(or, lessons in living on a modest talent)
· photography by Jaret Belliveau
I have always been attracted to professions for which I have little talent. Yes, that includes writing, and no, this isn’t false modesty (Say it isn’t so!). Nor do I feel sorry for myself (most of the time). Seen now from my platform of fifty-seven years, this odd propensity, this drift toward arenas where I am not necessary, seems like simple bad luck. Like being born in Cleveland.
For a long time (as Proust might say, we’ll get to that in a second), I wanted to be a drummer. I don’t know where it came from—my parents weren’t musical—but that winter when I was thirteen, I tapped and tinkled on my mother’s glass night table (using only the best of the family silverware) to the Beatles’ “It Won’t Be Long,” Duane Eddy’s “Mr. Guitar Man,” the Beach Boys’ “409.” Those are the ones I remember. The Ventures, a strictly instrumental band, did a song called “The McCoy” with a drum roll at the end of every twelve bars that made me nearly hysterical with excitement. I wanted to fire a gun out the window or throw myself down the stairs. Tap, tap, tap went my little silver knives, the blades dancing along the glass. Sometimes my brother stuck his head in the door; he wasn’t crazy back then, just older and bigger and calmer and admirable. He looked in, he watched me for a moment (I loved that part), and then, quietly closing the door, he went back to his blue bedroom and listened to a baseball game on the radio.
The snow melted outside my mother’s bedroom, the ice fell from the eavestroughs in the late afternoons, and the Beatles released “I Saw Her Standing There.” (“One-two-three-four!” Was there ever so irresistible a beginning to a song? ) By now, I was playing on books with real drumsticks. I played all the time, after school, after dinner. But it was peculiar. I wasn’t very good; I couldn’t “work things out” the way other drummers could; they’d hear a snappy, left-hand pattern on a record and reproduce it, beat for beat. It was like magic, like watching someone levitate. (It was talent.)
But I, for the life of me, couldn’t “work out” Ringo’s drum roll in the chorus of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” You know that part, “I want to hold your haaaaand.” Was it, in fact, just a series of staccato beats with no hand-over-hand succession? Or was it something else? I still can’t figure it out.
Back then I went to a private school which entertained the conviction that young men of the “right sort” needed a taste of military training. You marched, you learned how to take a rifle apart, how to snap to attention, to salute, how to present arms. You put on a horsehair uniform and three times a year you paraded down Yonge Street, all these rich little pricks marching in lockstep.
I joined the band. That’s where the bad boys went, the insolent, the untrainable, the unmusical, the sociopathic. While young boys with faint moustaches paraded across the green fields of Upper Canada College, the band “rehearsed” in the basement of the school. Have you ever heard twelve snare drums playing the solo from “Wipeout” at the same time? But here’s the hook. Being a “rock ‘n’ roll” drummer, I figured I was doing them, the band, a favour, slumming a little with the less gifted, less electric personalities of the school. Like Jesus among the Nazarenes, I was in that world but not of it. But then a painful thing happened. That October, when it was time to choose four drummers to front the band (with all the rest hidden behind in nowheresville) for its first parade down Yonge Street, the bandleader held a competition down there among the broken chairs and coverless hymn books. You stood up, you hooked on your drum, did your thing, then sat down.
I came in fifth. Fifth! The second row, in other words. The fucking “B” team. To make things worse, when I complained, the bandleader, a boy with violently swept-back hair who played seventeen different instruments, all well, said (one never forgets a childhood slight), “Gilmour, you don’t seem to have the natural instincts of a drummer.” He didn’t stop there. “You don’t seem to understand where a drum roll belongs, even when you’re kidding around.” Hang on. Life hadn’t put down the horsewhip yet. Those guys who did make the front row? They didn’t practise for hours on their mother’s night table; they didn’t sit in the basement at home trying to work out the 5/4 bass-snare syncopation in Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” No, no. One of them went on to own a highly profitable string of slaughterhouses in Calgary. The other did time for shooting a man in the face with a shotgun during a “drug hassle.” This was my competition.
I read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway wasn’t an especially bright fellow; he had, so the article said, a completely average IQ, and owed his phenomenal success in literature more to willpower than to talent or brains. I’ve always found that factoid, true or not, reassuring. It was one of the things that made me decide to go to acting school in New York. But there was another reason as well, to be honest.
When I was twenty-two years old, I saw Last Tango in Paris at the old Uptown theatre in Toronto. It was 1972. After the movie I walked up Yonge Street, speechless. My girlfriend, a passive-aggressive with a minor speech impediment, nattered on about this and that in that little-girl voice of hers. She didn’t like the movie or Brando’s character. Thought guys like him were “thellfish.”
“Shellfish?” I inquired sadistically.