The Sinatra Story

In about 2002 or 2003 in fair Covington Kentucky there was a fairly popular corner bar on the main strip. A good friend and musical collaborator at the time managed to talk his way into a Friday night open mic at this club. Since I would help load, unload, set up, break down and so forth, I would always get to perform a nice long set.

It was in the middle of such a set that a very large, very drunk man began to loudly demand that I play some Frank Sinatra.

This fellow was seated at a table surrounded by cards, friends and empty beer bottles when we arrived. Now, hours later, Frank (yes, he was wearing a gas station shirt with his name stitched over the pocket) was swaying on his feet and looking dangerous. And demanding a solo acoustic guitar guy play Frank Sinatra.

Think fast!

I put the spotlight on him, figuratively speaking, by telling him we were going to do “New York, New York”. “That’s right, Frank…I don’t know it on guitar, but I’ll sing the band parts up here and you sing the words over there, got it?”

I didn’t wait for an answer, just started in singing “Bap, bap, bada-bap! Bap, bap, bada-bap…”, you know – the musical intro. I fed him his cue to start singing at the appropriate point and with an elaborate dramatic gesture in his direction. Silence.

“That was your cue, Frank! You start singing right there. We’ll take it from the top…Bap, bap….”

This time, on cue, Frank meekly mumbled, “…start spreadin’ da nooz…”

He got better as line followed line and within 30 seconds the entire bar was singing along. I was high-kicking like a chorus girl, all the while punctuating this unlikely sing-along with stacatto bursts of horn section enthusiasm..”BAP!….BAP!”

Victory was mine! My friend’s jaw hit the floor and stayed there the rest of the night! As for Frank, I received big hugs and at least one beer from him.

Just another tale…stay tuned for more!

-Tom

The Village Voice calls themselves

“…the nation’s first alternative newsweekly…”

But it was around starting in 1955. I started looking into New York City’s only Musicians Wanted listings in exactly 1984. Prior to that I was joining neighborhood bands in Brooklyn or impromptu, short-lived bands in the Air Force.

I answered a lot of those ads between 1984 and 1991 when I finally left New York – and I got the gig about half the time, usually as a bass player. But there were 3 gigs that stand out.

The very first time I answered an ad for a bass player in the Village Voice, I was to show up at a house on Staten Island. This was either the night of Thanksgiving or the night after in 1984.

The act was a husband and wife duo who played folk. They had an established act and got a decent number of gigs. They were also the high priest and priestess of a wiccan coven. I was still getting over having been raised a Catholic, but as open-minded as I was, I still worried at first about “spells” and so forth.

There was an abundance of musical talent afoot. The leader of that group is still the best fiddler I ever played with, but I was more awestruck at my first real exposure to alternative lifestyles. For instance, their household’s primary means of financial support was the wife’s career as a phone sex lady. If the phone rang in the middle of practice we all had to stop on a dime and remain utterly silent while she wrote down the phone and credit card numbers and then called the guy and got him off over the phone.Almost all of these calls were dominatrix stuff, and so she’d often order the guy to call back and exactly when to call back – and they did!

Besides all that, I learned a lot of folk music I never would have even heard otherwise, Celtic, Gypsy, Yiddish songs, the British folk of the 60s, but I also learned a lot about paganism and wicca. I never was initiated, but I attended lots of rituals and larger pagan gatherings. There was ALWAYS nudity going on and I was down with that! This band caused or was indirectly the cause of no less than two major altercations among audience members which outnumbers those in my rock band experience two to one.

The first was at a YMHA which is like a YMCA but Hebrew instead of Christian. It was way uptown and a YMHA of great repute and renown. Half the audience were rabbis and we had a sizable set of Yiddish and Hebrew-language songs thanks to our leading lady. One song was about a rabbi whose sermons were so boring that people went to sleep in the temple. Well, a rabbi in the audience started yelling at us for the disrespect we were showing, then another rabbi started yelling at him because of the disrespect he was showing. Next thing you know, a half-dozen rabbis were on their feet yelling and things were getting tense. There were no fisticuffs.

