Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Tommy Ardolino!!... Tommy Ardolino!!"--a belated, non-linear tribute in a few parts

Prologue: January 2012: One man's tribute to a fallen comrade. 

At the recent Scud Mountain Boys reunion-tour stop in Northampton (at Pearl Street), opening act Ray Mason played an intense, passionate, solo-electric set that kept my eyes riveted to the stage (though I admit I missed the first couple songs).  One 60 year old man and his Silvertone guitar filled the room with one pop gem after another. My sister Alyssa, who was also at the show, once described Ray's gigs as  always life-affirming and I've recycled that description many times since. Especially when I start thinking "am I getting too old for this game?"

I remember The Scuds' Joe Pernice telling me about the awesomeness of Ray Mason as we drove through Amherst Center one fall day in 1992. We were on our way to my (failed) audition for The Scuds (the more rocking band that preceded Scud Mt. Boys). As I've said before, good thing I wasn't exactly what they were looking for (Christ, I was 19 and completely unprepared!) because it set the stage for their morphing into the mellow band we all know and love. Yeah, I'm taking full credit for their success. (No I'm not.)

Joe Pernice joins Ray Mason onstage--Pearl Street, Northampton, January 2012
Fast forward 20 fucking years. No one thought The Scud Mountain Boys would ever reunite, but here we were and there they were.

And Ray Mason, the local legend they all looked up to when they were starting out, was STILL rocking the house, slashing away at his Silvertone and owning the stage. On this night, in the middle of one of his last songs Ray walked to the front of the stage, abruptly stopped and, off mic, shouted, "TOMMY ARDOLINO!".
Some folks cheered. I know I let out a big "WOOOO!". Then, more jagged chords, more stalking, and then he stopped again. Another off-mic shout out: "TOMMY ARDOLINO!" More cheers.

This was such a heavy moment. I'm not sure how many people grasped it. Was it merely a shout out to his recently-deceased friend? Or was he conjuring Ardolino's spirit? Or perhaps he knew Tommy's spirit was in the house and Ray was just saying hello.

Tom and Ray were kindred spirits. Natives to the area (Ray-Holyoke, Tom-Springfield) who lived and breathed music, who never lost their wide-eyed enthusiasm for good music, good record stores and, of course, cats.

But Ray chose life, and productivity, when, 20 or so years ago, he quit the less-healthy aspects of being a rock and roller, and instead became addicted to writing and releasing albums. I've lost count how many he's made. But they keep on a-comin', both with his own band and as half the writing team of The Lonesome Brothers.  He's not touring the world and appearing on national TV like Tommy was in NRBQ, but he's still with us and doing what he loves with no sign of stopping.

Tom embraced the rock and roll life and didn't seem to know what to do without it.  He was no longer the drummer in a band playing 200+ gigs a year, so he just had too much time on his gifted hands. And hanging with cats and records can only get a 50-something man so far.
So when I saw and heard Ray calling out his friend's name from the stage, it was a chilling moment. To me it seemed a purging, mourning wail to a fallen kindred soul/rock and roll soldier; as well as a cheer/exaltation, to a room full of friends who would recognize the name and gladly testify.

I imagined a wolf standing on the edge of a cliff howling mournfully at the moon. But this was a living legend saluting his friend in front of an audience, playing his beloved instrument; a setting that Ray, Tommy, and countless performers (myself included) would call one of the few places, if not the one place, that one can show their true selves.

I: Summer 2012: The Last Waltz--Tommy joins Terry at the Green River Festival.

As of this writing, it's been almost two months since drummer extraordinaire Tom Ardolino passed away at the age of 56.
I saw what was probably one of his final live appearances (if not his final appearance), this past summer at the Green River Festival in Greenfield, MA (I was there to play with School For the Dead).
It was a surprise when, part way through Terry Adams' set with his new version of NRBQ,
Tom ambled up from behind the stage and came up front to sing a tune (damned if I can remember what it was. I blame the blazing hot summer day.) He then got behind a second drum kit and played drums on one, maybe two songs, along side regular drummer, Conrad Choucroun (who, according to Terry's Official Site, earned Ardolino's official endorsement upon first hearing him play).

It seemed like a little "drum battle" was staged during one song, but, to my eyes and ears, Terry cut it short when it seemed rather one sided. One drummer was in rock and roll touring shape, and the other, simply, was not. Tommy smiled sheepishly, boyishly (and yes, semi-toothlessly) at his long time friend and band mate, Terry, and I'm sure no feelings were hurt. After all, that was the same guy who, in 1974 at a gig in Sunderland, called a 19 year old Ardolino up to the stage (at that point, just a huge fan who had never played drums to anything but records) when NRBQ's original drummer fell ill at a gig, and, after one perfectly-played song,  pronounced him the heir to the drum throne (well, it didn't happen that instantaneously, but I'm sure if there's a biopic, that's how they'll do it).

