Why I am not a drummer

 

In Memory of Jon Brookes (1969-2013)

1.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the untimely death of Jon Brookes, The Charlatans’ drummer who passed away this morning, are the interviews he gave three years ago after his diagnosis: in each, he declares himself fit and ready to fight the brain tumour that will eventually kill him. 

In his autobiography Tellin’ Stories – which takes its title from The Charlatans’ fifth and most successful album, and the soundtrack to my A-Levels summer – Tim Burgess describes his late bandmate as a “Keith Moon fanatic, phenomenal powerhouse drummer and West Midlands nutcase”. 

The fans’ tributes on various online forums, the archived interviews, the stage-side videos shot at Reading, Glastonbury, T in the Park – which show an almost omnipotent Jon stolidly battering his skins and cymbals while guitars and organ thrum and swirl around him: the thunder behind the lightning – and the generous and affectionate obituaries in the mainstream press: all speak of a warm and humane man who faced his fate with a quiet dignity, finally passing away in the presence of his wife and three young daughters. 

It’s clear even to someone lodged in the limiting distance of fandom that Jon’s passing leaves a terrible absence – both for his biological family and for the surrogate, his band. 

The Charlatans have seen their fair share of false starts, unhappy incidents and traumatic calamities. The original guitarist departed after that first album. Of the classic Baggy Some Friendly-era band, only two now remain: singer Tim Burgess and bassist Martin Blunt. Keyboardist Rob Collins notoriously died in a car accident in 1996. (His replacement, Tony Rodgers, was also treated for cancer a few years later.) 

They're now a four piece, and that absence is telling. How many original members can a band lose before it begins to feel less bona fide – no longer the genuine article, not quite the real thing?

For anyone who grew up within earshot of Manchester, or was schooled in the sound of its upstart sibling Britpop, The Charlatans’ output for the Beggars Banquet label helped to define both eras. At first written off as a The Stone Roses rip-off, for a period in the late 1990s they were semi-ubiquitous, forever bothering the middle ranks of the Top 40. By the late noughties the band was flirting with anonymous irrelevance, putting out records for free online, seemingly courting cultural invisibility, or invincibility. (Witness a Manchester city centre busking stunt for the BBC Culture Show in 2008, which draws barely a smattering of observers – hardly on a par with the hordes of humanity which gathered to Savile Row for The Beatles’ final concert.)

It is a terrible irony that Jon’s death throws them back into the limelight. Questions about their future fate – with Tim Burgess increasingly ploughing his own furrow as a post-Britpop polymath to rival Damon Albarnand Jarvis Cocker – will doubtless re-emerge. It was Brookes who pulled the band together after Collins’ death, compelling them to fulfil their support slot to Oasis at Knebworth just a week following the keyboardist’s death. 

The Charlatans will surely carry on, ignoring the contemporary fervour for rock with a synthpop flavour, embracing their dwindling importance while being embraced by a concentrated coterie of hardcore fans. (Tim Burgess’ increasingly outlandish barnet at times looks like little more than an attempt to court attention and provoke caustic comments from all corners of the music press and twittersphere – thus guaranteeing, in some scant way, a modicum of cultural interest.) 


2. 

Of the many practitioners of culture high and low, rock drummers in particular seem to always get the sharp end of the shitty stick. Firmly fixed to the foot of the band hierarchy, and usually sited to the rear of the stage, effectively cut off by their equipment, they are an ostracised breed, made up of miscreants, loners and loonies. 

It is commonly assumed that they function often on a lower plain to their singer-songwriter-guitarist equivalents. Noel Gallagher famously referred to Alan White - whose syncopated brush strokes lent a lush texture to Oasis’ 1995 hit Wonderwall – as being akin to a monkey at the zoo bashing a bin lid over his head, a comparison probably more fitting for his brother Liam than the talented if taciturn White.

The blame for this perception can be attributed to a variety of factors, chiefly those cultural, social and political. Be it Ringo’s subservient position as jester in the Royal Court of Lennon and McCartney, the explosive irascibility of the film-maker-bashing Ginger Baker, or the well-documented destructive appetites of Keith Moon and John Bonham, all drummers are other.

Some culpability can be ascribed to the makers of spoof rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, whose eponymous band lost a score of drummers to increasingly outlandish and gory fates; and the Henson studio, whose house drummer in The Muppet Show – Animal – seemed to channel the worst physical excesses of Moon and Bonham (headbutting the drums, eating his kit etc). Madness, death and drumming, it seems, are as tightly linked as a bank of Zildjan cymbals. 

