The Rise and Fall of “Rough Draft” | Carol Severino
Anybody who sings karaoke, knows three guitar chords, or pounds away at the drums harbors fantasies of becoming a rock star. I was no different. What did it matter that I was over forty and the mother of two young sons? Who cared that my college day job demanded that I write scholarly books? I didn’t want to be an academic; I wanted to be a drummer in a famous rock band. Of course my first choice would have been to be the lead singer—that young, slim, sexy chick gyrating in front of the band, shaking her hips in tight capris and her head of wild hair like a demon possessed. But since I wasn’t young, slim, or sexy, nor could I sing or dance, I sat at the drums behind the rest of the band, moving only my hands and feet.
My big chance to become a rock star drummer arrived when I re-connected with my friend Thomas, a Rumanian bass player I had jammed with years earlier in the English graduate students’ band, “Rough Draft.” Thomas invited me to play in a new group with him and two guitarists: Matthew, a neurologist at the university hospital, and Ken, a junior high social studies teacher. With his thick glasses and short, salon-cut hair, Matthew looked every bit the yuppie physician. He was confident, outgoing, and talkative, while handsome, longhaired hippy Ken was the silent type—until he sang—when he suddenly became expressive and articulate. Matthew and Ken played classic rock standards, but also composed and arranged their own “originals.” For this new band, we revived the name “Rough Draft” because our day jobs included writing or teaching writing and also because our music had the raw energy of an initial artistic effort. Our sound might have lacked the polish of a final draft, but we preferred thinking of ourselves in terms of fervor than error.
I was invited to drum because Matthew and Ken’s old band “Nerve Tonic” had mysteriously lost its drummer. The guys didn’t talk about what happened to him, but later I found from out from Thomas that he had shot himself. I tried not to think of what his suicide could mean for the band and me and our future as I designed schemes for us to become famous.
In order to rise to fame, or at least “to play out,” meaning somewhere else besides Matthew’s basement, I strategized that first we had to conquer our persistent problem of low self-esteem. I don’t know why we thought that the four of us by ourselves weren’t enough to play at your average country or student bar. Was it Matthew’s voice that sometimes cracked? Was it Ken’s shyness? Thomas’s accent? My inability to sing words and play rhythms at the same time, not counting “Doo, wah, doo” and “Ride Sally Ride”? An over-reliance on four chords and Neil Young cover songs? It was something we never discussed. For me, Matthew on lead and Ken on rhythm were a perfect combination, Ken, supported by Thomas and me, providing the foundation, and Matthew, the improvisation. I thought we didn’t need anyone else, but I was new to the band, so I kept my mouth shut.
Matthew found those supplemental musicians through his many contacts at the university hospital: there was the dentistry student/keyboard and sax player who played with us until he graduated; the nurse/soprano sax player who accompanied us with complex, subtle jazz solos until he couldn’t stand our brash loudness anymore; the high school girl who sang country songs with us—the niece of Matthew’s secretary in neurology. We were a Rough Draft with too many additions cluttering us up.
With a married couple that Matthew found—Patti and Don—he was a hospital lab tech and she a stay-at-home mom—it seemed that we had all the ingredients we supposedly lacked: keyboard and saxophone plus female lead singer. But Don had talent, and Patti didn’t. She certainly had the looks of a lead singer—young, pretty, and blond—but she strayed far out of tune when she tried to hit the high notes. For each rehearsal, maybe to compensate for her lack of musical ability, she brought homemade food: at first, cookies and bars, but when she sensed that her days with the band were numbered, she prepared entire three-course meals. To one rehearsal, she also brought her violin, which sounded like a cat caught in a car engine.
When we were playing at the bowling alley bar of a nearby rural town, the only place we had found to gig in those days (the neurology secretary knew the owner), Patti was at the microphone talking with the patrons, inviting them to dance because the floor was empty. “Do you have any requests?” she asked.
“Sure, we have a request,” called out the manly female bartender-comedienne who had opened for us with a string of dirty jokes. “We want someone who can sing!”
“You foul-mouthed creep!” Patti screamed, running at the bartender-comedienne with fists flying. Matthew grabbed one of her arms, Don the other, preventing a bar fight that would surely have attracted the police.
It was time for me to speak up. “We’ve got to get rid of Patti,” I urged my three original bandmates, even though we’d be losing Don’s talents (not to mention the cookies and meals). She was a liability and an obstacle to our, or at least to my big plans and ambitions. We wanted to play in our university town’s bars, with a better educated clientele, not in a bowling-alley whose clients would rather bowl or watch TV sports than try to hear us through the crack of balls crashing against pins. During the NCAA basketball championship game, the owner promised that he’d pay us extra if we waited until the game ended to play.
Finally, thanks to my astute marketing efforts, we got better gigs. The best bar-restaurant in town was The Grill, a place where people went to listen to good quality live music, not to watch TV sports, a place where nationally famous musicians played. A place that paid a band to play, not not to play. At our first Grill gig, we filled the room with fans, the majority my friends and family. I felt a little guilty because I knew that in order to hear us they had to pay to enter and then buy drinks and food. When I looked down from the stage, I realized that although they were enjoying themselves—eating pizza, drinking beer, getting up to dance, and applauding loudly when we played our “originals,” they were also doing me a favor. In between sets, they further encouraged us, knowing how nervous we were.
