Tuesday, July 31, 2007

One last stand

He rides into town looking for a place to die. He has a cancer. He wants to exit the world with dignity.

But when you're John Bernard Books, the most famous of the Old West gunslingers, things don't work out that way. Instead, he's the talk of the town.

The marshal wants him gone. Old friends want to make a buck off his name. He just wants to die in peace.

I watched John Wayne's last film, "The Shootist," last night. My pal Dean Harned jokes that I always screen this movie whenever I reach a "crossroads." Not so. It's a darn fine picture that improves with age.

There's something real about it, gritty, even prophetic, given that Duke died of the "Big C" three years after this film's release. It's also damn fine moviemaking, further evidence that those who say Wayne couldn't act either have an agenda to advance or just don't know of which they speak.

Don Siegel's picture is loaded with stars. Wayne, of course, and Jimmy Stewart, Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, John Carradine, Hugh O'Brian, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, Harry Morgan and Sheree North.

Pay close attention to the scenes in which Books (Wayne) learns from the Doc (Stewart) that he's dying. You're watching two old pros at the twilight of their careers. They simply don't act this well anymore, y'all.

The best moments, really, are Wayne's mentoring of the young Gillom Rogers (Howard). He's clearly attracted to Books' life of violence. But the old gunfighter steers the young man in a different direction.

"The Shootist" is sad, tragic, even maddening when Wayne meets his fate just before the credits roll. But it's a fine epitaph on the finest of all American acting careers.

It feels like the end of Hollywood's golden era. Not long after this film was released, big-budget, CGI-dominated mindless epics replaced quiet character-driven stories as the dominating movie genre. It's too bad. Those films have their place. But so does something like "The Shootist."

Somewhere amid this brooding character study about dying lies some thoughts on living, and on having true grit in the midst of one final gunfight.

"The Shootist" is John Wayne's last stand. And what a stand it is.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tall in the saddle

For 20 years --- 20 years! --- he rode tall in the saddle.

He roamed the streets of Dodge City, first on Saturday nights, then later early on Monday nights, in the time slot vacated by "Gilligan's Island."

And now Marshal Matt Dillon and "Gunsmoke" are back on DVD.

I love old westerns. I love the purity of them, the feel of them, the simple, uncomplicated morality of them.

I like "Gunsmoke" because it's far and away the best acted, best written show of its kind ever presented on American television.

The program began in 1952 as a radio series on CBS. Gritty, realistic, "Gunsmoke" was an immediate hit and ran for nine years.

In 1955, CBS brought a slightly more tame version of the show to television. Depending on whom you believe, the part of Matt Dillon was initially offered to John Wayne, who didn't want to commit to the rigors of a weekly TV series. (The radio version's Dillon, actor William Conrad, was thought too portly to play the Marshal on television).

Wayne recommended his pal James Arness for the part. It was perfect. The program went on to have the longest run of any dramatic series with continuing characters in the history of television.

I watched some of the first season episodes late last night in the new Season 1 set from CBS/Paramount. The episodes are remastered, sharper than ever, and lean and mean in the program's early 30 minute format.

If you like this kind of thing, you'll be pleased to discover that "Gunsmoke" has aged well, if you overlook the primitive set design of the early shows. (Tombstones blow in the wind as Dillon walks up to Boot Hill to contemplate the meaning of justice.)

Maybe westerns were simply the reality TV-esque fad of their day. At one point, there were 30 of 'em on the major networks at the same time.

Today there are none, zero, zilch. It's too bad. Watching the tall, tough hero face down the bad guys in the middle of the street is something that never goes out of style.

The only thing I still can't figure out is why, oh, why, Dillon never settled down with Miss Kitty...

Labels: , , ,

Friday, July 27, 2007

The summer of Do'h!

What to say about "The Simpsons Movie," the charming, irreverent, belly-tickling, enjoyable film version of America's favorite TV family?

Too much to say, really. Guess I will say this: Realize it or not, the venerable FOX franchise is a treasure. It's a rare sight in television anymore, an honest, satirical spoof of American life that is consistently entertaining.

And if it took about 14 years too long to get to the theater, which it did, the wait is worth it.

Here's the plot in a nutshell:

Homer does something stupid. The town goes nuts. His family chastises him. Homer sets about making things right.

Sound familiar?

At this point, all these episodes later, the appeal of the "Simpsons" lies in the experience, in the cherished one-liners and sight gags, rather than plot. We know what's going to happen. We expect it. Like the Coyote and the Road Runner, don't you dare change the format. The rub lies in the repetition.

What makes seeing the Simpsons on the big screen so much fun is the possibilities of the format. This is a big, expansive widescreen Cinemascope picture. We see Springfield from all angles. We get to hear our beloved characters spout things they can get away with in a PG-13 flick. We get to laugh for 87 minutes of commercial free fun.

