It started in an arcade. That glorious storefront by the mall’s food court, lined in blue and/or pink and/or green neon, advertised with geometric text and CYBERSPACE GRIDS, SO COOL! That temple of Syrinx, house of Pac-Man, that divine head from which Buckner and Garcia emerged, fully-formed, among the sirens of novelty pop.
Even Duran Duran wasn’t this fucking 80’s.
And yet, it was the mid-2000s. Pac-Man was dead, rested in a circular coffin, while chubby nerds like myself stomped along to J-Pop. Which perhaps sounds dire, but Dance Dance Revolution was probably the best thing to happen to the arcades that decade. It was the only machine in my local arcade that still formed a quarter queue, the line of coins and trinkets indicating who had next play rights. Some of us didn’t remove our quarters for hours. We just slid them from the front of the line to the back when our time arrived.
There were several arcades in my periphery that had DDR, but the one in my local mall upped the ante: they added Guitar Freaks. Plastic buttons to represent frets and a switch to mimic strumming. When I touched that strange device, it made a sound. Click, click, click. A pale imitation of “Long Train Runnin’”. Soon I was playing that game almost as much as I played DDR. Less physically demanding, for one, but also the sense of simulated musical performance. I was pretending to be a musician, and I loved it.
Fake Plastic Trees
There’s a PC version of the whole Guitar Hero, Rock Band archetype. Frets on Fire let me experience the genre without a PlayStation 2, which I didn’t own at the time. Officially, it only came with a handful of legally-licensed tracks, but teenage me was perfectly capable of finding the Guitar Hero songs I had been missing out on. I tapped number keys in time to a cover of Queens of the Stone Age: a simulation of a simulation of a simulation. My bed was inches above me, my dormmate inches behind me. He didn’t mind. He was more likely to make fun of me for listening to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah than playing something so disconnected.
That game kept me distracted and satisfied until my second year of college. Now alone in a much roomier apartment, I bought an XBox 360 and Guitar Hero 2. It was better, but I had been following the Harmonix/RedOctane split and had picked my side. News about Rock Band filled discussions and dreams. I found myself in bed, sick at the end of the fall quarter, drinking can after can of Arizona and watching the first live streams of the game. I knew what was waiting for me under the Christmas tree; I hadn’t asked for anything else.
The guitar came first, but that was only because it was most familiar. I knew, from watching the streams and tapping at half-broken Wal-Mart demo displays, that I was more interested in the drums. While my parents were at work, I pulled them out and gave them a go. Thwack, thwack, thwack. It didn’t take me long to hear about the “sock mod” idea — using rubber bands to secure socks onto the pads, muffling them and improving their sensitivity. It felt goofy, but it worked, so who was I to complain? The entire thing, when I stepped back, was goofy. I almost agreed with the cynics: why play with a plastic guitar, they argued, when you could go learn the real thing?
Burning Down the House
A few days after cheesing my way through Rock Band’s hardest drum song on its hardest difficulty—Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills,” survived by playing its 16th notes as 8ths and praying it would be enough—a cardboard crate arrived on the porch of a house in Rochester’s 19th Ward. I was staying there for the summer in an afterthought of a bedroom while I experienced my first real programming job. The room overheated every night, and opening the window exposed me to the neighbor’s constant work on his car. It wasn’t terrible, but it was certainly uncomfortable.
I lugged the crate into the cool basement and started tearing it apart like another Christmas morning. Inside was a Pearl Rhythm Traveler: my first drum kit. I set it up and looked up some drum tabs. R.E.M.’s “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” a simple beat flowing through hi-hats and tom fills. Boom, boom, boom. I could’ve tried playing along with Rock Band charts, but this was the real thing, and I wanted it to feel a little more real.
I was not good. They said that playing Rock Band drums was like playing the real thing, and they were right the same way that throwing a ball is like juggling. You get motions you can transfer, but there are too many intricacies and details that don’t appear without the real thing. A real kit feels different, is laid out differently, offers a different kind of feedback. Moving from simulation to reality was a bigger step than I had initially thought.
