A Quest Through the Turnstiles of Rock

Everyone has his quest. Neil in his book Roadshow talks about his “Spirit Quest” in 2004 during the R30 tour to decorate the cover of his writing journal with the stamps of all of the national parks in the eastern part of the United States, about a dozen parks in all. He succeeds, but it took a lot of early mornings, grueling days, and nerve-wracking mishaps.

The quest was hardly rational, and Neil acknowledges as much. He was in the middle of that concert tour, so a lot was riding on his being at the concert venue on time and prepared to play on show days, so, to go sprint off on his motorcycle 300 miles here, 500 miles there, just to get a park stamp—well, maybe it was a bit crazy. But concert touring is crazy on its own, Neil says, and he needed to do something crazy to keep his sanity.

Amateur drummer and guitarist Russ DiBella, a big fan of Neil’s and other rock musicians, has his own quest: to meet the professional players he admires and bring back home a guitar pick, a drumstick, a cymbal—some kind of keepsake—along with the satisfaction of making a connection with someone whose work he admires.

It’s hardly a rational pursuit, but once DiBella got the bug as a teenager at a 1978 Boston concert, the die was cast, and for the next couple of decades, it was never enough for him to go to a concert with his friends; he had to see if he could get backstage to take in the sights and sounds and, on a good day, meet the musicians and, if possible, go home with a memento. “It was an innate drive to experience more than the usual,” he writes in his book From the Inside (2011). It was “to pass through the literal and figurative turnstiles through which relatively few get to pass.”

And he passed through a lot of those turnstiles, collecting drumsticks and other memorabilia from Cheap Trick, Genesis, REO Speedwagon, Van Halen, Journey, Def Leopard, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Eagles—pretty much the whole cavalcade of bands of the ’70s and ’80s arena rock era.

Along the way there were some serendipitous encounters, like when he ended up locked outside a hall door with Ben Orr and Elliott Easton of the Cars and Aimee Mann of ‘Til Tuesday, who were trying to get backstage for the MTV awards, and some tense moments, like when he posed in a backstage lounge area with Sammy Hagar during a 1995 Van Halen tour. Hagar had been more than happy to yuck it up with DiBella but Eddie Van Halen wasn’t quite sure what to make of this interloper, although he eventually came around and joined in for a picture—only to have second thoughts later, after DiBella was in the arena restaurant and getting ready to call it a night. “A couple of guys, who I later assumed must have been band security staff . . . began asking me to remove the film from my camera. I immediately declined, asking them why they wanted it. But they pressed on repeatedly and without explanation. ‘Give us the film . . . just give us the film.'” DiBella eventually relented and handed over the film.

One of the holy grails of his quest was Neil’s drumsticks. As a drummer and a lyricist in his own right, DiBella is an admirer of Neil’s work and credits Neil’s moving account in Ghost Rider of picking up the pieces of his shattered life for inspiring him to pick up the pieces of his music, which had taken a backseat to career and family.

DiBella collected his first set of Neil’s sticks from Neil’s drum tech Lorne Wheaton in 2004, during the R30 tour, after talking his way onto the stage before sound check. He struck up a conversation with Lorne and scored the coveted sticks. He repeated the performance in 2007 during the Snakes and Arrows tour and then again in 2010 during the Time Machine tour, each time talking his way onto the stage during setup, making small talk with Lorne and scoring the prize. On the Time Machine tour he took it one step further and got Neil, Alex, and Geddy to sign a drumhead that he had brought with him for the occasion, although the prize came with a cost: Geddy, absorbed in his work and not expecting an interruption, signed the drumhead with little enthusiasm. “I didn’t begrudge him the right to feel infringed upon,” DiBella says.

Russ DiBella

For much of his career DiBella has been in sales and the skill set that comes from a life in that line of work is evident in his ability to talk his way backstage and then to get some of the biggest names in rock to give him a keepsake, sign something for him, or chat with him for a few minutes, even when they’re busy doing other things. But, like the salesman who feels bad after talking a gullible buyer into spending money on something he really doesn’t want, DiBella has mixed feelings about the nature of his quest. He recognizes that his success often comes in that brief window of time in which a person is taken by surprise or acts on the false assumption that he knows this person or someone in his inner circle knows this person, but in reality it’s all a classic case of confusion. As DiBella says, although it was all in good fun, harmless, and part of the “lunacy” of rock and roll, “there was an element of deceit with which I was no longer completely at ease.”

DiBella’s book is self-published, and prior to the age of social media that would have been a significant ding to the book’s credibility, but today many writers who are capable of landing a publisher are choosing the self-publishing route, in part because it consolidates creative and marketing control in the writer’s hands. For a writer, few things are more aggravating than having to cede control of the look and feel of your book and the way it’s marketed to a publisher whose profit margin is so thin that it can barely get the book out the door, let alone market it in the way a book deserves.

DiBella is a good enough storyteller that he could have found a publisher for this book had he gone through the traditional route, so it would be a mistake to dismiss his work because of the publishing shortcut he took. That said, the story would have been more effectively told had he opened with one of his backstage exploits, drawing in the reader immediately through the compelling power of storytelling. Instead, he kicks things off with his background and his musings about growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That information is fine and even necessary to give his exploits context, but it would have been better to thread that information in as supporting material at appropriate points in the story rather than pour it all in upfront in the introduction and then in chapters one and two. As it is, readers who come to the book without knowing DiBella (and that would be everyone outside his family, friends, and acquaintances) are being asked to get to know a person before they have an opportunity to decide whether they want to get to know him. Had he started right into the story and then threaded in the background information over time, readers would never have to decide whether they want to get to know him; they’re in the process of getting to know him by default, through the engaging story they’re reading. For all the power self-publishing gives a writer, the one thing it can’t compensate for is an editor who can pick apart the structure of a book and suggest changes.

Lastly, and here again an editor could have helped, the storytelling would have been strengthened by linking the evolution of DiBella’s exploits to the evolution in the music industry whose magic he was trying to touch. DiBella says he grew increasingly uncomfortable with what he was doing. It had started out as a teenage adventure in the late 1970s and grew over the years into a hobby that benefited from his skills as a salesman, but eventually he grew out of it, as people do. And now it’s 2011. Well, the music industry went through profound changes during that time period, and the way bands make a name for themselves today is different than the way they did when he went to that first Boston concert. Rock is moving away from its album orientation. It’s moving into an iPhone orientation, and although DiBella references the move from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to digital download, the cultural resonance of his story would have been greater had he linked the evolution of his hobby to the evolution of the music industry—link his story to the bigger story, in other words.

But his story is still fun to read, and it contains genuine nuggets that any arena rock aficionado would like to have—as much as DiBella likes to have his pairs of drumsticks.—Rob Freedman, Rush Vault

From the Inside
A Backdrop to the Music of My Life
By Russ DiBella
AuthorHouse (March 2011)
288 pages (ISBN: 9781456715175)
Hardcover, perfect bound softcover, and e-Book

Signed copies at discounted pricing are available directly from the author. Send an e-mail to Russ DiBella at russdibella@hotmail.com.

Also available at Amazon for $9.99 (e-book), $17.99 (softcover), and $25.99 (hardcover) and at other online retailers.

More This and That: an evolving collection of Rush randomness

~ by rvkeeper on May 3, 2011.

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