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Interview | John Herdt

John Herdt has been co-ordinating the Tommy Bolin Archives website for the past decade, a website that has been crucial in terms of keeping Tommy Bolin's name alive after all these years.
December 2012


1. John, can you give the history of the origins of the Tommy Bolin Archives in a nutshell

The Tommy Bolin Archives was formed in 1995 by Michael Drumm and Johnnie Bolin with legal representation by Barry Simons and David Stein of San Francisco. Bob Ferbrache did the audio work until I took over CD projects and the web site around July of 2002. Rhino records released the Tommy Bolin: From the Archives Vol. 1 CD in 1996 with Mike, Johnnie and Bob in production capacities, but then Rhino decided not to get behind any further CDs of Tommy's outtake related material, and the Archives team forged forward with more releases on their own plus some merch like t-shirts, hats, posters and the like. The first release following the Rhino release was the Tommy Bolin & Friends: Live at Ebbets Field 1974 CD. That one's catalog number is TBACD-1 and it's a jewel. Mike Drumm had known Tommy in Boulder during the Zephyr and Energy period. Mike worked at The Record Center in Boulder and young Tommy would go in and listen to albums. Mike also co-signed a bank loan with Tommy so he could buy a reel-to-reel tape deck to record demos. In 1989 Mike was host of The Music Link show on KUBD 59 Denver and put together a one-hour TV special called The Ultimate Tommy Bolin Documentary which aired on 12-15-89, which was released in support of the Tommy Bolin: The Ultimate box set put out by Geffen in 1989. The TV special had guests like Jeff Cook, Glenn Hughes, Karen Ulibarri and more. So Mike had some cool stuff going on even before the Archives. Incidentally, later in 1996 that show was edited heavily with newer interviews and content and released by the Archives on VHS as Tommy Bolin: A Tribute.

2. How did you get involved?

I met Bobby Berge in 2002 through the Bolin Board. Bobby had lived in Colorado for quite a while but I never crossed paths with him here. He heard some of my original music and liked some of it enough to have an impact, so he asked me to play guitar in the band he was putting together to play the 2002 fest in Sioux City. Bobby was also sending me some cassettes with stuff with him and Tommy that blew me away, other than stumbling across the Fever box set once on the web I didn't know much about the Tommy boot scene. I do audio engineering as well as play instruments, so for fun I tried to buff up some of the stuff and put them out for our friends as The Bobby Berge Tapes series. Around the same time a fellow named David Polhemus had bought a bunch of rare cassettes with Tommy, including Tommy's last show in Miami. I buffed up a few of those things too, treats for friends, add to the buzz in the Bolin scene I was rapidly becoming more involved with. Mike Drumm contacted me a month before the fest and said Polhemus had contacted him about Tommy's last show, and Mike called me and asked if I would be interested in producing an Archives release. Bob Ferbrache didn't want to do it, they were out of reel-to-reel tape quality stuff and from what I understand Bob didn't want to work on compromised cassettes, even if they were rare, and that cassette of Tommy's last show was IT. It's still the only source I've heard of. I did four more CDs through 2004, the audio and the packaging, at which point the Archives completely stopped selling anything directly. All of my CDs were in the Collectors Series and came from challenged but rare source audio, we'd note that on the packaging. Bobby's tape of Energy at Tulagi is still the only source I've heard for that. Sales of legacy Archives audio has been with digital releases through Friday Music since then. All the new releases featuring Tommy, other than Deep Purple, after 2004 have been from Greg Hampton. Shortly after I produced the first CD in 2002, maybe during production, Mike said their web person was leaving and asked if I could help make changes on the web site. Earlier in 2002 I had built a web site called the Rampant Zone for me, Bobby and Sal, and in Bobby's section a number of photos were debuted for the first time, so Mike knew I was making some stuff happen on a couple of different fronts. I made updates to the Archives site for only a short time before I decided that if I was going to really rock the thing out I would rebuild it from scratch, using the colors and fonts from the Archives CDs as a starting point. The old site was really small, mainly for listing the CDs and merchandise, and the coding was hard to work with so I rebuilt it and have added to it ever since. Tim and Teri Martin, Sal Serio and Andy Ohls were invaluable help, along with Bobby Berge and David Polhemus, in supplying me with the audio for the projects I worked on as well as photos and legacy articles and interviews. I myself also had some of the magazines like Creem and Circus from back in the day, Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines too and so on, so I was able to chip some from the raw side too. Sal and Art Connor had also spearheaded a Tommy Bolin newsletter called the Private Times that was a beacon in the dark before 2002. Another important relationship I've had is with Trace Keane, who I think I first met in 2006. He has helped with content since then, and has helped get Tommy into a bunch of recent magazines.

