"Well, I'll Be John Brown"

Real stories about folks who have blessed my life with the joy and fulfillment of laughter. Long may they live.

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, United States

A Southern Boy - Born In Alabama, Reared In Georgia, and Matriculated, Married & Initiated Into Manhood In Tennessee.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

“Drum & Drummer”

Musicians are a curious lot. They practice with great passion, play their hearts out hoping that someone will listen and approve, and do it all at great personal expense to themselves. They spend money they don’t have on instruments they don’t need so they can make syncopated, melodic noise they can’t sell to an audience that won’t listen. Like their audience, musicians will ruin their own hearing from listening habitually to music that is way too loud, long before they discover that there is also great beauty and pleasure in the world of pianissimo.

Why does a musician do these things? The answer is very simple.

Music is their drug, their “fix,” and often (in the case of male musicians) their “woman.” It is in their blood, and their DNA. To a musician, their craft is perhaps the one defining force in their lives. It is far more than something they do, it is something they ARE.

Another oddity regarding musicians has to do with their choice of instrument(s). Musicians wind up playing the instruments that seem to match their individual psychological make-up. Piano players are almost always more effeminate, guitar players more egotistical, bass players more introverted, and drummers – well, drummers are just plain nuts. Seriously. When a person derives pleasure from beating the living daylights out of an expensive collection of wooden canisters, with pieces of leather and/or plastic draped across them, what you actually have is a significant psychological disorder manifesting itself in 4/4 time.

This writer has played music professionally for roughly forty years. Though his dominant instrument of passion and proficiency is not the drums, yours truly did spend five years of his young life playing drums in high school band. Switching from trumpet to drums after elementary school just made sense. After all, beating the snot out of an instrument with two sticks allowed the lips to be reserved exclusively for romantic endeavors. Becoming a drummer seemed a much wiser musicial path to follow than intentionally and religiously placing one’s mouth on an icy piece of steel, especially during the bitter cold of late season football games and parades. Too, playing cadences was extremely cool, and the chicks always seemed to dig the guys in the drum line.

In the various bands that have come and gone in this writer’s musical life, it is the drummers that bring back the most graphic and comical memories - and, none more so than one, Gary “Bird” Millwood.

Gary was from Lebanon, Tennessee. We both attended the same small college in west Tennessee, and were introduced by a mutual musical friend. Gary was a superb drummer and a fine singer, but also a perplexing combination of personality contrasts. He could be, at times, exceptionally quiet and reserved – someone you would never know was in the room. But then, almost instantaneously, he could morph into being “crazy loud” and outrageously funny. Gary was forever coming up with slapstick routines and side-splitting one-liners, much in the same mold as Robins Williams, Jim Carey, and/or early Steve Martin.

On one occasion, our six piece band was practicing at a little cabin owned by our rhythm guitarist’s mom and dad. This small log home was a half mile back off a farm road, in the middle of the woods, and about seven miles from the nearest town. It was the perfect place for amplifiers to be cranked to their absolute max, and for a fanatical drummer to be free to pummel his nine piece drum kit into a deafening submission. What an absolutely ideal setting for the development of permanent hearing loss.

It was getting late on a Saturday afternoon and everyone was hungry. Too, our ears need a break. Our bass player, "Kandy," one of THE greatest female singers this writer has ever known, went into the kitchen to whip up some hamburgers and fries for the band. It was the middle of fall in West Tennessee, and a nip was in the air. Gary had worn a “wind suit” to practice. The layered synthetic material in the wind suit kept his drumming muscles warm during breaks. The burgers and fries really hit the spot, giving each of us a second wind. Someone suggested that we run over a number or two one final time before calling it a day.

The band was tuning up one last time when Gary announced that he had to use the bathroom. Whenever Gary Millwood made a public announcement of something that was about to happen, even if it was only a trip to the tiolet, a great hush would come over the room. It was certain that something bizarre or hilarious was about to take place.

Gary stayed a long time in the bathroom. Though the rest of the band was tuning and warming up, noises could still be heard coming from inside that tiny bathroom. “I wonder what he’s doing in there,” our keyboard player said. “I am sure I don’t want to know,” someone else replied. About that time, the bathroom door opened and we heard Gary’s voice. “Man, those burgers and fries really filled me up!,” he exclaimed loudly. Stepping out of the bathroom, he moved quickly and deftly into full view of the rest of the band.

