Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lost in the music

Well, I guess I should post something about Halloween. But, my heart isn't in it, so let me just say that today I'm dressed like coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and move on.

You should have been up at Greg Householder's house last Sunday night. The Shopper held a big bonfire. What a time it was.

I was dressed in my overalls and green John Deere cap. I gulped down the barbecue because what I really wanted to get to was the music.

Emily brought her guitar. Some intern kid pulled out a harmonica. Emily's friend Carol joined in on the harmony. And off we went.

Country roads, take me home...

There's something downright therapeutic about music. It can lift the spirits on a cold and rainy night. Or make you forget all about being sick. Or just brighten an otherwise humdrum day.

Sunday night we sang a little bit of everything. Mostly old country songs and folk tunes -- my favorites. We did sprinkle some ol' rock and roll tunes in the mix and Emily sang an original number, based on a short story by James Agee. It was so pretty it brought tears.

At one point Emily and the dude with the harmonica started playing the blues. I tried to remember the words to "Reconsider Baby" and mixed them with "Santa Claus is Back in Town." Later I flubbed a line from "Leavin' On a Jet Plane" that drew a big laugh.

We finished with "Why Me Lord," the old Kris Kristofferson song, and I drove away hating that the whole thing had to end.

So I went home and listened to records awhile, happy as a clam, lost in the music.

Monday, October 29, 2007

'Making plans': So long to Porter

You say tomorrow you're going/It's so hard for me to believe...

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton never sounded as good away from each other. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Wagoner, who died over the weekend at age 80, "discovered" Dolly and brought her to Nashville in the '60s. The duo had a string of hits together, including "The Last Thing On My Mind," "Daddy Was an Old-Time Preacher Man," "Just Someone I Used to Know" and one of the greatest country records of all time, "Making Plans."

Porter was a big star in his own right. His hits included "Company's Comin'" and "A Satisfied Mind." He became best known for the flashy rhinestone outfits he continued to wear years after they went out of style on his regular Saturday night appearances on the Grand Ole Opry.

But when he and Dolly hooked up, something magical happened. My grandparents said they once saw the two of them standing in the bed of an old truck, singing in the parking lot at one of the shopping centers in Halls. They had no clue as to who either of them were, so they kept on walking.

I'm making plans for the heartaches/Cause you're making plans to leave...

Porter's music was simple and direct. He didn't have what you would call a good voice, but his songs were honest. You'd never catch him, for example, swinging from a rope.

Dolly apparently broke his heart when she left, destined for movies with Burt Reynolds, "9 to 5" and superstardom. Despite all those hits, I don't think she ever sounded as good without that tall fella in the flashy jacket.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said, "Porter Wagoner had a great style and a big heart. I'll miss him, but I am grateful to still have his music."

If you want to hear Porter Wagoner's greatest legacy, the one they'll still talk about years from now, find that "Greatest Hits" album of his with Dolly Parton. Skip all the way down to "Making Plans."

Now that, folks, was country music.

Godspeed, Porter.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

That ol' sweet roll

I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I tell you that it's a true travesty that Bobby Darin is now considered an underrated performer.

I mean, really. This cat could do it all. Pop standards, rock and roll, folk music, Beatles classics, Vegas swing -- you name it, Bobby did it. Don't tell me you only knew him through "Splish Splash"!

OK, I'll be honest. I didn't know all that much about the guy myself ("Mack the Knife" and the other hits excepted) until Kevin Spacey's fine 2004 biopic "Beyond the Sea" piqued the curiosity.

I knew Darin had romanced and married the beautiful Sandra Dee. And I knew he made a few movies.

But the music. Ahh, that's where it's at.

Yeah, the hits are good. "Mack the Knife" is still a near perfect pop record. Hum a few bars of that one and you'll sing it the rest of the day. But that's OK, cause it's such a damn fine piece of music.

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear...

But dig up a live Darin record. Then put it on and drown in the talent.

Start with "Live! at the Desert Inn." My god. Words can't describe how good this album is.

What surprised me right off the bat was Darin's sweet cover of Blood, Sweat and Tears' "Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll)." Combine his phrasing with that Vegas brass and you'll forget all about BS&T.

I said, thank you very kindly, but I'm in too big a need of my mind...

Then comes that Beatles medley.

"Hey Jude" becomes a soulful lament. "Something" and "A Day in the Life" and "Eleanor Rigby" are all here too. But for my money, it's his 20 seconds of "Blackbird" that puts the icing on this cake.

All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive...

The tempo flies into the ether on a cover of Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" and darned if I didn't forget about the original. Darin, like Elvis, had a way of taking a song and making it his own.

So keep it up, quench my desire...

