SNS preview: The Road of Diminishing Returns

I got to the venue – Picasso’s in Elizabethtown, Kentucky – about ninety minutes early, and had time to collect my thoughts while I waited for the girl I was billed with.  Her name was Kathleen Roy – she was a talented singer and writer, and we were a good match…she seems to have gotten out of the business, as I did a few cursory web searches and couldn’t find any mention of her.  We were playing both shows together on a co-bill arrangement…neither of us were opening or headlining, it was two sets of equal length, split between the two of us.  As such, we split the proceeds equally as well, but I’d soon learn that I needn’t have concerned myself with that particular topic.

The Picasso’s show had maybe a dozen or so people in the audience – Kathleen had never heard me before, and she was sincerely effusive with her praise, and was full of assurances that the show the next night in Louisville would probably have a LOT more people, and she couldn’t wait to play with me again tomorrow and we said our goodbyes.  I packed up my stuff, and – for the first time that entire trip, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given a single thought to where I was supposed to be staying for this run.  I hadn’t brought it up with Matt once in the time we’d planned the run, and it hadn’t come up in conversation at any point…and now, here I sat in Elizabethtown with no real bead on a place to stay.

Now this wouldn’t have really been an issue in other, more temperate times of year – and I’d slept in the van before, and I wasn’t above sleeping in the van again.  I’d packed well, after all – I had a sleeping bag that stayed in the van at all times, and I had this hooded sweater that I called “Derek” (because it was very much like one that my old manager used to wear all the time – I bought it for that reason on another road trip with Matt and Michelle at a truck stop maybe a year before).  I had the same green army coat that I’d been wearing for years and a few changes of clothes, and I was packed for the trip, so I wasn’t worried about being prepared…but it was fucking COLD at night, let me tell ya.

Leaving Elizabethtown, I hadn’t really given any thought to how far it was from Louisville – and now, it’s kind of comical to think about – but I thought there’d be a rest stop somewhere along the interstate between E-town and Louisville, not realizing that it was barely up the road.  As such, I got to Louisville before finding a place to pull over and sleep – so I’d already arrived in town and needed to find a place to put myself for the night.  I got off the exit for Bardstown Road and started scoping out spots along the route until I saw a cluster of blue lights in the distance in front of me.  My first thought was that it was either an accident or a DUI checkpoint, and I wanted no part of either possibility.  I pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store and circled around back – I backed the van into the parking spot adjacent to the dumpster (it felt important to conceal my “yankee license plates” at the time) and locked it down – then I crawled into the back and pulled “Derek” up right around my neck and zipped the sleeping bag up to the top and dozed off to sleep in pretty short order.  It was probably a little earlier than I’d planned on going to sleep, but I had nothing else to do, so I slept until I woke up to the sound of traffic and general bustling outside the windows of the van.  I tried to sleep through it, but it just wasn’t happening.  If it had been May, I’d have happily slept until noon, but the cold wouldn’t allow for it.

I woke up and started the car – I knew that the expectation that it would heat up was futile at best, so I started up the street until I found an open McDonald’s.  I pulled into the parking lot and went inside to eat something and thaw out for a bit.  I had my backpack with me, so I pulled out my journal and wrote for a while – I ended up going out to the car and coming back in through the side door with my bag and sneaking into the mens’ room to wash up, brush my teeth, and change clothes for the day.  

I had a lot…A LOT…of time to kill between then and the gig.  I read most of “Message in a Bottle”, which Heidi had loaned me before I left…I spent well over an hour at Guitar Emporium, I went up and down Bardstown looking for bookstores and record shops, but I didn’t want to stray too far from familiar territory.  Again, this was pre-GPS, pre-cellphone…and I didn’t want to get lost or have to grope my way back to the gig.  It was a relatively relaxing day of doing nothing, although I regretted not having told my brother Jimmy that I was going to be close.  If I’d known that I was going to have this much time on my hands, I’d have made the effort to track him down, but I thought I’d have been on a straight shot north from Elizabethtown to home from the end of the first show.  Rookie mistake.

The show that night at Twice Told was one of the best shows I’d played in the past two or three years prior to that – it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was a great crowd.  My voice was in pretty great form, and I’d gotten great reviews from the folks at both gigs, and I was assured that I’d be welcome to return anytime I wanted – which was a big part of the point of doing the shows in the first place…getting my foot in the door and making an impression.  

There’s a political element to forging one’s way through this forest, and I had known this for some time, having played the game locally in Philadelphia – but if I had notions of expanding my base and following my John Gorka blueprint, I had to start working outward.  And this pair of shows had accomplished that – I had return commitments, and it was within the realm of possibility to add venues in Nashville or Cincinnati or elsewhere the next time around.  That’s how the donuts get made, y’know.

I left the show in good spirits with plans to drive as long as I could to try and heat up the inside of the van before I pulled over to sleep – the way I saw it, I figured the warmer I could get it, the longer it’d take for the cold outside to push it out.

