For more than 20 years, Ed Reynolds has written features, profiles, news articles, and book reviews, as well as conducting interviews with the likes of Lily Tomlin, Al Franken, and a host of other celebrities. After developing his writing chops at a monthly publication called Fun & Stuff beginning in 1992 (where Reynolds eventually became editor), he was hired as a staff writer in 1997 at Black & White, Birmingham’s primary alternative paper for news and in-depth stories on southern culture. By 2013, Black & White had shut down — as did so many print outlets around the country. In his 16 years as a writer for the publication, he traveled the southeast covering everything from space shuttle launches to NASCAR races to funerals for American icons including soul brother number one brother, James Brown, and the great short-story writer Eudora Welty. In 2010, the nationally-acclaimed magazine The Oxford American hired Reynolds to reflect on the arrival of punk rock in the state in the publication’s only issue ever devoted to Alabama music. He continues to pen book reviews for Alabama literary arts publication First Draft. His work can be browsed by category via the links above or a selection of them can be read by scrolling down.
This June marks the second Father’s Day since my Dad passed away. I think about him frequently, partly because he bequeathed me his entire name: James Edward Reynolds. That was a decision he may have regretted from time to time, but if he did, he never mentioned it. Dad was known as “Sonny” until he met my Mom one afternoon in the late 1940s on a Selma, Alabama, street corner. (She hailed the taxi he was driving for his father’s Red Top Cab company.) She preferred the name “Jim,” or so they say. But I always enjoyed hearing our relatives call him Sonny.
My father’s future profession as an Internal Revenue Service auditor marked him as suspect in the eyes of many in the community. He prepared my tax returns every spring, and I felt helpless the first April 15 that he was no longer around. Many Selma residents who made jokes about the IRS nevertheless sought his counsel during tax season, especially at the Baptist church we attended. As April 15 loomed, Dad would get into his annual telephone shouting matches with the finance director at our church. The director had questions regarding church members’ contributions and tax deductions, and my deeply religious father always complained that the church put him in a “damn awkward situation” when they asked his advice on such matters.
After his B-24 bomber was shot down over Germany, his buddies at the air base assumed he was dead and drank a few rounds in his memory, which they charged to him. He wasn’t a drinking man. After his rescue, he refused to pay for the cocktails when presented with the bill. He didn’t like to spend money. A bowl of water filled with envelopes frequently sat on the kitchen counter, the contents soaking so that the stamps could be removed and used again. Dad never failed to pick up pennies in parking lots. Yet his generosity had no boundaries or conditions. He financed three college educations, gave his children down payments on their first homes, and tossed in a few bucks to help buy cars for his kids and grandchildren from time to time.
He spared no expense in caring for dogs, either. Someone shot our Old English sheepdog Sebastian in our backyard one night, presumably for barking. My father ran onto the patio in his boxer shorts, waving a .44 while shouting for the dog’s long-gone assailant to return for a showdown. The next day, Dad drove Sebastian to Auburn’s veterinary school, which saved the dog’s life. He and I shared a fondness for dogs. Being a pragmatic sort who wanted to prepare his son for the sadness of burying a pet, he often asked about my aging dog Nicky, only to follow with this reminder: “Son, you know you’re going to come home and find her dead one day.” I laughed and told him I was going to visit and find him dead one day. He thought that was pretty funny.
The most endearing memory of my Dad is the devoted care he gave during the last seven years of his life to my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In the early 1990s, my parents moved from Selma to Tuscaloosa. I spent Friday nights at their house a couple of times a month to give Dad moral support. The ritual was always the same; we went to Captain D’s for “supper.” (The evening meal was never “dinner” in our household; “dinner” described what most people refer to as lunch.) Then we watched their favorite TV program, “Wheel of Fortune,” as he and Mom attempted to solve the puzzles while commenting on Vanna White’s scandalous attire. After that it was time for Atlanta Braves baseball. Dad would make Mom stay awake until the seventh inning to keep her mind active. From season to season, the onset of her dementia could be somewhat measured as she slowly began to forget the names of Braves players. After Mom went to bed, Dad and I sat in our recliners, often watching war documentaries or reading. He usually read the Bible, whereas I might be reading a biography of Ho Chi Minh. He often expressed his disdain for the invasion of Iraq and shocked me one night when he said that had my brother and I been drafted to go to Vietnam, he would have considered sending us to Canada. I used to tease him about the “No Lottery” sign he posted in his front yard when the issue was proposed years ago, because any time he traveled through Georgia he always bought $5 worth of lottery tickets.
