Billy McCall was the main catalyst behind the Chicago zine movement from the early 2000s until his move to New Mexico in 2010. He is currently the front man for Rudest Priest, publishes the Last Night at the Casino zine and produces the Punk Rock, Fuck You! podcast. A version of this originally appeared in Proof I Exist #13. Extra special thanks to Billy for allowing us to use a high school photo. -ed.
The year was some time around 2008 or 2009, and I was drumming in a band called The Hidden Dangers. We were a five-piece rock band, and we’d been gigging around Chicago for some time. Word came in that we had a show lined up opening for a friend of a friend’s band for some birthday bash at a bar in Indiana.
At the time I had no means of transport, so it was arranged that one band mate would take my equipment, and another band mate would take me. These sorts of small gestures between band mates are the glue that hold it all together, and I was very thankful for all the help.
Josh picked me up, and off we went. I’d never ridden in his car before, but it was a two-door, and low to the ground. A stick-shift, the kind of auto that makes a person feel like they’re in an action movie. Also along for the ride was Josh’s girlfriend. Well, I guess that’s what you’d call her. They’d known each other for 2 weeks. He smiled at her a lot. She seemed nice, though maybe just a touch crazy. But Josh seemed a bit crazy as well, I’d always sort of thought that. He was an amazing musician, as a person, I really knew nothing of him. He played bass in a few other bands around town, and we took him on when our former bass player quit on us.
We drove to Indiana, and the conversation getting us there was pleasant. Typical “hey, let’s talk about shit to make the car ride go a bit quicker” type stuff. I was starting to like the girl more and more. She was fun, and spontaneous, and laughed a lot.
We got to the bar, and set up. Before you knew it, we were hammering out our loud, loud sounds. Fast songs about girls and tattoos, the rock n’ roll stuff that will always go over well with a drinking crowd. About the second or third song in, however, there was a bit of a hang up.
Now, I’ve been playing drums since grade school. I’ve played quad-toms in marching bands, vibraphones in jazz ensembles, timpani in classical orchestras, and so forth. I’ve also been the beat-keeper for a list of various bands, most of which were rock or punk in styling. I’ve played a lot of drums in a lot of bands, is the point I’m trying to make here. And in every band I’ve ever played in, at some point something goes wrong. This is true of any person on any instrument. A guitarist might be in the wrong key, a vocalist might forget the words. But with drums, the chances of something going wrong are always higher. Think about what drumming is, for just a minute. You’re using one thing to hit another thing. HIT. HIT.HIT.HIT.HIT.HIT! It’s violent by definition, which is what makes drumming so fucking awesome. But all those hits, they take their toll. In every single band I’ve played in, something, at some point, has broken. Sticks break, or cymbals, or drum heads, or some times screws and wing nuts just come loose and fly off. It happens.
So we’re about two songs into our set, and stuff starts going wrong. At first, it was a dropped stick. Ok, that happens. Drummers are allowed to drop sticks, as long as they don’t drop the beat. I grabbed another stick and kept playing. No problem. About 20 seconds later, the stick I just grabbed breaks, the end flying out into the crowd. Shit. I keep playing with the broken stick as I look around on the ground for the one I had just dropped a bit before. I spot it behind me, and try to quickly make the switch. This was a much tougher move, and a beat or two was definitely lost. Josh, the ever-proficient bass player, turns his back to the crowd for a moment, looking at me to try and figure out just what was going on. But the song, it just keeps a moving on, and for a verse or so, it was sounding pretty good. That’s when I notice one of my cymbals is moving around much more than it should. Unknowingly, one of my swings had caught the plastic fastener that tightens the cymbal to the stand. With each strike, the cymbal would jump up off the peg, seemingly hovering mid-air for just a moment, then drop back down into place. It was a fine little trick, one that only I could notice, but after about 4 or 5 hits, it missed its peg upon returning from flight. The cymbal crashed into the side of the stand, and fell down into drum set, landing right on my floor tom just as I was attempting to play said tom.
