Friday, February 5, 2010
Snow rarely falls in Nashville. Every 7 or 8 years, we get hit with a modest yet incapacitating bit of weather, maybe 4 inches of fluff.
These days, technology sees it coming, and a day or two before the winter storm blows in, grocery stores are filled with those who know just how crippling a few inches of snow can be in our town. There is a collective bracing of ourselves, as we wonder how many days of school will be canceled, and how long will it take for the sun to do clear our roads, as there is reportedly only one snowplow in our fair city. Faucets are set to drip, so that pipes don’t freeze. Whether you own a cat or not, a few 50 pound bags of kitty litter are placed in the trunk of your car, for traction.
Winter in Nashville is complicated.
On one snowy Friday evening, my dearest companion and I were having a glass of Bushmill’s when I got an emergency call from my nephew Dave, who told me that my good friend of 3 decades, Tom Howard, had died moments ago.
Tom, a Minnesota native, had been walking in the snow with his wife and some friends, when he fell back, and dropped dead. One of the friends told me it was the most horrible thing she’d ever witnessed- a man down, his wife begging him not to leave her, and helpless friends standing by as the snow quietly covered any sign that they’d been there.
Tom and I met in Boston in the late 70s, when he was a “Jesus Music” recording artist. We immediately had a rapport, two funny guys riffing off each other like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. His personality was a mix: brooding genius, swarthy gentleman, extroverted absurdist, and stressed out milquetoast. Over the years, we’d run into each other at various concerts or events, until we finally became neighbors in Nashville.
We became Wednesday evening regulars at the same pub, The Sherlock Holmes, where Guinness was on tap before it became a household word. Our Wednesday gathering was usually quite large, requiring several ample tables, tended to by one barmaid, whose name was Moira. Moira was the widow of Nicky Hopkins, the famous session player, whose piano work graced recordings of the Rolling Stones, the Who, The Beatles, and a host of British Invasion rock groups.
Wednesday night at Sherlock’s was as much a given for me as Wednesday night prayer meeting had been for my Baptist father. Smoke rings, darts, and fish & chips were nearly sacramental, and as a night wore on, and inhibitions wore down, our little congregation lifted jokes, arguments, discussions, and diatribes with the fervor of lost Pentecostals.
One night, Bob Saporiti, then a VP at Warner Brothers Records, started passing a guitar around. Bob wasn’t a part of our group, but on this particular evening, the guitar floated from table to table, group to group, where anyone who was willing could sing a song.
It was an opportunity of sorts. In a room full of songwriters, here was your chance to get the ear of a Nashville power broker. For once, the expensive pints might prove to be a sound investment, if only Bob Saporiti handed you his card, saying “Give me a call tomorrow when you've sobered up”; perhaps it would lead to something.
The guitar finally came to Tom, a musician of considerable talent. Tom waited for the room to quiet down, and started playing “Blowing in the Wind” in G. With an angelic expression on his face, Tom sincerely looked each of us in the eye, and then he did something that is nearly impossible for even a good musician to do.
He began to sing in G sharp.
Most of the room buckled over in laughter, as he maintained the simultaneous, clashing keys with a completely straight face, earnestly singing Bob Dylan’s most famous song. A few drinkers were miffed and upset, as if Tom were a Nashville Robert Maplethorpe, dousing Dylan’s sheet music in urine, but Tom sang the entire song without cracking a smile.
When he was done, Saporiti took his guitar back.
That was the last time anyone ever passed a guitar around Sherlock’s.
One of Tom’s greatest gifts was laughing at himself. There was a klutz-proneness about Tom, an extraordinary ability to spill wine on your carpet, set fire to your shirt, and put a hole in your guitar.
All in the same evening.
He would regale friends with outrageous tales of his faux pas, like the time he slipped and accidentally bloodied the lip of a woman hosting a dinner party, or how he feigned spraying beer all over the same party’s guests, and then realized the bottle wasn’t empty after it was too late.
By making himself so very vulnerable to people, Tom had a lot of friends. He was generous to anyone who knew him, offering a hand, encouragement, and good faith to everyone he encountered.
Once, I told him that I had never used my garage as shelter for my car. I explained that there was too much junk in it. He offered to help me clear out the mess, and so we rented a pickup truck one day, and got the job done. As we worked, our conversation digressed from life's crises to theology to gossip to humor.
