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Time's Rupp

Denver's legendary skinsman heads off into the sunrise.

Bob Rupp can't stop smiling. Behind his drum kit, flailing his arms wildly, he looks like he's either parking planes or simultaneously channeling the spirits of Keith Moon and Rikki Rockett. He's having the time of his life, and who can blame him? This is the second-to-last time he'll ever take the stage at Herman's Hideaway -- a room almost as legendary as he is, and a place where a lot of his memories live -- on his second-to-last night as a taxpaying resident of Colorado.

Outside, it's overcast and cold; it's been raining off and on since last night, when Rupp revealed to drive-time listeners of Uncle Nasty's show on KBPI that he was leaving town for good. The chill in the air suggests that the seasons are about to change. When it's time, you know it; you feel it in your bones, and there's no fighting it.

"I'm not retiring," insists the 46-year-old Rupp. "I'm just going into phase three of my life."

Brothers from another Mother...Carolyn's, that is: Miles 
Marlin (from left), Drew Hodgson, Rhett Lee and Bob 
Rupp.
Brothers from another Mother...Carolyn's, that is: Miles Marlin (from left), Drew Hodgson, Rhett Lee and Bob Rupp.
Hair today, gone tomorrow (clockwise from bottom 
left): Rupp (far left) with the Rumble, with Fear of 
Sleep (far right) and with Vinyl Oyster (far left).
Hair today, gone tomorrow (clockwise from bottom left): Rupp (far left) with the Rumble, with Fear of Sleep (far right) and with Vinyl Oyster (far left).

Rupp likes to package up periods of his life into tidy compartments -- "phases" and "dark sections." As he looks back over the past three decades, it's clear that compartmentalizing has helped him through the long, strange trip that took him from a small town in northern Pennsylvania to a place where the sun shines nearly 300 days a year.

There's been no shortage of sunny days in Denver. Rupp beams like a proud father when he speaks of the birth of Rupp's Drums, and as he recalls the many bands he's played with and the friends he's made along the way, he punctuates each tale with maniacal laughter. He describes almost every event, no matter how insignificant, as "magical."

But Rupp has endured just as many gut-wrenching days of darkness as light. "Dark, just dark days, you know," he says. " I've had like two, maybe three, four sections of darkness in my life. Death of my mom. Dark. Dark. Death of my nephew last year -- real dark, 'cause he was only thirteen. He was like a little guitar-player guy, had a brain tumor and it just took him down. That was real dark. My heart attack at 25 was real dark. And then being audited by the IRS: drop-dead dark."

In fact, that last ordeal was so profound that it proved the catalyst for his decision to uproot his life and start again somewhere else. The audit lasted thirteen months and nearly ran Rupp into the ground.

"That was a really bad time in my life. You know, just up all night with a calculator and 20,000 pieces of paper, trying to figure out what I did wrong," he remembers. "Oh, yeah, it was bad, but you know, we walked away the victor, so that was laid to rest."

But Rupp isn't interested in dwelling on the dark times. "I don't believe in Œall things happen for a reason,'" he says emphatically. "I don't believe that there's someone pulling strings and there's an end result to every action. I mean, we're just basically human beings trying to struggle through life and get along and have a nice life. Random things happen to random people -- good, bad or indifferent. And if there's anything that came out of that IRS problem I had, it showed me that I just couldn't stand retail anymore."

He didn't start out as a buttoned-down business guy, anyway. The son of an accomplished lawyer in Wormleysburg, Pennsylvania, who instilled in him an ironclad work ethic, Rupp was already a seasoned musician by the age of nineteen. He quickly got a real feel for the music industry. His band, Freeway, had enjoyed marginal success with a regional radio hit and was slated to play the biggest show of its young career at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey -- the club that helped break Bruce Springsteen -- for a record-label exec. In those days, A&R guys showed up with briefcases full of cash and contracts, looking to ink deals on the spot. Freeway was on the fast track, only to be derailed by a nervous frontman who chose to medicate himself with "more tequila than I've ever seen a human being drink in my life," Rupp remembers. "The singer was drunk, the singer fucked up. The guy got up, walked out the door. The end." That moment cemented a rule that Rupp holds to this day.

"I'm a water drinker on stage, because I'm working. Afterwards, give me a beer, I'm happy. But if I make a mistake, it's because I made a mistake, not because I was drinking beer," he says. "And there's so many artists that I go see today that play, that are drunk on stage. They fuck up and think it's funny. You know what? I don't think it's funny; I think it's an insult to the people that see you play."

After Rupp graduated from college, bolstered by years of pounding the skins up and down the Eastern seaboard, he headed west to pursue a gig as a professional drummer. The year was 1979; the destination, the City of Angels. But Rupp never made it to L.A. -- at least not then. Although he was driven in his desire, his car just wasn't up to the task. It blew a rod in Denver and Rupp pulled over. He never left.

