1976: THE TURBULENT YEAR
A personal account of Tommy Bolin’s last few months on and off stage. Excerpts appear in the booklet accompanying the new archives release, 1976: In His Own Words.
Compiled by John Bentzinger.
September 18th, 1976. 1:42pm., Los Angeles International Airport
It was a brilliant sunlit afternoon. The American Airlines Boeing 727 sat gleaming on the tarmac. Tommy Bolin and his entourage were boarding flight 192 bound for Albany, New York via Chicago. Although it should have been a triumphant, exhilarating experience, Tommy already felt he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The next night was the opening night of a three month tour supporting his new album, Private Eyes. Columbia Records had invested heavily in their new artist. The Tommy Bolin Band was opening for Blue Oyster Cult, a hard rock act that was riding a huge wave of popularity. Tommy knew the group because they were HIS opening band two years earlier when he was touring with The James Gang. By all accounts, Columbia had put Tommy in a situation where he could really shine.
Tommy was still upset after being unceremoniously dumped by Nemporer Records. The fact that he fell off a stage drunk in front of a group of Nemporer executives didn’t help. “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke!,” Tommy said later. They couldn’t, and Tommy’s manager Barry Fey had to call in some old favors that led to a quickly negotiated deal with Columbia. Actually, it was a blessing in disguise, because Columbia was heralding their new artist as the heir apparent to Jimi Hendrix… and Tommy didn’t mind the comparisons. There was plenty of advance money. Private Eyes was recorded in the most state of the art studios in the world. Now this plump tour was kicking off, and all he had to do was let people discover him.
But Tommy had a problem that he wouldn’t or couldn’t admit. “Just a bit too much partying. I can slow down until this tour is taking care of itself,” he told friends. As the airliner headed away from the California sun, Tommy looked around at his band mates, and tour manager Gary Hart. “Gary, I’ll have a gin and tonic. Make it a double.”
Steve Carrellas couldn’t believe what he was hearing… “Would you be interested in interviewing Tommy Bolin?” One of his favorite guitar players? Absolutely! Steve was a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a well respected engineering school in Troy, New York. Steve and his best friend Peter Kmetz were very active at WRPI, the schools 10-thousand watt FM radio station. They each held air shifts, engineered live remote broadcasts, and also took turns hosting a weekly hour long music program called, Spotlight. The pair were well known for their eclectic taste in music, and in fact had become campus legends after making a 200 mile bus trip in the dead of winter to see their hero’s Deep Purple play in Providence, Rhode Island. Now The Tommy Bolin Band was playing in nearby Albany, and the radio station manager was asking Steve if he wanted to meet Tommy in person. “I’d love to,” he replied.
September 20th, 1976. Albany, New York.
Tommy was awake by late morning... fairly early by his standards. He couldn’t sleep much after the previous night’s disastrous show. From the outset, there were huge sound problems. “Excuse the feedback,” he told the crowd at the Palace Theatre, “I’m trying to!” The final insult came during the closing number, “Post Toastee.” The audience had been slow to warm up, But they were just starting to rock out when the full house lights were turned on! Tommy and his brother Johnnie were stunned. “Blue Oyster Cult had backed Tommy up with The James Gang. And back then, the deal was ‘well, you have 60 minutes to play. But if you play 65 or 70, that’s okay. Don’t play for two or three days, but we won’t sit there with a stopwatch.’ I guess that’s the way Tommy looked at it. We were the opening act, and we went to 50 minutes, and it was during “Post Toastee,” the real cool part in the middle. All of the sudden the lights came on. It ended the whole vibe. We vamped out real quick. We didn’t lay it on like we usually did. And the crowd is looking at each other like, ‘What’s going on here? Is there something wrong? Is there a fire?’ I’ve never been to a concert where the white lights came on during the band playing. We ended the song. He set his guitar down as fast as possible, then shot upstairs to the dressing room, and proceeded to tell Blue Oyster Cult off.”
