Excerpts from an interview transcript with Tommy Aguilar, singer/guitarist for TAB. From the files of Raleigh Daily News music critic Ken Morrison (who presumably conducted said interview).

An interview with Tommy Aguilar

When we play at a place we’ve never been before, I like to sign my name in blood on the wall somewhere. Leave behind something, you know, from the heart ­ literally. It’s sort of an experiment I conduct, seeing what happens to it by the time we get back there.

If I’ve got enough time and the blood’s flowing nicely, I’ll leave signatures in two places. I’ll put one someplace really obvious like the dressing room wall, where it’ll get noticed right away. People will do some cute things, draw a heart around it or make comments: “Hey, Tommy, don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Guess all the blood ran to his head,” dumb shit like that.

Then I’ll put a control signature in some dark remote corner where nobody will find it for a while. If that one doesn’t get fucked with, I take it as a good sign. Those are the places I like playing. But if people are so mean or anal that they’re looking up by the ceiling or behind bars, and go out of their way to fuck it up ­ I try not to go back to places like that. So yeah, I’m kinda superstitious. You would be, too. I’ve got my reasons.

I don’t know much about my dad because he died when I was little. How? None of your business, dude… …Well…Okay. He killed himself. Yeah. With a shotgun. Twelve-gauge, I think it was. Whatever he used, it was messy. We had to move from where we were living because he did it in the bathroom, and it just completely trashed the place. Blood and gore everywhere, there was so much it leaked through the floor and ruined the bathroom in the apartment below ours, too.

I didn’t know any of this at the time because I was like 4 years old. Years later, I got ahold of the police report and photos of the crime scene. That’s what they called it, a “crime scene.” Because committing suicide is, you know, against the law. I’m not sure why I wanted to see it, I just did. Probably because I’d never seen any pictures of my dad, and I wanted to know what he looked like.

The scene-of-the-crime pictures were no good, but his drivers license was in the police file. I wasn’t supposed to, but I took it so I’d have a picture of him. I don’t think he looks too much like me, although people who’ve seen his picture say I have his eyes. I think I look more like my mom, but I haven’t seen her in a long time. Not since she, um, freaked out… Oh, man…Look, can we make all that off the record?

After my dad died, I grew up all over. All the big cities in Texas, Dallas and Houston and San Antonio. Birmingham, Alabama. Kansas City. Louisville, Kentucky, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some real garden spots, eh? I was what they called a “problem child,” and nobody could figure out what to do with me. So they kept sending me around to different foster homes, but I never wound up with a family I really wanted to join. Not that any of them were evil people or anything. I’ve just never trusted families.

Growing up like that did have some advantages, like making it easy not to waste much energy on my parents. A lot of people spend waaaaaaaaay too much time hating their mom and dad. And I’ve met other people whose parents died when they were kids, and they’re angry about it, too. In my case, it happened a long time ago and it’s over and done with. I don’t think about it, at least not with my head. I sometimes kinda think about my parents another way ­ in an emotional, gut-but-not-head way, if that makes any sense ­ when I’m playing guitar. Music has never been a serene thing with me. I seem to play my best when I’m uncomfortable or sad or really pissed off. Remembering my screwed-up childhood, I can feel all three at once. And then as soon as the song is over, the mood passes and I’m fine.

Growing up on my own also taught me not to rely on anybody else. Once I learned how to play guitar, I found that could get me most of the things I wanted anyway. First thing it did was get me out of a place I was sick of.

I was 12 years old, doing my stint in Kansas City. My foster family there had an older son named Patrick, who’d gone off to college and left behind his guitar. It was a beat-up old thing, not sure it even had a brand name. A generic Martin knockoff, I think, just impossible to keep in-tune.

Anyway, I found it under the bed one day, picked it up and wondered for a minute what you did with it. Then I started strumming, and found out I already sort of knew how to play. It was really weird. I didn’t know chords or scales or notes or anything like that ­ still don’t, really ­ but I could bang out a tune and play along with records. I’ve got a good ear and I pick things up real quick, and remember them once I’ve played them. I’m left-handed and this guitar was right-handed, so I learned how to play upside down and backwards. I’ve never been able to play a left-handed guitar because of that, unless it’s strung right-handed.

