SCARS AND SNIPES: LEE HARVEY OSMOND LOOKS IN MIRROR, REFLECTS ON LIFE
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
“The things that you looked in the mirror as a young man and saw as flaws, you grow out of those. You grow out of some of those fears and you grow into your scars.” So says Tom Wilson, the Juno Award-nominated Canadian multi-faceted artist who’s just released the captivating album Beautiful Scars under the attention grabbing moniker Lee Harvey Osmond.
Aside from being a prolific musician, Wilson is a poet, a painter and a soon-to-be published author whose creative juices always seem to be flowing. A conversation with him is like riding a rollercoaster: lots of twists and turns, ups and down, frightening and fun all at the same time. I recently spoke with him about scars – beautiful and otherwise – and just about everything else under the sun. His current North American tour runs through August 14. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
Let’s talk about your new record, Beautiful Scars. Why did you think that a somewhat thinly veiled reference to the man who killed JFK would best represent you and your music? What does the name Lee Harvey Osmond mean to you?
It seems like more of a play on words or an attention getter, I guess. Also, from my era growing up, you could say that’s where I walked in. I was four-years-old and you’re watching the president get his head blown off, you watch Martin Luther King die, you watch Bobby Kennedy die. There were a lot of things that were fearful that were countered by pop culture. And pop culture in probably the most evil form. It kind of came in the way of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and The Partridge Family and The Osmond Brothers, and things like that. They were like shiny things held up to get our attention away from our own fears. I feel that as fearful as we were about people like Lee Harvey Oswald, we should also be as fearful of things like the Osmond Brothers singing on the Andy Williams show, cuz that’s pretty scary s**t when you think about it (laughs). Not because of the music, but just because it’s so homogenized and it just softens up so much that we actually have no edge. So Lee Harvey Osmond was a perfect thing. So the name is a little bit about shaking off all those fears and opening up your heart in a way that you can sing about whatever you feel like doing because as an artist that’s what we’re allowed to do.
Well put. Again, Beautiful Scars is the name of the solo album and it kicks off with the very slinky, groove and vibe-filled “Loser Without Your Love.” To me, your vocals are a very cool combination of Dr. John, some Leon Russell, Tom Waits and throw a little Beck in there, and not just because of the “Loser” tie-in. Tell me about this track.
The backdrop is actually the old TH&B (Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo) railway station in downtown Hamilton. There’s something about old train stations that bring out a little bit of the romance and the poet in you. You just look for those moments to bring out the poet in you, and hopefully the poet can deliver something that is kind of timeless. So it’s kind of a timeless love story about a guy just trying to get through his day without a fight. It’s longing. (Quoting a lyric) “Still in love with the girl that you used to be/little Jesus walking on your endless sea.” Really if I could have just sung those two lines in the entire song I probably would have been saying as much as I needed to say for the entire song.” In my writing, in my visual art, in my music, everything is about getting to the point. Those two lines state volumes for me, as far as what I’m trying to say.
Well I appreciate you painting the picture there, and more on your visual art a little bit later in the conversation. Is there an overlying message or theme you’re trying to get across on Beautiful Scars? Scars aren’t generally seen as beautiful.
No, but they are what we pick up, whether we like it or not. You get to a certain age where you actually start to appreciate them more. The things that you looked in the mirror as a young man and saw as flaws, you grow out of those. You grow out of some of those fears and you grow into your scars. When we make it to our 50s we actually realize that we can’t be anyone except who we are. We realize that the guy 25 years ago that made all those f***ing mistakes and broke people’s hearts and made people sad, or whatever it was that we did that we lived through; we’re not that person anymore. And at somewhere in there I think we all become the people that we always wanted to be, that didn’t know were there, you know? So, it really is a bit of a middle age statement, the beautiful scars. I can only be who I am now. I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.
Well another part of who you are is a member of the rock-folk, sort of country-alternative unit called Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. How do you find time to juggle all of these projects?