Forty years removed from the 60s, Tim Hardin's "If I Were A Carpenter" seems a relic of the turbulent past, but in Darin's hands it haunts you, shows up in your dreams, bounces around in the corners of your soul. Call me crazy, but I still love that one honest, pleading question:

If I worked my hands in wood, would you still love me?

Go surf through YouTube and watch that magnificent clip of BD on "The Midnight Special," rocking his ass off, throwing Elvis and the Stones and pretty much everybody else to the corner of the room. There's a nice live clip of the big hit "Artificial Flowers" too, as well as a rockin' version of "Higher and Higher" during what's billed as "Bobby Darin's Last Show."

I'd give a year's salary to journey back 35 years and see this cat do his thing. Tell you one thing, though. Spend a few minutes with Bobby Darin, and it's hard to listen to anything else.

And it's even more difficult to believe that something happened along the way for this shining star to be dubbed underrated.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rainy night in Boston

It's raining tonight in Beantown.

Nope, I'm not there. Just watching on the tube thanks to the fine folks at FOX. The Red Sox are beating the Rockies 4-1 in the bottom of the fourth as I type this.

Couldn't help but think about the late, great A. Bartlett Giamatti. If Bart were still alive, he'd no doubt be at Fenway tonight. Or at least watching from Martha's Vineyard, rooting on his beloved Sox.

Thought about his fine little piece, "The Green Fields of the Mind," about the end of a long ago season. It started raining that game, too, as Giamatti made his way out of the park.

"It breaks your heart," Bart said of this great game. And, of course, it does.

Former UT quarterback Todd Helton is the longtime Rockies first baseman. This is his first World Series. Guess that's why I'm rooting for the Mile High boys this fall.

I'll fly up to Boston one of these days, though. Take in a weekend game at Fenway before they shut this grand old park town. Then, I'll rent a car and drive up to Maine, maybe say howdy to Halls High grad Jim Marine and his wife.

I need to get to Maine anyway. That state, along with Minnesota and North Dakota, are the only three in the contiguous 48 I've yet to visit.

I would complain about thoughts of being without the game for the next five months. But we've got basketball to play in Big Orange Country, y'all.

OK, gotta go. Francis is in trouble again. Bases loaded, 2-1 count to Tek.

Gotta enjoy this while it lasts.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

The coat and tie

I'm watching the Colts and Jaguars on ESPN Monday Night Football tonight. Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio is wearing a tie on the sideline!

Now that's how a ball coach should dress, dammit.

Call me retro, call me old school, but I'll never go for the slovenly "I'm really not homeless" look that, oh, say, Bill "Cheater" Belichick favors. Nor the wimpy visor and polo shirt that the ol' ball coach brought to the SEC.

Give me a suit, tie, pissed off visage, and preferably a houndstooth cap -- or at least a men's dress hat. Men like Neyland (it's pronounced KNEE-land, by the way), Majors, Landry, Lombardi and, of course, the ball coach, Paul William Bryant.

I spotted several Alabama students dressed up in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Man, that looks good. If nothing happens, the Big Orange suit will be pulled out of the closet for Saturday night's game.

Tony Basilio interviewed another favorite coach, former Texas A&M and Alabama legend Gene Stallings, on his radio sports show last Friday. If you want to hear what a real football coach sounds like, click on and look for the "Gene Stallings" link.

Compare a guy like Stallings to a clown like Dennis Franchione. I bet those folks in College Station wish they'd never heard of that guy. Serves him right for the lies he told those kids at Alabama.

Nick Saban wasn't wearing a suit and tie Saturday, but the way his team dismantled Tennessee, you'd have thought we'd turned the clock back to the mid-70s. I kept looking for Bear on the sideline.

Earth to John Chavis: Tackling usually helps stop an offense. I'm tired of hearing this "young team" stuff. Even Pee Wee teams know how to tackle.

Whatever. I'm going to finish this Colts game, then I might watch "The Junction Boys" again.

It doesn't get any better than a suit, a tie and a snazzy looking hat.

'War and Peace' update: Well, Russian Romanticism isn't exactly good reading before bedtime. I read a few pages last night, suffered through the passages in French, and finally gave up and went back to reading a biography on FDR, "A Rendezvous with Destiny," that I had started a few weeks ago. Don't worry, though. I'm going to try again; I just don't need to be reading Tolstoy before bed.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Wasteland

Unless I miss my guess, 2008 will go down as one of the worst presidential elections in history in terms of quality of candidates. Across the board, on both sides, all one can see is a vast wasteland, what writers during the first World War would have called no man's land -- barren, pock-marked, and with barbed wire twisting at either end.

It's depressing. The times cry out for greatness. We have real problems that will require real solutions. But all this field seems to promise is "Back to the Future" or symbolism over substance.

I watched "West Wing" last night and mused over the possibility of electing a president fluent in the classics who can think and talk in complete sentences and still seem like a regular person. Somebody who isn't a policy wonk or partisan viper.

