Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Changing from a Kid into a Musician (Part 3)

tom_af_1982
From 16 hours a day playing guitar…..to the US Air Force.

Some observations about the US Air Force:

  • I never was on, saw or heard of an Air Force Base that didn’t have a golf course on it.
  • Apparently, just before I got there, they had just stopped the long-standing practice of selling beer in soda vending machines.
  • There were some bases in “dry” counties and the only liquor sales for dozens or hundreds of miles happened in the base package store.

I managed to get through boot camp – and even managed to get my hands on a Strat for a couple of hours while there. And drink beer illegally!

Then on to tech school on a base in Denver. I spent 6 months there and bought a cheap acoustic guitar to keep practicing on. But when I finished tech school I was stationed on a base on the Piedmont in North Carolina. There I would start intently playing electric guitar.

I got hold of a Fender Bullet. Traded that up to a Tele. Then I bought a pre-CBS Fender Princeton Reverb amp. Then I traded the amp and the Tele for a ’73 hard-tail Strat.

I was in a number of bands while I was in the Air Force. The first was with a guy that loaded bombs onto the F-4s (I fixed the radars that aimed the missiles) and a guy that worked in the base hospital. We played on a flatbed truck for an Octoberfest on the air base. They made us start at like 10 AM on a Saturday. We woke up most of the people who showed up 2 hours later.

The next was a band with another guy named Tom Smith. He was a drummer and rented a little cabin off-base (totally OK to rent off-base housing by the way). I met a guitar player from Staten Island, NY. We did a three piece rock/blues thing. Nobody else did any singing at all, and that might have been my first attempts at singing while playing. Did some Allman Brothers and some Robin Trower.

Oddly enough, the guitar player and I switched instruments after a few practices. On guitar I found it a lot easier to sing. And a lot easier to play guitar!

Then one day, I was returning to the Air Force from a weekend at my own off-base rental. It was a Monday and I was on time to start my usual 4 PM shift. But all the usual faces were greeting me like the second coming of Christ!

“YOU’RE ALIVE!!!! YOU’RE ALIVE!!!!, they all said. “We thought you were dead!!!”

It turns out my drummer, Tom Smith, died in a motorcycle wreck that weekend. As well known and as apt to party as I was, everyone assumed the dead Tom Smith was me. Nope. Hard to kill.

By the time I got out of the Air Force and was back in Brooklyn, I started answering music ads in the Village Voice. This started as a way to get bass gigs, but I eventually started auditioning for – and getting – guitar gigs.

That’s when I found out for sure that the guitar guy is expected to sing.

I figured the way to start habitually playing and singing was with the blues. I learned the lyrics to three blues songs and began to frequent the Abilene Café on 2nd Avenue in the 30’s in NYC. It was a blues jam – one of many, but the one I went to most often.

The Abilene was also one of the blues jams a young John Popper would frequent. Blues Traveler was together at that point but unheard of. Nevertheless John Popper was treated like royalty. And he was mind-blowing-ly awesome any time I saw him play.

Things were happening for me musically in Brooklyn in the 80s. I was the bass player for a touring folk band, bass player for a successful Grateful Dead tribute band; bass player, singer and songwriter for an originals band or two. But two things in particular were critical to my musical growth at that point: 4-track cassette recording and Big Jim’s studio.

I had gotten my hands on one of the earliest Fostex 4-track recorders and got right to work. It was a sketch pad for musical ideas and also let me synthesize my bass and guitar playing – resulting in a knack for arranging and composing.

Soon after, my old bud Big Jim rented a commercial space a few clicks down the main drag in the next neighborhood. He was building a rehearsal studio for musicians. Most of the NYC musicians live in apartments. If you want to play in a band, you are going to pay $20 and hour for rehearsal studio time. I helped Jim build two kick-ass studios and often managed the studio for him or did live sound reinforcement for him with his equipment. Consequently, I had a free pass in the studio.

This led to a respectable quantity of recorded jams and some of these became new songs on the 4-track recorder. But the best thing about Big Jim’s studio was the parties. I was STILL just like a magnet for parties.

One party from this era has had a lasting impact on me and my motivation for playing music ever since.

Stay tuned for The Miracle of the Healing of the Angry Biker…

-Tom