Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow Angels

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.


  1. Absolutely beautiful write up, Phil. Just wow. I really enjoyed reading this... thanks for sharing with such grace.

    As I said when I learned he had died, I wish I knew all of you guys better, and I'm so sorry you lost such a good man and friend.

    Lately I find myself writing eulogies for those closest to me—for those who are still quite alive—as I lay in bed each night. It helps focus my thoughts on the things I want to be saying to people while they're still with us, and your writing here will surely be on my mind as I lay head to pillow late tonight, wondering which of my friends I'd miss most, and which ones would remember me as fondly as you do Tom.

  2. Thank you for a touching tribute to a friend.

    I knew Tom only through his music, specifically "The Harvest", which I still own (on cassette!). "Humble Yourself In The Sight Of The Lord" and "Gethsemene" have and always will stand out.

    A big thrill was being able to see him perform and meet him in Franklin less than two years ago, with an assemblage of CCM "heroes": Phil Keaggy, Rick Cua, Lynn Nichols,, under the name "Faux Brummels". {"Green Onions" never tasted so good. :-) }

    It is good to meet the man you knew...and to know that he has been made new.

  3. Wow. Beautiful. It is so poignant to read a tribute to someone's life, to get a glimpse of a life that deserves to be remembered, to be celebrated, and to inspire the rest of us for the day when someone tries to capture the years we've lived within words of their own. Nicely done Phil.

  4. A great tribute to a great man! Thanks for sharing! Tom will truly be missed!
    chris kent

  5. Beautifully written Phil! I was there that night at Sherlock's and it still makes me laugh... just now, I'm laughing with tears running down my cheeks. Tom was as you stated he was... A true friend!!

  6. Phil, thank you. An entirely appropriate and eloquent tribute to a very special man. I've lost friends before. Buried my brother two months ago. But for some reason, this time hurts more than I anticipated. Especially considering that Tom and I were not as close or in touch nearly as much as I would have liked. For some reason the pain of this loss lingers stubbornly. I can only imagine what Dori's up against.... But thank you for this remembrance.... Here's to Tom!

  7. Phil - Wow . . . thank you so much for taking the time to write that. I knew him much less time than most it seems and, yet, he made a profound impact on me. I will miss him.

  8. Wow, Phil. I hope this was healing for you to write. And I hope it is healing for Tom's friends and family to read. Your words truly make me wish I had known him more than just to say "hi" in passing at church.

  9. Thank you all. Dan's remarks about writing eulogies for the living reminds me of the most poignant scene in "Waking Ned Devine", wherein a man delivers a eulogy about his best friend... if you haven't seen this movie... rent it tonight!

  10. Oh, and Julie... I hope it's good writing whether they knew Tom or not.

  11. This is great. What a tribute. I can completely picture Tom's smile and laugh telling you "I told you so!" What an awesome guy he was.

  12. Paul K. Logsdon05 February, 2010

    I've never seen a memorial as art before. But this was a word-picture painted by a man who knows how to share his deepest emotions. Thank you, Phil, for sharing your heart with us.

  13. It's a tribute wrapped up in a beautiful story of friendship. Your words honor a wonderful man using your wonderful gift. I think your friend would have been proud.

  14. Thanks for this, Phil. Artfully said. I'm sorry to say, that other than a recent email or two, I hadn't been in touch with Tom too much over the last few years. Your tribute here reminds me not only what a beautiful guy he was, but also what it means to live gracefully. Tom was the gold standard for that.

  15. great post phil. for those of us that have "tom howards" in our lives this hits deeply...steve wyer passed your blog along and i'm thankful for that. i will follow and look forward to those posts

  16. Many thanks Philip.

    I didn't know Tom for nearly as long nor nearly as well as you and so many others. Just a few coffees or other zesty beverages, lunches and writing sessions. But each transcended the typical parameters of its meeting type and became one the wrinkles in time where eternal honesty, grace and mercy meet in real space and time coordinates.

    The more detaaied memories and sharings you and others have offered help me realize what a miraculous creature and comrade he truly was, and to so very many. The magnificent and visceral poetry of your reflections mirror one with whom we were all friends long before we met (thanks Jimi!)

    How do we say good-bye? You have helped us know how, dear amigo. But as with so many kingdom realities I'm glad that it is both good-bye, but also not good-bye. We can continue to hold him in our hearts, continue to tell his story to each other and to those who did not enjoy the rich blessing of such close physical proximity to him as we have.

    I am also deeply thankful for the reality that is the communion of saints. That w are one people, one family, whether still physically breathing the earth and breathing actual air, or whether we have already passed over into realms of light.

    As Bob Stamps, when he was Chaplain at O.R.U. told my dear friend Jim Hart when his mother had passed away, "Jim, every time you gather for Communion, she'll be right across the table from you."

    That is a particular blessing for each of us who have shared that reality with Tom. Every time we gather to share the bread and cup of the Lord's table, he'll be right across the table from us.

    Again brother, many thanks!

  17. I only knew of Tom from a distance, from his work and from other friends (Stan Endicott, Chuck Fromm, Bugs) but Phil, your words make me feel like I know him and you a little better. Thank you for your gift!

  18. That's a good one, Phil. All we have left of Tom at the moment are our collective memories of him, and hearing yours helped me to feel closer to someone I always wished I lived nearer to. What a wonderful Get Out Of Jail Free card he was ~~ : |

  19. One other thought . . . although i'd gotten word from a couple sources of Tom's passing Friday night, I had no knowledge of the wake Sunday; and in some ways, I'm so glad I did not know. I don't think I could have gotten out of our snowbound neighborhood yet, plus I would have probably fidgeted around here in regret I couldn't be there and perhaps in a little envy of those who were.

    Again Philip, your elegant and vulnerable recap not only makes me feel as though I were there, it also paints even more of the detail and nuances of the lovely and complex friend who has left us behind (at least for a little while.) Thanks for that generous gift!

    Janet and I made a road trip this weekend to visit our younger daughter and her family in Atlanta. WHen your "Ghost of Johnny Cash" cycled around on the iPod, I couldn't help but wonder if Tom and John hadn't together already raised a little ruckus up there. (Perhaps a hymn of Wesley or Watts played in G and sung in G#~)


  20. Phil, thanks for painting the touching memorial for your friend. My heart's heavy because my Dad's health is failing but I'm grateful for the comforting words and reminder of eternity's hope.

  21. Phil,
    What a beautifully written tribute to Tom, to friendship and to grace. It really touched me. I hope it is cathartic for you. I've been to way too many funerals in the last few years, it seems all my best friends are dead.

    I barely knew Tom, much as I barely know you, yet both of you have had a large impact on my life both musically and spiritually. I probably should have told you that before now. Every time I hear "Stardust" or "The Memory of You" I think about singing those jazz standards with you a few hours before a Rich Mullins gig in the early 90's. That's a good memory.

  22. Phil, what a touching tribute...thanks for sharing your heartfelt memories and endearing friendship with Tom.

  23. Beautiful and touching, Phil. Tom's humor was one of a kind. Your Sherlock story reminds me of another hilarious TH take on a folk classic- I'll never forget him singing "If I had a hammer, and you had a ham; I'd hammer that ham, into a big pink bell." The world now has a Tom Howard-shaped void in its heart.

  24. Thanks, kind readers.
    Yes, Tom G, I remember the "big pink bell". Tom was a funny guy.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm