This was submitted a while back by a DJ from Ohio State University.
When Tommy arrived at his hotel in Columbus, Ohio, I spoke to Gary Hart, his manager at the time. He invited me over, telling me that I would recognize Tommy by his 'rainbow hair'. Tommy Bolin did not look like the pictures I'd seen, mostly on album covers, he was thinner and older than I expected. The photo on the front cover of "Private Eyes," which came out months after we spoke, is closer to the way he looked when we met. Tommy invited me to have dinner with him and was surprised when I set up a tape recorder in front of him. I'm sure he did eat something, but all I remember is him drinking. You never want to record an interview at a restaurant because the noise ruins your audio, but I wasn't going to pass up the chance to have dinner with Tommy Bolin! Surprisingly, the background noise on the tape was slight and I got a good recording.
I don't remember when David Coverdale, lead singer of Deep Purple at that time, joined us. I do remember Tommy thought (and so did I) that he was a nice guy who was fun to be with -- even though Tommy was annoyed when he tried a couple of times to elbow in on the interview.
Research is the cornerstone of my work, so I started off by talking in detail about his early career. "You know more than most," he said. I then went on to talk about his songwriting collaboration with John Tesar and he laughed, "You know more than me!" As the interview went on I could see that he was pleased I had not only done my homework, but also that I was true admirer of his work. We spent the first part of the interview talking about the James Gang and what went wrong.
He said Joe Walsh felt guilty over stealing his band and that was how he'd ended up with them. I gathered, as he recounted what those days were like for him, that touring with the James Gang was not much fun. Band leader and drummer James Fox was a major drag to be around, he only cared about 'cooking the books'. Vocalist Roy Kenner had neither the talent nor the range to sing Tommy's songs. Base player Dale Peters wasn't into the music, though he did have “an amazing ear” and probably should have been a record producer. Their second album, Miami, was an unpleasant experience for Tommy, who felt tremendous burden trying to come up with material to fit the band’s style. I also sensed as he spoke that there were some hard feelings towards him from either the band or the label over the failure of “Do it” to become a hit single.
Back to Bang, the first James Gang, I told him that “Mystery” was my one of my all time favorite songs. He got a serious look and said a sincere “Thank you.” He was overall pleased with Bang but was certainly disappointed that “Mystery” was cut. It is six minutes long on the LP, but Tommy told me that the original version was more than ten minutes long. From this point on I started bugging him to write a concept album, a la The Who’s Tommy (no pun intended), based on or inspired by “Mystery”. He told me that he thought concept albums were overdone and had no interest in working on one. He further went on to explain that he primarily writes music and that his lyrics usually stink.
My second favorite cut on Bang is “Alexis” and now David Coverdale piped up. He said that he had wanted Deep Purple to record “Alexis” for their latest LP, Come Taste the Band. Tommy noticeably cringed and David was stunned. He quickly backed down, suggesting that Tommy instead re-record it for his next solo album. Ever the gentleman, Tommy said that he would love to hear David sing “Alexis,” but did not comment further on his suggestion that Deep Purple record it.
I’ll make one more comment on Bang. I saw the James Gang live when they were touring to promote that album. The highlight of their performance was “Standing In The Rain,” which included the audience singing along. I’d love to hear a bootleg recording of that one.
While we were talking about concept albums, Tommy told me he had worked as a composer for a documentary about mountain climbing, which, I’m told, aired recently on Swiss TV. He saw rhythm in their movements as they scaled the rocks and matched it with his music. I could see him composing for films in the near future. Does anyone have a copy of this documentary?
We then began to talk about Deep Purple. I thought then and still think now that it was the worst career move he could have made, and I said so. Heavy Metal was not where he belonged. What I actually said – when David Coverdale had briefly left the table – was that I thought he had taken a major step backward in his career by joining these guys. I was a young man who had not yet learned how to be tactful. Instead of being insulted, he gave a curious response: he nodded yes while answering no. He talked about how great it was to tour the world first class with Deep Purple and how it helped his financial situation. Coverdale returned in the middle of his answer and jumped right into the fray.
Coverdale said that Tommy was “fucking amazing” in his try out for the band. Early on he said Tommy came to him and confided that he couldn’t get into the ideas that the other band members were tossing around. Coverdale said he told Tommy that when he plays the opening cords of “Smoke on the Water,” turns around to see fifteen thousand fans going crazy, he’d get into it. I don’t think he ever did. Tommy looked at Coverdale with a devilish smile and said tonight we’re not going to play “Smoke on the Water” but “Pokin’ Your Daughter” instead.