Yeah, keep dreaming.

Whatever you might think of Ronald Reagan, what I loved about him was his eloquence. The Great Communicator's hero was FDR -- he ripped "Rendezvous with Destiny" straight from the patrician from Campobello -- and his most effective tool, like Roosevelt's, was his words. I remember watching his farewell address that January of 1989 and thinking America stood at the dawn of a second Renaissance.

Instead it's been more like a second Dark Age.

And so it goes. I think I'll bury myself in my history books until this election season (my god we've started early) concludes. And whenever one of these morons takes office, I'll start reading them all over again.

Where have all the good ones gone?

Drops dripped: Conquering 'War and Peace': OK, here goes. Today begins my Everest ascent into Russian Romanticism. My copy of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" arrived in the mail this weekend. I'll begin the first chapter in a few minutes.

I'll keep you abreast of my progress. I'm determined to climb to the top this time.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Gone fishin'

Hi gang,

I'm headed up to the lake for a couple of days' R&R after work. You all have a good weekend and I'll see you Sunday night.

Your pal,


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The smoothest voice in country music

I had never been to the WDVX Blue Plate Special.

Glad I went, though. There's nothing like a live radio show and good music to get your Tuesday off to a great start.

Plus, it gave us an opportunity to get caught back up with RobinElla. She only sang for 30 minutes -- it could have been for the whole hour and then some as far as we were concerned -- but her set was great, as always.

The highlight was a cover of an old Don Williams song I haven't thought about in a mess of Sundays, "Listen to the Radio."

Listen to the radio, oh listen to the radio
Let's spend the night together
Baby don't go, they sing it on the radio

My thoughts jumped back in time a decade or so. Pal Drew and I took a quick jaunt up I-75 one Saturday night to Renfro Valley, Ky., and hung out in a big, converted barn for a couple of hours.

Don Williams came in, wearing that same old hat he's had forever. He sat on a stool and sang. He didn't swing from ropes. He didn't bust his guitar. He didn't rely on overblown (forgive the pun) pyrotechnics.

Nope, he just made music.

I can remember being a little boy and playing my mom's "Don Williams' Greatest Hits" (MCA label) album on my little Fischer Price record player. These days, the lyrics to his hit "Amanda" mean quite a bit more than they did in the early 1980s.

Now I'm crowdin' 30, and still wearin' jeans...

My mom loved the song "Ghost Story" that was a cut on that album. I bet I haven't heard it in 20 years.

Anyway, that Saturday night in Kentucky, I wanted Don to sing "Amanda," of course, which he did. I also wanted him to sing my favorite waltz of his, "She's In Love with a Rodeo Man." He didn't, but I listened to it in the car on the way home.

I do remember he sang "Good Ol' Boys Like Me," which is an understated, "says more than you know" kind of a tune; and "Heartbeat in the Darkness;" as well as "Shadowlands," a pretty little ballad he recorded later in his career, after the hits stopped.

My favorite Don Williams song? Oh, can't name just one. "Amanda," certainly. And "Rodeo Man" and "Rake and Ramblin' Man" and "Good Ol' Boys Like Me" and "Lord I Hope This Day Is Good" and "I'm Just a Country Boy" and 10 others.

I also just love that John Prine song he did, what was it called? Oh, yeah -- "Love Is On A Roll." And the one about "If Hollywood Don't Need You (Honey I Still Do)."

Well, I hope you make the big time/I hope your dreams come true/But if Hollywood don't need you, honey I still do...

But "Listen to the Radio"? Hadn't thought about it in years.

What a special memory it brought back. Good songs are like that.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I've Been Loving You Too Long

Good music is full of these little moments.

The singer, the crowd, the notes, the night -- it all blends together. Thanks to Thomas Edison, and now the magic of the digital age, we've got several such moments recorded for posterity.

Spent the weekend in Otis Redding territory, so I had the Big O on my mind this morning. Before hurrying off to work, I surfed over to iTunes and found a "you gotta be kidding me," climb the walls every time, recording of his.

Moterey Pop Festival, 1967. "I've Been Loving You Too Long." Best damn thing you've ever heard.

Words can't describe how good this guy was. You simply have to hear it. Every word, every note, emanated from deep within his soul. Laced with feeling, this stuff meant something. It wasn't just 4/4 time and a catchy hook. This was music, baby.

These three minutes define the heart and soul of his talent. Nobody, not Sam Cooke, not Brook Benton, not even Clarence Carter, was as good as the man from Macon.

(Although if you want to hear a true classic, dig up Carter's rare Atlantic single "Making Love (At The Dark End of the Street)." That is one fantastic soul record.)

I've told you Redding's story before. He drove a group over to Stax Records in Memphis, carried their instruments inside and begged -- pleaded -- for a tryout. The song he chose that day was "These Arms of Mine."

