Tom Heyman photo by Lauren Tabak
Tom Heyman’s San Francisco Community Inspired The Album + Book 24th Street Blues
Tom Heyman will be releasing his book and music album combination, 24th Street Blues, on October 6th, 2023, via Bohemian Neglect. The 60-page book is a collaboration with his wife, the painter and illustrator Deirdre F. White, with an illustration for each song alongside lyrics and musical notation. It’s the first time Heyman has branched out in this way, but it was a unique idea that occurred to him long before the pandemic period and then made use of the intervening time. For his sixth solo album, Heyman, who is also a side-man guitarist and pedal steel player (John Doe, Alejandro Escovedo, Chuck Prophet, Penelope Houston, Roy Loney, Hiss Golden Messenger, Sonny Smith and Kelley Stoltz), enlisted Mike Coykendall (M. Ward ) to produce and Scott Hirsch (Hiss Golden Messenger) to mix.
Having held back on releasing music during the tumultuous last few years, Heyman is now ready to show the world this new set of songs and the evocative paintings created by White as part of the album experience. As the title hints, the collection of songs has a particular regional feeling, drawing on Heyman’s many years of living in San Francisco and watching the march of change. It’s a celebration of the things that make the place unique, but also a lament for inequalities, for declines, and for the human denizens of the place encountering the wider world’s problems. Heyman himself has a core musical community that keeps him firmly planted there, and through the connections that he’s made and the places that bring people together, he continues to find inspiration. I spoke with Tom Heyman about his musical community, changing times, and the move to create the special multi-media project 24th Street Blues.
Americana Highways: You’re capturing so much of your experience living in the Bay Area by creating these stories and working them into songs.
Tom Heyman: I feel like I’m super-lucky. I work at a bar. I’m well past my sell-by date on that, and should probably do something else, but it’s hard to put a price tag on working at a place that’s only a little over a mile from my house. My wife teaches at San Francisco City College and UC Davis, where she teaches painting and drawing. Her commute to Davis is just under 70 miles. It’s only two days a week but it’s a lot. Instructors are all highway warriors, and thank God I don’t have to do that.
AH: I’ve worked from home for many years now and that was a goal, so I get it.
TH: The grind can really wear you out.
AH: It’s physically and mentally intense, and people don’t even realize the toll that it takes, especially over time.
TH: I’m in my 25th year in San Francisco, and I feel like I don’t know where the time went. I was touring with various bands and everything in my life has been around that, but of course things change. I see things getting congested. You’ll see businesses you love disappear. Change is the only constant. I have to keep reminding myself of that. The internet just accelerated that.
AH: It’s only going to get faster, I bet. Has the music scene changed for you in San Francisco over time?
TH: The bar where I work is called The Makeout Room and there’s a musical community around it. It’s astonishing. The range of people that have worked there is extreme. A lot of them are people who I’ve played with, but when people are off the road, they can get some work there. I would go on tour and need someone to cover for me. Mike Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger and Scott Hirsch were people I played in The Court & Spark with. Mike would work the door for me when I was on the road. Sonny Smith took over my shift for a while. Kelly Stoltz, who’s a Garage Rock auteur, and was auxiliary with Echo and the Bunnymen, washed dishes in the bar. It was just a thing. It’s a place that’s really, really open.
It’s a venue, as well, so I host a music night there one night a month called The Sad Bastard Club, and I have a whole series of videos that we shot there during the pandemic with Peter Case and Kelly. That part of the community is awesome. The music community in San Francisco is pretty great, but it’s a tough place to be in a band because everybody is in everybody else’s band. Rehearsal spaces tend to disappear, like everywhere, and people get spread out. If you live in the East Bay, you don’t really want to come to San Francisco to rehearse. But people do.
I don’t imagine it’s any tougher to be in a band here than in New York, except New York may have more venues. There’s some attrition of venues here. The important thing for me is that I’m dug fairly deeply into a certain part of the community and that’s awesome. I know who to call if I need a sub on a gig. There’s a bunch of studio that, strangely, are still operating, and I know a bunch of those people. That’s the upside.
AH: I can hear that it’s had a major impact on your life and that makes it special. A lot of people can’t find a community.
TH: It’s one of the reasons that I stay. The idea of having to start over somewhere else is daunting. San Francisco is amazing on a lot of levels with people managing to keep doing their thing. It’s increasingly tough to do that anywhere today. When I was a young person, my sole entertainment was going to see bands, and I’d never miss the opening band, because maybe they’d be good! On Friday or Saturday night, I was either playing a gig or seeing a band. That’s a little different now. There’s a range of things to do. Peoples’ attentions are pulled a lot of different ways. It’s weird to be in the midst of change.
AH: I think the internet has a lot to do with that, because there’s so much, and everything is free, in a way.
TH: You’re not seeing the money you’re spending. It’s extracted from your virtual wallet. The idea of exchanging money for something someone is doing seems foreign unless it’s a huge event, like a Taylor Swift concert. Music is an event type of thing now. Yet people who want to do it will keep doing it even if they don’t get paid.