“I love the way you close your eyes when you play the drums, like you’ve gone into the zone,” said a member of my softball team, hitting on the main reason I played with Rough Draft—the sensation of euphoria in me that our music produced.
“You guys do a great Folsom Prison Blues, especially when Ken tells Matthew, ‘Torture me,’” praised my husband.
“You really rock out on those Neil Young songs, especially Powderfinger,” said my baby boomer buddies from work.
Some attractive young college girls I didn’t know were also in the audience. It seemed they had only come to listen to or, rather, stare at Ken, as he embraced the microphone, barefoot on his tippy toes, to sing another mournful love song. He seemed to enjoy their attention because he chatted and laughed with them when we were on break.
In my promo work, I capitalized on the name “Rough Draft” to get gigs at parties held at professional writing conferences. Sure, Matthew had gotten us work every year playing at the Neurosurgeons’ Halloween Party, the doctors dressed as devils, ghosts, and clowns, but I knew that we could do better.
At a meeting of my own professional organization of writing teachers at The Palmer House in Chicago, a huge crowd came to the party, not just my friends doing me a favor, but well-known professors and writers, dancing or standing around chatting about their work. I had always felt inferior to the scholars at that academic conference since I’m not much of a theorist. Now they would know that at least I could multitask with my hands and feet! I felt that Rough Draft had achieved the recognition I wanted, and I hoped it would last.
But one Sunday, when we arrived at Matthew’s house to rehearse for a second Grill gig, Matthew pointed to the giant stuffed couches and chairs in his huge living room and told us to sit down instead of heading for the basement with our equipment. What was up?
“The good news is that I’ve been offered a better job in another university hospital in the south, and my family and I will be headed there in two months. The bad news is that I won’t be able to practice with you guys as much, but I still want to keep playing with the band.”
I was shocked. What he was doing was unfair, especially when the band was starting to become known. What a selfish person he was! Plus, he was threatening my spare identity as rock drummer—a respite whenever my roles as scholar, teacher, mother, or wife felt less than rewarding.
“How could you decide to make that change without consulting us first? What’s more important—your career or the band?” I asked. Immediately I realized what a ridiculous a question that was—comparing a job that reduced suffering and saved lives, a job that earned him and his family a six-digit annual salary, with one that could earn him at most a few hundred a year.
In the ensuing long pause, I came up more reasonable, less accusatory question, and managed to ask it in a more controlled tone of voice. “How can you keep playing with us if you live 600 miles away?”
“I’ll fly back to rehearse and play the gigs with you. It’ll be just like before.”
“We can make it work. We can send one another recordings of songs back and forth,” I was surprised to hear Thomas say. How could he be such an optimist? Ken said nothing. What did he think about losing his musical soul-mate? I sensed that this new long-distance situation was doomed.
We tried playing concerts with Matthew, his crazy doctor’s schedule, and his unpredictable flights. At a writing center conference, we waited in agony until he rushed into the auditorium and onto the stage exactly when the gig was supposed to start. He was always too busy to fly in early to practice with us, so he didn’t blend with us well when we performed. And contrary to what he and Thomas had proposed, we never exchanged recordings.
We couldn’t practice without a lead guitar player, so I invited Aaron, one of my graduate students, to play with the three of us. Aaron was a faithful Rough Draft fan who always showed up at our gigs. One time when he was listening to us at a bar in a nearby rural town, an entire bachelorette party entered: the girls, their moms, and aunts, everyone already drunk and laughing and batting at one another with plastic, inflatable breasts and penises while they danced to our music. Short but cute, Aaron danced, sandwiched closely in between an inebriated mother-daughter pair, each woman rubbing against him and waving plastic genitalia in the air. Later I remarked to Thomas what a good sport Aaron was, but Thomas said that sandwich dancing was Aaron’s idea of heaven.
Despite his size, Aaron’s power chords made a huge sound on the guitar. His vocals were solid, too, unlike Matthew’s, whose shaky voice Thomas often had to reinforce with his own. Playing along with Aaron’s Latin-style improvised solos on Ken’s songs sent me higher “into the zone” than ever. This new version of Rough Draft could become one of the best bands in the Midwest.
But like any draft, we still had problems. The first was who was going to play the gigs, Matthew or Aaron? To my mind, it had to be Aaron. He was the one practicing with us, and now we were playing Aaron’s songs, not Matthew’s. But with his attitude of entitlement, Matthew thought he still had the right to play our gigs even without practicing with us. When we were taking a rehearsal break the afternoon right before a gig, Thomas tried to arrive at a compromise.
“Why don’t both of you play on stage and switch off on the lead, the other playing chords along with Ken?” Thomas said to Matthew, who had just arrived from the airport. Aaron had gone out for cigarettes.
“No way,” said Matthew. “I told you guys I still wanted to play lead. Why is Aaron even here?”
“Because we can’t practice without a lead guitar player, one who’s in town. You said you’d fly in early to practice with us, but you never do,” I said, sounding more irritated than I wanted to. Matthew, especially his commuter version, seemed to bring out the worst in me.
