Air Canada

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

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.

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