Gary had zipped all the zippers in his wind suit (i.e., jacket front, ankles, and wrists) as tightly as they could possibly be closed. He had then taken a hair dryer he found in the bathroom, turned it on the highest setting, and inserted it in every possible elastic opening of that wind suit. When he finally stepped out of that bathroom, Gary had inflated that entire wind suit full of air, enlarging it to three times its normal size. He looked like a grossly bloated version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

As he stepped down the hall toward us, he again repeated the line, “Boy, those burgers and fries really filled me up!” It must have taken a full fifteen minutes for the rest of group to stop laughing, crying, and rolling on the floor. We never did fully regain our composure that night. Every five years or so, when our group has a reunion, this story always tops the list of our most cherished recollections of Gary.

Drummers not only pull things on others. Sometimes their sins find them out and they become the victim of someone else’s prank or vengeance. And, as in Gary Millwood’s case, sometimes even Mother Nature can get in on the fun.

Vann Gardens was a magnificent old antebellum mansion in a city about fifteen miles due north of our college campus. The house itself was something to behold. The architecture and décor were right out of the pages of, “Gone with the Wind.” In addition, as the name indicates, there was an extensive network of floral gardens just to the rear of the house. This beautiful series of gardens covered several acres, and was dissected by a decorative stone path that wound its way through every section. The path was dimly lit at night by miniature liquid propane lanterns, which bathed the entire area in a soft, golden hue. This romantic setting was perfect for a leisurely stroll under the stars with one’s sweetie.

The good folks at Vann Gardens had heard of our band. They signed us without an audition to play for a formal, junior-senior, collegiate banquet/dance on a Saturday night in late April of 1982. We were quite the popular musical act in that region of Tennessee, staying booked almost every weekend. We played gigs for an array of different occasions and in many types of venues – the most bizarre being a blisteringly hot, middle of July, “Hog Festival.”

Our musical preference and forte was rock and roll, but our versatility as a group allowed us to do a variety of genres of music. Vann Gardens had requested that we begin the evening with soft ballads and other slower paced styles that couples could dance to, and then later switch to the louder, heavier stuff. As long as they paid us when we were through, it didn’t matter if we had to play four hours of bubblegum tunes by Donnie Osmond (gag).

We arrived at Vann Gardens around noon to set up our equipment. The curator showed us to their back patio. The brick and stone work on the Vann Gardens mansion was impeccable and striking. This patio was a mixture of stone and brick, was approximately twenty feet across by eleven feet deep, and was elevated a good twelve feet above the gardens. There were two brick and stone staircases leading away from it and out into the gardens, each at forty-five degree angles to the patio. The whole area was encased by a stone knee wall, which was perfect for positioning our P.A. The main dining room of the home opened onto the patio through two impressive sets of double French doors.

The patio area was just barely large enough to accommodate a six piece band and its equipment. No problemo. We had played in much smaller surroundings - flat-bed trailers being the worst.

The “old standard” stage set-up for rock bands has almost always centered around the drummer. The drum kit, with all of its pieces and parts, is the first item that is set up - usually in the middle of the stage. The rest of the band is then arranged symmetrically on either side. One look at the size of the Vann Gardens patio made it clear that the normal stage configuration would not work. Therefore, Gary had to set up his drums at one end of the patio, with the keyboard player stationed at the other. The rest of us jammed our amplifiers in between.

The only other rock band member with as much equipment as the typical drummer is the keyboard player. Allowing for multiple keyboards, foot pedals, keyboard amp, and Leslie unit,
keys require a substantial chunk of the stage. One of the pieces in a professional keyboardist's "rig" is a Leslie. A Leslie is a large, wooden, rotary speaker cabinet resembling in size and appearance an old console style television set. It alone takes up about as much room onstage as a moderately sized refrigerator. However, given the vintage rock organ sound that can only be gotten from a Leslie speaker cabinet, no band in its right mind would ever complain about its bulky size.

