A bump on the head, a band and best friends forever

John Kelly
Columnist May 6, 2012

I first met Pat McDermott when we were in “Oklahoma!” together at Rockville High. The cast was practicing some choreography in a school hallway when I slipped and cracked my head against the linoleum floor. Pat leaned over and said, “I think spinal fluid is leaking from your ear.”

That was 34 years ago. If I should die someday from a very slow brain bleed, I hope Pat feels guilty for making that joke.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Despite this, we became friends. Pat sang and played guitar. I played drums. With some classmates we formed a band called EKG. We spent hours in my basement on Twinbrook Parkway trying to learn the Beatles’ “If I Fell.” It was like a coal face we hacked at, little realizing that we were free men and could put our pickaxes down and walk away. We never did learn to play it, but I think it instilled in us an admirable work ethic.

Pat was two years older than I. (He still is; this isn’t an obituary.) He was considerate enough to time getting kicked out of his dorm at the University of Maryland — he’d set off a fire extinguisher in a hallway — so that we could get an apartment together when I started there in 1980. We were proud of and ashamed of our Langley Park flat in equal measure. Proud of it because it was our first place and we were grown-ups. Ashamed of it because we weren’t quite grown-ups and in the six years we lived there we cleaned it approximately 12 times.

An emblem of our apartment: In our first month there we made Rice-A-Roni for dinner, put the leftovers in the refrigerator, then forgot about them. When we rediscovered the Tupperware some time later, the Rice-A-Roni was whiskered in white mold. We were fascinated by the transformation. It seemed sad to throw the Rice-A-Roni away — it was like a third roommate — so we kept it, checking it periodically as it cycled through yellow, green, orange. . . .


Pat McDermott, left, and John Kelly were roommates in 1981 in a Langley Park apartment. (Courtesy of John Kelly)

By the time we moved out in 1986, it was a desiccated black lump rattling around in its plastic sarcophagus. This we took outside one night and buried near the parking lot while mumbling incantatory phrases.

We played in a band together then, too. After gigs, we humped our equipment up three flights of stairs. We wrote a song about the woman who lived next door: “Mrs. Hilger-Mullin.”

Pat introduced me to My Lovely Wife, by which I mean he dated her first. We were best men at each other’s weddings. We bought starter homes, had children, then bought bigger homes. We didn’t play music anymore and we seldom ate Rice-A-Roni.

Then about 10 years ago, Pat got the itch to play again. He started with just his guitar, playing rockabilly and country music at open mike nights. He called himself J.P. McDermott. He put a band together and called it Western Bop.

Soon it seemed as if he was playing everywhere: nightclubs, swing dances, weddings. . . . Six years ago, he began hosting Rockabilly Saturday Night at the Quarry House Tavern, a delightful subterranean bar on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring.

Though I never quite got the hang of rockabilly’s signature shuffle, I’d sit in with Western Bop from time to time. It had become a rotating cast of musicians that over the years harbored some of the area’s best string-benders, bass-thumpers and skins-bashers.

With a friend named Chuck on bass, Pat and I started a power pop band called the Spectacles. Just Friday we played at the Black Cat, where they ask what kind of beer the band likes then put a case of it in their dressing room. On Saturday, Western Bop played at the Quarry House. The long brick shoe box was packed with hot sweaty people dancing to Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly. . . .

For the past 22 years, Pat’s day job has been at Freddie Mac. Last month, he decided to take a new job. This one’s in Los Angeles.

People ask me: “What about the band? What about Rockabilly Saturday Night?” Some of Pat’s bandmates will keep the fires burning at the Quarry House. Chuck and I will hire ourselves out as a crack rhythm section. And I’ll thank whatever fates brought two teenagers together 34 years ago and turned them into best friends.

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/
johnkelly
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