- Date published:
- Reading time: 11 minute read
It was a gloriously sunny and warm bank-holiday Saturday in what had otherwise been a damp and grey summer, and I had spent it self-indulgently. In the late afternoon I had hurtled towards the centre of town to find the local drum shop, and had spent ages rolling up and down the narrow back-streets between Victorian terraces trying to find a parking space on the same side of town as this particular percussion emporium. It took me longer to park than it did to buy the percussive odds and sods I was after and hurtle home again.
Little did I know the events to come would make this day one of the most significant and memorable in my life so far.
I was starting to get into the swing of living alone. Having more space than I needed had opened the floodgates for things I’d wanted but hadn’t had the space to accommodate, so rapidly I’d gone from rattling around in what seemed like a cavernous expanse to filling it up with stuff. The latest addition was an electronic drum kit. The box in which it was delivered was huge—-like a cardboard coffin—-but, for reasons known only to the manufacturer, didn’t include some of the basics (like a kick-drum pedal or even a decent pair of sticks) so had remained frustratingly unopened for a few days.
Now, the time had come. The necessary components were amassed, and a thoroughly enjoyable (and seriously nerdy) evening of assembly, reassembly and general fiddling about lay ahead. Part of the charm of a drum kit is its layout is entirely personal, particularly if, like me, you suffer from cack-handedness.
There’s no real right or wrong way to put your kit together as long as you’re comfortable with it, so this is one self-assembly job where instruction manuals are truly useless and trial and error is the way to go. That said, drummers will tend to lead with their stronger hand, which crosses over the other, so a conventional (right-handed) kit is usually laid out left to right. When I first took interest in playing the drums around the age of eight or nine, I started by laying out whatever I could find in the school music room’s crate of percussion instruments, and whacking them with pencils. Keen to nurture my interest and enthusiasm, my primary-school music master invested in a standard five-piece kit. I was given the job of unpacking and assembling the thing which, naturally, I arranged left-handed, and thus I became a left-handed drummer.
It was months later before I noticed the drummers on Top Of The Pops usually had their kits set up the other way round. I attempted to rearranged the school kit like the ones on TV, only to find I couldn’t play it anymore. This wasn’t much of a problem until I moved on to secondary school, where the various drummers in various bands and orchestras all used the same kit. With me being the lone lefty, it was impractical to keep dismantling and rebuilding the kit every time I wanted to play, particularly in performances. When the school’s head of music agreed to bring in a percussion teacher for a few hours a week and a handful of us to started taking formal tuition, I saw this as an opportunity to start again right-handed.
Our peripatetic teacher, a professional percussionist and session musician, was also naturally left-handed but had happened to start out on a right-handed kit. His astonishingly high level of talent and competence meant he could now play either way (at least on the drums—-he was still a left-handed guitarist), so he was sympathetic and happy to start right from the beginning—-retraining me in the basic rudiments so I’d lead with the right. We attempted many approaches: he had spent several half-hour lessons simply throwing satsumas for me to catch with my right hand. On another occasion we bound my whole left arm behind my back with parcel tape to try and break my natural reflexes as I tried to thump out increasingly complex rhythms on the snare.
After six months we were making little progress—-my right hand was improving but was still comparatively slow and clumsy, and I simply couldn’t break the instinct to lead with my left. Also, despite our exaggerated focus on right-handedness, my left hand was improving too as I began to benefit from the training as a whole. My feet were an even bigger challenge, as I’m probably even more left-footed than I am left-handed. All the while, as a left-handed drummer, I was streets ahead of everyone else and, looking back now, there may have been other influences at work. It may have been politically significant for there to be a “star pupil”—-the various orchestras and bands needed a lead percussionist. Also, as GCSE time approached, I needed a lead instrument upon which I could perform at the required standard. Faced with the choice between tutoring me from a hopeless to a mediocre right-handed drummer or from a mediocre to decent left-handed drummer, we mutually accepted defeat and gave in to the impracticalities of my backward brain.
