Remembering Doug Gibson: Commanding drummer and patient who never said ‘Why Me?

Doug Gibson’s ability to draw a crowd didn’t end on Christmas Eve with his life.

A week ago Saturday, the freshly plowed parking lot at the RiverSong Church just south of Springfield was nearly full when I pulled in 45 minutes before his 4 p.m. service was to begin.

When it did, Pastor Jim Britton told us that if the entire throng that had for two hours passed through procession line to honor him and offer their condolences had stayed, the sanctuary would have been standing room only.

Still, there were plenty enough of us there to feel the communal warmth required on a wintry day on which the coming darkness and the occasion would remind us why that long-ago movie was called the Big Chill and, before that, The Big Sleep.

A simple but artfully designed program told us Douglas McLean Gibson was born May 13, 1959. I checked, and that was a Wednesday the 13th, not a Friday, which was fine with Doug. Although Type I diabetes may have plagued him with transplants, amputations from both legs and decades of pain on an amp turned up to 11, Gibson defied his affliction’s attempts to define him.

The service was conducted in a tone set by both the title and touching tenor of its opening song, the Beatles’ “In My Life.” Former bandmate Kenny Aronhalt’s good humor at his inability to remember the song’s opening line – “there are places I remember” – was embraced by an audience that smiled warmly at Pastor Britton’s suggestion that, at a certain age, we recall things having happened not so many years ago but so many pounds ago.

Joining Aronhalt and Britton (on guitar) to provide the sacred rock music were Gibson’s buds and bandmates Jeff Sandow (bass) Mike Neal (guitar) and drummer Ken Barnett. Mike Mingo chipped with vocals on the Beatles’ wistful “The Long and Winding Road,” and Rich Carey’s original composition “Think of Me” reminded us that anytime we think of the departed, they are among the living again.

Similarly, Aronhalt’s original, “It Goes On” invoked the thought of a drum keeping time into eternity. It also expressed his great surprise that he spent 25 years in a band with Gibson without the drummer remarking about the war of attrition diabetes was waging against him.

In the words of his exemplary obituary, “more incredible” even than his legendary sense of humor, memory and musicianship was his “stoicism in his lifelong battle” with that pernicious affliction.

The central roles family and faith played in Gibson’s life were introduced when his nephew Brian Gibson rose to read the passage from Matthew 11, which spoke to both Gibson and those grieving him after his seemingly endless suffering had finally ended: “Come all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Although Pastor Britton confessed to having no idea what form an afterlife might take, the testimonies of Gibson’s two nieces invoked the thought of Gibson smiling down at them, though in large measure because of the extent to which he did so during his life.

Molly Meddock, who said Gibson had been more like an older brother than an uncle, provided a “for instance” that would be the envy of all wisecracking older brothers Before her volleyball games — every one of which he attended — he’d tell the spiker the same thing: “Go break some nose.” She then served up a chaser: “He brought me into my very first bar in grade school.” (His diabetes didn’t allow him to drink.)

Those remarks also preceded the band’s forceful version of the David Bowie song “Heroes” for the reason Gibson’s wife, Sonie, to the end of his life, referred to him as her “Superman,” who held out against his kryptonite for an impressive 64 years. Married for 40 years, the aptness of their match found expression when, after a long search for an available kidney as her husband’s first transplant was failing, she took the test and found she had a matching kidney for him, too.

His entire family’s devotion to Gibson shone through when niece Courtney Wayne explained that, as amputations came into his life and he was laying plans to continue at the drum set, they emailed Modern Drummer magazine to pass along Gibson’s story to the world-class drummers.

There followed an outpouring of emails, signed drumsticks and drumheads – plus a digital correspondence with Robyn Flans, whose stories of her interviews with drummers Gibson so admired. Flans’ own admiration for Gibson’s heart shines in a single sentence: “I will never forget that tearful day he played the drums for me the first time with his prosthetics.”

It then fell to Bill Gibson, the oldest of Doug’s siblings to add the appropriate family lore, which he did in a voice that made him the older brother of everyone in attendance.

Central to the lore was Christmas of 1966. In the Gibson house on Roosevelt drive, that meant two years after the Beatles had come to America; the year Baby Andy arrived; and the day Santa inexplicably sprung for a drum set for a 7-year-old whose father worked two jobs to make ends meet.

Bill Gibson didn’t hazard a guess about how many times his father subsequently shouted, “Stop playing those damn drums.” But the older brother clearly remembered his own jaw-drop the first time he really heard brother Doug play at a practice in the garage.

On behalf of the rest of the family, he thanked with the unwavering eye contact of sincerity his sister Monica Spencer as Doug’s biggest fan. She not only rounded up “scores of girlfriends to follow his bands for her little brother,” he said, but as a mother made sure Uncle Doug and Aunt Sonie were central to her children’s lives and “as Doug’s health required more support … took time off work constantly for travel to doctors, especially to Ohio State.”

We’ll finish with a blast from Doug Gibson’s past that was a special present to those at the service: A video from an early 1980s performance of Gibson’s then band, New Music.

Filmed by Merlin Productions at Alrosa Villa in Columbus as the band plays the Paul McCartney-composed title theme to the James Bond movie “Live and Let Die,” the camera is tightly focused on Gibson, who is sitting at his drums with the intensity of a Capt. James T. Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise poised to skirt a Star Fleet regulation and pursue a Klingon ship into the Neutral Zone.

In the tune’s lyrical beginning, he sits largely still, adding only the occasional color with touches on the Zildjian cymbals that fall like the first drops of rain. As the “live and let die” part is sung, the foreboding bottom end warns of an approaching funnel cloud, and the drums rear up to punch out four repetitions of a thunderous intro. All is prelude to the moment the captain orders Scottie to engage the warp drive and the audience is thrust back as one in its collective seat for the thrill ride to come.

Bathed in harsh white light, the man on the drummer’s throne seems to fuse the movements of ballet and fun amidst silver stands, brass cymbals and pale drums arranged like a centerpiece of a birthday cake lit up with Roman candles.

That’s my best shot at putting into proper context the two instructions Gibson’s family suggested for those wishing “to honor Doug’s memory and continue his legacy of badassery.”

1. “Take in some great live music.”

2. “Talk with your family about an organ donation.”

P.S. A reliable source tells me the great music may soon be offered at a local Doug Gibson tribute.

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