H.T. “Tom” Brown, musician, record company veteran, producer, author and noted Frank Zappa expert, died in Culver City, California, on April 15, 2020. He was 73.
Brown is remembered by friends, co-workers and bandmates for his dedication to the music of Frank Zappa as fan and archivist, as well as for his own career as a drummer with surf bands and avant-garde rock ensembles.
He earned wide praise for his role as producer of the Frank Zappa “Beat the Boots” box sets for Rhino Entertainment in the early ’90s.
In addition, Brown was the author of two noteworthy memoirs, “Summer of Love, My Ass” (2011) and “Confessions of a ZAPPA Fanatic” (2013).
A stubborn individualist and free thinker, Brown was involved with various Southern California music scenes for half a century. He contributed as a bandmember, scholar and advocate for the artists and sounds he loved.
Friends remember Brown as passionate, opinionated and something of a curmudgeon. His skills as a storyteller, acute sense of humor and encyclopedic musical knowledge were among his defining qualities.
Brown’s idiosyncrasies included wearing shorts with over-the-calf white socks and running shoes even in the dead of winter.
Brown’s most frequent exclamatory catchphrases were “Goddamn!” and “Arf!” He didn’t fit easily into a conventional lifestyle – he lived out his principles and paid a high price for his integrity. He remained true to the authority-disdaining ideals of his youth and refused to apologize for living his life on his own terms.
Bellflower Boomer with Illusions
Harrell Thomas Brown was born on May 10, 1946, and grew up in Bellflower, a small agricultural-commercial city (including hay and dairy farms) with modest multi-ethnic residential neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles. It appears he was raised by his mother after his parents separated during his childhood, as the postwar Baby Boom led to tracts of inexpensive homes replacing the farms.
Brown attended Paramount High School and took up playing the drums as a teenager. He was 16 when he formed The Illusions with guitarist Larry Ellis and saxophone player Rick LoVetere in 1962.
The band practiced in Brown’s garage and developed a potent surf-rock instrumental sound that earned them extensive live work at teen dance clubs around the Los Angeles area.
Brown’s aggressive drum work anchored the band through near-constant gigging and membership changes.
The Illusions shared the stage with local luminaries including The Beach Boys and Dick Dale and served as the house band for the Lido Ballroom and the Cinnamon Cinder.
During their stint at the latter club, they backed up Ike & Tina Turner, Dick and Dee Dee and Johnny Fortune (among others) for a series of TV broadcasts.
The Illusions (who became the Frantic Illusions in 1964) released a series of 45’s on local labels, including “Earthquake,” “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo,” “Lido Stomp” and “Jezabel,” the 1951 Frankie Laine hit rearranged by Brown and his Illusions bandmate Bobby Mason as an aggro-surf rock instrumental.
TB’s First Zappa Freakout
In 1966, Brown experienced a pivotal event when his roommate received a copy of “Freak Out!,” the debut album by the Mothers of Invention.
“I became curious and put the album on and sat down to listen,” he recalled in an interview many years later. “The impact was immediate, and I listened to the entire record while reading the liner notes. Then I played it again, being totally convinced after hearing it once that Frank [Zappa] was a fucking genius, both lyrically and musically. There was nothing that could possibly rival this album in the world of rock ’n’ roll and pop music… It was truly one of those ‘it changed my life’ kind of episodes.”
Brown became a Zappa apostle and tried to expose as many people as possible to his hero’s music, including his mother, who thought her son might be going insane and/or abusing drugs. Zappa’s unfettered musical creativity and defiantly subversive attitude inspired Brown and altered his view of life overall.
“I’ll admit that I was heading down that soon to be ostracized path of resistance before the Zappa prodding incident, but Frank seemed to be there encouraging me to do so, which was a welcome relief,” Brown wrote in 2013.
Brown v. U.S. Army, FBI
Embracing the Zappa philosophy was not helpful in making Brown into good material for the U.S. Army, however.
On June 12, 1967, he received his draft notice and prepared for his appearance at the local induction center by taking large doses of speed and staying awake for several days.
Despite displaying an uncooperative attitude toward the induction officers over a series of visits, Brown was sent off to Fort Ord for basic training.
Over the following months, he was labeled an incurable troublemaker by the Army and subjected to beatings, put on KP duty, constantly berated and locked in the camp stockade.
As he wrote in his first memoir, “Summer of Love, My Ass,” Brown refused to accept the role of a soldier no matter how severe his treatment became. He went A.W.O.L. and headed back to Southern California, where he was arrested by the FBI at the Broadside club in Pomona. (Significantly, this venue was where an early version of the Mothers of Invention played their initial gigs.)
Brown was eventually court-martialed and awarded an undesirable discharge, which he considered a badge of honor under the circumstances.
In 1971, Brown bought his first Zappa bootleg recording (“200 Motels – Zubin Mehta with the Mothers at UCLA”), kicking off a collection that would eventually include upward of 170 bootlegs and numerous Zappa-related memorabilia items. Fans and industry professionals alike came to recognize Brown as one of the world’s leading Zappa experts.