Stepmom found me playing Patrick’s guitar and was about to make me stop. But when she heard what I was doing she sat down to listen for a while, looking surprised. She didn’t say anything then, but at dinner that night stepdad told me I was to leave the guitar alone. When I went to look for it the next day, they’d hidden it. They weren’t real bright, so it was easy to find ­ in the master bedroom closet, same place they always tried to hide Christmas presents. I took it down, played for a while and then put it in a better hiding place out in the tool shed so THEY wouldn’t find it.

No one was the wiser until Patrick came home the next weekend and asked where his guitar was. They all knew I’d taken it, but I just kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t have it.” Later, when we were alone, Patrick knocked me around pretty good, trying to make me tell him where it was. Twisted my arm behind my back so hard he almost broke my wrist. He was a real prick, Patrick was, and even dumber than his parents. I like to imagine him working at Time Out Biscuits nowadays, miserable and sweating like a pig.

Patrick went back to school Sunday night without his guitar, and I kept playing it on the sly. Like I said, I already sort of knew how, and after a couple months I was getting pretty good. So I thought I’d show stepfamily what that crappy old guitar could do. Next time Patrick was home, we were all at the dinner table, and I went and brought in the guitar, sat down and started playing before anybody could say anything. I noodled around a little, played some flashy riffs just to impress them. Then I played an actual song I’d heard, from listening to country radio ­ “Heeeeeear that loooooooooonesome whiiiiipperwiiiiiiiiill” ­ and sang it as steady as I could in my cracking 12-year-old voice.

They did not say a word. Just sat there listening, open-mouthed. I thought they must be digging it, because Patrick couldn’t play ­ I knew, I’d heard him try ­ and they had to be shocked to hear that old guitar sound so good. So I finished and waited for a reaction. And they sat there behind their plates of cold meatloaf, still not saying anything. Finally, Patrick reached over and yanked the guitar out of my hands, stood up and just destroyed the thing ­ smashed it right there on the dining room table, plates and forks and ketchup flying. Then he walked upstairs to his room and slammed the door. Step-parents still didn’t move. They just stared at me like I’d grown horns, until I finally got up and left the table, too.

About a week later, I left Kansas City. I was happy to leave, not even Charlie Parker could’ve hated being in Kansas City more than I did. Patrick’s parents had had enough of me by then, and I think the guitar was the last straw. Can’t say for sure, but I guess that was my first bad review.

Yeah, everybody’s a critic.

My favorite of all my step-parents was this couple in Louisville, a college professor and his wife. They weren’t really any better than Patrick’s parents, but the professor did have the best record collection I’ve ever seen. That was where I heard most of the music that influenced me, down in the basement of that house in Louisville. I was in high school by then, still feeling my way around on guitar. And every chance I could, I’d go down to the basement and play records. I counted once and he had more than 4,000 records. I heard them all.

I read once that Malcolm X copied down every word from the dictionary while he was in prison, just learning about language. I basically did the same thing with the professor’s record collection. I listened to every last one ­ all of them, from Abba to ZZ Top, even the bad ones ­ in alphabetical order. The professor had a guitar, too, so I’d play along. Sometimes, that was a real mindfuck. You ever tried to play Professor Longhair or Charlie Parker on guitar? Brutal.

That professor was actually a pretty pathetic guy. More than once, I caught him screwing one of his students in the basement ­ always around finals, no doubt in exchange for higher grades. But I’ve got to hand it to him, he had great taste in music. He had all the Hall of Fame types like the Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry, most every country record worth owning, some amazing old soul and R&B records, a bunch of this weird-ass Eastern European stuff I could never figure out how to play. And the Sex Pistols, Jesus God! To a 17-year-old like me who’d never known a single person I could trust, the Pistols were like a beacon.

The professor was disappointed I didn’t show any interest in going to college, or even finishing high school. But if he’d been paying attention, he would’ve realized that his own record collection was all the college I’d ever need. I was getting pretty good on guitar by then, and also hearing new things in my head ­ music different from the records, but kind of the same, too. Without even realizing it, I’d absorbed everything I needed.

Just in time to get kicked out of the house again. I thought about threatening to tell his wife about the college girls in the basement, but decided to just steal his guitar instead. I’ve still got it somewhere, too.


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