Another trait of Tom’s was to believe for the best until the very end. When marriages were on the rocks, he would proclaim that “they’ll be back together”. Sometimes he was right. He had a gift of faith. I remember protesting to him, "But she's so much better off without him!" Tom just wanted things to work out for everyone.
Being in an industry that works like a poorly maintained roller coaster, Tom often encouraged me in my career, saying year after year, “This year’s gonna be your year!” When I had victories, he would smile and say "I told you so", smiling like an older brother.
Once, I was hired to play at a gala honoring Emmylou Harris. At the rehearsal, I had trouble with the piano intro to “Sweet Dreams”, which Elvis Costello was to perform. Elvis wanted me to play it like Steve Nieve had played it on their 1981 recording. My awareness that I was not Steve Nieve led to my dialing Tom in the late evening the night before the show.
"I'm out of my league, and I need to practice on a real piano. Can I come over?"
Tom opened his door to me at about 11 pm and let me sit at his beautiful grand piano for the next hour until I had assimilated Nieve’s intro. Tom had a natural gift for encouragement. A couple of years later, I was asked to join Emmylou's band, and who knows what might have happened if I had botched the intro to "Sweet Dreams", a song she has performed for years.
Often Tom would remind friends, “I’m praying for you.”
Cut to the snowy evening in Nashville.
My nephew’s words, “Tom is dead” brought light tears to my eyes, and yet, a smile to my lips. I knew Tom. Tom was one of the few people in my life who could leave his friends behind with little doubt of how he felt toward them. Maybe it was time to be riffing with his Maker.
I called my kids and told them Tom was gone. Then I turned my phone off.
The snow bogged Nashville down for about four days. No one was going anywhere.
When Sunday evening came, my car was stuck a few streets from the site of Tom’s wake, so I donned my boots and trudged across crunching snow and skidded on black ice until I found myself standing in Ben Pearson’s kitchen with a glass of cabernet.
I looked around the room. I saw old friends like fellow bluesman Dave Perkins and painter Dorsey McHugh, whose name alone could make her lovable. Jimmy Abegg, my long time friend and fellow traveler, embraced me and kissed my cheek.
I was approached by “frenemies” dripping with toxins as they extended hands I didn’t refuse, finding myself internally recoiling. Yet, we were all there for the same reason; we loved this great man who had been taken by stress or a bad heart, or by an impatient God Almighty. Like God Almighty, Tom loved everyone in that room.
As the snow that covered Tom’s last footprints, Tom’s love was able to cover a multitude of weaknesses, burying the staggered footprints that our errant feet had tracked through each other's lives.
Eventually, I approached Dori, Tom’s widow, and embraced her. She whispered assuring words of comfort to me, and then cracked a joke. “She’s in the Mercy Time”, my dearest companion later remarked, noting how often the bereaved will find themselves in the role of comforting the less bereaved. When things settle down, the real grieving will begin, I thought.
Shunning my extravert skin, I hoped that the evening would stay intimate, and that there would be no speech making. When someone whistled for silence, people moved toward the whistle. I backed away from it. Not long ago, I would have been an enthusiastic participant at such an event. Now I watched as a toast was offered up by a pair of well meaning and inebriated friends of Tom.
Plastic cups of wine were raised for a moment, and people went back to the conversations they had been having. I was glad that the moment hadn't snowballed into a round robin of oration, feeling that the quiet reminiscences were purer and more trustworthy than the performances speeches would likely turn into.
I finally put on my overcoat and gloves and headed for the door. I thought about the wide landscape of Tom's friendships as I left, warmed by Dave’s smile, Dorsey’s affectionate remembrances, and Jimmy’s pledge that he and I were “friends before we ever met.”
As I walked past Belmont Baptist Church, the moon shone bright and full, illuminating my snowy path with blue light, emphasizing the melancholy emotions that hummed behind my heart.
My ears reddened in the frozen air, and I picked up my pace. I listened to my racing heart and I thought about Tom’s approaching funeral. I wondered if it would bring closure to those of us who missed him. I hoped it would be about Tom, not about those who loved him. I thought about funerals past, particularly my dad’s, which seemed hijacked by good intentions and abject neediness. I knew that truly saying goodbye to Tom meant finding a quiet place, even quieter than the moonlit path that lay before me.
As I walked, it occurred to me that we can never really say goodbye to those who die before we do, and that the silence we seek is found only in the presence that embraces the departed, with snow white wings.