Still an active musician, Brown played drums in the late ‘70s with The Johnny Baltimore Band, a rock combo he described as a “mutant zappa/abba/bizarro thing.”
In 1977, as a member of punk band Readymades, he recorded a three-song EP released by the Automatic label, featuring the immortal “Terry Is a Space Cadet” on the A-side. (Pictured on the sleeve below, on the far right, Brown once confided to a Rhino co-worker years later that he “loathed punk rock.”)
Brown Drives The Wedge
In 1980, Brown was invited by Rhino Records co-founder Harold Bronson to become part of The Wedge, a surf-rock revival band named after the famous body-surfing spot in Newport Beach known for its big wedge-shaped waves.
“I wanted to do an instrumental surf EP (5 songs) to take advantage of modern recording techniques compared to what was available in the early ‘60s,” Bronson said.
“I produced it at Mad Dog Studios in Venice, and the owner, Mark Avnet, who had been in a band with Tom (The Johnny Baltimore Band), recommended him to drum,” Bronson said. “Tom had also played with Eddie Bertrand (of Eddie and the Showmen) in the ‘60s.”
Brown laid down the driving backbeat and sang on “The Big, Bad, Boss Beat of The Wedge,” out on Rhino in 1980, and three years later he was tagged to encore on the follow-up album “Surf Party ’83.”
Brown Trucks into Rhino
Soon after the first Wedge album was released, Brown was employed at a magazine stand when disaster struck. He contacted Avnet, who in turn contacted Bronson.
“Tom was heartbroken when the magazine stand where he worked burned down and he could no longer while away the time reading on the job,” Bronson said. “Mark asked me if we had anything at Rhino, and (Tom) started in the warehouse.”
Brown was Rhino’s fifth-hired employee, doubling as the young company’s delivery driver as well.
“He was the only one of us who had a truck,” Rhino co-founder Richard Foos said. “And I use that term loosely … the vehicles in the original ‘Mad Max’ film were Rolls Royces compared to Tom’s truck.
“Between his diabetes and the condition of his vehicle, every time we sent him out, I was worried he’d make it back in one piece, sort of like a parent prays their teenage son or daughter comes home safely after borrowing the car,” Foos said. “But make it back he always did, doing whatever crazy adventures we sent him on, never complaining (at least to us directly) and always coming through.”
“Tom also did a fine job drumming on the Acid Casualties LP,” Bronson added, referring to the 1982 Rhino album “Panic Station,” which Bronson and bassist/singer Avnet produced at Mad Dog, with players including former Zappa and Georgio Moroder collaborator Arthur Barrow on synth and former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger guesting on slide and lead.
The same year, Brown played drums for Mothers alumnus Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood on “Goin’ to Idaho,” included on the Grandmothers’ album “Looking Up Granny’s Dress” (also on Rhino).
“Tom often had low blood sugar seizures,” said fellow early Rhino and longtime colleague Gary Peterson. “He would turn white and be unresponsive – and we would have to force him to drink a soda to bring him back to consciousness. One time, it happened while he was trying to back up his truck and he went into this mental loop of continuing to back into the wire fence. My guess is that lack of sleep from rehearsing and gigging contributed to that, since those attacks seemed to subside after he put away the drums.”
Brown Beats the Boots
Several years later, when Zappa approached Rhino about officially releasing recordings previously bootlegged, Brown, as the label’s resident FZ authority, was the natural choice to guide the project.
He compiled lists of recordings for two volumes, with Zappa giving final approval. “Beat the Boots” Vols. 1 (1991) and 2 (1992) resulted in Rhino’s largest export sales up to that time and earned Brown kudos for his archival research and shrewd selections.
(Though he never met with Zappa personally while working on this project, Brown did enjoy a “very relaxed and amiable visit” with Frank at the latter’s Hollywood Hills home in 1987.)
Zoogz Rift & The Shitheads
In 1988, Brown began a 13-year stint drumming live and in the studio for Zoogz Rift, an iconoclastic Los Angeles singer-composer-bandleader. Rift’s abrasive, challenging music – often compared with Zappa and Captain Beefheart in sound and attitude – displayed Brown’s mettle as a drummer once again.
His percussion work, both intense and intricate, can be heard on seven Rift studio albums (as well as various compilations), powering such acerbic social commentaries as “Puke Island Paradise,” “Murdering Hell’s Happy Cretins,” “Defecation Rainbow” and “Somebody Ate Renfield.”
“Tom was a great drummer with keen intelligence and sharp wit,” recalled Willie Lapin, bassist and Brown bandmate in Rift’s band, nicknamed the Shitheads.
“We toured and recorded together,” Lapin recalled, “and I can still hear Tom yelling, and laughing, from his drum kit during the long, driving songs, ‘You’re killing me back here!’”
More TB Sessions
In between Zoogz Rift projects, Brown stayed active as a studio drummer and percussionist. His sessionography also includes “Bess Bonner and Other Jazz Birds” by Bess Bonner (Noteworthy, 1985); “Goodbye Yesterday” from the album “AB3” by Arthur Barrow (Cydonian, 1999); “Sax Master” by George Benson (Alembic Arts, 1999); and “It Could Happen to You” from the album “Sylvan Way” by Ellen Rowe (BOPO Records, 2001).