3. You have mentioned (to me) of the year 2008 as being critical, please elaborate...

A number of things started to happen in 2008. Before 2008 Tommy Bolin stuff was pretty scarce except for Archives releases and some stuff from Simon Robinson in the UK. There was an intense collectors scene, but it was pretty closed up. I hear stuff posted on the web now that used to be a source of power due to rarity. The first thing I remember that happened other than TBA or Robinson was when the great UK mag Guitar Techniques featured a section on Tommy in 2007. In 2008 Dean Guitars released the USA Tommy Bolin Tribute Teaser guitar, I went to the debut at Winter NAMM in Anaheim for that. That was followed by Hartman Electronics putting out the Tommy Bolin Signature Fuzz and significant books on Tommy by Martin Popoff and Greg Prato. Prato also had a great story in Classic Rock magazine on DP Mk4, that was big and had lots of exposure. Greg Hampton started putting out CDs based on original multitrack tapes from the "Teaser" sessions, the all-star Great Gypsy Soul tribute CD and finally the remaster of the original Teaser album. Bill and John Schenk and Johnnie Bolin produced the Mister Bolin’s Late Night Revival of new performances of Tommy Bolin demos that appeared on the Archives' Naked Volumes I and II CDs. I could keep listing stuff, magazine specials, etc. but the point it awareness of Tommy went through the roof compared to before 2008.

4. I understand that you did a huge amount of research and made contact with a lot of ‘Tommy people’. How hard was it building up a level of trust? (appreciating that there was a lot of bad blood in regard to dodgy bootlegs, etc at the time).

Ethics are a big deal to me. Building the Archives was a mammoth undertaking as far as the time to code pages, clean up photos, type in articles and interviews people send scans of and just to plain organize. It's a really big site, but I knew all along it would really only be valuable if I could get people to contribute content I could present as professionally as possible. I've played absolutely as straight as possible with everyone I've dealt with and been real diligent about thanking people publicly. I also have tried to maintain a policy of not copying directly from other web sites. I only post a duplicate article or interview if it comes from a fresh source, like someone sends a scan of their own copy of an old copy of Creem or something and I type it in myself for example. If another site has something cool that I consider off limits I put up a link to it. The history section took months to write and set up. I made a decision to do it in 2005 because there was no place I was aware of that tracked Tommy from beginning to end, at least beyond generalities. The holy grail had been Gil Asakawa's Shooting Star article that appeared in Denver in Westword magazine in 1989. I love the article, I was shocked to see ANYTHING on Tommy when it came out, but it was only a drop in the ocean of what I went through to write the history. I did tons of web searches and found obscure stuff and built it up a folder on my computer with hundreds of documents and notes files. One tough thing was cross compare stuff to try and be accurate, like "what file did I see that thing on The Gassers in" to help narrow down a date for something OTHER event, I think I got brain damage. I talked with a number of people, but the hard work was pulling stuff together from a lot of sources and collating it. I also wrote it as a narrative, it took writing skills I picked up in college and at my jobs in the art departments of publishing companies. I had to do all that work on the site around my day job, if I had client work cleared out I'd hammer on the history as hard and efficiently as I could. The trust issues with the people who were there back in the day could pop up, but most of the people I'd deal with dug where I was coming from. I'm not just web boy, I jam with those guys too. One of the cool things that happened as the site gained steam is some guys contacted me who weren't heard from before, like Michael Lothamer, the drummer from American Standard. He gave me some exclusive stuff on a period that has only been generalized.

5. Obviously with the internet and technology in general, we almost take it for granted that we have access to a multitude of Tommy images, but how hard was it when you first started.

The situation has changed, again relating to pre- and post-2008. Before 2008 I'd post just about anything that people would send, I'd always clean up the photos as best I could, it's one of my professional skills, but just about everything went up because they were fairly rare. Lots of uniformly blurry audience shots. Clean, I mean really sharp, shots of Tommy other than Deep Purple pro shots are pretty rare, especially then. By 2008 most of the stuff that floated around had been posted, but after 2008 more photos showed up. The caveat is that many of the photographers started becoming aggressive, so the good shots had people watching them. I've had to pull some photos that I had posted, and I'm glad the photographers were nice about not making legal trouble. I'm fairly gun shy about posting photos of Tommy now, I can NOT take a legal hit. Trying to do the covers for the CDs I produced was harder than it needed to be, I had to really try and put the magic to some photos that were low res and had JPG damage. I later did the packaging for Friday Music's Ultimate Redux 3-CD set and they sent high res photos for those, but even those were the best iteration of blurry shots. The bottom line is that good shots are showing up now, but their usage is monitored way more than before 2008.