Deciding to create – and I don’t even want to be as bold as to say deciding to be an artist – but deciding to create doesn’t have a clock. So if you play your cards right – or if the cards fall in your favor – you’re given time to be able to do a lot of things. You try to become an artist so that you can do whatever you want to do whenever you wanna do it. And if you have any kind of ability to sustain yourself, or if your art is able to make yourself that money that you can afford a little bit of that time, then that’s what you should be doing. So finding that time is easy. And the honor to be able to be handed projects like to write songs for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and especially on their last record to be able to write songs for our guests like Vince Gill and Jason Isbell and Buddy Miller and Bruce Cockburn. I mean, hey, that’s a job that I never imagined I’d have in my life.
Yeah, it’s practically not a job; it’s a pleasure and an honor. For all of us who don’t punch a clock, I always say about myself that my mind is never in neutral…
We find the time. Let me jump back into the record and ask you about a couple of songs. Following the bossa nova-in-a-whisper-like “Blue Moon Drive,” you launch into the guitar-driven “Shake the Hand.” Whose hand (lyric line) “shook the earth?” Whose hand are you shaking in this song?
Well, I’m kinda putting my hand out. I guess I’m being a little cocky in this song. It comes from a gospel tradition, or even a Mississippi delta blues, “Mannish Boy,” “I’m a Man,” you know, “shake the hand.” I’ve done all these things. There’s a certain amount of pride that goes into this; there’s a certain amount of bragging that goes into that song. To be quite honest with you, there’s a lot of things about the song that I’m not, but it’s kinda nice to put on that pair of shoes. Anytime you can put on a pair of shoes and walk around for three-and-a-half minutes acting and talking like Muddy Waters – or your interpretation of Muddy Waters – that’s a pretty good three-and-a-half minutes for anyone to spend.
Yes, indeed! That leads me to a question that I often ask in these conversations, and again, you and I come from the same generation so you’ll get the reference. I wanna ask you about your proverbial, if not literal, Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment…
Well that was it!
(Laughs) Was that it? I was gonna say, what was the spark to getting into music, but tell me your story.
Well that was it, you know. For our generation it was The Beatles, and for a four-year-old, the first thing I did was grab a broom and from that moment I didn’t want to do anything else except play guitar and sing songs. And on a greater sense, even as a four-year-old I wanted to be an artist and a communicator. I knew what I wanted to be when I saw The Beatles. And there was a side that even as a four-year-old connected to the fact that these guys are getting girls to scream at them. Even as a four-year-old that made sense to me.
Yeah, I was two weeks shy of my sixth birthday and I can tell you the impact it had on me. I was like, “Why is this so cool? Who are these people? Why is this so cool? Why am I glued to the screen? So that was the impact they had on so many of us.
It’s true. Also, you look back and look at pictures of Elvis in ’56 and it’s like, this guy didn’t come from this world! This guy was chiseled and sent out of a f***in’ flying saucer! And there was something about The Beatles – even as a four-year-old – that was like, these guys were beamed down from another planet, cuz I don’t know anything I’ve ever seen that’s like this.
It’s hard to put your finger on it, but the impact was incredible. The love of music is often handed down from generation to generation and that appears to be the case in your family. You’ve been performing live with your son, Thompson. How did that come about, and describe the special dynamic created when you’re performing with your kid?
Originally he started playing bass with me when he was 16 or 17. [Years later] We went down to play (Nashville’s roots and Americana variety show) Music City Roots and we had to fly to Kansas City the next day, we get off the plane and we went to the music store and bought him a shaker, a tambourine and a harmonica, and I said, “Okay, let’s go to the hotel room and run through a set.” It’s just something about blood on blood when you have that with a brother, a sibling or somebody that you actually made. There’s an energy that happens there that neither one of us recognize, and we wouldn’t have known it unless people had respond the way they did. So, on that side of it, it works. On the other side of it it’s a gift to be able to do that with your kid. He’s a huge inspiration on me and we’re completely inspired to be able to do this together. It’s pretty cool. You can’t buy that kind of luck. It’s like, what else do you want in your life?
Absolutely. So a top candidate for my favorite track on Beautiful Scars is the very beautiful and intimate acoustic duet “Dreams Come and Go.”
Yeah, that’s written by Thompson.