In 1996, as surf music enjoyed yet another wave of popularity, Rhino compiled a four-CD box set of surf classics and rarities titled “Cowabunga!” Among the 82 tracks: The Illusions’ 1963 version of “Jezabel.”
Tom’s MIA Daughter
Outside of work, Brown was mostly private about his personal relationships, but he did confide in Rhino Mail Order/Customer Service office-mate Reggie Collins that he’d been married, twice, in the ’60s and ’70s, briefly in both cases.
Brown and Collins worked together for a few years before Brown mentioned he had a daughter somewhere, but they were estranged and had no idea where she was.
“He rarely brought it up with me after that,” Collins said. “I could tell that it was a very touchy subject with him, so I didn’t prod too deeply. But other than the daughter issue, Tom was very open with me about his personal life, past and present.”
Gary Peterson, on the other hand, says he often bugged Brown about reconnecting with his daughter, to no avail.
“I thought making amends would be a good thing,” Peterson said. “These are the basics: 1) She jumped out of her bedroom window and ran away from home. 2) He never forgave her for it. 3) She showed up at his house one day out of the blue with her new boyfriend in tow and he closed the door on them without saying a word.”
In 2001, after nearly 20 years with Rhino, Brown was terminated for “insubordination,” as he put it in his 2013 memoir “Confessions of a ZAPPA Fanatic.”
He had become increasingly alienated from his work environment as Rhino grew from a privately owned anti-company company with a handful of employees in a funky Santa Monica warehouse into a corporate subsidiary with more than 100 employees toiling in a spiffy Burbank high-rise.
By 1993 Rhino had moved from Santa Monica to West L.A. and was partly owned by Atlantic-Warner Music Group/Time-Warner. The label was folded completely into WMG in the 2000 TW/AOL merger, the largest corporate merger in history. After Brown’s departure, the label moved again, to WMG’s Burbank headquarters at the end of 2002. (TW had terminated Harold Bronson’s contract in 2001; by 2002, Richard Foos had also moved on and co-founded Shout! Factory with two other ex-Rhino executives.)
Though Brown had often also been out of sync with the label’s pre-corporate socially progressive music-geek culture, he had always proved reliable at his duties. And he was a favorite with his fellow employees who not-so-secretly admired his devastatingly irreverent and unabashedly politically incorrect sense of humor.
After Rhino, Brown packed up his Igloo Little Playmate cooler and found gainful employment at a bookstore in Santa Monica.
“Tom house-sat for us at our home in Pasadena numerous times, mostly mid-2000s,” his friend John Livzey said. Brown was still living in Venice then.
In 2007, Brown moved from his longtime home in Venice to a nicer place near LAX, according to John Livzey, one of two friends Tom conned into helping him make the move.
Tom Brown on the porch of his new digs near LAX, 2007. Photo: John Livzey.
H.T. Brown’s Memoirs
Brown self-published the aforementioned “Summer of Love, My Ass: A Memoir, June 12, 1967 – April 28, 1969” in 2011. The uncensored account of his Army experiences is by turns scathing, harrowing and hilarious. He termed the book “anti-patriotic, anti-religious, not to mention politically incorrect.”
Several years earlier, in 2003, Brown had twice visited the base where he’d been stationed, Fort Ord in Northern California, accompanied by friend John Livzey. The Army had closed and basically abandoned the base in 1994. Livzey took a series of photos for the book Brown planned to write.
“The chapel was where family and friends would go to visit the inmates,” Livzey said. “I think Tom received weed and a few handjobs in this space.”
Musician-activist Pete Seeger and historian Howard Zinn were among those who publicly praised “Summer of Love, My Ass” (Brown credits Zoogz Rift with the title) for its unsparing honesty and indictment of American military culture.
So was filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who Brown had met at a film festival at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica in 2009. The two struck up a friendship.
Following in 2013, Brown’s also aforementioned “Confessions of a ZAPPA Fanatic” was a sarcastic yet fond recollection of his 46-year devotion to his hero’s music and legacy, and of his own lifetime of musical adventures.
According to Barrow, the longtime FZ bassist, session-mate and FOT (Friend of Tom), Brown was “the most ardent and loyal Frank Zappa fan that I ever knew.”
Grounded at the Astro Motel
By the time his Zappa book was published in 2013, Brown was residing in Laguna Niguel with his third wife, Rae Lynne (they were childhood sweethearts, according to his book intro).
His ever-growing collection of Zappa and Mothers of Invention music and memorabilia, by then one of the world’s largest, was in a public storage unit somewhere in Laguna Niguel.
But the third marriage ended acrimoniously, according to both Collins and Peterson.
“Rae Lynne had an offer to house-sit somewhere on the East Coast and Tom refused to leave his comfort zone of L.A.,” Peterson said.
Brown landed at the low-rent Astro Motel on Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, just off the San Diego Freeway, and just south of the L.A. City Limits. He lived a Spartan existence there and didn’t have much fun.
Brown had coped with Type 1 diabetes most of his adult life, and heart issues for the last couple of decades (he’d survived a heart attack in 1994, during his Rhino years).
