The Bobby Rock Newsletter #98 (4-6-23) - Finding My Soul: Learning to Groove in the War Zone
The Bobby Rock Newsletter #98 (4-6-23) - Finding My Soul: Learning to Groove in the War Zone
Hey Gang -
Welcome back to yet another edition of the BR Newsletter. Thanks for joining me here, as we trudge toward the big #100… the initial goal-number I established close to the beginning of this journey more than two years ago. But for the big #98, we have some cool shit for ya. Let’s jump right in!
In This Issue:
- Some Quick Wisdom from Atomic Habits, the blockbuster book from James Clear: Whether we engage in good habits or bad, it’s gonna take some time to see the full effects of either, but they’re coming. Choose wisely.
- Finding My Soul: How playing an urban club circuit in the most dangerous part of Houston changed my playing… and the “special" blacklight poster that serves as a reminder of those sacrosanct times.
- Willie Nelson Card Trick: The genius of an icon, displayed in a masterful presentation of an elaborate card trick you’ve gotta see!
Atomic Habits Wisdom
“The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”
—From Atomic Habits by James Clear
Here is a poignant reminder for all of us about patience and perseverance. We must remember that very little happens overnight, whether we are headed for a good or bad outcome. It's the little things, repeated often, that aggregate into tangible results. Starting that helpful good habit or forgoing that harmful bad one will definitely matter… but it might take a while to see it. Let’s stay the course!
With this in mind, we revisit a couple helpful questions:
What’s one small habit you could begin that would yield the most dramatic results over time?
What’s one small habit you could stop that would yield the most dramatic results over time?
Let’s rock it…
Finding My Soul:
Learning to Groove in the War Zone
Way back in BR Newsletter Issue #10, I talked about my fondness for blacklight posters, and why I had amassed a collection of them through the years. Many of the posters I acquired were duplicates of some of the exact posters I had in my room as a kid, and served as “environmental triggers“ for me today. Others were nostalgic or emblematic of key times or events, thus taking me right back to that important slice of life.
This one… my beloved “positions poster,” achieves the latter and, as such, has a coveted spot on the wall of a spare room at my place.
Sophomoric as fuck? Maybe. Offensive to some? Possibly. But I don’t care. I consider this poster a totem, of sorts, and I use the term in the broader, American Indian sense of the word—meaning a thing having particular symbolic importance. As such, this poster represents a pivotal era of my life and musical development that was hard-earned, but yielded fruits that have stayed with me over the ensuing four decades.
Here’s the backstory:
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In early 1983, I returned home to Houston from the Berklee College in Music in Boston. I was intending to return for the summer ’83 semester but, in the interim, was looking forward to gigging around Houston with my fancy new chops… courtesy of an intense, 40-hour-per-week practice schedule I had been diligently maintaining at school, via my Casio stopwatch feature.
However, one of my old friends and early mentors who we called Cobo—a seasoned and respected singer/songwriter around town (AKA Kenny Cobarrubias)—had a different opinion about my playing… especially after a short stint I had just done in his band.
“All of these crazy solo chops you’ve developed are cool and everything, but you need to get your groove thing together. You sound too white,” he bluntly told me one day. This, of course, was the dreaded term musicians commonly used to describe playing that lacked soul or grit.
Cobo then went on to immortalize several black drummers who he had played with through the years, and attempted to detail what it was about their playing that made them different than the average white drummer. It was a “feel thing,” he explained, centered around a relaxed but powerhouse backbeat on the snare, coupled with a distinctly tight and polished hi-hat technique: mystical drumming attributes, apparently, that had been both genetically encoded and finely calibrated through countless gigs in Houston’s all-black clubs.
I was a bit defensive about his assessment at first because I had, in fact, spent a serious number of hours over the past few years working on my funk and R&B chops, diligently practicing through the key drum books of the idiom and studying the work of David Garibaldi, Harvey Mason, Bernard Purdue, and many others. But he wasn’t talking about my technique here in terms of what I played. He was talking about how I played… the nuances of how my time-keeping came across to other musicians, and to the listener. This was revelational to me, and it could only mean one thing: I needed some hands-on, “boot camp" experience actually playing proper grooves in real-world settings. But this simply wasn’t going to happen in the watered-down, top-40 environs where I had mostly been gigging, and where all the white patrons would bob and weave on the dance floor like Kevin Bacon in Footloose.
