Tag Archives: The Rolling Stones

Notes from Neutral Ground

  Thursday, 9/7/2017: As I cross from Mississippi into Louisiana, WWOZ – “the most indispensable radio station in the country” – plays the instantly recognizable opening guitar riff of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and my spirits lift immediately (www.wwoz.org).

I am traveling to New Orleans to present a paper on Joan Didion’s California at the American Literature Association’s symposium, “Regionalism and Place in American Literature” (www.americanliteratureassociation.org).

I love the Stones and am rocking out and singing along behind the steering wheel as I pull into the Louisiana Welcome Center north of Slidell. However, since I am aware of criticism over the past several years that WWOZ has sometimes strayed from its mission of promoting local New Orleans and Louisiana music, I wonder how “Gimme Shelter” fits into the scenario.

I don’t much care at the moment since I am immersed in one of my favorite songs from arguably my favorite rock ’n’ roll band ever. I muse that it may be a reference to the fact that Texans and west Louisianans are seeking dry ground after Hurricane Harvey or that Floridians and others on the east coast are fleeing the approach of Hurricane Irma. For either group, New Orleans is a place that is not in the crosshairs of the storm this time.

Instead of calling them “medians,” New Orleanians refer to the grassy strips between lanes on their broad streets as “neutral ground.”  On St. Charles Avenue, for example, the grassy area in the middle that the streetcars travel is “neutral ground.” I realize that in the current tropical storm scenario, the whole city of New Orleans is “neutral ground” with visitors coming in from all directions.

The Stones wrap up and immediately the track segues to Merry Clayton’s solo version of “Gimme Shelter” and it all makes sense. Clayton, a New Orleans native, provides the fierce back-up vocals on the Stones’ original of the song, challenging Mick Jagger’s dominance in the process. Her solo version, recorded a few years later with a shrieking horn back-up, is a skillful and equally naked vocal performance. You must give it a listen.

Getting out of the car, I am approached by an agitated man who tells me to give him gas money to get back to Beaumont. I am inclined to help him but I feel a need to engage him for a moment to see if he’s really a flood victim or if he’s scamming.

As soon as I start to talk, he says, “If you ain’t gonna help me, bye!”

“I just need to …”

“If you ain’t gonna help me, BYE!”

“But …”

“BYE!” and he’s gone, approaching another car just pulling up.

A half hour later I am at the Hotel Monteleone, check into my room (which happens to be across the hall from the Tennessee Williams Suite), and unpack.

There is a little time before the symposium’s registration and opening reception so I go to Faulkner House Books in Pirates Alley off Jackson Square (www.faulknerhousebooks.com). The proprietor is talking to a group of European customers. One is particularly interested in reading Faulkner and asks what he should start with. I walk past and whisper “As I Lay Dying” to the proprietor and the conversation continues as I browse.

Outside, a bored young tour guide stops in the alley and I hear him say, “The writer William Faulkner lived here. Also, Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire here.”

“That’s not true,” the proprietor says to his customers. “Faulkner lived here, yes. Tennessee Williams, no.”

The ill-informed tour moves on.

“Should I chase him down?” I ask, joking.

“If I chased down every tour guide who gave false information in that alley, I’d never get any work done,” is the reply.

I find the book I am looking for at Faulkner House, pay, and am leaving as the European guy decides to try a book of Faulkner’s short stories (good move).

I stop by Napoleon House, one of my favorite spots in the French Quarter, and text my friend Deb that I am there; it is one of her favorite spots, too. Her response includes the terrible news that one of her good friends, a woman in her forties that I also know, has died.

I absorb that piece of sad news and move back to the Monteleone, symposium check-in, and the reception.

After a quick appearance at the reception, I get dressed for dinner. I am going to Commander’s Palace, in the Garden District. It is my habit on New Orleans trips to try to have dinner at one of the New Orleans classics, at one of my favorites, and at some place new.

Commander’s Palace (www.commanderspalace.com) is one of the stalwart classics that I have never dined at. After recently viewing a charming documentary, Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table, I decided I could not delay a trip to Commander’s any longer so this will be my first visit to the turquoise landmark. 

Commander’s vaunted hospitality is alive and well and I am greeted warmly by every staff member as I make my way to my table in an elegant dining room. I have often said I would like to write a column or book about the “solo diner” and I always find that the best restaurants in New Orleans have no problem making a solo diner feel comfortable. I judge a restaurant partially by its treatment of solo diners and, with only one notable exception, New Orleans comes through splendidly.