Halls High teacher Tim Reeves and I saw the film during a midnight premiere at Regal Cinema's Pinnacle Theater at Turkey Creek. Place was packed. Few empty seats.

And somewhere through the laughing and the clapping I remembered why movies are so much better than TV. Films are meant to be a communal experience, a shared two hours in the dark with strangers. Watch the "Simpsons" in the isolation of your living room, and you have to call a buddy or hit the computer to experience fan reaction to the latest gag. At the movies, all you have to do is listen, and turn to your neighbor.

What I've always enjoyed about this fine cast of characters is how the show can simultaneously poke fun at, and reinforce, much about American life. Everything works out in the end. Co-creator James L. Brooks' gentle sensibility merges well with Matt Groening's anarchy. Nearly all of the show's best writers joined them here to create a script that is satisfying, if somewhat predictable.

Don't wait for this one to come out on DVD. Go see "The Simpsons Movie" at the big screen, where our lovable yellow-tinged pals deserve to be seen just this once.

After 18 years, chances are we won't be spending too many more Sunday nights with Springfield's famous family. And when they go, television -- and American satirical humor -- will be the worse for it.

"The Simpsons Movie" is now playing. It is rated PG-13 for language, irreverence and adult situations.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, July 26, 2007

It was a dark and stormy night...

Last night was perfect for a little mystery.

I felt awful. Some kind of stomach bug, I guess. Light rain was falling outside. The Tigers were losing to Chicago.

So I curled up in the recliner, drinking a Sprite and eating crackers to calm the tummy, and spent an hour and a half creeping down the foggy streets of Victorian London with Sherlock Holmes.

I love old movies. I especially enjoy the 1940s Holmes series with Basil Rathbone as the master sleuth and Nigel Bruce as his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson. They're fun.

Last night, Holmes was fighting his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) while trying to help the beautiful Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino), who thinks she's about to be murdered.

Don't worry. It all worked out in the end.

Lupino's story is a good one, by the way. In addition to being a talented actor, she became a Hollywood director at a time when that job was dominated by men.

Lupino was working on a picture when the director fell ill. She stepped in to help, found out she had a knack for it and discovered a new career.

Anyway, Holmes and Watson kept me company on a night I didn't feel so good. Oh, and the Tigers ended up coming back to win and my stomach doesn't feel so gross today.

Not bad, huh?

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You can't please everyone...

Something happened to me today that irritated me to the point that I'm still thinking about it at 1:30 in the morning.

Won't go into details. It doesn't matter and I don't want to embarrass anybody.

But I couldn't help but think of the late, great Rick Nelson's words from his 1972 hit "Garden Party":

And it's all right now, I've learned my lesson well,
You see, you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself...

If you have a passion in life, something that makes this world a little brighter, go for it. No, wait. Don't just go for it. Grab the brass ring. Jump in with both feet. Feel free to insert your own cliche here.

There are folks in this ol' world who are going to attempt to rain on your parade. Forget about it. Others will be suspicious of your joy or try to make you look foolish. Ignore them.

If I had ever been worried about such things, I wouldn't have had a third of the blast I've had on this road of experience. I sure would have never squished into a polyester jumpsuit and sang "Burning Love" in front of 1,000 people.

Whatever else I may be, insincere isn't one of them. The words I put down always and forever come straight from the heart. You can take that promise to the bank.

And if I laugh too much, or sing too loud, or act too crazy for your taste, just move aside. Trust me, you're not going to stand in my way for long.

Embrace your passion, folks. Make it yours. Life is tough, sure. But it's also a lot of fun. Beauty is all around you; you just have to know where to look.

So the guy with the sappy music turned up too loud, the fella who cries over a sad old song, that crazy bloke who goes on and on about some movie he's seen or book he's read or music he's heard?

Yeah, that's me.

If you don't like it... well, I don't particularly care whether you like it or not.

Labels: , ,

Monday, July 23, 2007

The gift


Can't sleep.

Every time I shut my eyes, I see her face. That smiling, beautiful face, with the dark hair and the gentle eyes.

She'll never know it, but she touched me with her words. They penetrated that enclosed portion of my soul, the side no one sees anymore. I won't let them see it.

She got through. I think it started somewhere after "Hello."

On restless nights I'll lie in the dark remembering her words, feeling the longing that comes with loneliness, wishing with all my soul I could just touch her. But I don't know how to love anymore. I gave that up years ago, somewhere between the heartache and insanity.

I'm against anything that eradicates passion. People who laugh at the emotional side of the soul are worse than worthless. They sit in their pious positions on high and do nothing but make me want to vomit, to violently throw up everything that is evil and rotten and vile.

I used to worry about such dregs; now I just don't give a damn. All I can hear is the music. Just the music.

There was music that night. I saw her across the room. I felt the long dormant feeling start somewhere between my blue eyes and jeans. It was me. It was her. It was those pretty eyes.