With only fifty bucks in his pocket, Rupp couch-surfed with some friends -- the only people he knew in town -- and did time on the cover circuit while he acquired the means to get a place of his own. After toiling behind the counter in a handful of local record stores, he finally saved up enough for a humble abode on Dahlia Street. In the seminal days of original music in Cowtown, the place served as a rock-and-roll flophouse for half a dozen local bands, as well as the Rumble, the first of a slew of outfits Rupp kept time for.

Rupp lets out a laugh as he recounts the wild times on Dahlia. "The Rumble was living there, pretty much. We had Dick and the Chicks living there. We had the Rabbits there every night. They didn't rehearse there -- they had their own place -- but they were there almost every night," he recalls. "A jazz band, You Guys, was living there. So at that part of the scene, almost the entire original music scene was based pretty much at my house. Six or seven bands were rehearsing at my house at all times, and then we'd all go to the clubs and play and then come back and party. It was really a high-energy scene."

Only a handful of clubs supported original music in the late '70s and early '80s: Walabi's, the Mercury, the Pearl Street Music Hall. That was it, the underbelly of the scene.

"You had all these great fucking bands -- killer bands that were just doing it with no idea what the hell was going on," Rupp says. "Because the big thing back then was cover tunes -- you know, like Mr. Lucky's, My Sweet Lass and Godfather. You'd go in there and play sets of cover tunes. I was kind of doing that, but I quit doing that and started playing original music with the Rumble."

Mr. Lucky's was all covers, all the time. But it wasn't the music that attracted local scenesters. "They had a law there in Glendale where you could get in there as an eighteen-year-old girl," Rupp recalls. "You were allowed to dance but not drink. That was the whole thing: Dance but don't drink. But eighteen-year-old boys couldn't get in. It was the weirdest thing ever. So what'd you have in that place was sixteen-year-old girls with a fake ID going in as eighteen-year-olds and getting drunk all night. It was decadent and just a really fun rock club. Needless to say, a lot of people got arrested in the parking lot.

"So, we were living there -- 1979, 1980 and '81 -- I mean, I was there every night; it was just magical," he continues. "So, I kept bugging the guy that booked it about putting original music in there, and he wouldn't hear of it; he didn't think it would go over. So finally the Rumble went in and did a set, and it went over huge."

For the next couple of years, Mr. Lucky's ruled the original scene. And by the time the club shut its doors, Rupp was already on to something else. Not only had he started booking Aspen City Limits, across the street -- the club eventually became Bangles, where decadence was taken to new levels in the late '80s -- but he'd quit his day job as a car salesman. "Selling cars, what a terrible job that is," says Rupp. "I just walked out one day. I said, ŒYou guys are nuts. You lie to the customers. I can't lie to people; I'm a very bad liar.' Honesty always prevails, 'cause at least you speak the truth."

The unemployed Rupp started selling Denver's Dragon Drum kits to pay rent. Sensing an opportunity, he acquired Dragon's entire inventory through a buyout and started making drums for people to give as Christmas presents. That led to the birth of Rupp's Drums on January 4, 1984, in the living room of his 400-square-foot house. During its infancy, the shop was open only on weekends.

"I did two years in my living room as just a guy selling drums to my buddies, pretty much. I really had no inventory. I had nothing. I had zero," says Rupp. "My first year in sales was like $27,000. I thought, 'That's cool.'"

City agencies didn't find it quite as cool. Nor did Rupp's competitors, who'd ratted him out to the city's zoning authorities. So Rupp found a proper storefront location and wound up outlasting all of his competitors, buying their inventory when they went out of business. "We were just an honest shop that was making deals," he says. "I was terrified to go into retail. I didn't know what sales tax was; I didn't know any of that shit. So after struggling and struggling, it just slowly grew. All of a sudden, I'm a retailer with no business background. But I knew drums and I knew drummers. Plus playing in Denver, you knew everybody.

"I tried to touch every drummer -- not physically, of course," he adds with a laugh. "No, I mean get to know the drummer and become friends and pals with that kind of guy. That's what kept the business surviving, was me working the streets every night."

Over the years, that dedication to the local drummer paid off. The shop didn't just survive; it passed the million-dollar mark years ago. Rupp's Drums now occupies 2,400 square feet at 2045 South Holly Street. In 2001 Rupp's was given a Retailer of the Year award from Music & Sound Retailer, the leading trade magazine for music-store owners, managers and sales personnel.

But that's just a plaque. The true testament to Rupp's shop is in the smiles of third-generation drummers who buy all of their gear there. It's in the collective gasps of the music community as its members find out that Rupp's about to morph into a memory. It's in the words of the many, many people who have called him a friend over the years. Not only has Rupp been a tireless supporter of local skinsmen over the years, but innumerable drummers in the "rock star" tax bracket have also benefited from his kindness and honesty. As proprietor of Rupp's Drums, he's forged many lifelong friendships.

"All my buddies who were my heroes -- whether they were childhood heroes or modern heroes -- are now my friends, my drinking buddies," says Rupp. He's referring to guys like Bernie Dresel, Brian Setzer's drummer; Terry Bozzio from Missing Persons; Stephen Perkins from Jane's Addiction; Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Dave Abbruzzese, Pearl Jam's original drummer; and Ginger Baker from Cream.

