The secret life of Mr. Engelhardt

By all rights, this interview shouldn't be that interesting. The subject teaches biology and environmental sciences at Irvine Valley College, and he plans to parlay his side passion — acoustic guitar — into a concert on campus to raise money for scholarships.

But as Tom Engelhardt, adjunct community college instructor, sits by the ocean in Laguna Beach and spiels his memories, it takes only a few seconds for Toulouse Engelhardt, guitar wizard, to take his place.

"I was so close so many times," he says, clad in a sweater and slacks with gray hair dangling under a black knit cap. "I mean, I remember one night, I was performing at the Troubadour in Hollywood. I did a great set. I was really happy, and I came backstage and Jackson Browne came back. He says, 'Do you know who's in the audience tonight?' I said, 'No, who?' And he said, 'Brian Wilson, Bob Seger, me — Jackson Browne — and all these other people.'

"And he turned to me and said, 'Do you have a dime?' I said, 'What do you mean?' He goes, 'I'm gonna call Joe Smith at Asylum Records.' He goes, 'He needs to come hear you play.' There were so many times when I was close to getting that big corporate record contract."

Maybe that corporate contract never quite arrived. Engelhardt, a Laguna resident for two decades, dropped out of the record business in the 1980s and pursued decidedly non-musical passions, holding adjunct positions around Orange County. He records now on his own small label, Lost Grove Records, and can walk down the street without fanfare.

(As for Smith? Engelhardt believes he showed up at the following night's show, but the guitarist never heard from him.)

Still, even if Engelhardt has stayed a fringe figure in the music industry, he's a figure nonetheless. And he'll demonstrate that Feb. 6 when he joins former Byrds bassist John York in the scholarship benefit show.


'Too Loose'

Right, the Byrds. Engelhardt can rattle off a litany of stories about the seminal Los Angeles folk-rock group — first of all, the time they played at his high school in October 1966 and he grew enamored of the 12-string guitar after watching Roger McGuinn play it. Or the time in 1973 when, through a connection, he opened for the band on a nationwide tour and got his stage name from a music journalist.

"I had a heckler," says Engelhardt, who went by his initials T.L. at that time. "Really bad. A big show, huge concert, and everyone [was thinking], 'Oh my God, what's this kid gonna do?' And anyway, I don't know, they say comedy is timing. I just came up with these one-liners.

"I don't know where they came from. So everybody just cracked up. They got rid of the guy. Police came and threw the guy out, and I finished my set."

The next day, a roadie handed Engelhardt a review of the show, which praised his wit and suggested that his initials should stand for "Too Loose." The guitarist tweaked the spelling, and the name stuck.

In the mid-'70s, Engelhardt embarked on a solo career and recorded an album, "Toullusions" (dubbed a "lost classic" by for small Takoma Records, which had housed John Fahey, Leo Kottke and other guitar virtuosos. The acclaim, though, didn't lead to mainstream success; Engelhardt attributes that to his label, which he says lacked the resources to support his record nationally. By 1980, after a tour with Kenny Loggins, he was ready to wrap things up.

And then it was on to academia. With music reduced to a hobby, Engelhardt earned two academic degrees in the natural sciences and a master's in botany. He estimates that he taught as an adjunct at almost every community college in Orange County. Sometimes, for fun, he'd challenge his students to guess his other profession on their first exam for extra credit.

"I'd spring it on them eventually, but they had no clue," he says. "They'd come up with some pretty funny stuff."


A surprising call

Those undergraduates might not have guessed that Mr. Engelhardt once shared a stage with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. But even if he had largely abandoned the music scene, it hadn't forgotten him.

In 1994, Engelhardt came home from work to a ringing phone. The voice on the line, a reporter for Coast Magazine, said she was writing a story about him. The guitarist assumed it was for his birthday. Instead, it turned out that Hollywood Records had picked up "Toullusions" for reissue.

Inspired, Engelhardt hit the live circuit again and, a few years later, found himself crossing paths with a Byrd again. His producer, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band veteran Chris Darrow, brought York in to play on a recording session, and an informal partnership began.

Over the last decade and a half, by York's count, he and Engelhardt have performed together about a dozen times. Still, despite their mutual history with the Byrds, York — who played with the band in the late 1960s and left before the 1973 tour — hadn't heard of Engelhardt until their first meeting.

"I enjoyed him immensely," York says by phone. "I think he's in that tradition of John Fahey and those guys that were on Takoma that basically wanted to remind people that the guitar is an orchestra unto itself. You don't need anything else. If you put the guitar in the hands of someone who is exploring it instead of using it in the same old way, there's just endless musical possibilities that can be drawn from that instrument."

York hasn't played with Engelhardt at Irvine Valley College before, but he's always up for a charity show. In the past six years, he has toured with folk singer Barry McGuire to benefit veterans and raised funds to provide wheelchairs to Third World countries. The funds raised Feb. 6 will go toward scholarships in multiple disciplines on campus, according to marketing and communications director Diane Oaks.

So what is it like to be a rock star on campus? Engelhardt is just finding out.

"The staff there, most of the people didn't even know I was a musician," he says. "And now the word's out. Everybody's going, 'Wow!' I can't even walk around the campus without getting pulled over."

If You Go

Who: Toulouse Engelhardt and John York

Where: Main stage, Irvine Valley College Performing Arts Center, 5500 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 6

Cost: $25 general admission, $20 for seniors, students, military and youths 17 and younger

Information: (949) 451-5333 or http://www.ivcarts.org

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