Rock Star my ass.
I would trade any degree of fame or fortune for no more than the respect and admiration of my musical peers.
I never wanted to play, look, act, or be, like any other drummer.
The passion that fueled me as a musician has always been a deep-seated desire to make others feel the way I feel when I hear the perfect combination of sound and performance ; nothing more.
That sudden and unexpected moment of emotional arousal experienced while listening to a particular song or piece of music when you well-up with emotion.
This phenomenon occurs when an emotional reaction is triggered by the sound of a particular note or chord played in a particular key, a memory invoked by a particular lyric, or even the admiration felt for the talent or ability of a particular performer.
The latter is the most common trigger for me.
Although I possess no particular vocal skill myself, I have a specific admiration for what I call, “triple-threat-vocalists”.
Singers who simultaneously posses a unique sound, as well as virtuosic singing, and lyrical interpretation skills ; like Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, and Anita Baker for example.
Likewise though, as a drummer, I get a similar sensation when hearing the swing of, “Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts, or the groove underneath the guitar solo in Journey’s, “Send Her My Love”.
Suffice it to say that the sole inspiration for every musical endeavor in which I have ever engaged, can be attributed to the mere opportunity to inspire another person in this way.
When I was around 17, the band I was playing with was invited to participate in what was called the, “1st Annual Battle of the Bands”, and was to take place at the notorious Quarter Note music venue in the Fat City region of Metairie, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans.
It was a big deal for us.
We were the only non-local band invited, and this was the biggest opportunity we had had at this point, so we really wanted to make an impression.
So intense rehearsal began immediately, and just like that ; as far as we were concerned, we were instantly transformed from five guys on a slow boat to nowhere, to 5 guys with a one-way ticket to the Big Time.
So Big Easy ; Here we come!
I love gig-day.
Regular life takes a back-seat, and all priorities consolidate into one.
Basically, everything that happens on gig-day is about the gig, the whole gig, and nothing but the gig.
Not that I had much to complain about.
I didn’t have any money mind you, but I was the drummer in a badass rock band, drove a ’65 Mustang, and was desperately in love with a girl that I couldn’t live without.
We were doing the long distance thing.
She was from the New Orleans area, and I lived about an hour away ; It was brutal.
When we weren’t talking each other to sleep over the phone, I was on my way there, on my way back, or there looking for a place where we could be alone.
But on this particular day, there were no such worries, she lived just minutes from the venue, and was meeting me there.
Needless to say, I could hardly wait to get there.
I mean, what a day ; The gig of my life thus far, and the opportunity to share it with my best girl.
In the meantime though, it’s back-to-business.
Time to load-up and drive head-long in to one of the best days of my life.
I would be the last of my peers to arrive, a testament to the collective significance of the day, and my plan is simple: Make contact with my bandmates and the rest will work itself out.
Arriving at the venue is electric.
The sun is shining, there are people everywhere, music blaring from all directions, and the steady drone of simultaneous conversation.
What a day indeed, although to no fault of my own, and due to my utter lack of experience in life in general, I would be completely unprepared for what would happen next:
As I park and begin walking toward the venue, I am pleasantly surprised, and smile as I see my bandmates likewise walking toward me.
I become overwhelmed with a sense of pride and camaraderie.
As our distance closes, I am humbled as I considered the importance of their acceptance, and began to feel the gravity of my role in helping us to achieve our common goal of the day.
But as they drew closer, my exhilaration fades to anxiety as I detect an out-of-place deliberateness to their stride, and recognize the anguished expressions of forthcoming dread.
I really don’t have a clue.
What I do have, is a tendency toward hyper-sensitivity, and a volatile temper for which I was notorious.
Fully aware of this fact, and while genuinely concerned for my welfare, my bandmates must also know to a certainty that the impact to our performance of my receiving this news will surely be fatal.
The greetings are a little uneasy due to the palpable urgency to get to straight to the point.
