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Drumming up custom in a small Thai bar


From the age of 15, I wanted to be a drummer. In class, I would draw myself in stick figure form, holding two sticks in the air, ready to thump the skins hard. But my parents could not afford to buy me a drum kit and lessons were too expensive, so I made my own, wedging the ends of art paintbrushes between slits of wood to use as cymbal stands. My older brother’s ABBA records were transformed into makeshift cymbals. An empty Vaseline jar became a snare drum and an empty tin of powdered chocolate milk drink served as the bass drum. I used two pens as sticks, and in absence of a bass pedal, my knee would thump on the carpet.

Drum image: shutterstock

Every night after school, I listened to the radio and practised. One evening I tuned the radio to a station that played rock music from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, it felt like stepping into a time machine. When an echoing voice on the radio announced, “And now a Led Zeppelin triple play”, I held my breath. Then the symphony of guitar riffs, wailing vocals and thumping drums smacked my ears so hard, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. I had just experienced “Whole Lotta Love”. My sheltered Catholic upbringing meant that I did not understand what the lyrics “Shake for me/I wanna be your backdoor man” referred to. In spite of my naivety, I found a modus operandi for listening to rock music. For years to come, I would devote many hours absorbing complex symphonies, partnered by lyrics about the mystic East, Nordic gods, the blues, and sojourns with women. All of this from the band that I branded The Real Fab 4, whose discs I wore out and replaced. It made me obsess about playing the drums one day, just like John Bonham. But it took several years, and the opportunity arose in the unlikeliest fashion.

pic: Charlie Edward/Shutterstock

In late 2003, I accepted a job teaching English to primary school students from ethnic minority backgrounds in Chiang Rai, Thailand. On an evening ride into the city centre, I happened to get a flat tyre outside a venue called The Cat House. The bar’s name sounded more like a stripper’s venue, but since I did not know how to repair a puncture, I walked inside and looked around for help, but there was none to be found. It seemed as if I had stepped into a 1970s themed bar, for it possessed an alluring charm. A sign reading “Have A Jam With Sam” made me relax a little, for I knew it was not a sleazy premise. Photos of a band were plastered across the wall. That is when I caught sight of amplifiers, an electric piano, guitars, and a drum set. Could this be the night for me?

‘Dear Sam, whoever you are,’ I thought to myself, ‘Please let me play the drums. It has been my boyhood desire.’ My dreams must have echoed because a guy with short black hair and a moustache tapped me on the shoulder, startling me. It was Sam, the bar owner.

“Yes, can I help you?” Sam said to me in a low voice.

I told him about my dilemma with the flat tyre, but he did not know how to deal with it.

“Well Sam, can I play the drums?” I asked him. Instead of rejecting my request, he asked me to sit down with him so he could tell me about the place, a polite way of saying no.

“I wanted to offer something different in this street,” he began. “Farang (foreigners) come here with big dreams of opening a bar and think they will get rich. But it costs a lot of money for licence and they complain nobody comes.” He got up from the table, walked to the bar and retrieved a black and white photo. It showed a long-haired man on a bicycle, guitar slung over his back, mountains in the distance. “You see this photo? That’s me in Kashmir, 1970s. I went there before I met my wife. I had long hair and my good luck charm,” Sam said, pointing to his moustache, a once-thick plot of hair cover his upper lip now trimmed to look more refined.

What impressed me was that he cycled to Kashmir, let alone India. What intrigued me was the motive for him doing so.

“I wanted to visit Kashmir because of the song.”

Sam was referring to the 1974 song by Led Zeppelin. It stunned me that a song could drive an individual to a particular destination so desolate; this was the first time I had ever met anybody who admitted this. “Because of Led Zeppelin, I took my guitar with me everywhere. I was a big fan.” He spoke of the desolate roads, stopping in villages to eat, sleep and play music reminded me of the lyrics in Kashmir, speaking of a windswept, sunburnt place that once had a magical air about it. “If the chance comes again, I would return. But now I have this bar and my wife. Much harder now,” he added.

At that moment, two guys came through the entrance and greeted Sam, who introduced me to the two guys that played in his bar. The first man had shoulder length blond hair sprinkled with tinges of grey. I immediately thought of him as being an aggressive individual who could be confronting. “I’m Den,” he said, while shaking my hand roughly.” How are you doin’, brother?”

“Fine thanks,” I responded, even though my arm felt like it had been pounded.

“I’ve been playing in bands for 30 years, mainly back in Los Angeles. But I moved to Thailand for the easy life because I hated the traffic and people,” Den added. He played lead guitar and cited Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye as influences. But as he constantly flicked his hair from side to side, and had an arrogant swagger about him, I paid no attention to his musical prowess. I nicknamed him Maestro. The second guy, Charlie wore thick-rimmed black glasses and played bass guitar. He was much quieter, nodding his head and smiling to acknowledge my presence. Charlie seemed more comfortable in a science laboratory, wearing a white coat, surrounded by beakers, Bunsen burners and microscopes. I felt like I could get along with him more than Maestro.

I waited inevitably for the secret question. When nobody said a word for 30 seconds, I took the initiative and stated that I wanted to play the drums with their band. But Maestro queried my motive.

“David, why do you want to play the drums with us?”

I wanted to say that I had resorted to making my own drum kit out of household objects, or that the flat tyre on my bicycle was no accident, But I explained that drummers could silence and erupt musical lovers in one breath, and that a musician armed with two sticks possessed as much power as a soldier and his firearm. It was the most garbage I had ever spun in my life.

“David,” Maestro said, “To play the drums, it is not about how loud you can sound. You have to be part of a machine that works harmoniously.”

