Tom Whalen, 1967-2022

Founding member of The Lilacs was excellent bassist, fine human being

Tom Whalen, center in a Sox cap, at Voodoo Lounge in Chicago. The Lilacs were opening for Material Issue on Feb. 29, 1992. (Photo: Adam Lisberg)

Tom Whalen died last week. He was 55. Tom was the bassist for The Lilacs, an original member and a fantastic musician. A naturally melodic player who had the musical integrity to write interesting, catchy parts for even our dumbest songs.

When Taylor Hawkins died this weekend at age 50, people immediately thought about not just his family, but his bandmates. Especially Dave Grohl. Even those who are not fans of Foo Fighters and Nirvana or even rock ‘n’ roll just kind of understand that playing music with a few other guys for a long while is a very special relationship. It’s not quite friends and it’s not quite family, but it’s usually a little of both. If the music is any good, it has to be.

 Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

I first met Tom Whalen in 1990. I had told David Levinsky that I wanted to form a new power pop outfit and he said he had the perfect bass player for us, the first friend he’d made as a freshman at Indiana University.

Tom Whalen and his dear friend Pete Zimmermann, doing what dear friends do. (Photo: Liz Churchman)

Tom showed up at our inaugural practice in my dad‘s basement and I instantly named him “Two Ton” because of how damn skinny he was. I didn’t realize that that the lankiness came from Marfan syndrome, which weakens the tissue that supports your organs.

At that point, Tom and his best friend Pete Zimmermann, another IU guy and an occasional fifth Lilac, had formed such a tight bond that they presented more as brothers than friends.

They were both working at Blockbuster and living on the floor of their friend Bettina‘s studio apartment. They would go drinking every night at a dive bar on Newport and shoot pool, and everybody loved them—Pete the gregarious raconteur, Tom ever the bass player, quieter, with an infectious grin and a wit so sharp it caught you off guard when he finally did speak up. Our friend Sarah got Tom a job on the 1990 census. They’d drive to work together every day and he would swear he was going to start walking if she wouldn’t play something other than Arthur by The Kinks.

The Lilacs started making records and getting gigs right away. Tom had no interest in songwriting or even singing back-ups. He just stood in the pocket on his Rickenbacker 4003 and anchored the rhythm section. Tom eventually got an apartment on Clark Street, and we used the choice location to hang painted bedsheets out the window advertising whatever local gig The Lilacs had cooking.

At about that time Tom also combined his two favorite hobbies, alcohol and science. He began home-brewing beer. He took it super seriously and would explain how the hops and barley interacted and whatever. Every single batch he ever presented was utterly undrinkable.

John Packel, the original drummer of The Lilacs, remembers, “Tom was a great guy, and it was a thrill being the founding Lilacs rhythm section with him. Among my favorite of Tom’s imaginative bass parts was in ‘Again,’ particularly his hypnotically melodic line where the guitars drop out before the finale. He will be greatly missed.”

Art Kim, who drummed for The Lilacs after Packel exited, echoed those thoughts. “There’s a special bond that develops between rhythm section members. You need to be able to get into the same groove to make things work, but Tom seemed to have that effortless sync with everyone, musically or otherwise. Always there to add a witty grace note or fill in a lull with an unexpected twist.”

Lilacs co-founder David Levinsky summarized it simply: “Tom was a rock solid, genuinely kind person.”

Playing in an Indie band in America means a lot of driving. Here’s Tom driving The Lilacs in 1992. (Photo: Kevin B. Sanders)

Even though we’re all the same age, the other guys had all been to college and I hadn’t. When I enrolled at University of Chicago and found it way too hard, Tom urged me to stick with it. We’ll do the math together, he said. And he meant it literally. On road trips to gigs in Kansas or Minneapolis, Tom would do my homework with me. I read him my calculus problems and he’d strain to remember the formulas. It gave me confidence, and that was Tom, quietly helping, quietly reassuring.

Sometimes we would practice at Dave’s second floor apartment in Wicker Park. Tom was into some weird sci-fi cult show where the term “slack” was prominent. He showed up not knowing that week’s songs and we started giving him a hard time. Tom was probably the best pure musician in the group, so if he didn’t know what was going on, we were basically lost. Tom’s response became a Lilacs classic: “First of all, I’m drunk. Second, I don’t know the songs. Third, cut me some slack.”