His health issues made looking for work difficult. In November 2015, at the suggestion of friends and former colleagues, Brown set up an ongoing GoFundMe page where they could send donations to help him cover his basic living expenses and out-of-pocket medical expenses.
A week after his 70th birthday in 2017, he broke his left ankle and sprained the right one.
“A very serious setback for me,” Brown wrote on the crowdfunding page at the time.
He posted weekly updates expressing his gratitude for the ongoing support, and, when needed, requesting donations, and managed to survive into early 2020.
“According to all of the information I’ve been seeing on TV, I may be dead by the time I finish this post,” Brown said in what turned out to be his last Facebook post, on April 8, 2020, referring to the looming COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m old (73), I have heart disease, I’ve been a type one diabetic for 45 years and I’m still recovering from a bad fall I took almost a year ago,” he said. “I’m not in the greatest shape. Please help if you’re able.”
A Soul Survivor
A week later, on April 15, motel staff discovered Brown had died. Management called the LAPD and referred them to his only known contact, musician friend Arthur Barrow, who arrived at the motel to identify Brown’s body, and waited there until the L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner rolled up.
“(Tom) was the most ardent and loyal Frank Zappa fan that I ever knew,” Barrow wrote in a Facebook post that afternoon, informing friends of Brown’s death. “May he rest in peace. Thanks to everyone who gave him money to help him survive this long.”
The whereabouts of Brown’s remains is unknown as of this post. A request for a death certificate is pending with the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
The Zappa Archive Update: It’s Alive!
Brown’s storage locker in Laguna Niguel – including his Zappa archive – was recently acquired by Robert Samler, a longtime FOT (Friend of Tom) as well as major FZ fan, according to a note he sent to the Zappateers.com Facebook group on August 25, 2020.
Samler plans to begin going through the archive and curating it soon. His intent is to make the artifacts available to “serious Zappa fans who would really appreciate them,” he told later that day.
See Samler’s Facebook page for some video and photos of what he found on his first visit to the storage locker, and updates on plans to sell the artifacts.
— Stephen K. Peeples and Barry Alfonso (with special thanks to Reggie Collins, Arthur Barrow, John Livzey, Gary Peterson and Toby Mamis. Please contact Peeples directly at skpscv(at)gmail.com with any factual corrections or additional information.)
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Tributes to Tom Brown from Friends and Colleagues
As word of Brown’s death got around, his and Barrow’s Facebook pages were soon flooded with tributes, as was the private ex-Rhino Clubhouse Facebook group. Additional tributes were contributed directly to this story. They all appear below in alphabetical order (except the tribute from Rhino co-founders Richard Foos and Harold Bronson, included in the feature obituary/appreciation above). Send additional tributes to skpscv(at)gmail.com. — Ed.
Mark Avnet April 15
Tom Brown, ex-bandmate, one of my oldest and best friends in the world, Zappa expert, author, and all-around good guy, died today. Those of us who knew him will miss him. And the rest of you should have known him. Arf and Goddamn…
Carl Baugher April 16
I’m sorry to hear of my old friend Tom Brown’s death yesterday. He had some rough times the past few years but Tom was a good guy. He and I certainly shared some good times and my memories of him are all good. He’ll be missed as he was well-regarded by many. I remember him as a fine drummer, accomplished author, expert Frank Zappa observer and a man of considerable humor. RIP, Tom.
Reggie Collins April 16
I was in contact with my dear friend Tom Brown, who passed away yesterday (April 15) at the age of 73, all the way until the end of his life. But the last time we — along with a bunch of other ex-Rhinos — had dinner together was in February of last year.
I’ve known all these guys since the ‘90s. Tom, Don, Jeff, the late Steve Pokorny and I used to sneak away to Jerry’s in Westwood Village during our lunch breaks from time to time. We decided to turn it into the occasional dinner get-together as all of us, one by one, left the company. Eventually, we added Craig to the group, and after Steve passed away in 2012 (R.I.P.), we added Gary. The Westwood Jerry’s is no longer there, so we switched up to the Studio City locale.
Anyway, as Jeff said, it was great getting the band back together.
I first got to know Tom when we worked closely together in Rhino’s mail order/customer service department from 1993 to 2001. We ended up getting along famously, and he quickly became one of my dearest friends, despite the fact that we were very different people.
He was more than 15 years my senior (so I looked up to him as if he were a big brother); he was way more passionate about the music of Frank Zappa than I will ever be (though I do have a healthy dose of respect for Zappa’s genius as well as Tom’s mind-blowing expertise regarding the man’s work).
Tom was also considerably more cynical than I (though, deep down, despite my more pragmatic inclinations, by contrast, I found much of his cynicism to be well-placed); and he was idiosyncratic to the extreme, especially when it came to his fashion sense (or lack thereof).
But what we did share was effortless personal chemistry along with a love of music, films, and HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” We certainly didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but we did agree on more than enough to bond a close, decades-long friendship.
Like most who knew him well, I found Tom to be blazingly intelligent, refreshingly blunt, highly opinionated, irreverently sharp-witted, extremely stubborn, and a joy to be around. He was a true rebel who walked the walk (even when it was to his own detriment) — a man of integrity who didn’t suffer fools gladly.
