The Auditorium

by Bobby Rock

Scarborough High School. Houston, TX. Spring,1980. 

I was standing with my bandmates just outside the double-door entrance of the auditorium, trying not to projectile vomit all over the tiled floor. I had dreamt of this moment since last year’s talent show. This year would be even more over-the-top, I resolved… even more unforgettable. I would attempt to smash all expectations, and that would be no easy feat, given the rise of scrutiny and inquiry that had been going on in the hallways of school over the past couple months.  

“Hey Bob, you playing the talent show this year?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You're doing a drum solo, right?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Hell yes!”

My classmates were always the coolest, and that’s part of what made me not want to disappoint them. And besides, growing up is tough for everyone on one level or another. We try to find our identity, our groove, our place on the social totem pole, as it were. For me and my unique plight as the long-haired rock-star-in-training kid, it seemed that the annual talent show was the time for me to "earn my keep” in that complex matrix of high school hierarchy. At least that was my perception of things.

And this, by the way, would entail three separate shows: one during the day (where students could pay something like three bucks a ticket to scope it), and then a couple evening performances where parents, grandparents, and various other relatives and friends would pack the auditorium, along with more classmates. The hall would typically be pretty full for these types of shows. But this year, the crackle of anticipation seemed even more pronounced. In fact, moments prior to that first afternoon show, a student who had been taking tickets at the door dropped in backstage with an exasperated update: even though the show had sold out, a long line of ticket-less students had just streamed into the auditorium, happily tossing their money into a shoebox before standing along the back wall without a seat.  (Fire codes be damned, apparently.)

And so, as I milled around backstage amidst the angst of pre-show prep with all of my fellow performers—dancers, actors, other musicians—I placed the weight of expectation solely on my own shoulders. From side-stage, I peered through the curtain to take a peek at the murmuring throngs. Sure enough, the auditorium was packed like I had never seen it, with every seat taken, plus a standing room only section along the back wall. Daaaaamn! I felt that familiar spike of stage fright—or pure adrenalin?—well up in my belly. I must deliver the goods, I whispered to myself.

Of course, I should point out that my entire band was excellent, plus there was plenty of other killer talent in the show, so there were many reasons for the students to want to pack into the joint. But in the self-involved mind of a 16-year old…. well, let’s just say that I was perceiving this whole thing far less as a collective effort! This is a little embarrassing to admit in hindsight, but hey: Do you ever practice as hard as you do when you live in the naiveté
of your own self-importance? Doubtful.

High school pic, taken right around the time of this show...

The show finally got underway. I believe the opener was a vocal/acoustic version of “Margaritaville.” My band would play toward the end, which meant I had the better part of an hour to agonize over our performance. We were well-rehearsed, with a few special tricks up our sleeves that everyone had loved in show run-throughs. But still. It’s never enough. That feeling of doubt and uncertainty is always there.

Everything was unfolding smoothly… or at least as smoothly as you can expect from a high school talent show. Eventually, the curtains closed, and it was time to get our gear set up. A flurry of activity commenced with helpers, stagehands, and performers, moving about the set like a Fellini movie. The act before us was doing their thing in front of the curtain. You could hear the spirited crowd cheering them on. 

Once our gear was set up, we had about two minutes to get “in position.” This entailed the three of us—me, guitarist Glenn Jacobs and bassist Maury Millican—jogging out of the backstage area and through the choir room, then around to the front entrance of the auditorium, where we would wait for our final cue just outside the double-doors. This was to be the ultimate “grand entrance” (hence the whole projectile vomiting reference).

The curtains were still closed from our hasty set-up. But as soon as the act before us finished up and our intro music kicked in, the curtains slowly began to open, revealing a wash of moody blue lighting, along with our drums and amps spread across the width of the stage. Clearly, it was time to rock. The audience erupted.

While everyone was transfixed on the stage, waiting for us to walk out and play, the rear doors opened and the three of us stepped in and began our slow, dramatic walk to the stage… from the back of the hall. This moment, I will never forget. I was standing front and center, flanked by Glenn and Maury, as the ominous sound of Black Sabbath’s “Supertzar” reverberated through the auditorium. That same arena-crushing Tony Iommi guitar sound that had anchored the Volume IV album, which had inspired me to play drums, was now accompanying the English Chamber Choir on this track, giving our entrance this Ben Hur meets The Ten Commandments sort of epic grandiosity. 

