Tom & Donny, Head for Potatoes

I will get to the title in a wee bit, it’s worth the wait (sort of). I first met Bill Rieflin very briefly at Southern Studios in 1987, the day I also met Al Jourgenson and Paul Barker. But it was not until later that year, in the summer when I was staying at Julia Nash’s apartment in rehearsals for the (Rieflin-titled) “YOU GODDAM SON OF A BITCH” double live album by the Revolting Cocks that our friendship began. He was at the kitchen table, and though we did not know each other, we started talking as if we were picking up a conversation we had finished earlier. It was about, of all things, the experimental band THIS HEAT. I just blithely assumed that everyone knew this band that I adored, and, well, it seems I was right. We even discussed THIS HEAT bootlegs, then moved on to more general matters, like JOHN GREAVES, bass player from HENRY COW, like you do…

I cannot say that I had no idea we would have a musical relationship that would stretch over three decades—I knew right then that we would. A deep, close friendship that was as easy as it was fun, goofy and inspiring.

In the context of Ministry and Revolting Cocks, Bill was vital: not only as a calm voice of reason, but as an innovator, a catalyst during impasse and a calming presence in the eye of a frequent storm. If it was not for him, I probably would have become a drug addict. He reminded me, without ever saying anything, that the CREATIVE part was always the FUN part, and if it did not seem like fun, we could make it fun. And he did, and we did. Bill taught me how to look at the creative process not as a lateral story with a beginning middle and end; he taught me to ask questions OF the process, he taught me dynamic, when to make it loud, and when to remain silent. He also knew how to bring humour into any given situation.

When we were in rehearsals for “THE MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO TASTE” in 1989, we were sitting at Paul Barker’s living room table as he patiently taught me the keyboards to the song “DEITY” which was part of the live set. Rewinding the cassette over and over, we became very curious about the opening line Al sings in the song (which is, in fact, “eyes open, empty as halos”, but we didn’t know that, and Al was not there to ask). We decided that the opening line was, in fact, “TOM & DONNY, HEAD FOR POTATOES”, thus, the creation of our alter egos: TOM & DONNY. We never really decided who was Tom and who was Donny; they were kind of a singular entity for any and all hi jinx that may ensue.

As time passed, it became clear that our musical partnership could not be contained simply within the confines of Ministry, The Cocks and the numerous other projects it spawned. Things started to gain more of a shape for us with my first solo album in 1990, “WHIPLASH BOYCHILD”, on which Bill contributed so much, but I think the defining moment was the song “THE LAST OF JOY” which started as a beautiful piano melody he had written, to which I wrote some words. It was Bill’s idea to put some “crackles” on it: scratchy record crackles… so we went to the local Salvation Army (on Halsted Street), bought the first 78 record we saw (polkas!) and took it back to the studio, playing this record that looked like it had been dragged across a construction site by a dog on the studio’s own VERY high-end turntable, all in the name of art, it sounded perfect. It was at this time that I introduced Bill to the music of SCOTT WALKER when I asked him to learn “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” (from the album SCOTT 2) with a view to putting it on “Whiplash”. This would become an obsession for the two of us.

Bill was there to coach me through relationships, hardships and breakups; he never judged, he listened, his patience with me immeasurable. He taught me things about music theory to help me compose, he gave me more eureka moments than I can remember, he taught me to own what I did, be proud of how I created, and he also took ideas and cast them in his own brilliant light, yielding some of my proudest compositional co-writes.

The two works that stand out to me are SHIPWRECK and LARGO. Both very different records, but both an amazing adventure in creativity from beginning to end. SHIPWRECK was a band effort, though most of the compositions were mine, we booked two straight weeks for rehearsals and preproduction before setting foot in the studio. The work was hard, but it was not like a Ministry record; it never got frustrating. The days were long, but they were filled with what you wanted to be doing, and everyone walked out of that studio so proud of what we had done. That record still stands up today, and I still get amazing compliments about it.

LARGO was born out of SHIPWRECK in a way, if circuitously, after a disastrous tour for SHIPWRECK (not because of the band or the music, just stupid record company and booking agency crap, the usual). We scurried home to lick our wounds and I was at an impasse, the music business was changing, my record company was in decline because of the heartbreaking demise of its founder, Jim Nash. Bill invited me out to Seattle to write, and LARGO was born. Hilariously though, his intention, and ergo mine, was to make this brilliantly polished pop record… if you have heard LARGO, you will understand that whatever our intentions at the outset, this is not what happened. The title track clocks in at about 50 BPM and is around 8 minutes long, a sedate meditation of disquiet on guitar and piano. It was almost as if we were determined to anger any Ministry fans with no attention span as much as we could. But, as with everything, we had no intentions of anything; if we had set off to write a slapstick comedy script for a movie, then, LARGO would have come out the other end as it was: stoic, austere, challenging and beautiful.

We spent weeks in Bill’s parents’ house with an upright piano and my guitar. We made exquisite corpses with chords and with words: there were days when it was harder, there were days of ferocious creativity, but all these sounds seemed to grow organically through us from this absolute silence. We wrote the album and we would not record it for a while: I left it to Bill to mix, because it’s not my thing, and I KNEW that he KNEW that it would be incredible.

During the composition and the recording of this, I stayed with him and his wife, Francesca. These were wonderful times, games, talks, long dinners, long walks that almost persuaded me to move to Seattle.

Things changed for us: we both became involved in other projects, our friendship remained strong and involved. He would continue to help me out with my records here and there, and he would come passing through with bands he was playing with: KMFDM and then R.E.M. and eventually KING CRIMSON.

The hardest thing for me was how his illness made it progressively harder for him to play until he could not do it. We resolved, some time last year, that I would come out and we would write, unfortunately his fatigue from fighting and from chemo and his pain made this impossible. But we talked when he was up for it: we talked about the records we loved, we talked about MOTT THE HOOPLE and ROXY MUSIC. He still laughed, he still put on his silly voices and made me laugh, his sarcasm and cynicism were, as always, on point as was his love for me, and mine for him.

Bill recognized something in me and not only did he bring it out, but he embellished it, as I think I saw in him too. I LOVE that we got to make this beautiful music together, and I am so grateful that this happened in my life. I am heartbroken that I will not get to do it with him again, but I still have the gifts he gave me that I use in my creative process every day. What a beautiful, kindhearted soul.