He’s the drummer you always see on TV, with the bald head and the sunglasses, hitting ’em hard and having the time of his life, smiling all the while.
Why did I read his book?
Because he reached out and was so personable. That’s the essence of making it. Making the effort and continuing to make the effort and being nice about it in the process. And the fact that he studied at Tanglewood, that was the story that sealed our bond.
And he was the Jewish drummer in John Mellencamp’s band.
Usually Jews change their name, figuring they’ll pull one over on the heartland. Hell, George Costanza was supposed to be Jewish but they gave him that last name to combat the rest of the Members of the Tribe on the show. You think of Jews as loudmouthed and pushy, but the truth is most are scared of the attention, they don’t want to be singled out, because they’ve experienced anti-Semitism from a very young age and their parents keep telling them they’re lucky to survive, truly.
So to have a guy in a heartland band with the name of “Aronoff”?
Oh, that’s another thing about Jews, we’re proud of every member of our religion who makes it. And if a Member of the Tribe does something heinous, we feel the shame, worried about the stain upon our heritage. And never forget, it’s not about believing, you’re born this way and you can’t deny it, whether you go to shul or not.
So Kenny grows up in Western Mass. and sees the Beatles on TV.
Without the Beatles on Ed Sullivan there’s no American music business, nada, all those bands you loved listening to in the seventies and eighties, never mind the late sixties, they don’t exist. It was kind of like the iPhone. A cool gateway into a new land. That same mania that had people lining up at Apple Stores to buy the product? That was us back in ’64, with the Beatles. Talk about a revolution, it’s like the curtain was pulled back and overnight the generations cleaved, right there, in February, when 72 million Americans saw the power of a band which did not look like everybody else and did not sound like everybody else but got everybody to pay attention.
So he starts banging… Hell, the start of any career is convincing your parents, which Kenny did, you need their support, and taking lessons, that’s something else we did back then, we didn’t figure it out on our own, this was back before teachers got a bad name, and then Kenny decided to go to music school at UMass.
And this is where his history separated from mine. When I was in college classes were just the reason I was there, they were time-wasters I had to experience before I could get down to my real business, listening to records and getting high, truly. And I don’t regret it. Because they didn’t teach anything I was interested in. Academics, schmacademics. But when you’re truly interested in something, you’ll devote umpteen hours. Kenny spent even Friday nights rehearsing at UMass. Believe me, I don’t remember once studying on a Friday night in college.
And then, enamored of a girl going to Aspen for the music school there, he applies, gets in, and falls on his face, makes a mistake… Everybody gives the illusion they emerged fully-formed. But if you don’t blow it, if you don’t wince, if you aren’t the object of derision, you haven’t played. The key is to accept your faults and the abuse and soldier on.
Which Kenny did, with four years at Indiana University, which has a renowned music program, how do I know this, from talking to the players in Steely Dan!
Anyway, he gets an offer upon graduation to play with the symphony, but he has a dream, and if you’re not pursuing your dream your life is gonna be empty.
So he’s playing in a prog rock band, his hero is Billy Cobham, it’s the era of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but it’s not working, so he auditions to play in John Cougar Mellencamp’s band, shows up with a car full of drums and the midwest rocker winces, but Kenny gets the gig.
And there starts an adventure.
John Mellencamp has got the reputation of being a prick. And if you read this book, you’ll see it’s true. But you’ll also see you’ve got to be a prick to make it. Nice guys do finish last. Unless they’ve got a bastard behind the scenes working on their behalf, but it was only John in charge of his career, he battled managers and label people, his success was gonna be on his back, so he had better get it right!
All the time in rehearsal, in studios, writing, rewriting, trying to get it right. Opening for other bands and trying to close an audience that didn’t care. This was long before one hit album put you on an arena tour. You could have multiple hits and be lucky to sell out theatres at best, you had to prove yourself. And Mellencamp did, but then he burned out, said he was taking three years off, and…
Kenny scarfed up studio gigs. Make no mistake, he pursued them. The drummer is always the businessman, you learn this. And Kenny’s schedule is nuts. On a day off he’ll fly across international borders just for a session, and this ultimately becomes a problem, because he’s got to leave the Polygram convention in Hong Kong, backing up Mellencamp, and end up in Detroit drumming for Seger with only a couple of hours to spare. Polygram won’t let the band go on early, because the suits don’t care. But the customs people recognize him in the Motor City airport and he’s whisked through and makes it in time for soundcheck, but not before paying $3400 to Lloyds of London for insurance in case he didn’t. It’s taken out of his pay. But Kenny ponders the fact…he never saw the bill!
