Monthly Archives: September 2001

Election Drama

By Ed Reynolds

Birmingham city politics took a corkscrew turn Wednesday, September 12 when Hezekiah Jackson, long-time right-hand man for Councilor Aldrich Gunn, set local talk show airwaves ablaze with allegations of financial impropriety and personal sexual harassment by Gunn. Jackson resigned as Gunn’s council aid September 11 to enter the District Four council race against the veteran councilor. When contacted for this article, Jackson stated that his campaign advisers had advised him to cease commenting on his allegations against Gunn.

Jackson appeared on radio stations WJLD and WATV that week alleging criminal activity by Gunn, who has served on the Birmingham City Council for 12 years, and is currently mounting a legal battle to return his name to the ballot for the October 9 council elections. Gunn’s $50 entrance fee was hand delivered to Probate Judge Mike Bolin’s home at 10 p.m. on September 18, the final day for candidates to file. According to state law, 5 p.m. is the cut-off time for candidates to have fees paid and all preliminary filing work completed. Michael Choy, the attorney representing Gunn, claims that his understanding of the law suggests that the deadline occurred at midnight September 18.

Records in the probate judge’s office indicate that Gunn had filed for candidacy several weeks prior to the deadline, but had not paid the fee, as was the case with approximately half the candidate field. Gunn claims that he thought that Jackson had paid the fee earlier.

In other council news, Councilor Jimmy Blake, who is not seeking a third term, resigned his position on the city Election Commission. Noting that he did not want to “make a big deal out of it,” Blake explained, “I felt like I was simply a functionary. [Mayor] Bernard [Kincaid] and his lieutenants picked the election officials and presented them. I wasn’t even asked to participate until the last minute. I don’t have time to get in there and figure out who is who [election officials], and who can be trusted. If they had asked me a month ago, that would have been a different thing.”

However, Blake is confident that the standards for accountability have risen in light of past city elections. The councilor alluded to past voting irregularities at the Legion Field polling location. “People would wander around, interfere with the vote. There wasn’t really a secret ballot a lot of the time. [Jefferson County Citizens] Coalition members that were polling officials would not let poll watchers get close enough to watch,” said Blake. “Coalition polling places were something to behold.”

“I’m inclined to say we’re going to have a more honest group of election officials than we’ve had in a long time, primarily because a lot of the Coalition members didn’t show up for the Water Works referendum, and lost their positions because they didn’t show up to work,” explained Blake. “We have a better group of election officials than we had before. But I don’t think any one particular political organization ought to be picking people like that, not that I object to anyone in particular.” Admitting he thought the current group of election officials was a “good list,” Blake noted, “I don’t see anybody there that I’m really worried about.”

Nevertheless, Blake decided it was in his best interest to resign from the Election Commission. “I don’t want to sit on the commission and pretend. I don’t want my credibility to be used for some purpose other than what I think it ought to be used for. I’m not a hundred percent comfortable with it, so I’d rather not be part of it.”

Blake said that an un-named council member told him that some election officials are related to various council candidates. Blake said he was not told which official was related to which candidate. “I haven’t been given time to research [the polling official list] in any respect. [Election officials] should have been asked those questions.”

Blake said he reached his decision after the three-person commission received the list of polling officials Thursday, September 13. During the September 18 council meeting, Blake handed a note to Mayor Kincaid, City Attorney Tamara Johnson (both serve on the Election Commission, which needs only a quorum to function), and City Clerk Paula Smith. Blake also informed Council President William Bell, who had previously served on the Election Commission until he was removed by Mayor Kincaid, chairman of the commission. Bell is running for re-election, and therefore cannot serve on the commission. “There is nothing but downside for me. If it’s not done right, I will get as much credit for it as anybody. I don’t like the way the selection is organized, and I don’t want my credibility behind it because I can’t in good conscience say that I have done due diligence in terms of picking these polling officials when I didn’t do anything about picking the officials.”

