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Remembering Tom Hallett, Twin Cities music writer extraordinaire

L-R: Tom Hallett with friend Paul Dickinson
L-R: Tom Hallett with friend Paul Dickinson
Courtesy of Paul Dickinson

Tom Hallett was a true rock 'n' roll writer. He lived the rock 'n' roll life like the Twin Cities' own Lester Bangs, and wrote about it in great detail. For decades, Hallett avidly attended innumerable shows, and celebrated our scene hard. Hallett's recent passing after a struggle with diabetes shocked many. He was 50 years old.

His friends include cohorts at publications featuring his writing (The Squealer, Pulse of the Twin Cities, 'Round the Dial) and innumerable musicians, but his reach could never be contained. As Gimme Noise gathered stories of Hallett from the people in his life, a consistent thread emerged. These folks spoke about his passion for writing, making mix-tapes, radio, and having good times with his friends at all hours. It's said by all that Tom was a sweet, funny guy who was well-loved by all. Here's a lengthy collection, they way he'd like it, of memories from some of the people who knew him best.

Steve Birmingham - The Squealer writer/editor: Tom Hallett had rock 'n' roll in his bones. It showed up on an x-ray when he had one of his nightmare back surgeries, which, along with other health challenges, my dear friend rarely, if ever, complained about. As a music journalist and as a person (fun fact: they're not always the same thing) Tom had a purity of motive and to me he is very much in direct lineage to other bang-up writers like Ben Hamper, Charles Bukowski, and Hubert Selby, Jr.

Tommy Gunn's informed interviews, epic rants and reviews were genuine, hilarious, insightful, entertaining, and often unhinged, but Tom Hallett was also one of the most stoic cats I'll ever know. Please know that. I adored his cynical wit, our conversations, trading email, and sharing all this great music together, but his natural ebullience in the face of pain and the hardscrabble is an immense source of humility and inspiration for me. And his passing hurts like hell. Let's forever celebrate the sense of community that Tom fostered, his freewheeling talent, his original voice, his magnanimous rock 'n' roll heart, his giant contribution to the Twin Cities music scene, and his glorious example of forging his own path in print and in life, but, beyond "the idea of Tom," people need to know that this rawk monster was a total sweetheart; a beloved son, a loving father to his son Bryan, and a best friend to his ex-wife Linda. Tom was not impervious to feeling the squeeze, man, but he chose to be tenacious, upbeat, and productive. He just had an irrepressible spirit and a most contagious love of music.

Tom and I became fast friends nearly 20 years ago when he just showed up at the Squealer magazine office in St. Paul where I was the music editor. Tom had bit of a Motörhead roadie look as he stood in our hall doorway. It certainly wasn't an affectation nor was his air of gonzo but "Otto's Jacket" is a known thing, right? And back then, where there was live music, there was tobacco smoke (and in general, Tom was always a keen barometer of how uptight other people are). Anyhow, Tom came bearing the best mix tapes, and, well, here we are now, wherever this is.

Out of all the years we hung out, collaborated, and stayed in touch, the image that comes to my mind of him right now I didn't witness. But the picture is clear as a bell and it's loving and true, and oddly serene: Tom is sitting backstage at the Target Center entertaining a wee Frances Bean Cobain who has been plopped onto his lap. They're making each other smile, two gentle souls, two new pals, and Frances Bean beams to Tom, "I like your jacket smell." And it makes me smile to replay Linda telling me that she was ticked that Tom left her to go backstage. And I can see Tom's sheepish and satisfied expression when in his polite defense; he asks her, "What would you do in that situation?"

Leo Keulbs - The Squealer, Pulse of the Twin Cities, former Frances Gumm drummer: I was a co-publisher of the Squealer with Paul Bernstein. Tom walked in as a volunteer writer at the same time as Laura Brandenburg, and was there the entire time. He was super-passionate about music. Tom's life was writing about music and making mix-tapes. I went on to co-found Pulse of the Twin Cities with Ed Felien. He wrote for Pulse, and 'Round the Dial.

