My middle school happened to be stuffed with musically-talented budding rock stars. I had picked up both the guitar and the drum kit in the fifth grade, spurred on by the tide of new and energetic music coming out of the alternative rock scene, and several students followed my lead. It was only a matter of time before we started forming rock bands.
Despite being a very skilled guitar player (especially for my age), I always found myself behind the trap kit; I was the only kid in the school who could play the drums, which guaranteed that every band needed me in it. My intense study and imitation of Neil Peart of Rush and Stewart Copeland of the Police gave me a versatility that fit me in several styles.
All told we had about five bands in middle school (including two separate incarnations of the same lineup), of which only two ever actually met to practice let alone play a gig. We spent downtime in class drawing logos and album artwork and writing up set lists composed of song titles we’d never end up writing. Debates raged about which guitars were appropriate for our artistic look, how we would arrange the group on stage and whether the drummer needed to lift weights and wear short-sleeved shirts in concert.
The whole thing had a huge undercurrent of manufactured drama. The interpersonal politics from the first (real) band, which involved a kleptomaniac/pathological liar, got so bad that the second (real) band wrote a song about him. In retrospect it brings to mind the first world problem “I didn’t have a shitty childhood so I can’t turn my pain into art.”
The stuff really hit the fan when, desperate to get some time on the axe, I decided to form a second band in which I would play the guitar. I hadn’t quite figured out what we’d do about the drums but maybe we’d play acoustic or only use percussion.
A friend of the primary band inquired about joining. I wrote a note to our lead guitarist explaining that I felt his musical abilities were redundant in our group and saying some unflattering things about his personality, while also stating I was considering him for my side project.
Ever the man of social skill, he pulled a classic takeaway move by replying to the following effect: “wtf is this side project? We don’t have to accommodate someone who can’t dedicate himself to our group. We’ll find a new drummer.” Years later I realized my own bargaining power (there literally were no more drummers), long after I meekly supplicated my way back into his good graces. To boot, he left the note on the floor of my basement, where it was found by the outcast friend and then I had some real apologizing to do.
The following summer I got fed up with the lack of focus of the group at practice and the poor quality of a long-promised hit song presented by the frontman and one of the guitar players, and quit on the spot. Little did I know I was pulling a takeaway of my own; they reapproached me when school was back in session, saying they had a plan for success (and better songs)…oh, and, uh, they had struck a deal to play a school assembly and were really hurting for a drummer to round out the group.
Having a gig on the calendar, an item of focus to prevent eternal squabbles in the practice studio, was enough to bring me back on board, and we really started to function as a band and not a glorified talent show cover group. Although I was pretty creative within the bounds of basic rock drumming, my social-dominance skills were not well developed at that age so I was pretty much walked over in terms of the oeuvre and set list. But thanks to my deep study of the gigging business and studio equipment, I could produce and engineer the recordings and hook up all the amplification equipment. (Let me tell you, musicians today have it easy with computer-based hard-disk recording; I still have the four-track 1/4″ tape recorder we used, a kludged and cost-cut version of technology that was introduced in the 1950’s.)
When we showed up to play I made sure we were ready, plugged in and tuned up.
We split to different high schools after graduation and couldn’t keep the group together. It was too bad, because it was a great experience: writing songs, playing on stage, strutting in the hallways as we passed out cassette tapes of our latest tracks, expanding beyond our primary influences like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins by introducing each other to groups like the Beatles, the Doors and Led Zeppelin. We went balls to the wall, never wavered in our passion and were by far the coolest guys in the school.
Despite the short window, it was the kindling to a few careers in the business (most notably not mine). One of the guitar players founded his own label in college, did a few tours and is living the dream as a starving artist. Another guy got into a large rock combo that was signed to an independent label and had a song make the soundtrack of a television show. Yet another lived a rock-star lifestyle without the commensurate success and died young.
Our seriousness and dedication probably surprised our classmates and parents, but we were lucky to be too young to know that kids weren’t supposed to do stuff like that so well.