“Tommy Bolin’s guitar playing was so ahead of its time that we are now just feeling the significance of it.” Joe Bonamassa
“Tommy was a musician who wanted to play rock and roll and wanted to put a smile on the faces of people who loved rock and roll. Tommy’s music is still doing that.” John Bolin
Thursday night, August 1st and what would have been Tommy Bolin’s 62nd birthday, my husband and I and my brother Norm and a friend had dinner and then went to see “The Tommy Bolin Memorial Fan Jam”. Walking into the room, for me, was like walking into a time machine. Some of the same faces, older, more lined, were there, as well as musicians like John Bartle and John Bolin, who we’d first heard 40 years ago, were on the stage. The Jam is part of a three day Tommy Bolin Fest put on by his younger brother John each year in Sioux City.
A high school dropout who left Sioux City at 16, Tommy Bolin was an extraordinary guitar virtuoso who played with the likes of the James Gang and Deep Purple, but tragically succumbed to a drug overdose at the height of his fame at 25 in 1976. He also embarked on a solo career, collaborated with Billy Cobham, inspired several tribute albums, and yes, made the cover of “Rolling Stone”. I remember the day entertainment columnist Rona Barrett covered his death on ABC and seeing his picture on the front page of the Sioux City Journal. We didn’t have that many celebrities come from our part of the world, and Tommy was not only a rock star, he was our rock star.
He looked the part. I only saw him once, I think it was 1975. He was lean, he had amazing long wild black hair, and he was, in a word,… beautiful. His brother, John, the second of the Bolin brothers, looks a lot like him. A accomplished musician himself, John is the only surviving member of the Bolin family. His parents, his brother Tommy, and his younger brother, Rick are all gone, and John has made it his business to keep the memory of Tommy and his family alive.
I had coffee with John the other day. We go back 40 years, to high school, 1972. John was, and remains, a good friend of my brother Norm.
I remember John picking my friend Missy up after school at the north door of Central High school. They were a glamorous pair, she petite, beautiful, with long straight blond hair, and he with his mane of rock star hair, and dark handsomeness. John was always a kind man, with an enormous smile and a gentle nature. He still is. We met to discuss the continuation of the “Tommy Bolin Memorial Fund”, a fund started by the family to give back to the community where he was born. John takes it seriously, as he does the annual fest.
I understand John in ways that others probably don’t. As the sister of two brothers who found early fortune and some fame as the co-founders of Gateway Computers, we both know what it’s like to live in both the spot light and the shadow of famous siblings. John has perhaps an added component in that he looks so much like Tommy and is in the same business. He wears it well.
At the Bolin fan jam, I had a moment of strong “deja vu”. It happened when the band played ZZ Top’s “Jesus Done Left Chicago”. I looked around the room with the familiar faces at the tables and on the stage and I looked at my brother, Norm. The scene was eerie, so much like the 70′s that it took me back. The room was dark, masking the aging of its inhabitants, and just for a moment, I felt 18 again.
As “keeper of the flame” of his famous brother, I realized that John brought that moment to me. Music and its mood making can do that. Author Rob Sheffield put it well when he said, “The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.” Music WAS the story of Tommy Bolin’s life, as it’s the story of John’s. And the music he bring us each year in honor of his brother reminds us of our own story, and like Tommy, for a moment we are all still, forever young.