When Uncle Nasty (aka Greg Stone) roasts his longtime pal, a few of his friends phone KBPI. "Well, you know, I don't know if I have any specific dirt on Bob," says Mark Schulman, who's played with acts like Foreigner and Cher. "The thing that I love about Bob the most is -- you know, I only get to see Bob about once a year when I come out there touring with any artist -- and every time I come out to see Bob, he's playing in a different-style band and he's got the hair to match!"

"I can't play to save my life, but I look really good doing it," responds Rupp.

Schulman's statement is dead-on: Whether Rupp was playing in the Rumble, Fear of Sleep, Love Garage, Sex With Susie, Vinyl Oyster or Paul Galaxy and the Galactix, he was able to successfully mold his image to match the outfit he was playing with.

In the '80s, when Rupp played with the Rumble, his mod persona must have been pretty convincing. The act won a national talent search on MTV's Basement Tapes that was decided by viewers and received two months of regular rotation on the channel. The Rumble also inked a deal with a U.K.-based label, Hi-Lo records. And Rupp finally made it out to Los Angeles. In fact, the group played there so often that members kept gear in storage lockers that they could retrieve whenever they flew into the city. It was Rupp's first taste of real success as a musician.

His next life-changing moment came when he was playing with Vinyl Oyster and members of the band went to see Brian Setzer live. Inspired, they decided to play their version of rockabilly as a side project named after lead singer Paul Galaxy, Rupp's best friend. Once VO had freed itself from a bad record deal it had signed with a local imprint, the Galactix polished their act and hit the road. Although he had a blast, the touring was tough; Rupp had developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and it was painful to keep playing night after night. Before each show, he'd soak his arms in hot water; afterward, he would soak them in buckets of ice, and the next day he'd wear braces. It took a toll, and that, coupled with the difficulties of managing a shop while on the road, eventually led to Rupp's departure from the band -- one of the hardest decisions he's ever made.

The next voice on the air belongs to Zorro, Lenny Kravitz's live timekeeper and another friend of Rupp's, with another story:

"The best story I can tell you about Bob is more one of his character, more so than one of the funny ones," says Zorro from his home in Southern California. "The story is, I went to Denver about three or four years ago. I was doing a clinic at a competitor's store; it wasn't even Bob's store. I don't think we could hook it up at that time or whatever, but just to show you what kind of a guy Bob is, what kind of character he has, after I was done with my clinic, he went and picked me up from the competitor's shop and then he took me out to dinner. Not the people that had me in for the clinic, God forbid -- they didn't take me out. Which to me, you know, it's a hilarious story -- but it just shows a lot of character and just what a sweet guy Bob is and why so many people in the drum industry just love him. 'Cause he's a people person."

Indeed, he's a man of the people -- his people, his friends, his scene. But Rupp still can't understand what all the fuss over his leaving is about. Or maybe his humility won't allow him to hear of it.

"I'm just a guy, just one guy who plays drums, works hard and believes in certain ideals. I just do what I do and do what I believe in," he says. "You know, I've always just been a guy who plays drums; I love drums, and I'm just a focused guy, and the project is the project. I'm one of these guys who also believes that you're only judged on your last album and your last show. I'm only as good as my last show. That's why every show has got to be the best fucking show and every record has got to be the best fucking record. Because if it's not, you're missing the whole point."

Of all the recordings he's made, the new album by Carolyn's Mother, Too Many Fires, may be "the best record I've ever done in my life," he confides. "Not to slight anybody in my past, because everybody I've played with has touched me in some way and made me a better drummer -- everybody has."

If memories were currency, Rupp would be Bill Gates. But he doesn't like to spend too much time reminiscing. He'd rather live in the moment, and right now he's on stage with one of his favorite bands. Weaned on Brit pop, Rupp says that Carolyn's Mother is the band he would have formed if it hadn't already existed. When he left the Galactix and took a few years off, he dragged his girlfriend to just about every Carolyn's Mother show. When he joined the band, after nearly two decades and about half as many ensembles, he'd finally found a home.

And now he's leaving to start a new life back East.

He's not sad about moving on. Sure, he'll miss the friends he's leaving behind, the store and the scene, but he'll deal with that tomorrow, when he's sitting on a beach somewhere on the coast of Maine with his dogs and his girlfriend; he'll save the reflection for then. And he'll be back soon, to tend to a few business details (he's selling his store) and play at the Too Many Firesrelease party. Tonight at Herman's, he's relishing the chance to be surrounded by his friends, including Galaxy, and his bandmates -- Rhett Lee, Drew Hodgson and Miles Marlin -- and all the drummers and other musicians who've supported him over the years. He's having so much fun, you'd think he was wishing the night would never end. But he isn't.

"I mean, you can always wish for the good old days, but to me the good old days are always that way," says Rupp, motioning forward. "Not that way. I don't ever live in the past. I can't wait for tomorrow. Yesterday was a lot of fun, but tomorrow is going to be a lot more fun."

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