THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE
On December 17, 1980, at the Palasport—aka PalaEUR Arena—in Rome, Italy, at 21:00, Talking Heads took the stage. The support band, a well-known Two-Tone ska band called the Selecter, had warmed up the audience to a maniacal point and when I ran up the huge metal ramp to the stage and took my seat on the drum riser behind my Mojave Red Rogers drum kit and looked out at the many thousands of fans, I knew I had the best seat in the house. In the cold gray light of the arena, the mass of mostly young Italian men was swaying, pulsating, and screaming like one huge wild beast. The air was warm and damp and thick with cigarette smoke. This crowd was so overwhelmingly loud that we in the band were taken aback. We’d been touring the world to packed houses everywhere, but no audience compared to this one for its sheer animal intensity. It was almost frightening, like a modern version of the mob in the ancient times of the Colosseum.
From my drummer’s throne—that’s what they call it—I waited for Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, and David Byrne to strap on their guitars and signal each other that we were ready to rock. Our friend, guitar hero Adrian Belew, was joining us as well. Tina, looking exceptionally fine in a dress she had made herself, a strapless white sheath with a slit on the side all the way up to the top of her thigh, gave her shiny blonde hair a toss and played boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom-boom. Her familiar introduction to “Psycho Killer” set off a roar from the audience so loud that I had to ask the monitor man to turn up my monitor so I could hear the band. This was the next-to-last show of the Remain in Light European tour and it was going to be a doozy.
One by one we were joined onstage by the phenomenal Steve Scales on percussion, the wonderful keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell, the gorgeously soulful Dolette McDonald on vocals, and the body-rocking additional bass of Busta “Cherry” Jones. Our energy level was a good match for the audience’s. This is the set that we played:
“Once in a Lifetime”
“Houses in Motion”
“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”
“Crosseyed and Painless”
“Life During Wartime”
“Take Me to the River”
“The Great Curve”
I was the timekeeper, the groove master, the foundation on which this divinely sexy and artistically compelling music was built. When I think of all the drummers I have heard over the years, the ones I love most are not the ones who play the most technically complex, fast, or difficult parts. I love the drummers who make you want to dance and feel good about yourself. I think of playing the drums the way I think about making love: You should not be frantic. You should not be a show-off. You should not aim to impress. What you should do is be sensitive to the song, the tempo, and the melody. You should serve both the song and the band while occasionally surprising them in a good way. You should be powerful, yet supportive. You should spread the love.
On this December night in Rome, I was feeling my love for our band and especially my love for Tina. Everyone onstage that night was a star, but I was captivated all over again by Tina. She shimmied and bopped and played with a master’s authority. I was proud of her and the way we locked together musically. We were playing in what rhythm and blues players call “the pocket.” The rest of the band was soaring on top of that. The overall feel transported every soul in the arena to a heavenly climax. On the final encore, as we played “The Great Curve,” Tina stepped to the side of the stage and mounted the giant PA speaker tower without missing a beat on her Hofner Club bass until she was standing high atop of us all. The crowd, already ecstatic, had no idea how hard she and the band had worked to reach this moment in time, but I knew. For me, it was a dream come true. Sometimes people ask me if it is hard to play music and tour with my wife. I tell them that I’ve never known any other way and I love it. I really do. It takes kindness, patience, and a good sense of humor. But most of all, it takes a willingness to accept love and return love. Every man should be so lucky.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
When people ask me where I’m from I say Kentucky. I was born on May 8, 1951, in the Army Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. My father was a tall, good-looking, bright young Army officer named Robert Lewis Frantz and my mother was a real knockout, a Southern belle whose maiden name was Suzanne Holton Allen. They had been introduced by a classmate of my father’s at West Point, my mother’s brother, my uncle Jim. My mother and her parents had come up to West Point on the train from Kentucky to spend the Christmas holiday with Jim. Cadets were not allowed to leave West Point for holidays, so there were parties and dances for the cadets and their families. It was in this very formal atmosphere that my parents met. There must have been a pretty good spark between them because, out of all the young cadets my mother danced with that Christmas, it was my father that she began a long-distance romantic correspondence with. Letters were posted back and forth from New York to Kentucky every week. After graduating from West Point, in 1946, my father’s first post was at Fort Knox, where he did his basic training and could see my mother, who was studying at the University of Kentucky. He was delighted to be able to drive his new Buick, a graduation gift from his father, to court my mother at her parents’ home in nearby Louisville. My mother’s parents, realizing that his intentions were good, approved of Bob, and soon he and Sue announced their engagement. They were married in Louisville in a big church wedding on November 20, 1948.
