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An Empty Drum Essay

I had a traditional musical education, in a provincial English cathedral town. I was sent off to an ancient piano teacher with the requisite halitosis, who lashed with a ruler at my knuckles as if they were wasps; I added the trumpet a few years later, and had lessons with a younger, cheerier man, who told me that the best way to make the instrument “sound” was to imagine spitting paper pellets down the mouthpiece at the school bully. I sang daily in the cathedral choir, an excellent grounding in sight-reading and performance.

But what I really wanted to do, as a little boy, was play the drums, and, of those different ways of making music, only playing the drums still makes me feel like a little boy. A friend’s older brother had a drum kit, and as a twelve-year-old I gawped at the spangled shells of wood and skin, and plotted how I might get to hit them, and make a lot of noise. It wouldn’t be easy. My parents had no time for “all that thumping about,” and the prim world of ecclesiastical and classical music, which meant so much to me, detested rock. But I waited until the drums’ owner was off at school, and sneaked into the attic where they gleamed, fabulously inert, and over the next few years I taught myself how to play them. Sitting behind the drums was like the fantasy of driving (the other great prepubescent ambition), with my feet established on two pedals, bass drum and high hat, and the willing dials staring back at me like a blank dashboard.

Noise, speed, rebellion: everyone secretly wants to play the drums, because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood. Music makes us want to dance, to register rhythm on and with our bodies. The drummer and the conductor are the luckiest of all musicians, because they are closest to dancing. And in drumming how childishly close the connection is between the dancer and the dance! When you blow down an oboe, or pull a bow across a string, an infinitesimal hesitation—the hesitation of vibration—separates the act and the sound; for trumpeters, the simple voicing of a quiet middle C is more fraught than very complex passages, because that brass tube can be sluggish in its obedience. But when a drummer needs to make a drum sound he just . . . hits it. The stick or the hand comes down, and the skin bellows. The narrator in Thomas Bernhard’s novel “The Loser,” a pianist crazed with dreams of genius and obsessed with Glenn Gould, expresses the impossible longing to become the piano, to be at one with it. When you play the drums, you are the drums. “Tom-tom, c’est moi,” as Wallace Stevens put it.

The drummer who was the drums, when I was a boy, was Keith Moon, though he was dead by the time I first heard him. He was the drums not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers but because his joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming. He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness. At the end of early Who concerts, as Pete Townshend smashed his guitar, Moon would kick his drums and stand on them and hurl them around the stage, and this seems a logical extension not only of the basic premise of drumming, which is to hit things, but of Moon’s drumming, which was to hit things exuberantly. “For Christ’s sake, play quieter,” the manager of a club once told Moon. To which Moon replied, “I can’t play quiet, I’m a rock drummer.”

The Who had extraordinary rhythmic vitality, and it died when Keith Moon died, thirty-two years ago. I had hardly ever heard any rock music when I first listened to albums like “Quadrophenia” and “Who’s Next.” My notion of musical volume and power was inevitably circumscribed by my fairly sheltered, austerely Christian upbringing—I got off on classical or churchy things like the brassy last bars of William Walton’s First Symphony, or the densely chromatic last movement of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, or the way the choir bursts in at the start of Handel’s anthem “Zadok the Priest,” or the thundering thirty-two-foot bass pipes of Durham Cathedral’s organ, and the way the echo, at the end of a piece, took seven seconds to dissolve in that huge building. Those things are not to be despised, but nothing had prepared me for the ferocious energy of The Who. The music enacted the mod rebellion of its lyrics: “Hope I die before I get old”; “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”; “Dressed right, for a beach fight”; “There’s a millionaire above you, / And you’re under his suspicion.” Pete Townshend’s hard, tense suspended chords seemed to scour the air around them; Roger Daltrey’s singing was a young man’s fighting swagger, an incitement to some kind of crime; John Entwistle’s incessantly mobile bass playing was like someone running away from the scene of the crime; and Keith Moon’s drumming, in its inspired vandalism, was the crime itself.

Most rock drummers, even very good and inventive ones, are timekeepers. There is a space for a fill or a roll at the end of a musical phrase, but the beat has primacy over the curlicues. In a regular 4/4 bar, the bass drum sounds the first beat, the snare the second, the bass drum again hits the third (often with two eighth notes at this point), and then the snare hits the bar’s final beat. This results in the familiar “boom-DA, boom-boom-DA” sound of most rock drumming. A standard-issue drummer, playing along, say, to the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight,” would keep his 4/4 beat steady through the line “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight, a long time,” until the natural break, which comes at the end of the phrase, where, just after the word “time,” a wordless, two-beat half-bar readies itself for the repeated chorus. In that half-bar, there might be space for a quick roll, or a roll and a triplet, or something fancy with snare and high hat—really, any variety of filler. The filler is the fun stuff, and it could be said, without much exaggeration, that nearly all the fun stuff in drumming takes place in those two empty beats between the end of one phrase and the start of another. Ringo Starr, who interpreted his role modestly, does nothing much in that two-beat space: mostly, he provides eight even, straightforward sixteenth notes (da-da-da-da / da-da-da-da). In a good cover version of the song, Phil Collins, a sophisticated drummer who was never a modest performer with Genesis, does a tight roll that begins with featherlight delicacy on a tomtom and ends more firmly on his snare, before going back to the beat. But the modest and the sophisticated drummer, whatever their stylistic differences, share an understanding that there is a proper space for keeping the beat, and a much smaller space for departing from it, like a time-out area in a classroom. The difference is just that the sophisticated drummer is much more often in time-out, and is always busily showing off to the rest of the class while he is there.

