Author: Cornish, Rick

The Passing of Tom Tworek
I suppose Mark Varner asked me to write Tom Tworek’s obituary because I knew him longer than most in our bluegrass community. Tom and I played in a bluegrass band nearly thirty years ago--Duck Soup. But, truth be told, I didn’t really know Tom back then. My guess is that if you were to ask Nicole, the girl with whom he shared a cabin up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, she’d tell you that she didn’t really know Tom either. She loved him, no doubt about that, but I don’t think she really knew him. Back then, in the late seventies, no one knew the Tom we lost last month; probably not even Tom himself. Tom Tworek wore a suit of armor that was three inches of carbon steel. He was a tough guy, macho; he played hard, drank and used drugs hard and he seemed always on the verge of picking a fight. Tom was brooding and he was angry back in 1978 when I first met him at the Fiddlers Convention at John Muir Middle School in San Jose.

Not exactly the way you’d expect an obituary to begin, at least not one written by a friend who very much loved the subject. But to pay homage to and to celebrate the life of the Tom Tworek most only knew for the past ten or eleven years, it’s important to know and appreciate the journey that he traveled. So here it is, the short version. Tom grew up in the Salinas Valley, served in Viet Nam, returned to the states with a habit that would dog him for the next twenty years, and spent some time in the east before returning to California where he settled in a cabin along the banks of the San Lorenzo River. Tom worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in maintenance, found his way into the bluegrass scene, played in a few bands, and then, almost as suddenly as he’d arrived on the scene, he disappeared without a trace.

About twenty years later, in the pitch black of a moonless night at Belado Park, I bumped into someone, literally. Sorry, I said. No man, I’m sorry. And then, as each of us started to walk into the darkness we stopped. Tom? Rick, is that you?

And that, as they say, was that. A friendship was born that night at the Good Old Fashioned that will always be among my most cherished and transforming. It was a friendship not so much rekindled as it was sparked into life by a single bear hug. The Tom I’d known wouldn’t have grabbed me and given me a hug, and for the next three hours we sat and talked and I learned where he’d been and who he’d become.

In the years that followed I thought a lot about the story Tom shared with me that night in Hollister and, especially after he’d become sick, I came to believe in a sort of a theory or principle or equation. And here it is: the amount you can give is directly proportional to how much you’ve almost lost. Tom Tworek could not have touched the number of people that he touched this past decade, nor could he have touched them as profoundly, had he not lived through those awful, self-destructive, devastatingly hopeless years and come out the other end. He couldn’t have captured the lives and the souls of those he photographed with such breath-taking truth if he’d not almost squandered his own life and his own soul. And he couldn’t have played our bluegrass music with the amount of love and delight and infectious energy if he hadn’t almost thrown it away. Would Tom be mad at me if he knew I was blowing his cover now, letting folks know about his past? No, he basked in his recovery. Finding his higher power and sharing it through his art, his music and his many, many, many friendships is what defined Tom Tworek. We’re only just now beginning to realize how amazingly broad his reach was across three separate communities—fine art photography, recovery and bluegrass.

If you’ve read, as I have, the Message Board posts from people who visited Tom at the VA Hospital, you know and are reassured that, in his final days, he was at peace with the prospect of dying. Shortly after his birthday party at the VA, I spoke with Tom on the phone. So, I asked, I know you had a lot of people there and some great music, but did you feel okay? You know, feel good enough to enjoy it? Oh yeah, man, he replied, are you kidding, I FELT GREAT. At least the part of my body that I could feel felt great. He laughed that larger-than-life Tom laugh, and I laughed too, and then we fell silent for a long moment. So, you’re not scared? No, man, I’m not scared. I should have been dead a long, long time ago. I lived more in these past ten years than in all the rest of my life put together. I’m a lucky guy.

We’re all lucky.

Posted:  1/6/2008

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