By Ivor Hanson
As a former punk rocker, I have a confession to make: last year while living in the South Pacific, I played in a soft-rock band.
Okay, I’ll get specific.
I was residing in the far-off, who-would-ever-know Solomon Islands, and the band played Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird,” the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There,” and, uh, you get the idea.
To say the least, our set-list seriously clashed with my musical past.
Long, long ago, I played the drums in S.O.A. whose claim to fame, you could say, was that its singer, Henry Garfield, went on to become the punk icon Henry Rollins; Faith was a fave of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain; and Embrace, which was one of the first ‘emo’ bands, had as its singer, Ian Mackaye, who also led the seminal groups Minor Threat and Fugazi.
So, given this, why did I play in that laid-back band?
In a word: curiosity.
I wanted to know how the punk-rock snob in me would deal with the “Top Forty” sucker in me.
Not surprisingly, part of me revels in distorted guitars, snarled vocals and charge-ahead drumming, finding the combination exhilarating, threatening, liberating, cathartic, fun.
But a part of me also succumbs to quiet chords, hushed melodies, and muted rhythms, the kind you find in, yes, “Songbird” and “I’ll Be There”.
Sitting at a drum set for the first time in many, many years, how would my hands and feet react? After all, while it’s one thing to come across such “guilty pleasures” on the radio – catchy songs simply take hold of me — it’s quite another to take part in them.
Well, when I settled in behind the kit for our first rehearsal, a curious thing happened.
With the opening notes of “Songbird,” the musician in me promptly shoved aside my snob and sucker selves; a visceral need to play the song well overtook me.
Since the original version of “Songbird” is too mellow to even have a drum part, I threw myself into coming up with a beat –- that, and doing my best not to speed up, or play too loudly, or drop my sticks.
Sure, part of it was my simply not wanting to screw up in front of the band.
Joy, Derya, John, Selwyn, and Alex were all talented professionals who played (or had played) in other groups that performed reggae, jazz, show tunes, and even hard rock.
And, I was also thinking ahead to our eventual first show, and not wanting to make a mistake in front of my friends who would be attending.
Still, something else was driving me to nail “Songbird,” beyond my musician’s pride.
As I eased into Chrisine McVie’s heartfelt, keyboard-driven ballad that’s become a wedding staple courtesy of it’s chorus — “And the songbird keeps singing like it knows the score/And I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before” – I began feeling what it’s like to be in a cover band or a wedding band, the kind of bands I’d never wanted to be in, or, really, I’d never deigned to be in.
A real band creates it’s own music, it doesn’t recreate someone else’s; it should make its own mark, not simply be second-hand sound.
Similarly, sweaty, darkened nightclubs are the place to perform, not some country club to please the recently betrothed.
So here I was stretching myself as a musician, but feeling a bit like I was on the rack while doing so.
As I veered back to focusing on getting “Songbird” right in order to ignore the repercussions of getting “Songbird” right — that I was in a band playing this song for real — I suddenly found myself focusing on my right foot, my bass drum foot.
It wasn’t working.
Though my hands were doing just fine as they accented the cymbals and snare drum with subtle flourishes, my foot couldn’t quite do what I wanted it to: it wasn’t responding quickly enough.
Single hits on the downbeat –- “boom” on the counts of “1” and “3” — weren’t a problem, but double-hits in the space of one beat –- “ba-boom” — were. Heavy and sluggish, my foot wasn’t tapping, it was thudding.
Out of practice, out of shape, and, worse, dragging the song, I was struggling at something I had been able to do since seventh grade, since 1977 — the year that “Songbird” was a hit; the same year, incidentally, the Sex Pistols put out “God Save The Queen”.
So much for feeling too cool to be in this band. I had to face a more basic matter – along with a kind of comeuppance.
Fortunately, by concentrating on my right foot, my ankle began to relax, free up, and remember. But it was going to take a good bit of playing to get back what I’d lost.
We ran through “Songbird” a few more times, along with the other songs on the list.
As we did so, I realized that while playing soft-rock staples was less than wonderful, I preferred playing that genre to the prospect of performing new-wave, punk, indie-, or alternative-rock. That music means too much to me to touch; it’s simply uncool to play cool bands.
Performing songs by, say, Talking Heads, the Damned, or Arcade Fire, the Ruts, Editors, The The or the Beatles, would be transparent wish fulfillment — an obvious case of wanna-be-rock.
It was proving, in other words, to be easier to play songs of bands I’d never wanted to be in.
As for the band I was in, it turned out that our first gig – at a café called The Lime Lounge — became our only gig, since shortly thereafter, one of the singers decided to return to England and her solo career; indeed, the group never sorted out a name.
As for me, I remain a punk rock snob, albeit a chastened one.
And, yes, I’m still a pop tune fan — but one who’ll stick to simply listening to the hits.
That songbird really did know the score.