I was having a discussion with my 19 year old nephew who’s a massive consumer of music and that’s the coolest thing to see. I was trying to explain to him, “Dude, I don’t have the bandwidth anymore. I’m three times your age and I’ve listened to so much stuff that it’s really difficult to consume music the way that I used to.” I consider myself an “artist” because I write and sing my own material, but I also have a kind of career as a side-person playing guitar or pedal steel. So I have whole discographies of other peoples’ music in my head and it’s hard to offload.
AH: [Laughs] You must have the most giant mental library! That is so true. You have played with so many bands.
TH: There was a time when I was a kid, and even into my 30s, where I could disappear into music, like reading a novel. I’m still constantly trying to access that part of myself where I can disappear into music where I would listen to both side A and side B, and have to lift the needle. I want to listen to things the way that I did when I was a child.
AH: Is there specific older music that you still connect with in that way?
TH: Music is the only thing that has a cathartic effect on me. If I hear certain songs from certain writers, it has the same affect on me over and over again. I’m devoted to certain songwriters. I’ll hear a song by Steve Young, Warren Zevon, or Gordon Lightfoot, and other folks, where it gave you goosebumps the first time you heard it, or made you clench up inside. And it still has that affect on me. The buzz that you get from that is so stunning. Whenever that happens, I’m really happy about it.
AH: That’s so needed in life.
TH: We do live in this world now where it takes a lot of power of will to force yourself not to consume so much media. That can kind of dull your senses or shut your pathways down a little bit. You need to sit quietly and try to listen to something. It takes a little more time to affect me than it once did.
AH: It’s almost like you have to go through a decontamination period.
TH: Yes! It’s that way, the pull of our phones and laptops is pretty powerful. There are good aspects. I’m not ashamed to say that I have Spotify on my phone and if you think of a song you want to hear, there it is. You can get your hit, but it’s a trade-off.
AH: Is it a given that you’re always working on new music, and you’re always going to do more?
TH: Yes, I’m always going to do more. I’m such a throwback that I can’t even give up the idea of the way that an album works together.
AH: I think there are still some album-oriented people out there.
TH: I think of it that way. I ask, “What is the next thing I’m going to do?” I have songs written, but I break the songwriting world down into two kinds of people. This is really reductive, but there are people who just write constantly and are insanely prolific. I’m not one of those people, and it takes me a long time. It goes in spurts. But my songs tend to come out with a thread that sticks things together. I don’t tend to have songs that I like but haven’t recorded because it doesn’t fit what I was doing at the time. I don’t write ten songs to save two. I write twelve songs to save ten of them. But it’s whatever works for people. I’m also an epic procrastinator! That’s my cross to bear. I’m thinking about the next one, and I’ll get going on it.
My wife’s work ethic with painting is crazy. For the first time in many years, she didn’t teach a summer session, and she has a studio down the street in a building that’s kind of famed in San Francisco. When she had the summer off, she put herself on a schedule of painting five days a week. My method of working is just to think about things a lot and eventually get to it. She just says you have to do the work, and constantly do the work. It’s a little different when there’s a performance aspect, and I really crave the performance aspect. It’s a little different wondering, “If no one even hears this song, does it exist?” You struggle with that.
AH: I certainly struggle with that! It sucks the motivation right out of you to think that way.
TH: You have to shut that shit down! You just have to be delusional about it instead, thinking, “This is super-duper important!”
AH: Yes, you have to convince yourself before you can convince anyone else.
TH: The pandemic up-ended so many models of doing things that bad stuff got thrown out, and some good stuff disappeared, and now I feel like everyone is trying to play catch up. The landscape has been altered and we have to try to find a way to adapt.
AH: I’m shocked by how the waves and effects are still hitting the shore in music. The amount of music that has been created in the past few years and still needs to be released is huge. This summer, particularly, is intense for releases.
TH: I see it. This record was one where I got the final mixes on March 11th, 2020, and three days later the world shut down. I’m perfectly capable of fucking up my own releases rather than giving it to someone else, so I had an idea about how I wanted to do things. I watched my friends who were on labels with release schedules. Releases got pushed twice, and couldn’t be pushed out a third time. People released records into a place where they couldn’t go out and support them. It wasn’t awesome. I didn’t need to do that.
I also had this idea that I wanted to do this different thing, this book, and I went all-in on it. I didn’t want to do just a lyrics and illustration book. I had had some lyrics published in an acoustic guitar magazine and thought it looked great on the printed page, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll make a book of this, and I’ll collaborate with my wife.” We wanted to make a unique product. We went further and included proper musical notation. When I was a kid, I would buy the music book of the album if I wanted to learn how to play it on my guitar, like Neil Young’s Harvest. It looks like the album, and you open it up, and there’s the music, and all the words.
I thought I could do something like that. There were a lot of stumbling blocks along the way, but with some help, I figured out how to do it. And I didn’t need to release that into the void. I wanted to wait until things opened up again.
Thanks very much for speaking with us, Tom Heyman. Find more details on his website here: http://www.tomheymanmusic.net/