Whitman who understood the power of drums to rend both the heavens and the generations:
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.
As a teen, I beat the shit out of those terrible drums. I had poems in one hand, drum-sticks in the other, and rebellion on my mind. I was lucky to have a band even though we were small-town musical and intellectual hacks. I couldn’t read a paradiddle-diddle on the chart, or decipher James Joyce, but I could pound drums and read poems even when I didn’t always know what I was doing.
In time, I learned to follow the meter and beat of literature and drum chart. Poems offered small victories, and drums gave me a way to rebel against everyone for being drunk, for being false, and for ignoring me. And when I showed a poem I wrote to a family member, they ridiculed me. I responded in the basement where the adrenaline of my reptilian brain, coupled with teenage angst, drove me to furiously pound my drums.
The drum’s sexy language of ceremony, ritual, and symbol-making lured me in. Emotionally, I was wary and lived with 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.
I absorbed music from rock-n-roll’s sub-text, and I saw drummers walk on cloven feet. They were dual citizens, shaman and addict living in one world. They wore tie-dye shirts, peace symbols, beaded necklaces, and ragged head bands. Their hair was long, their beards were wild, and they were earthing long before shoe-less became cool.
Something happens when listening to drumming which is more than manifest communication. It’s a give and take that is clearly heard but not clearly defined. In Return to the Source, a novel of India, Lanza del Vasto captured the mystery of the drum.
“The finest and most complete instrument they have is the drum. It is the voice of all speech, the AUM of all hymns, the foundation of all music. The drum is the bond between the musician’s voice and his [sic] body, between his body and the music to which it gives the earthly consistency of the steps it raises.”
When I was young, drums were about anger and decibels; but I learned the drum is the voice of wooing, a call for the gathering ‘round. Over time, through time, and in time, I learned my drum beat raised an earthly consistency. If I drummed in anger, I would walk in anger; if I drummed in peace, I would walk in peace.
Carving my ceremonial (wood duck) drum at Oz, I held the large oak stump in the cold lake while digging out the rotted insides. I remember the moment as a bald eagle screeched and soared in circles above me. I knew my drum was meant for ritual, for wooing, for earthly and otherworldly steps.
Three years after I made the wood duck drum my father died. At the cemetery in Barron, Wisconsin, I solemnly put down 61 beats on the wood duck drum while kneeling at the side of his grave, striking it with my hand, once for every year he lived. It was not far from Lyle’s Bar in Rice Lake, where I pounded red -flecked Ludwig’s with my high school band and was dismayed by drunken adults.
From the corner of my eye at my father’s funeral, I saw my grandmother shudder on each of the 61 beats. I saw the clergyman’s face draw tight. He didn’t look at me, but he didn’t stop my solemn rhythmic commemoration as I struck the deer skin on my wood duck drum with my hand and aimed my grief at the angels.
I long for the days when human culture was actually human(e) and organic. I prefer drums in caves over the wretched mosquito-like music on a cell phone in the thin digital squeal forced on me while I wait to talk with a customer-service representative. With a choice, I’d wear goatskin over Calvin Klein. I’d bob my head up and down and jump naked over fire rather than listen to elevator music. I wouldn’t talk to a customer service representative. I’d meet the man, level with, or just plain level the boss.
Drums don’t anesthetize, they concretize by placing wood and skin under the power of knife, hand, and mind. Drums index everything, and are incarnated the moment a player strikes a beat with stick or hand. If a tree falls in the forest, whether or not someone was there for its falling, drummers make it count by giving voice to its vibrato.
By this measuring I’ve made my mark as an avatar for the reverb nation in basements and bars, garages and camps, rivers and lakes, dancehalls, school halls, picnic grounds, ceremonial grounds, yoga classes, Irish bars, sweat lodges, and cemeteries. This round wooing of beat and rhythm is my call and comes from my center.
Drums connect me to time and place; they’ve watered the fertile ground of my story and have taught me to mark the steps I raise with attention to time and beat. “The drum, the drum, Macbeth doth come,” Shakespeare wrote in alarum. His Old English lyric in two perfect meters of four beats each. It is the AUM of all manifest communication.
I think I’ve earned the right to claim a share of an earthly consistency in the steps they raise, and I hope I have been worthy of the drum’s grave and glorious gravity. I believe my steps, round and inclusive, will keep sending me forward until the day my inner drum strikes a final note and the rhythm of my heart beat ceases its wooing.
Perhaps on that day somewhere between Oz, Lyle’s Bar, and the cemetery ground in Barron County where I drummed for my father, someone will kneel in the gathering ‘round and conduct a wooing in mystic drum beat. I hope they strike it strong and give me a tribal, measured, grave, and glorious beat; a beat that will raise the spirits and testify to the rumor of my existence.