That’s rock and roll for you, a rip-off world.
But it comes to an end with Mellencamp. Who has the band on salary, he said he was gonna take three years off but really it was a matter of weeks, artists get inspired and have to create, but the band members didn’t share in the recording royalties or the songwriting royalties, they did not get rich.
But Kenny did. As Mellencamp says in the book, he’s the only one whoever worked for him who went on his own and survived.
A lot of it is personality, Billy Corgan marvels that D’arcy felt comfortable around Kenny, but not him. You’ve got to get along.
And a lot of it is education. Formally trained, Kenny writes charts for every song for every gig, he can read music, never pooh-pooh the building blocks.
But most of it is drive. The drive to succeed.
And the fear. That’s what made Mellencamp break through, the fear of the factory, like the British musicians before him, the fear of a stiff, you think it’s hard to make it, it’s even harder to stay on top!
So Kenny backs up Melissa Etheridge and John Fogerty, plays with Celine Dion and seemingly every famous act you’ve ever heard of and then…
It all dries up.
That’s the story of our rock and roll music business. How it evaporated into thin air. Was it the internet, with Napster, or hip-hop…but suddenly Kenny is detailing sessions with people you’ve never heard of. And he’s doing victory lap gigs, sure, it’s with the remaining Beatles and the Kennedy Center Honors, but getting paid all that money to make hit records that dominate the chart…those days are THROUGH!
That’s what we all can’t get over. How it was here, and now it’s gone. And sure, you can go see the has-beens, and I enjoy it sometimes, but it’s creepy. Because they were riding the crest of the zeitgeist once and now it’s pure nostalgia.
Not that I wouldn’t pinch myself if I was playing with them, or even talking to them, but things have changed.
But Kenny was there when it was all still working. When there was money and cocaine and women and…
That’s not the heart of the book, it’s not a tell-all about backstage shenanigans, although there are some of those, but this was a guy who was there, and we all wanted to be there, once. But some of us buckle down and get the work done, and some of us do not.
And the highlight of the book for me is when Kenny gets scammed, ripped-off for so much money. He spends nearly an equal amount of cash trying to get it back, ultimately a complete waste. Because, as someone told him at the outset of his legal adventure, it’s not worth it, you’ve got to swallow your losses and move on.
That’s right. You can’t be vindictive. There’s only a limited amount of time. There’s an opportunity cost in trying to fix the past, forget about it.
And you can probably forget about this book, unless…
You know who Kenny Aronoff is and you want to know his story.
Or you want some insider tales of famous musicians.
Or you want to know what it was like to be a working musician, not the star, not someone surviving on royalties, but someone who had to fight for every gig, perform, and then fight for more gigs. Because despite all the emphasis on stardom, it’s all built upon the backs of talented people who do the grunt work, usually faceless, but skilled and experienced nonetheless.
Like Kenny Aronoff. He played the rock and roll sweepstakes and won.
But that game doesn’t exist anymore. Musicianship is not treasured. There are better ways to make big money. And with cellphone cameras and social media your backstage antics, your hotel room trysts, might as well be broadcast on television, privacy has been eroded and so much of what you used to live for, to desire in this game, has evaporated, pfftt!
It was a golden era. Floated upon inspiration and musicianship. Never underestimate Mellencamp’s ability to come up with this stuff, never mind Aronoff and the band’s ability to play it.
And there’s not too much about drumming in this book.
And occasionally you roll your eyes with the repetition of famous names who Kenny has played with.
But he did. And he’s thrilled.
And you can credit him.
But he credits Mellencamp for giving him a chance and Don Was for giving him work. Because if you’ve got nobody to rely on, you’ve got nothing happening.
You can make the record in your living room, but…
Not only do you need a team to promote it…
You need a team to play it live.
And that’s what gets Kenny off most. Playing to the throngs.
After all, he’s a musician.