I found out about about Bobby last Sunday, sitting in a car outside of a running trail in Champaign, Illinois, and as I huffed down the path in the abnormally pacific weather, my dear dead friend's figure at the kit (hunched, lanky, electric with determination, working like an athlete) flashed hot in my brain. People who aren't inside music must weary of people who are prattling on about the primary and all-important role of timefeel in performance, but there you go. Bobby's timefeel was his own, which is either a backhanded compliment or the highest thing you can say about a good drummer, and in this case it's the second. Beatwise, he wasn't a guy who played on it or a little behind it. He pushed you along, in a good-natured and dynamically assured but insistent manner. He was also a drummer who sang well, who loved and thought deeply about lyrics and song structure, all of which raised his game and wove his mind more thoroughly into the team's.
In some situations his relentless push didn't integrate altogether. But with the Skeletons/Morells his timefeel magnified powerfully, as the other three or four men (depending which configuration and year) playing along with him adjusted their sense of time to his, then stopped thinking about it and rode the groove as if by magic or ESP. I'm guessing at this, but it's more or less the storyline with every group that plays together constantly for more than a month or two. When the drummer is highly skilled and unique in his approach (no one was more unique than BLH, as any opening act's drummer who tried sitting at his kit quickly learned) you can get beautiful results indeed. "Riverine" is perhaps a pretentious word but it's one that best describes the Skeletons' forward motion -- at once rocky and fluid. Bobby could and would hit wildly hard, but the flow kept flowing. Other players who hit that hard in a rock band -- or sometimes elsewhere, as with the dreaded Buddy Rich -- tend to sound like jerky dudes with giant erections. Bobby sounded like a grinning 14-year-old getting away with something. I know those characterizations aren't mutually exclusive.
Away from the kit, he had gentle body language and spoke quietly and not overmuch. He had his private demons. He loved women and drink, definitely overmuch. He lost his beloved son to prison. There was religion in his family and, as I understand from Dave Hoekstra's richly detailed posthumous portrait, his parents despised the music he loved -- loved so much he slept alongside his favorite records as a child. I suspect he spent his 69 years without making the acquaintance of financial stability. Join the club, it's called Music Club.
I spent a little time on the road with him, before he began, as he did in his last decade or so, gaining the upper hand against the demons. Early in the morning he would disappear into the back bench of the van with a discreet brown bag. Late in the day he would emerge, wordless and smiling. Then he'd rock hard, from 10 till 1, and, finally, disappear somewhere. This wasn't a picture of looming human tragedy, as far as any of us could see. When he wasn't off in his own head he was either amiable and focused, or working at a very high level of competency and stamina.
One night in Orlando he left his stick bag at the hotel, and didn't realize it till a few minutes before stage time. I have a permanent memory of his no-fuss solution to this mistake, which, had I made it, would have stressed me out like a motherfucker -- how do you drum a rock show without sticks or brushes? Looking from the stage to the door that led from the bar to the kitchen, I beheld Bobby popping out triumphantly, with several long metal spoons in his hand. And away we went. It sounded clattery, and didn't relate to any previously known sound or method, but it grooved pretty decently.
He proved a solid partner for any post-show adventure: karaoke, conversation, carousing, swimming, flirting. Drinking heavily throughout all of the above, naturally. I shared a few of Bobby's bad habits and enjoyed being with him, although for some reason I rarely found myself in a one-on-one scene with him. When we were alone I do recall that it was intense, in the way that consciousness can intensify when you're alone with someone who has a penetrating mind and chooses words carefully and sparingly. There was an hourlong van ride with him to retrieve his wallet from a hotel safe where he'd left it. A walk down the staircase of the Outland after one of my recent Springfield gigs. A couple of minutes at Lou's memorial.
We sat for fifteen minutes in his car one evening after working on Dallas Wayne's record. We listened to a cassette of the session, digging what we'd done, and talked about the giant objects of his adoration, Brian Wilson and NRBQ. Those two summed up what Bobby revered in music: harmonic invention, conciseness, humor, timefeel, light-spiritedness. He lived to celebrate and on occasion disinter unappreciated things, and the genre of song-poems could have been invented just for him. The night we brought Jamie Meltzer and Gary Forney to the Hideout he was there, playing on "Green Fingernails" and other marvelously terrible inventions from that strange land where Rodd Eskelin is king. He was one of about 4 people in the midwest who wouldn't have let 400 miles, common sense, and a lack of personal resources interfere with a chance to see a show like that!
Odd: I can't recall word for word nearly anything he said to me, while he lived, as much as the humble tone in which he spoke, and the thrust of his statements. Close to the opposite of his right-hand man Lou Whitney, he didn't speak in brash maxims, didn't behave as though cameras were running. I'm grateful that Dave's piece preserves some quoted matter. Though it's trite to say, Bobby was the kind of man who spoke through his playing. Luckily for me, one of my favorite quotations of his, in that adjusted sense, is his intro to "That Bangle Girl." As I said in the liner notes, he played 6 or 7 of them, each a showstopper and each markedly different from the last. When someone in the group (most of our tracking sessions were my guys from Chicago interpolated with the Skeleton cast of Springfield, Mo.) was slow to understand something -- in the chart, or in the stack of harmony voices -- Bobby wouldn't jump in and explain immediately. He'd wait a little. Even though he was the one guy who usually understood everything, he let slower minds do their thing, until they threatened to waste everyone's time, at which point he spoke up -- and not very loudly.
Over time his young-man vices made a dent. This is after the period in the mid-1990s where I saw him with some regularity, touring and recording with him. He split with his wife, who was and is a fantastic and grounded person. His drinking started reverberating beyond the back bench seat, and his playing power faded a bit. But he pulled it together for the home stretch, forsaking the bottle and the carousing for a settled, semi-retiree's life, back home with his girlfriend, and for some local gigging with some old country stalwarts, also chronicled nicely by Hoekstra. For a little while in recent years he took over the drum chair in NRBQ -- surely a dream he never thought he'd live. I bring up the dark and the sunny aspects of his life with the hope that I don't add to Bayley's or Patty's grief or anyone else's. Honesty, hemmed if necessary with a little good taste, is honorable.
Now that he's left the earth there's no point in resisting the acceptance of a complicated man exactly as he was. For us, the musicians that played with him and benefitted from his attitude and intelligence, Bobby was in many ways a model, showing us by example how to feel and project natural pulse, how to assume leadership with grace, how to do a demanding job well, and how to treat others considerately. His considerateness meant that a lot of us around him had to guess at whatever troubles might have been weighing on his mind. Probably the exact same troubles that everyone has and that most people are all too happy to harangue us about. I'm grateful to Bobby for a few very sound life lessons. And -- I almost forgot -- for the swingin' country shuffle: man, he owned that!