Musing on Drumming, Aging, Rocking Out, and Why the Hell Not

11807602_908565165845235_2958702431141797881_o

You may have heard by now that I’m playing drums in Alice Bag’s band September 25 at 111 Mina in San Francisco for the Punk Rock Sewing Circle’s 40th Anniversary of Punk show.

What you don’t know is that I have signed on to play this show, and I’ll only get to rehearse once with the band before we hit Zappa Room stage. Alice sent me a link to the tracks of the songs we’ll play on Soundcloud, and I’ve been learning them on my own between teaching, writing, sewing, cooking dinner, reminding my thirteen year old to practice the piano more, paying attention to my media naranja, and walking the dogs. I have had a couple moments of serious doubt while sitting behind my drum set.

I totally don’t want to suck.

I learned the two slower songs right away, but those fast punk rock songs are harder to learn because they’re fast and because it’s a lot harder to hear what’s going on in the songs, what the drummer’s doing during transitions, and to hear the right rhythm of some of the fills. I saw Pat Libby at 1234 Go Records Recently, and he helped me remember that if I suck on one of the fast songs, at least I only have to suck for about two minutes.

Alice did say to go ahead and make the songs my own where the drums were concerned. That was nice and a real comfort, but I don’t want to change the songs too much because I don’t want to throw off the rest of the band who has probably gotten pretty used to playing them a certain way, depending on the drummer as those in a band must do. But here’s another thing — being an old-lady drummer is not as easy as being a youthful twenty-something drummer. At least I don’t have to memorize song lyrics!

There were several years there in my thirties when I didn’t play drums at all. I sold my beat up set when I went back to school, not quite being able to imagine that I’d be in a band again, that I’d have the energy for all of that, that I could handle any more nights tearing down drums, carrying drums, stands, and cymbals, setting them all back up, munching my fingers in the process, tearing them down again, and carrying them back to the van. Writing, school, then graduate school, and my future baby with my media naranja were the only things I could foresee at that point, (and writing a book) though in the back of my mind I knew that if I wanted to play drums again that I could just buy another set. The one I sold was quite old and beaten up and a real cheap set to begin with. I do regret getting rid of my ride cymbal, the heavy Zildjian hammered and lathed one with the super rich sound. That cymbal went with me all over the world a couple of times because it was one of the few I never broke.

I started to play again about five or six years ago when my colleagues and I formed an English department band – we’re like the Weird Al of English department bands. We play covers of songs, changing the lyrics to address whatever community college English instructor woe is most present at the time: the bad budget, revolving door administration, paper grading, convocation, and anti-intellectualism. Being in the Rawk Hawks has been great fun, and my colleagues got me behind a drum set again in our low pressure, two- shows-a-year band. I sing in the band too, trading that duty with Karin Spirn and whoever else wants to sing a song. Richard Dry plays drums too, and he’s a lot better than I am a lot more versatile. Seriously, name a beat and he can play it or figure it out by the next practice.

Over the summer, I took a jazz drumming class because I wanted to learn some new beats too to be more versatile and because I knew Alice Bag might call. The jazz beats I learned won’t help me play punk drums better, but drum lessons, beginning to learn to read drum music, learning about sticking, and having real specific practice goals have helped my drumming overall. It was nice too to see how much of my previous experience playing drums helped me learn quickly and to know that I can continue to improve as a drummer, even as ease toward my fifties.

And that brings me back to Alice Bag, or Alicia Velasquez. When I met her earlier this year, she played with Frightwig – they backed her up. It was wild. My first band Bitch Fight played our first show at Gilman Street with Frightwig. I remember I thought they were scary – all womanly and intense. I was just some young country bumpkin from Tuolumne trying to make a name for myself in the Bay Area. Alice and Frightwig are all about the same age, between eight and twelve years older than I am, and they are out there playing their old songs and writing new ones. Older women rocking out that hard is not what anyone expects, and I know that many people would find it shocking, and odd, and un-old-lady-like (meanwhile, Keith Richards is still revered). For all those reasons, it made me want to cry when I saw Frightwig and Alice get on stage and do what they’re good at, what makes them feel good too.

