Tom House - Welcome to the occupation
The irregular application of red dye has done little to subdue Tom House's half-long hair, nor to mute the gray at his temples. The rushing years have only served to speed his work, anyway. Four albums in five years have hardly made a career of his songs, though they have ensured that his music will not easily be forgotten. But, then, nothing about Tom House is easy. Not the high, rushed quaver with which he sings, not the words he writes and the life from which his stories emerge. The recently released Jesus Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a hard and loving record, thoroughly out of fashion, and brilliant. As were its predecessors. Tom House drives a modest late-model sedan into which everything he owns carefully fits, save for a few boxes of old papers and unmarked cassettes stored at his second ex-wife's house. For last four years he's made his home in hotel rooms across the South, frequenting weekly suites built for business travelers and less savory addresses. He drinks some and writes a lot, still preferring his electric typewriter to the laptop that stays plugged in when he's home. Wherever home is. This is not a sad story. We like our poets broken and odd (or swaddled in tweed), but Tom House is only slightly bent. True enough, his voice is broken and odd, as are many of the characters who so vividly inhabit his songs. The cult of celebrity argues that House should have paid some terrible, preferably exotic price for having made their acquaintance; if so, he has borne the cost with remarkable equanimity and grace. House first announced himself to the edges of a national audience with "The Hank Williams Memorial Myth", a blunt, 60-second spoken word intro to Bloodshot's 1996 compilation Nashville: The Other Side Of The Alley. He followed it ten tracks later with the spare "Cole Durhew", plucked from his self-released tape Inside These Walls. Even amid that collection of rebels, House seemed an outsider. He was already 47, no post-punk picker, and by no dream middle class in style or aspiration. Successive albums only confirmed that suspicion. He followed Bloodshot co-founder Eric Babcock to Checkered Past Records for his 1997 debut disc The Neighborhood Is Changing (featuring the multidimensional "I'm In Love With Susan Smith"), and for 1998's This White Man's Burden (which received a Greil Marcus rave in Esquire). When Babcock left Checkered Past to launch Catamount, House's 1999 album 'Til You've Seen Mine became one of his first releases. It is an extraordinary work, filled with powerful, vivid portraits of hard love such as "Sister's Song" (she sees her junkie brother on the street, and turns away) and "The Cold Hard Curve Of A Question Mark" (the comfort of a stranger in a darkened hotel room), augmented by the rousing testimonial of "Long Hard Drinking". It was also House's most musically ambitious outing, with guests including Sam Bush, David Olney and Tracy Nelson. Jesus Doesn't Live Here Anymore sets a simpler musical table, and more traps. Takes more risks, but that's what he does with such deceptive simplicity. And, anyway, what's to lose? "The first time we played SXSW I closed the set with 'Susan Smith', and got to the line, 'Kill the bitch, ain't no mitigating factors,'" House remembers, words tumbling along with a twinkle as he sips Sunday afternoon coffee. "These two yahoo cowboys got up and started cheering. The very next line is, 'I'm in love with Susan Smith because I hate all of you.' And they got really embarrassed and scuffled off, raising hell and cussing. [Tommy] Goldsmith leans over and says, 'You'll get us killed one of these days.' But I get a kick out of that." He laughs deeply, a tin rainstorm of he-he-he-he. For better than a decade, House was Nashville's resident confrontational poet, challenging audiences with the content and presentation of his words. "I had incredible stage fright when I first started," he explains. "Well, drinking made it a lot easier. And it just became a habit that I fell into. I had become a wild persona that everyone would egg on. I think sometimes it pisses [Lambchop leader] Kurt Wagner off: 'You used to be a lot more surly in front of the audience.' And I did, because I was pissed off all the time, and I'm just not so much. I've gotten over it. "That was just part of my stage schtick for a while, to insult the crowd. And I was playing the Springwater a lot, too, so...it was not the most well-behaved crowd. But I remember a woman came up to me after one show when I was starting to play sober, and she was like, 'I've liked your music for a long time, but I never knew what you were saying.'" He laughs. "That kind of made a big impression on me. And things did exponentially start taking