6. I think it’s fair to say that the Archives website has been a key factor in keeping Tommy’s presence alive – that must be pleasing for you, particularly, considering us old die-hard fans had to suffer the ‘WILDERNESS YEARS’

I'm sure it's had an impact. Wilderness years is right, that's what I was relating. I did some promo for Energy singer Jeff Cook's CD a while back and he said he had a sales spike. I've had it related to me that showing the site to some people has helped swing some deals, it's a robust site and has an impact. I'm happy that things are going well for Tommy since 2008, but it's been very hard for me because of the increase in activity. The Archives site is an old style hand coded site, stuff doesn't go up automatically like uploading a photo to or doing a post on Facebook. I do design, HTML coding, text input and photo restoration manually and it takes time, sharp wits and elbow grease. I also do a lot of copy writing, the words you read in the ad blurbs and promo pages. In the old days I could plan Archives work sessions around my pay jobs a lot more comfortably. Since 2008 the economy slipped into a disaster and I've lost all the clients that paid even decent money for the work. To scratch by I've had to do a high volume of low paying work, so there are not gaps in work days anymore unless I force the time. I mainly do vinyl album packaging restoration for LP releases through Sony, Warner Bros. and Rhino, cool to name drop but very low paying for high stress and responsibility. So I get pretty tired trying to balance it all along with keeping my marriage and own musical endeavors together. Since 2008 I've also handled a lot more contacts from the public with questions, hookup requests and it adds up to a surprising amount of time. So I'm totally glad Tommy is breaking bigger, but with my job situation I'm run ragged most of the time. Happy for Tommy though, rock on.

7. Since your involvement, has the direction of the site changed at all?

Absolutely. As I mentioned, it was initially a small site that was mainly geared toward featuring the merchandise being sold. My intent was to have a robust historical site with a valuable meeting place for informed fans to correspond and trade info. The Board was going before I came on and I've tried to keep that going just like it was, it's been a remarkable source of info at some points. Our scene is lucky that stars like Johnnie Bolin and Bobby Berge mix in with the folks, even Pat Travers has written in on the Bolin Board. The rest of the site is big though, at some point I'd like to reorganize it because some stuff is harder than it should be for people bouncing around the site to find, but I can't undertake that right now.

8. OK, THE DRAMAS!!!!!!! Obviously a few? (and many which can’t be mentioned - haha) C’mon John Spill the beans... haha!

Man, that's tough. I like reading that kind of stuff sometimes, sometimes with a level of guilt and sometimes it's hard stuff that contains valuable perspective. There's been plenty of drama since I started, stuff I've been directly involved in or people I know real well. I've heard stories about Tommy back in the day too, both in Sioux City and Colorado. Too many people are still alive though, can't go there. If it kills the deal on the interview I'll have to get by, ha ha ha. Go to a Bolin Fest and I'll tell you some stories at the Rodeway Inn bar.

9. I have found that us Tommy fans are a pretty dedicated lot, and considering he died in 1976, we are still very much into his music to this day. Any thoughts?

Back in 1974 when I first heard Tommy he was really popular, highly regarded for his playing and tone. People who dug him then probably all still have at least a glimmer of that magic going, some more than others, but Tommy was hot stuff and people grabbed him or their own in a way that doesn't happen with all popular artists. For new people, I think during the period of maybe punk and new wave and up through grunge it was the trend of young people to hate everything that came before, but over the last 10 years or so it seems like young people have been listening to more of the classic rock players and Tommy stuck out for not being over exposed as well as really good. Plus lots of his stuff really sounds timeless, not dated. Stuff like the material on "Teaser" could have been recorded recently. He was a bitchin' player with a devastating tone and some great songs, there's a lot to like for someone new. Tommy had the authenticity and "no-bullshit notes" approach of the classic blues guys, but as sharp technically as you can go before losing the hair raising vibe. Organic stuff like that lasts forever.

10. Are you surprised at the level of support amongst the fanbase - and any significant trends over recent years?

I'm not really surprised, mainly because I wasn't thinking about it from that angle. I would just keep hitting the work when I could. I did think if he got popular and big money would get made I'd be able to bail and get back on with my life, but that exact thing hasn't happened yet. There are lots of big blips, but not like Sony takes over and I'm out of here. I think the fan support is great. A real key again is that so many young people are giving stuff from the '70s a chance, and all Tommy needs most of the time is a chance.

11. Any highs and lows you want to share with us during your involvement over the years? (I reckon there must be plenty - haha!)