As Gary began setting up his drums, several band members noticed two large, circular, decorative iron bird cages. These cages were mounted on the outside rear wall of the mansion approximately ten feet above the patio floor. They were positioned symmetrically at each end of the patio, and were large enough (at least six feet tall and three feet in diameter) to hold a small-to-moderate sized person inside their bars. One of our female singers remarked, “I wonder what they keep in those things?” “I don’t know,” Gary replied, “if we’re lucky, maybe some female strippers.” Little did Gary know that one of those two cages was going to play a significant role in his performance later that evening.

Once everything was set up we ran through a few numbers, tuned up a final time, made sure our equipment was secure, and left Vann Gardens at approximately 4:00 PM. We had three short hours to shower, change clothes, and get some dinner. The music was scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM sharp.

Doug, our keyboard player, lived in an apartment complex not far from Vann Gardens. It was decided that everyone would meet at Doug’s to get ready. For some bizarre reason, Gary misunderstood and thought that the two girl singers in our band would not be coming to Doug’s. Gary asked Doug for his spare key, and said he had an urgent reason to go on ahead of the rest of us. Something about, “dropping off the kids at the pool.” We should have known better.

When the rest of the band arrived at Doug’s apartment, with girls in tow, Gary was waiting for us. When we opened the door Gary was sitting behind Doug’s upright piano with an unlit stogie in his mouth. When he got up from behind the piano to greet us, it was immediately apparent that Gary was as utterly naked as the day he came into the world. He was obviously unaware that the girls were part of the entourage. He stood and walked toward the door exclaiming loudly, “Man, I thought ya’ll would never get here!” No sooner had he uttered these words that both girls appeared in the door of that apartment. Suddenly, and totally without warning, here were two unsuspecting young ladies, mouths gaping open in sheer disbelief, staring wild-eyed at this crazy, idiot drummer - in all his full-frontal male glory. Earlier in this account, this writer warned that drummers are nuts. This short peek into, “Gary’s World,” should be sufficient proof of this fact.

Gary fell backward as he tripped over the arm of the couch, groping and reaching for pictures, plant leaves, anything he could lay his hands on to try and cover his lower extremities. The girls ran aghast in the direction of one of the back bedrooms, screaming, laughing, and swearing that they had never in all their lives seen such a display of brainlessness. The bolder one of the two took a verbal shot at Gary before slamming the bedroom door, “Kinda’ reminded me of the little coffee stirrer I used this morning at Kermit's (an early proto-type of Starbucks)." Gary was at a total loss for words. He was knowingly deserving of whatever he got in return for his brazen "exhibition."

Gary was still as quiet as a church mouse at dinner. Some of the guys made subtle wise cracks about what had happened back at Doug’s, while the girls just stared at their food and whispered to each other. This writer wondered if our band was going to be able to forget what had taken place. We needed composure and focus in order to do a good job at the gig. “Maybe nothing else will happen with Gary tonight,” this writer remembers thinking and praying within himself - knowing all the while that there wasn't a snowball's chance of such a prayer being answered in the affirmative.

We got back to Vann Gardens about 6:30 PM. The sun was almost down, the moon was bright, and the night air was refreshingly cool. We checked our instruments for tuning, the P.A. system for microphone levels, and huddled for our customary group prayer at 6:56 PM. Just before bowing our heads, Gary asked if he could say something. Cringing in fear at the thought of what he might come up with now only minutes before we were supposed to perform, the rest of the band nervously nodded in agreement.

“Did ya’ll see those birds?”, Gary asked. Taken aback at the left-field nature of Gary’s question, we began looking in the direction of the aforementioned cages.

Prior to our leaving for dinner at 4:00 PM, the cages were empty. During our almost three hour absence, someone from the Vann Gardens staff had placed two large, rather unusual looking, birds in those massive, barred cages. Each of the birds stood in excess of three feet tall, and had large plumes of violet and dark blue feathers jutting from both the head and tail. They looked like something out of Stephen Spielberg's, "Jurassic Park."

The noise they constantly made back and forth to each another was a high-pitched screeching sound, similar to a frightened hawk or falcon. When the P.A. was turned on, their already loud "voices," now amplified over our powerful sound system, could be heard several blocks away. These birds were meant to add to the evening’s ambiance. That is exactly what they wound up doing, but in a much different way than the originally intended one.

As we looked intently and curiously at these birds, it occurred to this writer that perhaps these overgrown cat toys were not yet acquainted with the rocking sounds of Bob Seger, James Taylor, Aerosmith and AC/DC. By night’s end, it was certain they would be.

