There are times when it feels like my good fortune will spring everlasting. It's usually about that time that everything goes absolutely and terribly awry, like someone ripped the rug right out from under my feet, rolled it up good and tight, and beat my heavy heart to death with it. Murphy's Law picked last week to set a rusted out example of just how little control I have over the circumstances that unfold around me and the personal and emotional havoc that those circumstances can (and eventually will) wreak. That being said, every single thing that went horribly wrong in my life over the last week all pale in comparison to the exclamation point of the passing on of one of my heroes.
Tom Skinner is the reason you're reading these words I'm writing. When Mike McClure first started tossing around the idea of starting his own record label, he turned to his friend Tiny Tom for advice and suggestions for the group that would be the first to make their mark upon his roster. The Damn Quails was the first name out of his magnificently mustachioed mouth, and Mike respected Tom's opinion enough to turn a serious ear on the music we were making at the time, music that would eventually become Down The Hatch. It was in that moment that this entire whirlwind began, and without Tom Skinner, you would most likely never have heard any of the songs on that album. Gabriel and I would probably still be playing three guaranteed weekly gigs in the OKC/Norman area, supplemented by the occasional weekend wedding or tractor pull, and you faithful fan types would be left with a musical landscape entirely devoid of we Damn Quails. What follows is a rough (and likely rambling) account of how I came to know Tom Skinner and some of the batshit insanity that we would eventually get each other into along the twisting highways of America and inside the bars that dot the whiskey soaked landscape that we inhabit.
Although I know I had seen him several times at various shows at the infamous Blue Door in Oklahoma City, the first time I met Tom Skinner in the flesh was in Okemah, Oklahoma at The Woody Guthrie Folk Festival some eight or ten years ago, back when I was still an awkward solo somekinda folk artist that was really bad at telling stories and mediocre at best at writing songs. I say we met at Woodyfest, but anyone familiar with the situation knows that the only place to see Tom perform during the mid to latter years of the festival was among the vines and the peacocks at the now-defunct Grape Ranch south of Okemah. I never have been quite sure of the actual reason that Tom was blacklisted from the festival in the first place, but I do know that, whatever the reason, it was fucking bullshit. The owners of the Grape Ranch apparently knew that too, so they saw fit to give Tom a stage, a PA system, a large canvas tent, and free reign over who could and would perform there during the week of the festival. It was my very favorite part of Woodyfest as it gave guys like Gabriel and I the chance to play our songs for a good sized crowd of festival goers in spite of NOT being included in the actual festival lineup. Until the very recent past, it was incredibly difficult for any up and coming Oklahoman artists to get booked on to the festival proper, but Skinner's tent was a songwriter's haven where all who performed were welcomed and personally encouraged by a man who's lyrical prowess puts mine to shame and who's ego was absolutely non-existent. Tiny always had a kind word when you got off the stage, and not just a "great job, man!" slap on the back type of kind word. He made it a point to remember a particular line that grabbed him just right, or a chord change that was catchy and out of the normal 1-4-5 box, and tell you how much he dug what you had done and, most importantly, why he dug it. Those little motivational Skinner-isms guided my songwriting in the direction that it's still heading in today. Not only was I on cloud nine from the compliment, but I had a new and intensely valuable piece of information through which I was able to extrapolate several of my little tricks and mannerisms that I still use today. Whether he believed it or not, Tom was as much a songwriting teacher as he was a songwriter, I never saw him stand in front of a podium and give a lecture on the benefits of proper metaphorical technique or poetic devices, but the parts of my writing that he picked out and fed back to me were absolutely essential to my growth and transition form amateur dabbler to semi-professional songwriter. He taught all of us songwriters to eat our vegetables so we could grow up to be almost as big and strong as he was. Tiny was his nickname, but his spirit and his gumption were as big as life and twice as beautiful.
When I said Tom Skinner was the reason you're reading these words I'm currently cobbling together, I was absolutely not fucking with you. Try not to get dizzy when the edges of the screen do that bleary transition indicative of an impending flashback and follow me to the wild and wonderful final evening of the year of our Lord, 2010.
Circumstances had led me to an old roadside bar in my hometown of Shawnee, Oklahoma wherein I planned to ring in the fancy New Year and simultaneously take in my first Mike McClure Band show. I hadn't even met old Wacky Mac at that point and was completely unaware of his future aspirations of starting a record label. I was just a songwriter that showed up to shake hands with Skinner, swap a few stories, and watch him play the hell out of some bass lines with his mouth open. We spent twenty minutes shooting the shit about which group of bar patrons were most likely to fight one another, the stuff we got for Christmas, and the most discreet locations on the premises to safely burn one without getting busted.
