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When The Beat Goes Off: How A Small Stroke Changed A Drummer's Life

Courtesy of Paul Wager
Paul Wager played drums in the Northwest for 40 years.

I have never considered myself a musician. My father paid for more weeks of piano lessons for me than I was willing to attend and my stretch as a bassist in a high school rock band lasted just long enough for me to learn the bass line to Pink Floyd’s "Money." But for some reason, after turning 33, I decided to take up the drums. I took one lesson from a friend and felt more enchanted by music than I have, well, ever.

Coming from a musical family and having seemingly no musical talent I always felt as though I had disappointed my lineage; the fashion designer in a family of cops or perhaps more the veterinarian in a family of neurosurgeons.

Playing the drums didn’t feel like I was finally going to shed my black wool and trot along baaing with my flock; it just felt secure. Playing the drums was something that felt like me, that felt like mine. I couldn’t explain the feeling and no one was asking me to; the drums were my secret.

I bought a drum set on an installment plan and set upon my mission to soundproof my basement and figure this all out. That is how I ended up at Consolidated Carpets in Greenwood and that is how I first met Paul Wager, though to me, he was just nice man working at a carpet store.

My goal was to get a carpet scrap, something four-ish by five-ish feet, to put under my drums. I was wandering around the store with my girlfriend when a slight man with a long grey beard asked if we needed some help. After a quick exchange, he led us to the carpet remnants and I stood befuddled before the rose and beige mountain of carpet rolls.

“I’m trying to find one that is big enough for a drum set,” I told the man.

“Oh well, you probably want one a little thicker than that one you’ve got your hands on.” he told me.

I’m not sure why I told him that I was nervous, but I did. I told him that I was nervous to be an adult who had just started to play the drums. I told him that I didn’t really know what size I needed and that I felt like I didn’t know anything. I told him that I was scared, that it felt scary to try to learn something new. I told him that it was fun, but that he knew.

He told me that drums are the most fun, that he had played drums for nearly 40 years here in Seattle.

“You did?” I asked.

“Yep. I was a working musician for most of my life,” he said. And then he paused.

And then I paused.

And he said, “But I had a stroke and I, um — I lost my time.”

“You lost your time?”

“I lost my time.”

And then no one said anything for eight beats.

I cannot remember the next thing that was said, but I picked out a carpet scrap, had the choice affirmed and handed over $20.

He told me to just play while you can and I said thank you more than a dozen times and I meant them all. I left out the back door.

I replayed that line over and over in my head: I lost my time. That entire week, I thought about him. I practiced the drums and thought about him. I lost my time. And then, on the seventh day, I called the carpet store and asked his name and if he would let me interview him. He said yes and we talked about his storied tenure in Northwest music, what it was like to play with B.B. King and why, no matter what, he will always be a drummer.

Originally aired September 17, 2016