Not Fade Away

Battling a debilitating disease,
former U-Men guitarist Tom Price
refuses to change his tune.

Near the stage in Ballard’s belowground performance space the Mine, Tom Price is quietly setting up his gear, methodically unwrapping a long black guitar cable and plugging it into a well-worn Fender Twin amplifier. Slightly hunched, he moves through the room at a speedy shuffle, the soles of his black sneakers scraping along the carpeted floor. In his right hand, he carries a rubber-tipped black cane to help him along his way. His left hand, when he’s not using it to tune his guitar or adjust volume settings on his amp, shakes constantly. 

Photography by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

Once his guitar is strapped on and the rest of his band is in place behind him, the rock ’n’ roll swagger takes over. The four-piece, which goes by the name Tom Price & Friends, plays a free-form noise-jazz hybrid. For the half hour of the set, the forty-eight-year-old guitarist looks determined and confident, almost beatific. He leans back often to drink in the pounding racket of his bandmates and to add to it with thrilling shards of fuzz and feedback. Afterwards, though, Price appears drained and dazed. Smoking a cigarette outside the venue with friends, he simply stares silently into the middle distance. 

“The problem is, I have to medicate myself so hard just to do a set.” Two weeks after the performance at the Mine, Price is sitting in a booth at Abbondanza Pizzeria in West Seattle talking about what it’s like to be a musician with Parkinson’s disease. “I get to the point where I’m using up a week’s worth of medication in two nights. And if I do that, my brain goes kind of ... ” He affects the same open-mouthed stare that he was wearing after his recent show, before breaking into a smile. “I think my days of touring and playing six and seven nights a week are fairly well over.”

It has been seven years since Price was diagnosed with the slow-onset disorder. The shaking hands and inability to walk at a full stride are due to a deficiency of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that controls muscle movement. He now takes a daily dose of synthetic dopamine as well as other drugs to compensate for the ongoing symptoms. He has to double up on all of these to be able to play music. 

He really doesn’t need to keep playing; Price’s legacy as a pillar of Seattle music has long since been cemented. He was a founding member of the legendary post-punk icons the U-Men, a group that helped anchor the local scene when it first attracted international attention in the ’80s. He went on to survive the grunge explosion and subsequent burnout, playing in the surf-garage rock quartet Gas Huffer and backing up members of Mudhoney in their experimental blues side project, the Monkeywrench. 

These days, Price’s efforts are split between two projects: Tom Price & Friends and a stampeding garage-rock group called the Tom Price Desert Classic. The latter features two of his former Huffer bandmates, Don Blackstone and Matt Wright, as well as career musicians Martin Bland and Joe Kilbourne. The Desert Classic recently released its first seven-inch record via local imprint Flotation Records. The band plays about once a month at many of the venues (Comet Tavern, the Sunset) where Price got his start almost thirty years before. 

And while the weekly practices and extra medication do take their toll on him, Price sees no reason to stop now. “Whether I’m in a band or actively involved in playing music or not, I’m still going to be writing songs and still hearing songs in my head and wanting to get them out. I’ve just got to keep trying as long as I can.” 

As inspiring as it is to hear that, it begs the question: How much time does he have left to make music? Price considers the question for a moment, then, with a slight smirk, he answers.

“It’s funny. Doctors never want to talk about stuff like that, but the insurance companies are far less reluctant to tell you how long you have to live and produce. Doctors give me ten years; insurance folks about five. The first time you hear it, it’s kind of shocking, but you develop a sense of humor about it. I’m still functioning well enough that it’s pretty abstract. As my condition worsens, I’ll probably feel differently about it. Right now, I just try to laugh it off. It’s a pretty laughable situation.” •


Watch our mini-doc about the musician, presented in partnership with EMP.


See more in Music
See more in the August 2010 issue   →