The echo of the last chord was still ringing. Tommy slammed his stratocaster into its stand. It was a miracle the guitar didn’t shatter. Blue Oyster Cult’s tour manager was blocking the entrance to the dressing room. “You can’t go back there,” he said. Tommy pushed him aside and walked through the door. “When I used to play with The James Gang... you remember the band, James Gang? You were supposed to play 60 minutes. Sometimes you played 65 minutes. Did we ever do that to you?” There was no reply. Tommy turned and stalked out.
Steve and Peter arrived at the downtown Sheraton on Broadway at the appointed time of 11 a.m. They had also invited their friend Jeff Deal along to engineer (mainly because he owned a Revox reel-to-reel with a three mike mixer). At the front desk they asked for tour manager Gary Hart, who came down to meet them in the hotel lobby. Steve and Peter were surprised when, instead of being taken upstairs to Tommy’s room, they were led to the hotel bar. Tommy was already inside.
”I remember he seemed almost ill at ease, unless he had a drink in his hand,” Peter Kmetz remembers 20 years later. “But he seemed to be perfectly lucid and sober.” “Gary, make sure you have drinks sent up to the room. Do you guys want anything?” Tommy asked. They politely declined. The microphone stands were placed in front of three chairs which were circled in the center of the room. Gary Hart and Johnnie Bolin sat on the edge of the bed. After a few moments of chit chat to set levels, Steve started the interview, asking Tommy to describe his music. “We had in mind all sorts of things to ask, and as things came up we had a great conversation and went off on tangents. And pretty much as I recall, and as history recorded it, we got the complete picture from where he grew up and how he got started, to how he connected with people. We also asked about current things, like where Deep Purple was, and just where he was headed. And after listening to the raw footage for the first time since 1976, I’m reminded how he seemed really WITH it. As far as we were concerned, he had a very good memory. He was having a good time. I guess the setting was comfortable. And when someone realizes someone knows a little about him, and was interested in knowing more, he was really happy to tell. He enjoyed what he did. He enjoyed talking about music.”
For well over an hour, a relaxed and delighted Bolin gave a stunning account of his career. He shared musical secrets with his new friends, and despite the previous nights debacle, spoke with unbridled optimism about the Private Eyes tour. Once the interview was over, Steve carefully wrapped the 12 inch reel in plastic. A dub would later be spliced and edited into a special edition of Spotlight that would air on WRPI in a few weeks. The master tape would be carefully guarded and stored away. Never heard again in its entirety... until now.
But Tommy wasn’t done with interviews that day. As Steve and Peter were saying good-bye, Art Connor was already on the line from Philadelphia. The Bolin Band would be rolling into town in just two weeks.
”Excuse me, what are you doing?” Art Conner was caught red handed. “I’m looking through your photo drawer,” Art replied sheepishly to David Fricke, editor of The Drummer, Philadelphia’s alternative music newspaper. Art had been swiping photos for months to beef up the music articles he was writing for the Philadelphia Community College student newspaper. The Drummer and the Student Vanguard shared the same printer, so Art would rifle Fricke’s photo stock whenever he thought no one was looking. But now he was caught, and he didn’t know what else to do except introduce himself. Fricke gave a forgiving smile. “Let me see what you’re working on.” Art gulped, and handed it over. “Not bad, not bad,” Fricke said after a quick critique. “Do you want to do some stringing for me?”
