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"Rex" recalls his early music days.


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The Swingmasters

Guest column by "Rex"
Sept 10, 2008

(Note: Rex, the mediocre musician, submitted this week's column)

“Good evening, ladies and germs. Welcome to Frank & Fran’s. I’m Frank. Franny is serving the beer. We are the Swingmasters. Hit it, boys.”

That was old Frank, introducing his band. I was playing drums. Wedged in a corner of the stage, elbows scraping the wall with every beat on the snare.

The Swingmasters theme song was Steel Guitar Rag. No one in the band or the bar thought it unusual that we didn’t even have a steel guitar.

Floyd handled most guitar duties. Floyd was a prodigy. Lean, black-haired, quick-tongued, Floyd was Frank’s brother. He could grab handfuls of chords. Self-taught, Floyd claimed to have worked with Adolph Hofner, Bob Wills, and a host of western stars. Of course, Floyd never was a faithful acquaintance of the truth. But I believed and wanted to believe his music stories. You couldn’t lie about playing so good when you were on stage with a guitar in your hands.

Brother Frank played rhythm guitar. His style was about as different from Floyd’s as could be. Frank had the same black hair, greased and combed up in a bob (jet black hair seemed a prerequisite for country music and bars in the Midwest), but from the neck down, things changed. Frank had a large and solid beer belly. I felt it once. It was hard and unyielding, more like a cyst than fat. It hung over his belt so much he had to have help removing his boots. I did that for him once, too. But on stage, with the black hair and the white shirt, black pants, and shiny belt buckle, Frank cut a dashing figure.

Frank also only had three fingers on his left hand. I never heard how he lost them, but he played better rhythm guitar than most musicians. He tuned to an open E chord, so he could just bar straight across with his good finger.

Dick the bass player was no relative. First of all, he was balding - no black hair. He had chubby cheeks, probably that way from a perpetual smile. Dick could have played with any band in the state, but chose to drive 60 miles just to play with Frankie Lee and the Swingmasters. He loved the music. When the first song started, the smile came out, his eyes closed, and he entered a happy trance. I always believed it had something to do with escaping his real life. Six days a week, he slaughtered pigs at a packing plant. Each night, he came home to a wife that must have made the pigs seem attractive. Add in 4 or 5 annoying kids, and Dick’s only escape was the bar and sweet music. He found his joy every Saturday night in that place.

And I understood that. Thinking back, the first times I truly felt in synch with the universe was when I played drums. From simple country tunes to intricate Latin beats, there comes a moment where you forget yourself and become the music. Not every song; not every night. But when it happens, you transcend the smoke, the noise, the neon, the sweat, the dancers and the drinkers - they all become a frame to the moment.

In some way, beating time makes time stop.

Playing drums is the only time I’ve beaten time.