This is a blog post that I didn’t think I’d be writing.
On December 27, my friend Tom Harrison passed away at the age of 70. We were friends for more than 40 years – a number which astounded me when I calculated it. We met in the late 1970s when he was the music writer for The Province newspaper and I was the music writer for The Vancouver Sun, but it honestly doesn’t feel like that long ago.
I knew who Tom was long before I actually met him. Any music lover in Vancouver in the 1970s knew who Tom was, from his writing in the Georgia Straight weekly paper and also from the pioneering music video show Soundproof that he co-hosted on cable TV. But a lot of people didn’t know that he had a different career before all of that – he qualified as a secondary school teacher, after getting an education degree from the University of British Columbia, and worked as a substitute teacher in the Lower Mainland. He was extremely popular in that very difficult job, because he would bring new records to class and play them, and then work with the students on writing reviews of what they had heard. But it was on-call work with unpredictable hours, and he told me that when he realized that he had become more interested in the records than in teaching about them, he knew it was time to move on.
Although Tom and I both grew up in North Vancouver and had mutual friends, I first met him in person when I started as a writer at the Sun in late 1979. Tom had a much larger presence and reputation than I did, and frankly he was also a much better writer than I was. As writers for rival newspapers, we could have not been friends and tried to undermine and outdo each other. But from the start Tom was generous and welcoming, often helping me out when I didn’t know who to contact or where to find someone. And because we covered a lot of the same shows and events, we ended up spending a lot of time together, and became good friends. My boyfriend (now my husband) was also named Tom, and several of my co-workers at the Sun were also named Tom, so my joke at the time was that if your name wasn’t Tom you couldn’t be my friend.
I quit the Sun two years later, which was a very difficult decision. A lot of people thought I was throwing away an incredible opportunity. Although I had a terrible boss who was making the job unbearable, I loved my co-workers and was very sad to leave them – especially when I didn’t have another job lined up. Tom was extremely understanding when I told him what I was going to do, and also listened sympathetically to a couple of teary “OMG what have I done” breakdowns when I had doubts about the decision I had made.
In 1983 Tom and his girlfriend Kerry Moore, who also worked at the Province, decided to take a sabbatical and move to the UK for six months. Tom called me and told me what he and Kerry were planning, and suggested that I apply to fill his job while he was away. I had been doing some freelance music writing but at that point was spending most of my time being a university student. The more I thought about the idea, though, the more it appealed to me, especially as I knew a lot of writers and editors at the Province and knew they were good people. So I applied, was interviewed, and was offered the job. It worked out well on multiple levels. I stayed in Kerry’s apartment so she didn’t have to give up her home, and she and Tom got married while they were in the UK.
After Tom and Kerry returned, I went back to university and just kind of kept going. Tom and I often went to shows together, although I had to admit it was much more fun just being able to enjoy the bands rather than worrying about what to write about them. I acquired a BBA and an MBA, and then moved to Edmonton to start a Ph.D. program, which was a huge and terrifying step into the unknown. My husband Tom took a leave of absence from his job to go to Edmonton with me for the first semester of my program. Tom and Kerry then provided Tom and I with some very generous and much appreciated support by taking our three cats into their home until Tom was back in Vancouver.
Tom had become part of a band that ended up calling itself Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion, and in 1989 they got signed to WEA Records in Canada. Tom was an excellent songwriter, in addition to being a vocalist and a superb drummer, and had played in several different bands since the mid-‘70s. I want to point out here how unusual it is for a music writer to also be working as a musician. Most music writers have some familiarity with playing music themselves, and some play in bands for fun, but making the move to being a professional is extremely rare. Not only are you exposing yourself to potential “don’t quit your day job” criticism, but there’s also the suspicion that a music writer might have pulled some strings to get a gig or a contract they really didn’t deserve, as in “give me this and I’ll write good things about your other acts”. Tom was extremely honourable in his dealings and I was really proud that his band’s music was strong enough on its own merits to get a record contract.
Bruno Gerussi’s Medallion were sent out on a Western Canadian tour as the opening act for another new band on WEA, the Tragically Hip. One of the cities they played was Edmonton. Of course, I was excited to get to see my friends, but I had also never seen the band play live. It was beyond thrilling for me to see Tom and his friends play a fantastic show, so brash and confident. They were, in all honesty, better than the Tragically Hip, who went on to have a much longer and more celebrated career. It was quite surreal to me when the audience at the show started chanting “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” halfway through the Hip’s set.
The Medallion recorded an album for WEA and then were dropped in a round of corporate cost-cutting. I finished my Ph.D., and eventually ended up with a job back on the West Coast. Tom kept doing his job at the Province, as well as playing, writing, and recording music. Then in 2000 – which was a crap year in a lot of ways – Tom had a stroke. He lost a lot of mobility on one side of his body, but continued working at the Province until 2017. The year I left the Sun, I was at shows or events 250 nights out of the 365 nights in that year, and part of what influenced my decision to move on was that I honestly wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep that up. Tom continued doing a job with those kinds of demands, and doing it with unflagging enthusiasm, for more than two decades after me. That speaks to how much he loved music and loved to write about it.
It’s hard to express how much it meant to me to be friends with Tom. No matter what I got up to, or what outlandish idea I bounced off him, he was always a patient listener and gave me very sensible feedback. No matter what we ended up talking about, it was always fun just to spend time with him. When an unlikely series of circumstances resulted in me becoming a music writer again, he was completely supportive, and he regularly let me know how much he was enjoying the work I was doing. He didn’t have to do that, but it always made me so happy when he did.
Tom also was, and is, one of the writers I most admire. He was incredibly knowledgeable, but he never talked down to his readers. He was so elegant and economical with his wording – something I continually aspire to, but I know I’ll never be as good at that as he was. And even when he was writing about an act that was likely to be a flash in the pan, he took the assignment seriously and treated them with respect. He also had fun. When Michael Jackson was at his commercial peak and was everywhere on the radio and TV and all over the press, Tom got so tired of writing about him that he began referring to him in every story as M****** J******, which no doubt upset a few Province readers but which certainly livened up the almost-daily coverage.
Since Tom died, a lot of people have told stories about kind things he did for them, or how he encouraged them as musicians, or how something he wrote introduced them to a new artist that they became huge fans of. It’s heartening to see all the love that’s been expressed. In one of the last long conversations I had with him, we talked about his book, which he wanted to re-release but which is stuck in technology and copyright limbo after corporate consolidations at the Province and at the publishing company. It would be a great tribute to Tom and his work if someone, somewhere, realized the importance of that book and is able to get the rights to it and give it the re-release it deserves.
I’m going to miss Tom for a very long time. I’m grateful that he was my colleague, and that he was my friend.
Some of the obituaries for Tom:
Tom Harrison, dean of Vancouver rock critics – The Vancouver Sun
Remembering Vancouver’s Tom Harrison, Vancouver’s rock critic of record – CityNews 1130
BC rock critic Tom Harrison was a champion of the West Coast music scene – The Globe and Mail
Legendary Vancouver rock music critic Tom Harrison has died – CBC News
Vancouver rock writer Tom Harrison has died, leaving behind a rich legacy and no shortage of grateful fans – The Georgia Straight