I started taking percussion lessons in the fourth grade, but I didn't realize that I wanted to be a drummer until a few years later, when I discovered Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.
I was in eighth grade when I finally convinced my parents (with a bit of help from my private teacher, Steve Curry) to buy me a drum set. It was March of 1991, and my hometown of Rochester, New York was bracing for a massive winter storm. My mother drove me out to the home of Phil Lake, a local drummer and a friend of Steve's who was selling his old drum set. The drums he was selling, which I still own and play to this day, were a Yamaha Recording Custom 5-piece kit, complete with hard cases and hardware. He was asking $1000. My mom was hesitant to spend that much money, but I knew it was a steal. When we walked in to his garage/drum studio we saw right away why he was selling the modestly-sized Yamaha: he had upgraded to a massive Sonor kit that must have been at least 10 pieces. Double bass drums, tons of tom-toms, all mounted on a rack. It looked like something right off the stage of a Rush concert. The Yamaha seemed miniature in comparison, but I didn't care. The moment I set eyes on them I was in love. They are a beautiful blond birch finish that has been long discontinued by Yamaha. What's more, he had these "hydraulic" heads on them that were a rich midnight blue color. It was the sexiest thing my 13 year-old eyes had ever seen.
On the way home we heard on the radio that the approaching storm was going to be very serious, and that we should be prepared for possible power outages throughout the city and suburbs. We decided to stop at Wegman's, upstate New York's premier supermarket chain, to stock up for the week, just in case. Well, apparently we weren't the only people who had heard about the storm-- the place was a zoo. We were there for probably two hours, and the whole time I could barely keep still. My new drum set was waiting for me in the car, and now it was looking like school might be cancelled for at least a couple of days, maybe more.
The Ice Storm of 1991 is now a thing of legend in Rochester, a city that is no stranger to extreme winter weather. Power was down all over the place, but my neighborhood was fortunate. In the end school was cancelled for the entire week. But I managed to keep myself busy.
I had been listening to Led Zeppelin for a while, and at some point I had been given a book containing transcriptions of John Bonham's drum parts for a number of Zeppelin tunes. Once I got the drums set up and I had a few obligatory sessions of what must have sounded like senseless bashing, I got out the Zeppelin book. I looked for a song that didn't seem too complicated, and that I had a recording of in my modest collection of cassette tapes. What Is And What Should Never Be seemed innocent enough, so I decided to start there.
It's hard to understand the experience of playing Zeppelin on drums if you've never done it yourself. It's an incredibly powerful feeling. That band is just pure energy, and Bonham is at the core of it all. The great thing about this tune, though, is that it accesses the extremes of their dynamic range. The verses are incredibly intimate-- Robert Plant seems to be whispering directly in to your ear, and John Paul Jones' bass is dancing delicately all around the melody. But at Bonham's cue, the band explodes in to the chorus. The great thing about Bonham is that he never plays anything incredibly complicated, but everything he plays is completely authoritative and full of a pure, raw energy. HERE IT IS. There's no mistaking it. When he says go, you GO. It's almost as if you don't have a choice. Throughout the tune they go effortlessly between these two extremes, and Bonham is at the heart of it. Any good musician will tell you that it's not any more the drummer's responsibility to "keep the beat" than it is the other band members'. The drummer's job is to be the volume nob, and this tune is a perfect example.
I must have played this song 100 times during that week, and it never got old. In hindsight, this tune taught me profound lessons about what it means to be a drummer, and those lessons have value that I have seen in countless musical situations throughout the years. Not only that, but I am always striving to reach extremes of dynamics and other musical characteristics like timbre and note density, and these are things to which I am hyper-sensitive when listening to music.
What Is And What Should Never Be might be a relatively straight-forward rock and roll tune, but it shows a level of musical expression that I find truly remarkable. It's something I'm reminded of every time I hear it, but most of all I am taken back to that first week in March of 1991, when a cosmic coincidence landed me at home with no school and my brand new drum set for an entire week, and I learned what it means to be a drummer.