The one thing I have taken from this is the significance of embracing the right-handed world from the get-go. At age seven, when I first climbed into a kayak, my father insisted I learnt to use a right-handed paddle. With the majority of paddlers being right-handed it would mean I wouldn’t be restricted to using rarer left-handed paddles (with one reversed blade). At that age, the more pressing issue was that a standard paddle was far too long for me, but since reaching physical maturity it has meant I can use whatever paddle is to hand. It’s the same with many things: when I was growing up, the scissors in the household and at school were exclusively right-handed, so that’s what I learnt to use. Give me a left-handed pair now and I’d struggle to use them. Writing left-handed does apply some constraints: reversed tape-measures and rulers are hard to find, so I learnt to use right-handed ones upside-down. In the same way, having embraced my reversed approach to percussion, my teacher and I developed a number of odd-looking but reasonably effective techniques to allow me to play a right-handed kit with little reorganisation—-something which was to prove useful when sharing kits.
From mid-childhood to early adulthood, music was everything. Upon receipt of a particularly damning end-of-year school report, I can only imagine my parents’ disgust and disappointment as their nine-year-old son cheerfully announced “well none of that matters anyway… I’m going to be a rock star!”. The combination of youth and music breeds optimism, passion, love… and life.
My own kit, which had started out as a standard five-piece but with continual pocket-money investment had grown in size and quality, was set up left-handed. This was the one I used for performances, at school and also in the stereotypical teenage rock band I formed with three friends. Sadly, upon leaving home, it proved completely impractical: not for being left-handed but simply by being a drum kit and therefore complicated to move from place to place. Unable to drive and in need of money, I sold it to a local recording studio. A while later I had bought another, smaller kit (and a nice one too), but still without transport or much space to call my own, it didn’t made it across the threshold of the shop—-in the end they agreed to take it back. Time slipped by as it does, and eventually my love of rattling around on a drum kit was a distant memory.
Now, a decade later, lots of things were different. I had more space and money than as a teenager, and electronic kits had improved to the point where even an el-cheapo one was surprisingly playable. Perhaps I was hankering after my teenage years, but I decided I should now have some kind of drum kit again. I’d spent the last fifteen years messing around with synthesisers and electronic music in general; another great passion of mine and in many respects entirely more practical than drum kits. I could easily integrate an electronic kit with my other studio gizmos, while avoiding typical percussion-related conflicts with neighbours. And who knows: maybe I’d find a local band looking for a drummer (as was the case in my teens) or a synth-twiddler (as in my early twenties). One of music’s most glorious qualities is how it brings people together, and what better way to start building a social life in a new town. So it wasn’t wanton gadget-lust… honest.
The flat I had rented was more than big enough for my needs but, knowing the kind of person I am, I had decided to be strict on how the rooms were used. I wanted the living room and master bedroom to be exactly that: no computers or synthesisers or mixing desks or cables everywhere. The idea was to contain all that kind of carry-on in the box bedroom: this would become my playroom—-a technocrat’s paradise. Although maybe a little cramped, the new drum kit could be squeezed in too. With a large cup of tea, a packet of fig rolls and two sets of Allen keys (to be sure), I set to work unpacking the cardboard coffin of bits and bobs, and began assembly.
The process filled me with nostalgia. For the first time in a long while, my mind was taken back to those glorious teenage days when making music was everything and “real life” didn’t interfere. When on stage nothing else mattered, and the rest of the time the only thing of importance was the next gig. All those rehearsals, the rocking out and dicking around, the blazing arguments (sorry, “creative differences”) and the fleeting moments when it all just worked. The mild tinnitus, the cock-ups, the sweat, the lights, the applause…
A moment later, I found myself lying on the floor of the box bedroom. Funny, I thought—-what was I doing down here? Come to think of it: what was I doing? I must have laid down to reach and adjust something intricate… now what on earth was it? Christ, I’m always doing this—-a moment’s lapse of concentration and I haven’t the slightest idea what I was doing. If I had a pound for every… unless… I dosed off? Hmm. Strange. Was I dreaming? It’s hardly late—-why would I dose off? In fact, why am I so drowsy?