About a year or so ago, I lamented to my friend Amanda Mohney, the former Shopper music critic, that nobody sings like Otis Redding anymore. Soul music is dead.

But on this kick-ass, play it again 100 times recording, it's alive. For one brief, glorious moment, it's 1967 again and we're hurting right along with Otis. His woman don't love him, but he can't stop now.

God, what a song.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

My top 10s

A friend sent me a request on another blog to come up with a crazy top 10 list. So I came up with three...

Listed below are 10 favorite obscure songs, 10 favorite books that have impacted my life one way or another and 10 favorite films that have done the same. If you read this and feel so inclined, share with me a somewhat rare song, a film or a book that means something to you.

Thanks for the idea, Jen.

Note: None of these top 10 lists are in any kind of order.

Top 10 obscure songs

10. "Thirsty Boots" by John Denver -- Eric Andersen crafted a fine little tune out of the Civil Rights movement. Judy Collins had the hit, but John Denver's mid-70s take is my favorite. Of special note is a rare live recording from Australia.

9. "What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana?" -- A lost single from country singer Merle Haggard. I first heard this driving to work one morning on the old WGAP out of Maryville. My favorite part is the last line of the verse just before the final chorus.

8. "The Last Time I Felt Like This" -- Johnny Mathis and Jane Oliver. A sappy love song at its finest, this tune plays over the soundtrack to a charming little film called "Same Time Next Year" with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Oliver has one of the prettiest voices I've ever heard.

7. "The Last Time I Saw Her" -- Glen Campbell. Gordon Lightfoot penned this musical poem in the early 60s. Glen recorded it a decade later and it remains one of my all-time favorite songs.

6. "I Wonder Who'll Turn Out the Lights" -- Bobby Flores. Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap both had hits with this honky-tonk classic, but Tex-Mex fiddle wizard Flores outdoes them both.

5. "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" -- Danny O'Keefe. One of my favorite songs, this 1972 crossover hit was a No. 1 smash for O'Keefe, who also penned the Jackson Browne hit "The Road." I don't know why this song is so hard to come by today. It is indeed a classic.

4. "Loving Arms" -- Elvis Presley. My favorite of all of The King's 1970s material, one line of this song will make the hair stand up on the back of your head. The Dixie Chicks covered this lost gem on their debut album.

3. "Teardrops" -- RobinElla. Did you really think I'd leave this one out? Regularly gets my vote as the prettiest sad song I've ever heard.

2. "She's In Love with the Rodeo Man" -- Don Williams. Nobody can sing a waltz like the smoothest of all the country crooners. The late-90s live version from England gets the nod over the mid-70s studio version.

1. "Yellow Roses on Her Gown" -- Johnny Mathis. Hands down the prettiest song I've ever heard. Now if I could only figure out what happens to the woman at the end...

Top 10 books that have impacted my life

10. "Education of a Wandering Man" -- Louis L'Amour. After I read this book on senior trip in '96, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

9. "Nixon" (three volumes) -- Stephen Ambrose. And after reading this trilogy that same summer, I knew I wanted to major in and teach (I thought) American history.

8. "A Drinking Life" -- Pete Hamill. There isn't one wasted word in this book, which is simply the best memoir I have ever read.

7. "The Hardy Boys" (multiple volumes) -- Franklin W. Dixon. These children's mysteries started it all. I was hooked by the third page and never looked back.

6. "The Great Gatsby" -- F. Scott Fitzgerald. Those blinking green lights. Need I say more?

5. "The Last Picture Show" -- Larry McMurtry. Loved it so much I drove to the town on which the novel is based during a 2004 swing through Texas.

4. "To Kill A Mockingbird" -- Harper Lee. Beautiful, witty, honest -- Lee said more than she knew in this brilliant coming of age story.

3. "Lonesome Dove" -- No doubt my personal favorite of all the novels I've read. You'll not find a better portrayal of friendship anywhere in American letters.

2. "In Cold Blood" -- Truman Capote. Stunning, horrifying and a few other words too. A true masterpiece; I wish I'd thought of the idea to write a "nonfiction novel."

1. "The Sun Also Rises" -- Ernest Hemingway. Best American writer of the 20th century and one of the top 5 best in our history. This is his first (and best) novel.

Top 10 films I really admire

10. "Dr. Zhivago" (1965) -- David Lean's epic brings the Russian Revolution -- and the tangled webs we weave -- to life in vivid Technicolor. You'll hum the theme song for days.

9. "Key Largo" (1948) -- Bogie; Bacall; Florida; gangsters; big hurricane. Need I say more?

8. "Texasville" (1990) -- I watched this the night I returned from our 10 year high school class reunion. Big mistake.

