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Behind his back, Kevin Dabbs' home-brew tape of his air drumming has drawn a growing cult in San Francisco

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
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Pounding out aggression
Turns into obsession
Cannot kill the battery
-- Metallica, "Battery"

Nobody told Kevin Dabbs.
Nobody tracked him down a year-and-a-half ago to say, "Hey, you left some videotapes you made in Vancouver. One of them has you playing air drums to a bunch of Metallica songs. Would you like it back?"

Nobody told him that a club booker in Calgary was showing that same video between bands at a nightclub in town.

Nobody told him that a small group of musicians was taking an interest in the video, and that it found its way to San Francisco, where copies were made, $10 price tags were slapped on, and a small cult following was growing around him.

Everybody who knew him, or knew about him, was too scared to make a confrontation.

So when I reached Kevin Dabbs, 27, at his home in Edmonton, Alberta, and told him all this ... well, the English language needs a word that combines the most intense elements of mortification, befuddlement, shock, and surprise.

He didn't say much at first; he just wanted to have the story explained to him. And explained again. He paused for a long moment, then let out a short, stunned laugh. The first words out of his mouth that weren't a question were, "This is very amusing, but I'm preparing a meal right now.

"I know exactly what video you're talking about," he said, and paused again. He wanted proof and more details. "You're weirding me out a little," he said. "This is bizarre ... I don't know what to tell you." Clumsy conversations led to clumsy questions, so I asked how he feels about all this -- how he feels that a video of him doing something for his own entertainment wasn't merely passed around among people he doesn't even know, but sold and distributed commercially.

"How do you think I would feel about that?" he answered.
And that was pretty much it for the first conversation with Mr. Dabbs. But less than a hour later, it'd sunk in a bit. He left a voice-mail message. "This is Kevin Dabbs," he said, "air drummer extraordinaire, calling you back ...."

There isn't much to explain about the actual content of Metallica Drummer!, which has been sold and distributed in San Francisco since last September -- Open Mind Music has been carrying the tape, and Aquarius Records is both selling and renting it with a sticker on the slipcase proclaiming "He's talented! He's obsessed! He's Canadian!"

It's a raw-footage suite in three acts. First is a short, disjointed recording of a group of friends walking toward a car in a parking lot; Dabbs' voice-over, commenting that "It's pretty cool how I can just dub over this stuff," promises that "The next thing you'll see on this tape is some harsh racquetball action."

What follows, though, has nothing to do with racquetball. First we see a chair set up in front of a fireplace in a tidy living room. Metallica's "Sad But True" kicks in, and Dabbs leaps into the frame, dressed in a white shirt, a baseball cap, and a pair of Simpsons shorts -- Bart Simpson's face on one pant leg, the words "RADICAL DUDE" on the other. Dabbs sits down and begins playing air drums to the song -- no actual drum kit, just the movement of his arms.

There's something strangely hypnotic about watching a drummer play, and even lacking a kit, it's obvious that Dabbs is pretty talented; his time-keeping is solid, and the mind's eye can fill in the kick drum, toms, high-hat, and cymbals he's "hitting" while watching him. Dabbs even mirrors the onstage tics of Lars Ulrich, Metallica's actual drummer: the nodding head, the upraised arm in a song break. After "Sad But True," Dabbs bounds toward the camera in a fit of intensity.

He then moves off-screen to select the next song from Metallica's 1991 self-titled album. Skipping "The Unforgiven" ("It's a slow tune," Dabbs would say later. "It doesn't really have a lot of Lars Ulrich super-fills on it"), he plays air drums to two more songs, "Wherever I May Roam" and "Through the Never."

The third act of the video takes place in a car, as Dabbs and two friends drive through the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, smoking a joint and lip-syncing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Sexy Mexican Maid."

Metallica itself, currently in "heavy rehearsals" for its upcoming concert with the San Francisco Symphony according to a publicist, could not be reached for comment.

"The guy is physically talented," says Dustin Donaldson, drummer in local band I Am Spoonbender, who released the tape commercially. "He studied the Metallica beats. He knows." The scuttlebutt among fans of the then-unknown Dabbs -- in over four months of release, about 60 copies of Metallica Drummer! have sold -- was that he had to be a drummer.