The second was at a big pagan festival in upstate New York (or maybe Western Massachusetts…hmmmm….). There was another coven in Staten Island we were friendly with. In Wicca, at the time at least, the theory was that a full coven ought to have an equal balance of male and female energies if possible. Well, this other coven was comprised of thirteen gay men. Wicca was fraught with lots of opposing viewpoints about the traditions involved and what was legit and who was who, but this festival was run by people who could not possibly be more freaked out by a coven of gay men – so our friends were “dis-invited” – told not to show up. Long story short, festival tickets were purloined and passed along to the verboten gay coven and they showed up. While we were on stage (again), a full-blown bench-clearing brawl broke out – true fisticuffs and worse.

Some other highlights from my tenure with this band were a 3-week California tour that seemed to have been planned to maximize the driving we had to do. San Diego one day, San Fran the next, followed by Los Angeles, followed by Sacramento…that kind of driving. We drove around with four band members, about a thousand pounds of vinyl LPs for sale, a 4-year-old and 6-month-old. This trip saw us all get caught skinny dipping in the pool of a fan’s step-father. This was at a multi-million-dollar Hollywood Hills mansion. We were assured it was totally cool, but suddenly there he was. It was obviously not cool at all with him and we beat a hasty retreat.

I was fired from that band just before their gig on the nudist whale watch ship….too bad.

The next episode of note that arose from answering a Village Voice ad was a guy who had written all these great tunes and was looking to put a band together starting with a guitar player. I got the gig and started learning all these really great songs he had written, went to some practices and so on. One day at a practice he gave me a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it or heard about it, but you learn a LOT more about the person giving you that book than you do about much else. I decided to just ignore it and carry on. After another practice or two I had apparently gained his confidence somehow, so he revealed to me his big secret: He was The Messiah….that was about the end of that gig.

The last ad-answering adventure I want to mention was with a Mr. Mike Quashie, formerly of Trinidad and Tobago. This man skyrocketed to international fame in 1959 by introducing the limbo dance to the world, and by the early sixties he was performing for Presidents and royalty – only to get bumped off the pop charts by Chubby Checker.

By the time I met him he had been in the same Greenwich Village apartment since 1966 which was in actual fact Jimi Hendrix’s apartment before that. He had trunk after trunk of 60s era costume stuff filling his apartment, claimed close relationships to Jimi’s former wife and Steve Stevens (who played for Billy Idol), had toured with Led Zeppelin and appeared in the Song Remains the Same film, and was now working in the Brooklyn Borough President’s office.

New York Times – “Limbo King of 60’s Says He’ll Sell Mementos to Pay Rent”

Well, Mike was intent upon making a comeback, and he had an act all planned out and some really good songs. The rest of the band he put together were really good players and it was starting to come together. Then it was time for costumes and photos. I was supposed to get a haircut (!!!!), put on green tights, silver spray-painted combat boots a fringe suede vest and a furry armband and go have my picture taken. I protested, but he was calling in all kinds of favors with hair people and photographers so it wouldn’t cost the band members anything. Eventually I went along with it. Even the photographer lady seemed sympathetic about the Jackson 5-era get up. She was kind enough to get me plastered enough to go through with it. I left the band shortly after that…..

I also answered similar ads in Los Angeles in 2004, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

In other news, there is the last and final song for the next CD release! It is written and the recording will begin soon.

I am considering doing a pre-sales thing with this next CD rather than a crowd-funding campaign – maybe even breaking the tunes up into two or three groups that align well genre-wise and doing EPs instead

We would love to know what all you guys think about that. It would help us a lot to know how you like to buy your music and how you feel about pre-sales and crowd funding too.

So, drop us a line and let us know!

Thanks ’till next time,

-Tom

This tale isn’t music-related…

other than the fact that it will become a song in the near future.

How does a Brooklyn-raised, newly tech-trained, very recent arrival at an Air Force base in the South suddenly become a highly-regarded, much ballyhooed local celebrity? How does it come to pass that he suddenly gets invited to all the biggest and best parties, and winds up with the coolest possible roommate in the dorms? How does he go from unknown outcast to The Man?

I owe it all to Iran, actually.

It all started when the U. S. tried a rescue mission in Iran in April of 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis…the Jimmy Carter years. Some US helicopters crashed in the desert, people died, big black eye for Uncle Sam.