You Are Invited
I bought the kit that I did for two reasons. One, it was compact. Two, it came with a second set of drum heads, soft mesh with a similar feel to normal heads but no resonance. Throw on plastic wedges and mutes for the cymbals, and you had something that could be toyed with in an apartment without being too annoying to the neighbors. Something only a little louder than the updated Rock Band 2 drum kit that I, naturally, had purchased.
And so I practiced. I went from being a bad drummer to a poor drummer to a passable one. I beat “Run to the Hills” legitimately—though I needed to lie down afterwards—and I could more or less handle “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” That gave me enough motivation, enough flashes of self-confidence, to join the student music association at college.
I became desirable at jam sessions. There were other drummers—most of them better than me—but very few had their kits with them. Something happens when you become the resource for a topic; you seem more astute, more capable with it, no matter what the truth is. My sketchy drumming was now officially good enough. Andy asked me if I’d jam with him and his friend Rob. I was in my first band.
Pop Song 89
We didn’t have a name. Each afternoon spent playing was a meandering jam, fun but unfocused. Mostly covers, but it didn’t take long to start composing. We had folky singer-songwriter tracks that Andy wrote lyrics for. We jammed out a surf instrumental. All of it loose and lighthearted until we found a bassist. Then we became an unnamed standard during music association open mics, thanks to our two guitarists being part of its organizing group. My kit remained essential and shared, sitting in the campus coffee shop while others played metal or Grateful Dead on it. I was oddly critical of these loanees, as though they had to earn the right to play on my modest kit.
As our respective times in college wandered towards their ends, Rob broke away from the group. These things happen; bands fragment, personnel shifts. It’s not always with malice or anger. But it meant that we needed another guitarist, one who was a singer-songwriter. Andy could contribute, but he needed backup. So we did what any band would do when the Village Voice doesn’t reach your neck of the woods. We went to Craigslist. We found a guy, Chuck. We got along well, jammed in his basement, and put together music to back his lyrics. After a few months, we went to an open mic off campus.
The bar was called The Standard. We lacked a band name, so on a whim we were The Substandards. We played three songs; I was becoming more confident in my drumming, so I started to show off. Ego isn’t just for the frontman. Our bassist was underage, and I didn’t drink, so the two of us hung out outside the bar after our set. Some smokers who clearly did drink complimented us, comparing our sound to The Ramones. This, despite the fact that we played singer-songwriter material that paired well with James Taylor and The Beatles. Still, a compliment is a compliment. And a show is a show, even if it’s ten minutes sandwiched between other amateur artists. We got a recording of it. We debated putting it online, but we needed a name first. I made an executive decision.
Blown Up Grown Up
Chuck all but vanished not long after the open mic. He got a full-time gig managing a Best Buy in the area. Oh well, we figured, we’ll carry on without him. The beat goes on.
Rochester, like most rust belt cities, has more than its fair share of abandoned and disused factories. One, on the edge of the 19th Ward, had been converted into practice space for bands. It was our band’s new home. My new home, after graduating, was Buffalo. I had to drive over an hour each way in a falling-apart Oldsmobile in order to get to our weekly practices. We mostly played covers — Beatles, Against Me!, a generally odd assortment — as a three-piece. Our bassist had left as well, while Rob returned.
The fun was fading. I drove two hours each week for a practice that barely lasted an hour. I was investing more and more time into the nascent Rock Band Network, and I wanted the time to keep doing that. Losing an entire evening, plus the monthly practice space rent, to a band that wasn’t making any progress on writing songs or getting gigs or even finding a new bassist was grating on me more and more.
I don’t know what precisely triggered it, but something in me had been defeated. I teared up as, without explanation, I started dismantling my kit at the end of our practice. I was done. The band was over. My drums sat in storage, collecting dust for a year until I sold them off as part of my cross-country move. By the time I arrived in Portland, the Rock Band Network had shuttered as well. The music, all of it, had stopped.
