Maverick rocker walks fine line
• Tommy Harrington hits the road hoping that tour and documentary will be his ticket to the big time
Everything in his life rides on what happens next to Tommy Harrington.
At 35, he's been trying to make it in music since he dropped out of college at 20 to learn how to play guitar. His girlfriend is pregnant, his credit cards maxed. If he does not come back with at least $1,000 from a tour he starts today, he will be homeless.
'Well, not entirely homeless,' he said. 'I have that new minivan.'
As always with Harrington, there is an assured hope that things will work out. His self-produced album Ñ the pop-laden 'Let's Go Afterglow' Ñ has gone from unlisted on the College Media Journal top 200 list to No. 185 to No. 147 to No. 102. Portland lawyer Dave Kopilak is producing a documentary about him and the Wanteds, the plural name Harrington's singular self uses on stage. And he has e-mail proof that representatives from record labels will be on hand at some of his shows.
Portland is rife with insular warrens of musicians convinced they will make it. Major label, independent label, studio musician, songwriter Ñ all voices in the same choir. Harrington is one of them. Like them, he thinks he is good enough to stand out.
Kopilak is not in it for the music, just the personality.
'I didn't want to make a movie about the music industry per se or a starving musician,' he said. 'Tommy is intensely interesting as a character study. It's his personal story that I'm drawn to. I mean, when you meet him, you know.'
Born in Wisconsin but reared in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, Harrington says his father abused him long enough that drugs became his escape. Drugs helped him practice the guitar, he says, but stunted his creativity and encouraged him toward a series of girlfriends whom he could live off of. He came to Portland with bandmates in 1999 and soon found himself alone.
He talks openly about it all with a consistent result Ñ people want to hear more.
At Belmont's Inn, the congenial regulars both crusty and otherwise identify with him. 'Let's Go Afterglow' is on the jukebox there. Thirteen-year-old girls rush the stage at his all-ages shows to get closer to the honesty and fresh pain of his lyrics. People who know him walk up to him almost anywhere to hear him tell Ñ again Ñ breathless stories about his touring life.
'One guy was setting up on stage for his gig and I go to the manager of the place and I tell him, hey, I'm one guy and can set up and take down in 10 minutes, just please let me play first,' Harrington said. 'So when he says I can, I just jump right up on the stage with my gear and push the other dude off. He can play later.'
Always doing something
In between jobs, Harrington writes, programs his instruments, prints showbills, checks e-mails, packs for the tour and sends a couple of high-school-age volunteer minions Ñ his 'street crew' Ñ out into the world to spread the gospel of the Wanteds.
The constant traffic in and out of his house and in and out of his mind leaves Harrington always looking a little expectant. A former speed freak, he talks in endless waves, saying America is great because a guy like him could buy a new minivan with $17 in the bank and $40,000 in debt, and that Jane's Addiction made him want to learn guitar and drop out of UCLA, and this tour was easier to book than the last tour and that has to mean something good, and radio interviews will only help him sell records and did you know he only sold four T-shirts on the last tour but 200 CDs.
Yet he insists he's given up Red Bull energy drinks and the caffeine that goes with them.
Even though he has his insecurities Ñ he doesn't want to look as though he's balding in photographs Ñhis image is all-musician: blond-streaked, naturally dark hair shoots up from his head. His long limbs and hands are Harrington in microcosm Ñ he is tall and lithe Ñ and show a gnarled familiarity with work.
'He sleeps less than most people,' Kopilak said, laughing. 'Four hours a night I think is the most I've known him to get. Tommy is always doing something, always working. I think he would get depressed if he had an idle moment. That last tour, I don't think he would have slept at all if my film crew hadn't been there. He wore them out.'
Booking gets easier
That last tour affirmed Harrington's confidence to book this one.
He left Portland last August with 17 shows booked. He wound up playing 36. He would show up in cities and find music venues, then plead as a one-man band to open for whoever was playing that night. He'd e-mail bar owners and promoters while on the road and ask for gigs. He jumped into online message boards looking for local bands wherever he was that could tell him where to play. The only cities where he did not sell at least one CD were Knoxville, Tenn., and Bozeman, Mont.
All the while, he had a camera behind him. The documentary's director, Stephanie Smith, joined Harrington on the road. They knew each other before filming started Ñ Harrington suggested that Kopilak hire her.
The documentary has not been sold or even fully edited. Kopilak plans to set up a Web site and perhaps hire a firm to market the film.
At Harrington's house on Southeast Haig Street on the day of the last interview for the documentary, Smith tried to tie up all the loose ends and unfinished conversations left over from 230 hours of filming.
'I need to come home from this tour with $1,000 or, uh, or I'm going to be in a bind,' Harrington said haltingly when the camera started rolling.
'Do you think you can do that?' Smith asked.
'Yeah,' Harrington said.
The last tour lost money, and not just because of Harrington's three speeding tickets. He knows more people along the way this time, he said, and the drives are shorter. He won't eat out as much.
He can do it. He knows he can. He has no choice.