For the next several months, Fricke (who would later join Rolling Stone as Contributing Editor) would give record and concert review assignments to the budding music journalist, his first paying gig. “One night I was putting the college newspaper to bed, and I bumped into David. He said, ‘I’m glad I ran into you. I have an assignment for you.’ I thought it was just another record review or something. “How would you like to do an interview?” I said, “Sure, who do you have?” And he said, “Tommy Bolin.” I couldn’t believe it, because I was a huge fan all the way back to when he played with The James Gang.” Fricke had already interviewed Tommy for The Drummer when Purple played Philly in January. “Didn’t you just do this?” Art asked. “Yeah, but this is a different slant now. He has a solo thing going. I want you to do it from a different perspective, because my interview was more Deep Purple oriented.” Fricke worked with Columbia to set up the interview, and now Art sat nervously in his mothers bedroom waiting for the phone to ring. His trusty cassette recorder with a suction cup patch cord all ready to go. “To this day I still cringe at the first three minutes of that interview because I was so nervous. But then I became quite at ease because he was so easy to talk to. I think he realized I was a fan, and I wasn’t going to ask dumb questions.”
Even though he had just finished a lengthy interview, there was no shortage of fresh stories. Tommy revealed that the original title for the new album was supposed to be Whips and Roses. (Sound familiar, GNR fans?) As usual, he was way ahead of his time. But there was also an embarrassing solicitation for drugs. “If you listen to the tape, I was shocked. And at first I really... and you’ll have to excuse my young ignorance, I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about. But when I realized what it was, I just kind of played along. People have asked me about Tommy’s state of mind during the interview. As you can hear, he was very alert, very attentive, and very articulate. So what was happening in his private life, no one really knows.”
Later that night back at the Palace, The Tommy Bolin Band played a 41 minute set.
Through ups and downs, the Private Eyes tour rolled on. Tommy’s personal problems began to pile up. The album wasn’t selling up to expectations. There was an uneasy feeling that Columbia was beginning to lose enthusiasm. The band missed confirmed tour dates. Sometimes weather was a problem. Other times, it was too much partying. After another disastrous show in Cleveland, the band began to disintegrate. One of the two remaining original members, keyboardist Mark Stein turned in his notice. Tommy called an old friend, Max Gronenthal to join the band. Soon after, the most stabilizing influence, his brother John, left as well. Norma Bell had been critical of his drumming, and Johnnie had written his brother a deeply personal, and heartfelt letter explaining why he had to leave.
“[Bass Player] Jimmy Haslip was a student of Jaco Pastorius. He was really an advanced player. At 22, I was a good drummer, but when he started playing, I could only play straight 4/4 time because you can’t keep up with the guy. He’s way further advanced than I was. Norma was so used to playing with great drummers like Michael Walden and before that she would play with Frank Zappa’s band. Nothing was wrong with my drumming, but it wasn’t as advanced as some of the drummers she had played with. I think that’s what she was used to listening to, and I think that’s where the parting happened. If you listen to any of the tapes, I’m right in the pocket, and everything is fine. She might have wanted to hear more of whatever she heard before, which was Michael Walden. That’s when Mark Craney got involved. I don’t know what she thought of his drumming, but he’s a great drummer.”
With the two new members on board, the band got a short break in early November. Tommy headed home to L.A.
23 year old Randy Rosenberg was an enthusiastic announcer for radio station KQHU in Yankton, South Dakota, only a few miles from Tommy’s hometown of Sioux City, Iowa. Randy was very happy with his job. He originally wanted to go to broadcasting school, but was unable to afford tuition. So he taught himself the basics while on the job, and was proud that he had worked his way up from several very small stations to this 100-thousand watt FM rocker. Randy had fallen in love with Tommy’s playing after receiving a promo copy of Private Eyes from Columbia. “Bustin’ Out for Rosie” and “Post Toastee” played heavily on the station’s rotation. The big homecoming concert at the Sioux City Auditorium was only 11 days away, and KQHU was a sponsor. When Columbia called offering an interview, Randy jumped at the chance. On the afternoon of November 11th, Tommy dialed the radio station from his home in Los Angeles.
(Author’s note) A few months after interviewing Tommy, Randy’s bright radio career suddenly ended in a fatal car accident. For over 20 years, a box of production tapes sat unplayed in his mother’s attic. Unable to part with them, it was still too painful for the family to listen. I knew of the interview’s existence from an extremely poor copy given to me by Tommy’s mother and father. But I had no idea of Randy’s fate until I called some acquaintances at KQHU. “Does the tape still exist?” I asked. “Possibly,” was the reply. “His mother still lives in the small Minnesota town where Randy grew up. You might want to talk to her.”