(I so could have used you last Thursday, Tom)
After said burning, we talked about the Quails and how excited Tiny was about our prospects for the future. He told me I was a great writer. I'm pretty sure I turned as red as a new stop sign while and began hovering a few inches off the floor at hearing such kind words from a man whose opinion on that most revered and sacred subject of songwriting I held (and hold still) in the highest regard. Tom said he liked my sense of meter and lyrical phrasing. Actually, what he REALLY said was, "You're good at fitting them long words into some short spots!" which is far and away better than my watered down and technical interpretation. I'm not sure I ever flat out told him how much his kindness meant to me and how deeply I took to heart each word of wisdom that he ever spoke while I was within earshot. Looking back on last night and this morning, I desperately wish that I would have.
Tom was the kind of guy to give praise freely when praise was deserved, but when it came to receiving his own well deserved praise, he reverted to his usual "aw shucks, it ain't really nothing" attitude, which we all know was borne of his natural, humble nature. He never considered himself a legend, just a man that was lucky enough to do something he loved for a living and to roll hard as hell whilst he did so. But we all knew what he was, how much certainty and confidence he had when it came to his words, and we all envied his ability to pull songs out of the thin, blue air like he was pulling fish out of the Illinois River with Jesus Christ himself holding the net and baiting the lines.
During the first few years that the 598 Recordings label was in existence, the Quails played all kinds of shows at venues of various levels of ill repute with (yep, you guessed it) The Mike McClure band. We all got used to having Tom Skinner as the hilarious, racy grandpa character in our little road family while we were out and about. Out on the road we most certainly were. One of my very favorite Skinner stories happened on our first runout to the Midwest after a gig in Joplin, Missouri.
The first time we played Joplin, Biggie and I had the realization that our hotel was a reasonably short and easily driveable distance from the Devil's Promenade, a lonely and desolate stretch of gravel and some blacktop that runs along the Oklhaoma/Missouri border and is most notably known for playing host to The Hornet Spook Light. "What the hell is a Spook Light?" you're probably asking yourselves. The answer is "an inexplicable light of unknown origin" that's been seen bobbing and floating along the Devil's Promenade since way back in the 1800's. As we're no slouches when it comes to high quality documentary film entertainment, Biggie and I had seen a few tidbits about the Spook Light before on various cable shows, so we decided to ask the desk clerk at our hotel if he could point us in the proper direction of said spooky light. The poor kid behind the desk was being a really good sport considering the two sweaty, weird-question-asking-asses in his lobby at 3 a.m, and he was kind enough to write down directions for us, including a rudimentary map because we were definitely rocking the "big time stoner that can barely read anything, especially your handwriting" vibe.
After making a fortuitous stop at the gas station across the street, Biggie procured a half gallon of blues juice (That's 100 Proof Tvarski Vodka decanted into a clear plastic water bottle to those of you unfamiliar with the man himself and his tactics) and we headed off into the night in a ridiculously inappropriate Hummer H2 (worst touring vehicle EVER) following the bellboy's directions to the squiggly line and letter. After making the last of nearly a dozen dark turns onto roads in various states of decay and repair, we found ourselves alone on one of the most desolate four or five mile stretches of road I've ever seen, which is really saying something coming from a born and bred central Okie. For a half mile (give or take) we drove through an uncannily dark forest,, thick with Elm and Black Jack trees before we finally emerged from the trees in a clearing at the top of the first hill. From that hill, Biggie and I sat in astounded wonder at the small, flickering ball of yellowish light that was roaming through the ditches of the road a little less than a mile ahead of us. We questioned our understandably bleary eyeballs at first, but the light was most defynytly real (and quyte Fyst, I might add) and, as we would soon find out, possessed of some sort of intelligence and/or ingrained sense of self preservation. We gunned the Hummer and took off down that first major hill on the Devil's Promenade and headed directly towards the Hornet Spook light. When we got within a quarter mile, though, the Hornet Spooklight vanished. Upon topping the second hill and putting the car in park, the light reappeared at the crest of the next hill and continued to bob and weave around until we tried to approach it again, with the exact same result. Finally, at the top of the third hill, we parked the car and waited, but the light was nowhere to be seen. Biggie exited the vehicle to make his penis cry into the dirt while I waited in the driver's seat, and as soon as the little light re-appeared down the road, the engine died without warning or indication. I started to get a tit bit freaked out at the possibility of being stranded on the Devil's Promenade at 4 a.m. with naught but most of a fifth of vodka, my favorite harmonica player, and that freaky ass bouncy ghost light. I tried the ignition a few times to no avail, but after a few seconds of warding off the