My dad took his new bride on a honeymoon to The Cloister at Sea Island, Georgia, and, following that, they took up residence at Fort Buchanan, just outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he served in the 18th Cavalry. They had a ball in Puerto Rico, swimming in the sea, drinking Don Q rum, and dancing to the latest calypso and mambo records with the other young officers and their wives. The enlisted men gave them a black-and-white cocker spaniel puppy as a wedding present. My parents named her Missy because that’s what all the local ladies called my mother.
I like to think that I was conceived in Puerto Rico. I believe that I was. It sounds so romantic! I must be an island guy in my soul. In late 1950, my father was transferred to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which is right on the Tennessee border near Clarksville. This was an 18th Cavalry post, meaning lots of trucks, jeeps, and tanks. My father told me a story about a friend of his, hungover from the wild night before at country music star Roy Acuff’s Dunbar Cave, sitting on top of a tank turret during some maneuvers, who moved a bit too slowly to get out of the way and got his leg shot by one of his own men. “My God, I’ve been shot!” he said, calmly looking down at the blood gushing out of his leg. Fort Campbell also became the home of the 101st Airborne Division. The command was comprised of Army pilots and paratroopers and there was much craziness during their activities both on duty and off. Jimi Hendrix was a paratrooper at Fort Campbell in the early ’60s. Can you imagine?
My father was a captain by the time I was born. I have no doubt that my parents were deeply in love and both sides of my family welcomed my arrival. I was named after my father’s dad, Charton Christopher Frantz. My grandmother, Ruth Allen, came down on the train from Louisville to help my mother with the baby. I was taught to call her “Mammy” and I developed and held a special bond with her. As far back as I can remember, Mammy told me that I came from a fine family and I didn’t have to kowtow to anybody.
Not long after I was born, my father was asked if he would like to study law at Harvard Law School at the Army’s expense. They didn’t have to ask him twice. My parents packed up their belongings and shipped them to Cambridge, Massachusetts. While my father drove the family station wagon north, my mother and I flew up to Boston. My parents found a nice house to rent in Arlington; it was the setting for my earliest memories.
I remember my mother pleading with me to be quiet as my father studied law in his basement office. I remember standing on the stairs and playing my ten-inch 78-rpm records of “Teddy Bears on Parade” by Jack Arthur and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry on my wind-up record player. I remember riding on the Swan Boats in Boston Common. I remember the children’s Christmas parties at Harvard Law School. I remember being bundled in a snowsuit and my father hoisting me up to sit on his shoulder as we went outside to build a snowman. I remember sitting in my high chair and my mother feeding me delicious things she’d had delivered from S.S. Pierce—that is, until my father found out how expensive delivery from S.S. Pierce was. I remember getting two baby chicks on Easter Sunday and chasing them all over the yard. I remember tasting Indian food for the first time when my mother’s friend, Jeri Irani, made dinner for us. I had a little friend named Candy Chimples whose father was also studying at the law school. Our parents became very good friends. Years later, her brother John would handle the projections for the Stop Making Sense tour and film. This was a happy time for all of us and, when my father graduated, I know my parents were sorry to go. My mother especially would miss the other law school wives she had made friends with and the quaint ambiance of Cambridge in the 1950s.
The Army assigned my father to the Pentagon and we moved to Fairfax, Virginia. The best memory I have from this time is the birth of my brother Roddy. He was born in the hospital at Fort Belvoir in January of 1955. While my mother was in the hospital, I had a young brown-skinned babysitter who was sweet as could be and let me watch all the TV I wanted. I was three-and-a-half years old so my viewing was mostly Captain Kangaroo, Mighty Mouse, and Howdy Doody. We also listened to the radio. My favorite songs were “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Bill Hayes. When my mother brought Roddy home from the hospital, we had to tone the party down a little bit, but not too much. My parents gave me a Davy Crockett coonskin cap with a tail that I wore for years.