An Air Force Cheif Master Sergeant involved with that mission was eventually re-assigned to our little Air Force base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. We were kind of a chump base, flying relatively obsolete F-4 fighters. They were soon to be relagated to the Air National Guard, and shortly thereafter, used as target drones. This re-assignment was a big downgrade in prestige for him and, as the story was told to me, somewhat of a punishment.

This guy was a mover and shaker, a take-no-prisoners alpha male who rose to a position that most enlisted folks could only dream of, only to have his career blemished by a disaster that was probably not his fault in any way. He arrived at this little airbase only a few months before I did and he was not at all pleased to be there. Consequently he did whatever he could to make everybody’s life as miserable as possible.

One other thing I was told about this Cheif Master Sergeant is that he was referred to among the rank-and-file as “Da Creef” because he had an obvious and very unfortunate speech impediment. They told me he sounded almost exactly like the Mushmouth character from the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids cartoon. I used to watch it all the time! Oddly enough, he sang Soul and R-n-B music as a hobby and when he appeared onstage in a base talent show before my time there, he apparently sang with perfect diction and pronunciation. So it goes…

Well, when such a flaw is revealed prior to meeting someone for the first time – especially when that someone is an authority figure hell-bent on torturing those in his charge with needless and vindictive military nonsense (like daily pre-shift uniform inspections for us flight-line mecahnics who routinely were covered in sweat, hydraulic fluid and jet fuel) – that first meeting is apt to be fraught with peril.

As you might expect, my first face-to-face meeting with Da Creef was at just such an inspection. I had been there maybe a week or two. It was probably October and still 95 degrees with 95% humidity. There were three ranks of us lined up and I was in the middle of the middle rank, at attention, awaiting intense and hostile scrutiny.

While I waited, Da Creef was engaged in a level of haranguing, humiliation and debasement over uniform issues that nobody present had experienced since boot camp. Nobody was spared, it was nasty.

Finally, it was my turn. I really hadn’t been out on the flight line all that much, being so new and all, and my uniform was likely the most presentable among all assembled. As with everyone else, he looked me up and down with a keen and spiteful eye for detail. He found nothing! But as he was about to move on, he stopped, looked again and said,

“Whey yo dee-o doh boot-at??!!”

I wasn’t sure quite what I was hearing, but I translated it as a question regarding the place from which I had stolen the boots I was wearing. Namely “Where did you steal those boots at?” I couldn’t fathom why he would ask that, as it was obvious that all of us had gotten our boots from the U. S. Air Force. Why would he think I had stolen them? I was confused, but knowing his reputation, and being so recently graduated from boot camp, I barked back in classic boot camp fashion,

“I did NOT steal, these boots, Sir! They were issue to me in Basic Training, Sir!”

There was a noticeable stirring from those nearby – all still at attention. This was most un-at-attention-like, but I had bigger problems, so I ignored it.

Da Creef sort of expanded, or inflated a bit. Eyes larger, and more loudly he repeated,

“I THAY WHEY YO DEE-O DOH BOOT-AT??!!!!!”

I just didn’t know what in the hell was going on. So I repeated the answer, with an appropriate increase in bark factor. I was desperate, I guess.

“I did NOT steal, these boots, SIR! They were issue to me in Basic Training, SIR!”

Now the noticeable stirring around me was more widespread (as both he and I had gotten louder), and contained a definite element of barely stifled laughter. I was at a loss. How could this be happening? What was happening? Someone was gonna get busted, and not just me, either. Or was this some kind of practical joke they play on new guys? I was sweating bullets by now. And he repeated yet again,

“I THAY WHEY YO DEE-O DOH BOOT-AT??!!!!!”

This time, I finally caught on. He was asking me where my steel-toed boots were at. When a flight-line mechanic finishes tech school and arrives at their first Air Force base to work on real planes, they are issued a new pair of boots. You can’t wear your broken-in, comfortable basic training boots on the flight line, no matter how shiny they may be. There is unspeakable and ever-present toe danger lurking everywhere on the flight line! But my steel-toe boots were so new that they gave me debilitating blisiters so bad that I couldn’t walk. Since I was too new to spend much time on the actual flight line anyway, I had thrown toe-caution to the breeze that day and had worn my very shiny non-steel-toed basic training-issued boots.