off as people realized that's what it was. It ain't like I'm a band or anything; you don't hear the words, you're missing 95 percent of what I'm doing." He began to work with producer/engineer Robb Earls, who initially asked friends to augment House's vocals for The Neighborhood Is Changing. A tight knot of collaborators emerged, led by mandolinist (and, often, producer) Tommy Goldsmith, with Scott Chase on percussion and the darting harmonies of vocalist Tomi Lunsford. They were able to combine House's old-time music sensibility with his peculiar poet's sense of rhythm. "There's a great rapport between all of us, [especially] with Tommy Goldsmith, who's just astounding," House says. "He points out all the things that I do that other people don't do, that some musicians get infuriated by. Like, if the story needs an extra line or something like that, where other people work in four-line quatrains, I'll just add a fifth line. Or this line up here'll have 20 syllables, this one down here'll have three." His words still line up so as to confront and confound the unwary. "It takes, I would imagine, a weird bird to really get into what I'm doing," House chuckles. "It takes a certain level of intelligence and a certain amount of attitude. Most people don't give a damn, but I get a lot of reviews that say, 'Yeah, all he writes about are these losers and bottom-feeders.' I don't look at people like that." No, no he doesn't. He calls one of his new songs "Jesus Didn't Die For Faggots Like You", though either for typographic or pragmatic reasons the title appears as "Jesus Didn't Die..." on the CD. Still confrontational, he has become more subtle about his work. Even so, "that song makes me nervous," he admits. "It's kind of odd, but it generally goes over pretty well. "It's a combination of the whole Matthew Shepard thing and a newspaper article I read. This woman was found tied up with duct tape and beat up and somebody painted 'Jesus Didn't Die For Faggots Like You' all over her house. I thought, gol, that's a great song. So I was starting to work on it, and about three days later, the next newspaper I read, she had paid somebody to do that, to raise awareness. She promised him $200 and she only gave him $75, so he ratted her out. "I kinda threw the thing away, but then the Matthew Shepard thing came up. Sometimes I start writing, I'm not really sure where I'm going with it, but somewhere along the line with that song I realized I didn't want to write the story about the gay bashing. What I wanted it to be was from the point of view of the other guy, the guy who just didn't do anything." "Can a man be a Christian and a coward too?" he sings. And closes the album with "Love Be Gentle", meaning it. The Springwater is a low, twin-chambered building next to a barbecue joint and across the street from Centennial Park, where Nashville's city fathers erected a more or less exact replica of the Parthenon to cement their claim as the Athens of the South. It's cleaned up some, but there's still a small line outside the Springwater when it opens in the morning. For many years that's where Tom House held court as part of the semi-regular Working Stiff Jamboree. Their rules were simple: You had to have a job (or at least be plausibly between jobs), and you couldn't have a songwriting deal. Tom was a poet, anyway, just strapped on the guitar and wrote songs because his father had and his friends did and it got to be fun. He'd landed a job at the now-defunct Mills Bookstore that lasted 15 years; he wrote some songs and a lot of poems, marrying again in 1982. House had finally ended up in Nashville in the mid-'70s, after his first marriage finished and he was well and truly done with his hometown in North Carolina. "I just came here because I knew Don Schlitz, he's [also] from Durham," House says. "He and I are distantly related, and we kinda started hanging out; actually, he introduced me to my first wife. He was starting to write songs, and I was starting to write 'em about the same time. "I played guitar for a long time, played folk songs and all. It never had entered my mind to write songs myself. When I was in the hospital in Chapel Hill being mentally evaluated, there was a guy there that played guitar and wrote his own songs. It was kinda like, God, that's a pretty far-out idea." Schlitz and House trotted out their early songs together at guitar pulls in Nashville. "A bunch of 'em I've recorded now," House says. "I wrote 'Mockingbird' [from The Neighborhood Is Changing] twenty, twenty-five years ago. We'd have these guitar pulls at people's houses, and Schlitz would play his thing and everybody would gush, and John Scott Sherrill and Hugh Moffatt and everybody would pat each other on the back. "It would get to me