Jazz Professional               


My secret weapon


Let musicians be heard
Let's honour the living greats
One-armed drummer
Preserve me from purists
Reasons for raising hell

Rich responses
My secret weapon
At the Drum clinic
Being intense
Nobody to listen to
  Talking to Les Tomkins in 1981

Have you any special thoughts about the experience of appearing on the Muppet Show?

I have very special thoughts about I that. It's one of the happiest weeks I ever spent. The people involved in the show—Jim Henson, Frank Oz, the crew, the music people, the television people were totally courteous, and totally involved in making the show as good as they could make it. I was shown every possible courtesy. I was a little bit nervous about doing certain things on the show—certain dialogue, and comedy bits—but they have such an easy attitude about things. They're in your corner, telling you it's okay, even when you totally mess it up—which I did, a lot—they have the time, and they have the great amount of understanding that goes along with being a great star, like that show obviously is. It is a star show—right? They made me feel great. It wasn't shown in New York and Los Angeles until May 11th, but before that it was shown in different spot markets around the States, and I had calls from all over the country, saying how good it is. The thing that's good about it is; I felt like a Muppet myself; I was like a kid, playing with those guys, because that's how they made me feel. Singing the song was a knockout to me: the silly karate thing with Miss Piggy was beautiful, I thought; the playing on the walls, chairs and everything was a great idea of theirs. Then, of course, the battle at the end with Animal; to play opposite Ronnie Verrell—one of my all-time favourite drummers, along with Kenny Clare—was a total gas to me. That one week will go down as one of the most positive weeks in my career. I loved it—and I thank them.

As for the karate that you displayed on there—this is a side of you that I haven't really spoken to you about before. I know it's something you went into many years ago; did you feel this was important for physical reasons to tone you up?

It's almost twenty years now. There were many reasons, I think. In the martial arts, most people start at a very early age; you start when you're sixteen, seventeen years old, if you're really serious about it. I started when I was in my early forties. Boxing had never appealed to me, as part of any curricula; I never thought about going to a gym and boxing in my afternoons. But having seen performances by Bruce Lee, and having met a few of the people in the martial arts, I decided it might not be a bad idea for me to learn certain aspects of it, to find out exactly what the philosophy behind karate was a about, and then to see if I had the stamina and physical ability to handle it. And after the first few attempts at it, I was a broken person—I was hurting; I'd been hit, I'd been kicked, and I didn't know how to protect myself.

I started in Chicago, as a matter of fact, and I got back to the hotel after my first lesson, looked at myself in the mirror; I was fairly bruised up, but I said: "I'll be back there tomorrow, and try it again." I was working at a jazz club called the Scotch Mist; we were there four weeks—at the end of the fourth week, I'd gotten my White Belt, and I was determined at that point. After the first couple of weeks, I had managed to understand what the teaching was about; I knew how to protect myself, and I became totally involved in it.

For the next six or seven years, it was all I ever thought about; it was a whole way of life for me. I took equipment on the road, put it up on the walls, I hit walls, I drove my hands into buckets of sand constantly, ripping all the skin off; I was taking a great deal of punishment from experts—until I finally attained my Black Belt. At this point—I think it's just two years now—I am the only musician, I believe, that's in the Karate Hall of Fame in Tokyo. And I'm really honoured with that; that, to me, is better than any Grammy award, or whatever. In the karate world, once you have attained that kind of status, you can look back, and look at the masters and say: "While I'm not that good, at least I was considered by these people, to bestow such a high honour upon me." Your name is on the wall with some of the greatest martial art people in the world—I'm very happy about that.

Have you ever had occasion to use it? I've never used it, and I don't want to. I don't think I should ever allow the time to come where I'm so involved with people where I have to threaten, or even have to feel as though I want to. Because it is a killing. . . sport, if you will. If you talk to most people in the martial arts, they will tell you that they've never used it. It's better than a gun, or any weapon—because you are the walking weapon. If you use it, you can definitely hurt somebody; you can leave them laying there for a long time. It's not like Bruce Lee; that's romanticising it—you don't take five people at one time and break their skulls. If it's a one-to-one, or perhaps even two-to-one, you stand a good chance of being the winner. But I don't want to prove anything, and at the same time I don't want to get beat up—so we just leave it at that.