Nervously, I dialed the number, not knowing what kind of reception I would get, and wondering how I would explain my interest in an interview her late son had done 20 years earlier. Without any hesitation, Mrs. Rosenberg promised to help. She and her daughter Robin began sifting through the large box of tapes, most of them unlabeled. “It just doesn’t seem to be here,” Robin told me after weeks of searching and listening to every one of the reels. I knew it was a longshot at best, so after thanking them profusely, I resigned myself that it was a lost cause. But a few days later, I got an excited call from Robin with one of the strangest, most erie stories you’ll ever hear. “I had been going through the box of reels and not finding anything that resembled an interview. And I would talk to Randy, “Randy, help me. Help me find this tape. This is important.” Last night, my husband and I were awakened by a loud crash in our bedroom. For no apparent reason, a curtain rod had fallen from a tightly shut window, striking a table and knocking off its removable top. I turned on the light and gasped. Inside the storage space was an old box that we had taken from my mom’s attic and forgotten about. Inside the box were more of Randy’s reel-to-reels. The second tape we looked at was labeled, “Interview: Tommy Bolin.” “Thank you, Randy, Thank you!,” I said over and over, because I firmly believe he led me to the tape.”
November 19th, 1976. Davenport, Iowa.
The Private Eyes tour was winding down. The weather was miserable. Only one more show, and Tommy was going home to Sioux City. But he had been grounded in Chicago, and missed the afternoon sound and light check at the Orpheum RKO Theater in downtown Davenport. He was tired, and he was in a nasty mood. The scene was set for the tour’s ugliest moment to date. The events were so startling and bizarre that promoter John Strader recalls every remarkable detail. “In 1974 I became a promoter, and by 1976 I was co-promoting shows we did with Tommy Bolin. The name of my company was Good Times Productions. We were trying to do a winter tour with Pure Prarie League as the headlining act. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils were also on board along with The Tommy Bolin Band. However the acts changed from night to night. We were supposed to do five concerts with Tommy, including one two nights earlier at the Bradley Fieldhouse in Peoria, Illinois. He blew that off. Basically, that whole mini-tour ended up being a fiasco because of the weather. We got early snows that year that wreaked havoc with airplanes and airports, and the actual show lineup that night in Davenport wound up being just Pure Prarie League (with Vince Gill on vocals) and Tommy Bolin. We had the show set for a 2:00 sound and light check which Tommy didn’t make. We didn’t even know if he was going to make the show or not. Some of Tommy’s crew was there, so we just kind of guessed what he would have wanted for his setup. Tommy finally showed up at about 6:30. He made a pass through the theater with a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand.
We had a real nice food and beverage setup. It was basically a midwest Thanksgiving feast that my girlfriend, my sister, my mother, and my grandmother had cooked and baked for several days for all the bands and their crews. Tommy came in with some friends and wanted something to eat. My girlfriend Susan, (later my wife), was serving up food and drinks for everyone backstage. Tommy came along and decided to serve himself. Rather than use utensils and plates, Tommy decided to sample the food with his hands and he grabbed a handful of potato salad. He started to chew, and I guess he decided he didn’t like it. He took the bowl of potato salad and threw it on the floor. My girlfriend was rather aghast at this. She didn’t even know who he was. Thinking he was one of the sound crew, she said, “Hey, look. If you’re going to eat, then you’ll eat like a human being. If you want to eat like an animal, you can go to the dumpster in the back alley!” This infuriated Tommy, who was not the largest person in the world. My girlfriend was 5'10". She worked security at a large mental institution in Illinois, so she knew how to handle herself. Tommy took a swing at her. She grabbed him and basically put him down on the floor. I was up front in the ticket booth, and one of the backstage people came up and said, “John, there’s a problem with Tommy.” Since he had already blown off the Bradley Fieldhouse show in Peoria two nights before, I was real eager to talk to him anyway. I walked backstage and found Tommy being held by one of his roadies and his road manager, who had him pinned up against a stack of equipment. Susan was furious saying, “He hit me, he hit me!” Tommy wasn’t the same Tommy I had met a few years ago. He still had control of his musical abilities, but he had no control over his personal life. I said, “Okay. Besides apologizing to my girlfriend and everyone back here, YOU are going to clean up this mess. “I AM NOT. I’M TOMMY BOLIN!!!” I said, “I don’t care. You made the mess, you clean it up. My girlfriend isn’t. Neither is my sister, or my mother.” I don’t know who actually cleaned up the mess, I think it was one of his roadies. Tommy stormed out. I didn’t think we would see him again.
