A different drummer

Dusty Watson pounds the beat and rides the waves

Late at night, on a desolate stretch of road outside San Antonio, guitar legend Dick Dale lies sound asleep in the back of his customized white Greyhound MCI 9 tour bus. Bassist Ron Eglit, smelling powerfully of CK One cologne, lounges in a bunk nearby. Wordlessly flipping through channels on his bed's built-in TV, Eglit occasionally glances out the window at the flashing dotted line in the center of the Texas highway, as the thrumming rhythm of the Greyhound's giant diesel engine lulls him gently toward sleep.
But just a few feet away, drummer Dusty Watson is still very much awake. Leaning back in one of the bus' soft beige imitation-leather seats, he purposefully clicks the keys of his laptop PC. Watson has just concluded a cell phone call to the Monkees' Peter Tork, with whom he has occasionally performed. He types the dates of a few upcoming California shows into his Sharp Wizard organizer and carefully compares them against the tentative performance schedule of his own band, Slacktone. He frowns briefly, noticing a potential conflict. Then, turning back to the e-mail program on his laptop, he fires off a quick note to a Malibu clubowner about changing a show date.
"I used to take every gig that I was offered," says Watson. "If I could physically be there, no matter what I had to do to get there, I was there. Loving to play and wanting to learn as much as possible from other players, I kept that pace up for a very long time."
He shrugs. "I guess I'm still doing it, but I did make a commitment to Dick a couple of years ago that I would make myself available to him at all times."
With his rugged good looks, deep tan and dramatically spiked blond hair, it's no surprise that Watson — who plays over 160 shows a year, approximately half of them with Dale — is a fixture of the California surf scene. But though his resume features significant stints in the traditional surf band Jon & the Nightriders as well as the surf-influenced punk trio Agent Orange, it would be incorrect to pigeonhole the muscular 43-year-old as a career specialist in the particular offstep rhythm known as the "surf beat."
Watson's checkered past includes gigs with artists ranging from heavy metal stomper Lita Ford to the hip-hop hellions Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. Unlike musicians who remain committed to a single band — or session players who perform at recording studios in a single city — Watson finds work year-round as a tour drummer, managing the remarkable feat of keeping himself almost constantly on the road. "I love to travel," he explains, "and I love that one hour of the day when it all makes sense. I can lose myself into the moment ... and I used to pay a lot of money to get to that head space!"
Watson candidly admits that his quest for "head space" got out of control about 10 years back, and that he's lucky to have survived. "I don't remember half of the shows I played when I was wasted," he says regretfully, "and those I do recall — which usually ended up in some major drama — are a blur at best. Physically, drumming is like a sporting event. I've compared it to boxing because of the adrenaline rush and the pacing. Those are very hard to control at times."
Today Watson takes care to eat a decent meal at least once or twice a day and drink plenty of water. "Coffee and Cokes right before the show can cause some bummer cramps in my arms," he adds, "so as much as I love both of them, I try to slow up a bit right before we go on. On a rare occasion I will do sit-ups and push-ups in the mornings. It seems to help to stretch a little and get some blood flowing before I sit in the van for several hours each day."
However, the nonstop touring still takes a toll. Watson is quick to acknowledge that he's missed many family events — birthdays, recitals, gatherings — over the years. It has even caused him, in occasional moments of loneliness or anger, to question the rewards. "But I realized that I can quit at any time," he says with calm resolve. "No one is forcing me to do what I do."
The one unstoppable force in Watson's life is the urge to play drums. It's a calling he was literally born with. "There's pictures of me pounding on oatmeal boxes as a baby," he laughs, "and a great shot of me with a full set of plastic/paper drums alongside my two sisters, with their batons, on our front porch. I think that was in '61."
Watson acquired his first real drumkit — a black pearl Gracy set — at age 6. That's when he began studying under Gerry Calapinto, whom he fondly remembers as "one slick cat." In 1966, Calapinto introduced Watson to Gene Krupa, the legendary jazz drummer whom Dick Dale often cites as a stylistic influence. Their encounter was inspirational. "I studied on a practice pad and learned all the sticking rudiments," recalls Watson, "though now I couldn't tell you a flam-tap-rumpadiddle from a doo-doo-diddle."
After serving time in high school jazz, marching and concert bands, Watson turned professional at age 15. He joined the local musicians union in 1974 and estimates that he's held a pair of drumsticks in his hand nearly every day for the last 37 years. Recent highlights in his busy life have included last month's release of the new CD Into the Blue Sparkle from his own instrumental band, Slacktone.
"My guitarist, Dave Wronski, is a big talent with writing skills and technical skills beyond anyone I have ever met — a perfectionist with soul," says Watson. "But unfortunately Dave and [bassist] Mike Sullivan both have day jobs and can't really afford to bail out on the road like a bunch of teenagers anymore."
But what's perhaps Watson's most significant milestone came when he finally got the chance to record with Dick Dale. "We were at the BBC studios in London a few weeks ago, and that was a huge day for me. That guy is a master and a true free spirit. He doesn't work anything out before going into the studio," he reveals.
"Dick came out of the control room one time with one hand behind his head and the other on his stomach, doing this cha-cha-cha thing, and asked me to play a drum beat that he could dance to. I had no idea what the hell was going on, so I tried a few things and ended up with a Ricky Martin kind of pattern. Dick yells out, 'That's it! Roll tape!' and we recorded an awesome track. None of us had a clue as to where we were headed or what we were doing. It's that kind of child-like quality and spontaneity that I admire about Dick."
Watson smiles and stares wistfully out at the passing highway. "And that," he adds, "is what keeps me on the bus."
Dusty Watson performs with Dick Dale at the Dark Horse Tavern, 816 N. Highland Ave., on Tues., Nov. 28. For more information call 404-873-3607.