It’s all about art: Remembering Tom Laskin

Robin Davies of Tar Babies reflects on Laskin’s onstage charisma and deep connection with music.

Robin Davies of Tar Babies reflects on Laskin’s onstage charisma and deep connection with music.


Editor’s note: Longtime Madison musician and journalist Tom Laskin died on June 15 in Amsterdam, where he had been living for the past few years. He was 58 years old and had endured a long fight with brain cancer. To honor Laskin’s many contributions to Madison—including as lead singer of post-punk band Appliances-SFB and a writer for Isthmus—we’ve asked a few people to reflect on his life and work. First up is one of Laskin’s musical contemporaries: Robin Davies, who co-founded Madison-based punk trio Tar Babies in the early 1980s.

It’s all about art. There’s a band caricature on an Appliances-SFB show flyer from the 1980s, drawn by band member Bill Feeny, that portrays each member as a human-animal hybrid. Tom Laskin is the wolf.

Yep, homie led the pack. Tom was unassuming and whip-smart. His small frame, large glasses, and floppy hair reflected his intelligence. Homie did growl. Remember those elastic bands goofs used to wear to keep their glasses on during sports? Tom wore his on stage. Arching back, barking into the mic. Homie did howl. Tom was a bold sexual beastman on stage. Mix Iggy’s sweat, Nick Cave’s groan, Peter Murphy’s tone and Leonard Cohen’s wit and you have lead singer Tom.

The thing is, the Appliances had punk energy, but were not a punk band. I guess that speaks to the fluidity of the 1980s Madison “scene,” but this band could rock hard and be smart and groove. The depth of their set list defied labels. When the Tar Babies went on our first east coast tour, we didn’t have a record, so we we brought label mates Mecht Mensch and Appliances-SFB’s 7-inches in the van. In Chicago I tried to ply my merch on a nerdy-looking fan named Steve Albini and he was surprised by the odd connectivity. Why is this hardcore band trying to sell me this? That fucking guitar running through a Roland Tape Echo, bass that pulses with awareness, drums exploding and diving right back into syncopation, synthesizer padding that provides no comfort, and then Tom. It’s all about art and Tom was a beast. He prowled the stage, jumping, kicking, howling and growling, always from the gut. Tom was fascinating and scary to watch, undergoing a wolfman transformation with the click of the drumsticks. God, listen to “Danger Zone,” from the band’s first 7-inch, and you hear brains, brawn, and dystopia in those grooves. Neo-fascist indeed!

It’s all about art, and Tom was a passionate and thoughtful writer. He never phoned it in. He truly gave his expert knowledge and heart to his pieces. Spieling positively on local artists. Support like that means everything to the struggling musician.

In my last personal exchanges with Tom, we discussed music that he had always encouraged us to pursue: Xmal Deutchland, Clock DVA, the Pop Group, and Adrian Sherwood. Tom knew hip-hop too. He called himself an idiot for getting rid of his record collection before leaving for France. Of course, Tom was no idiot—his recommendations are still in my record collection and make my playlists regularly.

KT, his wife, survives him. It’s all about art and KT is a brilliant artist herself. She was the Appliances’ sound person and made music with Tom as Gargantua and later as Cuckoo Bizarre. The team was a creative force. KT, I doubt we feel your pain, but know that we loved your husband and hope you are doing okay. Grief … Shit!

It’s all about art. I recently came upon another flyer drawn by Bill Feeny that showed Tom and KT in the backseat of a car with the window rolled down. Tom slumps, pumping the “rock on” fist, with KT in the background in silhouette. Rock on, Tom. You influence me every day with your brilliance.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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