Monday, March 31, 2008

Recalled to life

Don’t ask me why, but I always think of Jarvis Lorry whenever baseball season rolls around.

Lorry, you may recall, is the banker with the message "Recalled to Life" in the opening pages of Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities." A strange juxtaposition, I know. But when spring arrives, and with it comes our national game, this big kid of a fan can’t help but feel rejuvenated, awakened along with all of nature, after the winter slumber.

The Atlanta Braves didn’t do me any any favors last night, losing to the Washington Nationals 3-2. But that’s OK. The Nats have a brand new ballpark and I guess they deserved to win in their new palace on the banks of the Anacosta.

A gentle rain is falling in Halls today. But in my heart it’s as blue as the eyes of the first woman I ever loved; the grass is green and soft and lovely.

After awhile, I’ll head toward the TV and root on the Tigers as they open the year against the Royals. Pal Mike Herman has graciously agreed to come celebrate opening day with me. As my friend Lauren just e-mailed, this is like Christmas, New Year’s and my birthday all rolled into one.

I don’t know why I love this silly game so much. Part of it surely goes back to childhood, the one connection to that shy little boy that I still carry with me. Part of it is that it makes me feel connected to our nation’s past.

And most of it, surely, is that baseball is so much fun.

Today is a day for eternal optimism, youthful bliss, dreaming crazy dreams and eating peanuts and Cracker Jack in the shadows of a spring afternoon. Here’s to being a kid again for a few fleeting seconds.

Happy Opening Day!

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rain (and RobinElla) on a Friday night

Call me simple minded, but one doesn’t have to be rich to be wealthy.

Don Williams told us years ago that a country boy can find silver in the stars and gold in the morning sun. So true, but I’d add good friends, good music and good conversation to that mix, too.

Don’t know where you ended up Friday night. After work and a late interview, I headed out to West Knox to pick up my pal Matt. We drove to Maryville and waited for pal Drew to finish work. Guys’ night out!

We ducked into the Tomato Head about 8. It fronts historic Broadway in Maryville’s downtown district. The waiter seated us so that we could watch folks stroll by and enjoy the remains of the day.

Shelton and I split a large pepperoni; Drew opted for a smaller pie. We got caught up with one another, laughed about all those things three longtime friends laugh about. After a few minutes, the stress of the work week was but a distant memory.

RobinElla began singing about 9:30. Basking in the glow of her sweet sound, it’s easy to forget about time and life and all that other jazz.

She treated us with a wonderful rendition of her toe-tapping, heartstring-pulling original tune, "Left, Right, Back Together." I nodded my head to the beat, grinned like a newborn baby, clapped my hands in delight. As an old friend says, it was a moment, and it worked.

The pretty lyric says it all: "We landed on a cloud, and all our troubles went away..."

I lost myself somewhere in the music. Rain began to fall outside after awhile, creating an almost ethereal mist, the perfect backdrop for Robin’s remarkable talent. I looked at my friends, thought about the songs awhile and thanked God for all of life’s simple blessings.

OK, so I’m corny. I admit it.

But rain and RobinElla, good friends and better conversation on an easygoing Friday night?

Don’t try to tell me it gets any better than this, folks. Won’t believe it for a minute.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

'The Dark Past' gets inside your head...

Some nights, when the weather is just so and the mind is of a particular temperament, there’s nothing better than curling up on the couch and losing yourself in one of those glorious black-and-white movies from the 1940s. I got lucky last night and sat down to eat supper just as such a film began airing on TCM.

Called "The Dark Past," the film stars Lee J. Cobb as a pipe-smoking psychologist and a very young William Holden as the mentally-troubled escaped convict that interrupts Holden’s quiet weekend at his lakeside cabin. Although a near literal remake to an earlier film starring Edward G. Robinson, this examination into the criminal mind is an engaging little flick. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun.

Al Walker (Holden), on the run from the local police, shows up at the weekend home of Dr. Andrew Collins (Cobb) along with his entire gang. Collins has his wife and young son at the house, along with several weekend guests.

While everybody is held at gunpoint, Collins and Walker engage in a literal and mental game of chess downstairs. Walker pretends to dismiss Collins’ profession. But he’s fascinated.

Oh, and it turns out that Walker is having a recurring dream. He wants Collins to stop it. Witty psychological banter ensues, as well as a bit of adventure that was a staple of these kind of films. It put me in mind of a picture Humphrey Bogart made late in his career called "The Desperate Hours."