So I felt honored when he took a liking to me and felt that our burgeoning friendship was worth his time, as he certainly didn’t warm to that degree to everyone.
Yes, he was a classic curmudgeon, but, like latter-day George Carlin, whose comedy we both loved, he was a funny motherfucker. I never stopped getting a kick over the fact that I was consistently able to return the favor and make him laugh.
Tom and I stayed in touch all the way up to the end of his life. What turned out to be our final phone conversation took place sometime during the first half of March, but the last time he attempted to reach me was in early April — about a week and a half before his death — when he left a 25-second message on my voicemail.
Given his chronic health problems, and meager financial situation and living conditions, Tom sounded normal, and merely wanted to catch up with me for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic turned all of our lives upside down.
I unsuccessfully tried to call him back a couple of times, we ended up playing phone tag, and, much to my eternal regret, never ended up re-connecting.
However, I will always cherish the fact that, in the ways that mattered the most, we were continuously connected for nearly 27 of my 58 years, and I have no doubt that he would echo my sentiments if he could.
Tom Brown was an utterly unforgettable, unique and irreplaceable character, and I will miss him terribly. Thankfully, I have no shortage of vivid memories of our time together that live on. As Tom would likely reply, “Arf.”
Richard Foos & Harold Bronson April 20
“While he endeared himself (as all the tributes attest) to many of the folks at Rhino, [Tom] was never endeared to the company or the culture,” Foos observed in an April 20 Facebook tribute on which he and Bronson collaborated.
“Although he liked the music we released and the people who worked at the company, he more than anyone I can remember at Rhino seemed to have no appreciation and maybe even disdain for any of the attempts we made at being a caring and socially responsible organization,” they wrote.
“Maybe the fact that in spite of his skepticism he was able to play a meaningful role in the company for a quarter-century is a tribute to how we were able to accommodate all personality types, and a tribute to Tom as well,” they said.
Whatever he thought of the Rhino culture didn’t stop him from showing up to work every day and doing his part to create a company that despite having a bunch of eccentrics, loons, misfits, misanthropes and madmen was able to thrive, created a great brand and sometimes even had some fun,” Foos and Bronson said. “Thanks, Tom, and Goddamn! Hope you’re in a better place.”
Mark Kalmus April 20
Tom performing with Zoogz. (I had the pleasure of being Tom’s roadie for his final gig.)
John Livzey, May & August 2020
Longtime friend John Livzey photographed Tom frequently over the years, and graciously contributed more than a dozen photos, some appearing above, and more below. — Ed.
Gary Peterson April 17
On my first day of work at Rhino, I mentioned to (A&R chief) Gary Stewart that I was a huge Zappa fan. At which point, he said “There’s someone here I want you to meet.” What followed was my introduction to Tom Brown on September 26, 1984.
At that point, I had accumulated about 100 FZ bootleg LPs. After meeting Tom and then becoming pals with him, sitting in his teenage room, being surrounded by mountains of cassettes containing live performances, I pretty much gave up that obsession entirely.
From then on, Tom would be the torchbearer of Zappa fandom. But graciously, whenever he heard of FZ events around town, he’d often invite me to come along with him.
I had previously met Frank a couple of times when the Mothers played in the Twin Cities, but that’s another story. These excursions with Tom gave me the opportunity to get up close and personal with the musical genius again…and for that, I will be eternally grateful.
This photo was taken after Frank’s Synclavier lecture at Tony Bill’s Restaurant, 72 Market Street, Venice, California, August 23, 1986.
While waiting for his ride after the event, he noticed the street number on the building across the road and said “Hey, ya want a good shot?”
About that little cooler Brown took to work every day?
It was a Little Playmate, which I always teased him about. Not sure if he continued the tradition, but his daily diet used to consist of an egg salad sandwich and Cheetos.
Jeffrey Spector April 15
Raising a glass to my fellow Rhino and good friend Tom Brown, who passed on earlier today. He took on the establishment in his youth, and lived to tell the tale 40 years later in his memoir “Summer of Love, My Ass!”. He was a walking Zappa Wikipedia, author, passionate collector, music business iconoclast, and a badass drummer in his day. More than that though, he was my friend, and I’ll be forever grateful our paths converged all those years ago.
I’ll always hold the memories of our classic, raucous, and (dirty) joke-filled dinners at Jerry’s with Don Kitabayashi, Reggie Collins, Craig DeGraff, and the late Steve Pokorny dear to my heart (and of course that time we all saw George Carlin together).
Here’s to you Tom…I know you’re already giving the good Lord hell, preaching the Zappa gospel, and a piece of your mind! Rest easy my friend, ’cause now you’re free and part of that good ol’ “Cosmik Debris.”
Bronson Sterning April 15
I just learned of the passing of Tom Brown. I’m guessing he’s joining Zoogz and Richie in that great jam session in the sky. Another loss from the fraternity of drummers. I recall chatting with him on FB in recent years. I hope his passing was quick and relatively painless. Your presence will be missed, my friend. Requiescat en pachem.
