A Christmas Toast. . .
It is the Christmas season. Multiple holidays I suppose in today’s world. Regardless, the thing I most enjoy about this season? The carols. Songs such as Joy to the World, Little Drummer Boy, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and so on. Even some Bach and Handel. This is the only time currently that I sing in any performative sense. If it happens at all it is Christmas Eve.
Music is almost required for any celebration, any real communion. Christmas is such an occasion. Music amplifies such an occasion. It is simply the case that there is a musical component to most any occasion, any celebration. Music, however, does not require such an occasion. Music does not require a special celebratory day. It does not need Christmas, but today I borrow from the religious. Regardless, they both add dimensions, color, shadow to the other. Music often has a religious component to it, and most religion has a musical component to it. It is communal. They join. They bring people together.
I know, religion also brought us the crusades and all that followed, which continues to haunt us, and music has its role in that too. All too often the music we hear is a march. Religion, and music, can both unite, and yes also destroy.
My point here, however, is simple. The holidays before us connect, and the music we bring to those holidays, the sacred and the profane has its effect upon us. Today, again being in the midst of the holidays and the music I bring to them, I pause. Both remind me of the absence of one. It is especially felt on such occasions. The joy felt amplifies the absence.
I know. . . It took a while to get there, didn’t it?
It is appropriate to finally write this during this season. My last correspondence with Bernie Torme was last year about this time. I would routinely harass him on Facebook. Last year I was working on an essay about Tommy Bolin, (which I still work on!) and was pestering him about such. I discovered he had no use for Bolin-based Purple, (A common English thing it seems), yet knew and liked Bolin’s stuff in the James Gang.
Before that I was considering going to see him perform one of his last shows. I had found some cheap flights to Edinburgh in Scotland. That was around Thanksgiving last year – 2018. With the show landing around Thanksgiving, I sadly thought better of the trip. Shame on me – an opportunity missed. Truly missed. His response to me though when I mentioned it to him was classic. “Edinburgh”, he said “is like a real-life version of Hogwarts. Never mind the show. You want to come and check out Edinburgh!”
That was last year. My first encounter with Bernie was December 12th, 1980. Again, entering the holiday season. That was with Gillan. I was seventeen. The club was small, and few of us there. Perhaps fifty? I did not know what I was going to encounter. What do I now recall of Bernie? His playing. His Strat. His Tremolo Bar. Yes, that tremolo bar and what he did with it is remembered. His peroxide blonde hair. And that jacket that seemed out of Dickens.
The week before I had seen Thin Lizzy at the same small club outside Philadelphia. They ended their set singing Christmas carols. Well, actually they did their take of the Greedies’ Jingle Medley. Those two bands, Gillan and Thin Lizzy, a week apart were pretty much the best Christmas gift I could have had. Especially considering I was feet away from the stage for both.
Two weeks before hitting Emerald City, Bernie was in St Louis. That was perhaps his one experience of an American Thanksgiving. Maybe he did one with Dee during the course of Desperado. Don’t know. His words regarding Thanksgiving? “Not bad at all.” I wish I knew more of the actual St Louis event. If I recall, he told me an older gent was generous that thanksgiving holiday in 1980, sympathetic. This gent it seems took pity on Bernie and his mates, this traveling band in the midst of their tour, originating from the UK, with little idea of an American Thanksgiving. Ian, I guess did. Regardless, here they were in St Louis, probably wondering what the fuck, why is nothing open? Not even the 7/11. . .
That was all a long time ago. Now three years back, in 2016, I spent my holidays working on a project for the Wild West. I had reached out to the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, famous for that iconic image of Che Guevara and of course multiple Thin Lizzy album covers and the like. It was part interview and part essay. Ultimately it became an exploration of early seventies Dublin – the comingling of Ireland, its history, its literature and the new artistic and musical stylings that flowed out of the city at that time.
I reached out to Bernie a few times during the course of that project. He had grown up in Dublin during that time. He was in the middle of it. Lynott was performing at his older sister’s high school dances! He was often available online for me and seemed happy to engage. He shared much and gave me a few ideas about how to play it. I ultimately included a Youtube clip of a Thin Lizzy tune titled Dublin. It was a favorite of his. And the essay did ultimately become a tale of Dublin.
