In 1960, Tom Rush was a Harvard English major who hosted a folk show on the campus radio station. He’d go to Boston-area hootenannies looking for talent, and quickly discovered you could get in for free if you brought a guitar case. “So I’d put a six-pack in a guitar case and walk in the door.”
One night at the Golden Vanity, someone told him to get up there himself. And, well, the rest is Boston folk history.
Now embarking on his “First Annual Farewell Tour,” the Kittery, Maine, resident celebrates his 79th birthday at a sold-out Feb. 8 show in his hometown of Portsmouth, N.H., along with shows in Newburyport Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 and Fall River Feb. 1.
We caught up with Rush to find out whether “farewell” means goodbye, his one (kind of) regret, and that time he saw Clint Eastwood getting tackled in the middle of a street.
Q. So this is your “First Annual Farewell Tour.”
A. I figure why be coy about it. There are acts out there who have been doing their farewell tours for 20 years now.
Q. So is the name just kind of a joke, or is it your actual farewell tour?
A. It’s the first annual.
Q. OK. [Laughs]
A. I’m basically saying, I don’t know. I’m not going to be around forever. But I have no plans to hang up my hat anytime sooner than I have to. I do about 60, 70 shows a year. I’ll be cutting back on that. I just did a tour out in the Rockies — seven shows in eight days with 1,300 miles of driving, and I was a little tired. I’m not 23 anymore.
Q. You’ve got your birthday show coming up in Portsmouth.
A. It’s a cool town now. When I was born, it was just a Navy town — just sailors and hookers.
A. But now it’s quite civilized. And it is where I was born. That’s why the birthday show is there.
Q. You’ve lived in a few places.
A. In the last 20 years, we’ve moved 26 times. It’s this witness protection program, Lauren. It’s not as much fun as they make it sound.
Q. [Laughs] Looking back, are there any albums that stand out to you as favorites?
A. My latest one, “Voices.” I also like the previous one, "What I Know.” Sony put one out a few years ago, “The Very Best of Tom Rush.” It always sells at the shows because it says “very best.”
Q. Did you ever have guitar lessons?
A. No. I had 12 years of piano lessons and hated every minute. I took one lesson on guitar after I’d been playing for about 20 years. The guy gave me all these exercises to do that made my fingers hurt. I said, “Screw it, I’m making a good living doing it wrong.”
Q. So when did you know you wanted to be a professional?
A. I graduated college with an English Lit degree, and nobody was lining up to pay me to read. But people were paying me to play guitar, which I still find amazing. And — don’t tell anybody this — playing guitar is a great way to meet girls. Any guy who tells you otherwise is lying.
Q. [Laughs] Could you see yourself doing something else?
A. I’m actually getting very interested in sculpture, which is a bit of a left turn, but I’m having fun. I’m working with stones.
Q. Anything you regret?
A. I don’t know if I regret it, but I was living in New York, and a lot of my contemporaries were moving out to LA. I was, at this point, very burned out. I decided I was going to move to New Hampshire and get a farm and go where the action wasn’t. It was a big fork in the road. I could’ve ended up dead, or it might’ve been a breakthrough career-wise. So I won’t say I regret it, but it was a fork in the road I didn’t take.
Q. So what are some of the strangest times you’ve had over the years?
A. Here’s one: I was living in Greenwich Village, and a fan sent me a box of brownies with a note that said: “One is loaded.” I ate about two-thirds of a brownie that had a little bit of a funny taste to it. And I had to go down to the Bitter End that night, because Columbia Records was having an album-release party for me. So I left my apartment and I’m walking across Washington Square, and the brownie hit.
I could not figure out where I was coming from or where I was going. I finally realized, “I gotta go to the Bitter End.” So I turn down a side street, and the street is all lit up. All of the sudden a door bangs open on this brownstone. And a woman runs out of the door screaming. And Clint Eastwood comes out.
Q. No way.
A. He’s chasing her. And there’s a barricade. Some guy in the crowd jumps over the barricade and knocks Clint Eastwood down.
Q. Oh my God.
A. It was in the papers the next day. They were shooting a movie, and some guy didn’t realize that and thought he was rescuing the fair damsel, and knocked out Clint Eastwood. So I’m trying to absorb all this in my altered state, and finally got to the Bitter End and tried to play, but my guitar had a rubber neck and kept bending all over the place.
Q. This is amazing.
A. I later asked my road manager what was in the remaining third of the brownie. His name was Buffalo. Buffalo said, “What you got here would get the whole band stoned twice.”
Show info at www.tomrush.com