I was managing a leather store next to Speedboat Gallery. I hired Tom as a salesman. He made the place look like his living room (laughs). He knew something about every kind of music. He was very serious about it. He liked to debate, but never argued for the sake of arguing. He was a good guy to talk with about music.

He talked me out of leaving Frances Gumm, twice. I was married and felt I'd grown out of being in a band. He said, "The band is really good, you should stay."

'Round the Dial was the best venue for his voice. He loved music so much, he couldn't not have every detail in the piece. He became a real voice for music. Tom would help Paul Dickinson with book and record sales.

Tom was an important part of a community that didn't know how important it was at the time. The Turf Club SPMC... he was a crucial fabric of the music scene. Losing Tom is like losing that time and the music then. He was well-loved by everyone. People can find all his writing for the Squealer at the Minneapolis Public Library periodicals department. Paul Dickinson - Punk poet, writer, Frances Gumm musician: Goodbye Dear Friend, actual Rocker Dude in a leather jacket -- icon, legend, and glorious malcontent. There is not enough ink or gigabytes to describe how much you loved rock 'n' roll, and how many adventures you went on to serve its majesty. You will be missed, and we shall crank it up in your honor.

He was a writer who operated in the field. He was not in a cubicle. When I first met him at his apartment in Little Canada, he had some Iron Maiden cassettes he had dubbed to some teens who were there. We wrote for Pulse at the same time. He was a hero because I saw he terrorized the accountant at Pulse to deliver his paycheck to him at the Turf Club.

Martin Devaney - musician (Crossing Guards): Not sure when I first met Tom Hallett, but there can be no doubt it was at the Turf and it was probably related to an Ike Reilly show. Over the years, I was charmed by his kindness and gargantuan columns that I know drove many an editor nuts. He was such a careful listener... he did a lot of insightful reviews of my records, including a track by track review of what I now view as a rather unremarkable effort. I'll always remember the night spent with him for that Pulse cover story at his Midway apartment, every inch crammed with rock 'n' roll. He was a rare breed; a warrior. They don't and can't build writers like that much anymore. He will be missed. Rob Rule - musician (Stereo Rules, Mammy Nuns), former booker Turf Club SPMC: Tommy Gunn aka Tommy Hallett. Wordsmith, philosopher, poet, advocate, believer, debater, curmudgeon, teddy bear, father, husband, friend, and so many, many more things. Tommy was sort of a paradox or contradiction, if you will. He was one of the 1%ers, who have so much passion and belief in the power of music, that they devote their life to their muse, in this case music, often times to the detriment of themselves.

Tommy lived the life of a fanatic, a musical fanatic. And while he would occasionally sing out a song, usually very late or early, depending on your perspective, he lived to see, feel, understand and experience music. He would then do his damnedest to put into words the way he saw, felt, understood and experienced music. To spread the word. Live music was the holy grail and the trough he drank from. For many years Tommy could be seen all over the Twin Cities, out supporting artists he liked and respected.

In the nearly 10 years the St. Paul Music Club and I spent at the Turf Club, Tommy was a fixture. He would promote shows, review shows and artists' works, come to shows to support in person, as he grinned and laughed and nodded his head along to the tunes on stage. Then after the shows were over and the bar closed up, we'd often find ourselves at an after-hour location and converse endlessly about... music, with music always part of the background. Tommy was a neighbor and a friend, a real good friend to me and Leah, the Mammy Nuns, Turf Club, SPMC, amongst hundreds of others. And an artist. And a True Believer in the power of music. Now the bodily pain is gone and he's finally arguing/debating/hangin' with Lester Bangs. Hey Tommy, save me a seat. Sincerely, Rob Rule

Dave Wiegardt - former Turf Club/Clown Lounge manager/booker: I first met Tom through Leo Kuelbs and Pulse magazine when they brought Tulip Sweet into the Clown Lounge and the monthly Cavalcade of Stars variety show was conjured up. This was the fall of 1995. One Sunday a month we'd have Myrna Byrd juggling, Tulip Sweet and Mr. Yesterday crooning, a found object Puppet show, and a Paul D. observation all paraded on the dimly lit stage in that smoky basement. Tom Hallett was our door guy. I paid him in Budweiser. He would invariably slide me a mix tape at some point in the night and turn me on to a band that drank too much. We shared similar tastes. 

