If you know your rock ‘n roll history you probably have at least a passing knowledge of Scot Halpin, even if you don’t know him by name. In 1973, The Who was playing San Francisco’s Cow Palace on their “Quadrophenia” tour for the seminal album. On this night, Keith Moon passed out behind the drum kit thanks to a mix of drugs, booze and animal tranquilizers, or So The Legend Goes.
Pete Townshend asked the crowd “Can anyone play the drums?” And a 19-year-old kid from Iowa named Scot Halpin near the front of the stage made enough noise that famed rock producer Bill Graham took notice and ushered him up on stage, where he proceeded to play drums with the Who and enter Rock Lore as the Kid With The Greatest Concert Story Ever. A moment where his musical heroes became at once amazingly human and larger than life.
September 28th was my birthday. I turned 27. And thanks to a weird series of events, I had my own Scot Halpin Moment. It wasn’t the Who and it wasn’t in front of thousands of people, but it was just as meaningful to me and something I’ll never forget.
I was planning to celebrate my birthday by having a relaxing dinner with my folks at the venerable Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then going to see Nick Zammuto (of The Books) and his new project, Zammuto at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
I attended Andover High School with Nick’s younger brother Mikey, who plays bass in the band, and I’ve quietly watched their wonderful ascent, opening for bands like Explosions in the Sky and Gotye and heading out on their own headlining national tour. I don’t think I listened to anything in college more than I did The Books’ “The Lemon Of Pink.” I’ve always thought of Nick as a true visionary, re-imagining the paradigm of what a band is and how we interact with sound and image. He also lives on a farm in Vermont with his three kids and harvests his own food and is a total badass.
Nick had at least some knowledge of who I was through his brother who, years ago, had taken him to see my first band, Grimis.
I had sent a Twitter message to Nick earlier in the day saying I was psyched to be spending my birthday checking out his new band. A few hours later (around 5:30 p.m.) I was at dinner when I got a Twitter message that read simply:
“Dude, Happy Birthday. Will you get your guitar and open for us?… Dead serious.”
I was a little stunned but I Tweeted him back saying I’d be honored to open for him and was this a joke? (It was not.) I got a phone call shortly thereafter from Mikey saying the opening band was stuck in traffic in Hartford and wasn’t going to make it in time. Doors were opening in an hour and if I wanted the gig, I was to run home, get my guitar and amp and get to the MFA as soon as possible.
My father, muttering and swearing all the way, is well-versed on the ins and outs of Boston-area rush hour traffic, and battled us through traffic jams, ambulances and even a funeral procession to get to the MFA by 7:05. I was on at 7:30.
I met Mikey at a side entrance and we lugged my gear into the theater where I met with the sound man and one of the MFA’s concert promoters. When the time came for my set, the promoter told the crowd that the opening band couldn’t be there but that I was and it was my birthday. The audience welcomed me to the stage by singing happy birthday and even cheered for my friend Chris, who was sitting in the 5th row who I had intended to go to the show with. I told them that an hour ago I was a music lover getting psyched to see one of his favorite musicians and now I was part of the show. I ran through a 30-minute set and thanked the crowd for the Best Birthday Ever. They gave me a heartwarmingly long round of applause.
Back stage, Nick, Mikey and the rest of the band couldn’t have been more gracious and welcoming, thanking me profusely for stepping in in a pinch and praising my set. “Dude, that was amazing. Thanks so much for stepping in,” Nick said. “You sounded great. Happy birthday.”
Music can be a tough industry fraught with a lot of challenging people and personalities. But occasionally we have moments where we remember why we do this, moments where we can share the best of ourselves and the best of others. And for me my 27th birthday was one of them. I will be forever grateful.