The Beatles were "pretty cool," 11-year-old Max Cantlupe and his band mates agree, except for their name -- "they spelled it wrong."
And the guy who did "Brown Eyed Girl," these Silver Spring middle schoolers continue, he was good. But the ultimate, Max decides, is "the drummer from Suicide Machines."
After offering to play the violin in his older brother's punk band and getting told, witheringly, "No," Max started looking for something cooler, louder, more menacing. He chose the drums, and he got a teacher when, last summer, a friend in the carpool started talking about his drum teacher -- "this really cool guy . . . who's 88."
"Eighty-eight!" Max's mom remembers yelping from the driver's seat, certain she had heard wrong.
She hadn't. For the past year, Max, along with about 30 other middle and high school students, have come to Johnny Smith's bungalow in Kensington to learn drumming from an arthritic man who admires Lawrence Welk and loves Benny Goodman.
Thirty hours a week, "every day but Sunday," Johnny -- and he's always Johnny; not even the kids call him Mr. Smith -- is downstairs in his mint-green basement with the avocado-colored carpet remnants. His hands are curled, but he can still hold drumsticks. His hair is thick and white. He suffers from diabetes.
Earnestly, he asks the kids, "Do you listen to records?" even though CDs have become almost old school. He catches himself saying, "Yeah, man, that's hot!" though he knows his students prefer "cool." And he's given up his "zoot suits with pants up to here" in favor of Redskins T-shirts and blue jeans pulled tight with a belt around his waist, even as his students come to class in hip-huggers that have shown him, he says ruefully, "more belly buttons in the last year than I've seen in my entire life."
This is a world he never expected to enter. It's a world he prepares for by taking seven vitamin and prescription pills every morning.
It's a world he now describes as "the greatest thing that ever happened."
'I've Got to Do Something'
"Let's rock. Want to rock?" Johnny asks Max on a Friday at 4 p.m., Max's weekly lesson time. Max nods, bouncing his thick brown hair. Behind him, Johnny, in a plaid shirt, belted jeans and Velcro sneakers, starts playing the vibraphone made famous by Lionel Hampton. Max sticks his tongue between his teeth, concentrating.
"Okay," Johnny says after a bit, "rooooolll." Max ends with a crash.
"Remember what I told you," Johnny leans over and lowers his voice. "People will dance to your rhythm. They'll listen to my whole notes, but they'll dance to your rhythm."
Johnny was born in Pittsburgh on June 29, 1915. One year later, his bricklayer father -- who also played in the Shrine Drum Corps, complete "with a fez and the whole schmear," Johnny says -- got a job at the Washington Navy Yard, and the family moved.
By 1935, Johnny had graduated from Western High, now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. By 1940 he had married Betty, and by 1945 they had moved into the brick bungalow in Kensington where he still lives. Back then, they furnished it with all they had: "a bed and our dog."
He worked for the D.C. Fire Department during World War II, and at night he played drums in a trio with the besequined Evalyn Tyner's trio. He and the group went on to play regular, elegant gigs at Washington's Statler Hotel, the Capitol Theater and, in the late 1940s and '50s, some of New York's great clubs. They even did stints on Ed Sullivan's and Kate Smith's shows. "During the war," he says, "we went to hospitals . . . Bethesda Naval and Walter Reed . . . and played for soldiers who'd come home."
He and Betty had four children, John J. "Jack" Smith Jr., the Navy psychiatrist; David, the music teacher; Steve, the NASA engineer; and Beth, the private secretary. Along the way, he opened Smith's Drum Shop on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton and did gigs around town -- weddings and dances at country clubs. When he turned 65, he "retired" but still gave lessons at his house. With the exception of firefighting in the early '40s, Johnny never earned a dime that didn't involve a drum.
"I always did what I loved," he says.
It all stopped, though, in the early '90s, when his wife battled emphysema and his son Jack had skin cancer.