Now, as I tell this story, I like to share with you details about the events. To explain them, so you can really picture it from my point of view. I’m sitting at the back of a stage, and in front of me is a drum set. In front of that I see the backs of my four band mates, playing and singing, and doing their best to provide some adrenaline for the crowd as they dance and head-bang and drink booze. I can see everything, it’s all in front of me. Drummers really do have the best seat in the house. But as I’m watching all of this, I’m mostly just trying to deal with my own, personal, musical, crisis. And as slow as I type, or as slow as you read, you must understand that all of these events are actually happening very fast, in the middle of a rock song that is also very fast.
I grab the cymbal and push it off of my drum and continue playing. In only takes 2 or 3 measures for me to realize that my bass pedal is no longer producing any sound. I look down and see that the cymbal I’d just tossed aside somehow fell down into my feet and promptly lodged itself between my pedal and the drum. FUCK! People gotta hear the bass drum thump, it’s what dictates the tempo for which their heart should beat during our rock show!
I lean over and try to grab the cymbal, trying (and failing) to keep a steady rhythm through all of this. Now, as I said, any time you play a show, shit will happen. But of all those bands I mentioned earlier, with all those songs, for all those years that I’ve played, I’ve NEVER had so many fucking things go wrong in ONE FUCKING SONG! And it wasn’t even over yet! While trying to dislodge the cymbal and regain my kick-power, guess what I fucking did? I knocked over my whole snare drum! DOUBLE-FUCKITY-FUCK! The only tool more vital to a rock song than the kick drum is the snare drum! While the kick tells a person’s heart how fast to race, the snare tells your head how fast to bang!
So now I’ve stopped playing completely as I try to reach for my snare drum, which turned on its side and rolled part way across the stage. About that time I bump my hi-hat and knock it over. Ok, this scene is officially some Laural and Hardy bullshit now, and I start laughing my ass off. What else could I do? All of that happened in about a minutes worth of time, and this song was officially fucked. Doomed! Just stop, start over, and get on with the next song.
I stood up, walked around my set, and retrieved my snare drum. It had rolled over by Josh. I was smiling and laughing to myself at this point, sort of a “holy fuck, what a mess” sort of feeling, the realization that I single-handedly just ruined a song. But oh well. It’s only rock ‘n roll, right? I apologized to the other guys in the band, and the crowd as well. I was still having fun. And for the most part everyone was laughing along at the situation. In part, that’s what makes live music so amazing; the possibility that it might all fall apart. You have to have this possibility, because that’s what makes it so good the times when it all works out perfectly. Although that particular song had been lost, the general mood of the crowd was light-hearted.
Josh, on the other hand…. I glanced at him as I picked up my snare. My smile dissipated as he glared back at me. I’d never seen a fire quite like that. It shot out of his eyes and attacked my soul. It was an eye-fire-soul-attack! I shuddered. It gave me the chills, and I scampered back behind my drums to reassemble them. Remember how I said Josh was a great musician? Well, he was. And he expected everyone around him to be as well. It was then that I realized, he wasn’t in this for the rock! He was in it for technical proficiency! Booo!!
Now, technical proficiency has its time and place. It’s important, in a lot of ways, and to a lot of bands. But our band was not one of those bands. We were here to rock. Do you think Andrew WK’s songs are technical masterpieces? No. But they fuckin’ rock!
I sat down, put my drums together, played perfectly for the rest of the set. People loved it. We rocked out, we flew through song after song, and we were drenched in sweat by the end. It was actually a pretty good fuckin’ show!
Our set is done, and I move my drums to the side, and start taking them apart. Various band mates and audience members are coming by to say how much we rocked. I nod and say thank you and continue dismantling my drums as the next band is setting up theirs. That’s about when Josh comes over to me.
“I’m leaving in 5 fucking minutes. You can ride back with me if you want, but I’m leaving in 5 minutes.” Then he walks away. What the fuck?
I get up and go over to him, asking why he wanted to leave so soon, and what the hell his problem was.
“I’m sick of this bullshit band. We come all the way out here, and you just fuck around. We played like shit tonight! It sounded awful!”
I tried to apologize and explain how that one song was fucked, but it wasn’t because I was “fucking around,” it was because everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It happens! I also tried to tell him that people still had fun. But I guess he didn’t have fun. He was having anger management issues instead.
