Iconic Folk Legend Tom Rush to Open The 8th Step’s 55th Season Saturday, October 16th

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Tom Rush’s success as a folksinger has been to a large degree due to his interpretations of others’ songs, some of which he gave their early exposure. His version of “Urge for Going,” gave a young Joni Mitchell her first exposure. Now, at age 81, he’s entered an explosive creative burst as he juggles writing four books, a bunch of new songs and a webpage called Rockport Sunday that invites subscribers to pay up to $1000 to peel away the onion skin of his inner soul.  

Oh, and he’s on tour, opening the 8th Step’s 55th consecutive season 7:30 p.m. Saturday night (October 16th) at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady for their first concert in more than 18 months. His performance is a twice postponed evening with an icon of the folk world. 

Photo by Karen Gilligan

Far from the last gasp by an aging legend of another era, this appearance finds him catching his third wind. We began a phoned interview with the following exchange. 

DW: Hello. 

TR: Hello, is this Don? 

DW: Let me check. I think so. What do I look like? 

TR: I don’t know. It’s a little murky here. 

DW: How ya doin,’ Tom? 

TR: I’m well, and yourself? 

DW: Considering I’m 77 years old and catching up with you fast, I’m doing really well. 

TR: You’re just a kid. Stop your griping. 

DW: I’m not griping. I’m writing better than I ever have in my life and from the sound of what I’m reading about you, you feel the same way. 

TR: Well, yeah, pretty much. Pretty much, having a good time. 

Tom Rush in the 60s

Tom was my favorite Harvard Square coffeehouse performer in the mid-60s when I was a student at Tufts, and he had just graduated from Harvard. It was a time when most of the artists in “the folk scare” as Dave Van Ronk called it were looking back at ethnic and regional folk songs and slavishly copying them in live performances.  

While Dylan broke that cycle in Greenwich Village with original material, it was Tom Rush who brought the Boston folk scene into the second half of the 20th century. He had the best voice in a cadre of emerging regional talent and was a regular at the fabled Harvard Square Club 47 coffeehouse that otherwise featured legendary acts like Howlin’ Wolf and Josh White next to area favorites like the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and Geoff and Maria Muldaur. 

Most famous for introducing Joni Mitchell to the world by performing her “Urge for Going,” his version of which was the theme song for Dick Somers’ Sunday night folk music show broadcast over a 50,000-watt clear channel WBZ. He still performs it today. “The songs come out a little different each time depending on what I’m going through at the moment or how things are. Joni Mitchell’s “The Urge for Going” I must have done that 4000 times, and it still gives me goosebumps.” 

Like Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Tom’s vocals have only become richer and deeper in their meaning with the passing years, and his creative muse has multiplied his output. 

DW: So, you’re working on a book, too, right?  

TR: No, three books, maybe four. 

DW: Damn, man.  

TR: But I’m actually not getting to work very much on them. 

DW: What are your four topics? 

TR: Well, one of them is a book of lyrics to all the songs I’ve written starting from way back in the early ’60s with a bit of chat about why I wrote the song, what’s going on in my life, and that’s one I’m actually dishing out a page at a time to the Rockport Sundays crowd. Then, there’s a novel I’m just writing for my own fun. I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day. I can’t remember who it was, but it was a novelist who said, “I write so I can find out what happens next.” And that’s kind of what I’m doing with this. It’s a story about an unfolding story. I don’t know where it’s going to end up or who’s going to do what to whom or anything like that. It just begins in the early morning. I’m just writing along and having fun with it. Then, there’s the book about why you probably don’t want to be a professional musician. 

DW: What’s the number one reason? 

TR: I don’t know if I know number one, but it’s basically a description of what goes into doing what I do which I was kind of taken for granted, and I was thinking about what if I had a kid along with me and I’m trying to teach him what he needs to know: how to do a soundcheck, how to relate to an audience, how to construct a concert set, that a whole bunch of songs in a row you want to keep varied and stuff like that, what does a manager do vs. what does an agent do, tricks of booking hotel rooms, airplane tickets, how to cope with the band. 

DW: I want that book. 