And then it comes ; My girlfriend is there with another guy.
She had shown up as planned, but as the date of a member of a competing band.
Time stands still.
My life flashes through my mind 1000 times in an instant, my stomach becomes hollow, my chest becomes heavy, and I’m not at all sure what is about to happen.
My outward reaction is surprisingly reserved, but in my mind, and in an instant, I was still trying to convince myself that I’d be okay ; that I was not going to cause a scene ; that I was not going to ruin this epic day for my friends ; and that I really could live without her.
I had so many questions, but I was also becoming uncomfortably aware that I was standing in the middle of a public parking lot, and that all eight eyes of my bandmates were glued to my face as they anticipated my reaction.
Triggered by the pressure, by sheer will-power, I switched on-the-fly from a state of emotional paralysis, to anger, and I started to find the focus I needed to develop a superior vantage point from which to view this emotional train-wreck.
In what seemed like a lifetime, in that span of no more than a few minutes, I somehow found the wisdom and strength to collect this mental nightmare, and tuck it neatly away in a safe place to be revisited at a more appropriate time.
But right then, I had something I needed to do that had nothing to do with her ; and it involved taking the stage with my four best friends, and giving the performance of our lives.
The relief demonstrated by my bandmates is priceless, and they immediately disperse to resume preparations ahead of our performance.
I was as stunned as they were by my controlled reaction.
The impact of receiving such devastating news so abruptly and at such an inopportune time was dramatic, and it really did seem like the end of the world for a minute.
In hindsight, I believe had she handled it with even a semblance of concern or sensitivity, it would’ve been much more difficult to navigate.
Instead, the overt insensitivity and utter absurdity of it provoked my survival instincts.
I may have over-corrected just a bit, as a few of my later girlfriends may attest, but in retrospect, those few intense minutes spent standing in that parking lot would prove a defining moment in my life that helped solidify my independence, and realign my priority perspective overall.
Although this episode was filled with drama in real-time, I would learn to view this pivotal moment in my life with a great deal of pride.
Now that all systems are go again, we get right down to business.
With a few bands still ahead of us, our start-time and stage set-up plan established, there’s not much left to do but mentally prepare, and check-out the competition.
The next few hours are relatively uneventful, if you don’t count the awkwardness of sharing my epic day with my girlfriend and her new boyfriend.
But finally, we get the notification for which we’ve been waiting: “You’re up next guys”.
The previous band clears the stage, we setup, get a sound check, then wait for the green light.
Between the gig-day jitters, and romance drama, I’ve had quite an emotional day, and can’t help taking note of my calm condition at this point.
But the atmosphere is electric, and we’re all ready to go.
I’m nervous, but prepared, and as a performer, that’s right where you want to be.
The MC announces us, and we take the stage to a packed house.
I take my seat behind my drums, and wait for my cue.
We had settled on an opening song that starts with a guitar trade-off between our two guitar players, so I have a good long bar-count before I come in, which gives me a minute to settle-in and assess the situation.
I hear our singer appeal to the crowd, a strong, affirmative response, then the first guitar.
The show has officially started.
I note my monitor is working properly while I count along, and I’m locked-in.
One more four-count to go…
And there it is: that beautiful moment when your musical personality becomes one with your bandmates, and you begin simultaneously speaking in the one universal language that everyone understands ; Music.
And we’re hitting on all cylinders!
Due to the competition format of this particular show, there is little down-time between songs, And although I can’t see past the stage lights in to the crowd, I can hear affirmative reactions throughout the set.
We definitely hit our stride, and I knew we had put ourselves in a good competitive position.
The rest of the set was more of the same:
Full-on-high-energy-rock-and-roll driven by pure attitude and teenage angst.
Only one song to go, none of us have let-up even a little bit since the first song, and I know this last one is gonna kill.
I’m covered in sweat, my heart is racing, my adrenaline is pumping, but I feel fresh, and like I could play all night long.
