As I recall, it was sometime around 1973. My band, “Whip,” had been playing a number of gigs in Arizona. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but we were asked to open a concert in Yuma at the convention center for “The James Gang.” This band had just lost Joe Walsh (who soon joined the Eagles), and as I best recollect, the great guitarist Tommy Bolin had taken his place. They were still a “name” band.
Several months earlier, we had seen a band that was at about our level (that is, a cover band playing the clubs) called “Canary” at the famous Phoenix club, “Mr. Lucky’s.” This bar was a very large club with two stories. It had country and western upstairs—often featuring Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard or Buck Owens. Downstairs was rock and roll. That’s where we frequently saw “Canary.” I hated them. They were all handsome guys, solid (but not exceptional) players, and their copy music sounded just like the record. In a way, they were ahead of their time, looking like the “big hair” bands of the 1980s. At any rate, the drummer—technically far better than I but without my style—did an amazing flaming drum solo. As best I could tell, he used tympani mallets soaked in some sort of lighter fluid. His mallets were on fire the whole time, and at the end, he had somehow kept some of the fluid in his mouth and held up his mallets, spraying the fluid out in a fireball.
I thought, “I can do that.” So for months before the concert we had rehearsed with tympani mallets soaked in lighter fluid. I would start a solo with my double bass drums holding a simple beat while the lights went out. During that time, our singer, Corky, would go behind me and pull the mallets out of the fluid and light them, while the other band members wiped down all my cymbals with the fluid. Corky had one very important part of his job, though: he was to squeeze out the mallets before lighting them so that the flammable material would burn out fairly quickly.
In Yuma, all was going according to plan. The lights went out, I kept my beat, the guys wiped down the cymbals with flammable goo, Corky ran back and let the mallets. He forgot one step.
I held up the flaming mallets in a giant “X.” The crowd went wild and surged to the stage. Now, here is where the lesson on life comes in.
To be, or to appear to be, really successful in life at a task, you have two ways to approach it. The first way is to take a task that is relatively easy, but make it look incredibly difficult, like no one else on earth can do it. More or less, this is what most magicians do. I’m not saying they don’t practice endlessly, but many of the tricks are just “Look at the left hand, left hand, left hand” while the right hand is pulling out a bird. The dancing girls come on stage, the smoke generators start up, but in the end, all he is doing is pulling out a bird while you are watching everything else.
I maintain that most of the so-called “inspirational speakers” who get a ton of money for their TED talks are of this variety. “YOU can do it. YOU can be successful. Thank you very much.” ($30,000 please!) Having been to some of these, I went, “Are you kidding me? He said to have a goal and stick to it. Anyone could have said that.” But of course, the reason others don’t is this person has a name already from another endeavor—the military, politics, or sports.
The other approach is to take a task incredibly difficult and make it look quite easy. Think of Michael Jordan, soaring above defenders, tongue out, dunking. He made it look like anyone could do it. But of course, very few could do that. Or great actors or actresses who can cry at the drop of a hat and have you believe they really are emotionally destroyed. Then the director yells, “cut” and they stand up and go play cards!
As I mentioned, I was not a great technical drummer, but rather a stylist (think of Pavarotti vs. Johnny Cash). So naturally I went with method #1. As Corky handed me the mallets (on fire) I held them above my head in the “power X” stance. The crowd went crazy. I was just going to hit one cymbal, on my left, one time. “BOOM” I hit the cymbal.
Ever see the napalm scenes in “Apocalypse Now?” It looked like the Mekong Delta on the left side of the stage. Corky had NOT squeezed out the mallets! The cymbal was dripping liquid fire like the volcano at the Mirage! Half the stage was on fire, and they ran out with fire extinguishers. My guitarists’ guitar was on fire and he labored to put it out. I knew immediately what had happened and screamed “CORKY!” He was grooving behind the stage. “YEAH MAN!” He had no idea what had happened. The crowd sensed a human sacrifice and went into a frenzy.
I hit the right cymbal. Mekong Delta on the right. More fire extinguishers, more crowd frenzy. I again screamed “CORKY!” and he still just was bobbing his head to the bass drums. “YEAH MAN!”
Now it was getting serious. Both cymbals were just dripping fiery goo. My mallets were on fire. I had hair down to my mid-chest and lots of flammable clothes, including scarves (the fad of the day). So I tried a massive roll on my tom-toms—all six of them. Maybe I could put out the mallets with the roll.
No. It only created a wall of fire around me, stretching up several feet.
The crowd saw their human sacrifice within reach. Corky was yelling “YEAH MAN!”
I had one drum left. The snare drum.
It was right between my legs.
I don’t know where I learned to roll that fast, but I did a roll that sucked all the oxygen from the mallets. Thankfully, the mallets went out. I could sense the crowd was disappointed, but then recovered, then built to a gigantic ovation. Corky shouted “Yeah man!” as he handed back my real drumsticks.
I guess the lesson is, squeeze your mallets out before you start. But the deeper lesson is, determine who you are—someone who takes something that is easy, and makes it look hard, or someone that takes something hard and makes it look easy.