I'm glad I was able to see him do it one last time, however.

And anyway, Tom Ardolino didn't have to prove anything to anybody.
“Tommy deserves an entire wing in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’’ singer Bonnie Raitt told the (Boston) Globe last summer. “There’s Charlie Watts, and there’s Tom Ardolino. That’s it."
Tom Ardolino at the Green River Fest, 7/16/11.

II: 2001: "Next Stop: Brattleboro"--Yours Truly, young, cocky and ignorant, is repeatedly referred to as "Tom Ardolino Jr." by an NRBQ insider. And I have no clue what it means.

When The Aloha Steamtrain were a regularly-gigging band (1997-2002), one of our regular stops was The Mole's Eye cafe in Brattleboro, VT. We also kept a regular on-line "Gig Diary"(these days, called a "blog"), in which bassist Henning Ohlenbusch and I would recount memories of the show (or, more often, everything that happened that day/night EXCEPT the show.)

In any case, here's an excerpt from April 20, 2001:

Is it some strange coincidence that we were booked to play in Vermont on 4/20?....
 ......A guy named Johnny, who roadies for NRBQ, talked to me a bunch. He keeps referring to me as _________Jr (NRBQ's drummer). When he yelled that during the concert, (Aloha Steamtrain singer/guitarist) Russ replied, "yes, those are my favorite cigars too". Johnny apologized for being obnoxious and drunk the last time we'd met. "Who isn't obnoxious and drunk", I thought, "in this private hell in which I live?".
We began the second set with the Bee Gees tune, which got a good response. One of our loyal, long time fans later told me he remembers hearing that album (Bee Gees 1st) on the same day he heard The Doors first album. Talk about night and day. Do you think all the Gibbs wanted to act out Oedipus with their parents?..."

Ok. Well, first off--I resisted any editing, because this stuff has existed on line for eleven years now. No sense in hiding the evidence now. 

But here's what it tells me. In 2001, I:
1) was too ignorant to know who Tom Ardolino was
2) too disrespectful to be gracious in my re-telling of the story online
3) too lazy to even look up Tom Ardolino's name, and instead filed my report with a blank line in place of his name. 

And those, believe it or not, were my GOOD traits, ladies and germs. (ba-doom. ching!)

Anyway....let me retell the tale as I remember it. Actually, I may be remembering two different stories.

So there I was, playing pinball between sets at The Moles Eye, and avoiding talking to people. Just hanging with my own ignorant, disrespectful, lazy (and antisocial) self...

So there I am, playing pinball in between sets at the Mole's Eye...

 ....when a guy I'd never met before, who appeared to be a bit into the drink, stumbled up (mid-pinball game) and shouted at close range,  "TOM ARDOLINO JR!". 
 I said "Huh?", not about to look up from my game in-progress.
He expounded a bit. "You're like TOM ARDOLINO JR, man! You look like him, you're a solid drummer, and if he met you, he'd say 'Meeowww...meeeowww' I just know it".
I'd looked up for a second to catch him making the international "cat scratch" sign.
I was a bit freaked out.
I lost my ball.
Game over. Thanks a lot, dude.

I said "I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about... and I gotta go play the next set". 
As I'm walking away, he shouts "TOM ARDOLINO!! N! R! B! Q!" with some anger in his voice. 

Knowing hardly anything by NRBQ, but knowing their reputation as a "musician's band" that I'd put off exploring,  I turned back and politely said "Ohhh...right. Well thanks."
He introduced himself as Johnny and said he worked for them as a roadie (I think). 

Here he is, that night, with Henning: 

Henning and Johnny.

Anyway, I do hope he forgave my ignorance. In retrospect, it's one of the best drumming compliments I've ever received. 

Of course, I later looked online to see if I looked anything like this..whatever his name was. NRBQ drummer guy. 
Ummm....well, maybe the young Tommy. But it's sort of like when people say I look like Mickey Dolenz. Curly hair, drum kit= exact clone. particularly if you're buzzed and in a dark club.

Tommy, 1976.

Brian, 2001

III: 2003: "'Atsa My Band!": I Ask Ken to Make Me a Mix

Somewhere around 2003, perhaps it was having turned 30, I began to slowly embrace music that I'd previously rejected as "music for 30-somethings". Back in 1995, my then-house mate Ken Maiuri tried to turn me on to both Steely Dan and NRBQ. I didn't want any of it. At the time, I only wanted speedy pop made by skinny, pale, preferably British blokes in the late 70's-early 80's, or 60's psychedelia and garage punk. Nothing beardy, big collar-y or Hawaiian shirt-y. I was a snob and an ageist.

