80s Psychedelic Rock Cult Hero Russ Tolman at the Top of His Uneasy Game at Pete’s Last Week

by delarue

It feels so good to be alive.

That’s the punchline of a song called Shot You Down. In context, it’s one of the most vengefully delicious lyrics ever written. It’s arguably the best track on True West’s 1982 cult classic Drifters album. In his Pete’s Candy Store debut Thursday night, such that it was, True West bandleader Russ Tolman didn’t play that one. But he did play Hollywood Holiday. That’s the title track of the group’s first ep, a snarling mashup of post-Velvets rock, Americana and psychedelia.

The music media at the time called that stuff “paisley underground.” It’s a horribly inaccurate term. True West and their contemporaries the Dream Syndicate, Long Ryders, Green on Red and a whole bunch of other great bands weren’t exactly underground. As the mergers and acquisitions of the deregulated Reagan 80s devastated the radio waves, college radio suddenly was the closest thing to Spotify available at the time. All those bands ruled the college charts. 

And fashion had nothing to do with it. While most kids of the era were bopping to the cheesy sounds of DX7 synthesizers, these groups clanged out a gritty, sometimes trippy sound with the volume and fearlessness of punk but also a country twang and a willingness to go beyond punk’s three-minute marker.

The original incarnation of True West didn’t last long – they broke up in 1985. Tolman reunited the band for a memorable couple of  tours in the late zeros, and most auspiciously, joined forced with his old guitar sparring partner Richard McGrath and a series of collaborators for a well-received west coast tour last year.

Tolman’s a band guy – solo acoustic isn’t his default setting. But with one anthem after another, he reaffirmed that if anything, he’s an even better songwriter than he was thirty-plus years ago. On the surface, Hollywood Holiday is about a sleazy hookup. But it also might be about a murder. In very few words, Tolman built a series of scenarios which could have gone any number of ways: it’s up to the listener to figure out how they resolve, if at all.

And the tunesmithing was sublime. As with his lyrics, an unease and a frequent gallows humor pervade his music. The breakup tune Marla Jane and the wryly boisterous Something About a Rowboat – which as it turns out recounts a thwarted booze-fueled pickup scenario – were among the catchiest. Several others, notably the surrealistically apt Two Drinks From Genius brought to mind Tolman’s old college bandmate Steve Wynn, who was in the house. Was Tolman going to go up the fretboard for those two evil little chordlets as the chorus of Hollywood Holiday turned around? Yesssssss! He closed with a vicious, 60-style garage-psych number: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking To It: “You can sign my name to the story, because I won’t,” he intoned over its minor-key changes.

Shows like this you walk away from thinking to yourself, damn, after all these years, it still feels so good to be alive. Not to give anything away, but we may be seeing a lot more of Tolman in New York in the coming months: watch this space!