Remembering a Rhode Island icon

Jefferson Thomas was in the vanguard of the Providence underground
By PHILLIPE AND JORGE  |  July 30, 2008
A UNIQUE LIFE-FORCE: Thomas was the quintessential Providence proto-boho.

There was never anyone remotely like Jeff Thomas. On Monday evening, the musician/artist/eccentric/ Providence bohemian legend was found dead in his home by his friend Rick Cote, who called 911.

The medical examiner filed the cause of death as natural causes. Those of us who knew and loved Jeff for decades can tell you that he burned too brightly, lived uncompromisingly, and performed super-human feats on a regular basis. “Natural causes” is a relative turn. What was natural for Jeff Thomas may not have been for anyone else. With his passing, a giant chunk of the color and spirit of Providence cultural life has been lost.

Jeff’s greatest work of art was his own life. Jorge first met Jeff back in 1966, when Jeff was part of a small band of music and art-mad Rhode Island teens that, regardless of which town they came from, seemed to know each other. JT was part of the Barrington contingent (the late, great Barbara Conway, Tim Duffy, Forrest McDonald, Alan Kornhauser, the Housely brothers, etc.).

We were keen on the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Mose Allison, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and dozens of other music titans that 15- and 16-year-old white kids were not supposed to be privy too. We were self-styled hipsters, and Jeff, who with his then-band, Sonic Wallpaper, was a major figure.

By 1970, Jeff had hooked up with RISD/Providence hipsters as one of the original Fabulous Motels (Charles Rocket, Dan Gosch, Barbara Conway, Bonita Flanders, and Dave “Sport Fisher” Hansen were some of the others). The Motels were virtually the house band at RISD from 1970-73. Although the Fabulous Motels made a bit of a stir in NYC in 72-73 at the Mercer Arts Center (perhaps second only to the New York Dolls at that time), the band’s greatest (backhanded) claim to fame is that David Byrne was rejected after trying out on guitar for a spin-off group.

While Jorge was playing in the Motels with Jeff, Phillipe was “studying” at Brown University, and one of his professors was Jeff’s father, Vinnie (head of the philosophy department). According to P., Vinnie “walked into the first of the year, obviously tired and emotional, and without saying a word, wrote on the blackboard, ‘Gone to convocation,’ and then walked out.”
Moving to Denver for a few years in the early ’70s, Jeff ran a classic JT scam at one of that city’s major night spots. When the club closed, he would position an old early ’50s panel van in the middle of the club’s parking lot. It had a sliding panel window in the back. People would line up outside the van and knock at the window. Jeff’s hand would emerge from the window, and people would thrust money into it. The hand would disappear, reappearing with a drink for the thirsty post-partygoer.

Jeff came back to Providence in the mid-’70s and eventually became the manager of the original Lupo’s. Legend has it that Jeff once won the club’s ownership in a drunken late-night card game, but, needless to say, the rights were never turned over. The “hero” of the Providence indie cult film Complex World — “Jeff,” the club janitor who lived in pajamas — was based almost entirely on Jeff Thomas.

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