Dad’s pragmatism was best exhibited in 1945 during World War II, after the B-24 bomber he co-piloted was shot down over Germany. Crawling from the wreckage, my father and the pilot found themselves facing two dozen enemy solders and a German “tiger” tank. The pilot whipped out his .45 automatic, urging my father to “shoot it out” with the Nazis. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Put that gun away!” Dad shouted at the pilot. Dad later discovered that his buddies at the airbase where he was stationed in England had assumed he was dead and drank a few rounds in his memory, which they charged to him. He wasn’t a drinking man. After his rescue, he refused to pay for the cocktails when presented with the bill.
In July of 2008, Dad was hospitalized for a kidney problem. He developed pneumonia and spent three weeks with a ventilator in his throat. His living will stipulated that no artificial life support was to be used, and as his condition deteriorated, my brother, sister, and I were faced with deciding at what point to carry out his wishes. He was unconscious most of the time but would open his eyes and try to talk for an hour or so every couple of days. One night he was able to remove one of the mittens he was forced to wear that prevented him from pulling out the breathing tube. He snatched the ventilator from his throat and refused to allow it to be replaced. When my sister arrived at the hospital, the first question he asked was, “Is your mother taken care of?” My sister reassured him that Mom was okay. He died the next day.
At his funeral, a soldier played “Taps” and the American flag that had draped his coffin was folded and given to my sister. The soldiers seemed to struggle while folding the flag, prompting my father’s 90-year-old sister to lean over to me and whisper, “Sonny’s up there in Heaven griping, ‘They sent rookie soldiers for my funeral.’” We quietly laughed, reassured that no one would have found the moment funnier than my father. There are good dads and lousy dads. I was blessed to have been raised by one of the good guys.
The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve
By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015
I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.
Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”
Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.
Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.
Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room
In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
Book Review Archives
Peavey Guitars: The Authorized American History
- See more at: http://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2016/04/29/peavey-guitars-the-authorized-american-history#sthash.AdrcDBwL.dpuf
Originally published in Alabama Writers’ Forum on Jan. 11, 2016
Capone, the Cobbs, and Me
By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb.
Author Rex Burwell spins a fictionalized tale based on a real-life major league catcher named Moe Berg, once described by baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Berg was an average major leaguer who was a spy for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and later for the CIA. Over the next 200 pages, the author takes readers on a surreal journey through baseball, gambling, organized crime, murder, and mayhem—with enough subtle descriptions of sex and violence to spice things up. Burwell also tosses in a few musical elements to make for a fascinatingly quick read.
Among the characters is Milton Mezzrow, a jazz clarinet player. Better known as “Mezz,” the musician is a bookkeeper at the Arrowhead Inn in Burnham, Illinois, a hotel owned by Capone where Mezz not only keeps two ledger accounts but also leads a house band called the Mezzophonics that features guest trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbek. In one memorable passage, Burwell shares Mezz’s description of the Mezzophonics as a “zebra band,” the first mixed-race band in history. “Black and white cats, Matts. And some hot guests with good chops too. You never seen a mixed-race band before, did you? And nobody else did either. This is history.”
Mezz is actually a white Jew who had decided years earlier to pass himself off as an African American, with the author referencing Mezz’s “perfect Negro hipster accent.” Burwell lets Mezz do the talking: “We got a real tight band,” says Mezz. “historic, like I told you, the dark and the light and the lightly toasted playing together so hot, Jack. You’ll hear it tonight. You can’t hear it anywhere else in the universe, nowhere but here, tonight.” Our hero Mort Hart elaborates on Mezz: “His metamorphosis from Jew to Negro with no change in complexion was a bold strike, not undertaken foolishly, but knowingly. Only white people thought Mezz a fool. Negroes took him as a brother who talked their language. I thought him crazy at first. Then I thought him courageous. One changes one’s mind.”