Bennett Theissen April 17
Tom Brown. If you go to killradio.org you may hear the two “Chill Rooms” I did with Tom – I put them back in rotation. “Summer of Love, My Ass” covers his Army days, and ‘Zappa Fanatic: Ultimate Frank Zappa Chill Room” is also the single most popular “Chill Room” of all time. You can also get it here.
I invited Tom to sit in with me and play his ultimate Zappa music set, and this is it. Includes tributes from Zappa musicians and friends and some amazing music that has never even been booted. Over two hours of wonder from the guy who said he didn’t want to be remembered. But it’s not up to him.
Thanks for everything, Tom Brown. You changed my life (by having a heart attack!) and I will always think of you. Arf!
Bryan Thomas April 17
Here’s something Tom Brown wrote for me in 2015 (it was published on the Night Flight blog) about meeting Wild Man Fischer:
“My first actual real-time experience with Larry Fischer occurred in 1970 when a fellow band-mate and I drove into Hollywood to see ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project’ (go to IMDB for details re: this film).
“As I was standing at the ticket booth purchasing my entrance pass, I heard my friend speaking with someone who was in line behind us. After acquiring my ticket I turned around to note that he had been attempting to communicate with a strange and somewhat scraggly looking individual wearing a jersey boasting the words ‘Wild Man Fischer Baseball Team’ on the front.
“And there he was, looking every bit as deranged as he had on his album cover (sans the knife and the image of his mother of course). And being the raging Zappa fan that I was (and still am), I immediately flashed back to the time when I and several friends spent an evening in a drug-addled state listening to his album (‘An Evening with Wild Man Fischer’), trying to figure out if this guy was for real, and wondering what might have inspired Frank to produce such a novel oddity.
“‘You’re Wild Man Fischer,’ I offered lamely, as he was paying the woman in the ticket booth, simply because I was so shocked to see him standing in front of me. In true Wild Man fashion, he responded without missing a beat, ‘Yeah, I’m world-famous. I’m as big as The Beatles,’ which immediately revealed to me that this guy was obviously as delusional as he had come across on his album. Not a good sign.
“He proceeded to follow us into the theater, continuing to ramble on about his celebrity in a desperate attempt to convince us that it was absolutely true. As I stood at the snack bar to obtain a serving of popcorn, he was right beside me still exhibiting his inclination and fixation for borderline insanity.
“At this point I was still amused about unexpectedly running into this notoriously strange man, having no idea how starved he might be for attention, which hopefully explains why I opened my mouth and told him, ‘I bought your album when it came out,’ which seemed to please him a great deal. He had a strange twisted smile on his face. ‘I’d buy anything that had Frank Zappa’s name on it,’ I added for good measure.
“The smile immediately disappeared.
“‘Frank is ripping me off,’ I was told. ‘He owes me $10,000.00. I went over to his house thinking that he was going to give me some money, and all he gave me was this shirt,’ Larry exclaimed, running his hand down the front of it. ‘I know my album has sold more copies than he told me. He’s a liar,’ he declared angrily as if it was common knowledge to everyone.
“After collecting my popcorn and a soft drink and thinking to myself that it was time for our discourse to come to its end, my friend and I headed toward the open doors of the theatre to locate our seats. Larry obviously had a different idea and proceeded to follow along, still rambling non-stop how he was being cheated and lied to.
“Taking our seats, I began to be a little more concerned when Larry sidled in front of both of us and took a seat to my left. He wasn’t through yet.
‘Would you perform at the White House if you were invited?’ he asked out of left field. ‘I’m not sure I would,’ he continued. ‘I don’t trust the government at all.’ He didn’t stop talking in the same disjointed manner, going from one unrelated subject to another without waiting for a response, until the movie started, when I had to intervene and very politely informed him that we were here to watch the movie. Not to talk. Amazingly he got the message and sat silently for a few minutes before getting up without a word and left.
“When the film ended and we were sauntering up the walkway to exit the theater, we found Larry sitting in the very last row by the aisle. He looked up and smiled and said, ‘That was a pretty good movie.’ I’m not sure if we even bothered to respond, other than with an involuntary look in his direction that might have conveyed a plea to not follow us out. Fortunately for us, he remained seated, and out of my life for a little more than a decade.
“My second encounter with Wild Man occurred 12 years later, when he showed up unannounced at the Rhino Records offices, angrily demanding to see Harold Bronson, the vice president of the company.
“Ironically, the first two releases issued by Rhino had the name of Wild Man Fischer attached to them. The first was a 7” single (‘Go to Rhino Records’ – 1975), that was recorded on a small tape recorder in a tiny office at the back of the infamous Rhino Records store, for the purpose of giving them out to their recurring customers. Their function was to serve as a promotional device for the store.
“Larry would show up at the store from time to time, for no real reason other than he probably didn’t have anywhere else to go, and as long as he would behave himself, he was tolerated. I’m not sure whose idea it actually was, but they were obviously cognizant enough to realize that all they had to do is offer the wild guy some free records to enact the deal. No problem at all, and shortly after that Larry was in the office making history of a sorts, bellowing into a cheap microphone in his own unconventional and eccentric manner.