One of the last nights I saw Tom was at a party in his hotel room above Tracks Bar on University Ave, which was odd because we all had apartments near by, including Tom. I believe it was after a Tulip Sweet show. We were all quite misbehaved. At some point we had skinny-dippers in the pool below and had the manager come to scold us when Tulip, jumping on the bed, was catapulted into a wall, knocking a framed print to the floor.  I remember people leaving the party through the bedroom's window, which was hardly seemly as we were on the second floor.  When we left to go to an after/afterparty, we called Tom's hotel room and had him DJ for us over the phone through his boom box.

Point being, Tom lived a full life. And the time that I knew him he was following his passion and lived life, hard and with style. And now may he rest, in peace.      Peter Jesperson - New West Records A & R, Twin Tone Records: Tom was one of the most dedicated music fans I've ever known, a fine journalist and a good friend. He was a staunch supporter of records I worked on over the years, for which I am eternally grateful. He was a real one-of-a-kind character and I'm going to miss him a ton.

Joan Vorderbruggen - artist, Cultural District Arts Coordinator: Tommy Gun! Thinking of Tom when he lived in his little apartment near the Turf and the many nights we'd bring up the sun up with one amazing track after another. He was someone who could actually shut me up with how much he knew about every song he dropped the needle on, and how he could tell you a half-dozen stories that related to it somehow. One day, while living in New York I received a shoebox-sized package in the mail. Tom had sent me a dozen mixed tapes, all of the sleeves hand typed with every single track listed. It was totally the sitting-around-listening-to-records-with-Hallett-mother-lode; I could not believe what a thoughtful and fantastic gift that was to receive!!  And honestly that was the thing with Tom. Music was a language of love and generosity for him. He shared it eagerly and freely and got everyone around him excited to do the same. I will miss him dearly and hope he's rocking the jukebox on other side.

Chris Perricelli - musician (Little Man): I met Tom from being on tour helping with Ike Reilly back in 2001. "Tommy Gunn." Every time we came to the Twin Cities from Chicago he'd be there to greet us in his black leather jacket and that big smile of his wanting to talk about the music. Very kind person. He wanted to have face time not only with Ike but everyone in the band and the crew. With me, he was interested in what I was doing in Chicago with my own music and we talked more about classic rock, blues, guitar heroes and local favorites. He was so well-versed in rock 'n' roll. He filled me in on the local scene and what was currently happening. I gave him a CD of my own band Little Man and he really took to it. When I moved to St. Paul and started up a new Little Man band he was at shows consistently and would always want to talk. Tommy was very encouraging. He also gave me opportunities to play solo sets at his shop on Snelling.   Tommy was the first person to write up a review for Little Man here in the Twin Cites. He introduced me to the Minnesota public formally through the press. It was more than I ever would have expected, as what he wrote was a pretty lengthy piece with pictures. No one had spent that much effort reviewing my music publicly before. I was in awe at the time seeing that. I'm forever thankful for him for spending the time to listen and give me a chance and the encouragement to push forward and be recognized. Tommy helped immensely in getting my start here.   He had moved to Indiana for a little while and told me I was always welcome to visit. So one time, on a Little Man tour, we stopped by on our way out from Indianapolis and found his farm where he had been living with his musician friends, the Rouch brothers. They had a nice farm with a studio in the barn. We all jammed some and listened to tunes. He was also hosting his own radio station from out there so we did an interview and played a couple songs live. That's a great memory. He was all about music. All the time.   We had lost touch for a good while after that. Then I saw him back in town and we reconnected. I'm glad we did. I was always happy to see him at shows. Sorry to see him go.

