Tom Stevens, bassist for the Los Angeles rock quartet the Long Ryders, a key member of the so-called “Paisley Underground” scene of the 1980s, died on January 23, according to an announcement from the band. No cause of death was cited; he was 64.
While the group, heavily influenced by Gram Parsons, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Bob Dylan and other country-rock pioneers, released just three albums and an EP during their 1980s heyday, they were an early purveyor of the genre later dubbed Americana and represented the rootsier side of the Paisley Underground, along with bands like Green on Red. The more psychedelic contingent was held down by the Rain Parade — whose guitarist, David Roback, went on to form Opal and Mazzy Star and passed away last year — the Dream Syndicate, the Three O’Clock and others. The scene was a stronghold of the American independent-rock explosion of the era, and those bands played on many bills with R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du and other college-radio staples.
To all our friends, fans and family… it is with heavy hearts that we share the sad news our brother Tom Stevens has left us quite suddenly. We ask you all to keep Tom, his loving wife Elaine, Sarah, Zach and James in your thoughts. pic.twitter.com/cEZZipj0nF
— The Long Ryders (@thelongryders) January 24, 2021
Born in Indiana, Stevens was classically trained and received scholarship offers from colleges to study double bass but chose rock instead. He joined a local hard rock group called Magi, which developed a strong regional following and released an album in 1976 before moving to Los Angeles; the group’s sound was out of step with the post-punk of the late 1970s and they split up. Stevens worked at local record stores, networked around the scene and released a solo EP. After hearing that the Long Ryders, whose debut EP he knew from the record store, had parted ways with their bassist, Stevens was recommended to the band by singer Carla Olson. He officially joined singer-guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy and drummer Greg Sowders in the group early in 1984. As well as playing bass, Stevens sang and wrote a couple of songs per album.
After releasing their “Native Sons” album on the indie Frontier Records in 1984, the group toured the U.S. and Europe extensively — American rock bands of the era were enthusiastically welcomed by the British music press — signed with major label Island and released “State of Our Union” the following year. The album featured a bigger sound and disappointed some longtime fans but generally received positive reviews and did well at college radio. However, the group was harshly criticized for doing a Miller Beer commercial in 1986 — a controversial move in the purist rock scene of the time — and their career never quite recovered. Despite releasing a solid album, “Two Fisted Tales,” in 1987, commercial success eluded them and they split at the end of the year.
Stevens, who had guested with Olson and Byrds cofounder Gene Clark as well as other L.A. area groups, moved back to Indiana in 1988, raised a family, got a degree in computer science and worked in information technology for many years; he also released several solo albums. Griffin moved to the U.K. and became a music writer; McCarthy played with the Jayhawks and other contemporaries; Sowders is a senior VP of A&R at Warner Chappell Music Publishing. Beginning in 2004, the Long Ryders occasionally reunited for gigs or brief tours before regrouping for a full-blown album and tour in 2019. The album, aptly titled “Psychedelic Country Soul,” reunited the group with producer Ed Stasium (who’d also helmed “Two Fisted Tales”) and former scene-mates the Bangles, who sang backing vocals. In many ways, it found the group coming full circle.
Below: the Long Ryders in the mid-1980s, L-R: Greg Sowders, Tom Stevens, Stephen McCarthy, Sid Griffin (Photo: Greg Allen)