Keith Moon ripped all this up. There is no time-out in his drumming, because there is no time-in. It is all fun stuff. The first principle of Moon’s drumming was that drummers do not exist to keep the beat. He did keep the beat, and very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one. Drumming is repetition, as is rock music generally, and Moon clearly found repetition dull. So he played the drums like no one else—and not even like himself. No two bars of Moon’s playing ever sound the same; he is in revolt against consistency. Everyone else in the band gets to improvise, so why should the drummer be nothing more than a condemned metronome? He saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists. It follows from this that the drummer will be playing a line of music, just as, say, the guitarist does, with undulations and crescendos and leaps. It further follows that the snare drum and the bass drum, traditionally the ball-and-chain of rhythmic imprisonment, are no more interesting than any of the other drums in the kit; and that you will need lots of those other drums. By the mid-nineteen-seventies, when Moon’s kit was “the biggest in the world,” he had two bass drums and at least twelve tomtoms, arrayed in stacks like squadrons of spotlights; he looked like a cheerful boy who had built elaborate fortifications for the sole purpose of destroying them. But he needed all those drums, as a flute needs all its stops or a harp its strings, so that his tremendous bubbling cascades, his liquid journeys, could be voiced: he needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.

Average musical performance, like athletics and viticulture, has probably improved in the last century. Nowadays, more pianists can brilliantly run off some Chopin or Rachmaninoff in a concert hall, and the guy at the local drum shop is probably technically more adept than Keith Moon was. YouTube, which is a kind of Special Olympics for showoffs, is full of young men wreaking double-jointed virtuosity on fabulously complex drum kits rigged up like artillery ranges. But so what? They can also backflip into their jeans from great heights and parkour across Paris.

Moon disliked drum solos, and did not really perform them; the only one I have seen is atrociously bad, a piece of anti-performance art—Moon sloppy and mindless, apparently drunk or stoned or both, and almost collapsing into the drums while he pounds them like pillows. He may have lacked the control necessary to sustain a long, complex solo; more likely, he needed the kinetic adventures of The Who to provoke him into his own. His merry way of conceding this was his now-famous remark “I’m the best Keith Moon-style drummer in the world.”

Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless. To begin at the beginning: his drums always sounded good. He hit them nice and hard, and tuned the bigger tomtoms low. (Not for him the little eunuch toms of Kenney Jones, who palely succeeded Moon in The Who, after his death.) He kept his snare pretty “dry.” This isn’t a small thing. The three-piece jazz combo at your local hotel ballroom almost certainly features a “drummer” whose sticks are used so lightly that they barely embarrass the skins, and whose wet, buzzy snare sounds like a repeated sneeze. A good dry snare, properly struck, is a bark, a crack, a report. How a drummer hits the snare, and how it sounds, can determine a band’s entire dynamic. Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part, because the snare is so drippy and mildly used (and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers’ testicles).

There are three great albums by The Who, and these are also the three greatest Moon records: “Live at Leeds” (1970), a recording of an explosive concert at the University of Leeds on February 14, 1970, and generally considered one of the greatest live albums in rock; “Who’s Next” (1971), the most famous Who album; and “Quadrophenia” (1973), a kind of successor to “Tommy,” a rock opera that nostalgically celebrates the sixties mod culture that had provoked and nourished the band in its earlier days. On these are such songs as “Substitute,” “My Generation,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” “The Song Is Over,” “The Real Me,” “5:15,” “Sea and Sand,” and “Love Reign O’er Me.” There is no great difference between the live concert recordings and the studio songs: all of them are full of improvisation and structured anarchy, fluffs and misses; all of them seem to have the rushed gratitude of something achieved only once. From this exuberance emerges the second great principle of Moon’s drumming; namely, that one is always performing, not recording, and that making mistakes is simply part of the locomotion of vitality. In the wonderful song “The Dirty Jobs,” on “Quadrophenia,” you can hear Moon accidentally knock his sticks together three separate times while travelling around the kit. Most drummers would be horrified to be caught out on tape like this.

This vitality allowed Moon to try to shape himself to the changing dynamics of the music, listening as much to the percussive deviations of the bass line as to the steady, obvious line of the lead singer. As a result, it is impossible to separate him from the music that The Who made. The story goes that, in 1968, Jimmy Page wanted John Entwistle on bass and Keith Moon on drums when he formed Led Zeppelin; and, as sensational as this group might have been, it would not have sounded either like Led Zeppelin or like The Who. If Led Zeppelin’s drummer, John Bonham, were substituted for Moon on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the song would lose its passionate propulsion, its wild excess; if Moon sat in for Bonham on “Good Times Bad Times,” the tight stability of that piece would instantly evaporate.

Bonham’s drumming sounds as if he’d thought about phrasing; he never overreaches, because he seems to have so perfectly measured the relationship between rhythmic order and rhythmic deviation. His superb but tightly limited breaks on the snare and his famously rapid double strokes on the bass drum are constantly played against the unvarying solidity of his high hat, which keeps a steady single beat throughout the bars. (In a standard 4/4 bar, the high hat sounds the four whole beats, or perhaps sounds eight beats in eighth notes.) That is “the Bonham sound,” heard in the celebrated long solo—one of devilish intricacy—in “Moby Dick,” on the live album “The Song Remains the Same.” Everything is judged, and rightly placed: astonishing order. Moon’s drumming, by contrast, is about putting things in the wrong place: the appearance of astonishing disorder. You can copy Bonham exactly; but to copy Moon would be to bottle his energy, which is much harder.

The third great Moon principle, of packing as much as possible into a single bar of music, produces the extraordinary variety of his playing. He seems to be hungrily reaching for everything at once. Take, for instance, the bass drum and the cymbal. Generally speaking, drummers strike these with respectable monotony. You hit the crash cymbal at the end of a fill, as a flourish, but also as a kind of announcement that time-out has, boringly enough, ended, and that the beat must go back to work. Moon does something strange with both instruments. He tends to “ride” his bass drum: he keeps his foot hovering over the bass-drum pedal as a nervous driver might keep a foot on the brake, and strikes the drum often, sometimes continuously, throughout a bar. When he breaks to do a roll around the toms, he will keep the bass drum going simultaneously, so that the effect is of two drummers playing together. Meanwhile, he delights in hitting his cymbals as often as possible, and off the beat, rather as jazz and big-band drummers do. The effect, of all these cymbals being struck, is of someone shouting out at unexpected moments while waiting in line—a yammer of exclamation marks. (Whereas his habit of entering a song by first crashing a cymbal and then ripping around the kit is like someone bursting into a quiet room and shouting, “I’m here!”)