No doubt psychologists and police officers would find much to scoff at during this film. I doubt there’s any serious psychology here. But the idea is a good one.

What motivates someone to turn to a life of crime? Is it behavioral? Is it personal choice? Is it both? Is it neither?

But let’s not get too wrapped up in all that. The point of this movie is to entertain, not preach. And entertain it does.

I didn’t nod off the first time, which is more than I can say for most of the modern day, big-budget, CGI blockbusters.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Brooding 'Jesse James' falls flat

Try as they might, they can’t quite get it right.

Oh, they’ve come close. "Lonesome Dove" was darn good, even if it was on TV. Ditto for Tom Selleck’s flicks on TNT. "Unforgiven" and "Open Range" come darn close.

But Hollywood still hasn’t figured out how to make a classic western in the last 30 years. The last great one was "The Shootist" in 1976. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which brings us to "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the long, brooding account of the famous outlaw’s death by writer/director Andrew Dominik. It isn’t that this is a bad film – far from it. It’s just not a good western.

The film tells the story of the final days of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and the pathetic saga of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the weasel that kills him. Theirs is a curious relationship, one filled with dark undertones and ambiguous feelings.

That’s probably why Dominik structures his picture in a similar fashion. It’s interesting, it has its moments, but in the end falls flat. These characters spend a lot of time talking to one another. Which is fine, because at its best the western is the perfect vehicle for character development and philosophical discourse. But at a two-and-one-half hour running time, "Assassination" is in desperate need of action and we don’t get much.

Pitt is his usual fine self as the complex, somewhat bemused outlaw. Affleck steals this picture from him, though. His Robert Ford is such a bum that he almost put me in mind of a wimpier Bruce Dern. He dominates this picture and it’s to his credit that you leave the viewing thinking about Ford – not Jesse James.

There’s a fine supporting cast here, too, although they aren’t given much to do. Sam Shepard gets off a few good lines as Jesse’s brother Frank, but Mary-Louise Parker, one of the finest actors of her generation, is given precious little material in her role as Jesse’s wife Zee. One suspects the scream she lets out when Jesse meets his fate comes more from frustration over the emptiness of her part than anything relating to the narrative.

This film says something about the price of fame, about America’s love affair with the western outlaw, about the motivations that lead to betrayal. That it remains somewhat ambiguous is my overall problem with the modern western. You don’t have to hit us over the head. But just tell the darn story.

Western buffs should see this film if for no other reason than the cinematic beauty of western Canada. Brad Pitt fans will find much here to love.

Forgive me, though, if I go watch "The Shootist" again for the 100th time. It just ain’t the same anymore.

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is now available on DVD.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Behind the music

The internet is a funny animal. Really breathes new life into the old cliche that it’s a small world after all.

(Yikes, just got a Disney World flashback...sorry about that...don’t want that song bouncing around in my head for days.)

After posting last Thursday about the Johnny Mathis song, "Yellow Roses on her Gown," I received a message from someone in Australia that is a friend of the woman who posted the Mathis clip on YouTube.

He says that the songwriter, Michael Moore (no, not that one!) wrote the song about his father, a lawyer that represented people who were victims of the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts.

"As a result," he writes, "he was driven out of the profession by the right wing interests and took to farming and some limited legal work to make ends meet."

Wow, was all I could say. If this is indeed true, the revelation brings a deeper and even more tragic aspect to an already haunting piece of music.

I so hope that Mr. Moore, if he’s still alive, will surface one day and let us know more about his beautiful song.

Special thanks to Denis in Melbourne for this most interesting news.

Speaking of a small world, I was quite tickled to see that the guest on "What’s My Line," the classic game show I sometimes watch on GSN, from the Sunday, Nov. 9, 1952 episode, was one Ruth Marie Diamond from Knoxville, Tenn. The re-run aired last Saturday morning.

Turned out Ruth Marie Diamond’s line was that she was a United States Marine. What a hoot! I’d love to catch up with Ms. Diamond if she’s still hanging around East Tennessee. My guess is she would be in her 70s now.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obscure song makes a 'comeback'

I tell you, the internet is a wonderful thing.

At least a couple of times the last few years, I’ve shared with you some thoughts on a rare Johnny Mathis tune from 1976 that nobody seems to know called "Yellow Roses on her Gown." If I love a song more than RobinElla’s "Teardrops," it’s this heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone bad.