I drove for a couple hours and found a rest stop where it felt safe to park and sleep…it was well past midnight at this point, so I figured that it’d warm up a bit when the sun came out – so I was probably looking at six hours or so of real cold before it warmed up a bit, and I felt pretty sure that I could sleep through that like the professional that I was.

I slipped on a second shirt, a long-sleeved henley pullover and put Derek on over the top of it and slid down into the sleeping bag and zipped it all the way up so that the only thing sticking out of it was my face – and hunkered down to get some sleep for the rest of the drive back.

I don’t remember falling asleep – it must’ve been quick.

At some point in the middle of the night, I slipped into a dream…I was outside, and there was a stage – it wasn’t a traditional bandshell, but similar.  There was backline and gear set up on it, and I knew that I was supposed to be playing, somehow.  

Prior to this dream, in real life, Matt and Marlene had been negotiating with an indie label (Palmetto) to sign me – they had an amazing female singer/songwriter named Mindy Jostyn on the label, and I think Matt thought they needed a male contemporary that they could promote and potentially pair up for touring – or at least that’s how they pitched it.

At any rate, this show I was apparently playing in this dream was supposed to be something of a live performance preview of songs from the new record that was coming out on Palmetto – and I was seeing the craziest combination of souls in this outdoor park, gathering for this show.  Steve Wellner was there with his trademark smile, Tom Del Colle from Grape Street was cooking on a grill, a couple of guys I knew from high school were milling about on the grass – my Navy buddy from Iceland, Jay Smalley was there – but all standing somewhat spaced out on the grass, looking in my direction with contented smiles on their faces.

The band was Todd and Bob Stirner on guitar, Lee Shusterman on keys, Garry Lee on bass and Ronny Crawford on drums – every one my first pick if I were able to put together the band of my dreams.  Jayda and Dylan were there with their mom and her new boyfriend, and…

…it was almost as if my subconscious brain had selected a “greatest hits” playlist of sorts to parade past me in this apparition.

So as we’re doing a line check and I’m looking out at this field full of happy, supportive faces and I see a sandy-haired girl wearing denim overalls and a white T-shirt walking across the grass towards the stage and I know immediately who it is.

I take my guitar off and put it on a stand behind me and step down and take maybe ten or fifteen paces in her direction until we’re standing right in front of one another.

She looks directly into my eyes and reaches up to touch my face and she says:

“Tom – just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I must have awakened at that very moment, because I don’t remember anything from the dream after that.

When I woke up, it was daylight – sunlight was shining in through the windows and I was staring up at the roof of the van absorbing what I’d just heard in my head in this dream I’d had.  As I was waking up, I hadn’t quite left my brain just yet.

“Just because I couldn’t love you the way you wanted doesn’t mean I didn’t love you.”

I didn’t realize how cold I was until I noticed how strange the tears felt on my face – I’d slept until nearly ten o’clock, and…contrary to my assumption from the night before, it had not warmed up when the sun came up.

In fact, most of my face was numb from the cold – there was no real difference in the temperature outside or inside the van at this point, as I’d managed to sleep for nearly ten hours somehow.  But over the course of that ten hour period, the only heat that remained in the van was what I’d barely managed to trap inside the sleeping bag with me – and that wasn’t much.  

That morning, before I started the van to head home, I had to scrape frost from the inside of the windows.  I’d never considered the possibility of that being necessary under any circumstance, but sure enough…I guess the condensation from my breath over the course of a ten hour slumber had created enough moisture in the air to frost the windows from the inside.

Not just a light coating, either…I actually had to use the scraper that I usually used for clearing the outside of the windows on both sides of the windshield before I was able to pull out of the rest stop to start the drive home.   After I finished scraping, I checked the oil and added another two quarts before starting the engine to let the van warm up for a moment while I tried to regain the feeling in my extremities so I could actually drive…again, I’m not someone with a propensity for the cold, but I was freezing that morning.  

The only other times I can remember being that cold was waking up in our house before I was in my teens – when the only source of heat we had in the house was a wood stove that had long since burned down to embers overnight.  My mom would get out of bed before us every morning to start the fire again before she’d wake us and get us up to get ready for school, but the wood stove was often no match for the cold that had settled in overnight.  When I got up, I’d grab my clothes and run to stand next to the stove and get dressed while standing as close to it as I could to try to stay warm.

The drive home wasn’t unlike those winter mornings getting ready for school – it never really got warm…or if it did, I wasn’t able to feel it.  In fact, I don’t think I warmed up until I got back to my penthouse on North Fifth Street and got myself and my guitar inside.  I remember my feet feeling strange when I got out of the van, because it had been so long since they’d touched anything that wasn’t the floorboard.  

Now, you know by now how I felt about my little nest above North Fifth Street – it was home to me at this point, and it was mine…the first place I’d lived that I could truly say that about.  But when I got home from this particular weekend’s shows, I don’t know that I’d ever been so glad to walk up those three flights of stairs and unlock that door to step inside my place.  MY place.  I was glad to be home in a way that felt like equal parts relief and contentment.

