This is the story of a childhood dream…
“I wanna be a rock star.” It was the first and only thought after I heard it for the first time — actually, the first time I heard him. Black Dog – John Bonham – changed my life from the very first listen. Nothing before or after that supernatural moment had ever had such a profound effect on me.
I remember the feeling – the static charge that pulsed through me the first time I heard him pounding on a finely tuned set of vintage Ludwig drums. It was the sonic equivalent of smashing an anvil with a fifty pound sledge. It was heavy, it was hard, and it was sensational. I wanted that. I wanted to be John Bonham.
I would fall asleep every night picturing myself on the stage — sluggin’ away under the lights — the sound of drums reverberating off the stadium ceiling — the electric shredding of the guitar, and ear-piercing vocals whirling around, driving the crowd deeper into frenzy. I could see it all. I could see myself, there, on that stage – the conductor of an aggressive symphony, threatening to shake the place to a pile of dusty rubble.
The only problem was that I didn’t know a lick about playing the drums. Where would I start? I needed a drum set first. I had just started working as a pizza maker, and barely had enough money to keep my car running. Buying one was out of the question. Borrowing one was equally improbable. The only other option was to make one.
For the next couple of evenings after school I worked diligently at building one — the garage floor littered with crude tools, fasteners, and wood shavings. First, I fabricated a foot pedal for the kick drum using a sprinkler pipe, an old spring that I’d found laying around, and a bunch of scrap wood — all of it held together with whatever screws and nails I could find. I set up an old metal dustpan for a hi-hat, and hung several large buckets around my throne. When everything was complete, I positioned the foot pedal in front of a bucket that was set horizontally for a kick drum. Once it was finished I stood back and admired the contraption. It was rather crude-looking, but it would suffice. My pulse quickened as I sat down to play it for the first time. I didn’t know what I was doing, but that wasn’t about to stop me.
It sounded horrible. Everything about it was laughable, including the guy making all of the noise behind it. The pang of the metal dustpan was enough to set off a car alarm halfway down the street. To add, the pedal that I’d manufactured was as lively as a dead body. It barely moved. The important thing was that it actually worked. I was ecstatic at first, but my joy was short-lived. After a few minutes of mindless noise-making, the rusty spring holding the pedal together snapped in half, causing the whole contraption to fall limp to the floor.
Back to the drawing board.
I messed with it for a period of time, trying out new combinations of pots, pans, suitcases, and buckets –each new combination sounding as awful as the last. I made some improvements to the pedal, which made it only slightly more responsive than a corpse. It just wasn’t enough. I needed the real thing. I racked my brain for several days in search of a fix. Then it hit me.
I recalled overhearing a conversation between two guys in one of my classes — something about one of the fellow’s dads being a drummer. It was a promising lead. The only problem was that the guy I’d heard it from could easily damage my street-cred if word got out that we were hangin’ together. I didn’t want that, but I really wanted to play on a real kit. Needless to say, over the course of the semester we became great friends, only nobody really knew about it.
Every afternoon I went to his house and banged away on an expensive drum kit that I didn’t know how to play. Just play it like you hear it, I thought to myself. It was an exercise in futility. Sitting behind a real set didn’t improve my chops like I’d originally hoped it would. Having a real guitar didn’t help his playing either. There we were – huddled together in a dark, musty, storage room in the basement — pretending to be rock stars. The noise that came out of those first jam sessions made me long for the sound of the bucket drums. After a while I decided I just couldn’t do it anymore.
My resentment for the guy grew as time passed. I couldn’t even stand the sound of his voice, let alone listen to him trying to wail away on an out-of-tune guitar. He actually sounded worse than me. We parted company one day and never talked again after that.
With my tail between my legs I went back to the bucket drums when our brief friendship was over. Coordination is something that takes time to develop. I needed to be mindful of that if I was going to teach myself to play like Bonham. I was determined.
Meanwhile, I started to become a rock-junky, and began pumping my brain full of whatever old stuff I could get my hands on. Roger Taylor, John Densmore, Keith Moon, Bill Ward, Ian Paice, and of course John Bonham – one legendary drummer after another. The more I listened, the more I started to hear music differently. It became much more intricate. I didn’t just hear a song anymore – it was much more than that. There were so many sounds and rhythms that would unravel each time I put my headphones on. I remember walking through the hallways between periods, clicking a beat with my teeth. It was if I’d been possessed by it. I was overcome by this new alternate reality.
Every day after school it was back to the buckets. There I’d sit in the garage, working through the frustrations of a starting musician. It was hard. I could hear it now, but still couldn’t do it…
Click Here for Part 2
- John Bonham, 32 Years Missed (mikeslayen.com)
- Friday5: Led Zeppelin (bearasaurus.wordpress.com)
- Led Zeppelin: ‘There was a swagger – we knew we were good’ (guardian.co.uk)