I mentioned last year about receiving some random e-mails about the song following my initial post about it in late 2006. One was from a disc jockey in Toronto who played the song on his monthly radio show and mentioned our conversation; another was from a Mathis fan in California who had heard a cover by a local artist in San Diego.

I mention this because very few people -- even longtime John Mathis fans -- have ever even heard the song. It never seemed to make it for reasons that defy the imagination. Because it truly is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.

So imagine my delight when a random Google search uncovered a complete clip (on YouTube) of Mathis singing the song on what looks like a TV appearance in ’76. As it is with the great ones, his live recording soars so far above the studio version; the look on his face during the performance puts the final touches on this brilliantly nuanced piece of work.

Surf on over to and type "Yellow Roses On Her Gown" into the search feature. Not only do I want you to hear this masterpiece, I’d also love to hear your take on what you think the song is about. The lyrics are a bit ambiguous and the song is interesting stylistically, in that there is no chorus or bridge, just four verses.

One thing I can say for certain: this song, and Mathis’ performance, is pure poetry.

"Yellow Roses on her Gown" was originally released on the 1976 Johnny Mathis album, "Mahogany," which is now out of print. It is available on the 4-disc Mathis box set, "A Personal Collection."

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Return to Collinwood

Well, now that I’m a broke homeowner, I have to get creative when it comes to frivolous purchases. The days of reckless surfing at are long gone.

Makes me glad I discovered Netflix a few years ago. For a nominal monthly fee, one gets to pick from a wide catalog of DVDs for rental, which can be kept as long as it takes to watch them. They come straight to your door and the best part is you don’t have to deal with clueless clerks.

Recently I’ve caught back up with an old favorite, the campy late ’60s TV sudster "Dark Shadows." I rented a few episodes of the cult classic a couple of years ago, but the DVDs kept arriving at my house in pieces. I tried again this month. So far, so good.

For the uninitiated, "Dark Shadows" was a popular daytime drama on ABC from 1966-71. Unlike the traditional soap opera, though, "Shadows" focused on the supernatural, specifically the saga of guilt-ridden vampire Barnabas Collins.

In its day, the show garnered nearly 20 million viewers a day -- mostly teenagers running home from school to catch the show at 4 p.m. -- and became a rare hit for ABC’s then-struggling daytime programming. It’s definitely silly, somewhat campy, but always entertaining.

A couple of weekends ago, I lit a fire on a bitterly cold Saturday night and returned to Collinwood for a couple of hours. What a hoot it was.

I first became aware of the show in the early 1990s, when NBC briefly revived "Shadows" as a primetime drama. Soon after, the fledgling Sci-Fi Channel began airing two episodes weekdays. I was hooked.

The show (sadly) took up a big part of my early teenage years. I collected memorabilia, joined the fan club, even contemplated traveling to New York for one of the fan conventions. As it was, though, I remained content to spend an hour with the Collins clan each weekday morning at 11, or taped them on my dad’s VCR to watch after school.

What’s enduring about it now is the bloopers that are inevitably part of most episodes. Back in the mid-60s, daytime television was a low budget affair. The show was videotaped, but for all practical purposes was taped live, in that the entire 30 minute show was recorded in one take. So you get to see actors flub lines, boom mics (and even cameras!) pop into the shot and sets fall to pieces right before your eyes.

But for its day, "Dark Shadows" boasted a talented cast, good writing and innovative special effects. There’s never been anything like it on TV before or since.

If this East Tennessee rain keeps up tonight, I may have to curl up with Barnabas and friends for a few hours tonight after work.

Cue the dramatic music and turn on the fog machine. We’re going back to Collinwood!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The soul begins to stir

There’s something rejuvenating about baseball. Something about its rhythm, its seductive promises, that awakens the soul after a long winter’s slumber.

Sitting in the Halls High press box yesterday afternoon, my mind traveled back across the years, stopping somewhere around 1993. Back then, this field didn’t have the nice brick facade. Up in the box, we didn’t have a microphone yet either.

I worked a few games here and there for coach Doug Polston, never dreaming I’d one day return as part of my life’s work. Funny how life takes its ironic twists and turns.

Last night’s game proved to be a tight affair. The Red Devils took a 3-0 lead on monstrous home run by Quentin Bowman in the third. But Karns came inching back late, pushing across a couple of runs.

The game wasn’t settled until the final strikeout. Halls starting pitcher John Michael Clarke turned in his usual solid outing, going the full distance for the Red Devils.