Here tonight I remember the warmth of the moment and it feeds my wounded mind. I believe for a moment that life is still out there somewhere, something to be latched onto, something to be experienced as fast as the train can rumble down the track.

I dread the morning and the routine and the pettiness. I wish forever it's that night, the music, her words, that voice and those eyes.

She's given me a gift I can never repay. If that isn't enough, at least it's something.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Anything but dated

Watching "Saturday Night Fever" all these years later, it's at first difficult to remember why I like this film.

It's terribly dated. Some of its themes and scenes could charitably be described as misogyny. Plot holes abound.

And yet --- for some of these same reasons, "Fever" is a triumph.

The film conjures a time and place, becomes ingrained in it, offers a stopped-time look at America, specifically Brooklyn, circa 1977. No movie save something like "American Graffiti" or "The Last Picture Show" does a better job at capturing, nay defining, an era.

John Travolta's Tony is a working-class stiff with big dreams. He wants more out of life than getting into trouble with his friends and living it up at the 2001 Odyssey disco on Saturday nights. The problem is he can't exactly figure out how.

And he suffers from the classic American male dilemma --- figuring out that women are more, much more, than sexual objects. It took me a whole lot of growing up and several later episodes of "M*A*S*H," awash in Alan Alda's feminist philosophy, to learn that lesson. Tony figures it out, sort of, through his friendship with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), the Brooklyn born woman who makes it to Manhattan.

What "Fever" does best, painfully so at times, is offer a bleak, honest realism to the venerable coming of age story. We may not like some of the film's gritty scenes, but I suspect they are as true to the period as anything put to celluloid.

Gorney is pretty but she isn't a Hollywood bombshell. And that's good. Tony, and we the audience, is taught to appreciate her for what she is, not for what she looks like.

And then there's that disco music. Love it, loathe it, it's catchy stuff. And it works well here as Travolta shows off the dance moves that made him a star. Hear "Night Fever" on the radio to this day, and suddenly you're strutting down the sidewalk with Tony as he makes his way to work.

The late film critic Gene Siskel loved this movie. His partner Roger Ebert once guessed Siskel saw it 17 times. He even bought Travolta's famous white suit at a charity auction.

Ebert guesses Siskel bonded with the film because it reflected who he was at that time in his life. And that's really what we want the arts to do to us, isn't it? How we react to it is all important; therein lies the rub.

Maybe it's not worth it to spend 20 minutes dissecting something like "Saturday Night Fever." Maybe it should be relegated to what it is -- a popular movie about Brooklyn teenagers enjoying the culture and music of the moment.

But, no. This film is more than that. Somewhere amid Tony's dreams of a better life lies a theme -- and a yearning desire -- that is anything but dated.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Friday, July 20, 2007

On the road (in my mind)

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

No, that's not the beginning of the story of my friendship with pal Dean Harned. It's the opening line to a true classic, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

Can't tell you how many times I've thought about jumping in the Xterra, picking a direction and taking off. I may do that next year around my 30th birthday.

I love the open road. Used to love it even more when gas was a buck a gallon. But there's nothing better than hitting the highway with nothing but open space and time in front of you.

Three summers ago, Drew Weaver and I took such a trip. We followed Horace Greeley's advice ("Go West, young man..."). After staying all night somewhere in Arkansas, we ended up in Oklahoma City, at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum. I knew I was going to love the place when they showed us the introductory video. Tom Selleck was the narrator.

From there, it was a quixotic jaunt to Archer City, Texas, in search of "Lonesome Dove" author Larry McMurtry. McMurtry keeps a home in Archer City, where he also runs the country's largest antiquarian bookstore.

Movie buffs will know the town. Peter Bogdanovich filmed the adaptation of McMurtry's "The Last Picture Show" in the author's hometown. It's a quaint place. They have a stop light, a bank, a courthouse and a Dairy Queen.

After Archer City, it was on to Big D. We stayed the night in a Super 8, then drove back to Arlington for the Rangers/Yankees game the next day. Hot as hell.

Saturday night we drove to San Antone, where we toured The Alamo that next day. Hot as hell.
I wanted to go to the beach. So we went to Corpus Christi. Sadly, there wasn't anywhere to stay -- at least not on the beach. Well, other than actually on the beach.

So we drove north, through Houston, stopping near the Louisiana border for the night. Somehow, we made it all the way to Knoxville the following day.

Anyway, I'm sitting here waiting on pages, thumbing through Kerouac's classic. But I wish I was burning rubber on the highway somewhere, stopping only for gas and when the urge hit me.

As it is, I guess I'll go get a milkshake at McDonald's.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Got a phone call last night you never want to receive past 11 p.m.