In light of the current controversy between Aldrich Gunn and Hezekiah Jackson, Blake noted that his resignation allowed him to avoid the “Gunn foolishness.” &

City Hall — Neighborhood versus multi-millionaire

September 25, 2001 Neighborhood versus multi-millionaire

A proposed change in zoning from “single-family” to “office and institutional” for the Morrow House, which lies across the street from Rhodes Park on Highland Avenue, draws a large contingent of Highland residents to this morning’s meeting. The large, historic home belongs to Stephen Chazen, who has an investment organization and charitable foundation that employs five people operating out of the basement. One of the employees lives on the top floor of the house, while Chazen reportedly resides in Mountain Brook. R-3 single family zoning forbids use of a home as an office.

Alison Glascock, president of Highland Park Neighborhood Association, leads the charge against the proposed zoning change. Addressing the “special quality” of the area, Glascock says the neighborhood has “down-zoned” 31 properties back to single-family zoning, and notes that Council President William Bell has praised the neighborhood’s “cutting-edge initiative.” Pointing out increases in property values, Glascock boasts, “We are one of the few neighborhoods where we do not have a flight from the city. We have a flight into the city.” Granting the rezoning request would potentially affect all neighborhoods in Birmingham, says Glascock. “Everybody understands that spot zoning could come to them next. It could potentially devastate the neighborhoods in this city.” [Spot zoning occurs when a property is rezoned to a status different than that of surrounding properties.] “We are David fighting Goliath here. But unlike David, we are not armed with a slingshot,” explains Glascock. “You [council] are gonna have to be our slingshot. We are fighting a Goliath who has lots of money — millions of it.” The neighborhood president notes that Chazen has hired one of the top law firms in the city, while Highland Park residents have resorted to going door to door to collect money to hire an attorney to fight him. Glascock is appalled that neither Chazen nor his attorney is present for today’s public hearing, which has been advertised for six weeks. In February, the neighborhood voted 93 to 0 to fight the zoning change.

Council President Bell says he does not favor spot zoning, but wants to delay the council vote for one week so that Stephen Chazen could present his side. Neighborhood residents protest loudly in unison. Councilor Jimmy Blake joins their outcry, pointing out that Highland Park residents have worked diligently, and that the issue should therefore not be delayed.

Noting that there are few uses under R-3 single-family zoning that would allow the applicant to remain in the house while operating his business there, Glascock says that the neighborhood did agree to allow the property owner to possibly pursue a publicly-owned art museum and gallery. However, the city refused to allow the gallery proposal to go through because it would be a satellite of the Birmingham Museum of Art, and not a publicly owned facility. Rejection was also based on the accessory uses of the house in conjunction with Chazen’s business.

Charlie Beavers, the attorney representing Stephen Chazen, suddenly appears in the council chambers after receiving a call from someone in the city attorney’s office that the issue was being discussed, according to Beavers. The attorney says he was not present earlier because it was his understanding that the case would be postponed to allow a compromise with the neighborhood, as Beavers has been trying to resolve the issue without rezoning. He says he is not fully prepared to present his case, but will if necessary. The attorney explains the Birmingham Museum of Art satellite proposal, which he explains is “a use of the house that would be agreeable to our client, yet not require a zoning change.” Beavers says that the neighborhood voted 47 to 42 to support the art museum approach, which would be funded by the homeowner, who would continue to operate in a “very minimal part of the building in the basement,” according to Beavers. The art exhibits would be “neighborhood-focused art” with special showings to a limited number of people. Beavers draws the ire of residents present when he reveals that threats were delivered to the Birmingham Museum of Art from Highland Park residents. “About 15 people from that neighborhood contacted the Birmingham Museum of Art very direct, very aggressively, and said to them, ‘We don’t want you doing this. If you do, we’re gonna picket you. We’re gonna make your life miserable, and we’re gonna cause problems for the Birmingham Museum of Art if you go forward with this,’” details Beavers. According to the attorney, the Birmingham Museum of Art backed out of the deal, citing inability to cope with “that kind of heat and that kind of negative publicity that has been threatened here.”

