Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tom Black 1947-2012

                              Tom Black


“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain that we could sit simply in that room again…ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat I’d give it gladly if our lives could be like that.”
            -Bob Dylan’s Dream

     I can’t exactly recall why or exactly how I first met “Tommy” Black back in 1963 but it was with a bunch of kids shooting baskets at Pius X High School out on the blacktop. He was serious, quiet and somehow full of confidence in his white Levis, Purcell tennis shoes and Pendleton shirt. Despite our similar, undersized physiques he was quite the opposite of me. There were several things that were evidenced on that fall day: he was ever so cool, his hair was surfer perfect, his humor came from a deep, deep well and he had a pretty decent set shot. I immediately sized him up as a “cool guy” and that opinion never wavered over the next five decades I knew the man. I think the original stamp of approval for the Serra High kid from Compton was from Billy Hogan and so he was given the South Gate OK that proved very important in later years.  In our misspent youth I passed plenty of time in smoky rooms, sipping beers in front of record players while discussing life’s mysteries with Tom. It was almost always fun although he could be a formidable debate opponent if you disagreed with one of his strongly held beliefs.  Tom didn’t say much, mostly pondering the nonsense we were spreading with a bemused look on his face but when he opened his mouth it was almost always insightful and tinged with a gentle humor. Tom could opine on the state of UCLA basketball, break down a great American novel, quote Prince Peter Kropotkin’s anarchist slogans or after a bottle of Red Mountain “wine,” utter monosyllabic, ironic judgments that maybe only he understood. “Epitaph”...”Epitaph” he said at one Hogan’s hoe down but I never knew why. Yet, when all was said and done, I can say with no embellishment that he was one of the most intelligent men I ever met. He idolized the great political philosopher Walter Lippmann and showed some of that critical analysis in those tumultuous times of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Tom and I shared one particularly tough but memorable night together for standing on our principles when we were ejected from Billy’s VW five miles from home because we refused to endorse Eugene McCarthy for president. We laughed for the first couple of miles, and then cursed for the next three. Yet, if I brought it up in later years it elicited Tom’s trademark cackle of delight. Yet I believe we bonded over our common cross to bear: in that we probably watched more Knowlton pinochle games than any men alive.
    When I think of my time with Tom it is defined by songs and his love of serious popular music that was something we shared both intellectually and emotionally. There are songs I cannot hear without remembering those days with Tom when we thought we had all the answers. We all loved to stock up on some Dutch courage by sitting on the bar stools of Scotty’s Bluebird in Hawthorne before moving on to Baby Huey’s dance club nearby. Tom would slouch before a dollar pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon while an old regular called Tex set them up for we “mavericks,” insisting we listen to the umpteenth singing of “Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone” pouring out of the jukebox. Tom liked the free beer but I believe hated Jim Reeves for that song. Another night, fresh from the Bluebird’s encouragement Tom and I discussed   the deeper meanings of the Chambers Brothers “Time Has Come Today” like we were on the Dick Cavett show. Time has come today /Young hearts can go their way/ Can't put it off another day/ I don't care what others say” Whenever I heard the trademark “tick tock tick tock…cuckoo” I still think of Tom’s sly, knowing smile and wagging finger at the intro. I believe Tom had “Da Capo” and “Forever Changes” by   “Love” memorized right down to the baroque trumpet solos on “Alone Again, Or” and often described Arthur Lee as a genius…a mad genius.
     I remember wistfully playing the role of outraged student-activist with Jim and Tom and Bill listening to Neil Young record “Ohio” at Jim’s place in Downey while not wanting to let the other young hippies see that we had tears in our eyes for the victims of Kent State. Those were great times that gave us aesthetic nourishment in the form of sounds by Van Morrison, the Beatles or our musical find Fred Neil that boomed out an old console in suburbia.  A couple of years later I visited Tom in his cozy apartment in Long Beach which was P.S. (pre-Steph) and he introduced me to a song that sort of epitomized his dreams for the future. I had never heard “Imagine” by John Lennon and as we toasted the sentiment of peace forever we drank a few tall boys and listened to the song ten times. I think if the world were full of Tom Blacks we could have done more than imagine “all the world living in peace.” You could not find a more gentle and kind-hearted guy than him even when we all strove to project a world-weary revolutionary in training image.
     I don’t remember the exact magic moment but eventually Tom found his way to the Knowlton’s place over on Annetta Avenue and he answered Neil Young’s musical quest by searching and finding his very own heart of gold. Her name was Stephanie, who as the middle child of many Knowltons learned very early how to hold her own. At the pinochle table and in any philosophical discussion she was a force to be reckoned with and Tom saw her with those doe eyes that lovers get when smitten. The bond between the lovebirds was so powerful that Tommy who had become Tom, then became “Tom n’ Steph.” for the next four decades   It was a most perfect union and I recall him actually asking her at a dinner out “do I like broccoli?” Steph patiently nodded yes. They were meant for each other like few couples I have even known. 
      By the mid-seventies the old gang began to disperse across the landscape: to Oregon, to New Mexico, to San Francisco, to San Diego and even horror of horrors: Orange County but our bonds had been forged and our hearts remained connected. Tom and Steph had children I never met and I had one they only knew in photographs but I got reports about Shannon and Michelle and knew those were the luckiest kids in Oregon to have that man for a father and Stephanie for a Mom.
     So, I can laugh when I think of the great fun I had with Tom Black sitting on the beach at Alamitos Bay with a quart of beer in a paper bag at our side and the future spread before us like King Solomon’s mines but like many old friends across the country I shed bitter tears for a very special kind of man who made a difference in all our lives. We might take it for granted to call someone a “nice guy” but in Tom’s case it could have been chiseled in stone.  Once again I think of the pain of the past year juxtaposed against one of those sweet Friday afternoons sitting and drinking, pondering the mysteries of mortality when we listened to Fred Neil sing optimistically a beautiful song that resonates so powerfully today. “If I should leave you/ Try to remember the good times/ Warm days filled with sunshine/ and just a little bit of rain/ And if you look back/ Try to forget all the bad times/ Lonely blue and sad times/ and just a little bit of rain.” 

                              With love to Stephanie, Michelle and Shannon


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