Not long after Roddy was born, my father received orders to go to Korea. He was an Army lawyer now and, following the Korean War, there was much legal work to be done. Most of the fighting was over, but the clean-up operation, both legal and physical, was immense. My mother, Roddy, and I moved in with my grandparents while my father was overseas. They had moved across the river from Kentucky to Indianapolis, Indiana. My grandfather, who we called “Pappy,” had become a federal arbitrator, and my grandmother, Mammy, was a buyer of women’s lingerie for the L.S. Ayres department store chain. Mammy loved making buying trips to New York City and I enjoyed visiting her at her office, where we would sometimes join her for lunch. In the dining room of the department store there was a huge treasure chest and, after lunch, I was allowed to take some treasure. The little trinkets I retrieved were terribly exciting to a four-year-old with a vivid imagination.
My mother enrolled me in the Peter Pan Nursery School run by two very kind sisters, spinsters who both answered to the name of Miss Walters. They both had hunchbacks. We learned music and art and geography. They taught us how to draw and how to sing. When we had mastered the words and melody to “La Marseillaise,” we paraded around the schoolhouse, carrying and waving the French flag. We learned about French food and how to properly pronounce “café” and “croissant.” The next week we would learn about Italy or Spain. It was a wonderful nursery school education and I attended both years my father was overseas.
After school I would try to convert my Radio Flyer wagon into an airplane, using the driveway as a runway. When my wagon failed to fly, I remember asking Pappy to help me lift my wagon up a ladder to the roof of the house so that I could take off from there. Instead of saying no, he told me I would need to get a pilot’s license first.
On the day my father came home from Korea, there was a big celebration. He brought us all gifts. Mine was a big wooden battery-operated battleship that would remain on my bedroom dresser until I went off to college.
My father announced that his next post would be at the Judge Advocate General’s School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. We would be moving there in a couple of weeks.
Charlottesville was a sleepy Southern university town back then. My parents bought their first home, a little pale yellow, frame ranch-style house on a half acre of land on Bennington Road in a new development called Hessian Hills. My father put up a really great swing set with a baby swing for my brother Roddy and built a little treehouse for me and my friends.
The backyard abutted a large, shady, ancient forest where I could explore to my heart’s content. There was wildlife galore. I remember rabbits and raccoons and deer, but I particularly remember box turtles. I could catch them easily and bring them home. I made a small pen out of chicken wire and fed them little balls of raw hamburger and leaves of farm-fresh lettuce. I also remember poisonous copperhead snakes that lived in and around the forests and streams. My father warned me about them and taught me how to avoid them. I had recurring nightmares about wading across streams teeming with deadly copperheads and coral snakes.
I had a transistor radio and discovered Elvis Presley. He wasn’t known as “The King” yet. He was known as “Elvis the Pelvis” and he rocked the airwaves. “Hound Dog” was his massive hit of the moment and the radio would faithfully play it every hour both day and night. I really loved “Hound Dog,” but my mother would roll her eyes and tell me, “Oh, Chris! He is so common!”
I started kindergarten at Belfield School that fall. It was a brand-new small private school built on farmland. It was not unusual to see cows grazing right next to our playground. The classes were small and I made some new friends. I carpooled with my neighbors. One girl and her brother would come over to my house after school to play. She was a year older than I was and, if it was raining, we would go down to the basement to play. We would crawl under my father’s homemade desk and she would pull up her blouse and ask me to nurse from her nipples. She would ask me if I was getting any milk and I would stop and say, “No, not yet.” Then she would ask me to keep trying. This was her favorite game to play with me, but never with her brother. She told me that would be wrong.
I had a little bike with training wheels that I learned to ride. One day one of the neighborhood kids asked me if I would like to try his big boy’s bike. I should have asked him how the brakes worked before I started riding down the steep hill that we lived on. I remember panicking when I realized that I couldn’t stop. I just kept riding faster and faster until, finally, I sailed across busy Barracks Road at the foot of the hill, narrowly missing a farm truck, and crash-landed into an electrified, barbed-wire fence. I was pretty cut up from the barbed wire, and the front fender of the bike was all scratched and twisted. Cars whizzed by, but I bravely marched the bike back up the long hill, where the boy was waiting in front of our house with my mother. Relieved to see me still alive, she treated my cuts and scratches with Mercurochrome and Band-Aids. We got the boy’s bike fixed, but I still have a scar on one of my eyelids from that episode.
Copyright © 2020 by Chris Frantz