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It all starts with a beat.

Blood pushing through your body, radiating from your chest. A clockwork turbulence you can't escape, not even in the quietest room. The beat is literally in your blood, literally whispering in your ears.

Some people feel this more than others; they attend to the rhythm and its complications. A drummer, maybe more than some other kinds of artists, is born.

Then you see John Bonham in The Song Remains the Same and you are permanently bent toward your nature. You can't help it. You have to be doing it all the time, and even if you try to hedge your bet with grad school, it pulls you back in. You feel it too deep.

But with deep feeling comes deep pain. Maybe a genuine artist has no choice but to follow the pulse. If you can, maybe you feel compelled to pick out and sort the vibrations and patterns of the universe, even when to do so is not conducive to your obtaining the accoutrements of adulthood like health insurance, 401(k)s and late-model SUVs. Becoming a drummer is simply not a viable business plan.

Clayton Delaney to Tom T. Hall: "There ain't no money in it; it'll lead you to an early grave."

The truth is, our society--let's go out on a limb and say most industrialized societies--value most things more than we value artists. We can forget this when we watch famous people on TV, we forget that we're looking at lottery winners, the really lucky ones who were able to somehow scramble over all the other aspirants and make it to the tippy-top. A rational person looks at this and gets a business degree.

But Joe Cripps was a drummer anyway. A percussionist. A guy who worked with time. I don't know if he sensed something holy in it, but it was what he was best at.

And he was successful at it, by the lights of his industry. He had shares in Grammys and the universal respect of his peers. He played on at least four continents, he backed up Tiny Tim. He supplied the throb, the swing, for bands like Ten Hands and Brave Combo and nailed the gut-bucket of otherworldliness of CeDell Davis to the Earth.

Before that he played with fundamental Little Rock bands such as the Patios, Jubilee Dive and Gunbunnies. He explored Afro-Cuban jazz-funk in Norte de Havana. He started a Herb Alpert tribute band that's still gigging. Up until three years ago, he tightened the groove for the worship service at the New Grace Baptist Church, where he said they were teaching him new ways to play slowly.

He worked with the marching band at his high school, McClellan. He co-founded a record label. He was reportedly working on starting a non-profit organization to bring music education to poor children. Joe had lots of ideas. Some of them were inspired.

Palms slapping on congas. A stick ticking up and down the side of a guiro. A sly smile lurking somewhere beneath a perpetual Movember mustache. This is how we remember Joe Cripps. If you got out at all over the past 30 years, you likely remember him.

Which is all we can do now, because he's gone.

And it's not likely he's coming back. It's been more than three years since he came out of the White Water Tavern. He'd been drinking. A bartender had cut him off. Maybe a taxi had been called, but Joe set out walking. Or maybe he took an Uber. If anyone has seen him since, they haven't come forward.

We can imagine all sorts of bad things. A relapsing alcoholic weary with the cycle of despair. Bad people lying in wait of a stumbling dude with his cashed paycheck in his pocket. Someone taking revenge on a drug counselor who had reluctantly violated some of his charges and sent them back to prison for smoking synthetic marijuana days before they'd completed their sentence in a halfway house. That ancient staccato: crime, accident, misadventure.

It may be significant that two days before he disappeared he shared on his Facebook page a story about how suicide affects those left behind. You could take this as evidence he was not intending to do harm to himself, but then people post all kinds of things on social media for all kinds of reasons.

Maybe he made it home that night, but the best guess is he didn't. He left behind his blood pressure medication. He left behind his drumsticks.

Or we can imagine something wishful--an escape fantasy. Joe on a beach somewhere, a Bitcoin millionaire listening to Pet Sounds all day. Joe riding on a Greyhound bus. Joe in heaven, keeping cosmic time.

I don't know. But I know how these things go. I've seen this movie before.

And I don't know how to save people, or even if people can be saved. But they can be cherished and remembered, and maybe we can manufacture meaning from the stuff of grief.

On Saturday night, there will be a party at CALS Ron Robinson Theater, a benefit for the Joe Cripps Foundation, a nonprofit started by his family and some friends designed to further education for those born drummers without the means of family support that Joe was lucky to have.

Cripps' old friend Chris Maxwell, of the Gunbunnies, Skeleton Key and the production team Elegant Too (which, among other things, produces music for the Bob's Burgers animated series) will play, previewing his new album, New Store No. 2, which will be officially released on vinyl in February and which continues in the headphones pop mode established by 2016's excellent Arkansas Summer. Maxwell will be joined by Ambrosia Parsley, former lead singer of Shivaree, and likely some of his old Gunbunnies compatriots. Brent Best of Slobberbone will open the show.

(Tickets are $25 and $75. Tickets include a digital download of New Store No. 2; the $75 ticket also entitles one to a signed copy of the vinyl LP after it is pressed. For more information go to:

I don't imagine that the event needs publicity; word of mouth among Joe's friends will be enough to fill the place up. I think he'd like this party. I think he'd like to be here for it.

I hope he makes it.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 11/19/2019


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