The tempting menu is full of tasty offerings, making it hard to choose what to have from Executive Chef Tory McPhail’s selections. The waiter, upon learning that Birmingham is my home town, asks me if I know the Bright Star in Bessemer where the late summer “Taste of New Orleans” event features a guest chef from a New Orleans restaurant. I tell him that I know the Bright Star very well and have attended Chef McPhail’s dinners there.

Finally, I order a group of “tried and trues.” As I choose a meal of turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, and bread pudding soufflé, the waiter smiles and says “a Paul Prudhomme meal.” Prudhomme sealed his reputation at Commander’s where his tenure preceded Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon, and McPhail. He introduced Cajun influences to Commander’s – making Cajun food a national sensation – before going on to open his iconic restaurant, K-Paul’s, in the Quarter.

The dinner is lovely and the ambiance is magnificent but I have a long day of presenting and listening tomorrow and, leaving Commander’s, I retreat to my room to practice my presentation one more time before sleep.


Friday, 9/8/2017: After the symposium’s opening plenary session, in which it is announced that a number of presenters cannot make it to New Orleans due to impending weather, I present my Didion paper at the “California” session at 10:30. It goes well, I think. I field a lot of questions during the Q and A that follows.

Lunch follows that, and then sessions that stretch to 7:30.  Papers on the “undead” seem to be trending; these I avoid. There is impressive scholarship at the symposium and I hear a lot of good papers, but by the time the day wraps up I am famished and have made no dinner plans.

I remember that I have time to get to Willa Jean (www.willajean.com), the new-ish restaurant (2015) in the Warehouse District that I learned about at a recent Alabama Chanin event in Florence. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Kelly Fields, who named it after her grandmother, and the general manager is Leah Richard, who I met and was terribly amused by at the Florence dinner. It is part of the ubiquitous John Besh Restaurant Group of New Orleans restaurants that impressively cover New Orleans like kudzu covers the South.

Willa Jean is a shiny spot, sleek and chic with wood accents. The menu is inventive and fun, with offerings like Cookies + Milk and a wo’Manwich and an impressive selection of juice-based drinks. An array of enticing pastries is available just inside. I opt for the WJ Burger, an Angus beef burger with herb/pecorino fries. The burger is offered with American cheese but I ask to substitute the menu’s pimento cheese for American. The dessert menu provides too many tasty options and I finally choose a chocolate pudding generously sprinkled with crushed pecans.

I notice how young the wait staff – the entire staff – is at Willa Jean. It’s not unusual to see older waiters in New Orleans where it is a career choice rather than a part-time job, but Willa Jean is full of attractive fresh young faces. Looking around the room, I realize that I am at least 25 years older than everybody in sight. As I leave, a three-some arrives that looks my age (or older) and I am relieved as I decide to walk back through the Central Business District and to the hotel.

Streets that used to be dark and somewhat deserted in the CBD are now bustling, with new restaurants and other establishments on almost every block. In a late summer evening, there are groups of people chatting and walking, going into lofts and coming out for a night in the city.

My first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans was a mere four and a half months after the flood when many areas were still without power and some places looked like the flooding had been days, rather than months, ago. It is heartening to see what much of the city has become (although there is still plenty of recovery left to do) on each visit back.

I get back to the Quarter and consider going in search of live music but I realize that the Quarter on a Friday night has become, for me, as depressing as a New Year’s Eve party – too many people too desperate to have too good a time. Maybe it’s my age. I retreat into the more staid Monteleone where the crowd at the Carousel Lounge is getting geared up for a late evening of carousing.


Saturday, 9/9/2017: It’s the final day of the symposium and I start the day at the second of two sessions on New Orleans regional literature with impressive papers by college students – one on Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and another focusing on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

At another session that I am looking forward to, I am disappointed. The session is supposed to deal with native cultures in the Americas and the four presenters have topics of interest to me. The first paper deals with Nahua structures in central Mexico and the presenter has time to give her entire presentation. However, the second presenter announces that she is an Elder of the Apache Nation and that she is going to use her status as entitlement to go beyond her allotted time.

It is a shocking moment and the moderator should step in but doesn’t.  Everyone sits politely as the Elder inserts lengthy asides and largely toots her own horn of accomplishments and vents her anger at the plights of the native cultures. It is the sole uncollegial moment in what is a very collegial symposium. When the Elder finally reels herself in, there are only minutes left for the final two presenters to sketchily synopsize what their work entails.

The last two papers – one about hymns written in indigenous languages and another about tribal performance as theatre – were of particular interest to me and I am sorry I am not allowed to hear them due to a brazen and unprofessional power play.

