Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Article 6: Thomas Burke Bishop, Jr.
I met Thom Bishop in the fall of 1970. Our paths crossed at The Red Herring Coffeehouse on the University of Illinois campus, where we each performed frequently. Thom would either perform solo or with his friend, Fred Rubin, and I always tried to catch their one-hour sets, because they were two of the best in the endless array of musical talent on campus. To me, Thom had a stage presence that was somewhere between Buddy Holly and John Lennon. The Buddy Holly comparison wasn't hard to make, because Thom did several Buddy Holly songs (like "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue") and just nailed them. But with his leather jacket and quick, penetrating wit, Thom reminded me of a young John Lennon.
Early in our friendship, Thom and I passed each other on the Herring steps one night and he asked where I was headed. I told him I was going to drop in and see a play at the nearby Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I remember him saying, "You go to a lot of things there, don't you?" We chatted for a few minutes about our mutual love of theater, and in his modest, off-handed way, he suggested that I go to see Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot the next week. It turned out that Thom was starring in the play as one of the two main characters. It was then that I found out he was a theater major.
Although our friendship began to grow, the first pivotal night of conversation occurred a few months later, after I had moved into the building that housed The Red Herring. I was working at the coffeehouse almost every night and would see Thom quite often. At some point, the subject of Janis Ian's music came up, and I said that I was a big fan of hers. Thom said he'd never really listened to her music, so I invited him into my little room to listen to one of her songs. We sat and listened to two full albums, and we talked about music into the night.
Over the next two and a half years, we spent a lot of time together. We would play our new songs for each other when we finished them and attend each other's coffeehouse sets. For some reason (whether Thom asked me or I asked him), I sat in one night for one of Thom's sets, playing a second guitar and adding harmony to the songs I knew. It was completely unrehearsed. Midway through the set, he announced that he was going to do a song he'd just completed that week--one that I hadn't heard yet. I sat quietly next to him while he played the amazing "Mr. Arthur's Place," one of the greatest pieces of songwriting I've ever heard. What a treat to be sitting on stage next to someone performing an instant classic! (The song was later recorded by Michael Johnson and Mandy Patinkin.) When he finished, he looked over at me and grinned, just knowing he'd blown me away.
That is the nature of our friendship--subtle surprises and a closeness that is usually accompanied by an inexplicable magic. More than once, while walking alone on campus, I'd glance over to find him walking next to me, and we would continue a conversation from days past, without even saying hello. One of our favorite pastimes was to hop in his car late at night and drive on the country roads outside Urbana, either talking or listening to the night's sounds. I remember two particular episodes from those nocturnal rides.
One night as we were driving adjacent to a large cemetery, I saw a set of headlights keeping up with us from inside the cemetery. Near the end of 200-yard stretch, the headlights suddenly disappeared. Thom asked, "Did you see that?" I said something brilliant, like, "Yeah, headlights, what...?" We both knew there was no road in the cemetery, nor was it a reflection of our headlights, and then we both came to the same conclusion: some kid was still racing his car, long after he'd been killed doing it. It was our James Dean moment.
And then there was the time that Thom decided to stop along a country road in front of a dark, deserted farmhouse one warm summer night. Neither of us had been there before. There were high cornfields on all sides, and without a word we walked around the property to the back side of the barn, which was brightly lit by the shining moon. We stood there in silence for a minute, and then I had this stark impression that we had walked into an Andrew Wyeth painting. The light and air were eerily reminiscent of Wyeth, and we were the subject of his work. Thom knew exactly what I was saying. It did not seem so unusual for us to experience.
Thom pushed me to create. Thom may be the most creative person I've ever known. What's so impressive is that he's applied that creativity in so many ways--songwriting, acting, musical scores, and the writing of plays, short stories and novels. He's made several excellent albums, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan and Richie Havens, among others. I also highly recommend his debut novel, "Something Gorgeous," in which he has created a parallel, yet divergent, universe to "The Great Gatsby."
In his constant, unrelenting pursuit of art, he has always pushed me to create. The "push" has been subtle, more like a constant reminder. One of his favorite questions for me is not, "What are you doing these days," but "What are you creating these days?" Creating something is Thom's lifeblood, and, as trite as it may sound, his creativity has inspired me to create in my lifetime. He made me realize that I am not really at peace and satisfied with life unless I am creating something. I have produced songs, essays, stories, poems, blogs, works in glass and ceramics. All of those have given me great joy and a degree of accomplishment, but only one thing has given me complete fulfillment and pleasure--writing computer programs.
Stanford Professor Donald Knuth once said, "Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty." Over my 42 years of creating computer programs, in 13 languages and almost 50 business markets, I have always approached the process as I would approach writing a novel--with inspired ideas, a deep and organized structure, work discipline, clarity of purpose, a good plot and a flair for words. I remember talking with a friend in the early 1980's about "elegant solutions" in computer programming, and what we were really discussing was one's desire to create beautiful, useful things with computers.
I associate that unabashed urge in me to create with the example Thom has set and encouraged as long as I have known him.
And Finally.... Thom lives in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches at both Naropa University and the University of Colorado. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is a program co-founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He is also a lecturer for the U. of C.'s Film Studies Department.
Whenever we talk (and we both feel it is not nearly often enough), it is like walking side-by-side again and having our chats about music and literature and life and what we're creating. It is a place of real comfort for me.
I remember getting a call from Thom some time in the early 1980's, when he was in Nashville or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles working on a project. He told me that a mutual friend of ours, songwriter Fred Koller, was getting married the following Saturday on a beach in Santa Cruz, and would I please show up and take a bottle of Champagne from both of us? It was just the type of thing he knew I'd do, and Fred was delighted when I walked up to him on the beach and told him Thom sent his regrets for not attending but wished him well.
Thom showed up in my life unexpectedly, just at the right time.