THE FUN STUFF
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.”
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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.