Realizing my misunderstanding and suddenly remembering its relationship to the unfortunate speech impediment, I almost laughed out loud myself. But, such was my relief at no longer feeling like an accused boot thief that I replied with a relieved smile,

“Ohhhhh! They gave me really bad blisters and I couldn’t walk, so I had to wear these.”

Silence from Da Creef. Then I remembered expected decorum and tacked on,

“SIR!!!”

He actually looked relieved too, kind of. He just said,

“You whey yo dee-o-doh boot.”

And he moved on. We never met face-to-face or spoke again.

After the inspection was over and we were dismissed to swelter in the mosquitos and the hydraulic fluid, I was threatend with brutal beatings by some for getting them so close to laughing out loud while standing at attention during an inspection, but from most I was lauded and offered kudos for having “brass ones” and pulling off the funniest most insubordinate thing they had ever seen. Even my own direct supervisor and his sergeants were beaming at me with pride and admiration

Not only that, but there was never another pre-shift uniform inspection after that day.

Try as I might, I was never able to convince anyone that I simply mis-heard Da Creef and it was all just an innocent misunderstanding.

And THAT is how a Brooklyn-raised, newly tech-trained, very recent arrival at an Air Force base in the South suddenly become a highly-regarded, much ballyhooed local celebrity. That very night I attended a keg party off-base, and within a week had a pot-dealer roommate in the baracks. The worm had turned!

So, thank you Ayatollah, wherever you are.

-Tom

Finally! A Saturday gig in Downtown Memphis! 

What could go wrong? I was at the top of my game. My solo acoustic act was well-polished. I was all set!

Unfortunately, so were the Tennessee Football Volunteers.

Yes, despite being 400 miles away at the extreme other end of the state, when the University of Tennessee’s football team was at 4 and 0 on their way to an undefeated season and a championship. Saturdays 4 to 7 was usually game time and, as popular as I might have been, the bar wanted to hear the game. Some patrons took up a collection and asked me to just take the money and sit down so they could turn up the TV!

I took the money and sat down!

During the second year in Memphis, I was travelling to my company’s headquarters in the Bay Area. 14 days away, 3 days home, repeat.

Of course I travelled with a guitar, practiced in hotel rooms and played open jams in bars around the east bay. But I would always arrange to have some jammers in my Memphis garage upon my re-arrival home for a weekend.

Yeah, we bought our first house in Memphis. And our second child was born in that house with the assistance of midwives. Memphis was great! But my company got eaten alive by Lockheed-Martin. So, I reconnected with the folks I worked with in Vegas. I would up getting relocated by a much larger company to the Cincinnati area (Northern Kentucky).

That is when I really started playing my ass off. Well, not 12-18 hours a day like 1980, but practicing and gigging a lot; both with bands and a solo acoustic act as well. And here I met with more success than ever before. This was mostly as a bass player in a prog-rock band. I didn’t have to sing, but the material was demanding. All the right gigs in all the right clubs, many fans.

There was success as an acoustic duet with a great singer friend of mine. There was success playing solo acoustic gigs too. There were a billion stories in only 5 years in Cincinnati. I got my PA system there. I finally replaced a bass (stolen while I lived in Vegas) while in Cincinnati. Great town! And I have the recordings and videos to prove it! But I had to go.

Unemployed again, music wasn’t feeding the babies. I moved to Asheville, North Carolina.

Immediately, music was happening! First as an acoustic guitar accompanist for a vocal duo (these girls could SING). We did the Belle Chere festival and others besides.

Then, a band formed among my roommates and myself. I was playing guitar almost all the time now, too. – and singing a lot.

But music wasn’t feeding the babies. Although I spent a couple of months framing custom homes in the mountains, I had to go.

I took a chance on a $900 per week Department of Defense tour as a bass player in a bluegrass/country swing band led by my old New York folk music buddy. For this, I packed up everything and drove a 15-year old station wagon to Los Angeles.

