Remembering Tom

In the summer of 1987 I flew to London to study British Film and Television in a program run by the University of North Carolina. I would be attending UNC’s graduate film program in the fall, so this was a good introduction to the school. The program’s director was a UNC professor and the chair of the UNC department. Most of the participants in the summer study abroad program were rising seniors at UNC. It was in this program that I met Tom Shaw.

Tom was all about music. He was in a band back in North Carolina. He talked about music all the time. He was obsessed with Pete Townshend and The Who. But it was the late 80s and we didn’t have a way to share music or even listen to it together in our flats. I had a Walkman, but sharing headphones was not a thing back then, And we didn’t really take advantage of seeing any live music in London.

But music became the way we traveled around the country. Tom called it our rock ‘n roll tour of England. Below is a picture of me and Tom in Brighton. This was the run-down seaside town, an easy train ride from London. There wasn’t much to see or do there. Why did we go to Brighton? Because it figured prominently in The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia. Tom’s idea.

And several of us went to Stonehenge. Why Stonehenge? Because of course we would go to Stonehenge. Oh, there were definitely Spinal Tap jokes when we got there about how it looked bigger in real life. 

And rather than take typical tourist shots in front of this 5,000 year old monument, we took band photos. It was the 1980s and no self-respecting band member would dare look at the camera. Tom’s idea? Maybe, but we all bought in. There’s Tom, front and center, leading the band and looking off to the future, while Bryan and Blake see where we’ve been. I was behind the camera in this one.

We celebrated the end of our program by dancing on tables at a Greek restaurant and with a final pint at the pub across the street. The Yorkshire Grey is still a pub, but it has a different name. It was closed when I passed it on a 2012 trip to London, so I don’t know if the dark, crumbling, subterranean basement booths where we drank after class have changed. We would go our separate ways home for the rest of the summer, but many of us would be back in Chapel Hill for the upcoming school year.

While I didn’t hang out often with Tom during his senior year and my first year of graduate school at UNC, I did see him some. But it was different than those four weeks in London where we lived next door to each other, went to class every day and traveled together. 

Did I see his band play? Of course I did. As the memories trickle back, it seems that a few of us from our London program went to see them play a local show. It was part of the rock ‘n roll tour of Chapel Hill. Nobody looked at the camera that night either.

He was responsible for me meeting my first wife early in that school year after our return from London and because it was Tom, music was the connection. It involved getting a tape of his band, Urban Edge, but that’s a story for another time.

I lost touch with Tom after college, but because we eventually connected on Facebook, I was able to catch up with him in 2015. I was living in Indiana and we made arrangements for me to stop by his house in Louisville. It was really great to see him.

What did we talk about? I’m sure music was one of the topics, but we were both divorced dads so we talked about our kids. And it does take some time to answer that question of what have you been up to for the past 25 years. His story about reconnecting with Jenn made me happy for him.

Tom recently lost his battle against cancer, so he’s been on my mind. I bought a vinyl copy of Quadrophenia and thought of Tom while it spun on the turntable. His rock ‘n roll tour has ended, but it continues in our hearts and through our memories.  

Rest in peace, my friend.

Jeffrey L Cohen

Jeffrey L Cohen