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Thursday, September 22, 2005


The wedding of Larry Gallagher and Catherine Shaddix was beautiful beyond belief: up in the Sonoma County forest, on a weekend of two impossibly brilliant days, Larry and Catherine’s friends and family gathered for a Buddhist ceremony (moving and hilarious by turns), fine food, ecologically sound partying, and a six-hour music festival that featured one remarkable performer after another (the Singing Gallaghers, consisting of Larry’s mother, three of Larry’s four sisters, and one of his nieces, nailed a five-part harmony on “Mister Sandman” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which was much appreciated by the crowd; a jazz-guitar trio did amazing things; beatboxer/ vocalist/ performance artist Kid Beyond, aka Kid B, closed out by rocking the entire hillside).  I drove up on Friday night, rehearsed with the soi-disant all-star band that evening, crashed in the soi-disant “men’s dorm” in a house owned by somebody or other who knew somebody or other, attended the outdoor ceremony the next morning in my very best pinstripe suit, swam in the Russian River that afternoon (not in the suit), and played in the aforementioned soi-disant all-star band that night, as we kept the party hoppin’ with our soulful renditions of “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Into the Mystic,” and “Harvest Moon,” among five or six others.  My part of the evening was capped off when word got around the crowd that no one in the United States could be properly married until the band played “Celebration,” whereupon we all got back up on stage and played a seven-minute jam that included an extended solo so remarkable that half the musicians spun around and said, WTF? as one of the guitarists took the tune to places it had never been.  As we ended sharply on “everyone around the world, come on”—improbably, since we had never played the song before—Kid B brought the celebration to a close, declaring, “by the power invested in me by Kool and the Gang, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The next day, I chatted with Larry and his West Coast friends all morning, lay around in the pool for a while, drafted a letter about forming an AAUP chapter on the main Penn State campus, and then went canoeing down the Russian River with Larry’s sister Marybeth and three other people.

It was a good weekend.  And I even got to meet Chris Clarke and do tequila shots with Ward Churchill.

But that’s not the point of this post.  The point of this post is to let you in on the engine room of my life, where swinking demons work tirelessly to create the conditions that might possibly allow me to have a good time.  Let me explain.

Two weeks before the wedding, I got a CD in the mail from Rob Riddell, Larry’s co-conspirator in many things.  Rob included the set list for the all-star band—a formidable array of songs that originally included “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Reeling in the Years,” each of which poses serious challenges for guitarists, horn arrangers, and drummers, especially if they’ve never met each other.  I spent two weeks dutifully learning the changes in “Jackie Wilson Said,” and agonizing over whether to double the dotted eighth notes in “Reeling in the Years” on the bass drum during the solos.  (There’s no question about the verses: if you don’t play dotted eighths on the bass drum during the verses, that is, if you take the easy road of playing quarter notes on the 2 and 4, you’ll drag the song into the rhythmic mud.) Quickly, however, Rob decided that “Jackie Wilson Said” was just too damn difficult to orchestrate on two weeks’ notice and one Friday-night rehearsal, so we dropped it.  But the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” posed similar problems, and it remained in the set.

Along with the CD, Rob sent a letter that read, in part,

There will be music-loving, drunken wedding revelers grooving on everything we do up there.  So this is an excellent opportunity to learn these songs good, people.

I’m bringing a lot of equipment.  Please feel free to use any and all of it, instead of dragging your stuff along.  E.g.,

Larry’s Yamaha steel-string acoustic (with jack), tuned to D
Nylon string (flamenco) acoustic (with jack)
Yamaha SR-400 bass with active electronics
David Eden “Traveler” bass amp with 2x10 cabinet
SWR “Strawberry Blonde” acoustic amp, nice crisp sound
“Pod” guitar effects unit
16-track mixer/amp
JBL 10” powered monitor
Two Shure SM-58 vocal mics
One Sennheiser e-835 vocal mic
one cheap but functional condenser mic
4 mic stands

Notice there is no mention of drum equipment here.  For as daunting (logistically) as it is to put together an all-star band for a wedding gig (so much easier just to book a band!), it is X times more daunting to deal with #$%*@*!!**ing drummers.  Obviously, there was no way for me to cart my five-piece Tama set across the country, so someone was going to have to supply drums for me.  And here’s where things got weird, and the weird turned pro.

