Test Introduction to "The Drummer: Michael Jerome Moore and Rhythms as Language & Ideas"

Audio problems, editing problems, continuity problems, you name it, they're all here. But . . . there are ideas, and an artistic dialogue that may actually be seen as art. Worth pursuing? At what cost? With what energy and time? How would this evolve? This is an EXPERIMENTAL movie about a drummer who has choices of how to play and with whom and for what. How he chooses to keep time is the focus of this movie. Are his rhythms determined by a sense of self or from stimuli in the air around him? Does he emit, or does he reflect? The drummer is Michael Jerome Moore, and the dialogue here is with Seanie Blue. They met in California on a musical project doomed to stay forever incomplete, and continued a series of discussions about timing and rhythm in several places worldwide, usually in situations that offered more to the mind than first met the eye. This edit will be updated periodically.

The Time Keeper

A Dialogue On Rhythm & the Geologies of Spirit with Michael Jerome Moore

(This is the book accompanying "The Drummer," a documentary about keeping time made by Blue about the drummer Michael Jerome Moore, who drums for John Cale [ex-Velvet Underground], Richard Thompson & Better Than Ezra, and who also has his own ambitions and ideas about rhythm and its place in the daily lives of music lovers and melody makers. This is a dynamic page that will be updated from the top down during the next few months, as Blue edits the massive footage collected of Michael Jerome in action in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Brussels, Portugal, New Orleans and Millvale, Pennsylvania.)

A Panther Tickles the Skin

I am in Space, watching the Sun throw out a tendril of continuous flame that stretches almost half a million miles into the dark, and packing socks and beef jerky for the high end of Iceland, where all roads fade to rock, readying myself to shoot the borealis in ten days, when Sandra calls to say the panther is in town and wants to have dinner.

I missed him last time he was here, weeks ago, and Sandy went out and had a laugh with the cat and guitarist Richard Thompson, who was polite and solicitous to Sandra, asking if she needed a soda or fresh fruit because he’d heard something from the panther about Sandra’s odd projects. So this time I put on a fresh shirt and collect the panther and go for a ride in the blue mustang. We don’t go over any curbs, but he laughs because it sure seems like we’re about to, since I am explaining with my usual vim that Alana in the back seat is about to walk from here to Mardi Gras on her way to the Pacific; I am not that distracted, but the three of us snicker at all the pedestrians who step nervously backward toward higher ground, out of our firing range. He’s the drummer for Better Than Ezra, he’s used to turns without signal, and we eat bean soup and plot cinema before we take him safely to the club so he can play.

Michael Jerome Moore at McCormick's studio, Mar Vista.

Michael Jerome is this panther, pictured at left, a tickler of bones and thumper of skins. I think of him as a panther because he exudes patience as power, where most rhythm masters swell with energy bent by impatience. Jerome calculates as he doles out time. He’s in five bands, more, and like any cat he is fatally aroused by his curiosity. A good idea kills, and we’ve got one that has barbed under our skin and will not fall harmlessly away: a movie about how a drummer thinks, and why.

Sandy and Alana and Andy and Michael L. and I are all shocked by the opening of the BTE show, as Michael Jerome plays low, at eye level with his cymbals, where he can see his bandmates through his drum strikes. It is as if he has them all in his sights, and he is measuring an attack, which is of course exactly what he is doing. Better Than Ezra’s open is a side-winding slither, tense and tough, a shock for all of us ready to chew on pop. We laugh, seeing the movie already, and Michael plunges into the set suddenly and the band is off, following the hopes of their crowd: familiarity, that pop music comfort, but laced with the tiny surprises all good music promises, lavender raisins in vanilla oatmeal.

You feel music, you can’t describe it, but you can say how you feel, and I felt last night like there was a secret to be revealed: rhythm was carried out of Africa 50,000 years ago with the people to whom we are all now related, and rhythm became warfare, a generator of fear and confusion that may have been the grenade modern homo sapiens used to defeat the last of homo erectus, our last competition, the poor hulking, shy, probably arrhythmic Neanderthals, and then rhythm helped create faith and the fertile crescent gave us the birthplace of expression and ritual: religion, with music as its sugar.

I can show all this in an elevator, as Michael Jerome listens to the cage rise to the 13th floor, the tick tick tick of possibility, and the cat in him cannot resist the possibility of such an idea. When BTE’s singer Kevin G. hears a snippet of the idea after the show, he interrupts me and says, “what’s cool about Michael as the drummer is who he plays with and how different they all are,” referencing Cale and Thompson and others, and Michael hears this and I see him think it over: “What’s cool about a movie like that is that it’s an idea,” he says, but nobody hears him, “It’s just an idea.”

