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