and I would do one of these songs that I had written, and it would just be stone silence. And I knew it wasn't that they thought it was a bad song, they just didn't respond at all. It freaked me out for a long time. "Somewhere along the line I got a lot wilder." That scene split up shortly after Kenny Rogers cut a Don Schlitz song called "The Gambler". Music Row wasn't about to cut any of House's songs, and he worked in a bookstore, so the next step was natural: He founded his own literary journal, raw bone. "I got hooked up with this woman in Missouri who would print 150 of these things for $35," he says. "So I could just about give the things away; if I sold 35 I'd made my money back. But it just got to be bigger and bigger, and her press broke down." raw bone emerged during one of America's periodic poetry boomlets. "That went on for two or three years, and it just got to be too much," House recalls. "It was astounding, the number of people who would send me poetry, not even having seen the magazine, having no idea at all the scatological shit that I was printing." Well, there's obscenity and obscenity. Though contemporary art has made it increasingly difficult to shock an American audience, it's not yet impossible. "Not if you do it well," House says with an impish twinkle. "And I think I do it well. It's a dying art," he laughs, "cursing with style." Mind you, his music isn't unusually profane, just profoundly plain-spoken. "I think a lot of people thought I was going to be like Bukowski," he nods. "My poetry has a lot of obscenity in it, and it deals with drinking and the harder-edged stuff. But I never identified with Bukowski." raw bone couldn't last, though House recently revived the name for a CD of poetry he sells at readings. "The last two or three [issues] I just published all my own stuff. I got tired of putting up with other people. And I was doing a lot of readings. Nashville had a really good reading series down at Windows On The Cumberland [a small downtown club not far from the Wildhorse Saloon], for about seven years, the first Thursday of every month. All kinds of poets -- street poets, academic, everybody got their little slot, very homogeneous, until the slams started coming in." And so that scene broke apart, as well. Didn't matter, House was busy writing...something, fireflies of ideas filling tapes and journals, spilling out onstage. "I remember one night I played down at Windows On The Cumberland, I taped the show and I did like 62 songs. Two-minute-long songs. I'd finish one up, say thank you, do the next one. Strum a chord, start a song. "I've always done the music, I just never did anything with it, except play in bars," he continues. "Well, I wasn't really aware of the independent thing, that there was any outlet for it, until I met Eric at Bloodshot. Anybody that I had ever had to deal with in the industry here was just so totally unimpressed that... "I really didn't care. I just did that because that's what my friends did, and that's what my dad used to do: He got drunk and played music." About the time House began releasing records, his second marriage wore out, and he began changing department store lightbulbs for a living. Altogether, so far as can be told, it was the best of times. (He's even still friends with that ex-wife.) "Gol, that was great," he laughs. "I spent almost a year in Florida, in different cities, and almost a year in Texas. "It was all coordinated through Manpower. I'd get a crew to change all the lightbulbs up in the ceiling and wipe down the dust bunnies. All the perimeter bulbs, up under the dresses and the men's suits; it's nuts how many lightbulbs there are. "So they'd just do that on a five-year schedule, because fluorescent lights don't blow out like incandescent bulbs do. The gas gets more sluggish and they get less and less bright. It would take about three weeks...no matter how bad the town was, you can stand anywhere for three weeks. Even Odessa I could stand for three weeks." The literary community took note of House's budding musical career along the way. He collaborated on a commission to create a musical presentation of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, first offered on a dry Sunday afternoon in Oxford, Mississippi. That same team co-wrote a musical version of Lee Smith's epistolary novel Fair And Tender Ladies, and recently finished a similar treatment of Florida writer Connie May Fowler. It has almost been enough. "I haven't had that job for about a year or two," he says. "I've just been playing music, that's it. I've basically been living off the money I made while I was changing lightbulbs. I just amassed a fortune doing that, because they paid out the wazoos and I had no expenses at all. "I own my car, and they