There's a subtle but thrilling moment in Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" when Van sings out, And when you walk across the road / You make my heart go boom-boom-boom , and drummer Rick Schlosser underscores the lyric with three pulsing strokes of the pedal on the bass drum: Boom, boom, boom .
Amid the joyous clamor, we are reminded of the real power of percussion, both physical and metaphorical, and its resonances in the heart and soul of the human body.
Mickey Hart, one of the two drummers in the Grateful Dead, makes the same point in "Drumming at the Edge of Magic," an ambitious but remarkably accomplished and satisfying ramble through the lore of percussion as seen by a man who makes his living with sticks and skins.
"For nine months we live in the womb, listening to the orchestra of our mother, entrained with her," Hart rhapsodizes. "Then we are born and . . . (o)ur lungs begin pumping, our heart settles into its steady pulse, our senses begin scanning. . . . It must be the biggest shock of life, this onslaught of rhythms that want to drag us out onto the floor and make us dance." Hart concludes: "There is a need to drum. I believe that."
"Drumming" is, at once, the illuminating autobiography of a rock musician, a fascinating grab-bag of ethnomusicological odds and ends on the subject of drumming, and a richly illustrated catalogue of rare and exotic drums from Hart's personal collection. At its heart, however, "Drumming" is the story of Hart's 10-year-long "drum quest," a percussionist's progress through the mysteries and the magic of drumming in search of what he calls "the Edge."
The quest, as Hart explains, was fairly cosmic in scope and aspiration. Hart writes that he was driven by "a burning desire . . . (t)o know why . . . the tradition of drumming I inherited as a young American percussionist in the '60s had become devoid of the spirit or trance side of the drum, a side recognized by almost every culture on the planet."
Hart's quest, which provides the narrative backbeat of "Drumming," drove him from continent to continent, from one master drummer to another, and into the odd corners of archives and bazaars where the lost art and artifacts of percussion were to be discovered.
He was helped along the way by a variety of guides and spirits, ranging from his high-school music teacher to celebrated myth-master Joseph Campbell, and he was inspired by influences as diverse as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, the Nigerian drummer Olatunji, and the Indian drummer Alla Rakha. Hart even canvassed the corps of Grateful Dead fans by putting out the word over the computer bulletin board that links "Dead Heads" around the world.
He explains how drumming has been intimately linked to both prayer and war from the earliest stirrings of human civilization. And he speculates in passing that Abraham's household included at least a couple of drummers: "(T)emple drummers by day, street drummers by night," he suggests, "playing huge Sumerian frame drums."
"Drumming" is also the story of a young man's quest for a missing father. Leonard Hart, who abandoned his family when Mickey was still a young child, left behind a pair of snakewood drumsticks and a small but haunting reputation as a world-class champion in "rudimental" drumming, a form of competition based on military drumming techniques. Mickey finds his lost father at last, but there is a second and even more devastating betrayal to come. It's one of the most stunning, telling moments.
"Words are so inadequate at capturing the spirit of percussion," Hart concedes. "Prose is OK at the visual; it can re-create eye-play, but it's lousy at ear-play." Still, the fact is "Drumming" is an articulate, literate and mostly successful effort to capture the mystery of percussion on the printed page.
Drumming, as Hart finally convinces us, is an echo of something elemental in the cosmos--not merely the fetal memories of a mother's heartbeat, but the cellular reverberations of the Big Bang itself. "In the beginning was noise. And noise begat rhythm. And rhythm begat everything else," Hart intones. "This is the kind of cosmology a drummer can live with."
And so can I.
Next: Richard Eder reviews "Warrenpoint" by Denis Donaghue (Alfred A. Knopf).