I don’t want to suck when I play with Alice Bag and her band, but even if I do, it will still be an honor to have been asked.

An Ode To Writing Communities

For almost the past year, I have been attending Saturday Night Special at Nick’s Bar in Berkeley, a featured reader and open-mic event curated and hosted by Tomas Moniz and Hollie Hardy. Every month Tomas and Hollie assign a word/theme to reader/writers of the open-mic portion to use in their pieces. In past months, I have been working hard to promote my book Pretty Bold For A Mexican Girl, so I have usually found a piece or an excerpt from the book that fits the word or theme of the night, and that’s always felt a bit like cheating. For this February’s Saturday Night Special, I wrote a piece specially written for the event, using the word assigned for the month: safeword.  

While I’ve taught creative writing myself, I learned first-hand in Ariel Gore’s online Wayward Writer’s workshop how writing exercises, or writing on an assigned word, can tease out memories or concepts you’ve never written about before, but still when the word was assigned at the January reading, I thought I wouldn’t participate because I just didn’t know what I would write about.  I’m glad I let my bestie, Karin Spirn, author The Divine Sharpness in The Heart of God, encourage me to write something, gave me the idea of what to write about in fact. Karin’s encouragement (and who am I kidding, I’m a writer, I really always want to read) gave me the chance to really experience how using the word of the month in a piece specially written for the event really does create community among the readers who cheer and clap and whistle when they hear the word or an especially creative interpretation of the assignment.

Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t know about safe words, but I do know about triggers.    Image

Triggers like Renaissance Fair and The Grateful Dead. Thinking about either or hearing the wan sounds of singer Bob Weir, who my mom and her friends listened to while smoking pot and not paying attention to us can bring on an anxiety attack.

I was pretty naive about city guys when I moved to San Francisco from that hicktown Tuolumne at seventeen, and I almost right away started dating a skinny sort of Billy Idol look alike. That is to say he had spiky, blond hair and his name was Billy too. Put that guy in Tuolumne and he looked cool; he looked edgy, but in San Francisco in the late 80’s he was just another guy who lived off Haight Street, at the end of my block in fact, which is how we met. I let him work his city slicker charm on me and mistook my discomfort for awe of how cool he was.

And when he asked if I wanted to go to the Renaissance Fair in Novato, where ever in the fuck that was, with his friend and his girlfriend I said sure I’d go, even if it sounded pretty lame. By the time we went to meet his friend so they could plan their outfits, a few days before the fair, Billy had told me that he had recently worked as an escort for super rich fat or  rich old women who couldn’t get laid without paying for sex. He had gone to their houses in neighborhoods like Pacific Heights and did what they asked him to do. He was matter of fact about it, so I didn’t judge him because it had nothing to do with me and I thought it was sort of a nice thing to do even though he did it for the money. Only there were other things about him I couldn’t figure out, things that didn’t seem quite right but I thought didn’t matter because we were just hanging out.

After we went to his friends house and after  watching them try on frilly white shirts and speak in fake English accents, Billy told me that his friend wanted to swap. “Swap what?” I asked. “Girls,” he said. “Just for one night,” Billy said when I didn’t say anything back. “He thinks you’re hot.” His friend was good looking too, dark skin and big eyes, better looking than Billy even, but I didn’t even know him. I didn’t know Billy either.

But I went to the Renaissance fair anyway, taking the long drive with them to Novato, feeling lonely and stupid for wearing my regular clothes when they were all dressed up, but knowing that I’d feel even more stupid if wore those clothes and spoke in a fake English accent. I guess I was trying to make friends, but I hadn’t moved all the way from that tiny hick town to spend the day, not even one, going back in time, pretending I was in an English village, and with a bunch of anglophiles.

Now,  I cringe at any mention of a Renaissance fair because it reminds me of how naive I was then. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t have access to the wisdom of this yelp reviewer: “People who come and expect the entertainment to be handed to them, while not dressing the part, are in for a real disappointment.  The whole reason for going to the Faire is to dress up.  That’s when the real fun begins.”