Tom Guernsey: A Guitar Silenced
Last Sunday, June 23, was one of the most memorable days I’ve spent in a long time. I was at the Town Hall in Garrett Park, Maryland, not far from where I live, for a celebration of life-memorial service for guitarist/songwriter/producer/entrepreneur Tom Guernsey, one of the icons of the Washington, D.C. rock scene for the past 50 years. Tom had ALS/Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (AKA “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), and died last October 3 in Portland, Oregon, where he had moved several years ago. On October 20, The Washington Post ran an extended appreciation/obituary by Terence McArdle, “A Local Life: Tom Guernsey, Md. musician who penned regional hit in the 1960s, dies at 68.”
Tom’s garage rock song “What a Girl Can’t Do,” recorded by his band The Reekers and released in 1966 under the band name The Hangmen [a complicated story explained in the Post article], was a #1 single on Washington AM radio. The song has gone through many lives since then, with cover versions by The Nighthawks, The Slickee Boys, The Lyres and other bands. Those and other versions and the original appear on Meet The Reekers!, an album released in 2007 on Tom’s label Sweet Breeze Records, with other songs recorded over a period of years by various permutations of The Reekers. After releasing the single, Monument Records (primarily a country label based in Nashville) released the only album by The Hangmen, Bittersweet, which is long out of print.
The memorial service demonstrated Tom’s deep roots in the close-knit town of Garrett Park, with family members and friends going back to his childhood. Many of those people spoke at the service, including his son Ben Guernsey (also a musician) and even a couple of his grandchildren. I can’t claim to have known Tom well, but I knew him since the early ‘70s, through his brother, John Guernsey. John, who invited me to the celebration, is also an exceptional musician, songwriter, visual artist and piano teacher. He was a keyboard player in my all-time favorite area band, Claude Jones, which played in the area from 1968-1971. It also included two members of The Reekers, keyboard player Mike Henley and singer Joe Triplett, both of whom were also at the celebration of Tom’s life.
In 2003, Tom switched gears and released a softer, New Age-styled album, Same Place, Different Time. In his final years he was writing and directing a film, The Girl From California, which opens with an interview with Triplett. The film was never finished, but a 31 minute HD version can be seen on YouTube. At the alternately sad and humorous memorial service, which ended with everyone singing “Amazing Grace,” Tom was remembered by his band mate and childhood friend Henley as a musician with rare talents, including a fine-tuned ear for musical details: “He could hear things unavailable to the rest of us.”