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Soul Heavy

Tommy Malone ditches the circus and bakes some fresh bread

For many who rediscover sobriety, work becomes a new obsession. The mind, no longer idle, takes leave of the devil's workshop, and as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were wont to observe, a guilt-racked conscience can be expiated by toil of the humblest sort. Couple these urges with the newfound energy that clean living affords, and one often sees from the newly clean a redoubled dedication to the work ethic.

Malone's new grounding in industry is metaphorically depicted on the cover of Soul Heavy. It's a simple, stark image, an anvil set against a white backdrop. "I woke one morning with a damn anvil in my brain," he says. "I already had the title in my head -- the whole 'heavy' trip. I had a lot of recollections of living in the country and my dad having one of those big ol' suckers sitting there in the shed. I walked by that anvil about 8,000 times when I was a kid. Honestly, I just liked the image of it. An anvil's got soul. You gotta be a working-class man to fuck around with an anvil. If you can use an anvil, you're a bad motherfucker."

Malone's been hard at that anvil these past four years. After taking leave of Tiny Town, the roots-rock supergroup he co-fronted with Nashville-based Pat McLaughlin, Malone worked "a lot of shit jobs," he says. "I did a lot of house painting. I had a job working at the wax museum building toilet stalls."

For the sober Malone, every day is Ash Wednesday.
For the sober Malone, every day is Ash Wednesday.

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He also started reinventing himself as a solo act. Free of a band's constraints, Malone's imagistic poetry has taken wing. It hovers just this side of the purely symbolic, offering up plenty of clues as to its ultimate meaning. Two of his songwriting heroes are Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, and like them, Malone knows that just the right amount of ambiguity makes all the difference.

"If you're at least transferring some emotion that somebody can grab," he says, "to me that's enough. If a line gets interpreted a million different ways, to me, that's the beauty of it."

But often Malone's lines are as clear as white rum, as when he sings on "Fat Tuesday": "Friends are calling 'cause they're falling down / I've joined the circus but I ain't no clown." He's too busy, too hard at work to be distracted by the frolics that once smothered him. It's a lesson learned by one New Orleanian, and now he longs eagerly for that command, that consulship, he so long delayed. Meanwhile, for the rest of New Orleans, the circus continues, and for all too many, their dreams are subsumed under those the city so obligingly furnishes all year round.

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