So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasize its exuberance at the expense of its complexity. But the playing on songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Bargain” and “Love Reign O’er Me” and “The Song Is Over” is extremely complex. In addition to demonstrating intricate cymbal work, Moon is constantly flicking off little triplets (sometimes on the toms, but sometimes with his feet, by playing the two bass drums together), and doing double-stroke rolls (a method by which, essentially, you bounce the sticks on the drum to get them to strike faster notes) and irregular flams on the snare drum (a flam involves hitting the drum with the two sticks not simultaneously but slightly staggered, and results in a sound more like “blat” than “that”).

New technology allows listeners to isolate a song’s individual players, and the isolated drum tracks from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Behind Blue Eyes” can be found on YouTube. On “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the drumming is staggeringly vital, with Moon at once rhythmically tight and massively spontaneous. On both that song and “Behind Blue Eyes,” you can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever done in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the line and into the start of the next phrase. In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, this challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in, is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body surrenders its awful self-consciousness. I taught myself the drums, but for years I was so busy being a good boy that I lacked the courage to own any drums. At school, I played in a rock band, but I kept the fact very quiet. The kids I played rock music with did not overlap with the world of classical music. Drumming was a notional add-on, a supplement to the playing of “proper” instruments. The classical-music path was the scholastic path. Choir school was like being at conservatory—daily rehearsal and performance. And then, later, as a teen-ager, to work hard at the piano, to sing in the choir, to play the trumpet in a youth orchestra, to pass exams in music theory, to study sonata form in Beethoven, to sit for a music scholarship, to talk to one’s parents about Bach (or, daringly, the Beatles!), to see the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall, even just to fall asleep during “Aida”—all this was approved, was part of being a good student. Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like coffins, and I know their weight of obedience. Happy obedience, too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music’s. But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth’s Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not rebellion, and subtlety is not freedom, and it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and, most of the time, only rock music can deliver it. And sometimes one despises oneself, in near-middle age, for being so good.

Georges Bataille has some haunting words about how the workplace is the scene of our domestication and repression: it is where we are forced to put away our Dionysianism. The crazy sex from the night before is as if forgotten; the drunken marital argument of the weekend is erased; the antic children have disappeared; all the passionate music of life is turned off, and a false bourgeois order clothes you, with the sack and quick penury waiting if you don’t obey. But Bataille might also have emphasized school, for school is work, too—work before the adult workplace—and school tutors the adolescent in repression and the rectitude of the bourgeois order, at the very moment in life when, temperamentally and biologically, one is most Dionysiac and most enraged by the hypocritical ordinances of the parental league.

So adolescents quickly get split in two, with an inner and an outer self, a lawless sprite inside and a lawful ambassador outside: rock music, or your first sexual relationship, or reading, or writing poetry, or probably all four at once—why not?—represent the possibilities for inward escape. And playing rock is different again from playing classical music, or from writing poetry, or from painting. In all these other arts, though there may be trancelike moments and even stages of wildness and excess, the pressure of creating lasting forms demands discipline and silence; mindful of Pascal’s severe aphorism about the importance of staying quietly in one’s own room, one does just that, and stares at the sheet of paper, even if the words are not coming. Writing and reading still carry with them the faintest odor of the exam room. (It is exam-silent in the room where I write these words, and how terrible, in a way, is this disjunction between literary expression and the violence of its content.) Rock music, though, is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theatre, showing off, truancy, pantomime, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity. It is not concentration so much as fission.

Imagine, then, the allure of The Who, whose battering velocity was such an incitement to the adolescent’s demon sprite. “I’m wet and I’m cold, / But thank God I ain’t old,” young Roger Daltrey sang on “Quadrophenia,” in a track about a mod teen-ager (named Jimmy, no less) who gets thrown out of home:

Here by the sea and sand

Nothing ever goes as planned

I just couldn’t face going home.

It was just a drag on my own.

They finally threw me out.

My mum got drunk on stout.

My dad couldn’t stand on two feet

As he lectured about morality.

It is no accident that punk rock got a fair amount of its inspiration from The Who (the Sex Pistols often performed “Substitute”), or that, a generation later, a band like Pearl Jam devotedly covered “Love Reign O’er Me.” Here was a band that, in one obvious way, embodied success, but that, in a less obvious way, dared failure—the large amount of improvisation in their songs, the risky, sometimes loose excess of their concert performances, the flailing earnestness of so many of the lyrics. And the epicenter of this successful failure, this man who wanted to pack as much of the fun stuff into his playing as humanly possible, was Keith Moon.

The Who was a kind of performance-art band: there was plenty of calculation amid the carelessness. Pete Townshend attended Ealing Art College (whose other musical students from the nineteen-sixties included Freddie Mercury and Ronnie Wood), and has sometimes claimed that the idea of smashing his guitar onstage was partly inspired by Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive-art movement. That high tone is quite Townshendian. But it is hard not to think of Keith Moon’s life as a perpetual “happening”; a gaudy, precarious, self-destructing art installation, whose gallery placard reads “The Rock and Roll Life, Late Twentieth Century.” In a manner that is also true of his drumming, he seemed to live at once naïvely and self-consciously: spontaneous in his scandalous misbehavior and yet also aware that this is how one should live if one is a famous and rich rock musician. His parody is very hard to separate from his originality; his parody is his originality. This is one of the most charming elements of his posture behind the drum kit: he is always clowning around—standing up sometimes, at other times puffing out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie, grimacing and grinning like a fool in some opera buffa, twirling his sticks, doing silly phantom rolls just above the skins of the drums. A child might think that Moon was a circus performer. His drumming, like his life, was a serious joke.

Nowadays, Moon would probably be classed as both A.D.H.D. and bipolar; fortunately for the rest of us, he grew up in non-therapeutic Britain, and medicated himself with booze, illegal drugs, and illegal drumming. Tony Fletcher’s entertaining biography “Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend” (1999) is one of the most reliable sources for all the famous “Moon the Loon” stories. Born into a modest, working-class household, in north London, in 1946, Moon had a paltry education. He was restless and hyperactive, and often played to the gallery. An art teacher described him as “retarded artistically, idiotic in other respects,” and the authorities were doubtless relieved when he left school at the age of fourteen. “You never felt, ‘One day he is going to be famous,’ ” a friend tells Fletcher. “You felt more likely that he was going to end up in prison.”