Henry Hormann - Pulse of the Twin Cities, music writer/editor: When I served as the music section editor for the Pulse of the Twin Cities for a brief window of time in the late '90s, I had the pleasure of working with a slew of talented writers and personalities. On a weekly basis, I really looked forward to seeing what each of these unique personalities would bring forward.   Receiving and then reading Tom Hallett's "'Round the Dial" columns felt like the equivalent of tuning into a pirate radio station. Implied in his columns was this sense that he was writing directly to the reader privately between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m., with beer and cigarette close by. His writing was conversational and he also liked to "go off on tangents" as they say, and let us follow the twists and turns. It probably seems cliché to throw out the name of Lester Bangs when talking about Tom, but he was definitely the Twin Cities version, and I know he was a big fan.   When I first met Tom, I wasn't surprised to see that he wore a black leather jacket and seemed pretty blue collar compared to any other music writer I ever met. He had kind of long-ish hair and it was sometimes a little bit feathered in a way that reminded me of the '70s. He had a little edge to him, and none of it was forced. On the flipside though, he was a great person to have as a friend or colleague and loyal in his friendships. He genuinely enjoyed the many kindred spirit musical friends he made, and he really was a great dad to his son.   Most of the writers would usually drop by the Pulse offices to pick up discs and press packages mailed to us by the labels and publicists. But since Tom didn't have access to a car at the time, every week I would drive them over to his apartment in Little Canada and drop them off for him.   I remember the first time I dropped over to his place. I had planned to stop in to chat with him for a moment or two, and drop off some discs for him. Then he offered me a beer, and then of course many beers later, there I was still sitting there BS'ing with him, listening to music, talking shop, and telling stories. What's cool about Tom is that my story is pretty much the same story I've heard from everyone else -- Tom's door was open like that to everyone. If you mentioned you liked or were curious about a certain band, next time you came over, he'd put a mix tape in your hands.   Tom also had great humor. He used to call the request lines at KQ to amuse his buddies, pretending to be a blue-collar guy working an overnight shift. He'd disguise his voice (even though he didn't need to, he would exaggerate it to get into character) and say something like "Yeah, this is Tommy from New Brighton working the overnight shift at Thermal Dynamics... could you play some Speedwagon?" It reminded me of making prank phone calls as a kid. He did it just to crack up his friends, and probably himself as well.   Thankfully too, he eventually got out of Little Canada (which wasn't quite his speed -- and yeah, there were probably a few noise complaints filed) and moved to the Mighty Midway a few years ago where he could be closer to friends and hang out at the Turf Club more often. I'm glad for him that he got to enjoy those simple pleasures the last few years despite his health condition.   Rich Mattson - musician (Junkboat, Ol' Yeller, Glenrustles): I remember one time on an Ol' Yeller tour, we had a couple days off and decided to go and see the Rouch Brothers' farm in Indiana, where Tom was hanging out for the season. When we arrived, there was a gang of around 12 people hanging out waiting for us, welcoming us to the farm. It is one of my fondest tour memories. We stayed up all night with Jamie and Terry Rouch and Tom and their friends. Jamie (RIP) recorded us jamming and later, when people were all tuckered out, Tom and I went over to the corner of the barn where he had his pirate radio station set up and went live on the air, I sang a lot of tunes live. We talked, laughed, rambled, played some more tunes til the sun came up. Actually, most of my memories of Tom Hallett involved staying up until sunrise. And we weren't doing "those" kind of drugs either. Mostly just Budweiser. He was really fun to hang out with. Provocative, entertaining, mischievous. I like Paul Dickinson's quote "a real live rock 'n' roller in a leather jacket." That was Tom.

Terry Walsh - musician (Belfast Cowboys, St. Dominic's Trio): I enjoyed his heartfelt, stream-of-consciousness writing, and his passion for music. And he was really funny too. In 2002, he gave us a write-up in Pulse for our first show at the Turf Club, and got the attention of a lot of cool people who came to see us. The band's still going strong after 12 years, but we might never have seen year three without that pat on the back.

Al Grande - musician (Al Grande Quartet, Trailer Park Queen): I've been interviewed twice by Tom Hallett. Once for Pulse and once for 'Round the Dial. An interview with Tom involved hanging out at his place, listening to records and getting high while the tape recorder rolled. I wish I had those tapes now. I remember that his articles about me were incredibly long and unedited, full of misquotes and inaccuracies, but that didn't matter. Tom always wrote about music he loved first and not who was the flavor of the week. He always gave us press when other local media wouldn't give us the time of day. He will be missed by every musician he ever wrote about. Sondra Mann - friend, live music supporter: Appreciating music like it was a religion is something we shared. He gave thanks every time I saw him at the Turf Club. Love for music was an understanding he had with many people. His rough edges were the seasoning of life to anyone in his presence. He was a true character who was always nice-n-happy to see me when I saw him out and about.