The Morrow House was built in 1901, and remained in the Morrow family until the early 1990s. Stephen Chazen purchased the home last year. Beavers says that his client paid over $900,000 for the house, invested $200,000 for roof renovations, and currently maintains a budget of $100,000 for property upkeep. “It’s a very low-key kind of occupancy that is not detrimental to the neighborhood,” insists Beavers, who calls the home a “landmark” and his client a “responsible caretaker.” Beavers adds that the home is very expensive to maintain and not set up for modern day living. [Neighborhood residents moan in objection to the attorney’s assessment.] Beavers notes the number of mansions lost over the years because they were not appropriate for residential use due to the high cost of maintenance, referring to a pair of mansions across Rhodes Park in terrible states of disrepair. He also points out that a law office and Planned Parenthood office operate across the park on either side of the poorly kept mansions. He says his client bought the property with the understanding that he could use it as he pleased as long he did not try to change it to office and institutional zoning. Councilor Blake disagrees, arguing that spot zoning is what tears down historic homes. Blake emphasizes that Stephen Chazen purchased the house from a resident that had lived there.

Beaver continues to insist that the council be allowed to hear from his “experts and planners.” Council President Bell moves for a one-week delay so that the council will be protected from potential denial of due process allegations. The issue is delayed for one week.

Polling place changes


Councilor Sandra Little addresses concerns about changes in voting places, including complaints from residents who have no idea where they will vote. Little asks if notices will be sent out directing voters to proper voting places. Mayor Kincaid responds that a list of polling places has been sent to the Justice Department for pre-clearance, with one change from what was previously advertised: The armory on Oporto-Madrid is on alert due to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and cannot be used as a polling place. New Rising Star Baptist Church will be used instead. Councilor Aldrich Gunn objects to New Rising Star being used as a District Two polling place since the church is in District Four. [The Sunday School and day-care center are across the street from the main sanctuary, thereby placing them in District Two, while the actual church is in District Four.] The Mayor argues, but Councilor Bill Johnson says that Gunn is correct by about 50 feet. Gunn insists that all voting locations should be in the district being voted upon. Gunn then suddenly announces that he just received notice that he would be allowed on the October 9 ballot following his official filing of candidacy after the presumed 5 p.m. deadline on September 18. Kincaid quickly notes that Gunn was required to post a $6,400 bond, to which Gunn replies, “I sure did, that’s how much I believe in my democracy.” 

October 2, 2001There goes the neighborhood

Highland Park residents once again fill the council chambers for today’s vote over proposed rezoning of the Morrow House, located across from Rhodes Park in the Highland Avenue area, to “office and institutional.” Armed with traffic engineers, land-use experts, zoning maps, and photos of the surrounding neighborhood, attorney Charlie Beavers, representing Morrow House owner Stephen Chazen, attempts to change the minds of councilors who made commitments last week to turn down the zoning request. Beavers emphasizes that the residential appearance of the house will be maintained as he underscores the “low intensity” use of the home and the “mixed-use ” [residential and commercial] designation of the surrounding neighborhood.Beaver’s presentation includes a “land-planning expert” who has brought a number of slides that are projected onto a large screen in the council chambers. Many of the photographs suggest an untidy neighborhood. “Those around it [Morrow House] don’t seem to care as much for it [the neighborhood] as the Morrow House owner does,” says the expert as he flashes colorful slides of apartment complexes with over-flowing garbage cans, torn screens, and windows boarded shut. He repeatedly observes that “maintenance is lacking.” Highland Park residents in the council chambers voice loud objections to the glum depiction of their neighborhood. One photo features a quaint, old-style house with a sign in the yard that reads Chasin’ Chazen home. [Stephen Chazen reportedly lives in Mountain Brook, with his Highland Park house occupied by an employee of his investment business, UNUS Properties, LLS, which operates out of the Morrow House.] When Highland Park residents shout down this photo, the expert insists that he snapped the picture simply because he liked the house, not because of the sign designating Chazen as unwelcome.

