FOOTLOOSE & LAWLESS: THE TOMMY BOLIN INTERVIEW
CIRCUS MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 10, 1976
by Scott Cohen
Tommy Bolin is a raconteur, a natural tale-spinner. Mostly he likes to talk about being a rock & roll outlaw, although his stints with the James Gang and Deep Purple have to qualify him for some sort establishment. For the past year, Bolin’s main professional preoccupation, aside from his Purple stretch, has been with launching a solo career. Last winter’s Teaser (Nemperor) was a surprise success for Tommy when he returned to the States after playing Japan with the now-defunct Purple. Now, with an outfit of his own, he’s launched a major fall tour to support his second solo LP, Private Eyes, on Columbia. Bolin was readying his band in L.A. when Scott Cohen rang him up.
Circus: What was it like growing up in the Midwest?
Bolin: When you come from the Midwest, you have a more open mind than if you come from the West Coast or the East Coast. At that time you had vagrants, rich kids and everything. My family were all musicians. When I was five years old my father took us all to see Elvis. I had a leather jacket and combed my hair back. As I said, I’ve always been surrounded by music. That’s all I wanted to do. I really wasn’t interested in school or anything.
Circus: Do you remember your first guitar?
Bolin: I started off on Hawaiian Steel. I didn’t want to, but for some reason the guy said to start on Hawaiian steel. Mr. Flood was his name. He tuned the guitar to the E-ninth, which is the real Hawaiian, but I would never play it I’d always stand in front of the mirror at home and put on the records and pretend I was playing rock. Mr. Flood didn’t know Elvis. He liked Hawaiian music.
So I left that and started taking lessons from this lady, Mrs. Sullivan, who had an unbelievable collection of guitars. She had tons of them. And she was very country & western. I started off reading, and the first song I learned how to read was “On Top Of Ol’ Smokey,” but I thought, this isn’t it either. So then I went to an other place, the music store where all the bands hung-out, all my local heroes, but what they taught me wasn’t it either. Finally what happened was I started playing along on Rolling Stones records.
Circus: What did your parents think about your hair?
Bolin: When I first colored my hair, my mother loved it. She wanted to do it, but I said no. She works at a hospital, from eleven at night to seven in the morning, at a switchboard. I said that I didn’t think they’d appreciate her pink and green hair. I got kicked out of school when I was 15, just approaching 16 for my hair. I said, “Who’s complaining, which teacher” and he goes, “The teachers aren’t complaining, the kids are.” I said, “Okay, here’s what I’ll do: Before each class I’ll stand up in front of the room, and if one person objects, I’ll cut my hair.” But he said they didn’t do it that way. I remember the seniors cutting everybody’s hair but mine, because I would always hang-out with the seniors. The leader of the pack was a guy named Stan. Stan & Dan, twins. One was a hardcore “can’t- wait- to- get- into- the- army” guy. That was Dan. Stan was like a freak, a real freak, and a really good bass player.
Circus: What happened after you got kicked out of school?
Bolin: After they kicked me out of school, there wasn’t anything else for me to do back there. I can’t do anything but play guitar. So I moved to Denver and started a band there. We played the Family Dog. Luckily we got to play there every week.
One night someone from another band heard us play and asked me if I wanted to go to Cincinnati. So I went to Cincinnati. I played with Lonnie Mack. Everyone had a “Flying-V.” It was a neat place. But it got to the point where, let’s see, we played a lot in Louisville, Kentucky. I’d always go down a day earlier to see my friends. I went down and got there about two in the morning, at this restaurant. It was the only place open. I said, “Hey, does anyone know where I can crash?” Some guy goes, “Yeah, up the street,” so I went up and walked in the room and there was about 20 people lying on the floor, crashed out. I was so tired that I crashed out too.
It was about six in the morning and at 10:15 a.m. a cop with billy club was beating on the bottom of my feet. I was cold, tired and scared. I was 16. They checked us all, but found nothing. They arrested me for disturbing the peace. If they want to bust you, they’ll bust you. So I was supposed to play that night, but they wouldn’t let me make a phone call. Luckily one of the kids got out and called the club and this lady, who owned the club, bailed me out.
Circus: Have you been arrested often?
Bolin: I’ve got arrested for such weird things. When I left Sioux City, for instance, on my first plane ride me and this friend of mine, Rolland, who got kicked out of school the same time for having a pierced ear we were sitting the plane going to Denver and all of a sudden all these cop cars pulled up. I said to Rolland, “I don’t know why, but I think they’re coming for us.” What happened was, his mother found a quarter-pound of pot under his bed, but burnt it outside before the cops got there, so they didn’t have any evidence. So the stewardess said, “These gentlemen would like to see you.” So they handcuffed us and it was a big, big scene I was on the third floor and he was on the second of the police station. They asked me what kind of drugs I had and I said I didn’t have any. I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then I heard a scream, and I looked out the window and I saw Rolland running out of the building, down the alley, and nobody was chasing him. He got away, hung around downtown Sioux City for three days, hitch-hiked all the way to Seattle, and was there for three months. Then he called me and he goes, “I’m tired of being on the run,” so he hitch-hiked all the way back, went down and says, “I’m turning myself in.” So the guy goes, “I can’t find your record, could you come back tomorrow?” Me, they put on probation for the year! They said I didn’t break the law of the state. They said I broke the law of society for having my hair over my ears.