So, can we just skip the whole Los Angeles part? Suffice it to say, my move there fed the babies, although not through music. There is a LOT of money to be made in Cali doing political petitions in a Presidential election year. And I wound up being a de-facto producer for a singer songwriter. AND, in Los Angeles, I had my biggest single-day payday in music thus far (as a bass player, of course). But I had to go.

The same 15-year old wagon six months later had sprung a slow leak in the cooling system. I was putting in as much water as I was gas on the drive back East to Asheville. But I made it.

Job availability moved me from Asheville to Johnson City, Tennessee where I at least didn’t have to drive 1.5 hours each way to make $7.50 and hour. The post-9/11 economic “downturn” was in full effect. Despite a good tech resume, people at job fairs were literally laughing in my face!

Since 2001 I had been a waiter, a home improvements contractor, a barista, a sales goon, a custom home framer and now, a used furniture guy. In Johnson City, I got a lot of traction with my solo acoustic act and even got to play at the Down Home and other festivals and such. But I had to go.

I had an opportunity to conduct a job search in The Big City: Knoxville! And so it was. I regained a footing in my tech career and greatly expanded on my skills and experience. And music equipment!

Knoxville is the best music city I’ve ever lived in. My musical impulses have exploded since being here. Songwriting and bands and jams and various musical interactions in mighty abundance!

Also, now my beautiful wife Susan is also my bass player. I have retired from bass (except for you, Kenny…)

Shortly after I taught Susan the bass guitar basics, we moved into a BIG house about 20 miles outside of Knoxville. We set up a nice big studio room and started having some wailin’ parties and jams and such. This went on once a week for months. Through availability issues, time and attrition, it dwindled down to Susan and me and Myron, our drummer.

We three kept on getting together at least weekly and started to amass quite the repertoire for a 3-piece. We soon landed a weekly gig at a local bar, which lasted over 6 months and helped get us grooved in. Things built up from there and now we’re still making music. We’re branching into online video shows instead of bars just to see what happens.

I won’t be emailing you every day like this any more. Just wanted to give you a bit of history.

We are going to keep in touch regularly, though. We have new stuff waiting to release and big plans for live video shows and more.

Thanks for hangin’ with us!

-Tom

How I found out music could heal!

My girlfriend at the time had a brother who was trying to learn bass. He was a great guy and I helped him however I could. Soon, he got invited to a party by some friends at work and the word was that there would be a jam – bring your instruments. He asked if I’d go so I grabbed my battery amp and my Strat and we went! He had his bass and a small practice amp.

One of the attendees at the party was this biker-looking dude. In New York, there was a widespread biker culture. But only a tiny fraction of these biker people owned motorcycles! Bike-less bikers!  But, I digress. This “biker” guy was all off by himself, grinding his jaws, frowny, bad vibes… then we found out he played bass.

For the next 2 solid hours, biker dude and I played a non-stop improve rock jam that got everyone’s solid attention. They shut off the stereo. It was serious! By the end, the biker guy was all smiles and hugs. Completely changed. I had been actually trying, intending, to send him healing vibes through the music. It seemed to work, at least to my satisfaction. At that moment began my continuing fascination with music as a healing medium.

All good things, however, must come to an end. And while there are innumerable stories from the Brooklyn 80’s as yet untold, we come to the part of the story where I was compelled to leave Brooklyn. For Las Vegas!

But why leave Brooklyn? Well, there was the unemployment thing….

I had a job as a suit-and-tie-wearing pavement-pounding cold-calling salesman for a corporate floral contractor. Basically a florist that wanted to corner the market on office buildings and their tenants’ floral needs. Reception desks, conference room tables. They all needed flowers. Business was brisk and I was a corporate floral sales rock-star. Then the Dead came to town. Our office was right around the corner from Madison Square Garden. The Dead had booked the Garden for something like 9 nights. There were barefoot long-haired freaks everywhere. MY PEOPLE! And here I was in a suit. I saw two of those Garden shows and shortly thereafter, my conspicuously absent work ethic resulted in my termination from the world of corporate floral sales.

But why not just get another job in Brooklyn?

Tried that…failed. Remember the Gulf War? It resulted in a recession and some high unemployment. I had a high school diploma and had done some construction work and some flower business work. There was no work for me in New York. People with Masters Degrees were competing for $5 an hour jobs in NYC. The rest of the country was the same story. Except Las Vegas.