7. "Lost in Translation" (2003) -- What if two people find themselves attracted to each other, but it can't possibly work? A unique little tale.

6. "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) -- The most honest portrayal of returning GIs and their struggle to adjust to the home front to date.

5. "To Kill A Mockingbird" (1962) -- The best translation of a novel to screen in film history. Gregory Peck's performance is one for the ages, but Mary Badham steals the picture as the feisty Scout.

4. "The Last Picture Show" (1971) -- After watching this film, I realized I made a big mistake by not going to film school.

3. "American Graffiti" (1973) -- Captures a moment in time better than any film I've ever seen. A true classic.

2. "The Godfather" (1972) -- No need to say why.

1. "True Grit" (1969) -- Far and away John Wayne's best film; it makes the list "just because." I watch it every year on or near my birthday.

The ball is in your court now, y'all. Tell me some of your favorite rare songs, good books and fine films...

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Exited the interstate in search of a fried chicken lunch and instead found a slice of Americana.

Made good time this morning. Left Macon about 9 and took the second Dalton exit about 11:45. Sign said they had a Bojangles; I wanted a chicken biscuit and had missed breakfast.

So I drove a ways and still didn't see the Bojangles. But I found a Conoco and stopped for gas. Yes, I want a receipt. No, I don't want a car wash.

Glanced up and noticed the street -- State route 71. That would take me right on into Tennessee. No need to backtrack five or six miles to the interstate.

I was driving along at a brisk pace when I noticed my gas cap protector was still open. Sigh. Stop at a gas station. Close it.

Across the state line the road changed to Tennessee Hwy. 60. Just outside of Cleveland, I drove through the little town of Waterville.

I passed the little community elementary school. Saw a couple of diner-like places. Drove by the Baptist church as it was letting out; started humming a few bars of an old Kris Kristofferson tune.

And there's nothing short of dying/Half as lonesome as the sound

Of a sleeping city sidewalk/And Sunday morning coming down...

I like the pace on the backroads. People don't weave in and out of lanes, nearly killing everybody in the process. The leaves were beginning to change; the farmland was beautiful in the late morning sun.

Finally reached Cleveland and overshot the bypass back to the interstate. Pulled into another gas station. A guy pumping gas looked like he'd recently sat in a church pew. He had me back on the interstate in five minutes.

Passed a Hardee's but I didn't feel much like eating. I settled for the Wendy's in Lenoir City an hour later.

The rest of the ride was pretty ho-hum. Seems like every exit looks the same no matter where you are.

Which made me even more thankful for my detour. It does the soul good every now and then to get out there and see how people actually live.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Lazy night in Georgia

MACON, Ga. -- Worked out along the Ocmulgee River this afternoon.

Across the way you could see the statue of this town's most famous son, the late, great Otis Redding. Try a little tenderness, baby. I'm a love man; call me a love man. Bam, ba ba ba bam bam bam!

It's nice here today. The weather topped out in the upper 70s. As I type this, dusk is falling upon this sleepy Southern town. The oppressive, muggy heat has taken a holiday.

A ton of Bibb County's best were gathered at the hip, yuppie Kroger an hour or so ago. Guess it's always a good time to go to the market.

Bridget is cooking salmon and veggies. Dewayne is upstairs watching LSU attempt to break a closing-minutes tie with upstart Kentucky. Jacob is asleep. I've been sitting in the recliner, lost in the rhythms of Nelle Harper Lee's rich Southern voice.

We stopped by the Golden Bough after lunching at Adriana's. I looked long and hard at a nice hardback copy of Agee's "A Death in the Family." But I passed. It's sitting on my bookshelf at home. I think.

Tonight we'll sit on the front porch and swing awhile. Air conditioning and the blasted picture tube have ruined that venerable Dixie tradition.

It's still alive here.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

To kill a last picture show

I have an idea.

It is indeed an undertaking, and it may not win me a lot of friends in the end. But after years of searching, I've stumbled across it.

I'm going to write a novel.

Or at least a novella. But I know the story I want to tell.

I had hoped for years to play on two of my favorite novels (and films), "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Last Picture Show." I wanted to do for Halls what Nelle Harper Lee did for Monroeville, Ala., and Larry McMurtry did for Archer City, Texas -- bring my hometown to life.

You can't set it in Knoxville. Knoxville is downtown, far away, somebody else's home. Nope, mine is Halls, and that is where this story shall be set.

I've got the story. I don't want to reveal it, but longtime blog readers are familiar with part of the real-life tale. I've got a pretty good grasp of the characters that will populate my story. They, too, are based on people who populate this place.

Now if I can just discipline myself to write the darn thing. Writing is a solitary craft. When the sun sets, last thing I want to do is pick up at home where I left off at work.

Years ago, I wrote to the late, great Wilma Dykeman. Told her I wanted to be a writer.

