Hot February Nights
As I clutched my brand-new souvenir DW drumsticks and took my seat behind the foreign kit, I gazed out into the smoke filled room and reminded myself that the audience was probably too intoxicated to know how good I would play. But the strangers on the stage with me were another matter. Thirty seconds earlier I had talked my way past the Open Jam MC at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago’s premier blues club, and in a few more seconds the seasoned bluesmen around me would realize that this white boy from the Utah suburbs didn’t belong on their stage. I figured I had about four seconds after the lead guitarist started the riff to figure out what the beat should be, and I prayed that I’d get it right. If life is really about taking chances, then I was never living more than the night I crashed the Open Jam. And I never would have tried it if it weren’t for Neil Diamond.
* * *
I never felt the power of school unity more than the night I did the Pogo with a hundred other USU co-eds in a Logan, Utah living room the size of a broom closet. But the music of Neil Diamond has a way of bringing people together, and Dreamy Phil and the Diamond Dazzlers’ live cover of “America” during a January 2003 house party was one of the fondest memories from my first year of grad school. So when Dreamy Phil called the next week and asked me to join his band, I knew it was an invitation I shouldn’t take lightly.
“You want to play the drums for us?” he asked.
The Diamond Dazzlers had been recruited to headline USU’s Valentine’s Dance after their stunning house party performance. I had been so moved by the experience of jumping up and down in a crowded living room that I told them to let me know if they wanted to jam sometime. I didn’t know it then, but Dreamy Phil wasn’t all that attached to his current drummer, so “sometime” became “next month at the school dance.”
I don’t think Dreamy Phil understood the weight of his invitation. My rock drummer resume was tenuous at best. It had been eight years since I took my first drum lesson from a heavy-set lawyer who moonlighted as an Elvis Impersonator in grocery store parking lots when the mood struck him. But drumming was always a casual pursuit, and the sum total of my stage experience consisted of a church talent show and a birthday party performance for a bedridden handicapped girl who couldn’t stop us from playing our full set if she tried. Saying no Dreamy Phil would keep me safe in that world, jamming with friends in venues where everyone was just happy to be listening to real people play real instruments in a real mediocre way. But saying yes meant that in under a month I would take the stage with legitimate musicians to play for people who weren’t obligated to cheer for me. People who could boo and throw stuff if they wanted. I was scared. But I also knew I had to do it.
“Yeah,” I said. “Count me in.”
I soon learned that Dreamy Phil and his crew weren’t actually a Diamond cover band. The house party was just a favor to a girlfriend who talked them into playing some Neil Diamond songs, and they really favored an acoustic sound that offered a better fit for their earth toned clothing, environmentally sensitive demeanor, and used Subarus. Still, we were recruited to play Neil, so for the next month we practiced Neil. I managed to keep up with my new band mates on Diamond standards like “Shilo” and “Soolaimon,” laying down beats that were solid if not flashy. Phil, a lanky crooner with brown shaggy hair, handled lead vocals and rhythm guitar. His toe-headed sidekick Haas handled the bass while strutting around in his tight pants. Matt was the contemplative bearded one, pulling tunes out of everything from a mandolin to a banjo for additional texture. Dave was the funny quiet guy, which was perfect for someone playing an accordion, and Melissa the violinist was the most musically talented of all of us. As long as I didn’t pull the rest of the group down, we were a formidable lineup.
My concerns weren’t just music-related. After the church talent show and birthday party gig, I left my first band over creative differences. My next band showed potential, but our debut performance at a church toga party was cut short when a lightning bolt hit a transformer and cut off power to the building. We put together a follow-up gig a few months later, but our half-cocked garage show (meaning, we literally performed out of our lead singer’s garage) was so bad that my would-be girlfriend dumped me before the blood on my knuckles had dried.
Yet, by mid-February, there I was, up on stage with the Diamond Dazzlers, embracing destiny before a modest crowd of semi-interested USU college students. As we whipped into our “You Baby,” a deep track with an easy 4/4 beat, I looked out into the audience and tried to muscle through the inevitable nerves that greeted every live performance. Dave was smiling as he tapped his accordion. Matt strummed away at his mandolin, glassy-eyed and ignoring the audience. Haas grinned and shimmied as his fingers plucked the bass, while Melissa worked her violin with the concentrated gaze of a professional. Up in front, Dreamy Phil did his best to channel the voice of the legend himself.
Somehow, sitting back there under a tacky suede cowboy hat and bad aviator sunglasses, I held the Diamond Dazzler ship together.
Three hours later we were crowded around a bright plastic table at Beto’s, waiting under lifeless neon lights for an assortment of tacos and burritos that would take their vengeance on us by noon the next day. The gig brought me to a new level as a musician, but failed to capture the energy of the house party. It was clear that 100 people packed in a living room created an energy that 100 people spread through a student center commons area couldn’t match. It was also obvious that while the other guys still planned on making music together, they weren’t planning on making Mr. Diamond a part of that future.
“Man,” said Haas, shaking his head, “I’m never doing that again.”
The others nodded knowingly. Even a $300 payday wasn’t enough to convince my new band to succumb to the limitations of a Neil Diamond-only set list. As they began to pick at their Mexican fast-food delicacies, it was clear that they were at the end of their road. But as I sat there with them, I knew mine was only beginning.
* * *
Seven years later, I sat behind that drum kit at Buddy Guy’s, hoping to wing my way through a couple of blues numbers and escape unharmed into the Chicago night. Earlier that evening the Legend himself made a cameo appearance and sang a few numbers for the thrilled crowd. I hadn’t seen him in an hour, and didn’t know if he was sitting out there in that foggy haze, nursing a beer and wondering who that bald white kid was on his stage. But one way or another, it was too late. The lead guitarist started in on a standard 12-bar-blues riff, and it was time for me to play.