James Wood explores this connection in his appreciation of Moon, ‘The Fun Stuff’. In Moon’s case, his drumming was the purest expression of his anarchic personality – ad infinitum. His percussive largess was mirrored by his prankstering offstage. He ignored the traditions of time-keeping, bent them until they splintered. Eventually the anarchism took over, the drink-and-drug-fuelled rot set in, and his drumming fell apart.

Wood’s essay itself draws heavily on his own appreciation of instrumentation, and the musical modes of a classical vernacular: drumming was what he would have preferred to do, a guilty pleasure and a means of escape from the mundanity of rules, schools and middle class English youth, shackles that Moon shook off at an early age. 

Possessed with tin ear for chord progressions and time signatures, I cannot lay claim to these heady inspirations. Like many who became obsessed with indie music in their youth, it communicated to me on an unintelligible level. It was loud, brash and vaguely cool – in other words, everything I wasn’t. 

I first came across The Charlatans during what I like to term the developmental phase of my musical appreciation – a period of personal pseudo-autodidacticism. After arriving at The Beatles far too young to appreciate their post-Revolver output, and having dallied with the MTV-friendly metal of Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana in my early teenage years, it wasn’t until the mid-nineties and the arrival of Oasis that I began to figuratively join up the dots when listening to pop music. 

It was a qualified awakening in some respects: Oasis was a band that I inherited from friends, or more specifically, the older brothers of friends. Being from the putative north (Cheshire), there was a close association, even though the streets of Burnage were a galaxy away from the leafy environs of Sandbach. Even so, the pop-art irony of southerners Blur and Pulp left me cold.

The Charlatans were the first band that I truly discovered for myself, as none of my contemporaries were really listening to them at the time – or if they were, they didn’t mention them. 

I first saw them on Jools Holland’s Later...programme, performing Just Lookin’ from their eponymous fourth album. It must have been 1995-96. I’d been listening to What’s The Story, Morning Glory a lot at that point. 

My initial impression was the lead singer Tim Burgess offered little more than a thin echo of Liam Gallagher’s ‘strutting-Manc-in-an-anorak’ (though at this point of course I knew nothing of his simian predecessor Ian Brown), but that their music seemed groovier than that of Oasis: Jon Brookes’ drums thumping and cymbals splashing over Rob Collins’ swelling organ and Mark Collins’ choppy guitar – a sound bassist Martin Blunt would come to liken to a ‘big bag of spanners’. (The fact that two of those men are now dead seems bizarre and cruel in the extreme.)

But it was the drumming, and perhaps the drummer, that really caught my attention. His was a brilliant, no-nonsense brand of tub thumping: slappy and skittering, precise and committed, yet completely blasé. Precisely the kind of drummer I wanted to be, had I had the balls to get up and do it when the chance was presented to me on a silver salver.


3.

When I was much younger I harboured ambitions of being first an artist, and then, when my draughtmanship revealed itself to be marginally less than useless (one art teacher ventured no greater praise than ‘Yes, I can see you are keen’ when showcasing my efforts), I wanted to become a writer – the calling of all daydreamers of doubtful talent. 

Then when the requisite ‘way with words’ failed to materialise, I turned my back on a life of letters to embrace the dream of drumming, of squatting on a stool to wield sticks of maple and drill out a steady beat. (Now, when I listen to music, or when I conjure songs in my head, the drum beat is the first thing I notice. This is nothing to do with the beat of the heart, or walking in the street, simply about holding the whole thing together as the unsung hero of the band.) 

Being a drummer was for a small period of time something I became utterly obsessed with, though I did precisely nothing about it, apart from convincing my mother to buy me a drum kit while we were out shopping one gloomy Saturday afternoon in Stoke-onTrent. It was a black four piece kit – a Yamaha – base drum, snare, two tom-toms, ride cymbal and high-hat, second hand, £200. I paid for by undertaking various household chores: dusting, vacuuming, mowing the lawn and even washing the cars, traditionally the domain of my younger brother. The output quality of said chores was slightly marred by my continually practising the drums.

The only stick in the spokes of this musical journey was a lack of friends with any musical knowledge or capability – and a severely limiting fear of performing in public. For the best part of a year I practised on my own in the cobweb-lined space above the double garage, my only audience the spiders and the husks of their deceased prey.