A few weeks later, a simple little letter -- typed on an old typewriter -- arrived in the mail. Here's what she said:

"If you want to become a writer, I have two pieces of advice: Write, write, write. And read, read, read." Pretty good, huh?

Who knows what will happen. I may not finish it. The story may suck.

But here goes. We'll see if I can figure out how to kill a last picture show, so to speak.

This is going to be fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It must have been moonglow...

I've always been fascinated with outer space.

Guess it's that little boy sliver of childhood -- I have that to thank for my love of baseball too -- that never quite goes away. What American child born after 1960 hasn't at one time or another put a big bowl on your head and pretended to be an astronaut, the last American cowboy, touching down in the Sea of Tranquility?

Saw an absolutely fantastic documentary tonight about the biggest of all the NASA heroes --- the Apollo astronauts. "In the Shadow of the Moon" is the story of that special space mission, told in the words of the surviving astronauts themselves.

Well, all except in the words of the guy, the one we all want to hear from, that ever-reclusive Neil Armstrong. It's OK, though, because the other guys -- Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins among them -- all talk about him. And he's here, sort of, in archival NASA footage. (And, frankly, it adds to Armstrong's mystique that he wouldn't participate. Legends don't do such things.)

It's that archival footage, though, that makes this documentary quite special. You see a shot of Armstrong's famous one small step from an angle you've never seen before. And there are no CGI enhancements, no computer-generated images here. This is the real thing, baby, warts and all.

The film does a nice job of placing the Apollo program -- and its famous July 1969 Apollo 11 landing -- into historical perspective. We see a fresh-faced John F. Kennedy, promising the nation we'd land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. Vietnam, protests, unrest -- all of that is here -- peppered around the big mission.

And, yes, it still captures the imagination. Maybe it's because we've not been back to the moon since '72. Maybe it's because space really is the final frontier, the one last place we've never been. Probably it's because this mission, now nearly 40 years old, is still better than anything George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry ever dreamed up.

The darn thing even turns out to be quite moving, when the various Apollo crew members talk of how insignificant the earth seems way out there in the blue -- and how precious it is to come home to.

You learn, one of them says, that we're wasting our most precious resource. "We should be concerned about (conserving the earth) for our kids and grandkids," one of them says. "And instead what are we worried about? The price of a gallon of gas."

If there's anything to criticize in this fine film, it's that you are left wanting more. Apollo 11 dominates the narrative (complete with CBS News footage of a spellbound Walter Cronkite calling the action that July 20). The movie hurries over the troubled Apollo 13 mission and doesn't really tell us what happened on the rest of the moon trips.

The striking thing about this movie is seeing how wowed the rest of the world was at America's little moon landing. Mike Collins says the most used word he heard on the around-the-world trip that he, Aldrin and Armstrong made after returning home, was "we."

We did that. All of us. Neil, Buzz and Mike took our hopes and dreams and fears up there with them.

"I always trusted the Americans," a French woman said after the landing. "I knew they'd get it right."

When on earth would you hear that today?

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is an important slice of history. It stirs up the star spangled optimism that this country used to be known for, and could be again. It makes me want to take a weekend off and finally read "First Man," James R. Hansen's 2005 authorized biography of Armstrong.

But mostly it reminds me of the wonderful unknown that lies way out yonder somewhere, and leads me to feel certain that someday, somehow, another generation's Neil, Buzz and Mike will fly out there and touch that undiscovered country.

Because that's simply what Americans do.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is now playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West 8. It is rated PG.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

A farewell to melodrama

Maybe whoever comes up with the ideas to remake all of these old movies should take a look at "A Farewell to Arms." Unlike most of the classics Hollywood later decides to butcher, Ernest Hemingway's best novel has yet to receive a worthy film adaptation.

I watched the 1932 original, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, sometime last year. No need to repeat myself; it sucked.

So I tried again tonight with the big budget David O. Selznick 1957 Fox CinemaScope version, starring Rock Hudson and Selznick's wife Jennifer Jones.

And I'm still waiting to see a good version of this tragic, beautiful story.

The later version is pretty. Director Charles Vidor captures some beautiful footage of Italy and Switzerland. The ending is much closer to Hemingway's final pages than the overblown closing frames of the '32 film.

And that's about all I can say. Jennifer Jones was a beautiful woman, but it's obvious she would not have been cast in this film had she not been married to the producer. Hudson has his moments, but just isn't emotive enough to play Lt. Frederick Henry. When he tries, you can cut the melodrama with a knife.

Hemingway's novels have found little success on the big screen. He's meant to be read, of course. Without Papa's tough, terse prose, it just doesn't work.

If you love this novel -- and to read it is to love it -- don't watch either film adaptation. Go see something at the theater. TiVo your favorite TV show. Flip on the radio. Take a walk in the woods.