He had little formal training on the drums. As Gogol’s brilliant prose or Richard Burton’s swaggering acting embodies the temperamental exhibitionism of their creators, so Moon’s playing is an extension of his theatrical hyperactivity. His mother noticed that he got bored easily, and quickly lost interest in his train set or Meccano. Throughout his short life, he was seemingly addicted to practical jokes: he set off cherry bombs in hotels, dressed up as Adolf Hitler or Noël Coward, rode a wheelchair down an airport staircase, smashed up hotel rooms, drove a car into a pond, got arrested for breaching the peace. On planes, Moon might do his “chicken soup” routine, which involved carrying a can of Campbell’s chicken soup on board, emptying it, unseen, into a sick bag, and then pretending to retch violently. At which point he “would raise it, and pour the sicklike soup back into his mouth, offering up a hearty sigh of relief while innocently inquiring of fellow passengers what they found so disgusting.” Fletcher captures the patient relentlessness of this theatricalism, which often needed preparation and forethought, and certainly demanded a kind of addicted commitment: “Keith wore the Nazi uniform like something of a second skin, donning it intermittently for the next six or seven years.” His boozing and coke-snorting were certainly addictions, but perhaps they were merely the solvents needed to maintain the larger, primal addiction to joking and playacting.

Performance is a way of sublimely losing oneself, and there is a sense in which Moon as drummer was another role, alongside Moon as Hitler, Moon as Noël Coward, Moon as arsonist, Moon as sick-bag buffoon, and Moon as crazy rock star. (“I don’t give a damn about a Holiday Inn room,” he grandly said, after some act of vandalism. “There’s ten million of them exactly the same.”) But “role” suggests choice, freedom, calculation, whereas these roles don’t seem to have been chosen so much as depended on. Or put it another way: despite all the gaiety and partying, the only performance that seems to have truly liberated Moon was the one he enacted behind the drum kit.

I often think of Moon and Glenn Gould together, notwithstanding their great differences. Both started performing very young (Moon was seventeen when he began playing with The Who, Gould twenty-two when he made his first great recording of the Goldberg Variations); both were idiosyncratic, revolutionary performers, for whom spontaneity was an important element (for instance, both enjoyed singing and shouting while playing); both had exuberant, pantomimic fantasy lives (Gould wrote about Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and appeared on Canadian television in the guise of invented comic personae like Karlheinz Klopweisser and Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, “the dean of British conductors”); both were gregarious yet essentially solitary; neither man practiced much (at least, Gould claimed not to practice, and it is impossible to imagine Moon having the patience or the sobriety to do so); and all their performance tics (Gould’s hand-washing and coat-wearing and pill-popping hypochondria) have the slightly desperate quality of mania. The performance behind the instrument, however, has the joyous freedom of true escape and self-dissolution: Gould becomes the piano, Moon becomes the drums.

For both Moon and Gould, the performer’s life was short: Gould abandoned concert performance at the age of thirty-one; Moon was dead by the age of thirty-two, and had not played well for a long time. He had perhaps five or six really great drumming years, between 1970 and 1976. Throughout this period, Moon was ingesting ludicrous volumes of drink and drugs. There are stories of him swallowing twenty or thirty pills at once. In San Francisco, in 1973, he took so many (perhaps to come down from a high, or to deal with pre-concert nerves) that, after slopping his way through several songs, he collapsed and had to be taken to hospital. When his stomach was pumped, it was found to contain quantities of PCP, described by Fletcher as “a drug used to put agitated monkeys and gorillas to sleep.” What magically happened onstage, while Moon was being carted away, was incised on my teen-age cerebellum. Pete Townshend asked the crowd if anyone could come up and play the drums. Scot Halpin, a nineteen-year-old, and presumably soon to be the most envied teen-ager in America, got onto the stage, and performed in Moon’s place. “Everything was locked into place,” Halpin later said of the gargantuan drum kit; “anyplace you could hit there would be something there. All the cymbals overlapped.”

Both Moon and Gould were rather delicate, even handsome young men who coarsened with age, and developed a thickness of feature, an almost simian rind. At twenty, Moon was slight and sweet, with a bowl of black hair upended on his head, and dark, dopey eyes, and the arched eyebrows of a clown. By the end of his life, he was puffy, heavy, his features no longer sweetly clownish but slightly villainous—Bill Sikes, played by Moon’s old drinking friend Oliver Reed—the arched eyebrows now thicker and darker, seemingly painted on, as if he had become a caricature of himself. Friends were shocked by his appearance. He was slower and less inventive, less vital, on the drums; the album “Who Are You,” his last record, attests to the decline. Perhaps no one was very surprised when he died, from a massive overdose of the drug Heminevrin, a sedative prescribed for alcohol-withdrawal symptoms. “He’s gone and done it,” Townshend told Roger Daltrey. Thirty-two pills were in his stomach, and the equivalent of a pint of beer in his blood. His girlfriend, who found him, told a coroner’s court that she had often seen him pushing pills down his throat, without liquid. Two years later, John Bonham died from asphyxiation, after hours of drinking vodka. And then English drumming went quiet. ♦

Auntie El

By Samuel Choate
Weston, Mass.

Eleanor, or "Auntie El" as she was called by everyone, was my primary caretaker for the first fifteen years of my life. Auntie El grew up in the blue-collar town of Everett, Mass., never married and lived with my grandmother, who was her older sister. She spent her spare time bowling and looking for bargains on items nobody needed. Auntie El worked for the Gillette Company for 43 years in its South Boston factory as an inspection clerk in the Quality Control Group, scrutinizing the edges of razor blades under a microscope. Auntie El retired in November of 1989, the exact same month and year in which I was born. My parents both had demanding jobs with long hours and therefore needed someone to look after me during the day. Three months after I was born, they still had not found a babysitter, and time was running out. My grandmother volunteered her younger sister, mainly to get her out of the house they were sharing. Auntie El was called in to "pinch hit" on a temporary basis.