There was a look of fear and worry in Gary Millwood’s eyes as we bowed our heads to pray. One of those cages was located directly overhead of his brand new set of Pearl drums. The silly looking, miniature peacock in that cage would be "dancing" during every song right over Gary’s drum throne. There was no room to move, and no place to hide. Who says guitar players have all the fun?

When we turned our amplifiers on and began tuning the guitars, the birds did not like it one little bit. They thrashed around those cages like frightened animals do when a storm is coming. Gary looked worried. He had reason to be. He was going to have to drum for almost four hours with his head in a direct line of fire of one of these enormous, high-strung, creatures.

The first set of music began as planned at 7:00 PM. Slow and soft would be the pace for the first two hours of the show. The first tune we played was a then current chart topper by the Eagles, “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Gary’s bird flitted around uneasily in its cage during the first few bars of this song, but settled down for its remainder. The next few songs were equally as benign for the bird, but still unnerving for Gary. Every time he would have to crash a cymbal to accent a song’s crescendo, Gary would cover his head with his arm, lean to the side, and look up fearfully toward the giant bird.

Still, all went well for the first set.

After a five minute break, the second set began. The first song out of the chute was Linda Ronstadt’s, “You’re No Good!” This great song meanders along for the first two thirds of its duration at both a moderate pace and volume. However, it certainly doesn’t finish that way.

With every note we played the band got tighter, the crowd got looser, and Gary grew more forgetful of the danger that brewed over his head. During the dueling guitar solos of, “You’re No Good,” the dam finally burst. As the twin solos crescendoed and meshed together with loud, heavily accented high notes, the song exploded like a cruise missile hitting its target. Gary reared back on his drum throne, did a double cymbal crash, accented it with a mighty kick on the bass drum, followed it with a multiple flam and rolls on the snare and side tom-toms, and concluded with a crushing blow to the largest Paiste cymbal in his kit.

The bird had a coronary.

Well, not exactly a coronary. It was more like a ruptured aneurysm of the colon and digestive tract. Exotic bird fecal matter rained on Gary and his drums like a storm surge from hurricane Katrina. Two of his cymbals, his prized snare drum, and most of his left leg were bathed in exotic bird doo doo. The aftermath of every meal this neurotic bird had consumed that day, and maybe even the day before, came showering down on our zany drummer. As loud and hard as we had pushed that great old Ronstadt song, it was still neither loud nor hard enough to drown out the “plop, plop” splattering sound of the endless stream of exotic bird crap that was drenching Gary and his equipment.

This writer doesn’t remember which band member was first to turn and discover the messy, repulsive predicament our drummer was in. Regardless, to his credit Gary kept right on playing. We finished the song, and were finally able to regain control of ourselves and the crowd - but not until after several minutes of riotous laughter had subsided. Someone notified one of the coordinators inside the Vann Gardens mansion as to what had taken place on the patio. They, in turn, called maintenance. The maintenance guys, after they too had finished laughing, were very helpful.

Gary’s drums were soon as clean and shiny as new. One of our stellar roadies went to a nearby J.C. Penny's and bought Gary some fresh clothes. And, the birds were taken away for the rest of the evening. Gary suggested that they be shot and barbecued on the Vann Gardens grill. He even offered to help do the honors.

The main event coordinator for Vann Gardens was extremely apologetic and compassionate. She fed us, made sure we had non-stop liquid refreshment for the rest of the night, and even brought out some aromatic candles and potpourri to help with the “foul” (pun intended) stench that lingered for the remainder of the gig.

Thankfully, our band did not develop an embarrassing reputation because of this fiasco. Nor did we become known as, “Gary & The Crapping Birds.” We were blessed in that we never, ever encountered such a thing again in any paying gig we ever did. And, to boot, after that night, everyone in the band got a great kick out of the times when the audience would shout out a request for the classic rock anthem, "Free Bird." Everybody but Gary, that is.

The story of Gary Millwood and his encounter with the mortified, diarrhea-plagued bird still circulates from time to time through the hills and valleys of west Tennessee. Each time it does, just like the night it happened, thunderous laughter can be heard.

Thank you, Gary “Bird” Millwood, for making music, and life itself, so much fun to play, to remember, and to write about.

Rock on, brother!

- David Decker