When I was seven my mom started sending me to day camp.
Day camp was like the for-cheapies version of summer camp – and my mother, who was a zen master of thrift, loved a good deal. She liked it because you could send one’s kids to day camp on a selected set of weeks, as the day camp – run out of a nearby middle school – offered different “sessions,” each with a theme (pirates, ghosts, cowboys, that sort of thing) and a different Big Fun Trip for the kiddies, and she could stagger around the annual family vacation (two weeks in Maine, a state I would gladly absorb into Canada as a province were I given the opportunity). Be that big fun trip to African Lion Safari (a concept I thought was amazing then and am still impressed by, although I have to wonder where they put the lions in the wintertime) or CentreVille on the Toronto Islands (WARNING: incredibly lame music on site, and also it sucked a lot less when I was a kid) or just a trip to the local Chuck E. Cheese (I always asked for the Chuck E. Cheese session, which never seemed to conflict with our vacation), it was always pretty awesome for a seven-year old.
Of course, from my mom’s perspective, the price of the day camp sessions was probably justified by getting me out from underfoot. But I digress.
The second year I was there, when I was eight, during one of the sessions’ free-time periods, a bunch of us put aside the dodgeballs and discovered that the school in which our day camp was situated had left their music room unlocked. Now, you might think that leaving a large number of musical instruments in the hands of seven-to-nine-year-olds might be a recipe for disaster, but we hardly broke anything. This was mostly because of Felix. Felix had bushy brown hair and a weird sort of combination of cleft lip and overbite, which resulted in him looking something like a chipmunk. His younger brother (whose name I don’t remember) had almost exactly the same features, so it looked like Felix had a younger clone following him around.
But none of that mattered, because Felix was a kid with a dream. Felix saw the musical instruments – recorders and xylophones and tamborines and a ukelele and many others – and turned to the rest of us, busy investigating to see what all these things did when you hit them with a mallet. He had no mallet in his hand. Instead, he had a gleam in his eye. And he said:
“We’re going to start a band.”1
He had plans almost immediately. Every day at noon, the day camp counsellors would explain to us in the school’s gym/auditorium while we ate our bagged lunches what activities we would be doing that afternoon. Felix ignored the “gym” portion of that fact and focused on the “auditorium.” There was a stage. Felix knew he wanted to be on that stage. He went to one of the counsellors and quickly negotiated a performance: our band would appear after announcements that Friday. This gave us four days to practice.
I immediately decided that I was not going to perform badly, so that limited my options, mostly because I already knew that I was not very good at playing the recorder. However, I found a snare drum, and immediately figured out that no matter how much I might suck at playing anything melodic, I sure as shit could hit the drum really well. I immediately declared myself the band’s drummer and “chief percussionist.” I also experimented with playing the drum while using a pair of maracas as drumsticks. Clearly, I was an avant-garde drummer, ahead of my time. Had Buddy Rich ever thought to use maracas as drumsticks? I imagined myself explaining to Buddy Rich, “well, I thought that the drum made sounds and the maraca made sounds, so why not make two sounds with every swing?” And then Buddy Rich would introduce me to the Muppets.
Felix, for his part, had taken up the ukelele. It may have been elemental wisdom on his part – realizing that no matter how shit you are, you can strum a ukelele and nonetheless not sound like total crap. Of course, it might also have been that Felix was powerfully involved with his visions of rocking that auditorium, and even at nine he knew you can’t rock an auditorium without a guitarist. And given that he was, after all, only nine, the ukelele was practically guitar-sized. He practiced his jumping-strums and rocking out on his back, and although I didn’t know it at the time – as I didn’t really start following popular music until my teens – looking back on it I now understand that he was aping Angus Young.
The other band members fell into place quickly. Martin, a kid I knew from school, had three triangles of different sizes and pitches. Another kid named Oscar reserved the xylophone. Two boys whose names I never knew volunteered for recorder duty.2 And Felix’s little brother – well, he was going to do something, that much was clear, but what he would contribute remained unclear. I decided not to worry about it. I was concentrating on my drumming-with-maracas. So firmly was I concentrating that I didn’t notice that more people were joining the band, until we numbered about nine different kids.
The first creative schism arrived soon after that, when we debated the band’s name. I particularly wanted to call the band “The Rock Robots.” It made sense. We would rock, and also I liked robots. However, Felix – who had more experience with popular music than I – declared that to be a “baby name,” and insisted that we call the band Adventure. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I mean, people like robots.” But Felix would not be swayed. And really, when we were famous and meeting the Muppets, I reasoned, we could always change the band name later, much like how the Beatles had eventually become Wings.3
Unfortunately, that was only the beginning. Felix had gotten his first taste of power and discovered that he liked it greatly. He demanded that the recorder players “blast” on the recorders. “We’re gonna rock!” he would say, over and over again. Privately I started to question his judgement, both because of his clear dislike for robots or because he refused to tell anybody what his little brother’s role in the band would in fact be. “It’s a surprise,” he would say. “But Felix, if we don’t all work together,” I would respond, having watched the episode of Reading Rainbow where Levar Burton taught us about teamwork three times, “we won’t be organized and the band won’t be good.”