“He evidently managed to somehow stay on their good side and two years later (January 1977), Rhino unveiled their very first album, titled ‘Wildmania’ (RNLP 001), on the unsuspecting public, which was recorded on an inexpensive cassette machine at Dodger Stadium.
“Don’t blame me. I can take no responsibility for any of this, as I didn’t start working for Rhino until 1981.
“This will take us to 1982 when it was discovered that Larry Fischer was still hovering about my life force, although I had not one exchange with him on the day in question. In a court of law, the entire story would be construed as hearsay, but you can take my word for it that it actually did happen exactly as described.
“We had just moved into the first reasonably large, and official Rhino offices at 1201 Olympic Blvd in Santa Monica. Before this, we had shared a small building on Pico Blvd. (Where Record Surplus now resides, if they’re still there), with Sounds Good, an import record distributor. Our new and improved Rhino world existed in a two-story building and naturally the bulk of those at the top of the food chain in the world of record companies, i.e. the executive faction inhabited the top floor, while the remainder of the underlings (including myself), took our places downstairs in the combined offices/warehouse area.
“Which is where I was the day Larry unexpectedly appeared in all his gloriously maniacal reality.
“I was in my own demented universe, standing by the postage machine having a conversation with several of my co-workers, when we observed our lovely redheaded receptionist (Adele Baughn), slowly descending the staircase stifling sobs. Adele was sweet, bright and thoughtful without a mean bone in her body, so we all immediately responded by asking her if she was okay.
“‘Larry Fischer is upstairs completely crazy and I can’t handle it,’ she told us. “He threatened to kill Gary Stewart (our lone A&R guy at the time, and probably the nicest guy on the planet) if he didn’t get Harold (the VP) out here right now to talk to him about his royalties.’
“Harold had heard the ranting from his office and immediately came out to alleviate Larry’s distress by gently putting his arm around him and leading him into his office. That’s when Adele left her station to come downstairs.
“’The guy is fucking nuts!’ she exclaimed. ‘Why’s he even allowed to be here?’ she wondered aloud. Rather than trying to handle that subject, we did our part in calming her down, so she could make it through the rest of the afternoon.
“When I saw Gary later that day I asked him about the incident. He smiled, shrugging his shoulders and dismissed it with ‘Whaddaya gonna do? It’s Larry Fischer.’ He obviously had a perfect understanding that Larry being Larry was going to show up from time to time to perform his hyper-batshit sonata routine. It was the price one pays and being Rhino Records, it was just an average day in the workplace. Just so we don’t leave you on a down note, Gary was neither killed nor ever threatened again by Larry Fischer. He’s alive and well and remains a tremendously pleasant person. [Gary died on April 11, 2019. — Ed.]
“Larry, on the other hand, is much more trouble than he’s worth, proving it numerous times by showing up (always unannounced), and creating total havoc. Amazingly, only once was he so unruly that the police were called to escort him out of the building. Just a few more typical days at Rhino, and counting.
“Which leads us to the very last time I attempted to communicate with Larry…We were now being housed in an even larger building on Colorado Boulevard, still in Santa Monica and the company was enjoying major success. It was probably [early ’90s] or thereabouts. It was about lunchtime when I wandered into the warehouse to exchange taunts and insults with the guys in the stockroom. It was a daily ritual between us that had to be adhered to.
“Standing directly in front of me, going through the large wooden racks containing LPs like he was on fire, was Larry. The stench emanating from his person was staggering. I remember I was going to say something along the lines of ‘Clean up these dead rats, guys,’ before I realized that the foul odor was coming from Larry. I was no closer than 10 feet from him watching him zealously pulling albums out of their holders and stuffing them into a 25-count box.
“He looked worse than I had ever seen him. His hair was disheveled, his clothing was ill-fitting, and appeared as if they had never been washed or ironed. Why I didn’t turn around and disappear we’ll never know, as I continued to stare at him in disbelief.
“Suddenly he turned and saw me watching him. He grasped the record box with both hands and held it close to his body. His eyes were wide and conveyed the idea that he was truly disturbed. ‘Richard said I could take some records, and I’m takin’ em,’ he blurted angrily, barely looking at me. ‘I’m takin’ em!’ he reminded me with a 10 on a 10-scale of petulance in his voice.
“‘Hey, it’s okay with me,’ I calmly assured him. ‘Let me know if you need any help,’ not meaning a word of it as I just wanted to get away immediately. Before I could fulfill my wish for the moment Larry had more to say, ‘No! I don’t need your help. I don’t need anyone’s help. I can do this!’
“I was away post-haste while he was still talking and didn’t see Larry Fischer again until 2007 when a fellow Zappa associate of mine sent me a copy of the documentary, ‘Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry “Wild Man” Fischer,’ which has to stand as the definitive look at Larry Fischer.
“I recommend it simply because you don’t have to be in the same room as him should you decide to watch it. It includes a close-up look at a number of people who made an actual effort to interact with him, whose stories are far more dramatic than any of my encounters could ever hope to be. Merry-go, merry-go…
“I found the most interesting thing about the documentary was the fact that most of the people who were involved with or worked with him were implying that Larry actually had some ability and talent.