Dig it. Especially the Mob violence. Hart wanders into an icehouse loaded with meat while exercising his baseball-playing damaged knee, only to discover the dead husband of a woman who was sleeping with a Capone thug named Jimmy. “I walked in a few steps on the soft, wet sawdust, and lit and held up the cigarette lighter I always carried,” says Hart.” Behind hams and a side of beef hung a dead man wearing a hat, suspended by a noose and a hook. I got a good look at the waxy face. I never forgot the face.”
Burwell uses several references to indicate that Hart is telling his story in today’s world. Hence, the introduction of a pitcher named Dutch used by Detroit Tigers manager Ty Cobb to throw a ballgame for Capone. Hart notes, “My complete baseball record is available on the internet. I batted against Dutch eight times in the 1926 season and got only one hit—that after he’d hurt his arm and had nothing.” The fix was in because Dutch was forced to pitch though “Dutch’s arm was so sore that he couldn’t comb his hair, but Cobb started him anyway…. In the first inning, with two runners already on base, I batted against him for the eighth and last time that 1926 season. The first pitch Dutch threw was a nothing spitball—he had nothing. He was through as soon as he started. Even as I swung and knocked the ball on an arc to the wall, I felt a drop of his saliva fly up and hit my eye.”
In a strange twist, Hart becomes a spy for Kennesaw Mountain Landis as he also serves as legal advisor for Cobb and lusts after Cobb’s wife. Burwell writes in sexually flirtatious descriptions of our hero’s first introduction to Mrs. Ty Cobb during a blizzard: “At the hotel I met Charlene for the first time. She was outside in a bulky coat that could not hide her good figure. Without vanity, she was aware of her beauty…. She took off a glove and shook my hand. Women, ladies, did not offer a hand in those days, much less take off a glove…. She unbuttoned her fur. One does not often see such a beautiful figure. A man must take advantage of rare occasions. I could feel Cobb watching me look at her.”
Hart continues: “Charlene and I had been corresponding for months, exchanging typed, unsigned letters. I fell in love by mail…. Tucked in one of those letters had been a picture of her that I still have today. She wears a cloche with wings, like Liberty on the dime. In profile her upper lip pushes out…. Cobb made his first wife his ‘trophy wife,’ as they call it nowadays, and kept her thereafter above his mantelpiece with the boars’ heads.”
The musical passages are among the most memorable, historically speaking, especially when Capone is present. Referencing Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, Burwell writes: “Both musicians were Mezz’s friends. Beiderbecke happened to be living and drinking himself to death in a farmhouse somewhere in the area. This was not the first time he’d played with the Mezzophonics. He was the acknowledged best white jazz cornet player in the nation. Armstrong, of course, was simply the best, white or Negro…. After the show, the band members all ate where the Negroes ate, in the kitchen. Beiderbecke had five shots of free whiskey in three minutes, fell off his chair and had to be helped outside to puke. From here he was poured into the back seat of a car…. Mr. Capone joined us, stepping through the swinging doors, a Heavy on either side of him…. Vain Capone was adept at keeping people, especially photographers, from seeing his left profile with its two long, vivid scars. His wide-brimmed fedora was canted left. He carried his head toward his left shoulder. He wore high collars and often carried a handkerchief to hold his left cheek…. ‘Good music,’ he said to the musicians. ‘Good music, everybody.’”
As long as Mr. Capone is happy, I’m happy. Capone, the Cobbs, and Me is a hell of a novel. Jan. 2016
Ed Reynolds is a writer in Birmingham.
Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015
The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon
EXPLORING THE STORIED LIFE OF A BIRMINGHAM INSTITUTION.
Those who have followed city politics in the past decade or spent evenings as bar flies at any time between the 1960s to the ‘90s in local drinking establishments perhaps know of Terry “T.C.” Cannon. In 1962, Cannon and his older brother Joe opened the Plaza bar (better known as the “Upside Down” Plaza) on 11th Court South behind Western Supermarket on Highland Avenue (currently the long time home of Hot and Hot Fish Club).
Cannon recalls with a grin that his brother Joe had been ‘captured’ (involved with) then gambling kingpin of Birmingham, Little Man Popwell. “So everything (at the Plaza) was in my name,” T.C. says.
The Plaza drew a nightly cast of characters, creating an oddball clientele mix; Lawyers, doctors, students, businessmen, musicians, librarians, and schoolteachers made it the most eclectic bar in town. Bohemians drank with professionals. “It’s a wonder that the magnolia tree outside the Plaza survived because almost every lawyer in Birmingham has pissed on it,” an attorney friend and long ago Plaza patron told me.