Tell me who you’re singing with on this one.
That’s my son. He wrote it.
Oh, that is your son. Okay, very cool. Any help from you, or did he just say, “Here’s the track, let’s go?”
Oh, no, the way it goes is that I hear him singing and playing something, and I say, “Hey, what’s that?” and he says, “I don’t know, it’s something I’m working on.” And I figure I better get a piece of this, so I get in there and write.
Well you’re a smart man to get in (laughs). Another standout for me is the very sultry “Hey Hey Hey” which paints a very cinematic sonic picture. I’m gonna quote a lyric here: “When there’s no one left to follow me, I just fall away.”
Yeah. I wrote that with my ex-girlfriend who was Italian and very dramatic. I used to call it Mediterranean darkness…and drama. Sometimes it was drama that was appreciated and sometimes it was drama that made me want to get in a taxi cab and leave town.
It’s interesting that you say she’s Italian because I was gonna bring up the fact that the first time I heard the song, I thought the guitar had a Spaghetti Western flavor to it.
Yeah, we were looking for that. I love that sound. It’s that Glen Campbell “Galveston” sound, Marlboro Man sound, Spaghetti Western sound. So, yeah, I like hearing that.
Speaking of painting a picture, I understand you also find time to be a painter. What does that artistic outlet bring to you that perhaps music doesn’t?
Well, they’re all kinda one and the same for me. It’s all a little bit of meditation. The one thing I find about art, literature and music is that people who love those things, we approach them all pretty much the same way. So as writers and songwriters and visual artists, at least for me, I approach them all the same way. See I started scratching the lyrics into the canvases with a knife when I was doing these paintings, and I liked the idea because it kind of blurred the lines between the mediums I worked in. So it was kinda like…this circular motion in the creative process where the art was actually feeding the songwriting. So trying to incorporate all the things that you love about creating and art, to me, are important. Like I say, the lines are blurred for me. Art should be born out of the life that you’re living in that moment. Life marches on and art should kind of hook its wagon up to that star. So that’s kinda where my mandate is, it’s to keep my life fully nailed to the cross that I call art.
So as if those two creative outlets weren’t enough, you’re currently writing a memoir that I understand will be published by Penguin/Random House/Double Day Canada. Where are you at in that process?
When they called me to do this they said “Have you ever thought of writing a book” and I have to tell you, I said “F**k no, that’s way too much work,” and I was right, it is way too much work (laughs). But it’s also something that I’m chipping away at. Every day we have to discover new ways to believe in ourselves, and every day we have to find ways to be confident in what we do. You know people get their hearts broken – artists get their hearts broken every day. Either by themselves or by the world around them, and it’s always been that way. And once again, writing the book is being inspired by day-to-day life. I’m writing a lot of it almost in real time. I guess that’s part of what I said earlier about finally becoming yourself when you get into your 50s. You can look back on things and you don’t have to beat yourself down for who you were. And as a result I think something flourishes in there.
Finally, Beautiful Scars wraps with two wildly diverse sounding songs; the funky “Black Spruce,” which features a flute straight out of “Super Fly,” and the acoustic, more country-infused “Bottom of Our Love.” Here’s my question, Tom: if you could only have a conversation with one of these two late, great music icons, who would you pick: Curtis Mayfield or Merle Haggard?
Wow, f**k man, I guessed what you were gonna say (laughs)! I was actually thinking about “Black Spruce” cuz I haven’t thought about that song for a while, and you bring up that funky flute! So, who would I speak with? Well I actually toured with Merle Haggard, so I did get to have those conversations with him. He once said, “You know what I like about you guys here in Canada? I like your brand of freedom.” And I thought, everything this guy says, day-to-day on that tour, every time he opened his mouth he said something great! So, since I already did that with Merle, I guess I would have to say Curtis Mayfield, because I wouldn’t mind having that kind of time with Curtis Mayfield. Not to question him like some kind of faraway fan, but more just to let him say what he had to say.
Amen! Sounds good to me. Tom, thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Hey yeah, thanks for doing this.
My pleasure. Take care of yourself.
Thank you very much. See ya soon.