Like many indie rock bands, The Lilacs struggled to hold onto a drummer. John Packel left to return to college and Art Kim stepped in. At some point, he found the touring too much and John “Freight Train” Valley became our drummer. Anyone who knows rock ‘n’ roll knows that chemistry between the bass player and the drummer is more important than anything else in the band. It’s a credit to Tom Whalen that he cranked the very best performances out of all three of those very different drummers.

After The Lilacs ended we all went our separate ways and Tom embarked on a fascinating real life.

In preparation for the first Lilacs performance in 23 years, Tom Whalen (r) took the Amtrak to New Jersey to rehearse with the author (l) and John Packel (c). The groove was intact. (Photo: Marianna Rosen for Rock and Roll Globe)

He married a wonderful woman, Kris Enderle, who I remember having fallen in love with him at first sight. Tom became an analyst at MorningStar, the mutual fund and stock ranking company. But with his incredible facility for numbers and analysis, bigger things lay ahead.

Tom moved to DC and went to work for the Department of Justice, analyzing whether proposed mergers would create unfavorable conditions for consumers. It was complex, consequential work, perfect for a pure intellectual like Tom. We didn’t talk that much, but we met a few times in DC when I was doing politics and he was able to make what could’ve been a dry pursuit into highly fascinating material.

In 2016 I got the idea that The Lilacs should return to Chicago, which we had all left 20 years earlier, and play one epic show. I had no idea what to expect. Tom took the train up to New Jersey to practice with Packel and me, with John Cook filling out the guitar parts. Tom told us he hadn’t touched his bass, literally laid a finger on it, since The Lilacs. That made no sense coming from such an excellent musician, but from the first notes of those practices, I knew we still had it. We played that show at The Metro in Chicago, and it was a smash success, and we winded up playing several more, not just in Chicago but in Milwaukee and New York.

By the time we decided to record an EP, Tom was not well enough to go down to Nashville and join the fun. But he was proud of us, and thrilled when that record sold well and even got on the radio a little bit.

I got in trouble a year later and nobody knew what to say to me. Tom sent our group email chain a lovely letter with updates about his family and inserted this sentence: “Sorry I didn’t reach out to you earlier, Ken. No excuses on my end. I should’ve checked in. Hopefully, things are returning to normal for you.”

Tom, center, at Summer Breeze at Univ. of Chicago, May 1992. (Photo: Adam Lisberg)

Just a class guy with a huge heart. A defective heart, it turns out, and that’s what’s so hard to comprehend about the sudden demise of such a lovely human being, someone so brilliant, with a terrific wife and an 18-year-old son whose soccer exploits comprise 80% of his father’s social media postings. Exactly a month ago our Lilacs email chain was lightheartedly BS’ing about the stuff of middle age—another group calling themselves The Lilacs and Dave having stood up to some bullies. And now the darkness.

Tom had a bunch of actual brothers and a nice mom and dad. We stayed with them one time when we went to Evansville, which is so nowheresville it’s like the Indiana of Indiana. And Tom was a big fan of my actual brother, who would perform stand-up comedy before The Lilacs sets. But playing music with someone is its own brotherhood.

Pete told me that his final text from Tom called him brother. And that’s what it’s like being in a band with someone who dies. It’s like losing a brother. The Lilacs were not an important band, and on many nights we weren’t even a very good band. But we were Tom’s band. Goodbye, my musical brother. Thank you for that bass part in If You Get Home. Thank you for that grin every time I looked back at you while we were on stage. Thank you for being my brother.

The Lilacs in 2019; Tom Whalen on the right. (Photo: Kevin B. Sanders for Rock and Roll Globe)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

2 thoughts on “Tom Whalen, 1967-2022

  • March 28, 2022 at 3:19 am

    Tom’s home brew! Let’s all raise an “Eighbräu” to Two-Ton.

    Long live Dr. Whalen🖖

  • April 8, 2022 at 5:23 am

    I knew Tom in HS and college–truly a kind and talented guy! I really enjoyed this piece/tribute–thank you!


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