The lounge was a Southside landmark. The Upside Down Plaza is currently still in business in the Five Points South area beneath Pickwick Plaza, where it relocated when the lease was not renewed in the mid-‘80s. In 1987, the nightclub began operation under new ownership.
Cannon claims the Plaza was forced out of its original locale because the landlord discovered religion. “A local preacher instructed them that they had to get rid of this horrible beer joint,” says T.C. “We still had three years on the lease and when we went to court, we won and got to stay three more years. And that was a lot of fun.” Continue reading
Father and Son
Golf king Tiger Woods and his father, Earl, recently whisked through Birmingham on April 20 and 21 to raise money for the Tiger Woods Foundation. Featured in the weekend festivities were the younger Woods’ phenomenal ability to charm golf balls and his dad’s uncanny mastery at charming his son’s legion of fans. Dwight Burgess of St. John’s AME Church had seen an article on the Tiger Woods Foundation, prompting him to make a 1999 call that resulted in the visit to Birmingham; one of only four cities on the Woods Foundation itinerary.
Reassuring smiles and words of encouragement from the golf legend greeted the awed stares of youngsters participating in the instructional clinic. Woods offered invaluable tips on adjusting stances, gripping clubs, and following through on swings. “There’s some serious talent out here,” observed Woods. “Kids today hit the ball farther than I did [at their age]. They’re younger, stronger, and more athletic.” Father Earl lounged nearby in a golf cart, posing for photos with lovely ladies and fielding occasional questions from bold reporters. After a few awkward seconds, the sometimes controversial Woods Sr. scoffed at suggestions that Tiger’s exposure to Buddhism (his mother is Buddhist) was responsible for his son’s unparalleled ability to concentrate under immense pressure. Instead, he said, the younger Woods learned self-hypnosis from a sports psychologist he saw for five years beginning at age 16.
Tiger and Earl Woods started the Tiger Woods Foundation four years ago to “make golf look more like America,” according to Tiger. Each year four cities are selected for the popular instructional and exhibition clinics. “We go to communities that haven’t been as enthusiastic about golf,” explained Tiger, emphasizing the importance of lingering in a city for a couple of days for greater impact on the community. “We don’t want to be a circus, where we just come in, do a clinic, and leave.” As for those kids battling nerves trying to hit a ball in his presence, he said, “I tell them no matter who’s watching, it’s just you and the ball. No one else can hit that shot for them.” Asked if he considered going back to finish his college degree at Stanford, Woods noted the difficulty in resuming studies. The former economics major hinted at a change in his field of study. “I’ll have to change majors. Maybe become a journalist,” Woods laughed to the throng of media gathered on the golf course between Highland and Clairmont Avenues. “Then I can just B.S. my way through.”
The afternoon before the clinic, Earl Woods, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, addressed a two-thirds capacity audience at St. John’s AME Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham. Focusing on raising children and the importance of his son as a role model, Woods confessed, “I never raised him to be a golfer. I raised him to be a good person.” An engaging speaker, Woods sometimes wandered in melodramatic, even surreal, directions. He never failed to place Tiger on a monumental pedestal. “My son’s power dwarfs mine like a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert,” explained the elder Woods.
Back at the golf course, Tiger Woods made an entrance befitting that of a champion, motoring down the fairway from several hundred yards away to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger” as more than 3,000 shouting children and adults squinted for a glimpse of the world’s most famous athlete. Stepping from a golf cart, which had been flanked by two carts driven by bodyguards, Woods flashed his world-famous smile as he wowed starry-eyed patrons with his million-dollar golf swing. Putting on an impressive exhibition, he explained practice habits and the importance of becoming comfortable with gripping the club. Aiming for a 100-yard marker as he began hitting balls, Woods shook his head and questioned the marker’s distance. “That’s a long hundred. What did you do, measure it in meters?” He fielded questions from children, revealing that he wore red shirts during final rounds on Sundays because his mother told him his astrological charts said that red was his “power color.”