The sold out show was scheduled to begin at 8:00. 3,500 people, and I have no opening act. At 8:20 Tommy rolls in. He grabs his guitar. He goes out on stage and starts playing. No introduction, no nothing. Just BOOM! Right into Post Toastee. The guitar work was terrific. I’m thinking to myself, “Tommy, you can’t possibly play as wasted as you are.” If I had any other choices in the world I would not have allowed him to go on. He did a 15 minute version of “Post Toastee” that was absolutely unbelievable. Even though I was extremely bummed out, for 5 minutes I stood transfixed out in the audience. I couldn’t believe how great he was. I remember the look of pure shock on the faces of his backup musicians. They just fell in with him and started playing. Tommy played non-stop for and hour and 20 minutes. No breaks. No, “Okay thank you very much and here’s my next song.” I mean he just kept playing and playing and playing. It was now 10:00. Pure Prarie League was still sitting in the wings. I had to unplug him literally. His road manager and a couple of roadies came out and grabbed him... “Thank you very much, we’ll see you.” And that was the end of his Davenport, Iowa appearance. I never wanted to tell anyone this story, because the way he died so sickened me, I didn’t want people to remember him that way. Of all the bands I promoted, he was singularly the most talented individual.”
But the frenzied release of emotions during the concert seemed to have a cathartic effect on Tommy. The frustration and the rage were gone. The personal and business problems at least temporarily forgotten. Waiting backstage in Tommy’s dressing room was KFMH radio news director Alan Jahnke. Jahnke and Strader were close friends, and John had made sure Alan was escorted backstage for an interview. “My wife and I were in the third row front and center, and I remember saying to her, ‘I’m so glad to be here seeing Tommy Bolin in a smaller intimate situation, because I can tell after tonight he’ll be headlining big, big venues in three to six months. It’s so nice to see him before he becomes a huge superstar.’”
Sunday, November 21, 1976. Sioux City, Iowa.
When The Tommy Bolin Band swaggered into the Hilton Hotel, the locals weren’t accustomed to seeing bonafide rock stars in their midst. Tommy was surrounded by old friends, and the entourage began to lay siege to the bar. That little black cloud of bad luck was still hanging around, and soon a ruckus broke out. A security guard smelled the odor of pot inside one of the elevators. Although he had no proof who was responsible, he declared that no more drinks could be charged to room numbers. This was a nightmare for Tommy, who didn’t want to be embarrassed in his hometown. As he started to protest, he was interrupted by the bar’s stunning blonde deejay. “Put all the drinks on my tab,” Gina Maniscalco said firmly to the bartender. Tommy looked at her. Gina smiled back. A cheer went up from the entourage.
Gina was a hard working student at Sioux City’s Briar Cliff College. Besides her part time announcing job at KMNS/KSEZ radio, she also worked weekends as a deejay at the hotel bar. “It was a great job. I got to pick out and buy all the latest music. And best of all I had a clothing allowance that let me buy things that I never would have been able to afford while I was still in school.” Gina didn’t know it, but she was about to experience the biggest emotional roller coaster of her life. Although she was engaged to be married, she would fall head over heels for a rock star, and become nationally known as the last reporter to interview Tommy Bolin.
