Remembering Terry Tolkin

The legendary indie rock impresario and A&R man responsible for breaking Stereolab, Luna, The Afghan Whigs and Nada Surf, was 64

Terry Tolkin (Image: Terry’s Facebook page)

Chances are, you probably don’t give too much thought about how trends get their name. 

As a writer for Rockpool in the late 1970s, Terry Tolkin probably wasn’t aware of the impact he was making when he referred to new, non-mainstream bands and artists as “alternative music” in 1979. Nor did he expect to have the accidental music career and legacy he would leave behind. Tolkin, who passed away Friday at the age of 64, lived a full and quietly influential life.

Terry Tolkin was a complex man. His sharp wit and biting tongue belied the generous and loving spirit of the man’s heart. But he could be your best friend in the world if he liked you, and if you were a band or a musician, he would go out of his way to help. Terry was a man who loved music, first and foremost; when he lost his large and well-known library of music in a house fire in the late 1990s, he never really recovered from the loss. With his passing, stories of his generosity and his spirit are rife; in death, loving remembrances counteracts his feelings that he would be forgotten in death.  

Tolkin rose to prominence in the early 1980s. He worked at the influential 99 Records, and he helped to nurture the store’s offshoot label, which introduced the world to such artists as Glenn Branca, Liquid Liquid and ESG. In his off-hours, he would DJ and book underground shows throughout New York City. He would also soon take a job working for an upstart Touch & Go Records, bringing along with him their most notorious signing, the Butthole Surfers. He would then move on to Caroline Records and Rough Trade, and it was during this era that he launched his own record label, No. 6.

No. 6 Records logo (Image: Discogs)

It was at No. 6 that he cultivated a label that helped secure his legacy. Throughout its ten-year run, Tolkin would debut The Tindersticks in America, would offer up delightful side projects and low-key releases from Luna, The Afghan Whigs, Mercury Rev Scrawl and Jennyanykind. But he took special pride in bringing Arlington, Virginia’s Unrest to the spotlight. He once said he felt honored that he was able to release the band’s 1992 album Imperial F.F.R.R., as he felt it was the group’s finest hour. (In typical Tolkin fashion, he would deny any role in involvement of making the album, stating that the genius was all a result of the band. The label on the record, in his eyes, was immaterial.)  

In 1992, he took a leadership position in the A&R department of Elektra Records. While there, he brought influential bands Stereolab, Luna, The Afghan Whigs, Scrawl, and Nada Surf to the label. He developed a close friendship with Luna frontman Dean Wareham, who once paid tribute to Terry in his song “Chinatown.” The song itself is a breezy number, but the lyrics are another story. Tolkin’s habits and demons were catching up with him, and the song addressed that, documenting his less-than-professional behavior, summing it up with “You’ll get yours and I’ll get mine/Can’t be lucky all the time.” He was right; by 1996, he was gone from the label, and his life spiraled out of control, one from which he never recovered from professionally. 


AUDIO: Luna “Chinatown”

But in conversations with him, he would state the success of his 1989 tribute and benefit album The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young was his greatest accomplishment. High-profile reviews in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and Spin virtually ensured that the album would be a top-seller.

One of his greatest stories comes from his experience of visiting The Bridge School, which is perhaps the best way to sum up Tolkin’s loving, generous spirit.

The following excerpt comes from 

I remember flying out to San Francisco with one of those symbolic checks made out for a little over $81,000 that covered the first two quarters of The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young’s release. When I got to the Bridge School I met with Neil and Pegi. We took some press pictures with the now slightly bent oversized check. (Well, Caroline Records wouldn’t pay for an extra seat for the check soooo, I mean it was a long flight, you know? I did the best I could! I gave the check more of my seat than I got). After the press stuff they took me on a tour of the School. These were early days there. It was just one building with a very small staff for about 35 kids, ages 5 to 16.

They were all in one big open classroom.

There were some Bridge posters that had obviously recently been put up on the walls and there was a homemade ”Welcome Terry Tolkin/No.6/Caroline! Thank You!” banner strung across the classroom. Pegi, Neil, a teacher and Mericore, the 12-year-old self appointed Student Leader, introduced me to each and every kid. They knew all about the record and were fully aware of what I had done. They were just so appreciative of someone noticing them and wanting to help.

I had no idea what the School was gonna do with the money. Pay rent? Salaries? Supplies? Well, I found out, right there and then.

Mericore, who had firmly attached herself to my left arm the moment I met her, was anxious to show me a custom modification to her wheelchair which allowed the interaction of laser pointers and computer elements. These devices facilitated the kid using it to verbally communicate, many for the very first time in their lives, with the outside world. At $4500 a piece the School only had four for all 35 students to share. They told me that this is where the Bridge album money is going. To buy many more of these devices. One for each child. So that they can verbalize their feelings, thoughts, make jokes…..I was floored.

 Mericore excitedly proceeded to “speak” to me by manipulating a tiny laser onto a computer screen. She very graciously told me that they all loved the Bridge album. Then she asked “So you work in the music business, right?”

I told her

“Yeah, kinda”

She asked

“Do you know New Kids On The Block?”

I asked her why and she told me that they are her favorite band and could I get her a poster of them?

I told her that I’d try real hard to get one but they’re very popular and it might take awhile.

She almost bounced out of her wheelchair with glee! Seriously, she looked like a female Beatle fan from the 60’s! I thought she was gonna pass out!

My visit was short because, heck, it was a school day. At least everybody got cake.

I said my goodbyes as I had to catch the red eye back to NYC cause Caroline was too cheap to want to pay for a hotel for the night.

I ambled across the School’s parking lot, rather stunned by my experience, to my rental car (“Cheaper then all those taxis, Terry”).

I was emotionally exhausted.

I had nothing left.

I had just peaked in my Arc of Life.

How could I ever do anything more important than this?

I started seeing the silent faces of all those kids handing me their Thank You notes but now knowing that next week they’ll all be able to “speak”.,

Because I had an idea?

I had NO idea that me realizing this concept would ripple into all these lives. I sat there in the car crying my eyes out for so long that I guess Pegi noticed and came out.

I didn’t know she was there until she opened the passenger side door and slipped in next to me gathering me up in the biggest, most soul enveloping MOMMA hug.

After a couple of minutes she whispered:

“They’re all so brave, aren’t they? Now you be too. OK?”

When I got back to New York I called an A&R guy at Columbia Records, NKOTB’s label. His name escapes me now, but he had actually taken the time to write me a personal letter saying that he realized how much work goes into a project like The Bridge. I asked if I could take him to lunch the next day. We met up and I told him all about my trip to the Bridge School and about Mericore. I brought along a Polaroid I had taken of her and gave it to him. Somebody’s God blessed that man and a week later a box arrived at Caroline filled with posters, album covers and 8×10’s festooned with NKOTB signatures and personal dedications and words of encouragement for Mericore. She got backstage passes for every time they played in the Bay Area. After I sent Meri the package, she sent me photos of her in her bedroom engulfed in NKOTB swag!

Meri and I stayed in touch until complications from her CP took her when she was 17.

Rest easy, Terry.


AUDIO: Various Artists The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young 

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Joseph Kyle

Joseph Kyle is a contributing writer for Follow him @TheRecoup.

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