Ringo's Drums Go Missing: The Book

A Q&A With "Dangerous Illusions" Author Joseph J. Gabriele

Dangerous Illusions

On February 9, 2014 the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show will be celebrated with a TV special featuring surviving Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. Not coincidentally, that is also the release date for the hardcover edition of Dangerous Illusions, a contemporary crime thriller with a unique plot twist: the murder at the heart of the story occurs during a party at which a rare set of Ludwigs connected to that Ed Sullivan appearance is stolen.

Going through a pre-release version of the book we were struck by the considerable attention paid to the history of drums in the novel. Author Joseph J. Gabriele, himself a drummer and collector of drums, writes lovingly of various classic instruments that make significant appearances in the book. Without giving away what happens, we interviewed Gabriele about his background and how he created a novel that will appeal to drummers and collectors as well as fiction fans. [Ed. Note. The e-book edition of Dangerous Illusions is just $2.99 now through February 23, 2014 in honor of the Beatles anniversary.]

DRUM! Tell me about your drumming background?

GABRIELE I’ve always loved the drums, for as long as I can remember. Of course, Ringo was a huge influence, from the opening note of “All My Loving” exploding off his hi-hats during his debut appearance in America to his final studio performance with The Beatles on Abbey Road, and beyond that, to seeing him perform at The Concert for Bangladesh.

But even before Ringo, when I was very young, barely five years old, I was fortunate enough to study classical snare and timpani with William Gussak. Though I didn’t know exactly how old Mr. Gussak was at the time, over the next few years, he shared his experiences of recording with Louis Armstrong early on in his career and recording “Rock Around the Clock” with Bill Haley much later on, both before I was born, and I still value his generosity in sharing his vast experience—musical and otherwise—with me.

As I was entering my teens, I had the great good fortune to study jazz technique with Joe Morello. Joe was not only an incredible musician, he was truly an artist. He went from being a violin prodigy on stage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to being a virtuoso of jazz technique and complicated time signatures and ostinato patterns. He was knowing, he was hip, and he was really cool. He also had an extraordinary sense of humor. And he was all of this, in spite of his encroaching blindness.

Growing up seeing John Densmore perform with The Doors, Ginger Baker with Cream, Keith Moon with The Who, Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix, Danny Seraphine with The Chicago Transit Authority, and John Bonham with Led Zeppelin was also a profound influence. So was listening to their recordings, along with those of Hal Blaine and Jim Keltner. I was often reprimanded for trying to transcribe their playing into notation, from memory, when my eyes should have been glued to the blackboard. Much later, seeing Vinnie Colaiuta perform with Sting and Steve Gadd with Paul Simon were also enlightening experiences.

DRUM! Did you have a background in other instruments as well?

GABRIELE Though I love the piano, guitar, and especially the violin and cello, it was percussion that ultimately captured my imagination. My introduction to just how beautiful drums could sound probably came from the orchestra pit at the old Metropolitan Opera House (though a performance of a very different nature was occurring just inches above the orchestra pit). I was spellbound—transfixed—by a pair of hands moving gracefully over a snare drum, hands that were illuminated by the light of the reading lamp the percussionist used for his sheet music. I couldn’t take my eyes off the intricate motion of the sticks. They were blonde and slender and seemed to flutter over the skin of the drum with a language of their own. I was further seduced by the depth and warmth of copper timpani and bronze handheld cymbals that communicated intermittently with the snare. They just spoke to me in a new and wonderful language that I wanted to learn and speak for the rest of my life.

DRUM! This novel is in some ways a love letter to drums and to certain locations in New York City. Was that your idea from the beginning or was it something that evolved as you wrote the book and plotted it out?

GABRIELE That’s a very good question. When I began the novel, I knew I wanted to capture the extraordinary depth and range and richness that exists in the world of percussion, and I knew I wanted to capture a New York that I’ve known and loved my entire life, in all its complexities and contradictions, but exactly how I would do this only emerged during the actual writing of the novel, since the material that appears had to serve the story of murder, theft, and betrayal. So, I suppose the answer is both, though I wrote about each subject for very different reasons. One is a world that—beyond the world of percussion—isn’t as well known as it should be, and the other is a world that is perhaps better known, but quickly vanishing.

Oyster LudwigsDRUM! Some of the best parts of the book for me are your descriptions of drums. I don't think those who haven't read the book can imagine how much historical information about drums you can impart in the pages of the novel.

GABRIELE Drums truly are one of the most significant instruments in the history of music and in human history, and the human ingenuity that has gone into inventing percussion instruments is absolutely astonishing—whether you are talking about symphonic instruments or the modern drum set or the diverse range of percussion instruments in every culture throughout the world—and I wanted to capture some part of that.

The challenge in tackling such a subject as a major theme in a novel, was to write about it in a way that would not only resonate with the professional drummer, the drum historian, or the drum maker, but to write about it in a way that would also capture the imagination of someone who had never been exposed to this fascinating world.

DRUM! There must be two pages where your protagonist rhapsodizes about the various wraps that Ludwig and other drum manufacturers used on their drums—every color and design. The adjectives and colors pile up in a sensual way in your description. Is that how vintage drums are for you?

GABRIELE Absolutely, from the advent of the jazz age through the roaring twenties and the dirty thirties to the final notes of the 1960s—from the drums played by Baby Dodds, Chick Webb, and Gene Krupa to those played by Joe Morello and Ringo Starr—the era in which the modern drum set was invented—this period is certainly among the most colorful times in the history of music and percussion, and it’s impossible to speak of this time without mentioning such visionaries as William F. Ludwig I and Avedis Zildjian III, and the significant contributions they and their families made to the art of drum and cymbal making, but this is a topic that deserves far more time than we can devote to it here.

DRUM! There have been many literary mysteries, of varying quality, with musical themes or protagonists, great ones such as Death and the Maiden which was made into a movie in 1994. Plus Accordion Crimes the Annie Proulx novel, and The Red Violin. Were you aware of any of those books before writing?

GABRIELE Though I was aware of some of these books and movies before writing the novel, Dangerous Illusions owes more to the crime fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, as well as Patricia Highsmith. But my fascination with tales of murder, theft, and betrayal probably goes back to Shakespeare and Aeschylus. They’re the ones who really started it all. Or maybe we should just blame the whole genre on Homer.

DRUM!The hardcover comes out on February 9, 2014, fifty years to the day after The Beatles debuted in America on the Ed Sullivan Show, along with the famous drum set. How important was that date in the history of the modern drum set?

GABRIELE I think most drummers would agree that the importance of that date should not be underestimated. It changed everything, literally overnight. There was nothing standard about any aspect of what Ringo was doing on his Ludwig oyster black pearl drum kit that night—though perhaps it’s not so much that this date changed the modern drum set, but that what he did with this drum set on this date changed modern drumming forever, and what he did with his friends who were accompanying him that evening changed modern music forever.

The Kindle edition is just $2.99 now through February 23, 2014.