But, now, as my first signs of Grateful Dead fandom were beginning to sprout, I figured I was heading into the inevitable. I was mellowing out. My brain chemistry was changing. I was giving in. Veering away from WAMH and toward WRSI.

Ok, Tony Westcott,  go ahead and make me a Steely Dan mix.
Ok, Ken Maiuri, make me an NRBQ mix. (When I asked Ken, he replied "Of course! 'Atsa my band!". I thought he was just being a weirdo, but I later learned that he was merely quoting the title of an NRBQ album.)

I think I took both the "Dan" and the "Q" mixes on a Scandinavian tour I did with Don Lennon. How American can you get?

I dug just about all of the NRBQ mix, and took note of the drumming on the second half (the Tommy years).

Wow!  What a singular style. Heavy and sensitive, subtle and deliberate at the same time. Not fashionable. Not of its time. It's like Bill Haley's or Buddy Holly's drummers were transplanted to the late 70's-80's. And he could do jazz (or at least fake it real well)!  And, wow, I don't think I've ever heard such a SWING! It's the opposite of what's often referred to as the "Mo Tucker"/Velvet Underground beat. It's decidedly NOT machine-like. It tells you "this is a person playing this, and playing it live, and playing it rock solid." It makes you move a different way. It puts an extra wriggle or shimmy in your step. So that's Tom Ardolino? Wow. 
He comes from Springfield, you say? 

IV: 2004: Watching Q-Mania from the sidelines
Soon after came that A+E documentary which had stars galore singing the praises of NRBQ. 
There was a local tie-in to all that too. Northampton-based Spirit House Records was putting out a star-studded NRBQ tribute album, and the documentary could not have been better timed. The "Q" was in the air. 
I felt some Valley pride. I felt some guilt too for not having recognized the goodness before. I willfully remained an outsider to the hype, however, because I didn't want to be a Johnny-come-lately bandwagon hopper poser. But I did enjoy the documentary a whole lot. And the tribute album.

Here's Elvis Costello, REM and other celebs talking about NRBQ from the A+E documentary.

V: I Meet Tom Ardolino. And He Indeed Says "Meow". 
"He's Standing Here, Right In Front of Me"

One evening in 2007-8 I found myself at the late, great Night Owl Records in Easthampton. Most likely, I was checking to see if anyone had bought the latest Sitting Next to Brian CD, Polite. But of course, having made the drive, I stayed and browsed the stacks and chatted with my friend, musical cohort and Night Owl co-owner, Mark Schwaber. 
Mid chat, two guys came in, and Mark greeted them amiably. I recognized one of them as none other than Tom Ardolino. I got butterflies and, as usually happens when I see someone famous, I planned a quick exit (this utter lack of shmoozing skills has, I'm sure, deprived me of a few music career opportunities. Damn shyness).

But before I could beat a retreat, Mark said, "Tom, this is my friend Brian. You would love his drumming".
I smiled sheepishly as did Tom. "So great to meet you", I said. "Meow", he replied.
I felt validated. 

Tommy A.record shopping.  Photo not taken at Night Owl, but a damn good substitute.
Epilogue:  Random stuff.

Across the street from what was Night Owl Records, is a famous bar called The Brass Cat. It was there, not long afterwards, that I saw Tom Ardolino play for the first time. He was loud, and in command. Here's a review of the show, written by none other than Ken Maiuri.

Here's something to watch for those who say "I just don't get NRBQ". Because, I've realized, the only appropriate response is to confuse them even more. There's no definitive sound. But, because of that, there's stuff that I like and stuff I just will never like. This, I like. It's not an example of Tom's drumming genius, but just of NRBQ's collective weirdness. Probably a part of why Simpsons executive producer, Mike Scully, loves them so much. NRBQ make great cartoons.

But to go out on a Tommy-heavy note, here's the Q in '92 on the Dennis Miller Show--a good example of that straight/shuffle/swing thing.  (and boy, I don't miss Dennis Miller's "laugh at my own joke then call attention to my luxurious hair" shtick).

And finally, if you have 15 minutes to spare, here's a tribute someone lovingly made and put on YouTube. It's definitely a fitting tribute to the man.

As I said on Facebook the day after he passed, I swear I heard a certain swing in the tic-toc of all the clocks that day. Also, all the kitty cats I saw seemed to be in mourning. 


  1. Thanks Brian. Nice posting about my favorite drummer ever

    Jim McNamara

  2. Tommy Junior is the name of Tom's look-alike ventriloquist dummy....here he gets bum rushed by Terry's dummy:

  3. Brian, thanks for all those anecdotes, and the photos. Great stuff.

    You might like this --


    -- which I wrote as an into/in memoriam.

    Jeff Bursey

  4. Hey anyone who can write about Joe Pernice and NRBQ in the same post is alright in my book. They happen to be my two favorite acts! Thanks for that.