Sometimes the past isn't hard to find. Leave Los Angeles, drive 125 miles into the oven heat of Palm Desert, down Sonny Bono Memorial Highway and across Frank Sinatra Drive, and the past might even greet you at his front door. "You found me," Hal Blaine says from behind huge sunglasses. "Come on in."
Inside, a few gold records adorn the wall, all hits by John Denver, all featuring Blaine on drums. What's missing from the walls of his modest home says far more about the backbeat of Blaine's life today. "I used to have, oh, 150 other ones, but I had to sell them all." Blaine kept time on some of the most memorable American recordings of the 1960s - "Strangers in the Night, "California Dreamin'," "Good Vibrations," "Mrs. Robinson," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "I Got You Babe" among them - but that was during what he calls "the absolute golden age of session musicians."
It was also, he adds, before "those machines" changed the making of music.
Blaine says the phone that never stopped ringing in the 1960s and early 1970s went silent in the 1980s as the drum machine arrived and music trends veered away from him. Blaine was the king of Los Angeles session drummers, and today the weary, 74-year-old royal in the desert reflects his former kingdom.
"It's a tough time now, a real tough time, especially if you're one of those young people trying to get in," says Jim Keltner, the drummer who became a titan of the field in the 1970s, playing on major recordings by Bob Dylan, John Lennon and many others. Keltner remains a player in great demand, but now that makes him a rarity in his field. "Things aren't the way they were. But you really have to say that you could see it coming. It shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone."
Entire pop albums are sometimes recorded today without a traditional drummer in the studio, and one of the premier genres of the age, hip-hop, is almost defined by the computer creation of beats by celebrity producers, not by a drummer.
Jimmy Bralower once believed drumming was a science only in the way boxing and whistling are sciences. "Look. Playing drums is holding two clubs in your hand. It doesn't get much more primitive than that, right?" Bralower is a New York record executive these days, a prominent vice president at Atlantic Records, but once he was a scrappy Long Island kid who dreamed of being a drummer. He bounced among bands in the 1970s, and by the 1980s he was working in the session rooms of SoHo with artists such as early hip-hop figure Kurtis Blow. It was cusp time - live R&B music and disco were giving way to the protean sound of hip-hop, and the beat of the new music was still being shaped.
"So one day someone brings in this box - it was a foot long and a foot wide and it had all these buttons on it. It was a Roland TR-808, a drum machine. They turned it on and, well, it was pretty daunting." Bralower came to embrace the new technology, at first out of career desperation, but then with the zeal of a painter finding whole new colors and canvas.
"Then I became the guy in New York who could program the drumming machines and I had reinvented myself," he said. He would work on some major albums, among them So by Peter Gabriel and Back in the High Life by Steve Winwood.
Advocates of the machines and software that create beats for so many of today's pop albums say they are cheaper, faster and easier than bringing in a human drummer. But veteran producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash) says it goes beyond practicality. He says the rise of hip-hop in the 1980s created in pop an artist and audience taste for the relentless, inhumanly perfect beats of the machines instead of the more expressive and organic rhythms of Blaine's era.
"If you buy an album by somebody like Britney Spears today, you won't find a drummer on it, and it's because the sound, the flavor, of the drum machine is what people want now," Rubin said.
There may be unexpected downsides to the new downbeats. Bralower worries that the ability to shape entire albums with little or no collaboration is creating a generation of musical loners.
The drummer is not dead in rock music. In bands, drummers, be they Dave Grohl, Meg White, Larry Mullen Jr. or Lars Ulrich, have inspired a new generation to pick up sticks, and they will continue to do so. For session drummers, the new model may be Josh Freese, the gifted young player who also has ongoing and formal membership in three bands: Perfect Circle, the Vandals and Devo.
Blaine has no idea what the future will be for session drummers, but he expresses a solemn gratitude that he was at the right place and time. He moved into his desert home late last year and, for the first time in his adult life, there are no drums under his roof. His famous drum kits are now in museums or with collectors.
"I played the drums for years, and they played me," he says with a smile. "It's a different time now."
Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.