One of my cousin Jordan's buddies --- all of 20 years old --- was killed in a motorcycle accident last night. My sister relayed the news. She was headed over to my aunt's house to help counsel the boys.

It made me think about Josh Ellis.

I'll never forget the sound of my mom crying in the early morning of June 2, 1995. I felt certain my grandfather had passed away --- until I heard him coughing.

In a few minutes, they knocked at my door. Good ol' Josh --- cousin, buddy --- was dead at 16. Car accident.

Most of the innocence of childhood faded away in the coming days. Hugging Josh's mom later that day --- consoling devastated friends --- the realization finally hit home that, no, we weren't invincible after all.

I don't understand why kids get taken away. But, then again, I don't understand a lot of the pain and suffering that goes on in this ol' world, or the slights, or smartass comments, or just take your pick of what to name here.

But I tell you one thing. Hearing about this tragedy puts credit card fraud, and the Tennessee Waltz, and nepotism in the courthouse clearly into perspective.

As bad as all that stuff is, on this hot and muggy mid-summer Thursday, thinking about the fleeting flicker of flame that is life, it's hard to give a damn about it.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Glory days

Had a funny dream last night.

This happens about once every three or four months. We're putting on a show. Something goes wrong. Either we forget to promote it and nobody shows up or some technical snafu disrupts the show. I usually wake up saddened that we really aren't doing another show.

For the uninitiated, my gig back in the early-to-mid '90's was performing what we called a Tribute to Elvis show. Every year, usually in the late winter or early spring, we'd hold a big bash at Halls High School.

I recruited a band (in the later years it was the group from Memories Theater in Pigeon Forge), back-up singers and dancing girls. Bandit Lights and M&L Sound came too. We raised money for school projects and such. I was always amazed that anyone showed up.

It was fun. But you know what's funny? I didn't realize then that we were part of something that would never come around again.

Sometimes I think that's the way it works. You don't realize a good thing until it's gone. I've had to learn that lesson, it seems, over and over again.

My last big performance was 11 years ago. For a while after high school, we would occasionally perform smaller sets, with back-up singers and recorded music. My last one of those happened near the end of 1997.

I sometimes marvel over the fact we pulled that off. I'm still grateful to all the people who showed up --- and who remember.

I don't know what my dream means. I doubt there is any Freudian message thrown into it; I think I just miss performing.

I guess it's just another reminder that life is short. So the thing to do, then, is enjoy it while the ride lasts.

Even if that means popping on a pair of blue suede shoes...

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

But her voice lives on...

File this one under "bittersweet."

I was whiling away a recent lazy afternoon by the radio, listening to the American standards station on XM. Up popped this fantastic song called "Listen to My Heart" by a singer named Nancy LaMott.

I was blown away by the power of her voice. "Wow," I thought when the record ended, "I need to find out more about her."

A quick Google search revealed a tragic story.

Nancy LaMott was a talented cabaret singer who first made her name playing clubs in San Francisco. Plagued by illness her entire life (she was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease as a child), Nancy was often broke and found herself staring at a big pile of hospital bills.

She finally moved to New York, where she became known as one of the best cabaret singers to ever hit the Big Apple. Noted disc jockey Jonathan Schwartz, an expert in such music, says LaMott is the best cabaret singer since Sinatra.

Her songs are often peppered with positive thinking, odes to an optimistic future in which everything will work out for the best. Sadly, her own story played out under a much different ending.

LaMott was diagnosed with uterine cancer just as her career was taking off. According to her Web site, LaMott opted for hormone therapy over surgery in order to complete her landmark album "Listen to My Heart."

The title song, composed by David Friedman, is a fine piece of music. Her voice soars, far and high, full of optimism and hope. Of special treat is the CD recording an engagement at New York's Tavern on the Green shortly before her death.

Not long after being diagnosed with cancer, Nancy met and fell in love with actor Pete Zapp. They were married just before her untimely death in 1995.

I wish Nancy LaMott were still around to share her beautiful talent with the world. As it is, she's in a better place now, free from pain.

But her music lives on; her talent survives. Ours may not be to question why, but I can't help but wonder why the world was robbed of this remarkable voice.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 16, 2007

Drowning my soul

I know I won't make it if you don't love back, please love me for all that I lack..

OK, I admit it.

I cheated.

Couldn't help it. I love this girl's voice; I love this song even more.

If you know me well, you know of whom I speak. Yes, it was Sunday night. Yes, that means Barley's and RobinElla.

Once or twice in our lives, if we're blessed, or fortunate, or just plain lucky, a song comes along that plants itself smack dab in the middle of your soul. It touches you in a place that only the stars in their courses can possibly understand. It makes you forget about life and death, love and hate, heaven and hell and how the weather was.

All that matters is you, the singer, the moment, and the song.

For me, the singer is RobinElla. The moment was at Barley's, a Sunday night several moons ago. The song is "Teardrops."