High-wise, releasing the CDs I produced was really cool. They each took a huge amount of hard work, but they would be THE news that year. By the time I did the Jet Bar CD though, things had gotten weird. Johnnie and Mike weren't getting along and CD production was supposed to stop. Tim and Teri Martin turned me on to some raw Jet Bar stuff though and I was really taken. My feeling on Tommy was that 1976 is trouble. Just my opinion, I came in with James Gang Bang and Spectrum, and that's a high bar. When I heard Jet Bar I heard a lot of Tommy sounding happy and healthy, it really showed me that he still had it, and I evangelized it to Mike. Mike ran it by Johnnie and we had the go ahead so I produced the CD. At the 2004 Bolin Fest I went up to Johnnie with Pat Travers or someone blowing hot behind me and Johnnie is PISSED. He said the CD wasn't supposed to come out and I was taken aback and shouted over the music that I was absolutely told it was a go, and then did the hours and hours of hard work to do it. I wouldn't have done it (or wasted the valuable time and work) if I Mike hadn't told me it was approved. Johnnie's face softened and he was for the most part cool about it, but it was a harsh moment after all the work. Things were weird there. I know now exactly what the deal is on the CD shutdown but don't want to go there now. Anyway, that was dramatic. A high and low at the same time. Balancing the hard work and some total drag things against the good times, it's been 50-50. I've put more time in behind the scenes than I have on the web site and albums, stuff nobody ever sees.

12. One thing that I’m conscious of is that I think that we can be a little too ‘subjective’ in our admiration. Sure, he was a huge talent, but let’s not forget that his addiction resulted in some negative aspects of both his playing and personality. Any thoughts?

That's perceptive on your part. Going for too much truth can get some people after your ass. The closest I got to him in person was hearing him playing at Colorado State when I was loading up my car to drive to a jam in 1974 or 1975. He was playing at the student center complex across the green and it was loud enough to be heard outside the building. I know lots of people that knew him enough to relate stories. The stories from the Colorado guys less protective. One thing that comes up is how many times he came close to passing like the night in Miami, then sprung back up. Tommy partied HARD, way back to James Gang. I do think it affected his playing in 1976. He wasn't making blatant mistakes so much as that he set the bar so high early on that I'd always be looking for him to hit that bar again. He still had "it" in 1976, but you have to look among lots of bits for that really transcendental thing. Just my opinion, and I took a pounding while forming that opinion. I remember a drummer friend of mine who knew Tommy, and he gave me a cassette in 1984 of the Tommy Bolin Band Ebbets 1976 show and I remember being dismayed, Tommy had always been a guy to play perfect stuff with fire and without bullshit notes, and on that cassette he sounded asleep. If I put on James Gang, Spectrum or Mind Transplant his batting average goes WAY up real fast. He needed to put a damper on the drugs and drinking though. As Kenny Passarelli and David Givens have said though, Tommy was also putting becoming a star way up there at one point, that and the situation with Karen added up to a lot of stress. If his life was a movie it didn't get finished with inspiring part where he turns it around and rises again. Playing with Beck was getting him back into arenas, but he was still wearing himself out.

13. The ‘Bolin Board’ is an integral part of the site. At the Memorial Fund site, we experimented with a dedicated blog site, but soon ditched it as people were using the Facebook site instead. Obviously you have both the ‘Bolin Board’ and your Facebook page - do you have any preference?

Facebook has had a significant impact on the Bolin Board, but it still gets traffic. One reason might be how much historical info and recollections go through it. I'd have to guess on why that is. I put the Archives up on Facebook too, but the real stuff still goes on the Board. I'd say the Board gets more hard core info through it, Facebook gets more general "I really like Tommy" kind of stuff. We'll see how the coming years go, but for now it's still worth it to keep it going. It's a fee for me separate from the web site hosting account. One thing about the main Archives site vs. Facebook is I can put up photos and control the quality, with Facebook the photos get processed and always look worse after upload.

14. John, you have played at least at one of the Tommy Bolin Music Fests, how significant do you consider these?

I think they are very significant. For any endeavor you have to have some flagships. Many people that don't watch football watch the Super Bowl for example. There have been a number of tribute shows, from Mike Drumm's shows in Denver in the 1990s through Denver earlier this year, but the fests still stand out as the one people travel from other countries for. The last couple of fests have been really strong. The jams that surround the main fest have grown in importance too, if you go to a Bolin Fest you have to watch for jams at the Rodeway Inn or around town. Loads of the main fest players and stars like Johnnie Bolin and Bobby Berge go to those and the surprises and lineup switches are a gas. It's a three or four day thing now. I'll also say it's cool at the Rodeway Inn that with all the Bolin people there, you see Tommy stuff in room windows as you walk down the hall, lots of Tommy shirts, guys jamming Tommy in rooms.