“And as for Sara, go tell her that if she wants a fucking ride, she better get in the god damn car pretty fucking soon. I’m leaving in 5 minutes.” He stormed off. Wow. Okay.
So, I go over to Sara, the girl who rode with us on the way out here.
“Hey, how are you? I don’t know what’s up with Josh, but he seems really pissed. Like, REALLY pissed. He says he’s leaving in 5 minutes.”
“What the hell is wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. He’s pissed at me, and he seems pissed at you, too. I don’t really want to leave yet, but I also don’t want to be stranded in Indiana.” She agreed with this sentiment whole-heartedly. I asked my reasonable band mate if he could finish packing my drums and bring them to my house. He agreed, and I told him I had to get going, and would explain later.
When Sara and I got to the car, Josh was already in it, the engine running. As soon as the door was shut, he put the petal to the metal, throwing gravel all over the place.
As fast as we drove in that sports car on the way out of Chicago, we were going even faster now. Josh and Sara sat in the front, with me in the back, as the car’s speed neared 100 mph. “Dear God,” I thought, “is this how I’m going to die?”
The first 10 minutes was complete silence. Just the revving of that engine. Finally Sara said something.
“Just what the fuck is your problem, anyway!?” Josh answered right away, almost before she’d finished the question.
“I saw you with that guy! You think I didn’t see you flirting the whole night!? I was right there on stage, watching during the whole show while you sat with some stranger! I saw him bring you a drink!”
“You mean the bartender? What the fuck? Who else am I going to get a drink from?”
“If he was the fucking bartender, then why did he sit down at the table?!”
This screaming continued for the next hour as we drove into Chicago. I said absolutely not a word, as Josh swerved around cars one after the other, never letting any of the near accidents distract him from an argument that neither of them could win.
Josh’s style of driving remained constant, even after we were off the interstate and back within city limits. Along with being worried for my own life, I was now worried about the lives those around us. It was 1am on a Friday, a warm Chicago summer night. We drove up Milwaukee Avenue, one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares. All around us people were partying, laughing, and stumbling from bar to bar. Josh screamed out the window at them and honked his horn any time someone stepped into the road. We ran two red lights, then finally stopped at a third. As soon as the car had stopped, Sara flung the door open and jumped out. She took off walking, never saying a word. I admired her bold escape. Had I a door of my own, I might have done the same thing. But I was in the back, and a dangling front seat seatbelt stood between me and that crack of freedom. I knew I’d never make it.
Josh threw the car into gear right away and took off again, not wanting to wait for the light to turn his color. Other cars slammed on their brakes and honked, and he just honked back. The momentum of the car’s take off forced the open door to slam shut, and we were off to the races once again, swerving around people all through Wicker Park. I was certain we were going to hit someone. It’s maybe the only time in my life when I have ever secretly hoped to see a cop.
Remember when I said I didn’t know anything about Josh’s personal life? Well, that’s not exactly true. I happened to recall that he had done some amateur boxing. This bit of information came back to me once he began punching the air as he drove, cursing at people and flipping them off. I doubt anyone might have known what offense they had even caused, the Doppler-Effected “Fuuuuck Youuuuuuuuuuu!” not much of a clue when yelled by some maniac while driving 60 through a residential zone.
Finally, we made it to Logan Square, my neighborhood. It’s amazing how long that car ride seemed, considering how fast we were driving. We weren’t at my house, just somewhat near it. A few blocks maybe. I was perfectly OK, overjoyed, actually, to walk from here. Josh pulled over to the side of the road and reached across to open the passenger door. Without speaking, face red and damp with rage and sweat, he put both hands back on the wheel, and looked straight ahead. I gingerly pushed the passenger seat forward and climbed out of the car. A short moment of silence, then I bent down to speak back into the car.
“So, uh… See you at practice on Thursday?” They were the only words I’d said since we’d left the bar in Indiana. He turned his head, slowly, to glare at me one last time. The way he turned his head, all slow like that, he reminded me of the evil terminator in Terminator 2, that stone cold look on his face. Instead of the eye-fire-soul-attack, this time it was the death-glare-of-ice. I shuddered again and pushed the car door shut. Josh sped away, into the night, and no one in the band ever heard from him again. We were all OK with that.