This is the first in a (hopefully) ongoing series I’m working on about musicians who inspire me in some form or another.
We start by going back to my teenage years. The first time I heard Life of Agony, I was a little over 13 years old. My best friend Dan had an album called “River Runs Red” by a widely unknown and mostly nobody band from Brooklyn New York.
I remember sitting on the floor of his house listening to it like it was yesterday. The entire album played all the way through and we looped it back to listen to it again. By that time, Dan had already heard the album plenty of times. But my first two listens were special. They would, unbeknownst to me, change the way I look at music, song writing, and drumming.
Behind the drum kit on that album was a man I’d never heard of before, Sal Abruscato. A seemingly giant man who could make drums boom and sound like thunder in a way I’d never heard before. At that point I hadn’t gotten my first drum set yet – that didn’t come for another two plus years – but I remember thinking to myself “I want drums that sound like that.”
The way his toms sung, the way the China symbol made just the right mix of crash and trash and clang was perfect. It wasn’t just the way the drums sounded, no. It was the way the drums sounded with the music. The way it all flowed together and made a melody, it made a song that was more than just a bunch of guys playing their respective instruments. It made sense.
It wasn’t so easy to find out information about things back then. I know it makes me sound really old saying that. But it wasn’t like you could just pop online and go on Wikipedia and look someone up. So I did what I’d do a thousand times in those days – I read the liner notes.
I learned quite a bit about the band, but not about the man. Not about Sal.
Come to find out, he was on loan from a much larger band that you may have heard of, called Type O Negative. Sal had been their drummer for a while when he somehow got involved with Life of Agony. I don’t know the story there, but I’m guessing he knew some of the band members somehow. Since they’re all from Brooklyn, there had to have been some sort of connection.
When I left Dan’s house that day, I took “River Runs Red” home with me and listened to it more times than I can count. It just resonated with me and still does to this day.
When I did finally get my first drum set at Christmas two years later, the first three albums I learned to play start to finish were “River Runs Run”, Silverchair’s “Frogstomp” and Goo Goo Dolls’ “A Boy Named Goo”. I had been air drumming to these albums since I got them and knew the notes, the hits, the fills, the melodies down pat by the time I sat behind my first drum set. While the songs were not very complicated, these albums still helped me learn how to really play the drums. They helped me to get my own style, my own feel behind the drums. They helped me to find my flow and get my timing down.
It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and played “River Runs Red” through start to finish. But I have no doubt that my muscle memory would bring me back and I’d immediately be able to get through the whole thing.
Life of Agony’s been through a lot of ups and downs over the years and is unfortunately no longer around. (Edit: according to Wikipedia, the original lineup has reformed for a second reunion and is touring and recording again.) Their singer Keith Caputo transitioned into a woman and is now known as Mina Caputo. She struggled with drugs – thanks to her parents for both being drug users – her whole life and had ups and downs with it. I imagine struggling to let the world know that you believe you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body your entire life will push you to use and abuse drugs.
They had their typical fifteen minutes of fame in the summer of 1997, right after I graduated high school. Their album “Soul Searching Sun” had a “hit” song called Weeds that got them quite a bit of radio play, while the rest of the album was still relatively un-listened to by the masses. Sal didn’t play on that album, but was their touring drummer both before and after the album.
Thankfully, I had the honor to see Life of Agony at the Worcester Palladium, a relatively small venue. I believe it was around 2005. I was right in the front row, dead center, the entire show. I watched as this band that I’d been listening to for over 20 years thundered away, commanding the stage, playing these songs that I’d known so well and loved so much.
A drumstick that Sal handed to me after the show is still in my possession. When I finally get around to setting up my drum kit at my new house, it’ll proudly be mounted on the wall. Not because I want to brag about it. Not because I want people to see it and ask to hear the story of how I got it. Not because I want people to ask me who Sal Abruscato it. But because it reminds me that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter how long it’s been since you do it, it’ll touch someone. It’ll make someone, in some way, feel better about themselves. It’ll make someone aspire to be better, to try harder, to work longer. It’ll do something.
I’d love to tell you how I got really into all of the other bands Sal’s been in over the years. How I’ve followed his career and bought everything he’s done, how he’s been my hero. But that’s not the case. The reality is that I only know him from Life of Agony. I know the songs that he was a hired hand on. I know the albums that have worn themselves out in my CD player and eventually made it to the top of my iTunes Most Played lists. I know the smashing and the banging and the perfect sounding drums that inspired me to want to be able to make my drums sound like that, the perfect timing and monstrous fills that I wanted to be able to do myself. I knew the drummer that I wanted to be able to imitate.
I’ll leave you now with the song that I most identified with in my late teen years. A song called “Lost at 22”. A song that I couldn’t wait to turn 22 and listen to, so my angst would make sense. So I’d finally be able to play the song and say “that’s me. I get that. I’m 22 and I have no idea what I’m doing.”