In October 2022, Columbus lost a vital and underappreciated musician whose history in the underground music scene spanned more than 40 years, and whose death continues to reverberate more than a year later.
Thomas Howard Jones, a.k.a. Tommy Jay, grew up on the West Side of Columbus, moving just south of Grove City in 1968. Shortly after landing in Grove City, Tommy Jay fell in with Mike “Rep” Hummel. In 1975, the two would release one of the very first punk-indie singles in Ohio – Mike Rep and the Quotas’ “Rocket to Nowhere” – the start of a longstanding musical partnership that spanned almost their entire lives.
Those interviewed said Tommy was quiet, with a sublime but calming presence. Longtime Columbus musician Ron House of Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and Great Plains said Tommy was the consummate team-player, describing his contributions in bands as an extension of his early athletic career. “He was a point guard in high school, and he knew how to distribute the ball,” House said.
Tommy practically floated through space, accumulating friends and collaborators, his presence like a cloud of kinship. House said Tommy was humble, “especially early on,” and that he displayed little of the same outward confidence present in the other members of Ego Summit, a band that included House, Mike Rep, Don Howland (Gibson Brothers, Bassholes) and Jim Shepard (V-3), all of whom convened for a weekend in 1997 to record the appropriately titled The Room Isn’t Big Enough.
On his own, Tommy created music that combined experimental psych-folk with late ’60s AM radio and the added charm of homegrown recordings. At times, his output suggested a mix of early Lou Reed solo material, Spirit, the Seeds and the kinds of obscure, cut-out records typically found in the cheap bins at Woolworths.
When Mike Rep started his cassette-only label, Old-Age/No-Age, in the mid-’80s, he released Tommy Jay’s Tall Tales of Trauma. Tommy was backed on the album by Nudge Squidfish (V-3), Mike Rep, T.A. Lafferty, Laura West and his lifelong partner, Kris Brown. By that time, Tommy was working for the county and making music on the weekends with a group of musicians and friends who would remain by his side until his death.
House said he first met Tommy in 1980, having been introduced to his music via Accept It!, an EP by the True Believers – a band that filtered the sounds of the New York punk scene through a more Midwestern sensibility. “‘Accept It’ is a song of spurned love that Tommy sings with the street roughness of Lou Reed, but also with a small-town earnestness all his own,” said House, who added that the words to the song “Gusto Hungry” most accurately captured Tommy’s ethos: “Never ever go to bed/Play rock ‘n’ roll instead.”
Through the ’90s, Tommy remained very much a part of the burbling underground Central Ohio music scene, working alongside Mike Rep in Mike Rep and the Quotas while simultaneously recording dozens of cassette tapes with projects that included TJP (Tommy Jay Project), the Whales and Bug Men, among others.
It was around this period that I met Tommy, an introduction possible through my friendships with Mike Rep and Ron House, whom I worked with at Used Kids Records. Mike Rep would record and produce bands after hours at the Used Kids Annex, drawing not just Tommy, Ron and Jim Shepard, but also members of Guided by Voices and Jerry Wick of Gaunt. I still have fond memories of being able to stumble down into the Annex after a night of drinking at Larry’s, entering into a cloud of music and laughter. Tommy was always kind and pleasant, and he displayed a sly sense of humor. A lot could be said in the soft clinking of our Black Label bottles and bemused grins.
In the early 2000s, Tommy and his contemporaries were “rediscovered” as the next wave of High Street bands emerged making similarly art-damaged, lo-fi music, much of it initially released via Columbus Discount Records (CDR), a label co-founded by Adam Smith.
“I first heard Tall Tales of Trauma on a cassette Will Foster from the Guinea Worms brought over to the first CDR studio around 2006 or 2007ish,” Smith said. “After that, the cassette probably didn't leave the tape player in the living room for a year. It was obvious from the first 10 seconds of that tape that it was an actual classic.”
CDR reissued Tall Tales of Trauma in 2007, which sparked more interest in Tommy’s music. Another record with Mike Rep followed, as well as Tommy Jay & the General’s Florida Songs, released via the well-respected Feeding Tube Records. “If this album is not hailed as a chunk of modern form genius at the apex of high, then all is fucking lost,” music critic Byron Coley wrote of Florida Songs.
Like the point guard he was, Tommy Jay brought people together, joining outsiders and artists to celebrate kinship and expression. As he had in the 1970s, Tommy Jay helped to build safe and encouraging spaces for the CDR generation, where joy and creation were paramount, tied together through the passing of guitars, keyboards, joints, and bottles, and almost always with a tape recorder capturing it all.
“For me, playing music with Tommy was hanging at his house or backyard and passing the guitar around,” Ron House said. “If I was lucky, he’d have a cassette of what we’d done the next time I’d see him, and he’d have added some Casio flourishes to the song.”
“I was fortunate enough to be a part-time Freak for a couple years just prior to COVID,” said John Olexovitch of the Lindsay and Linda Trip, who considered Tommy a mentor and played alongside him as a member of his backing band, His Latest Freak Show. “Tommy was unfailingly kind and appreciative, despite my unfortunate tendency to overplay. He promoted a really positive environment and brought together a lot of goodhearted and kind people. It felt good getting to know Tommy at a time in his life when he was feeling creative and surrounded by so much love and appreciation from his friends and fans.”
“Singing harmonies with Tommy was dreamy,” said another former bandmate, Annie Light-Brown Wolf. “And being his friend is forever.”
Canaan Faulkner, a longtime Columbus musician who played with the Black Swans and continues to play with Mike Rep, said he came to Tommy’s music later in life, but the two became fast friends after they met in 2017. Soon after, they started recording together, many times spurred on by Rep. “I’d swing through town frequently (I still do) to visit Mike, and we'd always goad Tommy to join us. It didn't take much arm twisting,” Faulkner wrote via email.
Like most people who knew Tommy, Faulkner was struck by the musician’s gentle, humble nature. “When I barely knew him, I went to one of his shows at Bourbon Street. He took me outside after the show and GAVE me a record from the trunk of his car [and] wouldn't take money,” Faulkner wrote. “He was so happy I came and loved the show.”
Faulkner still gets emotional when he recalls how he texted with the late musician in his final days at the hospital. “He told me to have a Bud for him,” Faulkner wrote. “Then shortly thereafter he was gone.”
I never talked to Tommy about my struggles with alcohol. But he would come up to me at shows wearing one of the most authentic smiles I have known and ask how I was doing, sharing that he was happy I no longer drank. It always struck me as sweet and sincere.
At Used Kids, Tommy and His Latest Freak Show played one of the final shows I saw before the COVID shutdown – a joyous older man surrounded by his “freaks” in the most perfect, inviting space. Together, the musicians created an almost circus-like atmosphere onstage, smiles beaming as they shared in the greatest of all unspoken languages: joy. I bobbed my head along with all of the others while Tommy, an acoustic guitar draped around his neck, sang and sang.
Tommy died after a short illness. For a moment, it looked like he might pull through, but in the end, it was, well, the end. But his sense of humor, humble nature, and an ability to treat everyone he met with genuine humanity remain a gift to the world. “[He] was low-key amused with the absurdity of it all,” Adam Smith said. “It was like he was always looking around at the horrible stuff and the good stuff and doing a subtle, late night TV host-style can you believe it folks?!”
Somewhere, Tommy might be reading this admittedly belated tribute with that familiar bemused look.
Rest in peace, Tommy Jay. And thank you for everything you brought to the world.
Correction: Nudge Squidfish never played in Vertical Slit. Matter News regrets the error.