There’s something about Tony Elam. He’s tall, good-looking, easy-going and confident. He’s got an engaging smile and a contagious laugh. He’s also an above-average bass guitar player. And when he’s playing his bass, there is no place else that he’d rather be.
He says: “Music is my life. It’s kind of what defines me.”
Tony was the heart of a video production about the Interfaith Sanctuary House Band, which features current and former guests at the homeless shelter. In the video, Tony tells a heart-warming story about being reunited with that bass guitar, pawned during a dark time in his life.
“I’m proud and happy to be a part of (the band), regardless of how musically talented or how terrible we are. There’s a chemistry there that I have never had (before). ... ”
After just a couple of months of rehearsals, the band first went live on Boise Community Radio in early December and then had a real gig at The Record Exchange.
But when the band premiered at Curtis Stigers’ Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza just before Christmas — a wildly popular, sold-out, three-night benefit for the homeless shelter — the most noticeable thing was Tony’s absence.
“It broke my heart. I was laying in a bunk at the Ada County Jail, knowing it was going on. I was crushed. But I felt really good for them: That’s a gig of a lifetime. For me, too — I’ve never played the Egyptian. Especially with Curtis.”
Tony had been arrested just two weeks before the performance, just when things were starting to look up. Welcome to the roller coaster that is Tony’s life.
“I hear other people who have similar stories and it’s kind of comforting to know I’m not the only one that sabotages their life. It is something I can see now; really, up until recently, I didn’t even notice the pattern. ...
“My life has gone up and down, up and down. ... I’ve got five decades where I can chart and graph where things went wrong. ...
“But after flushing it this last time, it’s like, wow, why do I keep doing it? And I keep doing it in the same way.
“They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s exactly what I’ve done.
“I’ll start using (drugs) again thinking it’ll be different this time, and it always leads me to the same place: jail or homeless or both.
“It’s a lot of hard work to build it back up, (but) you can throw it away with no effort at all.”
Tony grew up in Colorado, the adopted son of loving “1950s sitcom” parents. The stories he tells of his young years focus on music: the phonograph that he got for Christmas when he was 4 years old — “one of the best Christmases ever.” Piano lessons, the trombone that he begged his parents to get, and finally, a bass guitar to play in a little junior high school band.
“My dad instilled in me: ‘Set goals, set dreams; there’s no reason you can’t have what you want.’ And I wanted to have music.
“I knew there were two kinds of people in the world — there’s people who play a stereo and people who play an instrument that can play music. And I was going to be one who played music, from a real early age.”
From junior high on, Tony played with bands that were actually quite good. But with success came the potential for self-destruction.
“Up until my late 20s, I was still in it for all the wrong reasons; you know, the party, the girls, playing for the bar tab.
“As I got older, in my 30s, 40s ... especially when I got to Idaho ... something kind of happened with my attitude toward music. ... You’re playing with people who have been playing a long time and you’re playing with people who are really pretty talented.
“And it became a lot more about the pride in the show, putting on a good show, and a lot less about the free drinks. I would find myself getting done, packing up my bass, going home and going to bed. With a smile on my face. And sober.”
With success also came Tony’s biggest challenge.
“My problem is my life has this up-and-down and up-and-down pattern. I’m great at getting up there and getting what I want and where I want to be, and then when I get there, I guess I get complacent or I get bored — or whatever — and I just flush it down the drain.”
Tony has a degree in scientific glass blowing, and for a while he earned a living making doorknobs and perfume bottles and oil lamps. It’s a pretty solitary occupation, and the solitude weighed heavy on him when he and his first wife divorced.
“I was wrecked. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t happy, I was so depressed and yet I had to continue to work at the glass shop. And I worked alone. So there I was alone, in my head, just going suicidal fast. ...”
He broke his own rule and let friends come into the shop while he worked. Friends brought friends who brought friends.
“Eventually someone introduced me to the wild and evil world of methamphetamine.
“The slogan for meth, the ‘not even once’ theme, is no exaggeration. That hits it on the head.
