The Hardback Café is not an especially auspicious or “cool” place in Gainesville.
Sitting on the corner of Northwest Second Street and Tenth Avenue, the venue’s distance from downtown gains it zero traction in the hearts and minds of college students. Faltering homemade Halloween decorations lay askew a month after the day has passed. The stage is less a stage and more an elevated platform barely a foot off the ground. The closest the place comes to being hip is the giant skateboard half-pipe out back, streams of lights illuminating from above. Something about its lack of coolness is both charming and liberating, however, the idea that one needs not to appeal to popular taste in order to sustain a business.
So, of course, this is the perfect place for the works of one Tom Miller to reside.
Miller needs no one’s approval. The Gainesville-based performance artist, musician, screenwriter, painter, sculptor, film director, actor, playwright, and longtime Hardback Café patron sustains himself on wreaking mischief throughout town, on stirring up trouble with art that makes one question if he’s just goofing off or making serious art. However, sitting with him now in the Hardback Café, he looks like an ordinary guy. Someone your eyes might pass over on the street, never aware of the creativity boiling underneath.
Miller’s exploits range from the mundane to the absurd. He’s created over fifty albums, created an invisible sculpture called ‘Nothing’ in Bo Diddley Plaza (then threatened to sue an Italian artist for copying him), staged a naked press conference, drawn pictures that ride the line between childlike and avant-garde, made an award-winning feature length film entirely on an iPad; you name it, he’s done it.
One thing Miller loves about Gainesville: the yin and yang of its small town/big city vibes. It’s easy to meet people and do interesting things, but if f you’re sitting in Maude’s Café in downtown Gainesville, he notes, it’s only a quick drive to the swamp with a bunch of alligators that will soon consider you dinner. He loves the music scene, the culture and character of the city, the clean air and water, though he has a bone to pick with the city council for allowing encroaching development to gentrify the parts of the city he finds interesting.
“Everybody knows Gainesville, Florida, is the known center of the universe because that’s how it is. That’s pretty much a known thing. Everybody knows,” Miller states with an air of wry authority, a slight smile curling the tips of his lips upward. “I’ve said that everywhere I go.”
A bit of arrogance is earned in his case. As one of the premiere figures of Gainesville’s semi-underground art scene, he’s probably come into contact with more misfits, outsiders, and eccentrics from the area than the entire student populace of the University of Florida. But he’s not one to look down on these people; instead, he treats them with the empathy that they rarely receive from others in town.
At the center of Miller’s projects, and probably his most infamous, is the Tabernacle of Hedonism. Co-hosted by Miller and the Reverend Angel Dust – with assistance from Hardback Café owner Alan Bushnell – Tabernacle materializes every Wednesday in the Hardback Café at 10:30 PM and de-materializes far past midnight. It’s an open mic night characterized by Miller as “Ed Sullivan”, where acts from across town that range from unwatchable to genius outsider art gather to show off their “talent”. Miller often keeps the bad acts up longer, sometimes even forty minutes, to torture his audiences longer. For example: Tabernacle mainstay Tape Werm, who sings Dylanesque songs of serial killers before lighting a firecracker in his mouth. But many of these people would be met with confused looks and probably booed off stage, shunned for their strange artistic instincts. One gets the sense that Miller sees the show as a way to promote art that does not conform, and thus, never finds support anywhere.
“I feel really badly for local artists who often times don’t have the money or means to make the things they imagine. You can ask for it. And they shouldn’t be thought of as bums,” he says.
He never made a conscious effort to be an artist, though. He’s always had that urge to create, he says. But seeing a magic trick as a young kid inspired him to see the world in the different way. It was something simple, just a man pretending to take off the tip of his thumb, but it made the young Miller see magic in everything around him. More than that, it sparked the desire to see how the sausage was made, to go behind the scenes and involve himself in the process.
“It should behoove somebody to make things that didn’t exist before because it’s a great way of making life valuable for yourself and for other people…you get lost in the thing you’re making,” Miller says.
Miller’s home life was also a massive influence in becoming a musician. Both he and his sister were adopted because his parents were too old to have children. The Beatles, Bobby Sherman, Cher and more were all mainstays in his home because of his sister’s taste in music, while his parents were into the vaudeville comics of the 40s and 50s. He’s played bass since youth, a choice made because of his idol, Paul McCartney. Young Miller was so enthused with the Beatle that he got his parents to drop thousands of dollars on a multitracking system to create his own music.