”We spent three days together. He was a perfect gentleman in every way. I found him terribly attractive, which was not a good thing, because I was about to be married in only a few days. We saw each other as much as we could. What I find hard to understand is that I saw no evidence of drug use. He was perfectly sober the whole time I was with him.” Meanwhile, The Tommy Bolin Band played a great homecoming concert at the Sioux City Auditorium. Johnnie played for the opening act, “DVC”
Gina begged Tommy for an interview, so the next day she appeared at his room accompanied by KMNS announcer Mel Nelson, and the station engineer. A local record store had already agreed to sponsor the interview, which was recorded in brief segments that were dropped in during the stations commercial breaks. The raw interview was dubbed to cassette, and saved by Gina as a souvenir.
”Why are you doing this to me in my home town?” Tommy screamed into the phone. When the band tried to check out of the Hilton, each heading their own way for Thanksgiving, all the luggage and equipment had been confiscated. The hotel bill hadn’t been paid. “Isn’t this what I pay you for?” Tommy railed against his manager Barry Fey. “Why do I have to take care of everything myself?” Tommy believed that his manager had embarrassed him on purpose. “I’ve got to get away from everything for a few days,” he told his Mom and Dad.
On Friday, November 26, Tommy’s family drove him to the Sioux City airport with a one way ticket to Miami. After a few days of vacation, the rest of the band would join up for a series of 15 concerts opening for Jeff Beck. He was feeling optimistic again, and bragged to his parents about plans for an upcoming tour with Fleetwood Mac, and a studio date for a new album in March.
Tommy’s youngest brother Rick saw through the bluster. “I had a very weird feeling that I might not ever see him again. I used a line from a Jimi Hendrix song that I knew he would recognize. “If I don’t see you no more in this world, I’ll see you in the next, and don’t be late.” Tommy hugged his brother good-bye and said, “I’m never late.”
“Gina, you’d better come in here and sit down.” KMNS News Director Jim Roberts pulled out a chair. Gina had just returned to Sioux City from her honeymoon. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Tommy Bolin is dead. He died over the weekend.” “I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it because like I said, the whole time I spent with him I saw no evidence of anything like that going on. I called Mrs. Bolin, who invited me over to the house. It was full of people but when she saw me she broke down in tears and threw her arms around me. After a while she began introducing me to everyone in the room like I was some kind of star. After that I sort of became the family spokesperson for any media that called. One of them even did an article on me as the last reporter to interview Tommy Bolin.”
Postscript. June 11, 1994.
My friend Rick Bolin was very sick. After the death of his parents, it seemed like he had given up on life, and the only refuge he knew was in a bottle. I watched helplessly as my funny and intelligent friend became sicker and sicker. But I was moving to the East Coast. I had a new job, and I knew I wasn’t going to be back in Sioux City for some time. On the day before I was to leave, I stopped over to say good-bye to John and Rick. “Pudge, you take care of yourself, Okay?” Rick gathered himself up and surprised me with a big bear hug. After a moment he looked me in the eye and slowly said, “If I don’t see you no more in this world, I’ll see you in the next, and don’t be late!” My throat swelled, and I fought back tears. “I’m never late” was my only reply.
Rick Bolin passed away on August 23, 1994.
This project is dedicated to the memory of my dear friends Rich, Barb and Rick Bolin; and Randy Rosenberg.
Special thanks to Johnnie Bolin, Mike Drumm and all at The Archives, Steve and Martha Carrellas, Peter Kmetz, Art Connor, Mrs. Joyce Rosenberg, Alan Jahnke, John Strader, Gina Maniscalco, Tim and Teri Martin, Max “The Troubador” Carr, Colin Hesketh, Bobby Bolin (who I haven’t met yet), and all my friends in Sioux City.