Sunday, February 2, 2014

Remembering a true friend of Texas Music

Just over a year ago to this day, I was happily reunited with my old lead guitar-pickin’ running buddy Alex Westphal onstage at Billy’s Ice in New Braunfels. The night was a blast. Many tall Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and some solid jams with Jordan Minor later, a great night in the Hill Country had come to a close. Right after that reunion, Alex and I booked a gig for the next night at Riley’s Tavern. It was just magic—though we hadn’t played together in over a year, it felt good to be playing those old songs again; it was still there, but even better than before. Also on the agenda was to stop by venerable Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos and howdy with a good friend that I didn’t see nearly enough, “Big” Tom McAleer.
A week later, a freak accident had mangled my body and stripped me of the ability to play guitar and my good friend was gone. Luckily, the ill effects of the accident are ancient history and I can play guitar, piano, etc., again, but my friend is still gone. There’s rarely a day’s passing I don’t think about Big Tom. I didn’t have the honor of knowing him nearly as long, or as well, as some of my buddies did, but that’s irrelevant. Big Tom was a good man and the sort of fellow who left an impression on every soul he encountered. Hell, my girlfriend hung out with Big Tom only two or three times and still talks about him to this day. I have held back on writing about him. There are lyrics to a song that’s half-finished, which hopefully I will get to soon, and there’s an unwieldy essay I started writing shortly after he died (typed painfully slow with the one hand I had free and functional at the time) but neither of those things were shared outside my mind, computer and notepad.
As with anything else on this blog, I don’t really have any sort of purpose for this. I hope in some small way, it can explain and pay tribute to a man who gave so much to so many. I’m still discovering the debt I owe Big Thomas J. McAleer.
I first met Big Tom, appropriately, at Cheatham Street Warehouse. I learned over time, mostly from other folks, that although he had seen untold thousands of bands and artists over the years at just about any venue one could name, Cheatham was pretty much sacred ground to Tom. Tom wasn’t a musician or songwriter, but the man knew great art when he heard or saw it. Retroactively, it boosts my confidence level a thousand fold to know that Tom dug my songs. At the time I met him, I had no idea who he was. I’d only recently begun hitting up Cheatham, and was playing a happy hour gig there when I caught sight of Missoula Slim in the audience with a mountain of a man sitting next to him.
After I stepped offstage and was kindly introduced, the conversation started. Three hours of solid gab (and a few beers, well, I was drinking beer) later, I knew I had a new friend. It wasn’t just music we talked about, either. I learned that he’d recently recovered from some serious health issues and managed to quit drinking. I would learn, over time, that his drinking prowess was legendary. I’m sure if I’d hung out with him while he was still guzzling Shiner, my liver would still be recovering.
Over the next few years, Tom would book shows for me when I was passing through the magical Austin/San Antonio/New Braunfels/San Marcos area, as well as in other locales, but he was more than a booking agent, he was a good friend to hang with and the only person I’ve been able to converse with on the phone for hours at a time. I’m not too adept with chatting on the phone, and generally have to schedule blocks of time to return calls. With Tom, I had to make sure I wasn’t doing anything for a few hours. He was always excited about a new band or singer/songwriter he’d heard or saw, new contacts for my benefit or full of talk about whatever politician was screwing up (and screwing over constituents), and of course, there was the unbridled enthusiasm for his beloved Green Bay Packers, which carried the devotion that many folks only show toward their chosen deity. From that first night we hung out, I knew there was a very, very good soul in Big Tom.
Tom was that guy who was always excited about his new discoveries, and he always wanted to share whatever it was with anyone he met. That’s the sort of passion you don’t see much in this day and age of disconnected, solipsistic lifestyles. If anything, it’s frowned upon. Wax too eager on something and you’re labeled a crackpot, or whatever the term is these days. To say that Tom’s gusto was contagious would be to severely understate the man. Politically, Tom and I agreed on many issues, but Tom knew damn good and well that the music world is a lot like high school, and those with conservative views wouldn’t always get invited to all the cool kids’ parties. He didn’t care, though. Like I wrote, the man was passionate about whatever he pursued.
It was probably easy for some to overlook just how cultured and intelligent Tom was. From what I gathered, his extreme flatulence was as legendary as his bawdy sense of humor, both of which he used toward fueling his self-deprecating personality. Sure, he could be crude, but he could just as easily talk for hours about the convoluted, ever-shifting mess that is geopolitics, or break down a particular line in a Townes Van Zandt song that made the song so special. Tom was one of the few people I trusted when it came to taking musical recommendations. Off the top of my head, only Mike Ethan Messick and Steve Nanney (my girlfriend’s dad) possess as much knowledge about music as Tom did, and can be trusted in their pronouncements on music. Tom not only knew the lyrics and melodies to damn near every song imaginable (in Tom fashion, he had a database of critiques for ‘em, as well) but he could also rattle off who all had played on those songs and albums. This wasn’t only true of Texas Country bands and artists, either. The amount of music Tom knew about (and enjoyed) is as staggering as when I contemplate the sum total of what I’ve spent on Shiner products over the years. Anyone can generalize as to why an "artist" sucks, based on superficial details, but Tom McAleer could launch into a dissertation-length diatribe as to why Eminem is not a good lyricist, complete with examples to back it up.