Pete Scholtes - writer, City Pages: Tom Hallett wrote with love about music, and captured the high stakes of that love so perfectly. Reading him in Pulse of the Twin Cities and 'Round the Dial Magazine was like listening to friends argue about music, where the subtext of any rant is: I'm happy to be spending time on earth doing this with you. Nancy Sartor - Pulse of the Twin Cities assistant editor: When I started at Pulse in 2004, Tom was still writing his weekly column. I remember that his reviews came in just under deadline, and always over the word count. The work was raw and provocative, and I always imagined him to have a bit of the Hunter S. Thompson outlaw in him.

Tom wrote 'Round the Dial until the paper folded in 2007, then moved it online. We never met in person, but talked on the phone and exchanged emails and Facebook messages. His passion for music was undeniable, and his commitment to the local scene, in particular, was vast. Tom was an enigma -- a crusty, hard-livin' rock 'n roll man, with a penchant for the underdog and a heart as big as the community he wrote about. His legacy runs deep.

Johnny Kass - Dead Media, HiFi Hair and Records, GoJohnnyGo record store/seller: His writing at 'Round the Dial and Pulse of the TC will not be forgotten. The writing staff he assembled there (Donny Doane, Laura Brandenburg, Henry Hormann, Leo Keulbs) had a formidable flavor all their own.

Todd Brandt - longtime friend, Northern Ash guitarist: In 1994, shortly after winter, I made a request to have the closet in my apartment looked at by eminence due to water soaking the entire floor of said closet. As it turned out, the water was coming down a pipe on the roof and into my bedroom. It happens. I was a night owl. I slept all day, stayed up all night, didn't have a job, blah blah. The man that tended to my apartment that day left a card. Tommy Gunn Studios. I thought it was a dude that owned a recording studio. After all I was a musician, and this lit up my eyes.

I gave a call to the number, and now, 20 years later I am sitting here writing the hardest damn thing I could ever muster up. I spent most of 1995 through 1998 as a phantom, fourth member of the Hallett family. I watched over Bryan when Tom and Linda went out and was allowed access to Tom's vast collection where I was allowed to listen to anything. It was a music junkie's dream come true. I learned of bands I'd have never heard of on my own. Tom had a little bit of everything, but not much metal, until I came along. That's always funny to me, he enjoyed metal and appreciated all the hard work we metal guys do. At the end of the day, it wasn't as appealing to him as other genres of music and that's alright.

Tom could talk your ear off, for hours, about how member A of band H had a hand in member X of band M writing a hit song, getting a band together, etc. And he would walk you through the years, up to and until the release of the song, tell you stories about the bands he met, etc. But, at the end of the day, the one thing that brought he and I together was our love, our deep love for music of any genre. Classical, alternative, country, ska, metal, it didn't matter. We shared collections, loaned each other cassettes, CDs, etc. Tom was personally responsible for me rediscovering Impaler when Undead Things was released, as well as being the pointman that pretty much got the old band I used to play in our first gig at Big V's on University back in 2001.

I knew he was battling an illness. I could tell. These things aren't easy to keep from me, I just didn't know to what extent -- though he confided in me and let me know what he was fighting against back in 2008. It breaks my heart to have lost a good friend of 20 years. It saddens me that Linda and Bryan are suffering through this. But I pray for their healing, strength and well-being. Sheldon Thomas Hallett, you are deeply loved and missed, my friend.   Dan Israel - singer/songwriter: I think what stood out most for me about Tom Hallett was that he wasn't cynical.  He wasn't a hipster or a snob. He liked what he liked and he was unapologetic about telling you so. You know how they do "No Apologies" on the Current? Tom was the original "No Apologies" -- he never apologized for his tastes. He didn't care if you thought he was cool for liking something, and frankly, he probably liked a fair amount of stuff that wasn't considered all that cool. Including my music.