But really, I suppose it's important, for the kind of work you do on the drums, to keep in good shape.

Yeah. Keeping in good shape for the drums—but I think it's better just to forget about the drums, and say that you want to stay in good shape, personally. At least, my ego demands it. When I go home at holidays, like Christmas-time, with family cooking, invitations for dinners and everything, the first thing you know: you step on the scale and you're now ten pounds over what you want to be. What greatly disturbs me; I fluctuate between maybe two to four pounds, but I like to keep my weight around a hundred-and-forty pounds. I'm fastest that way; my hands move better. But I don't want to work over the holidays; so all I do is eat and sit, and when I finally go back to work, try to get into a pair of pants, and find that I've put on three inches around my middle, I'm distraught—it just kills me. And it takes a little longer now to drop than it did ten, fifteen years ago. You could just take four days, sweat and work, and it was gone. Now, I put on about ten pounds over the holiday, and I'm still working at taking it off; but I will take it off—in another month I'll back exactly where I want to be. That keeps my body fit; I'm in tune with it, and it’s toned up when I go on the stand. Because when we work two hours a night, while brass take rests, saxophones are out, and the piano takes a solo once in a while, the drummer plays constant. I mean, he's playing through everything; there's no time for a drummer to rest. At my age, I want to make sure I have the stamina, and so it's necessary for me to stay in shape.

Another vigorous thing with you has always been driving fast cars.

Oh, yes—I'm a car nut. As a matter of fact, this very day I just got a call about a Ferrari here that I had seen, and am interested in buying. Even though in America there's the new stupid law of fifty-five miles an hour—which; of course, I pay no attention to. I resent greatly the fact that government will now tell private citizens how fast they can drive; you're spending your money for fuel, and some asshole will step in and say: "Here's a new law—you can't use your car over fifty-five miles an hour. At the same time, while they're telling you that speed conserves fuel, how come they have enough fuel to put helicopters in the air, to make sure that the poor guy downstairs is only driving fifty-five miles an hour? To do that, they're using maybe ten times the amount of fuel themselves. The whole law is so totally stupid; I resent not only the helicopter, but also the idea that in America, where we're supposed to be free, we now have all kinds of restrictions laid on us.

Prior to your Muppet Show appearance, I read a comment in the TV Times about you that, from time .to time, I've encountered: "In later years, Buddy has become much more mellow." Do you feel that you've mellowed down, compared to when you were a younger man?

 Well, how long have we known each other?

I've known you a good fifteen years now…

And do you think I have mellowed in fifteen years?

I can say that you've been the same person the whole time. 1've seen you express yourself strongly very often, and I've seen you get angry at times. . .

Do you ever express yourself strongly, and get angry?

Of course. We all do.

Well, then why am I not allowed the same kind of freedom to express my feelings? How does a newspaperman, who only knows me seconds, know how I was fifteen years ago? And since he's not a personal friend of mine, how does he know what my behaviour pattern may be? He doesn't know whether I was mellow fifteen years ago and a tyrant today, or if I was a tyrant fifteen years ago and a gorilla today.

He's only with me for the short time that he interviews me, and if he uses the right words and presents himself as a gentleman, I have nowhere to go but to act accordingly. Now, if he comes in here and tries to take over, and to bully his way through, I may drop him off the f... ing balcony. It's a matter of how you approach people. If you had come in with a demanding attitude fifteen years ago, I'd have told you to get lost, and we wouldn't be sitting here today. I have no other way to behave myself. So. . . no, I don't think I've mellowed; I don't think I'm any different today than when I was twenty, thirty, forty or whatever.

I've managed to maintain a certain balance of personality. Because I feel that everybody should say what's on their minds, I have always managed to do that. And while I have never gone out of my way to really hurt anybody, the words of truth sometimes hurt.

Copyright © 1981, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.