What happened to former Squirrel Nut Zipper Tom Maxwell? Where did he go? Essentially, life—in all of its messiness, ugliness and unexpected exigencies—intervened. More than a decade removed from his last solo album, though, Maxwell's back with the terrific Kingdom Come. Representing his re-emergence from an emotional bunker after a divorce and his 8-year-old son's three-and-a-half year battle with leukemia, it's a 14-track testament to perseverance.
"I went to another place, and it was really just about caring for my son," says Maxwell from his Pittsboro home. "There was no doing anything else really. I went back to the only other thing I knew how to do—the food-service industry. Then he finished treatment a year and four months ago, and there was quite a bit of emotional fallout, which I didn't anticipate. When he was being treated I didn't really consider a future."
The 2006 diagnosis of his son, Esten, came only eight days after his wife moved out. Around the same time, his former music publisher sold the rights to his back catalog. His soundtrack and licensing funds dried up. He had to put his cat to sleep, too. This all took three months.
"You could pretty much make a country music record," Maxwell somehow jokes.
Making music at the time was the furthest thing from his mind, consumed as he was with his son's ordeal. In a way, that saved him.
"It almost crushed me in so many other ways, but it was so obviously what I needed to do," he explains. "I felt like I had been annihilated, and at the same time knew very well while I was in the hospital with my son that that was my job. That was never hard."
When Esten had nearly completed his treatment, Maxwell began to realize he needed to return to the stage for his own sake. In 2000, he'd tried to release and tour behind his album Samsara. But he lost money and soon enough had two kids. He largely gave up playing live music. While at a 2009 Local 506 benefit for local songwriter Snüzz, who'd also been diagnosed with cancer, he realized in a flash how much he missed it.
"I was just weeping copiously at the beauty of the music and the thought of what was happening to this guy. I thought, however dingy and miserable some of these clubs may be, that stage is sacred space. These are my people," he says of the moment. "I really thought I could put it down and walk away from making music and performing altogether. But I realized that I was losing my mind."
He booked some time at the studio that belonged to his longtime friend, the Old Ceremony vibraphonist Mark Simonsen, and emerged with 14 songs that had accumulated over the years. One, "Never Going to Fall in Love Again," goes back more than two decades. The pretty, Beatlesque elegy "Party of One" goes back to just before his wife left; at one point, it even contained a verse referencing Joseph Lieberman's independent presidential campaign. Several unfinished songs came to life in Simonsen's studio and were completed inside an hour.
But the best songs remain the most personal ones, like the haunting cancer ward ballad "Tenderness" and the lively barrelhouse rag/rock of "Why I Smoke." That number begins with excuses and ends with the admission, "This is a tactical retreat." The album also illustrates the gap between despair and redemption for Maxwell. There's a chamber music paean to futility, "Fuck It," which he whispers in a Rogers Waters croon, and its album-closing piano-driven corollary, "All Things," which reaches for a level of acceptance and closure.
"I wanted it to have a kind of narrative or emotional trajectory," he says. "We're heading in this direction and along the way there are a number of illegitimate emotional conclusions, like 'fuck it.' Not that everyone hasn't felt that way, but its not my final statement on the human condition. But if I hadn't said 'fuck it,' I would never have gotten to 'All Things.' It's almost like they're two sides of the coin, and 'All Things' is the legitimate kind of conclusion."
Indeed, "All Things" is the necessary conclusion if you're not going to drown yourself in self-pity, like that suggested by "Fuck It." ("What better vehicle for expressing that kind of deeply self-indulgent sentiment than complete baroque overstatement?" he asks.) But Maxwell's done with bitterness. He's finished mentioning his son's cancer within 30 minutes of meeting anyone. He's ready to put down that baggage and forge a new identity free of victimhood. This album is his first step in embracing the future rather than bemoaning his luck. A planned book about his experience with his son and his time with the Zippers is another step in excising his baggage and moving on.
"I wrote a Top 20 hit, sold millions of albums, my son is alive. I'm friends with my ex-wife and she's a good mommy and she didn't fuck my world up," he says. "I feel fortunate to communicate in the ways I do and to be able to get so much joy from it. Good lord, it's an embarrassment of riches."