Thomas "Tommy Gunn" Alsides, best known to the Twin Cities as the drummer for Paradox, John Eller & the DTs, the Bowie-themed Rock For Pussy benefits, passed away earlier this month on March 6.
In his lifetime he was an animal on the skins, a fixture of his beloved neighborhood of St. Paul's West End, one hell of a bartender and cook, and a beloved husband and father. His 52 years weren't nearly enough time for the man's warmth and vitality to grace this earth, and he will be dearly missed.
Tommy was born to a hard and proud family of Mexican immigrants who had moved all the way north to St. Paul in pursuit of a better life for their children. His childhood was by no means a rose garden in the sunshine, but along with his many siblings, Tommy carved out a life in Pig's Eye, with West 7th Avenue acting as the thoroughfare to the world.
Tommy met the man that would become his lifelong musical partner and blood brother, John Eller, in 3rd grade at Jefferson Elementary in their neighborhood. The two really became close after Eller began playing electric guitar, and before long, John and Tommy were piling into Eller's truck to go pick up Tommy's first drum kit.
They began playing in earnest nearly immediately, practicing in the Eller's basement with the kind of rabid enthusiasm that can only be found on the cusp of adolescence. Hard rock standards of the day were the inspiration, with groups like Aerosmith, Steve Miller, Foghat, Zep and the Stones looming large, although both men shared a love of '60s pop that would inform their later work together.
Tommy's late brother, Stevie, played the trumpet and would join in occasionally. Afterwards, the trio would sit back and marvel at records by sophistifunks like Chicago or Earth, Wind & Fire. Eller would guffaw as Stevie and his brother played "air-horn" along to the records, miming the fingerings and singing their respective parts.
"They were kind of the only other musicians I knew that went to the next level," says Eller, of Tommy and Stevie. "I was a bit intimidated by them. I knew they'd be able to tell if I was faking or not. Tommy helped me with rhythms and syncopation that didn't come to me naturally. We'd practice constantly. As I started writing my own songs, Tommy knew where to put the fills and accentuate the melody lines. He got my sense of rhythm because he'd helped me craft it."
After a few years of practicing together in the basement as a duo, John and Tommy began to add high school buddies to the mix to flesh out the rest of a garage band. Before long, they were playing house parties and high school dances around the neighborhood, under cutting-edge band names like Kazmir and Topaz Crystal.
"I remember we played a battle of the bands competition on the West Side, somewhere over on Concord," recalls Eller, "We got all set up, I think there were maybe three or four other bands. The emcee stepped up to the mike and spoke for about a minute in Spanish, disclosing what I presumed to be the rules. I calmly waited, figuring Tommy would fill me in. So, I asked him for the lowdown afterwards. He had this panicked look. 'I don't know! I don't speak Spanish! Hang on, I'll have to ask my mom!' This is how I learned that my Mexican-American friend, Tommy, didn't speak Spanish."
Those years of basement rehearsals finally started to pay for John and Tommy by their early 20s, and they grew to become some of the most talented young studs east of the river. Utilizing their prodigious chops, the duo formed Paradox around 1980, dolling themselves up like glammy hair gods but deriving their sound from early power-metal acts like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.
"Our very first gig was five days after the assassination of John Lennon," Eller remembers, "December 13, 1980. It took place in the church basement of St. Stanislaus, oddly enough, the same church where Tommy's funeral took place."
Eller began a brief but accomplished tenure as a shredder with keening rasp reminiscent of Paul Di'Anno, while Tommy's kit swelled to epic, double-kick drum proportions. Along with groups like Obsession, Paradox dominated the local metal circuit, opening for national acts and cementing a loyal following upon their debauched but enthusiastic live shows. They would record an EP in 1985 called Reel Life that found some regional acclaim, and the surviving recordings are an excellent example of Tommy's gift. While some of the production choices have aged poorly, the drums are front and center, with the propulsive, anchoring ferocity that became Tommy's trademark.
By the late '80s, Eller had lost his taste for metal and Paradox folded. The two stayed as close as brothers but lost touch musically for a few years, until Eller formed a new group called the DTs with bassist Dan Bergstrom. The guitarist had begun gravitating towards some of the more complex and melodic songwriting that he and Tommy had fallen in love with as kids, as well as the nascent college-rock sound, and decided to form a three-piece.
"We played some rehearsals with a couple different drummers, but I missed Tommy's presence," says Eller, "I called him and said that I wanted to start something new with him, but that he had to get rid of one of his kick drums and perhaps lose a tom or two while he was at it. This needs to be absolutely not Paradox-like."[page]
It's a small crime that John Eller & the DTs aren't mentioned in the same breath as other local groups who helped give birth to alternative rock like Soul Asylum and the Replacements. They blazed nearly the same path as their contemporaries, irreverently blending the jangling chords of the '60s with classic rock guitar heroism and the ferocity of punk, but never had a hit to take them national.
The band would record the seminal All These Reasons in 1990 and Escape Trick in 1993, the latter featuring a tune called "Piece it Together," which would be featured as the theme song for Mary Lucia's REV 105 show. Dave Boquist would join the band on guitar for Escape Trick before his time in Son Volt.
During his tenure with the DTs, Tommy truly reached his musical apex. Freed from the temptations hair metal's excess, his drumming on both albums is crisp, powerful and confident, with a few kit-circling mega-fills thrown in because he was just that good. "Ronnie," from Escape Trick, was dedicated to the late Ronnie Lane of the Faces, and features some of Tommy's best work on record.
The touching ode to the late guitarist's struggle with MS takes on a new poignancy, viewed in light of Tommy's health struggles near the end of his life. "Ronnie carried on like he didn't mind," sings Eller on the track, and so did Tommy, continuing to be a vision of joy and hope in the lives of his friends and family until his untimely passing.
His friends speak of his love of food, his bighearted commitment to his relatives, and his enthusiasm for practical jokes. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, stepchildren and grandchildren, and his musical legacy lives on through the man he called a brother, John Eller, who summed up their lifelong partnership profoundly.
"Tommy could read my body language," Eller says, "A slight leg turn or arm gesture and he knew right where the punches should fall. He told me once, 'Bubba, I just watch your butt and I know exactly what you're gonna do'."
Rest in peace, Tommy.
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