I find it appropriate this week to dive deep into something that has been true about Ellison since she arrived. The girl is crazy active. When she was in the womb, she was always kicking. When she came into the world, she was running in place. If you put her on her back, all limbs would be in circular motion like an overturned beetle. Ellison had to be moving. It wasn’t until one day while on her back that we found a way to harness this energy. She was on her back and her feet were stomping downward on the floor. We had the idea to place a kid’s first piano, a four-key keyboard, under her feet so that she could make her own music. Once she located the piano under her feet and recognized that it was her making the sound, a fascination was born. Of course, mommy and daddy like to think a fascination was born. Only time will tell. As she found her way up from her back to her butt, though, the instrument options began to widen. Now that she’s sitting on her heinie, she can use her arms, her hands…her head (although not advised).
One day, while out shopping, my lovely wife found a package of assorted percussive instruments for babies. A triangle, a maraca, a tambourine. I thought it was a good idea. All were of a size that she could easily handle (the small metal rod, however, that you strike the triangle with was a hazard so we tossed it out…and didn’t need Matt Lauer to tell us to do so) and were of an acumen that a seven-month old could easily figure out. You shake a maraca, you strike the triangle (and then put your mouth on it) and you pound that tambourine until it bleeds. And, that she did.
As a son of two musicians and relative to many more, I’ve always fantasized about Ellison playing an instrument. It’s an unfair thing that parents do, I guess. You want your child secretly or not-so secretly to do something that interests you. My wish is that she plays an instrument. I thought, at first, a horn or some sort. I know she likes the sax because of her early obsession with Fela Kuti. Of course, family trade is either in stringed instruments or keys. But given the recent and early mastery of the tambourine (which she actually does more mouthing on than actual playing), it’s got me leaning a little more toward percussion…our little drummer.
Which brings us to this week’s Girls are Cool. Let’s talk about the female drummer. The drumming world hasn’t always been so nice to women. I mean, let’s face it, the female drummer is still a novelty. Some sort of object of affection for the many men in the audience that find it wildly sexy that a girl can play drums (same as guys finding it sexy that a woman is into football…or at least acts like she does to submit to his interests). Or if a woman plays drums well, it’s met with a “aw, that’s cute” like kid sister’s playing on her older brother’s drum set again. Or further more, it’s where her being a girl gets in the way of her being measured as a drummer. She’s a “good female drummer” or “good for a girl.” But she’s never measured on same level of John Bonham or Keith Moon because, let’s face it, girls just can’t play on that level. They get to sit at the little kid’s table. Junior varsity band.
When girls dare to go where they’re not supposed to, they often achieve greatness. And girls are cool because when they fearlessly post themselves on top of that drummer’s stool and begin to bang, there’s very little that stands in their way. Maybe there’s some truth to the stigma of a girl drummer. Because when girls do it, it’s so much cooler. Here you have these prim and proper girls who have been taught their whole lives to sit upright, be quiet, mind your manners, don’t interrupt, those are things boys do, those are things men do and then you look up and here’s this woman with Goliathan arms hunched over a trap kit just obliterating by pounding out centuries of oppression while 15,000 people bang their head until their noses bleed and their jaws won’t close. That’s pretty awesome.
In honor of women’s accomplishments in the percussive realm, I decided to assemble a All-World Woman Drummer Dream Team.
Sandy West (Power Forward)
With her broad shoulders and beastly frame, Sandy West of the Runaways was like 50 sticks of dynamite behind the kit. She didn’t play the drums, she beat them into submission. At the age of 16, she formed the Runaways by searching Cali for like-minded women who wanted to wreck faces with aggressive rock music. She met Joan Jett and the rest is history. When the group disbanded, Sandy unfortunately couldn’t find another gig while Joan Jett and Lita Ford went on to become the sexy idols to millions of mulletted white trash men. Sandy West admits to breaking the arms of people who were in debt to her while struggling to stay afloat financially. In 2006, she succumbed to lung cancer, but not before she left her mark on rock music forever.
Linda McDonald (Shooting Guard)
Linda McDonald, the vicious and Animal-like rhythmic force behind the Iron Maidens (an obvious tribute band), is likely one of the best kept secrets in women rock drummers. This woman annihilated the drums with speed, exactness and unparalleled strength. There’s very little denying Linda McDonald’s incredible abilities as a drummer, but what’s greater is her showomanship. Her flailing limbs and tireless headbanging makes her an entertaining fixture on stage only overshadowed by the crude Eddie that walks out onto stage in that video. But really, who can top that? Linda McDonald…what frightening talent! Great Falls, Montana representin’!
Kate Schellenbach (Center)
Back when the Beastie Boys were a thrash band consisting of three boys and one girl, Kate Schellenbach was a wrecking ball of a drummer. Fast and nasty, Kate would scrape, claw and throw elbows to get that rock under the rim. As aggressive as young drummers would come, Kate was built to kill and while the Beastie Boys +1 never made it out of the small clubs of NYC, her short-lived life as a thrashing drummer later was transformed into a cooler and mellower drummer for Luscious Jackson.
Karen Carpenter (Point Guard)
As George puts it, Karen Carpenter was a “bitch of a drummer.” Somehow, I knew exactly what he meant. She was. Often unrecognized as being a phenomenal drummer, Karen Carpenter was like the Buddy Rich of women drummers. She was tight. Her rigid playing marveled audiences. She was incredibly quick and on point. Pint-sized and frail from an eating disorder (which would later kill her), Karen Carpenter could was like a jazz drummer on methamphetamines. That video perfectly captures her ability to play any drum you put in front of her and all with a smile pasted on her face. She was some kinda monster.
Patty Schemel (Forward)
As the drummer for Hole, Patty made a name for herself as a locked-and-loaded assassin of the drums. Reliable, on-point and ubercool, Patty actually once was tabbed as a leading candidate for the Nirvana drumming slot before the whole scene blew up in the nineties. Patty was a pivotal figure in the Olympia/Seattle scene drumming for a handful of bands before riding the wave to a drumming spot for Courtney Love’s band Hole. Later feeling the pressures of playing in the band and a whirlwind of extraneous circumstances led her to a heroin addiction and she continues today as a strong figure in the community battling addictions. As a drummer, there was very little touching her.
Mo Tucker (Sixth Woman)
In late game scenarios, you could always count on Maureen Tucker. The drummer for the Velvet Underground, Mo’s underwhelming and minimalist approach to drumming was often overlooked and overshadowed by Lou Reed and the band’s very visual and hallucinogenic antics. But she held it down. She avoided overdoing the job as drummer not even using cymbals claiming that her job was to “keep time” and nothing else. Mo did just that at a time where female’s sang or played tambourine at the very most (Davey Jones included). Mo proved that it wasn’t how big your kit was, it was how you used it. Don’t sleep on Mo.
Sheila E (Special Ops, Auxiliary)
Sheila E holds down Auxiliary Percussion for this squad. While her resume will fully exhibit her talents a full-on drummer, girl can also work any percussive instrument like a part-time job. Plus, she had the looks and sexiness to outshine Prince as her, er, his protege for the Purple Rain years…hard role to hold and even harder to survive which she did successfully. When she’s not wowing audiences with her incredible drum solos (imagine thousands of gawking fifty-somethings trying to dance to her drum solos…something I’ve come to expect of fifty-something concert goers: dancing to drum solos) or popping up on daytime television, she’s participating in various philanthropic and charity events and is an advocate for abused children through a foundation called Elevated Hope. Sheila E holds it down like crazy on all fronts.
Girls are cool because girl drummers put it down.