The Lefsetz Letter: Tom Rush At McCabe's Guitar Shop


He played "Urge For Going."

"I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town"

Geoff Muldaur said frost didn't perch, his wife disagreed, he said they'd be debating it all the way home.

I thought Geoff Muldaur was dead. Guess I was confusing him with Mel Lyman. Did you read that story about the Lyman Family in "Rolling Stone" back in the day? Tom knew him. Talk about a cult! ("The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America": rol.st/2cXMpF6

And just like the college students phoned up the delta bluesmen and got them to perform at Club 47, there's a whole generation of original folkies that is hiding in plain sight, plowed under by not only today's pop, but the production of the oldsters touring arenas.


Bob Lefsetz, Santa Monica-based industry legend, is the author of the e-mail newsletter, "The Lefsetz Letter". Famous for being beholden to no one, and speaking the truth, Lefsetz addresses the issues that are at the core of the music business: downloading, copy protection, pricing and the music itself.

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Tom did the original cover of "Urge For Going." Joni ultimately released a version too, but it couldn't equal the haunting quality of Tom's, which sounds like a New England day too cold to go outside but not cold enough to snow. When you sit and wonder… Should you stay or should you go, if you stay will the winter depress you…

I was sitting in the audience with tears in my eyes, I reconnected with who I once was, that's the power of music.

Tom had an accompanist. This thirty year old Matt Nakoa, a Berklee graduate finding his own way. His fills added a texture, color to the songs.

But it was the songs that shined.

Not only "Urge For Going," but "Rockport Sunday" into "No Regrets."

"I know your leavin's too long overdue
For far too long I've had nothin' new to show to you"

It's the nature of life. You break up. Things end. How do you feel? Empowered, yet depressed.

"And it felt so strange to walk away alone"

Loneliness, it's the scourge of life. But it's music that eases the pain.

I didn't expect to get so caught up in the show. But it was a window into what once was. When we weren't networked, when something could develop off the grid, when playing music was a calling, and not necessarily a road to riches.

Tom met Joni in Detroit. She played him a couple of numbers and he was blown away. Told her to send him a tape, he was past due on delivering an album to Elektra. The six songs included a new one, which she apologized for, it was "The Circle Game."

Tom tried to get Joni a deal, he couldn't. Because the powers-that-be can't see what's in plain sight, they're so busy looking for what they've already got that they can't embrace something new. Eventually Joni was signed and broke through. Tom burned out and retreated to New Hampshire.

He was making a lot and spending a lot. Every night in a different city, supporting five men on the road. Oftentimes they worked to lose, making ninety cents on the dollar of costs. But he soldiered on.

Until he couldn't.

He could have moved to L.A. Would that have vaulted him into further stardom?

We'll never know, he might have ended up dead.

And after a break, Tom resumed playing, because he missed it. The audience. And the money too! That's right, music is a job.

And he never had another hit, unless you include his 2007 live version of "Remember Song," which has 7 million plays on YouTube: http://bit.ly/1L7IC76 But he soldiers on.

Life is about soldiering on. I fished for insight, probed for wisdom. But that's all Tom had to say.

And that's all he's doing.

And there are the stories… Competing with Jackson Browne for a girl neither got and Jackson bringing her up years later. The tale of blind bluesmen threatening each other at Harvard. All the tidbits that make up a life. Tom's been doing it for decades and it shows.

But it's the music that shines.


Stunningly, one of the highlights was "Come See About Me," a new song, the muse has been visiting him, he's gonna make a new record, not for the fame, but because he has to.

And light fare, like a cover of John Prine's "Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian."

But it was the old standbys, from the days of yore, that truly resonated.

Like Tom's cover of David Wiffen's "Lost My Drivin' Wheel."

"I feel like some old engine that's lost my drivin' wheel"

A song you know by heart if you lived when hits weren't everything and a great song resonated in the culture. Tom debuted it, it's even been covered by Cowboy Junkies.

Then there was Jackson Browne's "These Days." Tom's take pre-dated Jackson's version by half a decade, never mind Gregg Allman's iconic iteration.

But the piece-de-resistance was "The Panama Limited," a tale about a train, an amalgamation of Bukka White songs. It gathered steam, rolled on down the track, you could hear the whistle whine as the rails got hot and transmitted the chug of the arriving engine.

If you were there…

You were brought back to an era when you couldn't fake it, when you were bit by the blues and dedicated your life to chasing the sound. When audiences discarded the ditties for something more fulfilling, the work of those channeling real life into song.

There are still some practitioners today. But the hype is institutionalized and their acolytes have chips on their shoulders, angry their favorites aren't known by everyone.

But back then we didn't care. We just went down the road less travelled and…

Despite there being no iPods or Walkmen, music was everywhere, it was in the air. Seemingly everyone owned a guitar and could pick out a handful of chords, when you got together you sat in a circle and sang, there are few things that feel as good as singing a song.

From back when the songs were singable. When they had melodies and changes, when meaning was everything and corporations played it safe and sponsorship was unheard of.

That's what it was like last night. The lights went down, Tom strode to the mic and lifted the shade so we could look through the picture window at America. The images came through our ears, not our eyes, but they were seeable nonetheless.

And despite us all being together, we were all alone, it was a personal experience, my life flashed before my eyes. Because the music sets you free. It opens your mind and allows it to drift, so you can see that which has been invisible for so long.

This is why I used to go to the show. Not so I could tell everyone I was there, not to hear the songs from the radio, but…

The songs from my bedroom. The ones I played over and over again that meant so much to me.

I didn't want it to stop. I didn't want to leave. I stayed for the second show. Which not only featured different material, but was looser. Warmed up with nothing to prove Tom entered a zone and took us on a journey, he was the pied piper of Pico. And when it was all over…

I felt different.

Music can change us. If those who make it have a passion for it, that is transmitted to the rest of us.

It's about songs. Not only Joni and Jackson's, but Lyle Lovett and Murray McLauchlan's too.

That's right, Tom brought "Child's Song" to our attention. Tom was the vehicle, the waystation, the bridge from there to here, from hootenanny to singer-songwriter.

The seasons do go 'round and 'round.

We are captive on the carousel of time.

But the truth is despite tech innovation, life doesn't change. We're all still the same. And we do best when we look not only forward, but back.

I went out walking last night and what I found was the road remains unchanged, the signs are different, the people are too, but I'm still the same individual, only a bit wiser and more experienced.

In this fast-paced world we so rarely reflect.

And then Tom Rush takes the stage in Santa Monica and brings us all back home.

To where we once belonged.