There are schedules and profits, properties and hands to hold, terabytes of families and friends to put in storage, fresh pineapple and the beaches of Nicaragua, wonders abounding, but everything stops for an idea. In the jungles of possibility, a panther hunts not just when hungry, but, contrary to nature’s rules, also to show it can kill whenever it wishes. What other creature has the luxury of swift power and steady balance to chase a slippery idea, if not a panther?

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Michael Jerome plays the drums and percussion on four of the songs from the Moonlight Project I am creating with Peter Fox and Steve McCormick in Venice. Actually, those four songs now have over 23 versions combined, so we’re cloning him into smaller versions of himself, or wider versions, or wilder or quieter. Links, son coming! I played him a version of “Starfall” on which no rhythm track is discernible, nothing but voice and a Hammond organ through a Leslie speaker. And he was ever gracious, effusive, not missing the beats at all.

Back from Iberia

Fritz calls two hours after I get off the plane and says he has a ticket, and in one of those sublime rides in life where everything you think is going to happen actually does happen but not any of it in the way you think it will, each twist changing what comes next and stretching your memory in odd ways to alter what and how you will remember your journey, I find myself in front of Taj Mahal and Los Lobos, 11 people on stage, doing the strangest – but loveliest – version of ‘Guantanamera’ that I ever witnessed.

It is tempting to say that my 15 days following and shooting and interviewing some of the world’s best musicians has led me to a greater appreciation of live music, but 15 days is nothing, an exhalation, barely, and even the past year immersed in my own doomed labyrinth of song composition (144 versions of 12 songs!), also with some amazing musicians, has educated but not revealed, shown but not explained; to some people my weird interaction with music looks like a field PhD, but it is barely even Music 101. A freshman from the audience, there are things I wish to know about music but which I will never ever comprehend.

Los Lobos is bone tired. They fly today to Vancouver to start a new leg of a brutal tour. The lead singer has a cold and his voice, already thin, barely sketches out the band’s songs. There is heated remonstrations for the drummer, a plump 20-something who looks like a roadie and has to be replaced for a cumbia song by Louie Perez, a fabulous guitarist, who started drumming on a single snare and whose style has evolved into a simplistic timing, a battery of reluctant rhythms, wishing instead to be out front, a pint-size Nils Lofgren who would rather have his contributions soaring beyond or at least above the melodies rather than tickling without notice beneath. It is easy for the intellectual to sneer at this tired show; but my feet are moving, and I dance through the songs waiting for a couple of Latin gems: ‘Volver’ and ‘Estoy Sentado Aqui,’ to which I can furiously write my own songs of loss (and love) and jealousy (and love). The music on stage is clunky, the band a shadow of themselves, but then I remember a night spent with Flaco Jimenez where he dragged me and Sandra onstage with him to convince us he could be the star of our next movie if only somebody had the balls to give him a break, and he looks like Clark Gable, right up until the Los Lobos band members forced him into the first fantastic keys of ‘Volver’ which he then thundered through on his accordion, making love to everyone he could see or within hearing distance. My memory of several days spent with Los Lobos overwhelms the reality of what I am seeing now, but then a lesson kicks in:

Pablo Casals said about a cello string that it sounds best, is most resonant and sympathetic, just before it breaks. And this rule of music-making hits home, courtesy of my Music 101 freshman-in-headlights experiences of the past year: youth is wasteful in rock and roll. The energy and power that turns me on does not leave much room for the essential act of listening to music rather than seeing it. Listening live, in front of the band or player, is made better by a factor directly related to the player’s experience and craftsmanship. You can add ‘vibe,’ but vibe without craft is not much more than bad reggae.

So I am out to listen to music, rather than see it; with my eyes closed, I sense the fatigue of being Los Lobos for another night, making sure to remember to thank the right city into the microphone as two huge buses idle outside, waiting for the getaway. Hidalgo is 56, so is Rojas; Perez is 57. Do they want to spend another night sleeping in a bunk, smelling somebody else’s socks? But their experience is so deep that their songs and playing survive their own disinterests: as I followed the drummer Michael Jerome through his responsibilities for Better Than Ezra, then Richard Thompson, and then John Cale, during the past month, I learned repeatedly that musicians must evolve, must look for new risks and still court failure, embrace the fuck-ups and push into new territory, to be a woodsman seeking new game, a 21st century Daniel Boone wandering ever forest-ward, into unknown shadows, rather than sitting as a fat cat ruling over your own backyard, and so much music, built on a hit song or two, is ruined by this reluctant complacency, the tyranny of comfort (as I am always repeating, as my own step grows unsteady). It makes seeing Fishbone or Massive Attack enormous disappointments for me, as I realize they cannot really change, that there was never enough depth melodically to fill their shallows rhythmically.

But this is intellectual mumbo-jumbo of the worst type. Music, in a curious way still the youngest science, inscrutable beyond only six or seven thousand years ago, provides the best recipes for memory and memory’s tireless engine: longing. The keening for new places, the desire to touch somebody’s skin, to kiss a neck and feel electric at someone’s intent as you record the lyrics of the moment that you invent:

I wanted to be loved,in your velvet dreams, but never was, and now never will be

Music still bakes me into the who I am becoming, and aged music by properly cooked musicians is probably the mind’s finest wine, and certainly the soul’s chief spirit, and I forgive Los Lobos their transgressions and manage to watch their decades of craft even if what I hear is not really something I wish to be listening.

And this is my peculiar jail, as it is for most people who have read this far (thank you!), in that I will always be an audience, always a listener, and even though musicians, real ones, the older pros, play for their listeners and not for themselves, I would still rather be the poet with a guitar under a tree on a sunny day, singing pieces of myself in a world structured by my very own songs. In my case, the melodies would carry endless surprise, and my lyrics be about the beauty of sadness.

Before jetting off to Brussels to hook up with Jerome, I was furiously involved in two things: making a true story come to life about a molester who has stolen my friend’s skin as well as her identity which she is now very, very craftily wresting back, at the cost of an entire family (but this is another story), and watching every piece of youtube and vimeo of cellists trying to get through Bach’s solo suites for the instrument: Casals found the music in a tiny shop in Barcelona, went over the strategies of playing it in stunned wonder, and took 35 years of sitting on an unknown genius work whose very first part is now instantly recognizable to anyone, endlessly employed by Hollywood and bookstores of a certain high-mindedness (or shabbiness, now that I think of it), before nervously recording the suites at 48 years old. I watched every cellist I could find on the Net, playing all these pieces, but could not pry styles apart unless I closed my eyes and listened.

The hardest thing for any speaker, especially one like me, brimming with secrets, is to invest in listening, but I have done it for years, sometimes effortlessly, but not as rigorously as I should when it comes to music. This is a gift of becoming older, I suppose, listening better, but is also caused by music’s desire to be heard. The better it is played, for longer, by people who surrender to its thrall, music rewards its listeners with broader memory and sharper instincts, and with a desire that can only be compared to a private kind of despair.

I drove last night through Extremadura in a frost lining the mountain route dividing Portugal from Spain, eight hours to the Madrid airport, after sleeping only four hours on Saturday night (after a raucous afterhours dinner of salad and chorizo and a brilliant interplay with Jerome and John Cale’s meteoric guitarist, Dustin Boyer, who did an exotic number as Tom Waits in which the chief lyric was the brilliant, ‘Oh! If only I had Bruce’s career’), and then rescuing the scuba diver (another longish story, later and better) from a sudden strike of the trains, taking her south to Porto so she could be on time to teach Monday morning, eight hours without radio or iTunes. Songs played in my head the entire time, new and old songs, as I boiled my strategies for this new calendar of possibilities, already two months gone. And it seems as if life keeps calving into more mysterious selves; time is expanding to allow for greater possibilities, and this music needs no accompaniment, no instrument, no sheets of direction, just the full attention of an author.

Four times, in the past two years, I have driven across North America without once turning on the radio (except in Indianapolis to monitor the ‘land hurricane’ into which I stupidly drove, in a rush for somewhere that almost killed me). And all four times, the trip ended with me singing a different song about my future. This last jet across Extremadura, when essentially my Ibiza 900 sprouted wings and the steering columns of angels, has me now singing about listening better to songs, to be tuned not only to what the songs offer the listener, but, most critically, to what the listener must demand from a song so that the song might come to truly understand how to express itself.

That last line, for example, has just now written itself. I had nothing to do with it. I will never remember it or quote it or probably even show it to anybody, but it is like the last crash of cymbals after a jam: a song must learn how to speak, and then, after that, what to say. Only listeners can appreciate this wondrous alchemy.