So how did I come to know about Las Vegas? Steve Two-Thumbs! When I was jamming in Big Jim’s studio, most of the time the drummer was Steve. His right thump was deformed. It split into a Y-shape above the last knuckle. His right hand had two thumbs.

He had gotten into both of the wrong kinds of trouble at the same time (cop trouble and mafia trouble). Finding himself with a need to get gone, he hopped a bus west. By a number of random circumstances he found himself in Vegas and the economy and all other prospects in that fair city were good indeed.

Of this I was informed via a series of letters he had written me from The Promised Land. I was urged to come out west and things in Brooklyn around that time were turning in a way that resulted in my departure.

I gave my amp away and took my P-Bass, Strat and acoustic and some clothes on a plane and split.

Years passed in Vegas. A few bands, some solo acoustic shows in coffee shops. Some recording.

I became a family man! As soon as my first child was born, I sprouted a career by accident. Computers, software, databases. It all started then. Until then, it was whatever job paid the most but still allowed me to play music all night every night. Now I was feeding the babies. But the money came with a hook and I took the bait.

Next thing you know I’m relocating to Memphis, Tennessee. Must have been 1998.

I played a LOT of music in Memphis. Never really had a band, but still played out a lot. For the first year in Memphis I buddied up with a pair of guys that did an open mic. I would usually accompany them on slide guitar, and get to do my own set.

Next: Why I was paid to NOT play in a bar in Downtown Memphis on Saturdays from 4 to 7.

-Tom

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

Sitting right in front of the dart board. Brooklyn 1980.
So….the Big Jam…..with Bruce…..

 

I pushed my padded, 4-wheeled amp and my bass 40 blocks to Bruce’s house. I went in, and he had a Marshall stack in his room. One of the albums I saw laying around was The Sex Pistols. I plugged in and we tried to find stuff we knew in common. Meanwhile, his amp on zero was drowning out mine on 10. After a while, Bruce called his uncle down from upstairs. His uncle played some banjo, so Bruce split and I jammed a half hour or so with Uncle Banjo, then pushed all my stuff 40 blocks back home.

Curiosity and ambition aligned one day in the mid-70s and I walked to the music store and purchased the Allman Brothers Complete sheet music book. I had been eyeing it for months and was a regular denizen of the music store (13 years old, little else to do…). I got that book home, got the bass fired up, sat down. I opened the book and was confronted with all these familiar song titles I was aching to learn. And dots. Dots on lines, between lines, weirds symbols. What the hell? I just want to learn the bass lines!

So I walked back to the music store and bought a Mel Bay book on learning to read the bass clef.

Between the two of these books, I s-l-o-w-l-y got every Allman Brothers song under my belt. I was in high school by now and the much-reviled disco music was the new normal. My friends and I reacted by becoming even hippi-er than the actual hippies (mostly our older brothers and sisters). It was with great good fortune that my high school’s only guitar teacher decided a half-semester bass guitar course was overdue. He was mainly a history teacher, but back in the day he was one of the first white cats to gain acceptance in the Harlem jazz clubs in the 40s.

So began my Formal Musical Training. Approximately 12 hours of basics, but these basics included what’s known as chord theory. I was able now to write bass lines. Also, I had by then figured out what the two top skinny strings on a guitar were all about and I had learned some guitar chords and some songs on guitar too.

But when joining bands (which happened a lot back then), I did it as a bass player. Knowing a bit of music theory allowed me to start playing with a more advanced set of local musicians and my learning accelerated again. I would ply the guitar players with a million questions. Usually they were really helpful and soon I was playing an acoustic guitar 8 hours a day.

High school finally ended. At 17 I had already played more than a few bar gigs. I was obviously going to be a rock superstar. Of course! So, since my high school music teacher refused to sign a letter of reference for me to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I chose to forego a college education. My parents were right there with the money, willing to put me through school. But by now I also had a tendency to party like my musical heroes. I am still convinced I wouldn’t have lasted a semester in college at that point anyway.