I took off my road clothes and took the longest, hottest shower I’ve probably ever taken – I turned on the television in the bedroom after I got out and put on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, and laid down on the bed tucked into the corner of the back room and let my attention drift from the dialogue from the TV to the delight I felt in actually being warm again for the first time in what felt like days.

It was Sunday – it wasn’t particularly late, and I’d slept pretty long the night before finishing the drive home, but I was drained.  I had come home from two marginally successful gigs with less money than I’d left home with, and I’d been thinking about all of this for the entire days’ drive and apparently, I wasn’t finished mulling it over yet.

I was staring down the barrel at 34 years old and I was beginning to feel the earth shift beneath my feet a little bit.

I’d had almost two years to cobble together a followup to my 1997 record, and I had…nothing.

(OK, maybe not nothing – but nothing I’d been as excited about as I’d been when I’d assembled this crew of believers to start working on that record…and no, it’s not fair to compare them, any more than it’s fair to compare your children with that kind of expectation, but…that weekend, it had started to sink in that I was ill-equipped to follow up that record.)

I had songs.  I had songs I liked, even.  But I think that the experience of making Mutual Angels with Steve had…well, it had kinda ruined me.  It’s not as though the door at Longview was closed to me, but I think that when someone (in this case, someone in Steve’s position) decides to invest their time and talent alongside your time and talent to create something, they expect you to be as excited about the prospects of your joint creation as they are, and I will never accept that I didn’t disappoint Steve on that level.  Steve stood next to me as we made that record, he believed in that record, and he was proud of that record, and – it came out and my life imploded and I took my eye off the ball.

When the summer of 1997 happened in the manner it did, Derek did the best he could to try and create a space for both that record and for me as an artist within the sphere of where I lived and worked, but I wasn’t present for it.  I didn’t have my heart in it, as I was distracted by the things going on in my life.  But I got another shot, when Matt came along and was every bit as motivated as Derek had been coming out of the gate, but again – other things in my life demanded my time and attention and I didn’t live up to the work I needed to do to give it the same amount of effort that the people around me were putting into it.

If you’re reading this, you likely know me on some level outside my capacity as a long-winded autobiographer, and you already know that there was never any real follow-up to Our Mutual Angels – there have been records in the years since, but they’ve largely been homemade efforts, and in the years after this particular weekend run of shows, my attention shifted largely away from songwriting to other pursuits.

I don’t recall the exact date, but at some point Steve Wellner evaporated into thin air.  For a while, no one knew what happened to him or what became of the studio – he turned up some years later, happy and healthy and living in Southern California with a great gig as an engineer and is doing quite well.

When I was touring with Marshall Tucker Band in 2013, we were playing a show in Woodland Hills, CA and I reached out to Steve to let him know that I was in town – he came to the show and we got a chance to go sit at the bar at our hotel and talk at length for the first time since he’d left Philadelphia, and…to call it a catharsis still feels as though I’m selling it short.

I got to thank him properly, at last, for the work he’d done on that record, for his belief in me as an artist, and for the sacrifice he’d made to give birth to it.  He was gracious and complimentary and convinced me – maybe for the first time – that it was as much a labor of love for him as it had been for me.  I told him how much I regretted that I hadn’t been as present as I should’ve been in the aftermath of the record, and that I felt like I let him down, but he told me that he completely understood – he’d been present for the emotional turmoil that fueled the creation of the record as well as the fallout, and he was a firsthand witness to what had taken place in my life in those years, and he got it – and he told me that he bore me no grudges about any of it and that he was glad to have been a part of it, and…

…and I don’t know that the words are available to me right now to tell you how that felt.

It was like having a regret that you’ve carried around for years liquidated and washed away.

I hadn’t seen Steve in almost fifteen years by then, and it was as if no time had passed when we saw each other that night…and I think the thing I took away from that encounter was the notion that maybe there was a reason that Mutual Angels was a one-time thing.  I couldn’t have made that record with anyone else, and I would’ve measured anything I did after that with the template that I’d created in my relationship with Steve, and I’m not sure if anyone else would’ve lived up to it.

Now, I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of sessions in the time since that record, and I’ve forged some great relationships with producers and engineers in studios all over the place in that time.  I consider myself a pretty flexible guy in the studio and I can work with just about anyone…

…on other people’s music.

Whether I could ever make another record like Our Mutual Angels with anyone other than Steve?

Well, I know what the answer to that question has been for nearly a quarter century.  I guess it could be said that the jury is still out, but whatever might come next, in terms of a Tom Hampton record of all original compositions – it’ll be apples and oranges to the work I did with Steve.

As I lay in bed after that road trip, though – back in February of 1999 – I hadn’t fully processed this yet.  I still had some work to do and I needed to be gently led in another direction.

I needed a creative vacation – a distraction of sorts.  And I’d soon figure out what that looked like.

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