The Beat of Life

It was August of 1976 and I had my temporary license, which meant I could drive but had to be accompanied by a parent. The victim of constant parental critique, I sat with my hands at “10 and 2,” going a thrill-seeking 25 mph and quietly driving the family Ford Maverick into the grocery store parking lot. Mom went inside to get “just a few things,” and I stayed in the car. This move was partly to not be seen in the grocery store at 16 with my mommy, and also to deliver the impression that I was driving on my own, even if I was just parked at the moment.

I hung one arm out the window and leaned the seat back.

With my sunglasses low on my nose, I was ready for road action, baby. Bad to the bone … albeit with my mama. I flicked on the radio and pressed the “FM converter” so that I could listen to the real music, man. And then I recall being overcome with a indescribable, euphoric feeling. There was this new band with a new sound, and the sound was huge.

Having studied drums, tympani and marimba by that age and playing in the school band and orchestra since I was in third grade, I was not really a novice deciphering the precision with which this band performed. The song’s refrain told me it was “More Than a Feeling,” and the drummer, Jim Masdea, was playing so hard and so loud I thought he might be using tree limbs for sticks. I turned it up and the single speaker crackled with reverberation. I had found my sound, my signature, the language of my people, man.

Suddenly Mom dropped into the passenger seat with an irritated look and performed immediate loudness-interruptus by shutting the radio off abruptly. The urgent silence made me jump. The lecture began about how she could hear the radio from the store and how I must have lost my mind, but I had already blocked her out. I said very calmly that I wanted to walk home, and she looked puzzled. “You don’t want to drive?” I explained I was going to the record store up the street and would be home later. In those days I walked and biked everywhere so she had no problem with it, and I hiked up to the incense-laden and poster-walled store where a girl named Daphne in a tie-dyed poncho and many silver rings handed me my first Boston record. I used my lowest voice to thank her and said a quick thank you to God that I had walked there instead of having Mom’s bright-white Maverick waiting for me in front of the store for Daphne to notice.

Learning the Beat

Seated at my drum set with a pair of 1968 headphones on that looked like two half-grapefruits held together with a bungee cord, I began wearing away at my eardrums from a decibel level that was possibly illegal. I broke a stick within the first two minutes of playing along to the song. Mom appeared, speaking silently as the music blared. I removed the headphones to hear what she was saying, and ever the encourager, I read her lips as my head rang. “That sounded pretty good,” she smiled. I smiled back and played along all afternoon until my arms were numb.

I recall thinking there was no one I would rather be than a member of this band. Set for life making money while playing the music they love. “What a life they must have,” I thought enviably.

Over the years and through the many jazz bands I have played in, the lessons learned at the hands of Boston have come back several times. For the readers who are drummers, you know what it means to “fill,” and for those of you not familiar with the term, the best way to describe it is the sounds made by a young Phil Collins during the short drum solo in the song “In the Air Tonight.” You know the part where the song breaks into the really hard rhythm? Well, where the drums usher that big beat in is called a “fill.”

Boston put the big time/big sound fill on the map, and modern drumming has never been the same. Their songs used those massive segues for drama and “hooks” that are now often a staple of modern music. As years before when a young fellow named Barry Manilow, who once wrote commercial jingles for clients like State Farm Insurance and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and then began recording pop songs, Boston knew they had carved a niche.

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