He looked at me with disdain. “Just make sure we’re all in sync. [Little brother's name that I forget] will sing over top of it.” I decided that this wasn’t the time to create drama. (Also, I wasn’t sure what “in sync” meant and I had to ask my mother that night.) But I kept wondering where this band was going. Felix was bringing in more kids from other parts of day camp I barely knew. Martin came up to me the next day and informed me that he was quitting the band because one of the new kids had wanted to play triangles. Felix, I learned, had decreed that the new kid would be our trianglist. He had offered Martin the job of backup singer, which is pretty insulting when you consider that our ostensible lead singer hadn’t informed us yet as to what he would be singing.
But the next day was the last straw. I had been practicing diligently with my maraca-drumming combination, when Felix came up to me, all excited.
“Look what we found!” It was a small Casio keyboard synth, the sort of crappy thing that could only impress a middle-school-aged-kid. Naturally I thought this was the most awesome thing ever. We had a keyboard! We could have cool synth grooves! Like Culture Club!4
“And look at this!” Felix pressed a button, and the keyboard started producing tinny electro-drumbeats. Instantly my self-preservatory instincts kicked in. I expressed guarded enthusiasm, and pointed out that the drumbeats wouldn’t hurt when I was doing my extended maraca solo. Felix looked at me, not quite understanding.
“Don’t you see? Now we don’t need drums. This will be our drums.”
I knew where this was heading, and promptly quit the band before I could be reduced to backup singerdom.
The next day was performance day. I felt grim jealousy as I sat down in the auditorium, eating my peanut-butter sandwich (with crusts, because I was a big kid now and only babies got crusts cut off). I wasn’t in the band any more. It was entirely Felix’ fault that I wasn’t going to get to hang out with Buddy Rich. Martin sat next to me, having had a full extra day to get over losing a shot at stardom and thus being far more relaxed about the whole thing.
The counsellors wrapped up announcements. “And now,” the lead counsellor said with a flourish, “one time only, a very special performance by… Felix and the Adventure!” I’m not sure when Felix got his name put into the band name, but he had managed it somehow. The stage curtain swept open as the kids sitting and eating lunch applauded, because – well, are you going to not clap when you’re eight? Even I clapped, although not for any reason other than to impress Julie, the counsellor on whom I had a crush, with my coolness and grace under fire.
On stage, Felix was already rocking out on his uke, jumping up and down, forgetting to strum it more than a few times. Well, most of them, actually. Oscar stood behind his xylophone, frozen in terror. The recorder kids (now numbering four) were doing an impromptu dance, none of them quite getting the steps in time with each other. The new trianglist, Alex, was dinging his triangle madly – if anybody was going to get blamed for the band tanking, it wasn’t going to be him. (I glanced over at Martin, who looked back at me and nodded as if to say, “well, you have to respect him. That’s triangle.“) There were three other kids there I didn’t even know, one trying to make noise on a trumpet (and failing), one holding the maracas I intended to use as drumsticks but not shaking them with any effort (as a maraca expert, I was not impressed), and the third with a tambourine doing his best Betty Cooper impersonation.
Topping this was Felix’ little brother. He had found a microphone somewhere, but the mike wasn’t plugged into anything. It didn’t matter because, much like his big brother, he was in the zone. He stood at the forefront of the band, posing and stretching and gesturing like a preteen version of Steven Tyler. His eyes were shut, helping him through his performance. He wasn’t singing anything, though. He was just doing the poses and gestures, and occasionally emitting a high-pitched keen.
Nobody was laughing, but that was only because we’d get in trouble if we did. And maybe it was because we all knew that, whatever else, at least Felix had the balls to live out his dream. No, not really, it was the trouble.
A girl I vaguely knew looked over at me and Martin. “Weren’t you a part of this band?”
I instantly knew that this was a time for damage control. “I was originally. But then I saw where they were going with it and got out.”
Martin jumped in with a quick “me too.” The girl lost interest in us as Felix’s little brother jumped from the auditorium down to the gym floor – a whole four feet! – and started doing the whole “point the mike at the audience and get them to sing the parts along with you” shtick. Except, of course, he still wasn’t singing.
I shuffled a little closer to Martin. “I think we got really lucky on this one.” I said it quietly, so nobody would hear us.
“Yeah.” His voice was equally low.
And I never joined a rock band ever again.
Top comment: I imagine this was prompted by MGK drinking a glass of liquor in front of the fireplace in his library full of leather books, dangling a pipe from his other hand and wearing a bathrobe, imagining that Animal would concede he was the better drummer upon meeting the Muppets. – GL
- If you want proof that I was always a precocious child, this is it right here. Because I joined a band when I was eight. Most of you waited until you were teenagers to do that. But here I was, the Doogie Howser of the Failed Musical Attempt life experience. [↩]
- One will note the lack of girls in this band. Rest assured, it was not sexism at hand, but rather I think that seven-to-nine-year-old girls weren’t so goddamned stupid as to think musical excellence would arrive in four days’ time. [↩]
- I was unclear on musical history for a long time. [↩]
- My general musical ignorance aside, everybody knew about the musical importance of Boy George and “Karma Chameleon.” Although I thought the song was called “Comma Chameleon,” which confused me. [↩]