“How about you guys switch off sets then? Aaron can play the first set with his songs and Matthew, the next, with his,” Thomas tried again. Ken, as usual, remained silent, squirming and smoking. I suspected he missed playing with Matthew.
But Matthew couldn’t be on the same stage with Aaron; he just couldn’t share the lead role.
Without Matthew, Ken was losing interest in the band, while at the same time his personal life was falling apart. He left his wife of 25 years and moved to the little apartment attached to Thomas’s house. He arrived late to rehearsals, began to drink more, and sometimes forgot the words and the chords—to his own songs! Once when I mentioned the future dates of our already booked gigs and the out-of-town jobs I was negotiating in nearby towns, he got upset.
“Why do we have so many gigs? I don’t have the time, and I sure don’t want to take even more time to travel.” So much for my hours of hard work researching and arranging jobs for us. Why hadn’t he told me that earlier? Why did he only communicate when he was singing?
Most of all, he didn’t like the complicated new arrangements of his songs, especially Aaron’s solos.
“What we’re doing is way too complex. I didn’t write my songs for an orchestra. I wrote them for myself.”
It was like what can happen when you delete one section of a draft and replace it with another. At first you think it’s better, but when you look at it again, it’s actually worse. Here I was blaming Matthew and Ken for weakening the band, but was it me with my persistent phone calls to bar owners and my loyalty to Aaron? Was my ambition ruining us?
Next, Ken took up with Mina, one of the college girls who had come to our first Grill gig. She was half his age, younger than his own daughters. She was also jealous of the band. Sometimes she came to practice and sat on the floor right beside Ken, trying with her bedroom eyes to take his attention away from the music and from us. One time during a break, they disappeared into the apartment and didn’t return, while Thomas, Aaron and I, sitting in the basement smoking-break room, tried to figure out what we should do.
“What could they be doing in Ken’s room all that time?” asked Aaron, laughing and lighting a cigarette.
“This is way too much like Yoko Ono and the Beatles,” I said, not sharing his sense of humor. “Mina wants to destroy the band. At least when you got divorced, Thomas, you did it without affecting the band. Why does Ken have to make his mid-life crisis so public? We don’t have time for this. The songs still aren’t tight enough for The Grill.”
“Let’s knock on the door and ask them to come out,” said Thomas, putting out his first cigarette and lighting another.
“What if we yell fire?” Aaron suggested.
We went upstairs through Thomas’s living room to the entrance to Ken’s apartment and pressed our ears to the door. We heard low voices and sobbing.
“Ken, Mina, let’s practice a little more. We just need about an hour to tighten things up,” we begged.
“There’s more beer in my car. I’ll go get it.”
“I’ll go for some take-out burgers.”
“How about I just heat up that eggplant?” offered Thomas. He always prepared Rumanian food for us—much tastier than Patti’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
At first no one answered, but then Ken called out, “Give us 15 minutes.” We ate our eggplant and waited. An hour later, they emerged, Mina with her face and eyes swollen and red.
Thomas tried to re-interest Ken in the band by getting him to help build a music studio in his basement where we practiced. For a while it seemed like his strategy might be working; Ken liked construction and was fascinated by Thomas’s fancy recording equipment and the idea of rehearsing with earphones and controlling his own sound mix. He came to a few more practices, but then he told Thomas that he had decided he only wanted to sing and play for himself.
Ken’s leaving meant the demise of “Rough Draft.” Soon after, Aaron fell in love with a doctor from the hospital and like Matthew, left for another state, quitting his graduate program. Thomas and I were an orphaned rhythm section. We were always searching for two “parent” guitar player/singers, but every time we thought we‘d found them, we lost them again.
More than fifteen years have passed. Now Thomas plays with other bands, and I have joined a community drum circle, which pays more, but is a far cry from the glamour I dreamed of. When friends who haven’t seen me in a while ask about “Rough Draft,” and I tell them I now play in a drum circle, they look at me with pity. For a couple of months, some of the thrills came back when I got to sub for a drummer in a “geezer” rock band of 60-somethings going on 19, with their booze, drugs, off-color jokes, and army stories. But their former drummer returned along with his girlfriend who wanted to sing lead, causing inevitable irreconcilable differences, and after three decades of playing together, that band broke up, too.
Matthew has changed jobs again, and also wives, and now lives even further away whereas Ken has long since forgotten his own songs, but has gone back to his wife. In the studio, Thomas and I have been redoing the drum parts on old studio recordings of Rough Draft’s songs to finally and belatedly produce the old group’s first CD. Listening and playing along, karaoke-like, to a virtual Rough Draft—Ken’s melancholy blues and Matthew’s passionate leads—makes me long for my rock drummer identity, the euphoria, the zone. How I miss that drummer’s high.
Carol Severino directs the Writing Center at the University of Iowa. Her creative work has appeared in Best Travel Writing 2012 (Travelers’ Tales), Voices in Italian Americana, Minnetonka Review, and other magazines. In her leisure time, she drums, swims, and walks along the lake and in the woods with her dog.