We break in to the last song, it sounds fantastic, the band sounds and feels tighter than ever, and I’m giving everything I have, but something’s wrong…
Backlit against the stage lights above me, my silhouette is surrounded by a misty aura of sweat as it becomes airborne with every back-beat, and glistens as it passes through the light and falls back down around me.
It is difficult to overstate the intensity of my performances during this time in my life.
Suffice it to say that rock and roll in the 1980’s was as much about attitude and angst as music, and we had plenty of both.
Regardless, this is our last song, and whatever the reason, all five of us had clearly decided to leave it all on the stage.
This is what performance is all about, and we’re bringin’ it.
At around the halfway point, it really seems as if the crowd has become more intense as well, and I can even sense the encroachment as a crowd begins to form just off the stage to my left for a closer look.
At this point, I wouldn’t have cared if they got up on stage with me ; I was on a mission.
It’s right about this time, that things start to get a little fuzzy for me, but as the legend goes, the misty aura of sweat around me fades to pink, and then red.
Completely unaware that in a freak-accident, my left hand has been split open after coming in to contact with my hi-hat cymbal.
As I continue to play, between the adrenaline, and relentlessly violent and steady impact of the back-beat driven by my left hand, I am losing blood at a dramatically accelerated rate.
The crowd intensifies as many believe this spectacle to be part of the show, although nothing could be farther from the truth ; I’m losing blood at an alarming rate, and nobody knows it, with the possible exception of one particularly curious on-looker.
Unknown to me, also in attendance that day is a girl whose acquaintance I had only made a few times, but who I had always admired from afar.
This is the kind of girl you would normally only see on a calendar or in a music video, but with a brain, and a personality of gold.
The few times we did meet, I was otherwise attached, and we never really had much of an opportunity to get to know each other, not that I would have assumed she would be interested in me anyway.
But as time would tell, getting acquainted turned out to be an enthusiastically mutual wish.
Regardless, I didn’t even know she was there at this point, and after what had happened with my now-ex-girlfriend earlier in the day, it wouldn’t have necessarily been a good time anyway.
But she doesn’t know that.
I’m not sure if she had a plan, but she had nonetheless made her way among the group who had assembled to my left during our last song.
With only a few bars left to go, and still unaware of my injury, I had begun to feel the warmth of the blood that had now soaked through my pants on to my bare skin, but was in no position to investigate.
Deeply engrossed in my performance, I remain completely oblivious to what has happened.
The song ends, and I hear the crowd react with great intensity, but I’m too incoherent to reciprocate.
Dazed, I stand up and stumble off stage to my left in to a hallway where I’m simultaneously stunned to see calendar girl, and too weak to say a word.
I just look at her, and collapse.
Her knees buckle under my weight as she tries to break my fall, and immediately begins trying to assess my condition and determine its cause.
I lose consciousness for a moment, but can sense the urgency as it has become apparent to those around us that something is seriously wrong, and this is no act.
The applause and excitement of the crowd turns to the murmur of concern and curiosity.
But no one more concerned than another good friend who I also didn’t even know was there ; Johnny.
Making a human pathway as he elbowed his way toward me, Johnny single- handedly picked me up off the floor, and with the help of calendar girl and a bandmate, walked me through the crowd, who had now become almost completely quiet, through the parking lot, and into his car, where he drove like a bat-outta-hell to the nearest hospital.
I don’t remember much about the ride to the hospital, but two of my bandmates were in the car with us, and we exchanged words of affection and admiration for each other the entire way there.
By the time we arrived, I was pretty out of it, but hospital staff made short work of stabilizing me, and eliminating the immediate danger.
The cut on my hand only needed a few stitches, but blood loss was significant as was later demonstrated by others tasked with tearing down my drum set.
It was reported was that the drum set was covered in blood, and that the amount collected on top of the snare drum alone was in excess of a pint or more.
