By James Maher
Name: Tom Clark
Occupation: Musician, Tom Clark and the High Action Boys
Location: Avenue D, between 6th and 7th
Time: 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb 4.
I’m from a place called DeKalb, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago. I grew up down the block from Cindy Crawford. In my mind, I like to remember DeKalb as this very Norman Rockwell place. The flying logo with the corn is the famous logo for DeKalb. At one time it was the second most recognizable logo next to Coca-Cola.
Luckily there was a university there. There were farms. When you were 13 you were allowed to do farm labor and I worked in cornfields for seven years, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t take a day off cause the corn doesn’t take a day off — that’s what they’d tell you. And then when I was 16, I got a job working in a grocery store. So in the summers I was working about 95 hours a week, 7 days a week in the cornfields and at night at the grocery store.
I start doing gigs, doing shows when I was about 14. I got into music real early. I went to Northern Illinois University for like 2 years. I was in college and working to pay for it, doing my own stuff and I joined a punk band there called Blatant Dissent. But I was just kind of lost about what to do in life. I was about 19 and I wrote a letter to Marshall Crenshaw, the songwriter and singer. I had never written a fan letter or anything in my life and he actually wrote me back. I still have the letter saying ‘Go for it.’
Nobody in my family had ever gone anywhere. I grew up with four brothers who all still live within 20 minutes of my mom, which is great. They were all jocks. I had to wait till they left the house before I could play music because it was for pussies. If Marshall Crenshaw hadn’t told me to go for it, I’d probably still be managing the grocery store now, which wouldn’t be the worst thing. He told me to go for it in New York and I still blame him to this day. But I did it.
I had never seen an ocean in my life; I had never been anywhere; I had been on a plane like once. When I moved here, I said I was going to give myself three years tops. I was 20 and I look back about it now, moving here when this was a totally different place. Crack was king then. I didn’t even drink when I was in DeKalb or in high school. I was never a partier. Friday nights I would be home listening to Beatles bootlegs with my friends and practicing. But I learned how to drink when I moved here, unfortunately.
I moved here in ’86 with some guys from my hometown. Two of them didn’t last very long, but one of them is still here. I didn’t have a job and we didn’t have a place lined up. I stood in front of the Astor Place barber shop when they had three floors. I stood there for nine and a half hours out front with my guitar singing and the owner, Enrico Vezza, the guy that started the place back in the ‘50s, kept coming out and giving me money. I made like $48, someone gave me a Budweiser, someone gave me cold French fries, and the pretzel vendor next to me, who I still see around almost 30 years later, gave me a pretzel.
Enrico said, ‘Come back and see me.’ I thought he was going to give me a job sweeping up hair and I would have been fine with that, but instead, for almost two years, I went from chair to chair asking for requests and playing songs — eight hours a day, seven days a week, for $20 a day. I was supposed to get tips but a lot of people went to Astor Place because they didn’t have any fucking money, and a lot of those people did not want to be sung to. And I had to make a dollar or 50 cents. I saw a lot of crazy people. It was an experience because I was pretty fresh-faced. This was all an eye opener.
I had so much drive then because I needed to make money and survive. I gave myself a buck and a half to three bucks a day to eat. There was a deli on Broadway around the corner from Astor Place. This guy who wasn’t supposed to do it, he’d tell me, would sell me half an order of rice and beans for a buck and a half. If I was really feeling rich I would get myself a tall boy for 90 cents.
I played in Washington Square Park but I wasn’t one of those hippie guys. I had my case out there. I needed to make money. I would go early to Washington Square Park, I’d sing for an hour, then I’d go to Astor Place for eight hours, and then eventually, I started playing on Bleecker Street, playing for college kids. It was insane how much I played. Good for my chops but hard on the voice. Boy, you know, it was such a good time back then. I just wanted to play. I would have played anywhere, a funeral, a bris. I would have played anything.