15. There has been a considerable output of Tommy’s music in recent years - anything of note that you would like to share (good or bad?)

Greg Hampton has done some incredibly hard work on his products, and I enjoy them. There's some killer stuff among the outtakes, and working from the original tapes up gave a great starting point. His Great Gypsy Soul has some standout tracks on it too. Bill and John Schenk's Mister Bolin’s Late Night Revival CD had some really exciting and heartfelt performances. The Phoenix Rising DVD from 2011 was a cool surprise too. After having seen five different boots of the Japan show in various levels of bad quality it was amazing to see it clearly. The The Barry Richards TV Collection DVD with the live Zephyr was also a welcome shock. Zephyr's live take on St. James Infirmary was sharp quality and they played well.

16. John, your favourite Tommy moment/s? (feel free to go for loads here - haha!)

I've already mentioned James Gang, Spectrum and Mind Transplant as being really special to me, those were the first things I heard and they stuck. One thing that's kind of a drag to me is that from James Gang on Tommy's big bands had rigid set lists, mostly the same songs night after night. With Zephyr and Energy you could get surprised regularly, like Energy playing Sex Machine by James Brown out of the blue. Give me a break, total surprise and totally funky. I played toured covers pro one time, and the arc went down when we settled into a five set grind. I could name 40 or 50 tunes that really resonate though. One thing that I zero in on is one specific tone he had, he played great in Zephyr and Energy but that was a specific tone he had with James Gang, Mind Transplant and Moxy that seemed to go away during and after Deep Purple. His equipment changed or his hands just weren't doing the same thing. Cool playing but different tone earlier and later from those.

17. Your biggest gripe on anything Tommy related? (you don't have to answer that - haha!)

I'm trying to hold a lot of different things together now, I need people to be patient if I can't do something as fast as I used to. Sometimes I have to rush to the point of pain getting an Archives thing done while Sony or Warner Bros. is breathing rightfully down my neck for a project I'm work on. These are dead serious straights with lots of money on the line and I'm pushing them out of the way to do an Archives thing that's timely, you can bet it's tough. Weekends are off limits, have to do some family and original music. I worked on the recent Valeria stuff on a Sunday though, that took three afternoons and I could only spare two at work.

18. A ridiculous question I know, but what do you think Tommy would be doing now if he was still alive?

Man that's hard to say. He could sing, and if he kept working on it could have gone up one more notch with it, so he had a shot at a career like Clapton as far as reaching more mainstream people. Hot guitar players can make a living, but singers have a huge advantage. He was only 25, so if he could have knocked the partying back about 75% and got his mind back on the music he could have made a good living for the duration, like Bonnie Raitt if not Clapton. He was having trouble that last year though, he went from Deep Purple arenas to clubs like My Father's Place. Music has been through some huge changes that scrape off whole styles, but Tommy at his best was organic, I don't know if he would have been as big a star as he wanted, but he could have been loved and had a nice house and car. Don't know about the car, Tommy didn't drive except for the time he plowed Johnnie's Thundebird over a stop sign. Glenn Campbell was a super star and it faded but he kept working. I think Tommy could have kept working. Style wise, I don't know if he would have tried to follow trends like some bands do when times change, that usually doesn't seem to work out. Jeff Cook said Tommy would be doing world music or something, but I'd rather he just kept ROCKING, rock could use him right now.

19. What would be top on your ‘Tommy Wish List’?

For someone at Fender to say "man that John Herdt guy has been working hard on this stuff for over 10 years, let's make him a replica of the brown James Gang Strat with the Tele neck and give him one" ha ha ha. And have it be just the best playing, most stable guitar I've ever seen. I've tried not be selfish in this scene, but I've been working with tattered spirits and since it's just a fantasy I hazarded it. As far as it goes for Tommy himself, given that some really cool tape and video have popped up over the last few years, some more high quality stuff of Tommy in his prime would be great, like a soundboard tape of anything Deep Purple did before Jakarta, that stuff smoked but the audio is bad. Phil Polimeni apparently has some more stuff like the Glen Holly jam CDs and there was some tight stuff on there. I don't think there's the kind of stuff to make Tommy a household name, like Mike Drumm said he never had that BIG BIG hit that broke him out of the discerning listeners who were his earlier fans. I'd like to see his music get passed on after all who wrote or read this are gone.


A massive thanks to John for taking time out for this interview! (DS)



John Herdt & Wally Z
(with Al Robinson)

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INTERVIEW December 2012

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