paid for the motel, and for the gas, I'm making twelve and a half dollars an hour, and $28 a day per diem. When they terminated the program, I had $30,000 in the bank. So I've been living on that, and then these literary things I do, that's where I make the bulk of my money. See, that Fair And Tender Ladies play was put on this past year in Virginia, and there are two productions of it slated for next year, and Alabama Shakespeare Festival took it on the road last fall. So every time that runs I get a royalty check, that's really good money." Health insurance, that's the problem with being an unemployed poet and songwriter. No surprise there, but risks that make sense at 25 become reckless luxuries after 50. House reluctantly settled into an apartment the last week of December, in large part because he is entering an experimental program to treat Hepatitis C. "I'm not looking forward to it at all," he concedes. "I really like just being in a strange place every night. Because that's what I do a lot of times. Say I've got a gig in Athens, Ohio, I'll just go there and stay there for a week and just be anonymous and check out the place and do the gig. Because what I'm doing I can do anywhere. I've got my guitar with me, and my laptop, and my electric typewriter, so they're all in the car. The inside of one motel room is just like the inside of another." But, at least for a year, he'll stay put. "I figured I might as well settle back in here and try to get some kind of semi-job or something. As much as I hate to desert the lifestyle, the bottom line is, that $30,000 is just about gone. Plus try to get some things organized. The only drawback to this constantly having to gather all the papers up is I'm constantly looking for lyrics, or nail clippers." It's the old cassettes that really need finding. Many go back to the final years of his second marriage, when his wife was spending weekends in Alabama with her sick parents. "I had total isolation and privacy. I used to write a lot like that, kind of something fun to do, smoke a joint and be drinking or something, and don't even bother going through the writing process, just turn on the tape deck and make up songs. "There would be a lot of good ideas, and a lot of times, of course, it would go on way too long. So you go back in there and start chopping. There's a lot of different ways to write. But that's why I've got just scads and scads of fragments. 'Papa's Dancing With His Daughter' is just like that. I wrote the two verses and the chorus maybe ten or twelve years ago, and then just all the sudden found it, sat down and wrote the third verse, and now it's on the new CD." No apologies for the bottle, either. It's there, or it's not there, but seems like it's there often enough. And House tends to keep it near the typewriter. "Yeah, yeah, I do that a lot. It works OK. It tends to dissolve toward the end, sometimes. But I do a lot of rewrites in the morning, first thing. I use the energy to get going sometimes but then, yeah, there's a certain point of diminishing returns. "But I kind of just write all the time. I write in my head when I'm walking and when I was working; that's where I've got a lot of my best ideas, just doing some kind of mindless work, which is what I mainly do, climbing up and down a ladder and all the sudden there'll be a line. I started 'White Man' working at Dillard's, and had to come down off the ladder," he laughs. It's about the work. Not about lightbulbs, or bottles, or hotel rooms, or lost chances, or somebody else's easy money. Just do the work. This seems less obvious amid the golden glow of youth, for it is a hard choice and promises few immediate rewards, absent Kenny Rogers cutting one of your songs. But good work lasts longer than money. And Tom House's work proceeds, unabated. "I had three or four new songs and I went on Memorial Day over to Robb [Earls], carried my lyrics over there and did those songs," he reports happily. "I carried a little half-pint of whiskey with me, too, and I started sipping it while I was doing those. By the time I got to the end of those three or four songs, it was going so good, because the last couple times I've been in the studio have been like pulling teeth, it was terrible, I couldn't get any feeling going at all. "This was great, so I went ahead and did three or four of the old songs that I knew by heart, and then did a Ralph Stanley song, and it's cooking, it's just wide open, more wide open than anything I've done." The next record's nearly done. Tom House never heard of Steven Jesse Bernstein, but ten years almost to the day these words began to be written, Seattle's most infamous punk poet took his own life. ND co-editor Grant Alden suspects they might have liked each other. Maybe not.