For years, all I did was play bars. I started doing a shitload of gigs and playing on the street all the time. A lot of the gigs I was doing here, you might not have been paid a lot, but you got paid in free booze. This was around ’86. So I learned real fast and real well, to my chagrin sometimes. I’d take the D train to Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx and play in Yonkers and here. It was all Irish bars then.
I wanted to really focus on song writing and playing my own stuff, because when you’re doing those Irish gigs in the Bronx and Yonkers, and whatever I did, you get a little sick of playing "Brown Eyed Girl," though it got me into a lot of dorm rooms. So I jumped into the songwriting thing pretty fast down here. I met this guy Doggy, who’s a legend down here. He was my drummer for a long time. We used to play in the street, on the subways, around Astor Place, by the cube. We were walking around trying to find our first gig here. He played stand-up snare drum with cymbal. I played guitar. I played everything a hundred miles an hour. I can’t even play that fast anymore.
And one day we went into Nightingales on 2nd Avenue and they were having a Hardcore Matinee and by chance the late Tom Price just told us to get up and play. That was our first gig in the East Village and Tom turned out to be this great guy. That’s how I got hooked up down here and then I met the person who was managing Nightingales started managing this place called Chameleons on 6th Street by Sidewalk and we started playing there every Friday night.
I lived in this place in Brooklyn for 21 years, from between ages 21 and 42. That’s a lot of life and a lot of growing up. It was kind of legendary. I had two floors in that place, it was an old pre-civil war bar and I had a full recording studio in the basement. It was right on top of the Manhattan Bridge, right on it. It was me, Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group and Jim Carroll, the poet and rockstar, who lived upstairs. Every band that came through town crashed there. It was really a waystation for so many touring bands.
I used to have these Thanksgiving parties for like 15 years. The last one we had over 250 people. My mom was from a town of 600 people. She had never been on a plane before, but I flew her out for 8 years in a row. The last one we did I cooked like five turkeys and four hams. I used every oven in the building running up and down the stairs. Live music all night long.
Once in awhile you just hit a snare in life and just go into a funk. You never know what causes it and sometimes it’s hard to shake out of it. This piece of shit bought the building after all those years and started kicking everyone out. We were in court for a year and finally we had to go. They tore the place down and the asshole who bought the building ended up going to jail for green card fraud. I worked for so hard for so long on music, busting my ass and then sometimes when you don’t get enough back, or you get the praise and acclaim, but then you don’t get enough other stuff back, things don’t come to fruition, and you get a little frustrated.
Some people work through it, some people can snap out of it, or some people like me think it’s a good idea to sit and drink a case of beer and stare at the wall. Then the next thing you know six or seven years go by and you think, ‘Hmmm, I haven’t been doing the work I used to do.’ I got burned out emotionally. I just got tired of it. It sounds like a cop out, but it’s not. Sometimes you get your ass kicked from all different sides and you decide to just start going through the motions to do whatever gets you through the day.
Now I’ve got a new lease on life where I’m kind of inspired. I’ve got a new album coming out. It's coming full circle. The guy who answered my only fan letter and made me move to New York, Marshall Crenshaw, whose a legend and one of the greatest living songwriters and guitar players in the world, is playing on three of the songs. It’s kind of coming full circle. It’s special to me.
I also host the Treehouse at 2A on Sunday nights. It was something I started two and a half years ago. Over the years I told them they should have live music up there, so finally they let me. It’s every Sunday night and it’s free. I only book people who I trust and like because I don’t have the pressure to put on four bands a night. When someone says, I wrote this song last night, of course it could go either way, but it can be pretty exciting to hear someone doing something for the first time. I take the Treehouse very personally. I want to keep it going because there’s just nothing like it anymore. All those places are gone or closing. I’m trying to keep alive something kinda like I had when I first moved here.
I wasn’t exactly a badass out causing trouble kind of guy, but 29 years later I’m still here. My dad told me, I used to think you were the crazy one, but now I think you’re the smart one. I don’t have a house, I don’t have a bunch of kids, but I’ve at least lived my life.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.