And it's true: Dabbs used to play in an Edmonton roots-rock group the Mike Plume Band, and he currently drums for Groovetown, a '70s disco cover band with its own Web site (connect.ab.ca/~djcaddel). That's when he's not at school studying television arts, or acting in dinner theater on the side. "We just played a great New Year's Eve show in Edmonton," Dabbs said, proudly.

Metallica Drummer! isn't the only time his air drumming has been presented to the public. "Last winter," he explains in an e-mail, "I was paid five hundred smackers a week to airdrum in a stage production of The Buddy Holly Story. I starred in the musical as Jerry Allison, Buddy's drummer. Although I was actually able to play the drum parts, the actor who played Buddy's bass player couldn't play the upright bass to save his life, so we ended up 'airplaying' to a real drummer and bass player behind the big curtain."

It started innocently enough.
Things like this always do.
Craig Evans had moved into an apartment in which a cache of unmarked videotapes had been abandoned; one of Evans' current roommates used to live with Dabbs. About 18 months ago, looking for something that he could tape over, Evans came across what would later become Metallica Drummer! "I played it," he says, "and lo and behold ...."

Evans happened to be the booker for the Night Gallery Cabaret, a rock club in Calgary, Alberta. He began showing the tape on a video projector between sets at concerts. "I was fully expecting somebody to come in and punch me in the nose," he says. But the video got attention: "All heads just stopped and started watching."

One of the people who saw the tape was Neko Case, formerly of the pop-punk group Maow, and now performing as an altcountry chanteuse with her group the Boyfriends. From a recording studio in Vancouver, Case said she found the tape "horrendously funny." ("She almost pissed her pants," is how Evans put it.) Case passed the tape along to Robynn "Cup" Iwata, singer in I Am Spoonbender, who passed it on to Donaldson, her bandmate. The rest is semi-illicitly liberated history.

"Bottom line," says Dabbs: "I don't plan on pursuing legal action, especially if this is something that people are enjoying."

To the best of his recollection, Dabbs recorded the video sometime around 1992 or '93, while living in his father's house in Surrey. "I was making videos for friends," he says. "I did that often." Dabbs declines to give details, but says that similar videos of himself exist. He didn't rehearse. "[The drum parts] were in my brain, but I never sat down and practiced before I pressed the record button. I just threw a tape in and started air drumming."

Regardless of what inspired Metallica Drummer! -- and what it might inspire in the future -- it brings up a number of deeper questions. As an unexpurgated rock 'n' roll video, it's a metaphorical sequel to the Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex tape. But in truth, its sensibility is closer to Jeff Krulik and John Heyn's 1986 video Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the now-infamous cinema verite look at Judas Priest fans awaiting a concert in Maryland. Both Parking Lot and Metallica Drummer! drive home a basic truth: Fans of musicians are often just as fascinating as the musicians themselves, if not more so. Dabbs certainly had no intention of letting the outside world know what he was doing on that sunny day six or seven years ago. But the unvarnished honesty of the video that resulted is refreshing for anybody who's tired of posed glossy star photographs, videos, and concerts.

That honesty is precisely why Metallica Drummer! has any sort of cult in the first place. You've probably done something similar to Dabbs' air drumming, though most likely not on tape. Anybody who's ever played air guitar, who's ever swayed with a broom in the kitchen, who's ever sung along with a pop song in rush-hour traffic -- hell, anybody who's ever danced -- has to feel some sort of kinship with what Dabbs is doing on tape. The entire karaoke industry depends on that; it'd collapse in a heap of expensive PA equipment if people didn't feel some sort of personal reaction to pop music. Metallica Drummer! is funny because it's about voyeurism -- it's a tape the world wasn't meant to see, which makes it fodder for something like America's, um, Canada's Funniest Home Videos. But it's interesting -- and watchable -- because at heart, it's simply about a fan's engagement with music.

"It's one of those situations where people tend to have an opinion about whether they'd do that sort of thing," says Donaldson. "If they're being honest, I think they would."

Copies of Metallica Drummer! are available for $10 postpaid (money order or well-concealed cash), sent to Metallica Drummer!, 3288 21st St. #201, San Francisco, CA 94110. Clips are available online at sfweekly.com.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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