I’d anticipated deploying extended drumrolls in the style of GNFR’s Matt Sorum, when in reality I’d could barely keep 4/4 time. My parents rarely commented on my playing, taking, understandably in hindsight, little interest, apart from repeatedly telling me not to disturb our septuagenarian neighbour. I ran out of enthusiasm for playing the drums before I’d even paid for it in menial manpower hours. 

Then one lunchtime at school, Stuart Boskett, who’d been learning to play since he learned how to grip – or so it seemed – gave a demonstration in the Maxwell Davis Centre. He called it Psycho Sticks. After witnessing his explosive, pubescence-driven performance, every time I say behind the drums I felt like I was trying to play with sticks of celery. Eventually I placed an ad in the local paper and sold the thing to a community choir for £100 less than we (my mother) paid for it. Typically, as soon as it was sold it I regretted it.

A few years later I convened with a number of friends who had formed a band, then called The Hideaways, now transmuted into the gothic folk band The Peryls. At that time they had a drummer shaped hole in their line up, and I had a drumming shaped hole in my life. We jammed for a few hours one Sunday, played ‘Life’s An Ocean’ by The Verve and a couple of their own compositions. Then I drove home and pictured myself joining the band, playing inept gigs for disdainful crowds and carrying the burden of the blame. The more I thought about it, the more I began to convince myself that they didn’t want me be to be the driving force behind the band, but in fact the second designated driver for the band.

I didn’t play with them again. A month later they had a real drummer, one who could hold down a beat while holding onto the sticks. He also had his own car. And that was the end of my drumming career. Fin.


4.

This is where the association between Jon Brookes and me founders: he had the inspiration, commitment, dexterity and timing that I comprehensively lacked. I was, perhaps, an indulged and indulgent child, my motivations suspect, and like many of my generation in the movement from childhood to adulthood I have continued to indulge myself, allowed myself to behave in way which was once the preserve of rock stars: a commonality of conspicuous consumption, all in the name of consciousness expansion. 

The link between the two of us was always tenuous: we never met or corresponded. I only listened to his music for an intense period during my late teenage years before moving on to other bands and different genres. I gave up trying to be a drummer a long, long time ago. Despite my fandom, I still haven’t seen The Charlatans play live, and sense that there’s a strong chance that now I never will.

But fashions falter and fads fade: human relationships endure. To borrow an image from the late Seamus Heaney, there is another link in the chain of humanity which extends from me to Jon, and his family: my mother, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier this year. 

It’s difficult to put into words the hollow grief you feel when you discover that a loved one has a serious illness, one which – for my mother as for Jon – holds a high risk of killing them. Besides, as a family, we don’t do feelings, we don’t do opening up. And ours had been fortunate up to that point in avoiding trauma – although I lost two grandparents in their old age to cancer. The gene is within me; I have inherited it and I have passed it on to my sons. In time, my grief will become theirs, and then that of their loved ones.

My mother’s descent from being a healthy woman to a depressed, comatose, disabled, and, eventually, hospitalised wreck of her former self was horrifyingly swift. Her cancer was inoperable, the prognosis doubtful, the treatment clinically brutal: a concentrated burst of aggressive chemotherapy followed by weeks of radiotherapy. She lost her hair and gained weight. Her skin lost all lustre, became ash coloured and ghoulish. Her personality changed, possibly permanently. And while she is in remission now, all the signs point to the tumour coming back. A death sentence has been commuted to life.

My mother stuck to a set path: hairdresser, housewife and homemaker. An intelligent woman, after raising my younger brother and me she shrugged off all thought of self-improvement. Conversely, Jon Brookes determined early on what he wanted and founded his own band. Whimsical flights of fancy have sent me in myriad directions, none of which have truly stuck: artist, writer, editor, rock drummer, poet, photographer, academic. Behind all these a spoilt child, spoilt by a surplus of choices, spoilt by a surfeit of indifference.

Where this leaves my essay – and indeed myself – I’m unsure. But to quote the lyrics of another recording artist whose works falls in and out of fashion with metronomic regularity –Beck Hanson – “your heart is a drum / keeping time with everyone”. 

Perhaps that’s the best close I can come up with for now.

No - it's this: rest in peace, Jon.


August 2013-June 2014