TR: There’s one trick that recently occurred to me which is let’s say there are four guys in the car. Who’s driving? And what I’ve found is it’s a good idea to go first, say “I’ll drive.” Then start up a one-way street the wrong way and then swerve for no reason and say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought I saw something.” Pretty soon you’re in the backseat. 

DW: What’s the fourth book? 

TR: Man, I can’t remember, but there is one, Oh, it’s the autobiography. Oh, there you go which is the one that’s way on the back burner. That one feels like work, 

DW: Yeah, I like what you said about not knowing what’s on the next page because that’s the way I feel about my whole life. Every day I get up and there are new surprises. It’s like Stephen King in the same room with Dr. Seuss. And it’s constant chaos here. What the pandemic did for me was I started getting up at 5 in the morning. I do all my heavy writing before my wife’s out of bed. 

TR: That’s a good idea. I find early in the morning is the best time to write for me, too, partly because I think it’s a left brain, right brain thing. First thing in the morning the editor has not come on duty yet. I just blurt out stuff, and some of it sucks, and some of it doesn’t. And around 10 o’clock the editor shows up, and I move it all over from the pad of paper to the computer organizing and saying, “Well, that fits with that, but that doesn’t go anywhere.” 

DW: Do you think crisis in your personal life helped the muse in terms of coming up with subjects? 

TR: I think so. Again, it’s the right brain thing, and when the creative juices are flowing, all kinds of things come tumbling out you didn’t even know were there, and you have to figure out what to do with them, but, yeah, I think for years I’ve been saying if I was in a really good mood, I would write things to open a vein with, and then when I was in a terrible mood, I would write funny songs. That no longer seems to be the case. It’s what’s going on at the moment. 

DW: I was going to say, that doesn’t work for presidential candidates, so it probably doesn’t work for you and me either. (laugh) 

TR: Oh, dear, oh, dear. Let’s not go there. 

DW: Hell, no! Tell me about your last two albums. 

TR: I think the last two have been definitely – the previous one was called What Do I Know. I was very pleased with that, but what was different about Voices was I wrote all the songs except for two traditional folk tunes, and that’s never happened. I’ve always done other people’s songs, a couple of my own. This time I wrote all the songs. I’ve been writing a lot over the last couple of years partly due to some family upheaval that caused songs to happen. 

DW: What has the pandemic done to you personally? 

TR: When I was on the road in 2020, I was announcing my first annual farewell tour, underline annual ’cause there are bands out there that have been on their farewell tour for decades. So, why be coy? Anyway, it had all the gigs that were coming up on the back (of a t-shirt) and I just put out my pandemic edition of the shirt with 67 shows crossed off. 

DW: You say you have backstories to your songs. What’s the back story to “Remember?” (A song that became a viral hit in 2007) 

TR: Now, that’s not my song. That was written by a guy named Steven Walters, and I heard somebody else do it, and I’m blanking on who it was, but the red-light bulb started flashing. I gotta do that one. And I got ahold of Steven Walters and asked him if he had any more songs, and said, “Oh, yes,” and he sent me two CDs worth of very quasi-religious stuff. So, apparently “Remember” song was one of a kind. It’s a brilliant piece of work. 

DW: What’s your favorite song? You say you’re getting better. You’ve got a few iconic songs that you’re known for, but a lot of the stuff I would guess people are going to come to hear you do at the 8th Step is 50 years old. 

TR: It’s true. I will do some of those songs because that’s what they come to hear, but I’m also trying out some new stuff. I’m also trying them out on Rockport Sunday. I’m introducing songs that haven’t been recorded yet on that platform, and they’ve been very well received. So, I’m looking forward to actually recording this next album. The next album might be a kitchen table, I’m not sure how soon I’m going to be able to get a band together in the studio. 

DW: Are you bringing your keyboardist with you to Schenectady? 

TR: Matt Nakoa, the monster. 

DW: Why do you call him that? 

TR: He’s a huge, huge talent. He’s got his own career besides working with me, and that’s taking off. He won’t be my accompanist for that much longer. I’m hoping when he’s playing stadiums, he’ll let me open his shows. 

DW: How does Schenectady and 8th Step fit into your new world? 

TR: I love the 8th Step. I’m really looking forward to getting back there. I gather this is the first show they’ve done since the shutdown. 

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