Cranky and wheezy from her latest cigarette, Auntie El walked into our house on her first day wearing her flowered apron and carrying a plastic grocery bag in which she packed her clothes for the week — not exactly Mary Poppins. Both my parents did not see this arrangement working, but were grateful for her services until a suitable caretaker could be found. She took care of me for two weeks until she went on a previously scheduled trip to Las Vegas. I guess she must have softened to the idea of caring for me because, halfway through the trip, she called my mother and told her she wanted the job full time. Auntie El started the next Monday.

No longer able to smoke because of my fragile lungs (I was on a respirator for several days after I was born), Auntie El had to find activities to take her mind off cigarettes. She took me on long walks every day and, as I grew older, would play catch with me in the backyard. Her health improved dramatically. We were good for each other.

As the years passed, we became even closer. By the time I was in first grade, she was a faculty favorite at my school and could be found waiting for me every day in the parking lot in her white Cutlass Ciera Oldsmobile with her BINGO plate on the front. She quickly became a school legend when she was the only adult in memory to join the Halloween parade which took us through every classroom in the school in costume. Auntie El wore a witch's hat and a black and orange polka dot apron; I was a fireman.

Through our years together, we had numerous adventures. One night, her nose bled profusely and she could not stop the bleeding. Since my parents were at work, she had to call an ambulance and was forced to take me with her. With the sirens blaring, I hopped in the back, dressed in my red Power Ranger pajamas.

Auntie El's tough, gritty mentality made me a stronger person. She grew up without a father and her family was poor. She and her siblings were taken out of school by tenth grade in order to help support the family. She never missed a chance to point out how hard my parents worked to provide me with great opportunities and called the town in which we lived "la de da land." I always had Auntie El to give me a dose of reality.

The littlest things seemed to pull Auntie El and me together. Our passion for food was a regular topic, and we would have daily discussions on what I had to eat for lunch that day at school. Late at night, I would sneak up to her room and watch episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and would laugh until my parents heard us and ended the fun. No matter where we were, you could always find Auntie El and me laughing about something and enjoying the moment.

In the fall of my freshman year, Auntie El was diagnosed with colon cancer. After a successful operation, she spent some time in a rehabilitation center to regain her strength. On Thanksgiving evening, 2004, Auntie El suffered a heart attack. She fell to the floor, and hit her head. She was found later the next morning, and was pronounced dead. I found out when I heard my mother scream on the phone with the hospital. Auntie El's passing affected our whole family, but it was particularly tough for me. My good friend, my partner in crime and my teacher was no longer with me. Coming home to her every day for fifteen years was something I really enjoyed. Arriving home to an empty, quiet house and having days pass without talking to her was the worst experience of my life. I did not know life without Auntie El.

However, my family and I had to adjust but I did not know how to start over. I found myself thinking about Auntie El a lot and, one day, realized that she was still with me when I would hear her voice in the back of my mind during a test or a game or just when I was making dinner for myself.

More importantly, I realized that Auntie El instilled in me the values that I admired in her. She was genuine, caring and respectful. She taught me to work hard, and be mentally tough for life's challenges. Her perseverance and grit showed me a lot and provided me with the perfect role model for life.

 

Why My Friends Didn't Visit Last Summer

By Riley Smith '12
Rhinelander, Wis.

Maybe it's because I live in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where Brett Favre draws more of a crowd on Sunday than any religious service, cheese is a staple food, it's sub-zero during global warming, current "fashions" come three years after they've hit it big with the rest of the world, and where all children by the age of ten can use a 12-gauge like it's their job.

I shouldn't have told them I live on a farm with a barn, ten chickens, a dog, a canary, two thousand deer, coyotes and beautiful Silver Bass Lake. When I say beautiful lake, I mean it in the past tense. Each year the water level drops several inches, and we now refer to it more accurately as "the puddle" threatening to transform into a wetland. But even though you can't swim because of the weeds that entangle your appendages, you can still kayak! Just be sure you wear muck boots with your swimsuit because we traditionally portage the kayak a quarter mile down the bank to find water deep enough to push in. The bloodsuckers are also a turnoff. In the last year I have only had two bloodsuckers (leeches with small teeth) attach to me. The anticoagulant kept my leg bleeding for around two hours while I lay with my leg elevated; my neurotic mother pacing the room and crying while on hold with the local ER. But really, that's no reason to postpone a visit!

Another fabulous addition to our "farmstead" is the field that Papa was able to mow into a running trail. In order to escape the locusts that cling to your legs and spit brown juice on anything they come in contact with, you have to run early in the morning, and by early I mean quarter to five and still dark. However, this does pose another problem. Recently we've spotted some bear scat, indicating there is a bear somewhere on our property. This was confirmed when my sister ran into two cubs and a mother sow during her morning run. Rule number one for human survival; do not run into a mother bear with her two cubs. Luckily my sister is an elite cross country runner and was out of the woods by the time the bears even realized an intruder's presence. But I still find it an excellent excuse to not use the "awesome" running trail.

Being a true-blooded Wisconsinite, naturally winter is my favorite time of year. The amphitheatre in our field provides ideal opportunity for break-neck tobogganing, and the running path is converted annually into a cross country ski trail. Two years ago we recorded five feet of snow in our field. It's great for my brother and sister who just prance around happily on the icy surface, however, I tend to sink down to somewhere around my mid-thighs. If you've ever watched the movie A Christmas Story with Ralphie's little brother in the intense snowsuit that resembles the Michelin Man, you would understand what I look like. Adding to my attire of boots, mittens, hat, scarf, face mask, long johns with snow pants and two sweaters, my mother insists I wear an oversized blaze orange jacket, because in Rhinelander, every season is deer season.