Hailing from Hialeah, Florida, Miller and his sister attended acting school at Ruth Foreman Theater. Taken there by his parents, he recalls his first bit of serious acting being lying his butt off to the now deceased Ruth Foreman that his parents had nothing to do with his being there after she intimidated him with her hardened attitude. The two bonded quickly, and by the time he was 12, Miller found himself doing lights and sound for touring adult productions.
“I had no business being there. [Ruth] was amazing,” Miller recalls. “And scary. And made kids cry. She made adults cry.”
In 2011, Miller embarked on his most well-documented and ambitious piece of performance art yet: go back to school and earn a degree. After earning said degree, he’d seek employment as a theater professor, then immediately give up his position. What happened instead changed his life for the better; he learned transcendental meditation at Maharishi International University, inspired by one of his heroes David Lynch. Learning how to center himself and tap into a deeper intuition made it easier to create art.
“If you look around at the world, who takes the time in their lives to just sit there and check in with the self? Very few people. It’s just a constant barrage of stuff coming at you and [you] reacting to it,” he says.
Miller’s private life is otherwise, well, private. I make the mistake of asking about his current family life.
“None of your business,” he replies, with zero hesitancy. We both laugh.
But with so many eclectic tastes and influences, from Bobby Sherman to David Lynch, who’s the person that’s inspired Miller the most? He considers the question for a moment. Really considers it. A far-off look glazes over his eyes as he gazes into the distance, going through the mental rolodex of the likely thousands of people he’s met in Gainesville. But it’s only one name that escapes his memory and bursts from his lips:
The Phoenix family, despite traveling around a lot, called Gainesville their home. River’s parents still live there, in fact. Though they were never personally close, Miller’s band toured with Phoenix’s, Aleka’s Attic, in the ‘80s.
“So much talent and passion, packed into a brief, brilliant light. He set a bar for everything in terms of creativity and the things I love,” Miller says.
Miller picks at his eye and apologizes. Talking about Phoenix has made him emotional. Even though they were never buddy-buddy, it’s clear that Miller looked up to him on so many levels. He describes Phoenix as having a lust for life, knowledge, joy and storytelling – that he’s still remembered to this day because of how much of a badass he was.
All this reminiscing seems to have awakened a nostalgia in Miller. It’s now around 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, which means Tabernacle of Hedonism will start soon. While we chatted, his friends smoked and drank at the tables outside the Hardback Café. He gathers them inside to project old videos on the café’s wall, ranging from trailers for his movies, both real and fake, to clips of national talk shows, like Stephen Colbert and Alex Jones, that did segments on his work.
Thirty minutes later, the show hasn’t started. Thirty minutes after that, it begins. The lights dim. Miller stations himself behind the cover of the tech booth near the back. Suddenly, with no indication: “You are live at the Tabernacle of Hedonism with your host, Tom Miller!” He thanks Bushnell, Reverend Angel Dust, and himself, then swaggers up to the stage, beer in one hand, his other waving hello. Nearly spilling his drink as he steps backward onstage, he assumes position with the comfort of someone who’s done this a thousand times before. His monologue and banter with the audience tonight resembles stream-of-consciousness comedy stand-up rather than an introductory bit to an onscreen television variety show. He trades barbs with Tape Werm and makes some off-the-cuff observations about his age and changing appearance, totally at ease.
“What happens at the show, that’s when I can say anything I want, total freedom of speech situation,” Miller says. He does add, however, that he thinks people should face consequences for saying offensive and hurtful things, and that he never sets out to intentionally harm anyone.
Miller saunters off the stage for the rest of the show, returning to the tech booth and making way for Reverend Angel Dust. The proceedings are scattershot tonight due to relatively low attendance – only about five people in the crowd – but that doesn’t deter Miller. Instead, he leans back in his chair, shouting some “Hallelujahs!” in a call-and-response with the Reverend as he goes on elongated ramblings about drugs.
A cavalcade of inside references and performance acts take the stage. Someone leaves just as Tape Werm ends a song about a serial killer who murders his wife for acts of infidelity. Tom laughs, cheers and claps. And when Tape Werm lights a firecracker in his mouth (for what must be the 1000th time), his eyes light up like it’s the first.