At a reception later, I have the opportunity to tell the presenter who was supposed to talk about her hymn research that I had wanted to hear her paper. “Thank you. I wanted to present it,” she graciously replies. I admire her calm in the situation. I am livid still.

After lunch, I sneak away to my favorite New Orleans gallery up the street from the hotel. Elliott Gallery (www.elliottgallery.com) is owned by Catherine Martens Betz, who is knowledgeable and pleasant. It is at Elliott Gallery that I first learned about and developed a great affection for the French abstract artist, James Coignard (1925-2008), who had a studio for a time in New Orleans. Elliott Gallery offers the largest collection of his work in the world and I must visit it whenever I am in New Orleans.

On this visit, Catherine is closely watching the weather radar since Irma has not yet made the predicted northward turn. If it doesn’t turn, it could make a beeline for New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast. I have noticed the same thing and we commiserate over that anxiety.

After my visit with Elliott Gallery, I return to the symposium and one of the sessions I most look forward to about “Rough South Regionalism,” including papers about Harry Crews and Larry Brown, has been canceled due to the participants being in the projected path of Irma.

The closing reception includes a session with the editors of four regional academic journals and the opportunity to say goodbye to new friends and colleagues. By this time also, Irma is making the predicted turn northward.

I am asked for restaurant recommendations for future trips to New Orleans and I highly recommend Upperline, among others.

“What sets Upperline apart?” I am asked.

“Well,” I answer, “the menu is outstanding but I’d have to say that what makes it unique is JoAnn.”

What I do not mention is that I have a reservation at Upperline tonight (www.upperline.com). JoAnn Clevenger, the restaurateur of Upperline, is always present at the restaurant. It is full of artwork she has collected – most of it New Orleans-themed – and she circulates among the diners, seemingly interested in everyone’s story, throughout the evening. She glides through the restaurant as if it is her own private salon; in ways, I guess it is.  I try to make an Upperline dinner a feature of every visit to New Orleans.

Andrew Thornton is the Upperline chef, but the menu is very evocative of JoAnn. She is a fan of garlic so a “Garlic Festival” is a menu feature each summer (including garlic in the dessert). Thomas Jefferson is a hero so a Jefferson dinner is a recurring event and the menu is always peppered with dishes from Jefferson’s Monticello. Dorothy Parker-themed cocktails are featured on the drinks menu. 

The menu is highly influenced by Creole cooking styles and I have never had a bad bite at Upperline. Tonight I stay traditional, ordering Oysters St. Claude as an appetizer. My entrée of Sauteed Drum Meuniere is on a bed of succulent cooked greens and cornbread. For dessert, I order a pecan encrusted Crème Brulee.

As I wait for my cab, a waiter asks me where I’m visiting from. I tell him I live in Huntsville but Birmingham is “home.” His immediate response is “Frank Stitt.” He’s a fan of the Birmingham chef and we discuss Highlands Bar and Grill’s perpetual James Beard nomination as Best Restaurant.

About that time, JoAnn walks up and I say, “And we also need to figure out what we need to do to get JoAnn the James Beard Restaurateur of the Year award.” She has been a finalist or semi-finalist many times but, like Highlands, she’s never taken home the prize. Anyone who has ever dined at Upperline knows she deserves it.


Sunday, 9/10/2017: I decide to check out early since I have a long drive ahead with a stop in Birmingham. The bellman who takes my bags down tells me that most of the new guests arriving since Friday are people from Florida, escaping Irma.

“I pray for them,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s not headed our way. We’ve had our turn with that.”

I tell him that maybe for those taking shelter in New Orleans, the way New Orleans has sprung back will be an encouragement for whatever they might be returning to in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

“Takes a lot of time, lot of patience,” he says. “They’ve had it before, too.” 

It’s a glorious morning in New Orleans. I take a photo of the Esplanade neutral ground as I leave the Quarter. I drop by Willa Jean, grab an almond mini-bundt cake and café au lait for the road, and get onto I-10 east toward the lake, out of the city.

Shortly after I cross into Mississippi, WWOZ’s signal begins to fade away. The last song I hear is a jazz instrumental of Lennon and McCartney’s “In My Life.” I know the words and sing along:

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed,

Some forever not for better,

Some have gone and some remain.

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall.

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all.

I turn off the radio.

By the time I get to Birmingham, Monday school closings are being announced. The remnants of Irma are headed our way. 