Woods ended the exhibition with a flourish. Bouncing the ball on his club just as he does in his now-famous Nike television commercial, Woods grabbed a second club and began performing the feat with two balls. Suddenly he tossed one iron aside and peered into the distance, still bouncing the ball as he apprehensively noted how narrow the fairway appeared. Woods promised to give the shot a try, regardless. And, of course, he whacked the ball in mid-air, it’s 200-yard flight a white blur that brought a collective sigh from the gallery. It was reality imitating television, with fine dramatic flair.
Timmy DeRusha is Loretta Lynn’s tour manager. With a week off the road from a current performance trek, DeRusha didn’t lounge around his Tennessee home resting up for the next round of concerts. Instead, he spent the time in flood-ravaged New Orleans rescuing dogs and cats left behind when their owners fled the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.
Along with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, DeRusha loaded a pickup truck and cargo van with medical supplies and food donated by Nashville-area veterinarians, then headed to New Orleans. “The smell of that city . . . You could smell it from miles away, driving in over the bridge,” DeRusha recalled in a recent telephone conversation. With signs reading “Disaster Response Animal Rescue” posted on their vehicles, DeRusha’s group was escorted by a local fisherman who had previously supplied boats to various animal rescuers as needed. Guards posted outside the city allowed the group in after recognizing the fisherman. “We were armed, because [the guards] said that we might run across someone who wasn’t supposed to be in [New Orleans],” said DeRusha.
At some homes, DeRusha’s crew brought out dogs and cats while National Guard troops removed dead humans from the house next door. “People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them,” said DeRusha. “But some of the animals had gotten stuck on balconies or rooftops and weren’t able to get down.” He said most of the animals were not vicious. “Most were traumatized, because they hadn’t had food or fresh water for two weeks,” DeRusha explained. “After we gave them dog treats and water and they realized that we were there to help them, then it was no problem at all. A lot of them were just really, really scared because all of a sudden the person that had been there taking care of them, in their mind, had deserted them. Then all this stuff happened that they had never seen happen before, with all the water coming in. The animals were survivors. Unfortunately, there were a lot of animals that we were too late for.”
DeRusha and his crew used poles with nooses to catch dogs. “If they were too vicious, we just left fresh food and water. I’d say that nearly half the animals that we rescued were pit bulls. We were working in the inner-city area, mostly. That’s obviously what they do there, they raise dogs to fight. Some of the dogs needed rescuing whether there was a hurricane or not. They weren’t being taken care of . . . One was a three-month old pit bull pup. He tried to act like the most vicious of all, but when we gave him some food he began acting like a typical puppy.”
Other scenarios were simply horrifying. A pair of pit bulls were discovered in one abandoned home. The female was emaciated, though it was obvious she had delivered a litter days earlier. DeRusha could not locate the litter and surmised that the male, who appeared well-fed, had cannibalized it.
Rescued animals were crated, with the address of recovery marked on the crate so pets could possibly be reunited with owners. For five days straight, DeRusha hauled approximately 30 dogs and cats each day to Tylertown, Mississippi, where a temporary animal sanctuary had been erected on five acres of farmland.
The Greater Birmingham Humane Society (GBHS) brought more than 300 rescued animals back to Birmingham from Tylertown, Hattiesburg, and Jackson, Mississippi, where animals had been sheltered prior to rescue groups such as GBHS arriving. GBHS director Jacque Meyer was impressed by the number of people who came from across the country to help in the animal rescue effort. “It’s been very, very sad, but I am amazed at the number of people in the United States that have made an effort, using vacation time and their own money, to rescue these animals.” Meyer said that an abandoned warehouse in the Gonzalez area of New Orleans sat on higher ground that had stayed relatively dry. Abandoned animals migrated to the warehouse area, though some people were observed dumping off animals at the site. Food and water were supplied to the homeless animals at the site by the few officials allowed into New Orleans until the animals could be taken away.
Approximately 75 percent of the animals that Jacque Meyer brought to Birmingham were dogs, the rest being cats, along with an occasional goat or pig. They were medically treated at GBHS until the North Shore Animal League, an organization that finds homes for more than 30,000 animals yearly, took them to its New York state headquarters where they will be housed until either the owners find their animals through the web site www.petfinder.com, or until the animals can be adopted.
