It ain't easy to attract stares on the corner of East Ninth and St. Clair, what with the brightly lit Galleria and the towering Free Stamp just up the street. At 10:30 on a Wednesday night, the few passersby keep their eyes glued to the sidewalks, the better to brush off panhandlers.
And then the Drum Bus rolls up. A road-worn white shuttle with blue trim and dents aplenty, Bob Mussell's ride literally glows in the dark: A rainbow of blinking lights illuminates the interior, and a fog machine spews tufts of vapor from every opening. It looks like your basic strip club on wheels.
"There's Cheech and Chong's bus!" bellows a tourist from Toronto, as a white cloud pours out.
"It's Chuck E. Cheesish, I'll admit," says Mussell, owner of both the Drum Bus and the Euclid School of Music. A drummer since childhood, the 48-year-old launched the school and bus a year and a half ago, as a means of enlivening the learning experience. His more than 50 students range in age from 10 to over 40. "Too many times, the practice room is an institutional room -- it's really small, not ventilated. The kid dreads going to it. There's little notes on the wall and a bust of Mozart."
Nobody dreads the Drum Bus. Inside, Mussell and two teens are hammering away at three electronic drum kits, while "The Wind Cries Mary" blares in the background. The seats have been replaced with drum pads, along with the computers and amp needed to run them. A disco ball glimmers next to flashing red, white, and green bulbs; lasers and light machines evoke the ambiance of Spencer Gifts.
Mussel paid $3,200 for the old LakeTran shuttle; it took $26,000 more to make it the Drum Bus, including the "One Nation Under a Groove" paint job on the roof. He's on the road five to seven nights a week, usually beginning around 9 p.m. and usually around East Ninth. Sometimes he'll stay out until two in the morning, long after he's dropped off the last of his students. He pulls up in front of the Playhouse Square theaters, rides up and down West Fourth and Sixth streets, and through any alley that catches his eye. When he finds a spot he likes, he parks the bus, hops in back, and begins a tutorial. As cars whiz by, often slowing for a better look, Mussell and his students put on a show, bashing along with everyone from Santana to the Average White Band.
"You sit down, and you feel like you're in a band, and you're right there on your own stage, performing," says Sky Douglas, a genial middle-aged guy who's a longtime student of Mussell's. "It holds so much more of your attention, rather than just practicing rudiments. It makes you want to get better and play."
"Put it to you this way," adds George Woodworth, whose 13-year-old son Jeff rides the bus. "We just rented Jeff a new Xbox game, and he wanted to come down here."
This is precisely Mussell's aim: making music education as fun as blasting aliens. He corrals guest performers by parking outside the venues they're playing. Since its inception, the bus has hosted the sticksmen for both Ricky Martin and Ziggy Marley, as well as Richard Bravo of The Tonight Show Band.
Mussell hasn't had much trouble with authorities -- the bus is surprisingly quiet, with little noise escaping until he opens the roof hatch or cracks the windows. But there was the night he pulled up in front of Cleveland Public Power. The Drum Bus was reported as a terrorist threat.
"I'm on some list now," Mussell says. "This is one of Saddam's killer disco buses."
Now he's in the market for another bus, which he would use for keyboards and guitars. He's seeking endorsements from equipment manufacturers, the better to take the Drum Bus on the road to other cities. The $10 per half-hour he makes from each student doesn't bode well for expanding his fleet, he admits.
"I am no John Bonham. I'm more P.T. Barnum," Mussell says. "The bus is becoming its own character."