It probably wasn't the best idea to mention my two uncles. Uncle Pete is fun; he always comes to watch the Packers game on Sunday and enjoy my mother's home-cooked brunch. But the partial he received last year, after he knocked out his two front teeth dog sledding with his huskies through downtown Rhinelander, does at times make you lose your appetite. My Uncle John sometimes can be mistaken for a mountain man. His assortment of furs and strange bags full of fishing gear and other odd tools whose uses are a mystery to everyone but Johnny himself, add to his "Yooper" appearance. To clarify for those non-Midwesterners, a Yooper is a term used to describe those from the backwoods of the Upper Peninsula. So sometimes he's a little strange. However, he is probably one of the most well-known men in all of northern Wisconsin; famous for providing fresh bluegills to the Franciscan nuns, his state-renowned loon calls, and his never-ending repertoire of jokes. He's burst into our house on several occasions with a dripping and still-twitching forty-eight-inch musky. And did I mention he's a part-time grave digger?

But no matter how hick it may seem, in the end, I just feel sorry for everyone who scoffed at a visit to Rhinelander. Long nature walks in the woods, fresh little red potatoes from the garden, glowing sunsets off the porch, families of loons and whippoorwill calls, rhubarb and asparagus patches, freshly fallen snow, fiery reds, tangerine oranges and the sunburst golds of autumn, making apple pie with the apples from our orchard, playing piano at night in front of a blazing fire — they're the ones missing out.

 

Music for Prague 1968

By Ryan Park
Moraga, Calif.

Do not judge this piece until you have performed it." Repeatedly, Mr. Benstein challenged us to look beyond the rugged atonalism which went against every concept of our musical knowledge, and convey the raw emotion that inspired Karel Husa to compose Music for Prague 1968. At that time I did not understand how emotions could be expressed without words nor could I comprehend the nightmarish atmosphere of a Soviet invasion. Instead I was more overwhelmed by the foreign rhythms, the harsh, squeaking notes that existed in the highest registers of my clarinet, the thunderous tempo. I hated the song.

Just as Music for Prague shattered my perspective of music, my mother's unsuccessful battle against leukemia shattered the stability of my life. In October of 2005, after eight years and several failed treatments, it was determined that nothing more could be done for my mother. Over the next several months I watched as she withered away, living the last of her days with the feebleness of an old woman. When my mother lay too still in her sleep, I feared that I had lost her. And when she was awake, I was haunted by the images of her shivering violently in bed, the images blurred by the tears I tried to suppress in order to be strong for her, and the demoralizing feeling of helplessness that came with my inability to comfort her. I was torn emotionally. I wanted her suffering to end, but that meant losing her forever.

May 17 was the night of the concert and however nervous I was, all I can remember about that night was my mother, still a mother despite her physical state, harassing me for not taking a shower. It was for her that I vowed I would perform the song.

Mr. Benstein raised his baton and the melody of a bird song echoed from the flutes; the audience fell silent. The peaceful aura was broken by the minor chords of my clarinet, calling forth a looming presence. His baton strokes widened, and machine guns blasted from the snare drum, adding to the roaring of the brass tanks. My instrument emanated the cries of suffering, the notes shivering off my tongue. With the final upswing, he summoned the Hussite War song, and much of the pain that had built up inside my heart over the past months was lifted. My father told me later that he was deeply shaken by the piece as well. I realized that Music for Prague was not about the structure or the visual images it conjured, but instead it was the very lack of structure that allowed for Husa's emotions to stand out.

She passed away only a couple of hours after the performance. For the first time in months she looked at peace as she lay still in the presence of her family and I was able to accept that she was in a better place. It was Karel Husa's ability to capture the loneliness and the pain of losing a loved one that allows Music for Prague to move us all. The rhythm and beat of music describe emotions not restricted by words, flowing together with the beating of the heart.

 

There is Something About Africa

By Sorina Seeley
Paris, France

"You say, 'Sawubona.'"

"Sawubona"

"Then the person says 'Sapela.'"

"Sapela"

"Then you will reply 'Sakhona snez wa nena.'"

"Sakhona snez wa nena"

"Remember if someone gives something to you or helps you, say 'ngiyabonga kakhuku.' It means thank you."

"Ngiyabonga kakhuku"

"Got it all?"

"Yes."

"Good, because we're almost there."

My heart skipped a beat, we were almost there, we were just minutes away from the a world that so far, only existed inside my mind, inspired through bedtime stories and faded photographs. I was minutes away from a place completely strange, yet so familiar to me. As we drove through the vast open land, my father rolled down the windows and said, "Stick your head out, smell that? That's Africa."

Despite the many travels that characterized much of my childhood, I had never been on a trip quite like that of my first visit to South Africa. To me Africa existed through my father's journals, letters exchanged between my grandparents, an array of photographs and wonderful stories of what it was like having Africa as a home. However now for the first time, I was actually arriving at the small town on the eastern coast of South Africa where four generations of my paternal side had grown up. Driving through the town of Estcourt for the first time seemed somewhat like a dream. As we passed the small stone church where my grandparents were married, a small black- and-white picture rushed to my mind. The beautiful stained windows over my grandparents' heads were somehow familiar. Jacaranda trees stood proudly between houses and along sidewalks with little blue flowers seated delicately on the top of most branches, so fragile due to the heat that when a warm breeze ruffled the branches, the flowers would float slowly to the pavement.

Soon the individual trees disappeared into a park in front of which stood a small sign that read: "Drummond Park." "It was named after your great-grandfather," my dad explained. "He was the first mayor of the town." Soon the houses became more scarce and once again the landscape became littered with cows, horses, zebra and small flightless birds. Five minutes into this we had arrived at a house at the top of a hill. Glen Roy was etched on the wooden arch marking the entrance.

My dad's cousin rushed forward to meet us, welcoming my dad home and welcoming my brother and me to our heritage. She guided us around the property, together with my dad, pointing out various places where events had happened: the rose garden overlooking the dam where my father and mother were engaged; under the tree where lunches were eaten when it was not too hot; and the back shed where the half-a-meter-long pet tortoise was kept. That same afternoon, exhausted from traveling yet full of excitement to see everything, my dad announced that he had someone he wanted us to meet. Her name was Josephine and she had been his nanny when he was a child and continued to look after him until he left Africa for London to find a job.