At first, only a few kids in the last couple rows saw us entering from the back. They jumped up from their seats and began yelling and screaming. And by the time we worked our way over to the last row of the middle aisle and began our calculated strut down the center of the auditorium, the rest of the audience had figured out we were making a back-of-the-hall entrance and was now on their feet and facing in our direction, absolutely losing their shit. The roar of the crowd washed over us like a tsunami. And so began one of the most exhilarating and orgasmic thirty-second stretches of time in my young life. It was as if all of those hours in the practice room—the effort, sacrifice, sweat, frustration, broken blisters, and burning muscles—were all validated in a single moment. This moment. And we hadn’t even played a note yet!

Finally, we all slowly climbed the stairs up to the stage and took our places. And then I counted us into “Bastille Day,” the first song of a Rush medley we had labored over for this show.  Once we launched into the tune, our singer, Mike Mendez, charged out from stage-right, barefoot in a hippie Hendrix shirt, and did his best Geddy Lee impersonation. We were off!

A shot of the Pearl Octaplus kit I played back then, taken at some living room gig

We barreled through the medley at a testosterone-charged pace, then got to the inevitable: the drum solo… and a special bit of theatrics I had “stumbled” across in a dress rehearsal the day before. During the middle section of the solo, I had planned on standing up and taking a quick walk around the kit while I played on the rims, hardware, and shells, essentially doing a 360 around the whole set before sitting back down and finishing up. But in a moment of spontaneity at the rehearsal, I bent over and started banging on the floor, awkwardly moving about the stage while sustaining the ticka-ticka sound of my alternating 16th notes. As I approached the edge of the stage, I saw the stair steps and figured, what the hell? So I played down the stairs until I got to the auditorium floor near the front row. And then, from this bent-over position, I just cruised up the aisle toward the back of the hall in a bent-over scramble and basically did a complete circle around the entire auditorium... while sustaining this ticka-ticka rhythm. My bandmates and a few other students from the show all howled and hollered in support of what I was doing. But as I made my way past Mrs. Watkins—the music teacher and director of the show who had just stepped back into the auditorium—I heard her ask, “Are you serious?” And as I continued around the hall en route back to the stage, I thought, Yes, as a matter of fact, I am serious. I bet this will go over big time. Mrs. Watkins agreed.

And so it was. When I reached that point in the solo of that first show, I stood up and began tapping around on the outside of the kit, clacking away on all of that metal and wood. The audience roared. Then I started playing on the floor and headed to the edge of the stage. The audience roared louder. And then as I headed down the stairs and up the left outer aisle, hunched over in a scurry and sustaining those 16th notes, the echoing ticka-ticka sound of my sticks against linoleum was virtually swallowed up by the sweetest sound a performer could ever hear: the crushing white noise of an audience freaking the fuck out. And thus, the legend of "the rat crawl” was born. 

I continued my awkward ticka-ticka scamper around the auditorium, bent-over and shirtless in my black corduroy jeans, and felt this sizzling, collective energy pouring forth from an overly-generous crowd. After looping around the entire hall, I wound up back on stage and behind the drums where I finished the solo, then my bandmates and I put a punctuation mark on the medley and ended our spot. 
As the curtains slowly closed, I sat breathless and sweating behind the kit, taking in the sights and sounds of our audience in a frenzy. I remember it looking like some kind of giant, rabid mob scene oil painting—that had come to life!

These are the moments… the singular, relatively brief moments, that provide a disproportionate amount of fuel and inspiration to help offset all the future suffering that a career in music portends. And honestly, much of the joy in these moments is about internalizing the joy you know others are feeling as a result of your efforts. Let me tell you, music is a big fucking deal. I know it’s easy to trivialize it in the face of more serious life matters, but it is the juice of life—the soul medicine that helps people navigate through these "serious life matters." And at the risk of softening into undue sentimentality here, it’s always meant a lot to me to see people smiling, clapping, yelling, and carrying on during a show where I was providing the heartbeat—and maybe a few fireworks. (Still means a lot.)

Fortunately, I was able to wash/rinse/repeat on the whole experience for two more memorable performances that year, each with at least as much fervor as the first. I have never forgotten that run of shows; neither, it seems, have many in the audience some four decades later, as I’m still occasionally reminded of “the rat crawl” from my fellow classmates. (Still the coolest peeps!) And it certainly left an indelible imprint on me. In fact, this idea of “drummer: front and center” would be something that became an important part of my quest. The drummer, as a solo artist. The drummer, as a featured performer or secret weapon. The drummer, as a bandleader, visionary, showstopper. 

In the years ahead—and throughout this memoir—this lofty ideal and its
relentless pursuit would both feed my soul and crush it. This constant, often irrational pursuit would lead me to the top of the industry food chain, where I would experience most every boyhood fantasy more than once. But it would also lead me into a multi-decade, bohemian-like existence that could be both liberating and demoralizing—often at the same time. And at steady junctures through the years, I would be left to ask myself:

Would the relentless pursuit of such a
lofty ideal be worth it?