Getting serious again, Tommy said that he had only heard a handful of songs by Deep Purple on the radio. Coverdale said that to help him learn the Deep Purple sound, they had meticulously prepared a tape for Tommy to listen to, which I gathered included a lot of unsweetened cuts, particularly from Stormbringer. Tommy said yeah, but he had never listened to it. I watched the blood drain from Coverdale’s face. He asked Tommy if he was kidding, but knew that he wasn’t. He could barely contain himself. David Coverdale was outraged that Tommy Bolin had never listened to the tape. How had he captured the sound? How had he learned those songs? Tommy just shrugged, laughed and took another sip of his wine.
We started talking about Come Taste the Band, an album that I think is just dreadful. The exception being the cut “Owed to G,” which Tommy told me came from an idea Jon Lord had about paying tribute to Stevie Wonder. Tommy spoke as if he played all the instruments on the second half of the song, a la Paul McCartney on “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road” (my choice for comparison, not his). I can’t remember if Coverdale was there for that, but if he was he didn’t say anything.
Coverdale did talk about a song that he inadvertently co-wrote with Jeff Cook. Apparently Coverdale intercepted notes from Cook about a song, thinking that Tommy sent them. He finished the song, told Tommy and only then found out that he had collaborated with Cook. It was also Coverdale who pointed out that Tommy was wearing a ring that once belonged to Jimi Hendrix. He actually said that Hendrix was wearing the ring on the last night of his life. A bad omen, I thought.
Coverdale got up and a little while later I saw him walk out with the rest of the band and their entourage. Tommy stayed to talk to me. I thought this was very strange. Apparently, though, it was common for him not to travel to the concert with the band. I had never seen that before. Finally, Hart came down and asked him if he playing tonight or not. Tommy joked that he liked to appear at the very end of the opening act’s performance so he could say, “God, that was a great set,” as they walked past him (it was either Mountain or Nazareth, I can’t remember which).
That night Deep Purple was so loud that the sound was almost deafening. Tommy offered me a backstage pass, but I had seats in the fourth row, which I figured would be better for seeing the show. I’ve been backstage and never cared for the people you run into there. At one point Deep Purple let Tommy have the stage. He dazzled us with a free form performance. He didn’t play any songs, but his small set was the best part of the evening.
Yes, we did talk about his solo album, but I can’t remember much of what was said. I loved it, he was pleased and that was that. He told me he had had fun playing with a blues guitarist, Albert King, I believe, and that it reminded him of the old days. I’m guessing he was talking about Zephyr. He also said that he was interested in doing an entire album based on the song “Red Skies” but not a concept album. He listed King along with Larry Coryell as his favorite guitarists. I’m sure he talked about others, but those are the only two I can remember. He refused to talk about Ritchie Blackmore, simply stating “I don’t want to put him down.” He made some joke about playing a Hawaiian guitar, but I don’t recall what that was all about.
The last thing Tommy Bolin said to me was that he promised to write a song like “Mystery” and put it on his next solo album. He kept his word.
Months later a Columbia Records representative called to say that Tommy was inviting me to come down to his concert in Cincinnati (he was opening for Blue Oyster Cult with his own band). I couldn’t make it for some dumb reason, but I knew there would be plenty of other chances to see him perform. Plus, I wanted to see Tommy when he was headlining. The record rep also hinted that there might be a place for me at Columbia in New York.
Less than year later, on a Sunday night, I believe, I played “Mystery” for the last time on the air. I boasted to my listening audience that I actually knew Tommy Bolin. Someone called in to tell me that “I didn’t know him anymore.” It was common for people to call in stuff like, oh, Jimmy Carter died in a plane crash, or that Olivia Newton John came out of the closet. Tommy Bolin dying of a drug overdose… Could it be true? It was such a cliché. How could someone so talented, so full of life die of a drug overdose? Then I remembered back to the dinner. At one point just before Tommy left for the concert, he asked me if I had any cocaine. I told him no and thought nothing else about it. Everybody, it seemed, was doing coke in the seventies. Now I wondered if he needed it to help him get on stage with that band.
I confirmed the story through the wire services and told my listeners. I ended the show with Don McLean singing about ‘the day the music died’. It was one of the saddest days in my life.
I left the radio station to work in television shortly after his death. It just wasn’t the same for me anymore. I knew about music only as an informed listener. Back then I did have a friend who was a professional guitarist. Since he had seen Tommy many times in concert, I asked him one day just how good was Tommy Bolin. He said that he was extraordinary. He told me that he had watched one night in awe as Tommy Bolin played rhythm and lead simultaneously. He said to me, “Do you have any idea how hard that is to pull off?”
If he had lived I think Tommy Bolin would have crafted a new sound, further merging rock and jazz. I would like to have seen him mature as an artist, but it was not to be. Still, he left us a wonderful gift, his music. I feel privileged to have spent an evening with him.