THOMAS HANSEN (FEBRUARY 13, 1976 – SEPTEMBER 5, 2007)
- A Personal Recollection by Wyndham Wallace -
There aren’t many musicians that have tried to strangle me. Perhaps I should have expected more of them, but in fact there was only one. Thomas Hansen, known to his fans as St Thomas, pinned me against a wall in the depths of London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 14th, 2002, and, with one hand round my neck, lifted me right off the ground. He was, despite other weaknesses, a physically strong man, no doubt about it. He’d just come off stage, where he’d opened for Lambchop and berated, somewhat aggressively – definitely unfairly – the boss of his record label, City Slang. His anger at me was equally inappropriate, provoked by something with which I, as his UK label boss, had nothing to do: he and his band had drunk their admittedly meagre allocation of beers and must pay for more. That, and the fact that, having watched A Brilliant Mind on the ferry from France, he’d decided to stop taking medication for his mental issues.
Oddly, while others looked horrified, I laughed. But that was because I knew Thomas well enough by then to be sure he meant no harm. We’d first met eight months earlier, the day after my UK business partner had committed suicide, and – remarkably – he’d cheered me up as much as anyone could have. The Norwegian singer songwriter was in town to play his first London show since signing to the label, and won over a busy audience with songs of heartfelt, painfully experienced sadness and a rare, brilliant sense of humour. But I knew immediately that something wasn’t quite right in the man’s mind: despite a rapturous response, he felt unable to return to the stage for an encore, and I had to step to the microphone myself to explain to the crowd that he needed to be convinced that he’d not quite simply sucked. They obliged, inevitably. If you liked St Thomas, you loved St Thomas.
This was as true of Thomas the artist as it was true of Thomas the person. Ask anyone who knew him. It’s testament to this fact that no one who remembers him is afraid of discussing his dark side: his own honesty demanded it of us, and was what made him so hard to dislike. Thomas didn’t buy into romance, much as you got the sense he truly wished he could. By the time I’d stopped working with City Slang at the end of August 2004, I’d seen him trash guitars before storming off stage, spent wonderful hours drinking with him into the small hours in various London locations, endured tirades that were wholly unjustified, and willingly comforted him during his moments of hideous self doubt. I’d also laughed long and hard with him, both on and off stage, and I’d cringed just as often. He infuriated me as much as he endeared himself to me.
Though his death came, sadly, as little shock – something in his eyes always told me he was doomed – it was a tremendous tragedy. He had an uncommon talent, both as a person and a musician, to shine a light into parts of the heart that normally remained dark. His music reflected his character, full of bittersweet magic that at times came close to genius and at other times seemed almost deliberately wasteful. But this former postman and footballer deserved better: at his best, he ploughed a musical furrow that drew upon Neil Young’s early ‘70s albums, adding a welcome eccentricity alongside a sometimes uncomfortable candour which – especially in the light of that first City Slang album, I’m Coming Home – should have found the kind of following that might perhaps have reassured him that his talent wasn’t being overlooked.
Instead, despite those around him’s best efforts, he embarked on a path of self-sabotage that lost him friends and record labels. It was, in many ways, not his fault. He suffered from serious psychological problems that he did his best to battle, both through medical treatment and self-medication, and was ill equipped to deal with the pressures that life as a working musician brought. The greatest tragedy, however, was that his passing seems to have been the result of an accidental overdose of prescribed medication following a period of improvement in his state of health. Even when he tried to do the right thing, life conspired against him.
Like Nick Drake before him, he left behind a collection of songs and performances that confirm his calibre. One can only hope that time will continue to bring it to wider attention. Sometimes it’s too painful to listen to his work: even without context, the emotional substance of his writing and delivery is at times too raw to bear. But that’s why we loved him: great artists often explore the places others fear to examine so that we don’t have to.
If you need proof, simply head to Strangers Out Of Blue from I’m Coming Home, a song as poignant as I’ve ever heard. There he sings of the kind of loneliness that we have almost all, at some time in our life, endured, his voice angelic, the arrangements so stripped back as to be barely there, the melody haunting and captivating. That the song isn’t a national anthem for melancholy is as unjust as his death.
Listening to it reminds me what an honour it was to know him. Listening to it almost makes me believe that it was a privilege to have been nearly throttled by him. Most of all, however, it makes me wish that he was still here.