Funny how my teardrops don't make a sound, when they roll down my cheeks, and they fall to the ground...

We ducked into my favorite joint a little after 7. It was muggy, oppressive, one of those hot summer nights that make you wish this was Knoxville, Alaska.

I'd have been content to hear anything. But I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have been disappointed if Robin didn't sing the song.

I couldn't bring myself to ask for it. Part of me is just shy; I admit it. The bigger part of me figures musicians get hit up for songs 24/7. I didn't want to be another jerk begging for a tune.

So I struck a deal. My sis knows no fear. I agreed to do a favor for one of her friends. She went to talk to Robin.

Robin looks up after a moment and waves at us. We wave back. My sis said later she wanted to know where our table was, and asked why we wanted to hear something so sad.

I don't have an answer for that. All I know is this song, and this singer, speaks to my soul.

See my tears in the moonlight, reflect what I'm feelin' inside...

There's something about this angel's voice that makes me wish I could land in the middle of that "Twilight Zone" episode and make time stop. Just for a moment. Just for awhile.

First time I heard her sing, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, or some such place. No, really. The music was honest, a little sweet, with a touch of sadness thrown in for the hell of it.

Tonight Robin mixes her two sets well. She jumps from country to bluegrass to funk to folk and back again with ease. I feel my spirit fly high up into the ether. It stays up there a good long while. When it hits the ground, I'm refreshed, rejuvenated, ready to head back to reality after this two hour detour.

But it's the song, man. It's the song. She sings it as if she's walked around in my heart awhile, touched its scars, felt its pain.

It's almost religious and when the moment's over I force myself to leave it behind.

Hold me, I'm fallen and I can't stand upright...

I remember the woman I can't forget.

You say that we're stuck with nowhere to go, look in my eyes and you'll know...

The memory wafts away like the ash from the cigarette the girl at the end of the bar is smoking.

Seems like I've finally drowned my soul...

It's you, the singer, the moment, and the song.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Without a song...

It's early afternoon and I'm eased back in my recliner. Didn't feel like brunch today.

So I've turned on the XM and am continuing my week-long New York state of mind by tuning into the disc jockey of the City.

Jonathan Schwartz still does his Sunday show. He's been around, it seems, nearly as long as the Great American Songbook music he plays.

Today he opens up with an eclectic gem. Bernadette Peters doing Bob Dylan.

And I'll be your baby tonight...

First time I heard that song, Bobby Darin was doing it at the Desert Inn. Mack the Knife turned Dylan's folk song into a blues number. He was good.

Now Schwartz is playing Ben Webster. He's taking off on a Richard Rodgers tune. I can't remember the name and I'm too lazy to get up and look.

I wonder if kids listen to the radio anymore in this iPod, MP3, download it now! world. I don't even listen to the radio like I once did. That's because Knox Vegas radio sucks.

But I digress.

When I was a kid, every night at 8 or so, you could find me in front of the big dial, usually tuned to some oldies station. I used to call one particular show every night while doing homework. My moniker was "Jake in Halls." (Imagine that.)

One night I coaxed DJ Tony Lawson into digging up Elvis Presley's "Promised Land." He had to go down to the basement and find the 45 RPM single. But he played it.

Left my home in Norfolk, Virginia, California on my mind...

Johnny's got somebody -- it isn't Patsy Cline -- singing "Walking After Midnight." Pretty good. Real jazzy. Something you'd hear in a joint.

Tonight we're going to hear Robin. I hear she's got a new band. Can't wait.

Robin sang me to sleep last night.

Funny how my teardrops don't make a sound, when they roll down my cheeks and they fall to the ground...

Whenever I die, my funeral is going to be a wall-to-wall sound of music that will make Phil Spector blush. You'll think you've come to a concert, and that's the way I want it. No tears. No fuss. Just tunes.

Schwartz is playing Astaire. Now it's k.d. lang, of all people, belting out Sinatra's classic saloon song, "Angel Eyes." Where does he find this stuff?

I'm thinking about turning it off. I want to hear the Chairman of the Board himself.

Without a song, the day would never end...

You're so right, Frankie. You're so right.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Friday, July 13, 2007

This writer's life

So it's Friday night again, and I'm in my usual spot, sitting here in my office chair waiting on pages.

This week, I'm reading Pete Hamill's novel "Loving Women" during the dead periods. I found the book at the library downtown today while doing research for a column.

I think if I could wave a magic wand, I'd somehow absorb Hamill's talent. He's A No. 1, king of the hill, to quote that song about the city he loves so much.

Good writing is nearly as sweet as good music, maybe better. Bad writing, on the other hand, is a bit like modern jazz. The whole thing sounds like a train wreck.

OK, gotta go. Judy has just brought me more pages.

What a life this writer leads, huh?