We walked around to the back of the house to the hill that leads down to Wagon Drift Dam. I lowered myself onto the grass, in between my brother and my grandmother, slipping forward as the dry earth crumbled a bit beneath me. My eyes swept the grass around me, yellow from the heat and lack of rain. By the dam at the bottom of the hill lay ten or twenty small huts raised from the earth. Up the hill from the huts marched a figure followed by many other smaller figures. "That's her," my dad said laughing. A tiny woman no younger than ninety reached the top of the hill and embraced my father, both with tears in their eyes they sat down around me. After a moment's silence Josephine started to speak. She spoke so quickly, the Zulu words rolling out of her mouth indistinguishable from each other. Yet the unfamiliar words told a familiar and wonderful story. My grandfather and father were laughing as my grandmother translated the fast-paced monologue into stories of my father's childhood. It was incredible to see my family's history and my father's past told through someone like an aunt to my dad, someone who had been a part of all the stories my father told me. I was seeing a part of me through someone else's eyes that before had only been a bedtime story.  

At first, Josephine's small frame contradicted the image of a strong black Zulu woman I had imagined from my father's stories, but her strength, vigor and powerful presence greatly surpassed my previous image of her. Finally the fast-paced discussion slowed, and the laughter was replaced by a peaceful smile. She said very slowly in broken English that it was her first pilgrimage back up the hill to Glen Roy since my dad left over 30 years ago. Her dignified, serene stature remained dominating as many of the smaller figures came closer, around twenty small children gathered around her, the smaller ones crawling into her lap, the older ones tentatively remaining a few meters away. My grandmother explained that most of Josephine's children and friends had died of AIDS, and she was now the matriarch of the village raising orphaned children as her own. She gazed at the children with such love and care, the same affection that saw my father's upbringing.

As we stood up to leave, Josephine turned her head and looked at my brother and me. "Singabangane," she said. The word sounded so familiar and beautiful. My grandmother leaned forward and whispered translation into my ear. "Singabangane," I replied. It meant we are friends.

"There is something about Africa," my father always says, "something that runs deep in your veins, something that will always draw you back." When I lie in bed at night, I still imagine myself in far-off countries, immersed in exotic cultures, yet after a while my mind always returns to Africa. I feel the hot sun pushing me into the ground, the vast openness around me and the connection to the country that means so much to my family and me. I see the thatched roof of the house where my father spent his childhood and the landscape that makes my heart beat fast and hard. I think of the hot air that wrapped around me and the beauty and mystery of Africa that cannot be put into words, but remains a constant ache in my heart to return. On the plane ride back home to Prague, I wrote in my journal:

In the distance a hot wind
Sways the branches of a lone acacia tree
Giving futile shade to a lonely bird
It doesn't sing or dance, just sits there
Staring out to nowhere
Too hot to move, too hot to think
Just sitting there, staring into the distance,
Into the eternity of Africa.
Jan 2002
 

Exposed

By Danielle Burby
Huntington Station, N.Y.

We wanted to choreograph a tap dance like no one had ever seen before. We wanted to tell a story while we danced. We wanted to deliver a monologue. In the brainstorming session, Elyssa, our teacher, told us to think of a story, an experience, and to tell it not only through our words, but through our feet as well. I sat on the cold floor, my arms wrapped around my knees, and I wondered what story I should tell. I sifted through my memories, grasping for inspiration. Nothing.

One by one, my friends stood before us, dancing their stories. First went James, his tap shoes ringing out like pealing bells against the springy floor, telling a funny story about doctors. Then Sally, her beautiful red hair, newly cut, swinging and swaying along with her and her bubbly tale of band camp. Then Katie, intricately weaving a pattern across the floor, speaking about her open heart surgery. Then my little sister, the youngest one there, timidly striking her feet against the ground, quietly recounting the time she and my father had gotten lost canoeing.

Finally, it was my turn. I was the last to go, and I still had a hundred stories racing through my head. I stood up and slowly walked across the long room, my tap shoes clickety-clacking with every step. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my reflection follow me in the mirror. I turned around and faced five pairs of expectant eyes. Of their own accord my feet took up a rhythm: ba da dum bum, ba da dum bum. And above the metallic sound of my tapping flew a story I hadn't consciously chosen; a story I had been keeping locked tightly away from even my deepest thoughts.

As I realized what I was saying, my feet quickened and the tapping grew more frantic. But the tapping couldn't drown out my words; a story about my grandmother. I began with the surprise visit my mother and I decided to pay. I told of the window through which I watched my grandmother fall. I told of the glass door, the locked glass door, and my grandmother's slumped form lying unmoving on the floor with just a door barring us from her. And my mother, my clean-mouthed mother, cursing and struggling to find a key, finally finding it and thrusting the door open. The two of us rushing to help my grandmother, me a few steps behind, unsure of what to do, of what was going on.

As I told the story, my feet and words felt clumsy and I didn't know what they would do or say next. Five pairs of eyes, full of pity, watched me. I choked on the words. My feet faltered. But I had begun, and now I had to see it through. I described the sour smell of alcohol seeping out of my grandmother's very pores; the blood, the crimson translucent blood, puddled and smeared across the floor. And worst of all, her eyes, bleary and unfocused, facing in different directions. I told of my own eyes, wide as steering wheels. Blood oozed out of the cut on her head. And my grandmother — my grandma — tried to act as though nothing had ­happened, as though she weren't drunk, as though she wasn't an alcoholic.

My tapping faded out after the words had finally stopped running out of my mouth. The tale hadn't been told in a cohesive manner and my dancing had been disjointed. But my story was out in the open. And as I stood there, I suddenly felt naked. I was utterly exposed. I had dug up a piece of my soul that I suddenly wasn't sure I should have uncovered. Even an hour later, riding shotgun in my mother's minivan, with the trees flying past me, I felt as though a piece of me had been scooped out and left for the vultures.

But miraculously, after I got beyond my feelings of vulnerability, my wound started to mend. It was as though by telling the story I had let out an infection. My anger toward my grandmother was scabbing over; my resentment was being changed into a small scar. And even though none of the people who had heard my story ever brought it up again, sharing that small piece of myself with them allowed me to accept what had happened and to heal.
 