For safety reasons, the hospital delayed my release temporarily, and as a result we were unable to make it back the venue in time to see any of the bands who played after us, or the announcement of the results of the competition.
Regardless, we returned to the venue to re-join our bandmates and collect our instruments.
As we walk through the door, my return is unexpected, and causes a stir as I’m quickly surrounded by patrons armed with congratulatory words, compliments, and questions.
I wanted to address every single one, but they all came at once, and it was difficult to determine who asked or said what.
I mostly just smiled and said, “thanks”, as I silently scanned the room for Calendar Girl who had mysteriously disappeared in the commotion.
After several minutes, the attention is still relentless, but is slowly beginning to surrender to the tone of controversy that begins to take over the room.
As it turns out, we were named runner-up in the competition, but a conspiracy theory quickly infected the crowd, who were not shy about voicing their disappointment and overwhelming support for us.
Truth is, I don’t really know what happened exactly, but the general consensus was that one or more of the judges were siblings and/or otherwise involved with the winning band.
Under different circumstances, I may have launched an appeal of some sort, which would have been in my nature at that time in my life, but as it was, I spent the remainder of my night gleefully answering questions as if I were a newly-rescued cast-a-way, and really didn’t pay the matter much mind.
Besides, if I’m busy arguing about the politics of the event, who was going to look for Calendar Girl?
Regardless, the way I see it, we may have indeed lost the competition for which we were even there in the first place, but we most certainly won the day.
The anxiety of a performance day, the agony of betrayal, the relentless pain of heartbreak, the intensity of meeting someone new, the camaraderie of a group striving for a common goal, the loyalty of a close friend, the affirmation of your peers, and the pride of perseverance ; all within a single day.
The five of us would not play another show together, and that day would be seldom recalled in subsequent years.
It would be another year before I would see Calendar Girl again, although this time, we would not let go of each other so easily, and spent some of the most quality time of our lives together.
After that, it would be 30 plus years before a Facebook post would revive the memory of my epic day and inspire this story.
Looking back, save for one, I am most, and eternally grateful for the people with whom I shared that crazy day, without whose assistance I could not have so successfully persevered and overcome so many challenges.
The value of experiencing a day like that is difficult to measure.
But one thing is certain:
Overcoming the physical and emotional obstacles of that unbelievable day would prove among the most pivotal of my life, and even if I could, I wouldn’t change a single detail, about a single moment.
Vocals: Dave Miller
Guitar: Frank Winebrener
Guitar: Bo Topousis
Bass: Michael O’Rourke
Drums: Bobby Duthu
Calendar Girl: Shawn Donnelly
Close Friend: Johnny Gates
Since publishing this story, I’ve had several inquiries regarding the nature and ramifications of the hand injury itself.
Truth be known, in the 5 or so years subsequent to the injury, I experienced several instances while playing whereby the fingers of my left hand would contract uncontrollably around the drumstick, forcing me to stop playing mid-song.
I would temporarily lose complete control of my fingers as they slowly began to contract around the stick, rendering me unable to reverse this condition using mind or muscle.
Similarly, I likewise experienced episodes in reverse, whereby my left hand would suddenly open while attempting to grasp and hold an object such as a drinking glass.
Quite scary actually.
Subsequent medical examinations were unable to detect nerve damage, but the episodes persisted nonetheless.
Recalling an article once read in Modern Drummer magazine about the differences between matched and traditional grip, I decided to try switching to traditional grip based on the articles’ claim that several less muscles are required to employ its execution.
This solution seemed effective, but a definitive verdict was unfortunately interrupted by a 20+ year hiatus from consistent practice or performing.
When I returned in 2012, I maintained the use traditional grip, but had lost significant muscle-memory, and it would take a good 5-6 years of work to get my, “swing” back.
But back it is, and although my playing these days is restricted to the studio, I have had no noticeable issues with my hand to date.
Thanks again to everyone for your interest,