Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tom-Tom, C'est Moi

I don't know how I missed this 2010 New Yorker appreciation of the great Who drummer until now, but it's one of the best pieces of rock writing I've ever encountered, and I thought I'd share it.
My Life as Keith Moon

By James Wood

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.”

You can read the rest of the essay over here.

I should give Greil Marcus, who so often deserves it, the last word; he famously observed that when you listened to Keith Moon's best performances, he didn't just sound like the greatest drummer in rock history, which he self-evidently was -- he sounded like the ONLY one.


Alzo said...

Yeah, Moon was not the best timekeeper but it didn't matter. His unrestrained crashing and bashing was electrifying.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I think of the Who's fantastic Isle Of Wight performance as, "The Keith Moon Show".

cthulhu said...

If you watch Who concert films from the late '60s on, you'll see that Moon and Townshend had an almost psychic rapport in one knowing what the other was going to do, which was a big part to the band's live work. Holy Greil was spot-on all right...

FD13NYC said...

Excellent!! And he hardly ever played the hi-hat. Just brilliantly rolled around the skins. One of my top five favorite drummers indeed.

Anna said...

All the early stuff, but esp. "I Can See For Miles" (obvs.) and "Rael, Pt. 1", during the instrumental part through the end. Just AMAZING.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! Rare to find someone so musically literate/classically trained who can still revel in the anarchy of rock n roll - Keith Moon in particular.
An you gotta love this summation of The Who:
"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"

Mark said...

I read the piece when it was published and passed it along to the one drummer friend -- and here's where I would usually jokingly add, "who can read," but that's NOT the case with this particular friend -- who would enjoy it. At the time, I mentioned I couldn't believe how well Wood 1. GOT what was going on with Moon's playing, and 2. was able to convey what he (Wood) GOT in words.

And it's no different today.

Goodnight, Moon (see

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, though kinda egg headed in nature. Keith probably woulda hated it.

I saw the Who a bunch and I liked Keith best when he played a smaller kit. Somewhere around 1973-ish it got gargantuan. As good as the drumming is on Quadrophenia, it's the beginning of the decline for live performances. Keith was probably pretty sick already. I wonder how swollen his heart was with all that abuse?

He certainly played like the tortured lunatic he was.

First time I saw them, they opened for Herman's Hermits. Yeah, I know. The Strawberry Alarm clock was on the bill too. More than half the place left after the Who finished. Jesus Christ, they kicked ass for about 45 minutes to an hour, then destroyed their instruments. That was still pretty exciting back then. Why in the world would anyone want to see Herman's Hermits after that? Those guys were sooo over. I mean, shit, Are You Experienced had just hit the streets!

Fuck "Little Peter" Noone. Me and Sandy walked across the street to Disneyland. The ambiance and fireworks were perfectly suited for our warm kykeonic glow. Honey, we got on that Skyway to Fantasyland.

My bikini-clad mom picked us up around one in the morning. As per instructions, we waited at the Jolly Roger restaurant on Katella. We were jazzed because she came in my dad's new Mustang GT 500 and had packed our bikinis. We immediately changed into them as my mom drove towards Corona Del Mar. Even though we got pulled over by a cop on MacArthur Blvd., we managed to talk and tit our way out of it.

My mom was in her early thirties at the time and extremely young at heart. Every time she took off, she peeled out. She ruled! Still does. We ended up in Newport going for a quick late night dip. Always nice for a sparkly acid come down.

BTW, I didn't know it then, but my mom and dad were also doing acid at the time. We thought we had them fooled, but they were the ones who had us fooled. Apparently they had been dosing since 1965 at their wife swapping parties. My mom later told me that she had an ultra-imprinting LSD experience with multiple partners. This is while someone at the party kept playing the B-Side to "Penny Lane", over and over and over. Every time she hears that song or encounters strawberries, that wonderful bell gets re-rung in her head. Must be nice.

Anyway, the three of us checked into the Newporter Inn after our invigorating swim and play. We stayed the night in Newport because the next day was going to be the grand opening of Fashion Island, a new mall in Newport Beach. Back in '67, these indoor malls were still sort of a novel thing in California.

Once there, we helped my mom pick out naughty lingerie, among other things. She got us some sexy bras and underwear. My mom loved buying us clothes and she had really good taste. The stuff looked really cute on us too. But me and Sandy hardly ever wore them. We were more into a casual vibe. Cut-offs, beach wear, tanks, sandals. But we weren't above a nice mini-skirt or dress. Plus my mom always let us buy something naughty, something sheer, provided we never wore it or advertised it around my dad. That was muy cool of her.

As far as the Who goes, I guess one of my favorite performances was in Fresno 1968 where Quicksilver opened. But my all-time has to go with the 1970 shows in San Diego and Anaheim. Those guys were on fire then. And with Keith's smaller kit.

Yes, Moony is spectacular at Isle of Wight, especially the beginning.


steve simels said...

The reason Keith's drumming declined at the end was because Pete's songwriting left him less room to play.

cthulhu said...

Steve, it seems pretty clear that Moon was having health issues too; he had a terrible time with the band taking long periods off and abused his body horribly. The Keith Moon of the "Who Are You" album was not the Keith Moon of "Who's Next", even on a song like "Who Are You". He was clearly out of shape and struggling during the concert staged for "The Kids Are Alright", the last time he faced an audience. But even debilitated, Moon was better that just about anybody else.

That Isle of Wight show is some kind of awesome...

Billy B said...

In 1975, I saw the band in Memphis. Everyone is probably familiar with Daltry swinging his mike around by the cord and then yanking the cord and catching the mike. Once, when he yanked the cord, he missed catching the mike and said mike flew back into Moon's drum kit, narrowly missing Keith. Moon stood up and threw a drum stick at Daltry.

Jonathan F. King said...

"Cobwebs and Strange."

jackd said...

The article reminds me of seeing Rod Morgenstein playing with the Dixie Dregs in 1980 or thereabouts. He had this great kid-in-a-candy-store expression the whole time. Every time he'd reach out for a cymbal or floor tom or whatever, he had a look on his face that said, "Wow! Now I get to hit this thing!" I don't think I've ever seen a musician look so excited to be playing.

John Werner said...

Hell, he played the drums like a lead instrument. A dangerous one in that you never knew exactly what was coming except it would be more instead of less. Brilliant madness comes to mind and the perfect propulsion for Townshend to fly off of. Someone tell me there's another who took up the mantle because if there was, or is, I've yet to identify who exactly it is. Someone here made a valid point about the hi-hat. I'd have to say true, and you know what...he didn't need any stinkin' hi-tat. lol!

Anonymous said...

Keith actually used the hi-hat in the studio, even on Who's Next! (I know - I was shocked by that revelation too.)

Here are his isolated drums on WGFA, and they're, , glorious: