Wisconsin Historical Society
Tom Laskin fronting his band Appliances-SFB in 1984.
Tom Laskin never used a cliché in a quarter-century of writing for Isthmus. I can vouch for that fact because I edited most of his stories. Clichés abound in journalism, particularly in Tom’s specialty, music writing. But he always had an original take, an original turn of phrase — just what you’d expect from this thoroughly original personality.
When I heard that Tom had died yesterday, I recalled seeing him for the first time in the mid-1980s. I was Isthmus’ arts editor, and he’d signed on to do the arts section’s humblest job: writing blurbs about the week’s live-music highlights. He was notorious as the lead singer of Madison’s great punk band the Appliances-SFB, so of course I expected a snarling punk. Instead I met a polite young man with owlish glasses and an Oxford don’s vocabulary — a product of his master’s degree in English and wide-ranging intellectual interests.
Reading that first set of blurbs — for which we paid him $15 as a freelancer — was an experience an editor has once or twice in his career, if he’s lucky. I discovered a new voice, witty enough to make me laugh out loud and insightful enough to make me see music in a different way. Every week I looked forward to the latest blurbs, sharing them with fellow editor and Tom Laskin fan Michana Buchman. We both knew his work could stand comparison to the best music writing in the country.
I soon learned that Tom could write just as perceptively about books, movies and visual art. News editor Bill Lueders and features editor Judy Davidoff assigned him articles for their sections, and publisher Vince O’Hern offered him a staff writing job.
Tom helped make sense of Madison, from politics to business to the arts. He became an indispensable part of Isthmus, putting the “alternative” in “alternative weekly newspaper.”
Tom came by his alternative perspective honestly. He was anti-authoritarian, befitting his punk roots. He saw through bullshit and never bullshit anyone himself. His writing style combined literary flair with an underground sensibility—imagine T.S. Eliot as a zine contributor. For all his iconoclasm, however, he had a heart. His articles revealed a generosity of spirit, and he treated coworkers with respect. At his Appliances shows, I marveled at a mild-mannered reporter’s transformation into a ferocious rocker.
I feared Tom would leave Isthmus for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly or another big-city publication. But he remained loyal to Isthmus, and to Madison, until moving to Paris in the late 2000s with his wife, KTinsley Laskin. Tom died abroad, but we should remember him for his inestimable contributions to our town while he lived among us.
Laskin previews the trashiest summer reading, 1988.