There was nothing for it other than to get up off the floor and make another cup of tea but, when trying to move I found I was in a great deal of pain. My left shoulder and most of the way down my back were intensely painful to move, and my legs were stiff as boards. Maybe I had knocked my head and dropped like a stone. Or did I somehow electrocute myself?
Confused, increasingly irritable and feeling various kinds of unwell, I decided to go to bed for a bit and see if things became any clearer. A bad headache will usually go away after a couple of hours’ kip, so it had become a reasonable standard remedy for more or less everything. With hindsight, the decision to head to bed and hope it all goes away is an amusing, primeval male response but, at the time and in that state, it made perfect sense. Still stiffened and in a lot of pain, I half-crawled, half-dragged myself into the bedroom and into bed, where I fell asleep instantly.
I awoke no more than a couple of hours later, and the recollection of what had taken place unfolded once more in my head. Had it really happened? The pain and stiffness in my shoulder, back and legs hadn’t eased, so I rolled out of bed and literally dragged myself back across the flat to survey the scene. What I saw, and what I hadn’t noticed originally, was carnage—-the mess made it clear I had fallen to the ground, and taken all sorts of things down with me. Papers and equipment from the desk had been swept to the floor, and what had been on the floor already had been crushed and dented by my fall. This cluttered little room looked more like the scene of a violent assault. Had I fainted and fallen awkwardly? It would explain the scene before me and also the physical complaints, especially since there was hardly room in which to fall—-but why had I fainted?
It was time to call upon professional advice, but by now it was past eight on a Saturday evening. With the local surgery closed, and not particularly wanting to call the emergency services, I dragged myself back to bed, found a phone, and opted for NHS Direct. If you’re not familiar with the service, the idea is you can phone in with a medical complaint and a fully-trained nurse (or occasionally doctor or paramedic, if appropriate) will come back to you with their advice. It’s ideal for situations when you need help sort-of now-ish, but you’re not in any sort of immediate danger.
Within fifteen minutes of my call, a nurse called me back and I described the scene in as much detail as I could. I had cause to ring them once before—-ten years previously, a housemate showed me his fresh appendix scar and I went out like a light and collapsed onto the landlady’s lap. So out-of-character was this that my then-girlfriend bullied me into ringing NHS Direct but, after a lot of questioning, they were happy to confirm there wasn’t anything wrong with me, other than being a big girl’s blouse with n aversion to appendix scars.
I detailed what appeared to have happened, and answered the nurse’s questions as best I could. To my surprise, she took this rather more seriously than I expected, and said she was going to organise for an ambulance to come and take me into the Accident and Emergency department of the local hospital. Christ, I thought. With hindsight, however, the combination of my description and the way I was describing it may have been factored into her decision: goodness knows how much or little sense I was making. It’s possible, I suppose, I gave the impression of being confused and disoriented. I mean, I was confused and disoriented, but I can’t be the best judge of how badly so. At the time I felt I had a pretty good handle on things, apart from the minor details that I was in immense pain, and there was a brief period of the afternoon I couldn’t remember, during which time a room in my flat had been trashed.
When the call ended, following the nurses instructions, I called a friend and asked him to come over and help me out. He and the ambulance crew arrived together, and we made our slow and awkward way out of my top-floor flat and off to the hospital. As anyone who’s ever been to A&E will appreciate, a lot of pratting around ensued—-painkillers, blood tests, Electrocardiograms, a lot of waiting around, gallons of Lucozade, and visit after visit from increasingly senior doctors.
In the morning, having come up with little, they turfed me out for my friends to collect. I spent the rest of the weekend with them, still feeling a little stiff, but otherwise back in full health. As the extended weekend drew to a close, I returned home to begin the clear-up operation and prepare for the working week.
What had been a welcome three days away from work had been consumed—-it had been in some respects remarkable, but in so many ways a disappointment. That none of my plans had come to fruition was frustrating to say the least. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the weekend had produced something, but in effect the net result of the three days was… nothing. The drum kit was still not built, and somehow now it seemed less enticing.
Back at work, the episode was soon more-or-less forgotten. It was vaguely comment-worthy for a short time but, as so few conclusions had been drawn, there was little to say.
Was it a one-off? More on that… in a bit.