I felt the late winter chill run up my spine as the sun dipped behind the clouds and put my sport coat back on halfway through the game. But walking to the truck afterwards, my heart was warmed by the glow of the green field, brightened by the return of this grand old game, expectant that many such afternoons linger out there in front of me for the next six months or so.

In baseball, like the season from which it originates, hope springs eternal.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Burnin' rubber at Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn., March 16 -- Well, it wasn’t Vegas, but it was enough.

My pal Matt Shelton had promised months ago that we’d take some kind of trip for our 30th birthdays. His is in February, mine was last week. Shelton’s wife, Susan, loves Vega$, so we thought we might go there.

But house payments, vocations and the realities of life got in the way, as they always seem to do. It’s OK. Birthdays, I suspect, should be more about spending time with friends and family and less about getting and going.

Never fear, though. Things have a way of working out. Shelton called Saturday night to say that he had an extra ticket to the NASCAR race in Bristol. His uncle couldn’t go. Was I interested?

"What the heck?" I thought. I haven’t paid regular attention to it since Richard Petty retired, but I’d never been up close and personal with the NASCAR drivers before. Sounded like fun. Definitely a cultural experience.

Shelton picked me up just before 9. The traffic wasn’t too bad, considering that 150,000 people were all converging on a small town in upper East Tennessee. We were sitting in the shadow of the speedway by 11:30.

I made sure we found the Petty truck. And, as usual at these kind of things, I found a hat to add to my collection.

Shelton was all decked out. He has the gear. His headphones even hook up to his scanner, so he can listen to the drivers chatter. My scanner tore up several months ago. Course, I bought it in 1988, so I guess that’s a pretty good shelf life.

My favorite part was the pit crew. Talk about a bunch that works for a living. I’m doing well to get out of my car in 15 seconds, much less change tires and fill up any gas. If there are any unsung heroes in NASCAR, it’s got to be the boys in the pits.

Meanwhile, back on Rocky Top, I learn that the UT baseball team swept LSU following a double header. First time in school history. The given-up-for-dead Vols sit atop the SEC East and are playing great baseball as March heads toward the home stretch.

Geez. Maybe I should go to Bristol more often. Doesn’t look like they need me at Lindsey Nelson Stadium.

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Friday, March 14, 2008


There’s nothing to this turning 30 business. Piece of cake. No worries.

Took the day off yesterday. Tried to spend as much time as possible doing things I love most.

Which, first and foremost, meant baseball. Yesterday morning I ate breakfast while looking in on a Braves preseason game I recorded from Tuesday night. Still have part of it to finish this weekend.

Then came an episode or two of "Magnum, p.i." By the way, don’t ever let anybody tell you that Frank Sinatra can’t act. He simply makes his 1987 appearance on Tom Selleck’s TV show memorable by his very presence. "Laura" would have otherwise been just another episode; in Sinatra’s hands it becomes one of the best shows of the entire 8-year run.

Thursday afternoon was reserved for my all-time favorite movie, "True Grit." I even skipped a screening of "Vantage Point" to watch it.

There’s nothing like watching Duke Wayne save the day yet again, this time with more than a little help from spunky Maddie Ross (Kim Darby). That film more than any other captures my personal philosophy. Good triumphing over evil, taking responsibility for your actions, and all that jazz.

Last night was the best part, though. Ate ribs and taters with the family. Opened gifts. Basked the the glow of my loved ones.

That’s really what birthdays are all about, you know? Spending time with those you love.

So I’m supposed to be off today, too. But here I sit at the office, typing away. You can do that when you love your job. You can do that when you have a great life.

Turning 30? No big deal, baby.

Not when you’re the luckiest guy in town.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The view from the mountain

Forgive my tone today, but sometimes I can't help but wonder about this crazy ol' world of ours. I keep thinking that somehow we're losing our humanity in favor of some kind of anonymous, nasty, reactionary madness.

Blogs, I must say, as well as talk radio sure don't help. I dialed in one of the sports talk programs the other night only to hear wall-to-wall insults, each successive caller trying to one-up their predecessor.

Then there's this election business. Hope and change somehow give way to smoke and mirrors, empty promises, backbiting, anger. The American public, cynical of anything political since Watergate, step back from their rendezvous with destiny, afraid to dance among the stars.

One of the reasons why I enjoy something like re-runs of "M*A*S*H," particularly the later episodes, is for its old-fashioned, idealistic view of humanity. Ditto to NBC's long-running "The West Wing." I may not always agree with the politics, but I can always identify with such ethos.

