I once described my friend Lee – who died this past Tuesday – as “so much cooler than the rest of us.” That remains true. But I would add that Lee, more than anyone else I’ve ever met, aged into his 50s with unmatched elegance.
Elegance that endured. An elegance that was born and bred into him. An elegance that defined him, and was the essence of the no-nonsense, intrepid determination that took him to the top of his field as a drummer. Elegance that faced off forces-unpredicted and hurdle after hurdle. Hurdles that would have halted a lesser man.
I will carry the lessons I learned from Lee for the rest of my life. I had often thought of Lee when the stuff of life, that we all have to ward off at times, would come at me with a thrust. I was inspired by his grace and his grit.
Lee was the drummer for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts from 1981 to 1986. It’s his unrelenting, crazy-with-the-sticks, pounding that drives the iconic “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. In 2006, I was interviewing him for a magazine article. I was just getting to know him and his wife, Maura. We had mutual friends, we had spent News Year’s Eve together, but I had yet to spend a big chunk of time with Lee.
We had just sat down in his living room for the interview. I had only been there for about 15 minutes, but he had already given me about 25 minutes worth of smiles and chuckles. His wit was quick.
We moved into the den. He wanted to turn on his stereo to play a piece of music for me. His hand started shaking as he moved it towards the knob to turn on the stereo. I instinctively jumped in and offered to do it. He wouldn’t have it.
He cursed his hand, made a joke about his hand, and then cursed his hand again. He could have asked me to turn it on. He could have decided that he didn’t want me to see his hand shaking. Or he could have decided that it was simply easier to just use the other hand. But he didn’t.
Because Lee didn’t settle. Instead, he grabbed his wrist with the steady hand and commandeered his trembling fingers to the knob, and turned on the music. We did a four-hand high five.
And that was my Lee-moment. That’s when I got to know the Lee that those who had known him for decades already knew. He never gave up. He insisted on excellence. He remained gracious in spite of unimaginable odds and resistances. He did not stand for mediocrity.
So “cooler than the rest of us,” falls a bit short. Lee once told me, that to be a good drummer, you must first understand the basic operation of what goes into forming a solid beat, and then … “make it your own.”
So just as a Lee Crystal drum-beat was solid, and was his own, so was his pluck, his mettle, and his elegance. All outlined with cool.