Highland Park Neighborhood president Alison Glascock tells the council that neighborhood residents remain as adamantly opposed to rezoning as they did one week ago. Glascock admits that no one is claiming the Highland neighborhood to be exclusively an R-3 single-family district, but she insists that it is overwhelmingly a residential neighborhood. Glascock brags that the neighborhood is bringing people back from Vestavia and Mountain Brook, establishing Birmingham with a sound tax base. She again states that lack of financial resources puts the neighborhood in an underdog position in its battle with the wealthy owner of the Morrow House. “We can’t afford a fancy photographer and these other experts,” Glascock sighs with resignation. Councilor Blake, who acknowledges that he upset close friends in the neighborhood when he sought a compromise to allow Chazen to maintain his current status in the home, says that poor foresight put the neighborhood in a mixed-use status. But he acknowledges admiration for Highland residents seeking to reestablish the residential character of the area. The council denies the rezoning unanimously as residents thunderously applaud.

$25,000 man

District Two council candidate Frank Matthews addresses concerns that he is using the $25,000 contract for antigang initiatives to finance his campaign for City Council in the upcoming October 9 election. “The integrity of Frank Matthews has been questioned by hired word assassins to assassinate my character on the radio!” Matthews says in disgust. Calling the allegation an “absolute lie,” Matthews says he has the money “in its entirety” for anyone to examine. He also denounces the recent listing of voters and respective polling places in the daily newspapers in print so tiny that “it takes a gigantic thing like they use to look at stars to know where to vote.” Sample ballots are also too small, says Matthews. &

Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth

Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth

By Ed Reynolds

Commander Cody

Commander Cody

Adored by hippies and despised by the American establishment, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen introduced the world to a lethal combination of piano-pounding rock ‘n’ roll, electrified Texas swing, and truck-driving country and western. As the defiant idealism of the ’60s melted into the revolutionary decadence of the ’70s, the band, led by Commander Cody (George Frayne) from behind his piano, scored a Top Ten hit in 1971 with the irrepressible “Hot Rod Lincoln.”A noon phone call to Frayne’s Saratoga Springs, New York, residence was greeted with some reluctance by the Commander. “Give me your first question, and I’ll tell you if I’m going to do this.” He scoffed at the first query regarding the trucker aspect of the band. “I think we ought to straighten something out. I’m not the truck drivin’ guy, that’s [original Lost Planet Airmen guitarist] Bill Kirchen. I do two truckin’ songs per night.” Frayne agreed to field a few more questions, and soon was laughing through anecdotes about Communists, the FBI, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Black & White:
Tell me about the first Commander Cody gig, when you were maced by police during a Berkeley riot.

Commander Cody: (Slightly irritated) Where did you get that from?

Your bio on your web site.

That was not our first . . . (Long pause) Actually, that is correct (laughs). It was a freebie for Cody’s Bookstore. And the only reason the guy hired us was because he saw my truck that said “Cody” on the side, so he figured he should give us a gig. It was July 4, 1969. They [students] started demonstrating, and moved down the street. The kids were coming with a wall of cops behind them. It was inevitable that the giant cloud of gas got to us sooner or later. It’s nice to know there’s still something correct in the bio.

I read that the band created quite a stir when you played a country-and-western convention in Nashville in 1973.

Yeah, we were the first hippies that actually went down there to play. We got a lot of “Get a haircut” stuff. They didn’t like us very much.

And you played the Communist Party festival in Paris that same year?

Yeah, it’s funny. The only way to get started was to play free things for everybody. There would be a free concert almost everyday in Berkeley. We did benefits for everybody we could. We did Black Panthers, we did White Panthers, we did Gray Panthers. So the actual Communist Party invited us; we were the only American act. The Communists had read in the Berkeley Barb, this hippie rag, that we were these revolutionary Commies from the United States (laughs). The American Indian Movement–the Russell Means guys–later took over Alcatraz, and they invited us out there. I don’t know why, cowboys and Indians or something. We stayed out there, met all the Indian guys, came back the next day, and the FBI was on my case from that point on.

Did Castro really invite the band to play Cuba?

(Surprised) Well, yes they did! The Cubans invited us to come down because they were trying to make contact with some kind of American group. Or anybody. Like the Communists finally got ahold of Jane Fonda to go do their shit for them, but I wasn’t exactly up for that. We were radical in the way that we were different from everything else, but so was everybody different from everything else at that time. And to put us in that quote/unquote “bag,” to use the nomenclature of the time, of being actual card-carrying Commies was a whole other deal.

