Tom Gillam – Too busy singing to put anybody down
Somewhere in New Jersey, there’s a hospital worker Tom Gillam wants to meet, because he owes this person his life. It was March 2006 and Gillam had just had his third heart attack. This one was so serious, it looked like he wasn’t going to make it.
“I was told after the fact that someone actually said, ‘Let’s call it,'” Gillam says. “But somebody else in the room — a doctor or nurse, I never found out who — said, ‘Let’s try again, I think he’s coming back.’ If I ever find that person, they’re getting the biggest kiss on the lips ever, because I was literally gone. But somebody said to try one more time.
“So I got a do-over,” he concludes with a laugh, “which you’ll be hearing about in many songs on the next few albums.”
Judging from Gillam’s new album, Never Look Back (Treehouse Productions), we’re as lucky as he is. Alternately pissed-off (“Another Break-Up Song”), exuberant (the title track) and mysterious (“Where Is Bobbie Gentry?”), Never Look Back is steeped in enough 1970s-vintage classic-rock verities to give the Hold Steady a run for their money. Imagine the great lost Joe Walsh album, with Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell pitching in on chiming leads and the vocal cast of Poco stopping by to lend background harmonies.
But if you ask Gillam about influences, inspirations and aspirations, a different set of reference points comes up.
“The two albums I’ve been trying to match ever since I started making records are Stephen Stills’ Manassas and especially the Monkees’ Headquarters,” he says. “Which is kind of geeky. Some people say, ‘Yep, Led Zeppelin changed my life.’ Or, ‘The first time I heard Dylan, man, that was it.’ With me, it’s, ‘The first time I heard the Monkees, I wanted to do that!'”
Gillam started out with a series of bands he’d just as soon not talk about now, playing “whatever the flavor of the month was,” he says. He gave up chasing record deals about a decade ago, hooking up with producer Joe Carroll (who also plays in Gillam’s backing band, Tractor Pull) for a series of excellent DIY releases.
“In the music business scheme of things, we’re doing zero-budget stuff,” Gillam says. “What Justin Timberlake’s dinner costs is about what we spent to do my record. A fraction of what gets spent on artists like that would do me just fine. But I’m not waiting around for some label to come knocking.”
Nothing on Never Look Back directly addresses Gillam’s brush with the great beyond, as the album was written and largely recorded before that happened. But a few songs’ vocals were cut afterward. Of particular note is the title track, written by Tractor Pull lead guitarist Craig Simon.
“I try not to read a lot into what I do or how I do it,” Gillam says. “But yeah, that song did take on a different meaning and perspective — singing about getting rid of old demons and moving forward. That’s my credo now. Who cares about what happened yesterday, it does not matter.”
Part of moving forward involves a health regimen. Gillam admits he “was not living an exemplary life” before his heart attacks. That changed while Gillam was in the hospital; he had a talk with his doctor, who told him he had to give up drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. A drinker since age 15, Gillam did not want to her that.
“The doctor said I was on so much Lipitor that if I drank, it would shred my liver in about six months,” Gillam says. “And also, the heart attacks would happen all over again, which is a picnic I don’t want to go to. So that was it for drinking, and it’s been great. Three months later, I was on my first sober tour of my life. I hate to sound all twelve-step program, but it’s something I should’ve done twenty years ago. I feel amazing.
“Coffee’s my last vice,” he concludes. “Well, that and cookies. Hey, I was the king of vices and now I’ve got to have something! ‘C’mon, honey, I’m not doing dope, just give me cookies! And make a pot of coffee!'”