He was there. He dug up some clips. again on Youtube, of this one club where he perhaps was in the crowd. He was pretty sure he was. Everybody was in a suit or at least a jacket. This was in perhaps in the late 60’s considering that. All there to see I believe Phil and Gary Moore’s band, Skid Row. I know little about that band. I did track some music down, but. . . Bernie made sure I appreciated that it was in fact ‘Brush’ Shiels’ project.
We got into discussions of the folk scene, and the clubs and bars of the day. Bars that Phil was known to hang out in. We talked about Rory Gallagher and how he was not of Dublin. In fact, Bernie was lucky to be one of the first to see him in Dublin. So, we were covering all kinds of shit. No wonder my essay took longer than I had hoped. We were going back and forth on messenger throughout that holiday season!
In the end, when I finally did publish the Dublin essay on the Wild West, both him, and Jim Fitzpatrick felt I had hit on something with it. That for me was success! Or at least part of it. He was always accessible. Perhaps too much. I hope I was not a pest. On the other hand, he looked at my essay on romantic poetry and Patti Smith and I never did hear back from him. That one was more than a little long and I had not at that point broke it up into pieces.
And now there was the web, the internet, allowing me to not only catch up on the music he had made, but actually reach out to Bernie. It was a simple email, courtesy of that site or perhaps the flyer in the CD. I swear on the flyer said something to the effect tht if you want him to do a show in your area, drop him a note. I could have sworn there was such language! And my email went a step further, I offered to help to get him over to the US to do such a tour. Who knew he would respond and basically take me up on the dare. It did not happen. My project was just before the advent of crowd-funding. But for several years we went back and forth on how to do it, building websites, various promotions, etc.
And that project, my attempts to bring Bernie to the US, did bear other fruit. I had the pleasure of Gary Moore or at lease someone from his team inform me that though they appreciated the offer, Gary was not currently touring. I was told by various others that typically bands do not look to their fans to fund tours, at least not upfront. And I guess they were largely right though today, with crowdfunding, there are possibilities. And for a few years I got promote some of the local New York talent at some small and not so small venues in the New York and Westchester area.
For me, all of it just was a way to reconnect and make sense of the world again. I had taken an extended hiatus, disappeared for like fifteen years from all of this. Just pursued other things, academia, family, career – the usual. 2003 was finally my moment to reengage. And Bernie, with his relation to Gillan and all the rest, and what he did with a guitar was a central figure in my musical universe.
When I met him in 2005, during a dinner or perhaps it was the drive to the place he asked me what was it that grabbed my attention. He was almost annoyed with me though when I told him that it was his stage presence that got my attention back in 1980. And he did know how to work a stage. And I was only seventeen. Oh, the playing was there too. He, however, did not want to hear about showmanship. He wanted to be seen as a musician. As if there was any doubt.
But look at this, this dude standing in for Blackmore, and yet making this music his own. And Gillan was not Purple. It was its own band. Same instruments, same vocalist, yet so very different. And there he was, peroxide blonde and in this jacket out of Dickens. I believe I read somewhere he picked up a half dozen of them at a thrift shop or something for the stage. And the hair, 80s big, again peroxide blonde. It was simply a complete package. and let us not forget it was a Strat he played, and my god what he did with that Tremolo bar. And keep in mind where I came from. It was 1980 and in my high school, they were still listening to Free Bird and Stairway to Heaven. This was neither of those. There was no punk rock at Delaware Valley Regional. There was a dash of it here.
That was Bernie Torme. My experiences with the man and his music. You have no idea how much time his music has played in my car, in my room, in my house. I will always have the music. I listen in fact to a Gillan recording at this moment that I never heard before, recorded live in 1980 at Hammersmith. Which by the way has some amazing stuff on it and is on iTunes!
It is the holiday season and I will sing my carols on Tuesday night. And I am glad I sat down this evening and just shared all of this. I do miss the man. I do consider him a friend, And I do thank him for all the music he provided. That would have been enough but the fact that he allowed me the rest? Thank him for putting up with me through my various attempts at bringing him over to the States and then my various writing projects. We never did get to discuss the NY music scene and why he liked it over LA.
I was so lucky to have made it to that concert that icy December night in 1980, And then to pick it up again in 2003. To meet with him in Kent, and later in London and the various chats online and all. All of it was truly a gift.
Here is to you Mr. Torme.