Tell me about David Letterman kicking you off his show because you were drunk.

Yeah, I was drunk on the “Letterman Show.” I was on the show three times because they couldn’t get anybody to be on in 1983 when they were first starting up. So I would go (laughs). The last time, I was supposed to be on Monday but wasn’t. So I went out and found a bunch of friends of mine, and we partied. I was supposed to be there on Tuesday, but they wouldn’t put me on. Finally they put me on Wednesday, and by that time I had been partying for three days. Letterman at that time was a 12-stepper [Alcoholics Anonymous], and 12-steppers and me don’t get along very well.

What about Hunter S. Thompson throwing bombs at you in a Florida hotel room?

I was booked with the Rolling Stone Lecture Bureau through a woman who worked for Cox Cable in 1977, when The Lost Planet Airmen Band had broken up, and I didn’t have anything to do. I did lectures for Rolling Stone, and the subject was “The Function of the Subconscious Mind.” It was about creativity, and I lectured at eight or nine colleges around the country. Hunter Thompson saw me on that last “Letterman Show” we were talking about, and at that time everyone wanted to interview him because they saw how wacky and zany he was. He said he’d do an interview with me, so Cox Cable flies me down to Key West, where Bill Murray and Hunter Thompson are holding forth, doing more drugs and alcohol than you can possibly imagine (laughs). The interview started, and Hunter took out a taser [stun gun] and fired it at the camera man, who immediately packed up and flew back to Washington, D.C., leaving me all alone. There was a woman there who had a giant bag of drugs, and she wound up in my room. Hunter and the owner of the hotel didn’t like me because I had on an F-18 T-shirt, and they were Navy guys and they didn’t figure I had been in the service. So they got in their little boat next to the hotel, and Hunter had taped together a bowling ball-sized object made of taped-together M-80s that he fired through the sliding glass door of my room. Sounded like a bunch of shotgun blasts, broke all the glass, and set the room on fire! The chick grabs her bag of dope and heads out the door, and, of course, Hunter was out there waiting on her (laughs).

Living in Michigan in the ’60s, did you know the MC5?

Yes, indeed. I was listening to Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, and a lot of those kind of piano players that are really important. But the MC5 I never liked because it reminded me of Ted Nugent and stuff that was too loud and too stupid. I can’t remember what the theme song of the MC5 was.

“Kick Out the Jams.”

Cody: Yeah! “Kick out the jams, motherf***er!” That describes the Detroit attitude perfectly: Kick out the jams, motherf***er! So I never got along with that kind of music, because we were serious about playing electrified western swing with a beat. We loved it, and tried to play it modern enough so that people could dig it. And I think in the long term we were successful, because we spawned Asleep at the Wheel, and they went on to be very successful.

Did you spend much time with Janis Joplin?

I met Janis and hung around her at the same time when Kristofferson met her. She was a wonderful, wonderful person. She had the body of a 14-year-old girl and the face of a 45-year-old woman. And she was, like, 22 at the time. She had a lot of problems with self-confidence and stuff like that. You’d look at her face and go, “Jesus, this is a hardened hag,” but she was not at all. She was actually a sweet kid. She found her own way to get out of it, and blew it.

B &W:
Do you miss the hippie days?

Well, yes and no. They [hippies] have their own built-in minority support group, you know what I mean? They started that whole politically correct crap: You gotta be nice to everyone no matter what. So no, I don’t miss the hippies (laughs). I wasn’t really a hippie. I never grew my hair that long. We were just in it for the “crazy chicks” part of the hippie movement. So was everybody else (laughs). Get some of that free love, baby! A lot of us just quit our jobs and said, “What the f***, let’s see what happens.” And we lucked out


Commander Cody performs Sunday, September 16, at Spanky’s On Valley. Call 945-1414 for details.

District Two Candidates Forum

District Two Candidates Forum

The District Two Birmingham City Council candidates forum, sponsored by the Eastwood Neighborhood Association, was held at Putnam Middle School on September 6. During the event, community activist and candidate for city council Frank Matthews continued his shameless shenanigans.