Instead, I would need to spend some hard time in the same kind of trenches where funk, R&B, and soul were created, and learn—through a sort of musical osmosis—the intangibles of “the groove" that couldn’t be taught at a conservatory. I needed to immerse myself in the blood and sweat of the very culture that gave birth to this music, on a similar circuit that Cobo’s drummers had been through: presumed racial barriers be damned.
So I approached a husky bassist named Steve “Stormin” Norman—who I worked with in another band, and who looked and sang like Smokey Robinson on steroids—about putting together a funk-based side project. He said there wasn’t much money to be made “in the hood” where he lived but, sure… we could play the circuit if I was up for it. Perfect… except that Steve’s hood was in Houston’s infamous Fifth Ward near Lyons Avenue, hands down the most dangerous part of town. By 1983, this area had become so thoroughly oppressed, with an unparalleled explosion of drugs and violence, that even those native to the area were boarding up their shit and just bailing. Beyond that, it was unheard of for white folks to go there under any circumstances, and my friends and family thought I was insane for even considering it. But hey, if I could fatten my feel, "widen my pocket," and slosh some earthiness and attitude into my playing... let’s do it! Steve and I added Watson Davis on guitar and Lance Jaxon on keys and our new quartet was born.
Enter: the War Zone
Cruising into Fifth Ward from the Eastex freeway was sort of like entering an urban Bermuda Triangle: you knew you were going in, but not if you were coming out! Chunks of concrete and broken glass, all shattered and shimmering, lined the curbs like ice from a hailstorm; Bashed-up cars missing windshields, tires, or fenders were plentiful throughout the streets and often wound up in the grassless yards of the rows of battered, wooden houses, many of which had been shuttered-up or simply abandoned. And let’s not forget the ever-present giant torch that blazed atop the foundry by the railroad tracks, shining bright against the grayish-black sky, like a post-apocalyptic statue of liberty. The distinct stench of sizzling tar and chemicals from this foundry would continually blanket the neighborhood with a deep, musky odor, adding yet another indispensable element to the signature ambiance of Fifth Ward. If anger had a smell, this was it.
It was not unusual to see homes in the Ward where you didn't know if they were still inhabited or not!
I could generally cruise through unnoticed by people on the street. But to the extent I was, it was usually with an unwelcoming glare, as I passed by in my dad’s brown Econoline van. “Hey, I’m just visiting!” I would want to tell them, as I kept my right foot firmly on the accelerator. Once I actually made it to the club, though, I always felt pretty safe. It was like I had some kind of diplomatic immunity to be there since I was a musician.
Most impressionable, however, were the places we would actually play. These clubs—and I use that description loosely—were typically made of paint-chipped wood or weathered brick, beat to hell with worn-down, mismatched tables and chairs on concrete floors, and each with the stale, steady reek of cigarettes and beer. Makeshift décor on the walls might include hand-painted signs (often with misspelled words), liquor posters featuring mocha-skinned models, with their bikinis and afros and, on occasion, the crown jewel of nightclub legitimacy: the coveted Schlitz Malt Liquor neon clock. And there was always some twenty-year-old jukebox in the corner with its crackling speakers straining to project the ghetto anthem of the day: George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” (which, with the hypnotic crack of its fat backbeat, was like a mantra to me at the time). There was also lots of Cameo, Parliament, Funkadelic, Confunction, the Gap Band, Al Green, Lakeside, Stevie, Earth, Wind and Fire, and a little B.B. King thrown in for good measure. (Meanwhile, our various setlists would be along these same lines: classic funk and soul tunes, with lots of jamming and improv.)
Typical scenery from the circuit...
The Infamous Positions Poster
The club we played first and, hands down, most often, was called Pecko’s Place. Actually, Pecko’s wasn’t really a club, or even a bar. It was a rickety old neighborhood tavern, owned by an old man named Pecko. And here’s where my beloved positions poster comes into play. On the other side of the jukebox was a restroom that was about as hygienic as a porta-potty at a biker rally. Just above its tattered door was a single blacklight bulb, which hung from the ceiling by a jangling socket. And then, right there on an adjacent wall, just within range of the blacklight glow, was “the poster,” hanging with dignified prominence like a gold record. And there it would radiate those vibrant colors, constantly and consistently, through the countless gigs I did in that room: like a beacon of hope, I suppose, that this young white boy would figure out how to groove with an intensity suitable for the most discerning of audiences when it came to raw feel and groove. This poster, then, would go on to serve as a visual representation of the whole experience: the good, bad, and ugly of my time playing Fifth Ward.
If you look closely, you’ll see that it’s actually built around the 12 signs of the zodiac, hence the official name of the poster: “Zodiac Positions.” (FYI...)
Typically, when playing for a dancing audience, I would think about laying down a solid groove that the folks could move to. But here at these Fifth Ward gigs, it was more of a co-creative approach, at least in my mind. I would watch their body movements as they danced and basically try to sync up my rhythms with their motions. I wanted my drumming to sound like their dancing looked. Of course, they were likely, unconsciously, syncing up their beautiful movements to my rhythm. But I swear, it was in the keen observation of their elegant physiology that I began to hit my stride with that "feel thing." That and, of course, my hyper-awareness of note placement (being careful to lazily keep that backbeat on the back part of the beat).
As for the intangibles of the process, I came to believe that by consistently immersing myself in that world as best I could—listening to all kinds of soul, R&B, and funk, and spending an awful lot of time in that environment, the shit would invariably rub off on me. Such seemed to be the case, as our audiences would swagger, clap, sing, yell, and bop their heads in perfect unison to the groove, as a collective Kool burned in one hand and a plastic cup of beer was turned upward to the lips by the other. All of this was enough to keep me encouraged.
Now, when it came time to take the inevitable extended drum solo… no problem. This much, at least, was in my wheelhouse, I felt, and I would throw every lick, riff, and practice room chop I had at these motherfuckers. Sure enough, I can remember many a barn-burning standing ovation after my seven-minute slugfest each night, as the whole place would typically just fall out. They would leap to their feet, doubling over in exaggerated exuberance like Sammy Davis Jr., howling, laughing, thrusting black-power fists toward the ceiling in an almost tribal sort of celebration. As a musician, you could not ask for a more appreciative or enthusiastic audience, and this one would rival most any I’ve played for since.
Here’s one of the few shots I have of the main kit I would drag into the Ward every week: a Pearl kit with massive power toms. This kit became known to my friends in the Ward as “the root beer drums.” (This pic was from a session I did with my jazz-fusion band, Interstate, around this same time.)
Making the Big Bucks
After a few warm-up shows at Pecko’s without a band name, we settled on “The Lyons Avenue Jam Band” and started venturing out to other shitty clubs around Fifth Ward (but none as bad as Pecko’s). Meanwhile, we continued to play Pecko’s Place for free, typically once a week, and the crowds began to turn up, sometimes even packing the place out. Steve finally approached Pecko about some “renumerations,” as he put it. Pecko agreed to pay us $60 a show... for the whole band. That was a whopping $15 to me… or at least it should’ve been. But on the first night of this new arrangement, I asked Pecko for a Coke while we were on break. He slid me a can, as usual, and I didn’t think any more about it, until it was time to get paid at the end of the night, and he handed me a 10 and 4 singles.
“Uuhhh, Peck. I think you’re a buck short here,” I said.
“You had that Coke, remember?” he retorted.
Aahhh, yes. I had that Coke. It cost one dollar. And the drummer would have to pay for it!
Over the next couple years, I did my time and earned my stripes, and my foray into the Lyons Avenue club scene would forever infect my playing in a favorable way. Eventually, I became the sole white member of a few other bands, most notably, with singer/organist, Lou Cobon. We worked more often, in nicer clubs, and for better dough. The well of personal experience and perspective from all of these experiences was now deeper, and I seemed to be able to conjure up, at will, the rawness, the feel, and the urgency that those streets and that lifestyle were about…even to this day. I guess the old cliché rang true: you can take the boy out of Lyons Avenue, but you can’t take Lyons Avenue out of the boy…even if he was "just visiting."
Willie Nelson Card Trick
Songwriters are storytellers, and some even have a gift of telling an engaging story in contexts outside of songs. I ran across this Willie Nelson card trick vid in bassist Will Lee’s newsletter a couple months back and thought I might share it here. The actual card trick, which is wildly intricate as it involves every card in the deck, is pretty remarkable on its own. But it’s Willie’s relaxing, story-time delivery of the trick that really sells it. This is pure Willie, and a must-see if you have a quick six minutes. Scope it HERE.
Thanks again, everybody. Connect next week!
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