“I will have to beg to differ.
“He’s truly a unique kind of individual and the circumstances surrounding his notoriety are unusual, but give me a break. I don’t mean to be unkind, but the guy is an absolute freak show. He’s a crazy man. But what shocked me the most about the documentary was the fact that Richard Foos and Harold Bronson (the president and vice president of Rhino respectfully), failed to offer any stories of his psychotic behavior when he used to visit the Rhino offices.
“I guess that’s where I come in after the fact. In spite of my steadfast beliefs, I enjoyed watching the disaster unfold. Poor, sad Larry.
“I offer this advice should you ever find yourself in the immediate presence of ‘Wild Man’ Fischer. Don’t make eye contact, and whatever you do refrain from mentioning Frank Zappa or ‘An Evening with Wild Man Fischer.’ All the stories you may have heard about him are absolutely true. The term ‘lunatic fringe’ doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.”
Probyn Gregory (Johnny Baltimore Band, The Wedge)
“I met Tom in 1981 just after I’d moved from North Hollywood to Hollywood. I was working at the Songwriter’s Showcase sorting through submissions and came across an album by the Johnny Baltimore Band containing a song I rather fancied called ‘Pictures from Sweden.’ I taught the parts to my classmates at Guitar Institute of Technology and we recorded a version, which I sent to the band with a note saying, ‘Look, someone’s already covering your song.’
“Johnny wrote back to say that the guitar spot had just come open, would I be interested in auditioning? I would be, so I met the band (and Tom of course) in a barf bag factory somewhere in East L.A. and we jammed for a few hours, playing no actual songs (which I later became aware WAS the audition– to see if the vibe was right).
“I noticed right away that Tom was a rock-solid drummer who listened constantly and would respond to any sort of quote or change of direction with finesse and could navigate odd meters.
“(Later I became convinced that this last skill was gleaned from listening so much to his idol Zappa – Tom took me to an FZ rehearsal ca. 1983 being led by Arthur Barrow. Frank came in from an errand while the band was playing a complex piece, and immediately picked up a megaphone and declared something like “Keyboard 2, you missed your entry at bar 34,” which completely stunned me how he could even have heard that in the tumult, but hey – he wrote it!)
“I ended up joining the JBaltimore Band and was with them when they morphed for several years into The Wedge, a surf band that had gotten a song nominated for a Grammy in the instrumental category and therefore was getting job offers.
“But the ‘band’ didn’t exist. It was a Rhino side project whose musicians were happy where they were now (Tom was the only remaining original member wanting to forge ahead). The Wedge played in various configurations (surf, new wave, Top 40) until 1986 when we imploded.
“I remained friends with Tom and his roommate Johnny Baltimore, spending many long nights at their Venice house listening to and discussing music. Tom was far more iconoclastic and ‘art rock’ than I and eventually found a home in the band of Zoogz Rift; I was always a pop guy and ended up in The Negro Problem, Wondermints, and finally, Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s band.
“Before all that, Tom got me a gig working at Rhino which lasted all of one day (I’d rather not get into it), but once in a while I’d do him a favor and he’d pay me in the occasional promo Rhino product.
“Eventually in the early 2000s, partly at my urging, he began writing a memoir of his disastrous few years when they conscripted him into the U.S. Army; mostly to rid himself of his demons (he’d told me in the ’80s that if anyone came into the club asking for Harrell Brown, I was to say I knew no such person. This seemed to be leftover uncertainty that his brush with the FBI was not perhaps over).
“The manuscript was Dickensian in length, and Tom asked me to edit it, as he hoped to publish it, though, in true Tom fashion, most of my suggestions were largely ignored. However, [“Summer of Love, My Ass”] is about 2/3 the original length.
“I was asked to also help with the Zappa book he was writing, but that year, 2012, I spent over half the year on the road with the Beach Boys’ 50th reunion tour, and he found other editorial help. I was quite gratified he not only got both books published but that august personages like Pete Seeger and Haskell Wexler were persuaded to give recommendations.
“The last time I saw Tom, some months before he passed, I was delivering him some diabetic cookies that had been ordered for Brian Wilson but were rejected for some reason. I had been part of the GoFundMe support and knew Tom was in a bad way, but his spirits remained unbowed. I fixed some broken shit in his Astro apartment and he ‘goddamn’-ed and ‘arf’-ed me and gave me that soundless laugh he was famous for. I was not surprised but still saddened to hear that he didn’t remain here much longer – things were not going his way for quite a long time.
“I will say this: Tom Brown and my aunt were the two people I ever met who lived life by their own rules absolutely and never took any guff from anyone, regardless of the consequences.
“I’m very glad to have known him.”
* * * * *
Santa Clarita journalist and Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992). • Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. • His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving online, he was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • In the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • He is now a News Editor at SCVTV’s SCVNews.com, SVP/New Media Emeritus for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. and developing a biography of Texas Artlaw Boyd Elder. For more info and original stories, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/. For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.
Article: Tom Brown, Zappa Expert, Zoogs Rift Drummer, Rhino Veteran, Dead at 73
Category: News and Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: stephenkpeeples.com