“When you first start doing it, it makes you feel better than you’ve ever felt in your life. It threw a blanket over my emotional wreckage and my depression; it numbed me and I was able to work. In fact, that was all I did. I would blow glass for days without sleeping.”
He thought he was the exception.
“Everyone else around me, their life is just falling apart, they’re stealing from each other, they’re lying, they’re backstabbing, they’re doing whatever they have to to keep their habit going. All I have to do is blow a little glass while I was maintaining this monster drug habit. ...
“But I was wrong. My world came crashing down, too. It just took a little longer.”
In 2003, he was arrested on a felony possession charge. He served four months in jail and completed seven years of felony probation.
“I got out, I was clean; I was bound and determined I’m going to get clean, I’m going to put my life back together. And I did.”
There’s the pattern: Tony can be clean for years at a time. Then there’s a bump, depression, an unguarded moment, relapse. He gets clean, then life whacks him again, each time taking him down deeper.
“I know for a fact that when I put it down, all my ducks get in a row. Without even really trying, I land a good job. I’m supportive, I’m a hard worker, things just line up. And they weren’t lining up and it was because I was using again. It’s no coincidence.”
In 2012, he lost everything — his apartment, his furniture, his skis, his snowboard. His last possession — his bass guitar — pawned for $500.
“It was a tearful goodbye. ...
“That was a low point in my life. That, and then I matched it when I got arrested last December and ended up in jail.”
In the fall of 2014, Tony was clean once more, but homeless. At Sanctuary, he met Jodi Peterson, who was beginning a band at the shelter in conjunction with Boise Rock School, no audition needed.
“This is all about bringing some joy and happiness into people’s lives, not about an all-star band. That was cool with me.”
And then one day, Jodi called Tony into her office to talk.
“They were recording the whole thing and at the end of it, there was a pile of donated coats on the floor in the corner of the room and she lifted up the pile of coats. There was my bass guitar, sitting in a corner of the room in a case.”
Jodi and Curtis Stigers had found his bass — a Music Man StingRay five-string — at the pawn shop.
“I welled up. It was like being reunited with a long-lost sibling. That bass — monetarily, it was worth something — but to me, it was almost priceless. ...
“(When I had to sell it), it was like I just lost my soul. When Jodi retrieved it for me, it was like they gave me my soul back.”
And the band. Even though Tony is the most experienced musician by far, it doesn’t matter.
“There’s something magical happening. ...
“To just see the transformation, the way (band members would) walk around day-to-day, before, and then after the band kind of got going, you’d see a smile on their face on Tuesdays — we get to play today. ... ”
But that roller coaster didn’t stop. In December, Tony was arrested on a felony drug charge from the summer. He spent 60 days in jail and is now released into drug court. This time feels different.
“I’ve got one life rebuild left in me and I’ve got to make it count.”
Drug court allows no wiggle room. Tony has a year and a half of classes, counseling, group sessions and weekly check-ins.
“I have a drive and a willingness to do this right and to make it work this time that I’ve never had before. I think my level of willingness is related to my level of desperation. I’m desperate at this point. I know I can do it, I’m desperate to do it again and I’m desperate to keep it.
“I’m not getting any younger. ... My good years are probably numbered. And I want to make as much out of them as possible.”
He has a drug court mentor, a graduate of the program, who makes Tony toe the line, and in time, Tony will be a mentor to others.
“I pay close attention to those who have gone through (drug court) and I look and see where their lives are at and they’re together, they’re happy, they’re clean and sober. And I want what they have.”
Currently he commutes via bicycle from River of Life shelter to a Chinese restaurant at Fairview Avenue and Eagle Road where he works part time. He still needs to find a full-time job. Someday, after a while, he’d like to return to glass-blowing in a business with his wife.
“That was my original goal and dream at one point — to make my living blowing glass and playing bass. Only I succumbed to the black cloud.
“I’m ready to do it. I am working toward the light again.”