THE READING ROOM: Drummer-Turned-Novelist Nic Brown Ponders Music and Identity
In the introduction to his often hilarious and poignant new memoir, Bang Bang Crash, novelist and drummer Nic Brown gets off a resounding rim shot at his own expense, revealing a glimpse of his own journey from drums to pen and paper and back, momentarily, to drums, and the ambivalence coiled in that journey.
At a hypothetical dinner party with friends, someone mentions that their son is learning to play drums. Another person casually says that Nic used to be in a band, but the conversation eventually moves on, even though, he writes, “the topic of my past as a musician lingers … like a mist.”
As this imagined evening opens at least one portal into the past, he reflects briefly on his discomfort with the topic of his past drumming, including with Athenaeum, telling a little joke that brings him up short to a recognition: He’d like to look into how the drumming that had been so integral a part of his past is no longer present in the same way but persists nevertheless as part of his identity. “[Poet] Elizabeth Bishop said once that there’s nothing more embarrassing than being a poet. To which, I thought, when I read it: try being a drummer. How can you tell if the stage is level? The drummer is drooling out of both sides of his mouth. What’s the last thing a drummer says to his band? Let’s try one of my songs … My profession is a literal punch line. As a child, the dream of drumming was gilded with romance and the promise of thrill. As an adult, though, I have learned, your childhood dream can become something else entirely, especially if it comes true.”
And boy do his dreams come true. With offbeat humor, Brown regales readers with “how to achieve success in the North Carolina music scene between 1990 and 1997.” It all starts in the playroom of his friend, Ken Tanaka, where he meets Mark Kano, who plays the guitar. Only in eighth grade, Brown has been playing in a band called The Punktuals for several months, but Mark sings better than the lead singer for the Punktuals and one moment leads to another and Mark and Nic “play the eighth grade dance” and “play the battle of the bands and come in third.” They name their band Athenaeum and play clubs in their hometown of Greensboro, and they “say ‘yes’ when the manager of the School Kids [record store] in Raleigh” asks to be their manager.
The band’s star is rising, and they eventually sign a deal with Atlantic. Looking back, the ascent to this pinnacle and the anticipation accompanying it remains more memorable than standing on the peak of success. “Maybe the part that matters least is when it does happen. When you actually do sign a six-album record deal with Atlantic Records, which will indeed take place inside an office in Manhattan on an afternoon in 1997. But you already feel cold by then. It will not be the success you dreamed of. The peak will have already been reached, somehow, and nothing will ever again feel this pure.”
In 2001, Brown leaves the band for New York City to study creative writing at Columbia University. Brown then attends the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he studies with the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jim McPherson, whom, Brown points out, “the Chicago Tribune once described as ‘only slightly more gregarious than J.D. Salinger.’” From McPherson, Brown learns to look always for the “numen,” or life-force, of the story. As Brown reflects on his early efforts at Iowa, he compares them to his drumming: “I found myself starting to look up from the keyboard during this time … and ask what is the numen of the story I’m writing. If I’d been struggling with a drum part, the solution would have been easy — just practice it or rearrange more notes. Asking myself Jim’s question, though, didn’t solve much at all. If anything, it just made things worse. My stories, it seemed, were about nothing.”
As he did with drumming, though, Brown did practice, writing story after story, seeking to develop his own technique and to settle on a form that his stories fit. After one of his stories is provisionally accepted by a journal — “my story about Evelyn wasn’t the best story in the world,” he writes, “it was fine.” — he realizes that McPherson’s lessons weren’t about technique and form. “Jim was trying to teach us something bigger, and less easy to define, and if I had to put a name on it I think I’d call it empathy. At the time, it was probably the lesson I needed most.” He’s since authored three novels, including 2009’s Floodmarkers.
Brown recognizes the numen of his own story one night as he’s flipping through a copy of Entertainment Weekly that has an article on his band but does not mention him. At that moment, standing in the aisle of the store staring at the magazine, he realizes: “what I’d done by moving to Iowa wasn’t just to move to Iowa. What I’d done was quit playing the drums.” Early the next morning, he provides the numen of this memoir: “This was a story about a man who’d changed the course of his life, and the moment he finally knew it.”
Does Brown quit drumming? Only in the sense that he no longer sits behind the traps on stage every night with a band. He still plays the drums everywhere he goes. “Every day and everywhere I go I tap complicated patterns out on my teeth … Am doing it right now as I type. Each cusp has a different tone … The sound is incredible inside my head; resonant, deep, and totally mine.”
Bang Bang Crash raises questions about the transgressive nature of art, music, and writing. Brown’s pattering prose bounces off the rhythms of his drumming; his storytelling moves and sways according to its own time and rhythmic pattern. Brown, now a professor of creative writing at Clemson University, offers a memoir that drives straight to the heart of creativity with the force of, well, a bang and a crash.
Nic Brown’s Bang Bang Crash was published in February by Counterpoint.