Before the candidates began making stump speeches, the neighborhood voted overwhelmingly to raise $2,500 for an illuminated sign for Putnam Middle School; the sign will be used to advertise school functions and special events. Matthews, the first candidate to speak to the crowd, pulled from his pocket a $100 check already made out to the Eastwood Neighborhood Association “as a challenge to his opponents to also contribute to the [Putnam School] sign.”

The group of teens who shadow Matthews’ campaign appearances stood behind the candidate as he spoke, hoisting a huge banner laminated with newspaper clippings that tout Matthew’s commitment to city youth. [Matthews has a $25,000 contract with the city to develop anti-gang initiatives, and some local political observers question whether or not the kids working for Matthews are being paid.] “I do understand hard work, and that’s why I’ve got my construction hat,” saids Matthews, as one teen handed him the orange construction helmet the candidate frequently sports when campaigning. “First thing I’ll do is ask my good friends down in the Legislature to put forth legislation that would change how the mayor and the council function, because [city] department heads answer to the mayor and not the council,” said Matthews, stressing the importance of giving the city council the authority to direct department heads.

Carol Reynolds, a 14-year employee of the Birmingham Water Works, spoke next. “This is the city I love,” Reynolds began. “And I know how to work hard.” She decried the “low expectations of our council, the low expectations of the service to our city. People need to be in charge of government and not government in charge of the people.” Fielding the inevitable question about her views, as a Water Works employee, on the controversial Water Works Board, Reynolds candidly replied, “I’m not for the Water Works being a city department. Something that could undergo change every four years as crucial as [our water] is not a good idea. I have a problem with each board member making $240 to attend a meeting. I have a problem with a board that is more powerful than the employees. I have a problem with a board that is willing to develop land on the Lake Purdy watershed. I respect them, they’re my supervisors, but they know how I feel.”

Candidate Richard Rutledge began by claiming, “I never dreamed I would ever be involved in anything political.” Rutledge expressed his disgust over the fact that eastern Birmingham has changed so much, and the “mass exodus” that has taken place in the area. “As a realtor, I can not sell property in Birmingham with the conditions of [local] schools,” said Rutledge. “I’m mad about what’s happened to our city!”

Councilor Bill Johnson claimed that “all the brouhaha you see at City Council every Tuesday” is not what governing is really about. Johnson explained that city government should provide basic necessities, such as properly maintained paved streets, reliable garbage pickup, and quality schools. “I’ve worked diligently to try to do those things where I can to make improvements in quality of life,” said Johnson. He admitted that there was one campaign promise he had yet to fulfill. “I promised to stop the insanity [at City Hall]. I haven’t been able to do that.”

Candidate Al Rutledge focused on “regional cooperation” and more development of retail in downtown Birmingham. “I’m not going to get down there [City Hall] and cause a laughingstock. I will represent you well,” said Rutledge, acknowledging that the best way to communicate with people is to go door to door.

City Hall — September 11, 2001

By Ed Reynolds

September 11, 2001

After the attack on the World Trade Center, the only access to City Hall is the 19th Street entrance. One of two television monitors in the third floor council chambers that usually beam council proceedings close-up is tuned to news reports, and this morning’s Pledge of Allegiance takes on a dramatic mood in the aftermath. Birmingham Police Chief Mike Coppage announces the implementation of the city’s security plan, which calls for additional patrolmen, though Coppage emphasizes there is no credible threat to the city at the time. Councilor Lee Loder asks who is responsible for gathering intelligence. Coppage replies that the city has liaisons with the FBI, ATF, and Secret Service to update impending emergencies.Bell apologizes to Mayor


At last week’s council meeting, Council President William Bell denied that he ever said he would be a candidate in the October 9 council election after Mayor Kincaid had said Bell was indeed a candidate. At issue was the appointment of Councilor Jimmy Blake to the Election Commission to replace Bell, who can’t serve on the commission if he is also a candidate. Acknowledging that he is reluctant to do so in light of the morning’s attack, Kincaid plays an April 18, 2001 tape of Bell confirming his candidacy on the air with WATV radio talk show host Shelly Stewart. Bell apologizes to Kincaid for denying his candidacy, and says the Mayor was acting correctly in removing him from the Election Commission.Blake questions loans