A ghost in the night


She came to him in his nighttime slumber, beautiful, silent, her dark hair falling ever so gently off her shoulders.

He was awed, as always, by her quiet beauty, by the way her eyes took the form of every hope and dream that had ever passed through his soul. She stood there, smiling, gesturing for him to come toward her.

He reached out to touch her, to feel the electricity, and she was gone.

He awoke in a sweat, disoriented, unable to move. He lay there in the darkness, finally caught his breath.

Sleep was a million miles away, so he rose and turned on the light.

The last time he saw her, she was in from the city. It had been five years, but time had done nothing but make him want her.

She hugged him and asked about his health. He tried a poker face, knew it wouldn't work. He wanted to hold her for the rest of her life.

As it was, he held her hand, gazed into those dark eyes for a brief, shining moment, and walked into the cool afternoon air.

He sat in his truck awhile, unable or unwilling to start the engine. The tears were brief, but they originated somewhere deep in his being.

And now, on this sultry summer night, the rain pelting his tin roof, she was with him again.

He fell asleep as the first streaks of dawn snaked across the morning sky.

This time, he didn't dream.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The ghosts of Flatbush

The minute the stock footage flashed up of Ebbets Field during HBO's charming new documentary, "The Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush," I immediately thought of an old Frank Sinatra song:

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here...

And darned if they didn't start playing it.

For those who don't know, the mighty National League Dodgers used to play in Brooklyn. No, that's not quite right. For all practical purposes, the Dodgers were Brooklyn.

The heart and soul of the borough beat in old Ebbets Field. And the funny part is they took the team away right after Dem Bums became winners.

Here's the story in a nutshell. The Dodgers' home, Ebbets Field, opened in 1913. It was the smallest park in the game --- 35,000 strong. Jammed packed.

Somewhere along the way they added more seats. You could hear the players chatter back and forth. You were slammed right up against your neighbor.

Colorful characters populated the place. Hilda was one. She sat in the outfield, hung a sign on the fence proclaiming "Hilda Is Here!" and rang a cowbell whenever she was happy. In the old days, she'd send suggestions down to manager Leo Durocher via the outfielders.

Then there was the Dodgers' Sym-phony, emphasis on the phony. They played badly and out of tune all over the park.

All of Brooklyn lived and died with the Bums. They hated the cross town Giants (let's not even talk about Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" in '51). Special hatred was reserved for those Damn Yankees, who won it all every time, or so it seemed. "Wait Till Next Year" was the famous reaction throughout Brooklyn.

That changed in '55. The Dodgers beat the Yanks in a thrilling World Series. Brooklyn went nuts.

"This Is Next Year!" one of the tabloids proclaimed.

But the rumors had already started. Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley wanted a new ballpark. Infamous New York City planner Robert Moses said, "No way." He wanted a new ballpark in the Flushing area of Queens. (Moses eventually got his way when the expansion team New York Mets began playing at the newly built Shea Stadium in the mid-60s.)

Los Angeles came calling. Following the '57 season, O'Malley took his club and moved west. By '62, the now-christened Los Angeles Dodgers were playing in a big new ballpark at Chavez Ravine.

Brooklyn has never recovered.

America was changing anyway. Dodgers fans had fled in droves for Long Island. The old Brooklyn Eagle went belly up. Not too many years later, football became the national pastime.

But the memories live on. Those ghosts of Flatbush -- Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Campy -- live on. For two fleeting hours, they all come alive again in HBO's story of the beloved Bums.

The closing scenes show that ugly oversized wrecking ball -- made out to be a baseball -- tearing down Ebbets Field. Can you imagine how those people felt, watching their childhood -- their very soul -- be literally torn apart?

Leave it to Frankie to say it best:

And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year

Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here...

"Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush" is now airing on HBO.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New York state of mind...

But I'm takin' a Greyhound down the Hudson River line; I'm in a New York state of mind...

I'm tempted to blame this on Pete Hamill.

Really I should blame it on my co-worker Emily. She just got back.

Whatever the case, I'm in a New York state of mind.

Haven't been to the big city since 2002. Well, other than through the pages of the Times, Daily News and Post. But I've got the itch again.

It's partially Hamill's fault. His excellent "North River," which I reviewed last week, is a loving ode to a New York that is long passed gone. Now, I'm reading "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning," all about that horrible, wonderful summer of 1977. Disco and Reggie Jackson aside, it must have been a heck of a trip.

I won't have any time off until after Christmas. Maybe then. Maybe.

Until then, I'll have to be content to do New York through the pages of the tabloids, through the words of its writers and through the green fields of imagination.

Pardon me, though, while I cue up Billy Joel on the iPod...

Labels: , , ,

Monday, July 09, 2007

Here comes the sun

What a view!

Next time you find yourself in downtown Knoxville, take a few minutes and ride the elevator up to the observation deck of the Sunsphere. It's something.

