By Ian S. Port
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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.
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