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BY PUMA PERL | Tom Clark’s Lower East Side apartment contains all of the accouterments you’d expect from a musician: guitars, vinyl, amps, posters, and a candy dish filled with freshly baked cookies. Well, that’s what you’d expect from Clark. The hometown boy from DeKalb, Illinois, renowned for his all-night Thanksgiving dinners and jam sessions, is a former Brooklyn neighbor of “The Basketball Diaries” author Jim Carroll, current ringmaster of the Treehouse, and a guy who lives for music.
You don’t hear many stories like his these days. We no longer live in the city that drew small town kids in from the cornfields. “What brought culture to DeKalb,” he said, “was Northern Illinois University. The first real show I saw was there. The Ramones. I was about 13 and blown away. I’d never even smelled marijuana before. I was already in a band and we started doing Sex Pistols songs after that but we were too young to be angry about anything.”
Some friends had moved to New York and he wanted to join them. He sought the counsel of a favorite musician, Marshall Crenshaw. “It was the first and only fan letter I ever wrote,” Clark recalled, who still has the letter in which Crenshaw advised him to “Go for it.”
In 1986, at the height of the crack epidemic, he and his two friends found an apartment on 103rd St. and Manhattan Ave. “Every morning I’d walk all the way Downtown because I couldn’t afford the 90 cent subway fare. I’d play in Washington Square Park and on the street.” One day, the owner of Astor Place Hairstylists asked him to play in the shop, taking requests from customers. “I played eight hours a day, seven days a week, for 20 dollars a day plus tips, and looked for gigs at night.” Even after finding gigs three or four nights weekly, he kept to that schedule. He was eventually signed by EMI, befriended by Lenny Kaye (who was designated to produce the album), began opening regularly for Patti Smith, and, through all sorts of divine coincidences, worked closely with Jeff Buckley, Hank Wedel, and many more, most of whom became friends. Including Marshall Crenshaw.
“Every day I worked so hard and long, that when I got home I didn’t even want to touch a guitar. I love Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Eddie Cochran, but I realized I’d been listening only to guys who’d been dead for 30 years or more.” A chance meeting with Kevn Kinney, whom he describes as “one of the top five greatest songwriters in the world” led to an invitation to play shows across the South, a collaboration that “put the wind back in my sails.”
Back in New York, he began frequenting the bar 2A and eventually started a Sunday night venue on the upper floor. July 10, 2011 saw the debut of the Treehouse. Ivan Julian, Lenny Kaye, Andy Shernoff, Kevn Kinney and Clark all played that night. “I love the bands that play here. I never leave the soundboard and the Treehouse has really great sound. I love that it brings people together; bands and friendships have formed here. Some of the regulars should be superstars, like Monica Passin aka Li’l Mo. She’s played here more than I have, and she produces incredible shows. Emily Duff is another great one. I try to make everyone feel like superstars because when they’re here they are my stars.”
The love is returned. As per Li’l Mo, “In addition to the monthly Field of Stars (a songwriter’s circle) I came up with The Great Harmony Swap, a show so big I do it only once or twice a year. I couldn’t be more grateful to Tom for these opportunities. He has been my champion for years now. He is a champion.” Added Emily Duff, “Tom curates the best music night in NYC. I fell madly in love with him the moment I met him because he embodies everything that I love about this stupid city and rock and roll: He’s up all night and never satisfied.” Andrea Kleiman, a regular attendee, knows why people keep coming back. “Tom greets everyone as if you were walking into his home. Every Sunday Tom has a new surprise waiting, from regulars who play often to bands I never heard of. It’s an eclectic mix that never disappoints.”
One January Sunday I was introduced to the PI Power Trio, led by guitarist Pat Irwin, a seminal part of the No Wave scene and a touring member of The B-52s. Drummer Sasha Dobson and bassist Daria Grace complete the trio. After a rock and roll set that blended instrumental tradition with their special brand of power, Irwin announced that he looked forward to the next set, the Velveeta Underground, a bluegrass band that plays Velvet Underground covers. This sounded either incredibly awful or really awesome. It turned out to be the latter. The six-piece band features “Thirsty” Dave Hansen and The Crusty Gentlemen and consists of lap steel, upright bass, two guitars, banjo, and percussion. They describe themselves as what would happen “if Andy Warhol had taken the Velvet Underground’s ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ show to the Grand Ole Opry.” The following week, I returned for The Great Harmony Swap, the theme of which was musicals, ranging from “Purple Rain” to “The Sound of Music.” Over 35 musicians were curated and directed by Li’l Mo. My favorite of these amazingly authentic events was “Summer of Love: Songs of 1967.” Complete with bell-bottoms and Afros, you’d swear you smelled incense as you listened to Jimi Hendrix songs.
Some of Clark’s favorite Treehouse memories include The Animals’ guitarist Hilton Valentine and his eight-piece skiffle band, and Dave Davies of the Kinks in the audience for the first Spoonful of Lovin’ night, a Lovin’ Spoonful tribute that included Craig Chesler, Clark, Dennis Diken, Sal Maida, Andy Riedel, and C.P. Roth. His stories take you to Patti Smith’s house when she told him she loved his band, The High Action Boys, and to the recording studio, with Jeff Buckley laying down harmonies under Lenny Kaye’s direction. The most vivid was a November morning, right after Thanksgiving. His mom, visiting from DeKalb, was resting on the couch when Jim Carroll, wearing an Elvis T-shirt, stopped in. The sun was streaming down. They chatted for a long time. She had no idea who Jim was, but said he seemed like a very nice boy. “Jim just wanted to talk to a mom, and in my opinion my mom was a bigger rock star than I’ll ever be.”
And future memories? “I’m really sentimental about my hometown and would love to do a record about it. And I have about one day’s work to finish the record I started 10 years ago. It will definitely be out by the fall.” A lot to look back on, and even more to come.
Tom Clark presents the Treehouse upstairs at 2A (25 Ave. A at Second St.) every Sunday, 8:30pm–?. Live music, no admission or cover, 21+. Feb. 18, featured performers include Azro Cady and The PI Power Trio. For info and booking inquiries, visit facebook.com/treehouseat2A.