First time I went up there, I was about 4 years old. All I remember is watching a video about the making of the Sunsphere, and how the sun's energy can be used to make power. (The 1982 World's Fair, after all, was an energy exposition.) I held my dad's hand while we rode the elevator.

The last time I was up there, I guess I was about 6 or 7 or so. It was when they put a restaurant up there. A guy Mom was dating at the time took us. Pretty cool.

Give Bill Haslam credit. He took what had previous been known as the Wigsphere (thanks, "Simpsons") and turned it into a fun attraction. In addition to the 360 degree view, the observation deck also boasts kiosks celebrating various aspects of Knoxville history, as well as a continuous video of highlights from the fair.

Nick Frantz, my West Side counterpart, and I stopped by the Sunsphere during lunch after a meeting today downtown. I felt like a kid again.

Up on the screen was Jake Butcher, 25 years younger, celebrating the fair's success on its closing day. I stood there thinking that the next morning (Nov. 1, 1982), Butcher's banking empire collapsed.

What's funny is nobody, and I mean NOBODY, thought the so-called "scruffy little river city" could pull it off. Heck, folks on our own city council were betting against the fair.

But, somehow, it all worked. Knoxville had one hell of a party for six months. We got to keep the Sunsphere, the Holiday Inn, the amphitheater and, for a time, the U.S. Pavilion, not to mention a lifetime worth of memories. The '82 Expo remains the last world's fair (I think) to show a profit.

Haslam gets big time props for making the Sunsphere reopening happen. The big sphere stood vacant for more than a decade. Typical of the Victor Ashe malaise of the period, you couldn't even go up in the city's most visable landmark.

All that's changed. The best part is Mayor Billy used money from the sale of the Candy Factory to pay for the Sunsphere renovation. NO TAX DOLLARS were used at all. Now that's leadership!

Here's hoping the Sunsphere reopening is the beginning of better days for Knoxville. It never should have taken this long.

But let's not complain too loud. Cas just might bust out of his grave and yell those immortal words,

"I'm a'gin it!"

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 08, 2007


It's just after 11 a.m., and I'm scaling the steps into Copper Cellar.

Too hot for slacks today, so I wear a Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and loafers. I left the Tigers cap at home. So much for "Magnum, p.i."

The Sunday brunch here is one of my favorites. It's much better than the overrated Italian Market.

Oh, that's not fair. The food is good there. I just don't care to shout over the ubiquitous saxophone player blaring away with the jazz trio up front.

Today we request Michael's table. Unlike most of the younger crew, whom I suspect are largely pooled from UT's student body, Michael is top notch. You don't go thirsty. You don't want for much during your stay.

I start with eggs, bacon, a bagel, biscuits and gravy and half a waffle. Didn't have to take out a mortgage to pay for brunch today. Grandma got me a Copper Card for Christmas. (Thanks, Mamaw!)

Over lunch, we discuss county politics and baseball. We also watch the assembled diners. You never know what you'll see here.

Today we see folks in suits -- straight from church and scrubbed up nice. Then there's the guy who looked like he jumped ship from a hippie commune.

"How much you want to bet he thinks Ronald Reagan is too liberal," somebody says, and we laugh at the joke.

I alternate between sips of water and orange juice. Can't drink Cokes anymore. Don't want another kidney stone. Or six.

We leave with our bellies full. Michael says it's good to see us. Come back soon.

Don't worry Michael. We'll see you next week.

Gotta go. Greg Maddux is pitching on ESPN tonight...

Friday, July 06, 2007

'Ford to City: Drop Dead!'

So I'm whiling away the free moments at work tonight in between editing pages by reading "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning," Jonathan Mahler's engaging, well-written book about 1977 New York City. Picked it up at the library today.

The book centers around the mayoral campaign that year, a face off between two newcomers -- Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo -- as well as the New York Yankees' tumultuous chase for the World Series championship.

Everybody in the Big Apple, it seems, was fighting. (Koch v. Cuomo, Billy v. Reggie, New York v. The World). A murderer (the so-called "Son of Sam") was on the loose). The city was broke.

A couple of years earlier, President Gerald Ford had famously refused to bail the city out of debt, leading to this classic headline in the Daily News:

Anyway, it's a good read. And if you haven't heard, ESPN is airing a miniseries beginning Monday, July 9, 10 p.m. (EDT) after the Home Run Derby.

OK, back to compo to see how much longer till I can get out of here. Y'all have a good weekend.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Self-evident truths

Some words to remember on this Independence Day...


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

'North River' flows again

Shortly after coming to work for the newspaper seven years ago, my boss recommended I read the book "A Drinking Life."

It was a memoir of newspapering, of growing up in New York; basically it was one heck of a coming of age story by a longtime Big Apple newspaper writer and editor.

Thus began my literary love affair with Pete Hamill.