But don't see this movie. It's kind of like returning to the park you loved to visit as a child, only to discover it's now a parking lot, with a Pizza Hut on one corner and a Blockbuster Video on the other.

On second thought, Hollywood, don't even bother trying to remake this film. You won't get it right anyway.

Besides, the bookshelf that holds all the Hemingway novels is only a few feet away.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

The smile


She liked to eat off-brand cereal in the mornings and looked at the ground a lot when she smiled.

He first saw her one Saturday morning when he ducked into the grocery store after jogging. She looked unpretentious in her faded blue jeans and white t-shirt, advertising some joint at some beach somewhere. He shouldn't have stopped, but you know how it is on a lazy weekend.

"You can't taste the difference."

"Excuse me?"

"Between the box you're holding and the one that costs a dollar and a half more."


"Yep. Might as well save a buck, right?"

She grinned and looked at the floor. A piece of gum was stuck to a fallen receipt.

The smile. They break his heart every time.

"You new here?"

"Yep. How'd you know?"

"Small town."

She fumbled with her keys. Message received.

"Well, have a good day."

"You too."

He had forgotten it until he remembered the peanut butter. Aisle six.

He was trying to decide. This and that. He should have seen it coming.

"You can't taste the difference."

He saw the smile before he looked up.


"Yep. Might as well save a buck, right?

She continued shopping, but when she reached the end of the aisle, she turned and smiled. He waved, grinned back.

A light drizzle was falling when he put the paper bags in the trunk. He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes until kickoff.

Turn on the wipers.

He looked both ways, then turned right out of the parking lot, toward the marina.

Colquitt kicked off about half past twelve. Darned if Riggins didn't run the damn thing 74 yards to the end zone.

Didn't matter.

He was back at the grocery, standing in the breakfast aisle, drowning in her smile.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The old ball game...

They play rap music now at Neyland Stadium.

Is there anything more obnoxious than modern music blared over a bad sound system? Didn't think so.

Otherwise it was a nice return to the big house. New scoreboards. New green grass. And, for once, a little defense to go with the no-huddle aerial attack.

Boy, it was hot. Couldn't wear the big orange suit. Felt like a Labor Day game. Thankfully the sun was to our backs most of the game.

Several nubile Georgia co-eds were dressed in suits and ties and dresses. They looked sharp. Passed a guy wearing orange pants and an orange suit. Wished I'd wore mine.

Ate lunch (well, breakfast actually) at Pete's coffee shop. Then we walked down to the Mast General Store before the game. My dad likes to get over there insanely early, so we had plenty of time to spare.

Haywood Harris stopped me on my way into the stadium. He wanted to know why the Shopper wasn't going to South Knoxville. I told him we were working on it.

The 35-14 thumping of the Bulldogs was a lot of fun. It's nice to go home happy from that place.

Even if we did have to suffer through all that rap.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

The best show on TV

For once, a TV drama actually, oh, takes the time to reflect modern American life.

I know that sounds simple enough. But, come on, did "Green Acres" ever really depict actual farm living? Didn't think so.

I speak, of course, of "Friday Night Lights," which is simply the best show on television. I know I've written about this before, but here's a shout out to set your TiVO or be in front of the tube at 9 p.m. (EDT) tonight for the second season premiere. You'll be glad you did.

I gave up on "Lights" early on last season. Didn't want to commit to a weekly series. But a screening of the first season DVDs showed me what I've been missing.

Everybody thinks this show is about football. Not so. It's about growing up in a small town -- and the best and worst aspects of what that means. It's about character; we see these people -- and, yes, they feel like actual living, breathing people -- change, grow, screw up and learn something about themselves.

It's honest, it's fun and it's just so darn addictive. If you watch only one network program this fall, let it be "Friday Night Lights." Saved from the cancellation axe due to under performing ratings, NBC listened to the critics -- or just realized what a gem they have here -- and brought the show back for another year. I can't tell you how badly I hope this program makes it.

OK, that's enough for now. Gotta get back to editing news copy.

Watch this show. You won't be disappointed, I promise.

"Friday Night Lights" airs Fridays at 9 p.m. (EDT) on NBC. Full episodes can be seen at

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Walk of life

Didn't make it up in time to work out this morning. Stayed up too late doing research for a column and watching reruns of "The Six Million Dollar Man." (Don't ask.)

So, about 6:30 tonight, I took a break from work and pointed the Xterra in the direction of the Halls Greenway. If you're looking for a place to walk -- and you live out here in God's country -- consider this trail. You can get to it at either the library, the Food City parking lot or the Halls Community Park.

It's a fun little jaunt. In the mornings I watch the sun come up over the horizon and look out for any critters that might be stirring early. Tonight I grin at all the girls and smile at the little kids practicing football in the park.

