[29 August 2007]
You are the 78th member! This is because the sound will spiral outwards, from left to right, like DNA, from deep inside of us right out to you. The 77 drum group is one giant instrument, one living creature. The 77 boardrum will coil like a snake and transform to become a great dragon!
So reads the opening page of the program for Boredoms’ 77Boardrum performance. The concept is pretty simple—a Japanese noise band with an American cult following performs a one-time symphony accompanied by 77 drummers underneath the Brooklyn Bridge on 07/07/07.
Apparently the show was to have taken place the previous year on 06/06/06, but the planners pulled the plug when they realized that interest in the free performance was much larger than anticipated, and their venue could not legally hold even half the expected crowd. More concerned with pulling this off the right way, the organizers pushed the event back an entire year. Buzz for the event only grew—alongside speculation that the free performance would never actually happen.
This year fans were required to RSVP before the event, and the crowd was still limited to the park’s capacity. Interested parties were encouraged to line up outside by 3pm (the performance started, of course, at 7). Hundreds of people were reportedly in line as early as 2pm.
When I get off the A train at High Street, it’s not hundreds but thousands of people who are patiently waiting in the shadows of DUMBO, snaking in a long line through the streets between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Some play cards, others read—all thankful they aren’t out roasting in the sun. The line doesn’t move for long segments of time. Various event staff pop out to manage the expectations of the increasingly restless mob outside, even going so far as to institute cut-off points between the “getting in’s” and the “going home’s.” Very few people are detracted, hissing at these messengers, refusing to believe that they will not be part of the day’s program.
The buzz circulating through the crowd is hard to ignore, and everyone becomes simultaneously excited about the show and depressed about the possibility of not making the cut. Several people around me begin phoning friends, hoping they can hop up in line, while others leave voicemails taunting and threatening those who have lost faith and left already.
It’s not until quarter-past five that I am allowed through the rusty front gates of the park and through three levels of patdown and securities (who do the Boredoms have beef with?). My eyes fall upon 77 idle drum kits, organized in a seashell swirl, sitting in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. I do not know what I expected to find when (or if) I entered the venue, but I immediately realize that all of the hype surrounding this event is justified. This is a show people will be talking about for years to come. This is a show that will make me—though I’m not a huge fan to begin with—a Boredoms believer.
* * *
Some two hours later—after literally thousands have been turned away at the gates—a loud voice fills the speakers, requesting that the 77 drummers take their positions. When I see today’s performers, I realize this show is a veritable United Nations percussionists’ summit—with members of bands like Lightning Bolt, Gang Gang Dance, and Cul De Sac all participating. People from all walks of life begin taking their seats at their kits. I eye one drummer rolling his sticks between his palms, as if trying to ignite a spark and fire to keep himself warm. Another ducks her head below her cymbals, evening out its plane. There is a mixture of anxiousness and excitement on everyone’s face—performers and audience alike. One by one each drum kit is occupied, and then the four members of the Boredoms walk out to raucous applause.
Together, the drummers begin rapping slightly on their cymbals, creating a chatter of metal and filling the park with a wave of sound. The tide shifts from one side of the boardrum to the next, testing the acoustics for its audience. The cymbals lose their gas, and then, starting at the center, a beat begins to be passed, one by one, person to person until the entire circle is pounding at bass drums in a Kubrick-style, tribal sacrifice. The performers grind their teeth. Those of us in the audience turn our heads from side to side trying to pick up the strange sounds from the other side of the circle—drummers alternate leads like a current in a channel. Lead member eYe slides his way up his microphone and yelps into its face, as the reverb stretches through the air. His voice acts as the lungs of this great dragon while his percussion accompaniment pounds its pulse.
I raise my eyes to the clouds as I watch a crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge looking down from far above. This aerial contingent is undoubtedly comprised of those denied entrance at the door but still committed to watching the show. As I stare at the distant specs angling for better views on one of our country’s most iconic landmarks, I imagine that these dedicated fans are also joined by the usual power walkers, joggers, and tourists who frequent the famed walk. I envision people stopping on their way over the passageway between the two boroughs out of curiosity, only to stumble upon something that will touch them over the course of the next two hours and leave an imprint on their memories for years to come.
The performance is broken into several sections—various rhythms and shifting melodies creating distinct atmospheres for the hypnotized on-lookers. Before long, eYe hangs eight different colored metallic sheets from a pole at the center of the circle. He chooses between several matching trident-like boom sticks that double as cues for different sections of the boardrum to march in with solos. eYe fiddles with the pitch of each piece, as his gaze runs up and down the jigsaw layout of his makeshift guitars. I do not have enough adjectives in my vocabulary to describe the sounds I hear as he bangs the trident into the hanging instruments. The mélange of barbaric rhythms and traditional Boredoms static—each made infinitely more massive by the gigantic gathering—is met with the stings’ shrieking squeals. eYe alternately speaks and screams over the whirling sounds of the distorted (or, rather, contorted) electronics which emerge in brilliant, discordant bursts. It’s enough to (literally) shake the ground beneath us.
This show is not only one of the finest performances I have ever witnessed but also a day that I will not soon forget. As I sit Indian-style, mouth ajar with a lump in my throat, brief warmth overcomes me. For the first time in a long while, I acknowledge a lingering moment of pure unadulterated joy, and I recognize this visceral sensation in the faces of those sitting around me.
Of all the images that will be burned in my head on this balmy Saturday afternoon, it’s those of the drummers that will be recalled most clearly. Each and every person outside of the Boredoms inner circle auditioned for their part in today’s show. In addition to those already mentioned, there are professional musicians from well-known bands like Modest Mouse and Oneida in the circle; even famed noisemaker Andrew WK takes up a slot. But it is the lesser-known drummers I will remember most. There’s the overweight thirty-something man dressed in all black who sits ten feet in front of his matching Goth girlfriend—he turns around in between brief intermissions to shrug his shoulders, partially to see if the crowd is enjoying the set, partially seeking validation. There’s a bookworm in jean shorts, white New Balance sneakers, and 3/4-length white socks pulled all the way up, hiding under his baseball cap and sunglasses, hoping to remain in the anonymity of his 76 partners. The Brad Pitt impostor wearing white sunglasses, a cut-off t-shirt, and a smile makes his pretty hipster neighbor swoon whenever he looks in her direction. And a biker in his fifties covered in prison-style tats, who is already sweating in the opening minutes, plays with such intensity throughout the entire set that I wonder if his pacemaker is going to explode.
These people are the drummers with day jobs: musicians who play in their own bands, but who daylight as science teachers, mechanics; the CPAs and waitresses who grew up idolizing Bonham & Moon. No matter what costume they wear Monday through Friday, today they are part of something much larger then themselves. Today, they’re lending a hand to a performance that will never be duplicated. Today, perhaps for the first time ever, what’s occurring beneath the Brooklyn Bridge is a more magnificent site and breathtaking spectacle than the famed landmark itself.