Hameau Farm

By Hayden Kiessling
Pound Ridge, N.Y.

I was sitting on the floor of a stall in a barn tucked away on one hundred acres of land in central Pennsylvania. Lying next to me was a very pregnant Ayrshire cow weighing well over 1,000 pounds. Petoria didn't scare me. I was used to being in such close proximity to her. She was my favorite cow at Hameau Farm. My third year there as a camper, I had shown Petoria in the farm show at the end of the session. Now she was quite a bit bigger, and very frightened. It was her first calf, and she didn't really understand what was about to happen.

Thirty curious girls surrounded the calm haven that I had created in the stall for Petoria. The campers watched through the bars of the stall, waiting quietly and patiently for something to happen. I thought back to five years before, when I had first seen a calf being born. The mother was out in the pasture, so my friends and I watched in awe and anticipation as the massive creature lay down on her side and started pushing. A new calf was always an exciting change at the farm. Chores were put on hold as we wondered at the slimy, skinny animal trying to take its first steps.

The day Petoria went into labor, the girls were supposed to go to the state park for a barbeque and a swim, but they chose unanimously to stay and watch Petoria bring her first baby into the world. These are the kinds of girls that come to Hameau Farm: inquisitive, hardworking, independent girls who would rather spend two weeks feeding a baby goat with a bottle than splashing around in a town pool with their friends or playing soccer for their travel team. Even though my days as a camper ended long ago, I still consider myself a Hameau Farm girl, and this was my ­seventh summer.

For the moment my place was in the stall, sitting in the hay with Petoria. She let out a soft moo, and I stroked her soft brown-spotted coat. She was ready. I moved aside so that she could lie on her side, first coaxing her to the center of the stall so that the campers would get a good view. She started pushing. A series of hushed whispers rippled through the line of young girls. I loved that they were so excited. These were a bunch of city girls who had been dropped off almost a week ago, not knowing what to expect, but willing to try something new. I thought back to my first week at camp, and how I hadn't even known how to wash my own dishes. When it was my chore group's turn in the kitchen after dinner, I not only learned how to scrub, rinse and sanitize, but by the end of the night, I learned how to make the perfect beard out of soap bubbles, and I picked up some great dance moves to Britney Spears songs. Everything was an adventure at camp, and today was proving to be no exception.

Petoria was breathing harder. I could see the feet starting to emerge. I knew that the front hooves would come out first and the calf would literally dive out of its mother. This calf had some of the biggest feet I had ever seen, and Petoria had clearly noticed as well. As pushing got harder, Petoria became more vocal, and then she stopped. She was out of energy, but she needed to push or the calf ­wouldn't survive. I tried to feed her grain and give her water, but Petoria would have none of it. She was exhausted.

After deferring to the camp director, I had to gather up twine from the bales of hay around the barn, tie them together, and tie the long string around the calf's exposed hooves. It was my turn to do the work. I pulled on the twine, but couldn't get a good grip on it. My fellow counselor and I tied our end of the rope around a pitchfork. That provided us with at least a little leverage. Three of us pulled on that handle for what seemed like an hour. By then there was no point in trying to keep the campers quiet and relaxed. They were all concerned, shouting words of encouragement to Petoria and clapping and cheering whenever a little more of the calf emerged.

It is a Hameau Farm custom to name a new baby animal something starting with the first letter of its mother's name, so when that little bull calf finally came out of Petoria, the campers voted, and we named him Presley, after The King. He was the center of attention for days after, but as I made my way down to the farmhouse to shower away the slime, dirt, and sawdust, I knew that he was just one of the many adventures that each one of those campers would have at Hameau Farm.

 

Block by Block, Word by Word

By Daniel Steinman
Short Hills, N.J.

You can make almost anything out of LEGOs. You can build miniature spaceships, colorful forts, or cities of blocky skyscrapers that span the basement floor. My favorite was constructing ancient, booby-trapped temples like the ones from Indiana Jones.

In elementary school, I was fanatical about my LEGOs. I would build the medieval castle, complete with the moat and the drawbridge and guard stations and the throne room for the king and queen and their royal dog, Patches. (Coincidentally, Patches was also the name of my dog.) I would kneel for hours, hunched over the hundreds of blocks spread over the carpet, to select just the right piece for each part of the structure.

Once the castle walls were erected and the knights on horseback were set to approach from the other side of the moat, I was done. I didn't really play with the castle afterward. I moved it to the corner so that my sister's Barbie convertible wouldn't crash into it and ruin my little "Ages 3 and Up" masterpiece.

Looking back on my childhood, I was a bizarrely obsessive little kid. For days after building a fort or a spaceship, I would stop and examine that every plastic block was still in place.

It's strange to think that between the age of riding a tricycle and the age of driving a car, I am, in some ways, exactly the same. I don't play with LEGOs anymore, but I am a construction worker of types. Now I write essays and stories and newspaper articles, and I approach it with the same compulsion.

Every word is painstakingly selected with the same intensity I exerted as a child choosing the right color block. Every phrase is turned around and around in my head like arranging the walls of the castle gate. Every sentence is examined for its structural quality. At my desk — like kneeling over my rug — I craft meticulously.

By writing, I hope to create the grand and intricate images in my mind, to give them some physical incarnation. Inked on a page, a nebulous mass of related thoughts can be forged into something real. A story or essay can be erected as the fulfillment of a single concept. My gratification comes from being able to perfectly embody an idea. This can be frustrating because I've never written anything close to perfect. For as much as I agonize over my words and methodically rework every draft, my ideal eludes me. Still, I return to my desk and keep writing, editing, and rewriting because if I don't return to my desk, I'm sure I'll never write the essays, stories, and newspaper articles that I know I want to write.

You can make almost anything out of words. You can build planet-sized spaceships, long-lost medieval castles, or cities of glass structures that pierce the clouds. If my construction work is solid enough, I believe I will be able to make these worlds — real and imaginary — come alive on paper the way they did on the rug of my basement. So I continue to build — block by block, word by word, sentence by sentence — in the hope that I will end up with something I can put to the side of my desk and examine every once in a while to see that every word fits in place.

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