So four days after graduation from high school I got myself kicked out of my parents’ apartment by nobly storming out with however much of my stuff I could carry. I made it as far as the apartment building service entrance – behind the garbage cans. When I woke up, I soon became a relatively permanent resident of Harry’s Basement. Then my ex-girlfriend Melba’s house. Then the local park.

Yup. I kicked around my neighborhood couch-surfing through a summer and a winter and by the next late spring I was a citizen of the local park. At this point I would be playing guitar 12 to 18 hours a day in the park. Then I’d sleep on the same park bench at night. I had a cheap mushy cardboard guitar case and it made a decent pillow (and guitar theft alarm). A pack of four stray dogs slept under my bench every night as well. When I ate, they ate.

Sometimes I had a job at a local bakery. Cleanup. In a neighborhood bakery cleanup starts around 2 or 3 PM. Perfect timing!

Well, summer turned to fall and, in New York, its not subtle. Facing the prospect of freezing to death I signed up for the Air Force. This was September. When my recruiter told me to report to such-and-such in late January, I was sure I was going to freeze to death in the meanwhile.

But a sudden resurgence of employed girlfriends, actual jobs, and even apartments just materialized out of nowhere.

By late January, all the reasons I really had for joining the Air Force were gone…but I figured I signed on the dotted line and HAD to go or else…

Next: Some observations about the US Air Force.

 

This story might take a while...
This story might take a while…                                                                                                                                                            Let’s start this musical story a bit later than the very beginning. Let’s start after I arrived in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge with my mom and new step-dad in the 5th grade.

My music story really starts with art. I never attended art school, but I had a real knack for sketching. In about the 7th grade my step-dad paid for private art lessons.

My art teacher was Astrid. She was Estonian and lived two apartments down the hall from us. She was an awesome lady and an awesome artist and teacher. I flourished under her tutelage!

Around this time my bud Harry from across the street (the guy who became my best friend after we had what would be my only actual knock-down-drag-out fistfight of my life at the age of 10 or 11) had all these musical instruments in his basement where we always hung out. I gravitated to the bass.

It was his dad’s bass. Electric and in the general Paul beatle bass mold (though not a Hofner). This bass had a curleyque carved into the top of the headstock! There were no amps, and I couldn’t take it home but I learned Smoke on the Water, Paranoid, Iron Man,25 or 6 to 4 and all those incredibly hooky bass riffs from the 70s. We’re talking ’74 or ’75 here.

Then one day Astrid (remember Astrid?) gave me an acoustic guitar. Well, I thought she gave it to me – it turned out to be a loan. I immediately removed those two REALLY skinny, pesky top strings. They didn’t make any sense to my bass-player habits. I learned even more bass lines on that guitar and at that point I was playing hours every day.

I earned some money from summer jobs. Astrid asked for her guitar back and I was able to buy a bass guitar of my own. For you axe nerds: a Gibson EB2 with the tobacco sunburts. I was in the 8th grade and still had no amp. But, I had these headphones with a 9-volt battery that I could plug the bass into. I wore those headphones out learning Yes and Rush songs and writing riffs of my own. Then, by some miraculous act of parental illogic, the folks bought me a bass amp! (nerds: A Kustom 1-15 with the padded covering and the vent ports and the purple power light).

Apartment living and a 6-hour-a-day bass habit drove our upstairs neighbors nuts!

By now I was really solidifying all the worst possible habits on bass. My mentors were rock’s most notorious over-playing bassists: Phil Lesh, Berry Oakley, Jack Bruce, Jack Casady, John Entwistle. I found that I had quite a bit of dexterity and had ambition, gusto, and a LOT to learn!

My first lesson was humility!

Down in Harry’s basement I was widely regarded as a bass superstar! I was, unbeknownst to me, also being widely promoted as such at the local public high school by Harry. He was an attendee. I was not. There was, at that time, a real guitar superstar attending Harry’s public high school. I had personally seen this 16-year old play entire Yes albums with his band in concert in the high school auditorium. Harry informed me that he got me an audition with none other than the great Bruce Johannesson!

In case you didn’t know, shortly after high school, Bruce left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. Within a year, he was C. C. DeVille of Poison.

Stay tuned for the details of that rare musical encounter…

-Tom