“People that left had spray-painted ‘PETS INSIDE’ or ‘DOG NEEDS RESCUED’ on plywood-covered windows in hopes that somebody would be coming along to get them.” Meyer said the trauma endured by abandoned animals continued to affect many even weeks after being rescued. “Some wouldn’t sleep lying down because they were so used to standing up so they could survive,” she explained, adding that some rescued dogs kept trying to swim each time they were lifted up into the arms of shelter workers, even though they had been away from flood waters for days. &
Rockin’ The Boat With New Waves
By Ed Reynolds
At Southern clubs in the late ’70s, bands played three sets a night, four nights a week. Most were dishing out versions of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and The Eagles, among other dinosaur acts. Meanwhile, a Birmingham actor from Sweden named Mats (pronounced “Mots”) Roden was studying theater at New York University when he attended a show at Irving Plaza — a performance by a campy rock combo from Athens, Georgia, called The B-52s. “It was a really mind-blowing for me because I realized that you didn’t have to be from New York to play the city,” he recalls. “I had been working for the Wooster Group [an experimental theater company] in New York with Willem Dafoe and Spalding Gray, so I was really serious about the theater in those days. But I was always torn between music and acting. So I called Matt [Kimbrell] a couple of days after The B-52s show, and we talked about me coming back to Birmingham to start a band called Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits.”
Roden, Matt Kimbrell, and Leif Bondarenko had been friends since high school while attending the Alabama School of Fine Arts (where Roden was legendary for wearing his bathrobe to class). As teens, Kimbrell and Bondarenko were already working as professional drummers at various highbrow cocktail lounges in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1979, Roden had returned to Alabama to form the Leisure Suits, where they rehearsed at his parents’ house, much to the consternation of neighbors (“just keep on playing that white trash rock/you can hear us practicing for blocks,” Kimbrell sings in “White Trash Rock”). They recruited local attorney Craig Izard (rhymes with “lizard”) as second guitarist and third songwriter. Jim Bob & The Leisure Suits soon began playing the same clubs that were booking cover bands four nights a week, though they concentrated on original songs with rearrangements of tasty covers of Franki Valli & The Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man,” a Ramones-style version of The Eagles “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and a scorching “Burning Love” (featuring front man Kimbrell as a sensual but vulgar Elvis Presley, shaking his hips and caressing his body as he sang).
The band’s inaugural release was a five-song EP, 1980’s First Time, which reflected the Leisure Suits original vision: fast songs with a punk rock aesthetic, each clocking in at under three minutes. Though there was no college radio station in town to promote First Time, their unpredictable, energetic live shows created enough excitement to to earn them a following in Northern Alabama. The EP’s “White Trash Rock” best defined the Leisure Suits’ frustration seeking recognition outside of the South with the classic line: “They don’t make stars out of bar bands in Birmingham….” Eventually, the club scene in Birmingham evolved when venues such at The Nick and Old Town Music Hall began to focus on presenting a different act nightly. Birmingham groups such as The Mortals, The Invaders, and The Colas as well as The Rakes from nearby Auburn, began getting jobs playing original music. “What I think Jim Bob really did was tap into this underground scene,” says Mats Roden. “There was a wanting of new, original music in the scene. We were not going to do covers; Craig and I were totally opposed to doing covers, which Matt and Leif were not. So that caused a little friction in the band. I wanted it to be totally original.” In 1981, the Leisure Suits released a 45 rpm single, featuring “Panama City Bleach” and “This World Is Killing Me”. The single did not have the rapid- fire punk-rock ammo of First Time; rather the band’s sound had evolved into something slightly more sophisticated, especially the slow, introspective “This World Is Killing Me”. Continue reading
By Ed Reynolds
Gambling with a daring landing method, NASA plans to explore Mars with the largest, most sophisticated surface-roaming robot ever created.
Shortly after midnight on August 6, 2012, NASA will attempt another in a long history of successful outer- space engineering marvels. An unmanned spacecraft with the unsexy name of Mars Science Laboratory will complete its 8-month, 352 million mile, mission from Earth to Mars by setting a one-ton rover named Curiosity on the planet.
NASA has placed robots on Mars in the past, most notably the rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003 (Opportunity continues to function). Because neither of those rovers is bigger than a golf cart, large airbags were used to cushion the landings. Curiosity—which is as big as an automobile—will require a feat never attempted by the space agency, the lowering of a Mars rover using a rocket-equipped crane. Continue reading