I had told Rob via email that I would bring my cymbals—an 18 inch ride, a 14 inch thin crash, and a 15 inch medium crash—along with one cymbal stand.  Why cymbals?  Uh, that’s a story unto itself, but suffice it to say that when I last played with Larry in any official capacity, in the summer of 1983 with the Beaux Arts Society, we recorded a demo tape one of whose signal weaknesses was the fact that we’d had only two hours’ notice before we went in to record, and another of whose signal weaknesses was that the studio cymbals sounded like shit.  Drums, for the most part, are just drums (with the exception of the snare, whose tonal qualities are crucial).  But good cymbals can make a world of difference, and I thought I’d just be more comfortable playing mine.  And I did want to feel comfortable, don’t you know, because (gulp) I hadn’t played in front of people in six years and (gulp) the rest of these musicians were much, much better than I am.  (When people ask if I’m a musician I usually reply, “no, I’m a drummer.” Stay with this thread!  There will be more drummer jokes below.)

Now for another complication.  I wasn’t quite finished with my review of Theory’s Empire, so I needed to complete that assignment before I went to any wedding and music festival.  And since my schedule last week was too busy to allow me to write the review before I got on the plane, I went to priceline.com and booked a room on Fisherman’s Wharf for Thursday night.  My plan was this: I would meet Chris Clarke in downtown SF for dinner, drive a mile or so north to the hotel, write a 2000-word draft that evening, and then look it over in the morning and send it via the Internets. 

Just before I left, Larry wrote to me to say, “hey, you can have Internets access in the apartment that Catherine and I call home.  We won’t be here, but we’ll leave a key—just let the upstairs neighbors know you’re coming.  And if you have an empty car”—I’d rented a “mid-size,” thinking I would ferry people north, but that didn’t work out—“you can pick up some stuff we’ll leave behind.  The Internets access is right there on the table.” But Larry’s email mentioned a cat, and my priceline.com room wasn’t refundable, and their apartment was nowhere near Fisherman’s Wharf, so I politely said thanks but no thanks, I’ll just take the hotel.  Alas, I didn’t notice that the cat did not actually live in Larry and Catherine’s place; I simply saw the word “cat” in the email and began to sneeze.  I told Larry that I couldn’t manage any cat dander, and he told me that he’d made other arrangements, and that I wouldn’t need to pick up any stuff from his place, so all good.

And here’s why that matters.  In comments, Tina—is Tina in the house?  ah, there you are!—had asked last week how I manage to do all the various things I do.  The short answer is that I do them all at the same time.  So, for example, while I was prepping for this here wedding gig, I was also reading all the essays in Theory’s Empire and rereading the ones I considered most important.  On the flight from Dulles to SFO, I finished the book and made notes on the passages I absolutely, positively wanted to quote directly in the course of writing the review.  Long practice in writing such reviews has taught me that I can use about twenty percent of the material I think I absolutely need, and this review was no exception.  So when I bid farewell to the charming Mr. Clarke and checked into my discount-rate Radisson-on-the-Wharf, I knew more or less how I wanted the review to look and how I wanted to begin making it look that way.

But it turned out that the Internets access from my hotel was ridiculous: five seconds of wireless connection followed by two hours of fiddling and frustration.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I finally managed to put together an acceptable draft and jack into cyberspace around 11 am Friday morning, whereupon I sent the review, packed my bags, and embarked for the Embarcadero Plaza, where I would search for Jamie’s birthday present and a wedding present for Larry and Catherine.  Had I taken care of such matters before arriving in San Francisco, I could have simply hopped on the Golden Gate Bridge from my hotel (and you know, so few people jump onto the bridge, it might’ve been a nice change of pace for the Bay Area authorities), but I was in no hurry—I checked out of the Radisson at 11:59:59 and budgeted two hours for lunch and shopping around the Embarcadero.

Shopping went well.  Lunch went well.  The Embarcadero on a glorious late-summer day.  And in the midst of it all, Rob Riddell called me, saying, in effect, I thought you were staying at Larry and Catherine’s place.  I said, yes, well, I thought it would be less of a hassle all round if I just got a hotel. OK, right, Rob said, but I left three speakers and an amp there, thinking that you could bring them up if you have an empty car. No problem, I replied, mentally moving my ETD from SF from 2 to 4 pm.  Just give me directions from downtown SF to L and C’s place.  Rob did so—with great patience, I must add—and then added that I should also pick up a vial of saffron from the spice rack in the kitchen.  Got it, I said, as I wrote down my directions, asked Rob for wedding-present tips, and called Janet to ask for advice on whether Jamie might take an XL kids’ jersey or a S adult’s.

I never did find the saffron, despite calling Larry and asking precisely where in the apartment I might search for it.  But I did manage five minutes of Internets access while I was loading the speakers and amp into the car (they just fit, of course), and wished Jamie a happy birthday.  Then I got back on the road and enjoyed some of the Left Coast’s lovely bumper-to-bumper traffic for another three hours, and finally arrived at the wedding site around 6:30.

Which was fine, because the drums weren’t there yet and I was in plenty of time for a quick tour of the grounds and a little night-before party at 7:30.  Rehearsal would take place at 9.