A $400,000 HUD Section 108 loan to O’Brien’s Seafood Restaurant in Roebuck creates a storm of protest from Councilors Aldrich Gunn and Blake. [HUD determines the interest rate for the 20-year loan, which is usually below market rates. No letter of credit is required, and the city takes the risk.] Blake notes that the business already has received $1.2 million in loans and benefits, and questions why more money is being loaned. The councilor is also puzzled about the criteria used to determine who is eligible for Section 108 loans. “If I put up a sign saying ‘Low interest money below market rates. Come to the city of Birmingham. You can suck off us’ and they all come in, are you going to give them all a loan?” Blake objects to the notion of taxpaying businesses subsidizing other businesses through taxpayer dollars.Kincaid emphasizes that the city must be willing to take risks for economic development. “Maybe we do need to put out neon signs,” says the Mayor, noting that HUD was concerned that Birmingham was not taking advantage of available funds, which puts the city at risk of not receiving new appropriations. “The triggering device is application. The other businesses have not made application,” explains the Mayor, stressing the importance of a sound tax base. Councilor Lee Loder explains that the loans are designed to stimulate low to moderate income areas that have problems attracting investors. The restaurant is behind on loan payments due to a small mountain in back of the business that is collapsing, destroying a previous retaining wall and thereby boosting expenses.

In a free market system, explains Blake, the government stays out of loaning money because the city is “gambling with taxpayers’ money.” Blake says it is “immoral to take money from one person and give it to another. That is not a proper function of government at any level.” The loan is approved.

Citizen empowerment

Councilor Blake offers a resolution confirming that the city council is elected to represent, and not rule, citizens, and all council authority is based on the consent of the governed. The resolution also states that all property and assets held by the city and affiliated boards and agencies are owned by citizens and are held in trust for their benefit. The right to initiatives and referendum allows citizens to initiate and pass laws, or to overrule council action through referendum, further states the resolution. Bell and Gunn leave the room as the resolution is read, leaving Blake in charge. Blake charges that the council ignored the will of the public regarding the fate of the Water Works assets, and exhibited “contempt for Birmingham voters” by refusing to pay for the February 2001 referendum. [A similar referendum regarding citizens' voice in the fate of solid waste was initiated through petition drives, and would have been on the October 9 ballot. However, last week the council unanimously approved the solid waste referendum, thereby keeping the issue off the ballot.] Approval by the council of the solid waste proposal is a contradiction in relation to refusal to pay for the Water Works referendum, according to Blake. Councilor Johnson, who frequently butts heads with Blake, commends Blake for the resolution. Johnson agrees that citizens hold the right to overrule the council.

Councilor Sandra Little is suspicious of Blake’s motives and sees no need for the resolution. She defends her position not to pay for the Water Works referendum and demands that her district receive the same attention that Blake’s Southside district has received, especially in areas of economic development and street repair. Blake accuses her of changing the issue under discussion. Little replies that Blake is merely attempting to set a trap the council refuses to fall for. “You [Blake] dug that ditch big enough for all your cronies to fall in,” says Little. Councilor Don MacDermott, who has sided with the council majority refusing to pay for the Water Works referendum, says the referendum issue is basically whether or not a city water department should be created. MacDermott says Blake’s statement that 81 percent of city voters supported the citizens referendum is misleading because “only 10 percent” of registered voters participated in the referendum. Noting that all but one councilor (Blake) voted to voluntarily submit to drug-testing one year ago, MacDermott poses the scenario of citizens organizing a petition demanding that all councilors submit to drug tests, and asks if Blake would agree to be tested. Blake fumes that councilors are avoiding the issue.