First Breath After Coma
My first Portland apartment overlooked a deli. In the summer, with their windows open and mine likewise cracked, I could start hearing sounds along with smelling the smells. Jazz and light pop. The music was coming back. The beat goes on.
I went to Craigslist and bought a drum kit. A Ludwig, everything but the throne included. Then I went back to Craigslist and found someone starting a post-rock band. He had a practice space at Puddletown. The day before we planned to meet, snow fell as I scurried for a throne to use. Then our practice wound up delayed as Portland had its first snow storm in years.
Robby—a different Robert than college—proved to be a good match. We got along brilliantly. The motions of drumming came back to me, reassembling a jigsaw puzzle that had been crumpled and boxed ages ago. We never had to worry about lyrics, so those idle instrumental jams could keep flowing until they became full tracks. Almost full, at least. We still needed a bassist.
We met plenty of candidates throughout 2014 and 2015. One of them seemed like he would work out. The three of us practiced for a few months until he started cancelling on us repeatedly. Eventually, he removed his rig from the practice space. He had suffered a breakdown. I sympathized. Our next attempt, in August, brought us Eric. He was more reliable, more consistent in performance and attendance. Those “almost full” tracks became full ones. We wrote new material. Things were moving.
But they were on a treadmill. Motion, but not going forward. Robby refused to play open mics, while occasional chatter about recording went nowhere. In early 2016, with nothing to show for the band, I was ready to quit. My friends offered mixed suggestions, leaving me on my own. Should I Stay or Should I Go? Before there could be trouble, Robby announced that he had a studio we could record at, but we needed to decide on a name. We threw around ideas, returning often to the word “mighty” and the ancient Missoula floods. I made an executive decision.
The Country Club sits in a basement in South Portland. The name, I presume, is ironic. It’s a straightforward domestic recording studio, the current go-to for Logan Lynn and a handful of other Portland bands. In the spring of 2016, The Mighty Missoula joined that list. Eight years after first playing a real drum kit, from one basement to another, I started recording my performance. The walls buzzed with the echoes of old songs. The air smelled of weed. I sat on a dog pillow printed with the Union Jack while Robby and Eric smoothed out their lines. It was wonderful.
With demos recorded and mixed, getting gigs started to become viable. Real gigs. The first came in September; fighting a cold, I played drums in public for the first time since the Substandards gig. We were tucked in the corner of Turn! Turn! Turn!, a bar-slash-record-store, with about a dozen in the audience. I pushed through on DayQuil and hot apple cider. On the other side of the wall behind me was the feminist bookstore Portlandia made famous. Two days later, feeling healthier, we played our second show: Ash Street Saloon, a block from tourist favorite Voodoo Doughnuts. Landmark gigs, in a slight abuse of the term.
Our third show, at The Kenton Club, was the only one that I would consider bad. Robby suffered through some unexpected tuning issues while I suffered my first on-stage hardware malfunction. During the latter half of our track Francophile I found a ride cymbal in my lap, where ride cymbals are not supposed to be. I kept going, improvising my way to the end. After that, the issues were minor and the audiences encouraging. What audiences were there, at least; both of our Kelly’s Olympian shows fell during Portland’s latest snow storms. Still, we played. The beat goes on.
Sadly, all of this has a limited lifespan. I have to leave the band to go to grad school. Robby and Eric are already, slowly, working on finding a replacement for me. The Mighty Missoula, the band I helped name and whose tracks I helped compose, will live on. I hope the new drummer is more dynamic, more talented—someone who will make the band even better. They deserve it.
And I hope I keep playing. I don’t know what my life will look like from here; maybe I won’t have the time for a band, maybe I’ll grow too old and tired. But I don’t want music to be something that ends with my 20’s. Music is human, intensely so. There’s no reason for it to leave my life.
As they say: the beat goes on.
Click, click, click.
Thwack, thwack, thwack.
Boom, boom, boom.