Then in Cincinnati, I was doing acid one night and it started to get light out and I was hitch-hiking and got as far as Junction City, Kansas. At that time my hair was down to here and I had a permanent. I just turned 17. I guess hitch-hiking was against the law in that state. The cop said to show him some I.D. I had eight I.D.s. This was four days after the other bust. We were sleeping under bridges. So I was down at the station for three days. They wouldn’t let me make any phone calls. They took me right to the judge. The judge said 30 days in jail. So I was in jail. You just piss all over the floor.
One cop felt sorry for me and called my parents. So they sent me down a bus ticket. At one o’clock the guy goes, “Okay, you can go your bus is leaving at 4 o’clock.” He didn’t cut my hair, nothing. So they call me out at two o’clock they knew I was dying to get out of there and they said the judge said I had to have my hair cut. I said I was leaving, I was leaving their fucking town, and he said it was either that or 30 days. So they cut my hair off for sanitation. They burned my clothes, cut my hair. I’d had a permanent, so I looked like a little poodle. I took a bus to Sioux City, hung around there, went to L.A., tried to get that band going and ended up pan-handling. The best money I made was pan-handling.
Circus: Do you remember when you smoked your first joint?
Bolin: My first joint I smoked on the stage of a place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I smoked my first joint live. The band was smoking it right on stage in this club, no one knew what it was.
Circus: Remember when you first got laid?
Bolin: The first time I got laid was with this chick whose mother used to work at night. She says, ”Come on over.” I think it was her first time too. Her dad was home, I had to sneak through the window. I was 14. I didn’t use a rubber. I never used rubbers. I found one once, used, and the looks grossed me out too much that I thought “no.”
Circus: Tell me about your first pizza.
Bolin: The first decent slice of pizza I remember was in the Village, across the street from the Village Gate. I tell you, there’s no fuckin’ place to get decent pizza out here [Los Angeles]. There aren’t enough Italians out here I guess. Even in New York, if you don’t get Sicilian, you get the thin pizza. I prefer the Sicilian, maybe because everybody I hang around with is Sicilian.
After they kicked me out of school, there was nothing for me to do. I can’t do anything but play guitar. Out here, if they make it, it’s all runny. If it’s a delivery or something, by the time they get to your house, if you live up a hill or something and there’s a bunch of turns, by the time it gets to your house, it all slides across. Maybe they use glue or something in New York.
Circus: Where would you go on a dream date?
Bolin: I wouldn’t go to a pizza place on a dream-date. I’d go someplace strange, like Russia, with somebody strange. I don’t know, awhile ago I was getting press that I was having an affair with Olivia Newton-John Now, I’ve never met her, so I guess my dream-date would be to meet Olivia Newton-John.
Circus: What was it like to be fairly successful with the James Gang?
Bolin: When I got to L.A. and was with the James Gang, I got the opportunity to write a lot, to play in front of large audiences, make some money, but it got to a point where I had to leave. The lead singer wanted to do something else, the drummer wanted to be an accountant, the bass player was sick of touring. Then I joined another band, then I took the year off to look for a lead singer, I spent money, and threw it away. Then I ran out of money. I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it myself,” and so I did. I got a contract and then I got an offer to play with Deep Purple.
Circus: Did you know their music very well when you joined them?
Bolin: I had heard two songs by Purple, “Smoke On the Water” and some other song. I don’t like English bands. They’re too structured. But when I’m with Purple, I’m totally with Purple; when I’m doing my thing, I’m totally doing my own thing.
Circus: Do you remember your most embarrassing moment?
Bolin: Once I was playing and moving around and I fell right on my back. Just straight on my back. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. Another time I was at the edge of the stage and I fell off. I remember the kids in the front row and the look of terror on their faces. I can’t see. I used to wear glasses off stage. Now I’m thinking of getting a pair of Mylar contract lenses.
Circus: How come Purple broke up?
Bolin: It was mainly a management thing, where a couple of people in the group were saying it was the fault of a couple of other people in the group. It’s a lot of bullshit. I guess what happened is that now Jon Lord and Ian Paice just did an album and David Coverdale is doing an album. It’s weird. Now I’m not too close to any of them, except for Glenn Hughes.
Since then I got together a band with Norma Bell, she’s a sax player who was with Stevie Wonder and Zappa before that; Reggie Mcbride, who was with Stevie for a long time; and Michael Walden and Mark Stein. The new album’s by far the best, best, best thing I’ve ever done.
Circus: So you’re pretty optimistic about the future?
Bolin: The only hassle I’m having right now is trying to find a fuckin’ house. I’m staying with Linda Blair. She’s doing “Exorcist II” in Connecticut and she’s letting me use her house. Everyone from New York’s moving out here, which is probably why it’s so hard to find a place. People from New York used to go to Miami the older ones now the younger ones are coming here. I guess that’s the difference between the generations.