Sometimes I think your heart can get bruised rather easily when you wear it on your sleeve. But I just don't know how to do it any other way.

Turning 30 has got me reflecting a little bit. I wonder about things that have happened down through the years, worry that maybe I showed my hand too early, cared too much, loved too openly. I do think the resulting bruises might have taken away some of my idealism.

But then I think that the only way to go, really, is to give your all. Sing like nobody's listening, dance like nobody's watching.

Sure, you might get hurt, stumble and fall. But some days you soar like an eagle, higher and higher.

And that view from the mountaintop makes the sojourn through the deepest valleys all but a distant memory.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Now I'm crowdin' 30 (and still wearin' jeans...)


That's an understatement I know, but it would take the talent of Shakespeare to describe how wonderful it all was last night at Barley's. Best birthday I've ever had.

Been a little ambiguous about turning 30. Just because, you know? But with the new condo and everything, uncertainty has given way to anticipation.

Then last night I celebrated early with my best pals at Barley's, which of course on Sunday nights means RobinElla. If you haven't yet caught her set, rearrange your schedule and do so soon. Very soon. Cause she's just so darn good, folks.

The best part? Well, it's hard to say. Don Williams' "Listen to the Radio" is always a favorite. Robin soars on Merle Haggard's "Natural High" and touches your heart on the weepers "Anymore" and "These Dreams of Mine."

But my favorite had to be "Teardrops," hands down the best song I've ever heard, especially when Robin dedicated it to one of her biggest fans for his birthday. I still haven't come down from way up there in the ether somewhere.

Life is good, folks. This precious, wonderful, crazy roller coaster ride contains such joy, divinely simple moments that make you glad to be alive. I couldn't have scripted a better night if I had written it myself.

Here, let me sing these lyrics while I still can, but don't let the melancholy fool ya. Turning 30 will be OK. This party's just getting started.

I'm leaving the last word to Don Williams...

I got my first guitar when I was 14, now I'm crowdin' 30, and still wearin' jeans...

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Where's 'What's My Line?'

So, it's funny to think about in a way, but I've found myself missing TV at home this week, waiting on the satellite guy to come hook it up.

He can't get to it until Monday. Which I thought would be fine. I have plenty of DVDs to satisfy my tube cravings, plus I figured this would give me time to get caught up on that Teddy Roosevelt book I've been neglecting.

And, sure, it's OK. But I find myself missing little things.

Back when I had the flu, I couldn't sleep one night and got into watching re-runs of the classic 1950s-60s game show "What's My Line?" My friend, who is known as the Giant Rat of Knoxville, about the same time showed me a TiVOed copy of a particular episode featuring former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen.

I quickly became hooked. The game was rather simple. What made "What's My Line?" engaging was the show's erudite panel.

For years, the lineup included noted columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, stage and screen star Arlene Francis and sophisticated book publisher (and Random House co-founder) Bennett Cerf. Guest panelists included former "Tonight Show" host Steve Allen and comedian Fred Allen. The show's host was commentator John Daly, most famous for announcing the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and FDR's death in 1945 on CBS radio.

The best part of the show was the weekly mystery guest, usually an entertainment personality, who would try to stump the (blindfolded) panel. Since I've been watching the re-runs, I've seen everybody from Gloria Swanson to Phil Rizzuto.

The Rat called last night to report that former Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver was the guest on last night's episode. The show airs nightly on GSN at 3 a.m. (Eastern).

And, yeah, I miss sports and the nightly news and XM radio and all the usual suspects. But I guess it says something about me that I miss those grainy black-and-white game show re-runs most.

Maybe I was born too late after all.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Here goes nothing...

Sorry I've been away for awhile. Been kind of a crazy (but exciting) few days.

Friday was Leap Day and that makes things so appropriate. I've taken a leap of my own.

It's still hard to believe, but I'm now a homeowner.

Well, condo owner, technically. But you get the point. Now it's time for ol' Jake to be responsible.

The movers showed up about 7:30 yesterday morning. They were finished by 11.

I'm tired, sleepy, exhausted -- fill in your own adjective -- but everything is collected in one place. Now all I have to do is go through 1,001 boxes. That's the fun part, huh?

My final task last night was to make a quick jaunt to Ingles to stock up the fridge. When I finally got back home, groceries safely packed away, I sat down on the couch and listened awhile to the sound of silence.

Who knows how this journey will go, but I'm eager to get started.

What was it Jackie Gleason used to say?

And awaaaaaaaaay we go...