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Many people have wondered what I am up to with Michael Jerome (and parenthetically with BTE and RTB and John Cale), and there is so much to reveal but that must remain as secret confidences, so the story of keeping time as I see it in Jerome’s hands and reflexes will emerge in the visuals of Extremadura (and Amsterdam, and Pennsylvania and the rocky ends of Europe on Portugal’s coast, where sailors looked at the sunset and wondered what it would take to know the treasures of faraway forests) and now possibly of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, where Jerome has encouraged our crew to just show up and make a movie about a four-day party in which music is the sole invitee. The story will emerge in these sorts of notes, too, here on Facebook or on my website, which will coalesce into a book or a PDF or some other Barnes & Noble mischief available for $3.95 a download, or perhaps remain as simply a conversation between two people who are obsessed with time and its microcosmic structures and macrocosmic implications.

A movie is being made, nominally about the nature of drumming in the guise of a particular practitioner, Michael Jerome Moore, who even in this long essay is here as its backbeat, relentlessly powerful and yet still reliably nuanced, and maybe if I’m really really really lucky the movie will be confused for being an experiment rather than an entertainment, and I will certainly keep you posted as this possibility develops.

Thanks for the lovely notes of encouragement and enthusiasm: a writer withers without witnesses, and I am lucky for friends and lovers who urge these words to sprout.

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Notes to the notes:

‘Guantanamera’ is a tiresome tourist ditty that amazingly hails from the place George Bush set up for waterboarding and other tortures, but the song is about being dissed by a babe, and the defense of the singer is to attempt to explain his crude overtures as the lures of a gentle man from a beautiful country. Watching Taj Mahal’s lead was different . . .

I call music the youngest science because it is bound to stay mysteriously unproven, despite stratospheric advances in evolutionary biology. Anyone searching for the history of drumming, for instance, runs up into a vast nothing before ten thousand years ago, or about the time sedentary civilizations allowed for priests and religions in a challenge to the predominant ‘scavenger gatherer’ lifestyle. A bone flute, carved from a vulture carcass, dates to about 35,000 years ago, just after an interesting mutation in homo sapiens’ brain that may be related to music ability and its acquisition. Music is certainly a part of our ancestors’ ability to wipe out the Neanderthals, whose ability to speak I think is probably similar to what we see today in severe autism; people able to gather to make music would be much more likely to be more cohesive militarily than people who cannot. And drumming’s more modern origins as a call to arms as well as a confusion for the enemy underlines music’s role as warfare’s most useful weapon. It is hard not to laugh when people credit Reagan with the fall of the Soviets: blue jeans and rock and roll were the tools of the west, not a doddering fool whose alzheimer’s made fully half of his presidency the joke history already remembers it for being. 

A brilliant new book about Bach’s cello suites is out, by Eric Siblin, and while the suites are fab and Bach’s obscurity in his own time fascinating to contemplate, it is Casals who emerges as the most interesting story: A Catalan, he was so outraged by the world’s recognition of Franco’s fascism that he refused to play publicly for decades in the USA or in Europe’s capitals; he fell in love with a teenager when he was an old, old man, married her and finally got to Cuba, his family’s motherland, before dying. Though another interesting aspect of the book is Bach’s canny handling of his sons: it is his son Wilhelm Friedemann, brilliant organist, who kept Bach’s music from falling into utter unknown, and Wilhelm paid for it by himself dying in dark poverty.

On Jerome’s reflexes: He and the scuba diver played a game in which one person’s hands are flat, palms raised, while the other puts his hands palms down on top, as the first player then tries to slap the hands of the second before they are withdrawn. I played the cockney version as a youth, when knuckled fists pressed together replaced the open palms, with sharp raps instead of slaps, bone instead of skin. Jerome’s reflexes are lightning quick, and he easily dominates me, a surprise since I never ever lose at this game of quickness and ambush; but when I cross over to punch his left fist with my right fist, he is impressed. “I’ve been hanging with the wrong people all my life,” he says, as he prepares to pay me back. “Let’s try a crossover!”

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Leaving Madrid to the wild west, Extremadura. Anguished flamenco on radio, new turbo diesel has only 500 miles, first stop is with truckers at smelly joint for Manchego and chorizo and bread we can only imagine anywhere other than Spain!

Amsterdam: The frenzy of being me stops. I am walking to the Van Gogh to look long & hard at his Wheat Field with Crows, his deathsong. But filming one of the world's great guitarists for 3 days has me filled with hope & vim. And conversations with one of the world's great drummers has me keeping time a bit more wisely.

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It's 7am in Pittsburgh, and we have a movie on our hands: mental gymnastics in gritty snowy neighborhood followed by 837 pictures I take of Better Than Ezra & drummer Michael Jerome, with two hrs hi def, amazing hammering of skins & cymbals. Exhausted.

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