The month was September, the year: 1972, and 19-year-old, Tom Ross had just gotten a job at a carwash. “I remember that well,” he said. “It was Sept. 21, 1972. On Sept. 20, I went to a Grateful Dead concert, and the next morning my Dad said, ‘We have a job lined up for you,’ and he shipped me off to work.”
By the end of the following month, Ross was unemployed again. But the roughly one-month period he spent working at the car wash will forever be a touchstone in his life. He looks back on it as the only “other” job he’s ever held. Tom Ross is a rock musician.
“I always wanted to support myself playing music,” Ross said. “I knew when I was 9 years old playing piano that I would make a living playing music.” Ross, percussionist Mike Dimmick and bassist Art Fox make up the D.C. Motors, a band that has played at least 200 dates a year in the metro area since 1979. Dimmick is the founder of the band and its only original member. Ross joined him in 1985. The Motors have flowed with 27 years of shifting currents in rock music. They released a “45” record in 1982, a full-length record album in 1983, a cassette in 1988 and a CD in 1998.
The D.C. Motors play some original music, plus covers of the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Blues Traveler, among others. “We have some things that are sort of reggae-sounding, to country-sounding to rock-sounding. We don’t limit ourselves in any way to a genre. That’s just not important to us, a genre.”
“I don’t have any problems playing any style of music,” Ross said. “A lot of musicians say, ‘Well, I won’t play that,’ or ‘I wont play this.’ That’s never me.”
Ross and Dimmick formed D.C. Motors Unplugged, an acoustic duo, in 1989. This version of the band will be coming to Old Town on Saturday, Oct. 7, when they’ll play at The Fish Market on King Street. Ross will play an acoustic guitar, and Dimmick will play the bodhran (pronounced bo-ron), an Irish drum traditionally played with a stick called a tipper. Dimmick usually plays it with brushes and his hands, “by doing that it kind of fattens up the sound and sort of gives a dance feel to it,” he said.
Dimmick began playing the obscure instrument he described as “a little drum set” because of another gig in old town in the late 1990s. They were going to play at Murphy’s Irish Pub in a few days, and the manager called Dimmick and asked, “You guys have a bodhran, right?”
“I said yes,” Dimmick recalled, “and went out and bought one and learned how to play. It was actually a tremendous blessing.”
THE VERSATILE BODHRAN allowed the Motors to forge a third identity in 1998 as Michael Patrick’s Band, an Irish acoustic duo. Adaptations like this, Dimmick explained, are how he and Ross have avoided working during the day for three decades.
But they are no rock-stars. Dimmick never forgets that rock is his livelihood. “As a business person I appreciate having this as a business for me, and I appreciate the people we’re playing for as business people.” The band makes a point of being reliable. If a bar-owner asks them to turn down the music, they turn down the music. “We don’t have that luxury. Every place we have to take really seriously, even if we’re dealing with really difficult owners. A lot of different people are in charge of what’s happening with you.”
Dimmick estimated the band has played “a couple thousand” venues in the area. “We’ve played places, and this is literally true, walking into the bathroom and there’s a hole in the floor. It’s so ratty and horrible people pee on the floor and it caves in. We’ve also played at the Russian embassy.”
Dimmick spends hours on the phone booking gigs. Competition for berths has gotten more fierce, but he said there was only one month in all the years that the band truly wondered whether they were going to make it. “I’m fairly comfortable. But there is anxiety.” Sometimes there is a dry-spell, two or three jobs in a row fall through, “then I go, ‘Maybe this is the end.’ But it never is the end.” Something always comes along. “But it doesn’t just magically come along. I have to look for it.”
Dimmick carefully observes the mood of the crowd from onstage. He said he’s never gotten drunk before, and it’s band policy that no one drinks while they are playing. He said the band has never had groupies, but the job was conducive to an atmosphere that made it easier to meet women, at least it did 20 years ago. “Now that we’re older the people just aren’t our age anymore,” Dimmick, 48, explained.
DIMMICK BELIEVES the band’s professional approach is one of the reasons it’s still around. That and the fear. “Its just easier than getting up in the morning,” he said. “My biggest fear is getting a real job.” This fear has made the band persistent, no matter how bleak the outlook. “We just hang in there,” Dimmick said, “that’s all there is to it.”
“In some ways I really don’t understand it myself. I don’t understand how we keep connecting people. I don’t know what we’re doing right to connect to people but I know that we are connecting people. People keep coming up to us all the time. People that are younger than 25 years old.”
Ross said that a new girlfriend with whom he spends his free days has made rock and roll an even more appealing way to make a living than it was when he started in 1974. “I’ve got this wonderful woman in my life and she makes everything more enjoyable, including going to work. I’m motivated to go to work and make as much money as I can, and I want to do that by playing music, and nothing else.”
Dimmick said that even after 27 years, he hasn’t stopped appreciating his life. “I walk around sometimes and I go, ‘I can’t believe that the way I make a living is singing!’ How could it be that I can make a living singing? If I was some famous rock star or something like that, that would be pretty cool too. But this is in some ways even more bizarre.”