The drums showed up at 7, courtesy of a good soul named Kirk.  Bass drum, floor tom, rack tom, snare, hi-hat stand, two cymbal stands, bass pedal . . . I decided to put everything together before rehearsal (so as not to hold things up when all the real musicians arrived), and as I went through all the stuff, I slowly realized there were no hi-hat cymbals.  I asked Kirk if I’d missed a bag here or there, and he replied that he’d been given to understand that I was bringing cymbals.  And why didn’t I?  I had a cymbal bag, and I’d almost packed them at the last second, but didn’t, and what the hell was I thinking?

Well, shit.  Now, those of you who aren’t drummers (all but two of you, to gauge by my referral stats) will have very little idea what this means, but you two drummers out there are slapping your foreheads and saying, “dude, you are so screwed, dude,” in that distinctive way we drummers communicate with each other.  For some songs, like “Isn’t She Lovely,” I could play the entire thing on the ride cymbal and no one would notice, but there are definite moments in “Into the Mystic,” “Reeling in the Years,” and so on where the absence of a hi-hat (a) hurts the song and (b) can be noticed by even the most drunken wedding reveler.  Not to mention the fact that drummers tend to keep the half notes on the hi-hat with their feet, anyway, and I was going to do this shimmering little sixteenth-note triplet thing with the brushes on the crash cymbals and foot on the hi-hat during the last bar of the chorus of “Harvest Moon.” Just so you know.

We got through rehearsal well enough, though.  The real musicians were curious about why I had a hi-hat stand and no hi-hat cymbals, but I told them I would play on the rim of the snare for now (rockabilly style!) and would try to get a hold of something cymbal-like the next day.  Rob assured me that there would be someplace open in Santa Rosa, so I wasn’t too worried.

But I was probably the only person who attended Larry and Catherine’s beautiful, moving, and occasionally hilarious Buddhist ceremony thinking—despite my best efforts to stay in the moment—that I had to get me some Yellow Pages and drive to Santa Rosa at some point that afternoon.  And that’s exactly what I did: after milling about with the guests (yes, I can mill all by myself) for a while and congratulating the lucky couple on a lovely ceremony (with very detailed vows!) on a brilliant day, I got on the phone and began calling music stores to say that I’d traveled 2500 miles to play in this band, and so forth.  The Santa Rosa Music Center—which, I think, is badly named, since they deal almost exclusively in pianos and organs—was willing to rent me a pair of cymbals for the weekend, but (next snag!) of course they would have to be returned on Monday, and by whom?  Whose name could I give, and who could I ask for such a favor?  “Um,” the nice man on the other end of the line said, “we do have some really cheap cymbals too, if you just want to buy them.  Maybe you should bring the hi-hat stand and a couple of sticks and try them out.” Which is exactly what I did, driving the fifteen miles back into Santa Rosa and trying every pair of cymbals in the store.  (It is so strange, the palpable difference between cheap and expensive cymbals.) The nice man eventually sold me two $17.95 cymbals for a special you’ve-travelled-2500-miles price of $30 (note to non-drummers: a good pair of cymbals will run close to $200), and I triumphantly took them back to the wedding, where, many hours later, we married Larry and Catherine by the power invested in us by Kool and the Gang.

I even got to play three songs with virtuoso and former bandmate Oren Bloedow, when we suddenly decided that people should not wait in line for dinner without listening to jazz in the background.  Oren was the bassist in the Beaux Arts Society with me in 1983, and has since gone on to much greater things, including touring with Michelle Ndegeocello.  His nimble version of “Blue Bossa” was a delight to play on, and we think the waiters-in-line liked it too.  Oh, yes, and I provided some modest percussion behind Rob and vocalist Jennifer (whose last name I didn’t catch) for their Brazil-inflected version of “In the Still of the Night” (no, not the Five Satins song), which was the tune for the newly married couple’s first dance.

So how was your weekend?

Oh, yes, the drummer jokes.  I brought two with me: What do you call the guy who follows the band around and goes to all their gigs?  The drummer! and What’s the last thing the drummer says before he’s kicked out of the band?  “Hey, guys, let’s try one of my songs!” To these, Oren graciously added, How can you tell the stage is level?  The drummer is drooling evenly from both sides of his mouth! and How do you know there’s a drummer at your door?  Just wait and listen to see if the knock keeps speeding up! That last one actually made me spew coffee all over the deck on a nice Sunday morning.

I’ll be back later on with more of the usual blogging.  In the meantime, thanks to Larry and Catherine for inviting me, thanks to the entire West Coast crew who made the musicfest possible, and thanks also to John for another terrific post on Tuesday (that is, Monday!).

Posted by Michael on 09/22 at 10:48 AM
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