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Legion Field

dscn0633 The massive steel girders and beams of Birmingham’s Legion Field have thrilled me since I was a kid growing up in the city.  “The Old Gray Lady” is 90-years-old and, even though her best days are likely behind her, she maintains a majesty and charm. Another proud old sports arena, Rickwood Field, sits a short drive from Legion Field and is the oldest remaining professional baseball field in the country. Rickwood opened in 1910 and the first Legion Field game was played in 1927.

When I was in college, the University of Alabama’s significant games and major rivalries were played at Legion Field. In those days, Denny Stadium on campus in Tuscaloosa was a perfect little 60,000 seat bowl and half of the home games were played there while the other half went up the highway to Birmingham. This is years before Bryant-Denny became the 101,000+ seat behemoth that it is today and before big-time college football had become so “corporate.” dscn0624

Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was the coach then and, depending on which national polls you’re counting, my freshman year was the year of Alabama’s ninth national championship and Bryant’s fourth of six. The most enduring memory of my years attending Alabama games at Legion Field is the image of Bear Bryant, hat always in place (despite the legend, it wasn’t always a houndstooth hat), leaning casually against the goal post and watching the team warm-up. One time, when Alabama offered Bryant a significant boost in salary (which would be paltry by today’s standards), he commented that it would be unseemly for the football coach to make more than the college president. Times have changed.

In those pre-ESPN days of a finite number of television channels and networks, the weekly choice of televised college football games was limited and it was always a treat when Alabama football was nationally televised – usually on ABC and usually with the great sports broadcaster Keith Jackson calling the game (“Whoa, Nellie!” and “Hold the phone!” Jackson would say at particularly exciting moments).

In 1981 Bryant broke the record of the most wins by any college football coach up to that time. Keith Jackson was in the booth. The opponent was Auburn and the game was played in Legion Field. The final score was 28-17. At halftime, Bryant growled to interviewer Verne Lundquist that his players were acting “like they’re afraid they’ll hurt somebody’s feelings or something.”

During those years the upper deck was in place on the east side of the stadium and the capacity of the stadium was around 70,000 with more expansions to come. For many years the words “Football Capital of the South” were displayed inside Legion Field and for most of those years that was true. At its peak, Legion Field could hold over 83,000. When a structural review in 2004 determined that the upper deck was not up to code, the city removed the deck and the stadium now seats about 71,000.

With the increased capacity of Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama began to schedule more home games away from Legion Field. The annual “Iron Bowl” between Alabama and Auburn was always played at Legion Field from 1948 to 1988. Tickets were split evenly between the schools and they alternated the “home team” each year. After Auburn moved the game to Auburn in their “home team” years, Alabama would continue to play the game in Birmingham in their “home” years until the end of the century. The Birmingham location is the reason that the game is called the “Iron Bowl” in the first place. And the game is still and forever the “Iron Bowl’ even though it will probably never be played in Birmingham again.

The last time I lived in Birmingham, I could see Legion Field across town from my apartment on Red Mountain. When an Alabama game was televised I would host watch parties at my place; if the game was at Legion Field and something went wrong I was known to go out on the balcony and yell toward the stadium (a couple of times, maybe more …).

In the heyday of big stadium concerts, Legion Field hosted acts like the Rolling Stones, U2, and Pink Floyd. The last time I saw the Stones live was at Legion Field for the 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour. dscn0625

Among the monumental architecture at the entrance to Legion Field, which was named to honor the American Legion, are two reclining lions and, at the base of the two flag poles, American bald eagles. A later monument, centered between the flag poles, memorializes Bear Bryant. A quote from Reagan at the time of Bryant’s death is engraved beneath Bryant’s bust on one side and Bryant’s own words about what it takes to be a “winner” are on another.  On the façade of the stadium these days are the words “Built by Legends.” dscn0628

The Iron Bowl is gone but Legion Field still hosts annual games like the “Magic City Classic” between Alabama A&M and Alabama State. The Classic has been played in Birmingham for seventy years. The Birmingham Bowl is the latest and longest lasting in a series of post-season bowl games played in the stadium. The first two SEC championship games were at Legion Field. The stadium has been the site for high school football and major soccer events and was home to local football teams of the several short-lived efforts to challenge the NFL (WFL, USFL, XFL, etc.).

Legion Field will once again be the home field for the resuscitated University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers football team in fall 2017. For those of us who remember the Old Gray Lady’s glory years, it’s somewhat sad to see the mostly empty stands for UAB games.

Legion Field was already in its fifth decade when the Houston Astrodome opened and was declared the “Eighth Wonder of the World” in 1965. These days, the Astrodome is virtually obsolete — empty and avoiding the wrecking ball – but Legion Field soldiers on.