Most folks say hello; some smile or nod. I usually walk about 30 minutes at a brisk enough pace to break a good sweat. It beats plopping down in front of the TV like a beached whale.

Seems like since I started walking again I have more energy than Mary Lou Horner. (OK, not quite that much.)

Tonight after work I plan to spend a couple of hours with the 1950s version of "A Farewell to Arms." I ordered it from Netflix.

I hope I'm not as disappointed with this one like I was after screening the melodramatic Gary Cooper/Helen Hayes original. This is one of my favorite novels; it deserves a better film treatment.

Still, I know it isn't going to be half as good as the Horton Foote-scripted 1962 film adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird," which I've been reading this week as part of the Library's "Big Read."

Sigh. I may just watch that one instead.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Big night at the Bijou Bistro

Found a new (to me) restaurant last night. I'll definitely be back, I can promise you.

Fountain City guy and renowned historian Dr. Jim Tumblin met me downtown after work last night. We were headed to the history center to hear a lecture by Charles Shields, author of the first biography on "To Kill A Mockingbird" author Harper Lee. The night was part of the month-long Big Read, sponsored by the Knox County Public Library and the YWCA.

Jim suggested we meet at the Bijou Bistro, a charming little spot beside Knoxville's famous old theater on Gay Street. I had seen the place before on my way to a KSO Chamber Orchestra concert last spring. But I had no idea what a treat I was in for.

It took us awhile to get served -- the hard-workin' server was covering a lot of territory -- but it was well worth the wait. The salads are out of this world. I don't know what they make the crutons out of, but I've been craving them for half a day now, trying to think of an excuse to go back for more.

When the server came back, I said between bites, "This is the best salad I've ever had in my life."

Laughing, she said, "Well, I'm glad you're enjoying it."

Couldn't reply. Too busy eating.

Jim ordered the mahi-mahi. I had pork cooked in dijonnaise mustard with rice and veggies. Delicious just isn't the word.

I washed my dinner down with water and a Sierra Nevada. Jim did the same, only his beer (I didn't catch the name) came in a goblet.

No time for dessert; we had to hoof it down to the history center in time for the lecture, which was a treat, by the way. Shields held our attention for more than an hour. We learned that, yes, Nelle Harper Lee (she dropped the first name because people began mispronouncing it) did in fact write "To Kill A Mockingbird," and, no, her famous friend Truman Capote did not help.

(But he did apparently steal phrases from Nelle Harper's notes when writing his 1965 masterpiece "In Cold Blood." Nelle, who served as a research assistant, apparently had more to do with Truman's successful "nonfiction novel" than was previously known.)

I slipped into the Knoxville night with a full belly and literary nuggets dancing in my head. As usual, I hated to see the sun set on the big night.

Next time you find yourself downtown at lunch or supper (or Sunday brunch), duck into the Bijou Bistro. Ten bucks and a copy of "To Kill A Mockingbird" says you won't be disappointed.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Coming of age...

Well, all I can say is getting older -- and growing up -- never felt so good.

Got back from Big Ed's Pizza in Oak Ridge by 7:30 last night to watch the San Diego Padres/Colorado Rockies play-in game (the rare 163rd regular season game) for the NL Wild Card on TBS. Fun stuff. These two teams played like they never wanted the season to end, which is the great thing about this grand old game; it gives you the illusion that a never-ending year might just happen.

The Rockies jumped ahead (you should have seen that towering, 7-iron esque shot by Central High guy Todd Helton early on), then the Padres grabbed the lead on a grand slam. Poor Padre defense allowed the Mile High boys to edge back ahead.

Then poor defense, by Matt Holliday of all people, tied the score up in the 8th. And there it remained for the 9th, 10th and 11th.

Finally, about 11:30, I couldn't take it anymore. Yes, I turned off an exciting, tie-score, extra innings baseball playoff game. Ten years ago (heck, a year ago), this wouldn't have happened. I would have stayed glued to the tube. Just slept late today.

Nah. Can't do that anymore. With age comes responsibility. I have to get up this morning and go run the news department. Plus, I wanted to exercise a bit first too.

So, I left the game behind and went on to bed before midnight. But, you see, it's cool. Today's Rocky Mountain News (online) tells me that Helton, Holliday and crew won that sucker in exciting fashion in the bottom of the 13th, capping (of course) a rally with Holliday's controversial slide home on a fly ball.

Now that the Tigers and Braves are out of the playoff picture, I'll be rootin' for the Rockies the rest of the way. Young, exciting team. Plus, I have to pull for the local boy Helton, right? He's never been to the playoffs before.

So, I'm OK and you're OK, right? Of course we are. I may even run over to the mall after work and grab a Rockies hat, I feel so good.

This being responsible thing isn't so bad after all.

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