Tales Of The (Gentrification) City: Tom Heyman And Deirdre White
By Denise Sullivan
"People who don't live here don't get it," says singer-songwriter and guitarist Tom Heyman. "Everyone I know is waiting for the other shoe to drop, all the time. All my renter friends, me and my wife, we live in constant fear."
One of thousands of musicians who migrated to the West Coast in search of better weather and better fortune in the music business, Heyman arrived to San Francisco in January of 1998 and slid in easily to the local guitar and roots music scene headquartered at the Makeout Room on 22nd and Mission Streets. Martin Rapalski's bar (and attendant businesses, the Latin American Club and Sugarlump Coffee Lounge) has served as a sort of living room for Mission musicians, hipsters then and now, and Heyman has been a mascot on and off there for two decades, whether onstage, behind the bar, or at the door where he can inevitably be found kibitzing on the issues du jour with locals and tourists, generally holding things down.
"I like that I know my neighbors, that we're on a first name basis. It's the nature of living in a village," he says after 17 years in the center of the Mission.
Heyman weathered the first dot-boom while many of his musical peers moved East to Oakland, some of them to buy homes and take advantage of first-time buyer programs (don't ask). Though despite the present generational turn in in the city's demographics and the mounting pressures of living for the artist and renting class, Heyman has recently managed to release his third solo album, That Cool Blue Feeling (produced by Mike Coykendall) and continues to book a monthly songwriter's night, Sad Bastard Club, now in its fourth year at the Makeout. [There was one last night.]
"I was feeling a little bit reflective around the holidays this year. I wasn't going home to the East Coast to see my family the way I normally do and I felt like I wanted to do something special…" So Heyman called a benefit for the Tenants Union and asked his fellow local-living, touring musician friends Peter Case, John Doe and Chris Von Sneidern to join him.
"We all rent," explains Heyman. "It seemed like a really good thing to get behind, especially in memory of Ted Gullicksen, and it's a service people really, really, really, really need. I don't know anybody who's singing songs here who's an owner."
"The idea that music is somehow connected to social justice is something that I grew up with," he says."My parents were very liberal, involved in the Civil Rights Movement back in New Jersey. I like glam rock as much as the next guy-- I'm a music nerd-- but music connecting to social justice is important to me. Marching and folk music are part of my make-up."
Not that Heyman's songs are political or social tracts in the Phil Ochs or Woody Guthrie vein; we all know the deck is stacked against the workingman. Rather, Heyman's character sketches mine the milieu of personal disappointment in the cold light of those facts while serving as "an examination of the loneliness and alienation of the nocturnal life and the true cost of love."
Getting his music career together in Philadelphia in the late '80s and through the '90s as a songwriter and guitarist in Go To Blazes, a prototypically rockin' Americana band, Heyman toured and recorded five albums before heading West to find work as a second guitarist in bands like Court and Spark and with Chuck Prophet. He's since collaborated with musicians, known (Doe) and lesser-known (John Murry), juggles a side project called the Happy Family Singers (with Tarnation's Paula Frazer and Red Meat's Jill Olson), and when he can get to it, returns to his own recordings.
"I'd like to think this is the best work I've ever done… I'd just like to not spend eight years between albums."
Heyman's wife, Deirdre White, is a San Franciscan by birth, a visual artist, and an instructor at the beleaguered City College of San Francisco. She took the cover shot on That Cool Blue Feeling, a sunset in the Outer Richmond, and her paintings appear on album covers by indie rockers John Dwyer and Sarah Bethe Nelson. The couple have lived on lower 24th Street since 1999. "For a long time I didn't see the changes like Tom did but in the last year and a half, I've started to see it. When you've been in a neighborhood that long, it makes you heartsick. I think we both feel privileged to be a part of 24th Street. Not because we contribute to the culture, but we want it to survive," she says.
If the alarming number of evictions of artists, seniors, and local Latino families were not news-grabbing enough in recent years, the police murder of Alex Nieto in March of 2014 turned out to be a bellwether for neighborhood's status in the eye of the gentrification storm.
"He could've been one of my students," said White who has seen San Franciscans diverse as veterans from the war in Afghanistan to single parents pass through her classroom, struggling to get a basic education. "They face so many challenges. Things are so tenuous here. I'd be living in the East Bay for sure but even that's crowded now."
Heyman and White remain committed to their course as artists here, contributing to the fabric of city life as it was once and sometimes is still known: "I've had my same studio space at the Farm," says White who paints in a building next door to San Francisco's only Afro-centric K-6 school, Meadows-Livingstone. "I love hearing the students there sing," she says. Plus Heyman's musical base is still here, among San Francisco's remaining musicians and those in the orbit of the Makeout Room.
"I love the fact I can walk out my door and get anything that I need from the most exotic to the most mundane within a 10 block radius. I love all the people I work with and the musical community I feel like I'm a part of here," he says. "The city has given me a lot of opportunity. For one reason or another, I've managed to end up playing with the trifecta of west coast punk rock: John Doe, Penelope Houston and Alejandro Escovedo. I've recorded where Creedence made Cosmo's Factory. I still feel a little bit like an imposter, because I identify with the East Coast, but every time I feel unsure about living here, in the tumult of change that's happening now, I find myself stopping, looking around and noticing the physical beautiful of the place."
"We're dug in deep here. The thought of leaving is frightening, but it's always at the back of my mind."
Bonus: Tom performs The Doors' "Soul Kitchen" with Penelope Houston in July, 2013 at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.