A machine? What machine? Certainly not a car, I thought to myself. Nor a robot. Instead, I declared that a drummer is the backbone of a band, supporting all other body parts. That was enough for Maestro; he said I could join. The excitement I felt tore through me; finally, my dream was about to become reality.

It is one thing to talk about being in a band, but playing the part right is much harder for a beginner. Hopping behind an instrument that takes up so much room, especially a set of drums which look so imposing, is like learning to drive a tank. I felt out of my depth. The urge to play had disappeared because I would be shown up for a time waster. Maestro, Sam, Charlie and I had an auspicious beginning, taking 5 minutes to agree on a song to play. A middle aged man who had wandered in unnoticed and taken a seat yelled out, “Sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’”. Even the audience was getting restless, so it was a relief when Sam played his guitar, followed by Maestro and then Charlie on the bass, I hesitated several times before entering. Even without a major audience, stage fright had taken hold. To overcome my adversity, I started banging the drums, hoping to establish a rhythm. Maestro and Sam cast glances in my direction, a sign to slow down. But I kept feeling restless, and after 2 minutes I hit a cymbal so hard with my drumstick, sending it flying. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but it brought proceedings to a halt.

“I… I’m sorry guys, the stick slipped,” I said quietly. But Maestro was furious and he wanted to make it clear who was boss.

“Who do you think you are, John Bonham?” Maestro yelled at me, his face turning bright red. “Get outta my sight. NOW.”

There were 10 steps between the drums and the bar. What should have taken no more than 3 seconds felt like it had been prolonged due to the tense atmosphere. Maybe I should have gone home with a flat tyre, but looking outside, I could see the rain coming down hard. The bar was closer and considerably warmer. Maybe one drink would soothe everything over.

When the Maestro pulled up a chair and sat next to me, I expected a blasting, but he adopted a conciliatory tone.

“David, when you play, you have to feel the beat and keep in time with everybody. Remember, we’re a machine. Everybody relies on each other.” Maestro said. He slapped my back, urged me to drink up and get back to my seat.

“All right, everyone. Let’s go again.” Maestro called out. Turning to me, he said, “David, remember what I said – timing.” I nodded, psyched myself and then waited.

“OK David,” Maestro shouted. “Hit it.”

Then stage fright got to me. I sat motionless, in a trance-like state. Charlie looked at me, I stared across to Sam who shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘Don’t ask me’.

Maestro started to get edgy. “Come on, I haven’t got all night.”

For one hour, I pounded those drums and worked myself into a groove, feeding off the guitars, bass and vocals. Communicating with a series of appreciative nods and smiles from other band members, culminating with a mid-song grin from the Maestro, my confidence had improved. Maybe playing the drums could be more than about getting together with like-minded individuals. It is possible to have fun. This is when I decided to undertake the glory pose, just like the stick figure drawings I used to sketch in class. With one swift action, I shot up from the chair and raised my arms, ready to deliver a thumping conclusion to a song that we had been playing for 10 minutes. But Charlie’s mobile phone rang shortly after I had jumped off my stool. My concentration lapsed for a second, just enough time to lose balance, knock over the bass drum and cymbal stand. Sam open his mouth and gasped, horrified to see his equipment tumbling over. But Maestro’s reaction frightened me; the manner in which he threw the guitar strap over his head and carried the guitar by the neck had turned me into a target. My brain told me to hide, yet my body was incapable of moving, gripped by fear.

pic: shutterstock

It had now come to the moment of truth, only half a metre separating us. I pictured myself drowning in tidal waves of his dripping sweat, seething at the veins bursting from his neck whipped up a frenzy.

“David, I told you once to concentrate. But you did not listen,” Maestro yelled. I told him to calm down, a move which only increased the tension.

“Who asked for your opinion?” Maestro screeched. He turned to Charlie and Sam and said,”I cannot have this wise guy playing in my band.”

And this is where I fought back. “Your band? These are not your instruments, and we are not your robots.”

Nobody spoke for a few seconds, not even Maestro. We seemed content to see who would lose their cool first, but the unknown customer in the background, bored with either the lack of action or music, or the quality of his beer, started chanting “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” Maestro had a sadistic look in eye; he wanted to swing the guitar at me. Conflict resolution in Thailand, however, does not favour any form of combat; saving face and resolving differences peacefully is the emphasis. I used this to my advantage, demanding that before I leave, I wanted to play the drums on one Led Zeppelin song. Maestro was not so accommodating. “I don’t play Led Zeppelin and even if I did, you would not be playing,” he stated.

That sentence should have ended everything, but he made a crucial error in declaring a weakness; not playing the music of a universally idolised band. I downgraded him from Maestro to Scheister.

“And you call yourself a musician. Not one Led Zeppelin song. Unprofessional,” I said. I wanted to continue, and the curse words would have oozed out, but Sam intervened.

“Please, no fighting,” he growled. It may have been the first time this normally placid man lost his temper in public. Maestro and I agreed to cease hostilities with each other, ending what had promised to be my transformation from dreamer to achiever. The bubbling tantrum petered out to a tea party, a somewhat premature conclusion to my burgeoning music career.

I dropped the idea of playing drums, but not because of lack of faith in my ability. I realised that my purpose in Thailand was to communicate confidently in the form of teaching English to young learners, a role that requires as much nurturing and dedication as it does talent. Nearly ten years have since passed, and it is the wisdom of Led Zeppelin’s song Over The Hills And Far Away that provides inspiration for self-belief:

Many dreams come true/And some have silver lining/I live for my dream/And a pocketful of gold.

These are great words to live for and beat your own drum to, no matter what the focus is.

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