Long may she live. Roll Tide. dscn0635

“Muscle Shoals”

IMG_0279    “You’re in rock ‘n’ roll heaven, man,” growls Keith Richards in an interview in Muscle Shoals, the documentary about the musical heritage of the Shoals area of northwest Alabama. The film focuses on the intertwined stories of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It is a compelling story that needs to be told and director Greg “Freddy” Camalier tells it with brisk pacing and verve using music recorded in the area and ample interviews with the makers of the magic that came out of the place in a specific time in American musical history.

IMG_0708I was fortunate to see Muscle Shoals on August 24, 2013, at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham and have viewed it a couple of times since. My first screening at the Alabama Theatre was as part of a packed house in advance of the film’s official release on September 27, 2013. Even for a viewer familiar with the musical heritage of the Shoals, the movie is full of new information and insights by interview subjects including Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin, Donna Godchaux, Mick Jagger, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, and Steve Winwood.

The powerful conceit running through the movie is that there is music in the magical waters of the Tennessee River around the Shoals. The Tennessee curves through Alabama from its northeast corner to its northwest corner, cutting a crescent in the northernmost part of the state. The Native Americans’ word for the river meant “the river that sings” and the four towns of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia straddle the river in northwest Alabama in the area commonly referred to as “the Shoals.”

W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” and Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and other legends, were both from the Shoals. The movie spends time at the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall in Florence. Tom Hendrix built the mammoth serpentine wall as a memorial to his ancestor who was exiled to Oklahoma as part of the Trail of Tears and walked back to the Shoals to be near the “singing river.” The film even pulls Tuscumbia native Helen Keller into the mix, finding a connection with the fact that the deaf, blind, and mute child’s breakthrough word was “water.”

The film focuses on Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and “the Swampers.” “The Swampers” are the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section who left FAME to open Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway and who are primarily represented in the documentary by “Swampers” Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson. Rick Hall’s biography alone includes enough tragedy to fuel any number of plaintive country ballads and his compelling and compulsive drive is the centerpiece of the film.

On occasion, Muscle Shoals may go a little overboard in its effort to tell a coherent story and the “singing river” idea might feel a bit stretched at times. Sometimes, liberal use of misleading stock footage is distracting. For example, when the documentary discusses the Shoals hospital where Percy Sledge worked before embarking on his musical career, the stock footage that is shown makes it look like a World War I-era European hospital.

Each time I watch the movie, I am confused as to which of Aretha Franklin’s hits were actually recorded in Muscle Shoals – the filmmakers are a little ambiguous there but a little research reveals that “I Never Loved a Man” was definitely recorded there (and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was brought to New York to record other hits with her). Based on the way the documentary presents the story, one might think that Rick Hall wrote the schmaltzy Clarence Carter hit “Patches” (he didn’t; he produced Carter’s cover – and this documentary manages to make me respect “Patches” in a way I never had before).

Even so, it is the actual footage of Shoals sessions, the Rolling Stones, and other artists in the recording studio, and the director’s passion for the sounds that came out of the place that propel the movie and make it indispensable. Fans of the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour and the disastrous Altamont Free Concert that ended it will recognize much of the Stones’ Muscle Shoals footage from that earlier film. The Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in Muscle Shoals.

Ultimately, it’s the music that supports the story that makes Muscle Shoals such a treasure and I challenge any Baby Boomer or fan of twentieth century American popular music to sit through Muscle Shoals without finding at least a few favorite songs that were recorded in those studios. Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman” there. Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Staples, Boz Scaggs, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Traffic, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, the Osmonds, Cher, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Cliff, … recorded there, and on and on; it makes your head explode that so much essential music came out of such a small town. The tradition currently continues with groups such as the Birmingham-based soul band St. Paul and the Broken Bones whose recent album Half the City was recorded in the Shoals.

For me, an added treat in the movie is interview footage with Donna Godchaux, a Shoals native who, with her late husband Keith, was a member of the Grateful Dead in the ‘70s (the Dead never recorded in Muscle Shoals as far as I know). Donna got her start as a session singer in the Shoals and she lives there now. I very briefly met her when I was working backstage at the Grateful Dead concert in Tuscaloosa on May 17, 1977 (I also met Jerry Garcia that day). It was an amazing concert but my most vivid memory of it is hanging out in front of the stage for a bit during the show with the Godchaux’s toddler, Zion. We were rolling a toy Texaco truck back and forth. Zion would be in his forties now and is part of the band BoomBox.

If you haven’t seen Muscle Shoals yet, check it out. I promise it will leave you smiling.