bad juju, the Hummer started right up as if it hadn't just died in the fuck middle of nowhere for no apparent good reason. It was at this point I believed I had enough of the Hornet Spooklight, but that was not exactly the case. On the drive back to the hotel, Biggie and I discussed the fact that NOBODY was going to believe us and that we should gather a witness or two and force them to come and check out this freaky ass Hornet Spooklight. We wanted to have plenty of folks in a position to back up our encounter in the years to come when the tale would be told and re-told due to its insanity and greatness. We pulled up to the loading area out front of the hotel, and who should be sitting at the computer in the lobby, drinking a cup of coffee and fumbling around on his Facebook, but Tiny Tom Skinner himself. He was wide awake at 4 a.m. with some sort of vending machine Cinnabon knock off in one hand, clicking and clacking away at the keyboards in between taking large bites of pastry with the other. We gathered Tom Skinner and collected Gabriel Marshall and headed back out to the Devil's Promenade. Tom and Gabriel were admittedly skeptical right up to the point when the light showed itself a mile or so down the road at the crest of the next hill. When we finally accepted what we were seeing as real, we were four guys in awe of a thing that none of us (or the Army Corps of Engineers) had any logical explanation or frame of reference for. I parked the Hummer in the middle of the Devil's Promenade and we lined up on the pavement and watched the Spook Light do its dance across the street, occasionally blinking out only to show up on the other side of the road or off in the distance in one of the nearby fields. Tiny said it was most assuredly the strangest thing he had ever witnessed in his life, and I remember feeling warm and fuzzy inside that I could show Tom Skinner, the man who's seen it all twice and got both T-shirts, something he had ever seen before. Something tells me if he had seen something stranger in the years between our spooky adventures outside of Joplin and his passing away last night, Skinner would have already called me up, given, me directions to the whereabouts of said creepy thing, and insisted I take a gander for myself.
I want to take a second and thank each and every one of you for having the patience and constitution to make it this far into this particularly special blog post, not to mention the outpouring of memories, pictures, videos, and songs that were posted to the various social media sites during the night. I love looking through my news feed and seeing a few dozen tiny Skinner faces looking back at mine. I love the sense of camaraderie among the younger generations of songwriters rising through the ranks, something Tom talked about a few times in interviews over the years. I love how that sense of togetherness didn't have to be taught to us, merely led by the brightly shining example of those badass guys that came before us.
We followed the example of guys like Tom Skinner, Randy Crouch, Greg Jacobs, Bob Childers, Rick Reiley, Bob Moore, Steve Ripley, and all of the others that walked down Woody's road when we were barely twinkles in our father's eyes. We soaked up the way they moved when they were on stage, how they cued whatever group of musicians that happened to be playing with them using nothing more than a high foot stomp or a nearly imperceptible nod of the head. We listened to the words they sang and how they sang them, borrowed from their inflections, and did our best to incorporate the really special elements of their collective styles into an amalgamation all our own rather than blatantly trying to rip them off. I love that Tom Skinner was proud enough of us to remind the naysayers and bitching brayers, those close minded asses that are convinced of the younger generation's ineptitude while being blind to their actual work and achievements, that there are still good people making good music in the world. They just have to have to take the time to go out to a bar, catch a show, shut their collective mouths for a few minutes, and listen for it. We all let Skinner carry that bright, burning torch in his mighty hand until around 9pm last night, when he finally let himself slow down and entrusted that flame to all of us that do our damndest to carry on his good work. We are a haggard bunch, still rough around the edges and just rebellious enough to do our own thing in the present while still holding tight to the lessons of the past. It's a history taught to us via a thousand stories that we'll never tire of telling and never allow to die, so long as there's still someone around to listen to us tell them. We'll tell them over and over, until time takes our youth, our voices, and eventually our bodies away from us, and all we have left are the words and melodies and marks they left on the people of this world. It is in our own songs that we must place our faith, and through that faith, we become the stoned immaculate architects of our own immortality. Tom was not the first man ever to write a song, but God damned if he didn't make us believe that he could have been. He was our mentor and our friend, our father and our brother, and the yard stick against which we will measure the quality of our work until all our work is one day done.
We'll do our best to always try and measure up to your stellar example, and eventually we will all die trying. We are better human beings for having known you, and that's a gift that can be neither bought nor sold, only given freely from one friend to another. Thank you for that. And everything else. You will be missed. You already are.