I wasn't drawn so much to Hamill's world (it was alien -- full of clogged city streets and adventures in Mexico) as to his words. To Hamill, like Hemingway, words are precious. You don't waste them. You choose them carefully, treat them with respect.

Hamill returns to his beloved New York -- specifically 1934 Greenwich Village -- in his satisfying new novel, "North River." Named for the old-school moniker for the Hudson, the book centers around kindly physician Dr. Jim Delaney.

Delaney has visible and hidden scars from the Great War. His wife has disappeared. His estranged daughter has left for Spain to find her husband.

But she leaves a bundle on the doorstep. It turns out to be Delaney's 3-year-old grandson Carlito.

Delaney can't raise the boy by himself. He needs help. Enter Rose, the immigrant who learns English by reading the Daily News.

And as he tends to his patients, and learns how to raise a family, Delaney's broken heart begins to mend.

Hamill calls "North River" a love story for adults. And it is, in its fashion.

But it's also, as is Hamill's best work, a love story about New York. You can feel the city come to life in his words. It grabs you, speaks to you, begs you to hear its stories, implores you to ride on its subways a while.

Every geographical area has its poet. Faulkner was Mississippi's. Larry McMurtry is North Central Texas'. And, above everyone else -- all those famous names -- Pete Hamill is New York's laureate.

"North River" is a good read. It's a heartwarming story, full of life and renewal and all those things readers feel satisfied about when the final page is turned.

You feel fortunate to spend a day or two with such a fine wordsmith. And when the journey's over, you feel alone, yes, but thankful such a talent has allowed you to roam around in his fictional world.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 02, 2007

Getting lost in the game

KODAK -- I needed the game tonight.

Lot of upheaval in the works. Big changes. Painful lessons.

Anyway, it was a perfect night for baseball. The temp hovered around 79 degrees at the 7:18 p.m. first pitch.

I eased into my seat to root on the Mississippi Braves and the Smokies and soon began chatting with the young couple beside me. They are from just down Emory Road.

The guy asked me if I'm from Mississippi (I'm sporting a MS Braves hat.) Nope, just from Halls, I say. Turns out we're nearly neighbors.

The woman in front of us taught school at Carter with my pal John Hitt. They chat about the old times.

Smokies starter Donnie Veal throws a good one. His final line is 6 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 6 Ks, 3 BBs.

Tennessee wins 4-3 after jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first. I lose myself in the rhythms of the game.

Perhaps the best part was seeing a kid sporting a Smokies hat munching on a hot dog. Is there anything more American than that?

Well, I did get a kick out of the old guy beside me. He's drinking a Bud and wearing a Braves hat. He laughs out loud when we make fun of Barry Bonds.

Thank God for baseball. To paraphrase Mr. Buffett, if it weren't for the game (and the fact I'm already crazy), I'd go insane.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Weekends and other sins...

Is there anything better than a weekend at the lake?

Don't think so. Well, it was just what the doctor ordered anyway.

The rain had given way to an outright summer squall by the time my SUV pulled into the cabin's front yard Friday night. I was still wearing my work clothes (dress pants, big red Shopper-News shirt, loafers), and got soaked.

Important stuff (food and drinks) went first. Then the books, iPod, CD player/radio and CD collection. Then the DVDs. The clothes, fishing gear and unimportant stuff came last.

It rained. It rained some more. I sat out on the back porch downing a drink and watching the storm. After awhile, that got boring, so I watched Gregory Peck retake Leyte Gulf in "MacArthur."

Saturday was lazy. I did make a dent in the David Halberstam book "October 1964," as well as a few of Hemingway's short stories and the library book I picked up last week, "Work and Other Sins," by a former New York Times reporter. Good stuff.

No writing, though. Just wasn't up to it. Did devise an idea or two for a couple of stories. Maybe down the road.

The guilty pleasure was a few episodes of "Dallas" Saturday morning. Ahh, there's nothing better for the soul than watching J.R. Ewing wheeling and dealing. It's almost as good as Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Saturday night was reserved for good music and more Hemingway. I also finally finished the last two issues of Newsweek and an old Paris Review interview with Boris Pasternak I'd left hanging around since before the kidney stones.

Fell asleep somewhere around 3 a.m. The birds woke me up this morning. I didn't want to rise.

Thank God days off only happen once or twice here and there. I could get used to this...

Nightcap: The Tigers just beat the Minnesota Twins 1-0 on an 8th inning home run by Marcus Thames. What a game.

Jeremy Bonderman was brilliant. Twinkies starter Scott Baker was even better -- one run on three hits. But that one hit was a biggie.

Turns out it was all the Tigers needed.

There is a poetic beauty to baseball, particularly to pitchers duels like this one. It doesn't exist in other sports. It's a near-perfection that's simply beautiful to watch.

Perfect way to end a perfect weekend.