To really see Tom at his happiest and in his element, one would only need to take in a live music performance with him. The last time Tom and I were at a show was at Cheatham (naturally) right after I played a restaurant gig he’d booked for me. Tom rode with me to the gig and spent the brief drive to our shared favorite venue extolling the virtues of Courtney Patton and Kylie Rae Harris. I knew Kylie from Troubadour TX, but Courtney I hadn’t heard of. If Tom dug her, though, I figured one of two things: she was a great artist, or she wasn’t lacking in the looks department (or both). The music I heard that night blew me away, something that doesn’t happen a lot these days, even though I’m only thirtysomething. In true Big Tom fashion, his excitement couldn’t be contained (much like his love of cheap, filling Mexican food) and during Courtney and Kylie Rae’s set, he rattled off snippets about other shows of theirs he’d seen or anecdotes about Courtney’s songwriting prowess, and this was on a night when the “Listening Room Night. Please Be Quiet” sign was taped to the front door. Sorry about that, Kent. :)
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of praise given to me and my musical efforts, but one of the comments I will always treasure is what Tom told me at a party one night about my Winter Garden album. I told him that I was getting ready to start recording a new album (a project that is still in the works) and Tom asked if I’d been writing. I told him about some of the (then) new songs I was so proud of, and Tom said, “Really looking forward to it. The Winter Garden album is just so good. I love those songs on there.” That sort of thing floored me, especially considering how high Tom’s standards were. He didn’t hold back his opinions on music. He was friends with Stoney LaRue and had worked with him, but even so, he wasn’t afraid to tell him that he didn’t think his last album was up to snuff. On the positive side of his critical eye, I’d found out from the last visit I had with Tom that he’d placed Matt Harlan’s Bow and Be Simple album as Number One (it is a masterpiece, by the way) for a column he was writing, a year-end “best of Texas Music” type list, for Lone Star Music magazine, I think. Matt was tickled pretty pink when I told him about that, and he’s won just about every major songwriting award you can think of.
One of my favorite Big Tom moments (and the one I told at his memorial service) happened after I’d played a South By Southwest showcase he’d set-up. We were walking down the street, out in Austin, and both feeling pretty jazzed from a night of good times and tunes. I’d just debuted a new song, which would be the first song on the aforementioned Winter Garden project. It was called “Highway Shoes,” and one of the lines in it goes “I just can’t retire my old highway shoes.” Well, as we walked and talked, the sole of my boot just gave up the ghost. It flopped forward, noodle-limp. I froze and cursed. Tom just pointed and laughed, “Well, Chris, I guess you’ll have to retire those old ‘highway shoes.’” It’s hard to play that song now and not think of Big Tom. I was unable to play an instrument at the memorial, so I did that song acapella. I’d played it before on the Cheatham stage and dedicated it to him because of that night in Austin, but I never thought I’d be singing it a memorial service for him.
Tom never sat out to be a power player in the world of Texas music, but that’s what he was. In ways, he might not portray the conventional meaning of such a term, but the man worked harder than anyone to further the cause, and more often than not, to little reward. Sometimes I felt that just being at a show with his friends was the greatest reward for him. He told me at his birthday party, “I’ve got some of the best friends in the world, and I get to hear them play some badass music. My life’s pretty great, man.” The way he cared about his friends showed itself, not in direct “I love you, man!”-style messages or whatever, but in his actions and in the jocular fellowship one could expect when at a show or party with Big Tom. I recall one mutual friend who was having a terrible time of it, and Tom stayed up all night one the phone with him, shooting the shit with him just to make sure he’d be alright. At his memorial, Cara Miller (Radio Free Texas’s First Lady) made note of how Tom never missed a chance to express his love for friends.
Big Tom’s memorial (held at Cheatham, of course) featured many funny stories about Tom, along with some touching recollections of the man who brought so many people together. I hadn’t seen the Warehouse quite so full in a good long while, but it just spoke to the fact that so many people loved Big Tom. Right after I saw word of his passing on Facebook, the entire network of Texas musicians, music fans and fellow promoters/booking agents on the site was abuzz with tributes to him, and radio stations had moments of silence in his honor. I can’t remember ever having been so prolific on Facebook in the wake of the news. I kept checking the site, searching for mentions of him, just hoping it had all been a terrible mistake and that somewhere Tom was just fine, watching a band play and giving buddies at the bar the play-by-play on the band and its songs.
The night before the memorial, Liz and I sat on a porch at a friend’s house in Gruene, sipping whiskey and Shiners. It was a small gathering of some fellow RFTers. Some bittersweet memories were exchanged. Both Daniel Miller and I tried to keep it in check by exchanging tales of misadventures fueled by Jagermeister, and Liz tried to bring a little humor into the mix, making mention of Tom's Tex Mex-fueled gastrointestinal exploits, but ultimately, despite mine (and the others’) intoxication and the laughter (both of which Tom would’ve wanted, this I know) I saw a moment that just nailed the fact that we’re all connected here on this big ball of water and soil. I’d stepped inside the house to grab another beer and found Cara alone and crying. I hugged her and although I couldn’t think of anything consoling or meaningful to say, I cried with her and the numbness I’d felt since the news came to me left.
All of us were richer just for knowing Big Tom. We’ll have those memories. Some respective, some shared, but regardless, there are people in the world who didn’t know Big Tom and are poorer for having never met him, but not us. Not those of us who hung out at Melissa’s house that night, or those of us who were at Cheatham Street the next day, or anyone in San Marcos or Austin (or wherever) driving around in a vehicle with the Big Tom tribute sticker. He’s a part of all of us.
Big Tom, rest easy my friend. I hope you know just how much you’re loved down here. Hope you're enjoying all the great music where you're at. If I know you, you're probably working on setting up a Townes Van Zandt/Doc Watson/Lightnin' Hopkins song-swap as I write this. Don't forget to book me for something with some of those guys when I get to the other side.

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