Tom championed my music for many years, and often it seemed he was one of the only ones doing so. I've never really been considered particularly cutting edge or hip, but Tom didn't care. He didn't just promote me, though -- he really believed in me. He listened to my lyrics. He got it. He would discuss my lyrics in his reviews and I'd be like, "Wow, this guy ACTUALLY LISTENED TO EVERY SONG ON MY ALBUM." I mean, honestly, who does that anymore? Very few critics... to be honest, very few people, period. 

My best memory of Tom was when he wanted me to come over to his place so he could interview me for a feature in Pulse. It was going to be a long piece (not unusual for Tom, who could really crank out the words) and he asked me to visit him on the day of the Super Bowl. I'm kind of a sports fan, while Tom couldn't possibly have cared less about the Super Bowl, so when I kind of hesitated a little about doing the interview during the Super Bowl, he assured me he could put the TV on so I could keep an eye on the game (I didn't, as it turned out). 

Instead of watching the game at all, he and I put tunes on and drank beers (and perhaps imbibed even more than just alcohol) and ate pizza and bonded over all of the music we both loved -- from Dylan and the Band to such AOR rock gems as Robert Plant's "Burning Down One Side." I looked through his record collection and picked things out, he spun the vinyl, and somehow a feature-length interview in Pulse came out of this hangout session.  We talked about music and the scene and women and life and I remember laughing... a LOT. So, that's the story of my Super Bowl interview with Tom Hallett, definitely the most fun I've ever had giving an interview. I have no idea who won that Super Bowl, either.

I'm really sad that we lost Tom Hallett. He was a great guy who wore his passion for music and life on his sleeve, and I'm truly grateful to him for how much he supported me and this entire scene over the years. He was one of a kind.

Rick Widen, musician (Tuesday's Robot): Sad to hear of local music writer Tom Hallett losing his struggle with diabetes at only 50 years of age. When it comes to all the music I've released to the world, no one -- and I mean no one -- has ever made me feel as validated, creative, important, artistic, poetic, and just plain as happy, as Tom did. Critics can have that kind of power -- more so than people you know intimately, who might be too shy to offer you that kind of praise or understanding for fear that it might go to your head or just feel awkward or weird. I've never felt like someone out there just plain got me, and the stuff I tried to do, like Tom did. It's true what the proverb says, "You can't be a prophet in your own land." Well, Tom made me feel like a prophet. He even contacted me personally to see if I wanted the last Tuesdays Robot show ever to be listed in his column/magazine 'Round The Dial Magazine'. I mean, He cared. Tom doled out this brand of nourishment to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of human souls, generously, fairly, honestly, and always uniquely. He will be missed.

Linda Miller: Tom was a great friend, father, writer, just an all around nice man. He really would've helped anybody in the music world and this wild ride of a world. There was NOBODY like him! I still can't believe this is true. We are having a small get-together with his ashes & family Saturday night up in Deer River. He has so many people that are gonna miss him.

Bryan Hallett: My dad was a truly unique man. Many great memories come to my mind, such as dad sneaking me into one of Ike Reilly's show's at the Turf Club, or walking the streets of St. Paul or Homer, Alaska. Dad was hilarious and very smart he could damn near answer all the Jeopardy and Cash Cab questions. He had so much left to do in this realm but everyone must be proud of the amazing things he did for people and music. I love you, Pops.

Cyn Collins: A final note: I recall having numerous conversations about music with Tom at the Turf Club, and enjoyed both his insights about music and reading his columns (such as this one from last year). Hearing these stories reminds me of the earlier days and beginnings of our great music scene, the SPMC years. The loss of Tom Hallett also brings painful pangs of nostalgia, for a time that is also lost, along with Tom it seems, as publisher Leo Kuelbs notes.

In Hallett's own words, a typical ending to his reviews... "There's the rub for this week, friends, knee-knockers, back-stabbers, monkey-backers, an' slap-happy, dirty faced barn-burners ... tune in again next time out for more of the same. Until then -- make yer own damn news."

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