Johnny tells the story sitting down, stretching out his long legs in his living room, the room that once was empty and is now filled with a couch, chairs and stools. On every table -- including the one by the front door that he made from an oversize marching drum -- are pictures of his children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
His eyes turn red, but he continues. In 1994, his daughter-in-law came into that very room and told Johnny and Betty, "Jack's passed away." Johnny gestures tearfully to a chair in the corner. Betty, he says, essentially gave up on life that day. "My wife 'died' right in that chair. She had emphysema, but she wouldn't stop smoking. She wouldn't go to bed or anything. She would just stay in that chair."
Soon after, he put her in a nursing home, where for 31/2 years Johnny visited "every day, at least once a day, sometimes twice a day," says his daughter, Beth League. "He was just devoted to her."
Betty Smith died in 1997, and after a few months spent unmoored, Johnny started telling his children, "I've got to do something." Not long after, he began teaching again.
"It keeps me from thinking," he says now. "I could sit here and wonder why my son died or why I lost my wife. . . . I could sit here all day long and moan and groan. But instead, I look at the schedule and think, 'Now let's see. What am I going to show them today?' "
Prayers With an Answer
In the basement belonging to Max's band mate Cal Rubbo, who lives across the street from Max, the band is getting to work. Beneath a poster of multiplication tables and a box of Gelly Paint 'N' Swirl, Cal plugs in his amp, and Paul Rosiak, another of the band's three guitarists, makes himself comfortable in a plush Clifford the Big Red Dog chair.
The band doesn't yet have a name. Max's mom, Michele Molnar, thinks they should call it "That Band," and Max's brother, B.J., thinks "Attack of the Killer Monkeys." But Max thinks maybe "Out of Order" or "The Geeks" or "Stop at Go."
"We know a couple of songs," Paul explains buoyantly. "But they're not our own."
"We're like a cover band," Max adds, scooting his stool closer to the drum set.
One of their favorites, adds Cal, who's now sitting on the amp, is "a blink-182 song. Called . . . um, I forget." He pauses. "It starts with a D."
As the band warms up, Max starts showing off what he's learned from Johnny. He's nearly finished the beginner's book on drumming and is moving on to the orange book for intermediates. He points out handwritten notes that Johnny has made in the margins, saying, "He's 88, so that's why it's all shaky."
Theirs is a group still forming -- kids still discovering what they love and what they can live without. Johnny knows that. He celebrates it.
He tells Max, "If you're trying out for a band and there's another drummer who's better than you, it's okay. You go in and play Max."
Johnny charges $10 for a half-hour lesson, but he leaves the entire hour open so the kids can use it all up if things are going well. People tell him he doesn't charge enough, and he says, "It's plenty."
About three years ago, Johnny worried that he was getting too old. He sat in his favorite chair, in the living room, and started "talking to God," he remembers. He asked, "Should I be teaching?"
Soon after, he continues, he got his answer from Kul Virdee, the Kenyan mother of a new student from Rockville. The girl had just finished "a difficult ninth-grade year," Virdee says. "It was a very hard transition into high school."
And though Virdee's daughter wanted nothing more than to become a drummer, her previous teachers -- at "two very important places . . . musically oriented, very important shops on the Rockville Pike," Virdee recalls -- had proved disastrous. When Virdee finally got Johnny's name, she was warned, she says: "He teaches from his basement. And I said, 'Well, I can try that.' "
Somehow, it worked. Virdee can't explain how Johnny transformed a hopeful, bruised girl into a drummer, but he did. "She has bloomed," Virdee says.
Not long after Johnny's chat with God, Virdee told him, " 'You are an answer to my prayers.' " In the fall, her daughter will start at St. Mary's College of Maryland. She plans to minor in music.
And though it's not yet certain how dedicated Max will remain to the beat, his mother believes he's learning kindness and something bigger about life and people by taking lessons with Johnny.
Max just knows that with the drums, "no matter what you play," he says, "it sometimes sounds good."