September 18, 2001

Long-time Aldrich Gunn assistant Hezekiah Jackson quit his $50,000 position the day after last week’s council meeting when he appeared on local radio to announce that he had information regarding Gunn and other Jefferson County Citizens Coalition members that might interest the U.S. Justice Department. The subject is side-stepped during the council meeting, but after the meeting, reporters surround Gunn like “flies,” a favorite term of Gunn’s when alluding to the media. Gunn glares at the persistent mob of notebook, microphone, and camera-wielding reporters as he refuses to “dignify the questions with comments.” It’s one of the few times reporters have devoted attention to the elderly councilor with the golden tongue.

Long live the Cue Ball

Revocation of the liquor license for the controversial Cue Ball in the Lakeview district returns to the council agenda. Councilor Bill Johnson suggests a four-week delay of the item [which has been deferred numerous times since January of this year], but Cue Ball attorney Ferris Ritchey is tired of waiting. Johnson says a delay will allow a compromise that could satisfy everyone. Ritchey responds that the complaining businesses should help the Cue Ball get out of its lease if they want the club to vacate the area. Councilor Blake notes the extent of the nuisance, citing “drug convictions and fights” at the club, and partially blames the landlord for creating the problem by putting a lounge on the block in the first place. Blake agrees that the landlord should be more cooperative in ending the lease.

Noting that the club is licensed and operating in an area that is properly zoned, Ritchey threatens a lawsuit against the businesses for “torturous interference with a business” if the liquor license is revoked. Ritchey says the businesses “don’t want black people in their neighborhood!” Councilor Loder says that only one incident has occurred in the past six months, and the trash problem cited as a nuisance has been addressed. “I’m not going to sit here and be a moral judge, even though I may have some moral differences that go on [there],” says Loder. He sees no justification for revocation.

Calling the complaints against the lounge “a traffic jam of people not following the law,” Councilor Blake notes the large number of arrest and nuisance reports lodged against the Cue Ball. Blake calls Ritchey a “slick lawyer trying to make a racial issue of something that is a nuisance issue.” When Ritchey objects, Blake tells him to sit down because he is not a council member and has no right to monopolize speaking time. (Council President Bell laughs at Blake’s reference to the monopolizing of time by others.) Refusal to remove the license is an example of why businesses flee the city of Birmingham, says Blake. “Businesses don’t come into areas that look like they’ve been bombed out, that are littered, where gangs are hanging out, where traffic won’t move. If you want businesses in your neighborhoods, in your council districts, in local business communities, you must stand up,” he explains. At this point Johnson walks over and whispers in the ear of various councilors, purportedly because character issues are being discussed. Little objects to “hidden agendas going around,” which she calls “totally out of order.” Unable to hide his disgust, Blake replies, “Sandra, that’s such a lie.” Mayor Kincaid also disapproves, protesting that there are Sunshine Laws against “serial meetings” by council. Kincaid reminds councilors that whatever the council does has to come to the Mayor for approval or disapproval. The council refuses to grant a delay, and votes five to four allowing the Cue Ball to keep its license.

“Telegram” poles

Posting signs, political or otherwise, on telephone poles is against the law. Councilor Leroy Bandy protests that his signs have been removed from private property, while other candidates’ signs are allowed to remain on “telegram poles.” Street and Sanitation Department head Stephen Fancher says that department employees are instructed to remove all illegal signs, and discrimination against candidates is not a departmental practice.

Judas Iscariot

Citizen Eddie Turner admonishes former Aldrich Gunn aid Hezekiah Jackson for betraying Gunn. Noting that he previously had tremendous respect for Jackson, Turner is convinced that Jackson is named after Hezekiah in the Bible, who asked God for 15 more years of life when it was his time to die, according to Turner, resulting in eternal damnation. Turner concludes that Jackson is “like a man without a country,” and notes that Judas “went out and hung himself after he betrayed Christ.” &

Struck by White Lightning

Struck by White Lightning

The hard-livin’ world of George Jones

George Jones’ personal and career escapades are the stuff of countrymusic legend.

The first five times I went to see George Jones, he didn’t bother to show up. In those days, promoters rarely knew in advance where the unreliable Jones might be come showtime, so road trips became crapshoots. Our enthusiastic, traveling fan club frequently placed bets on whether or not Jones would appear. On one evening in 1981, the Jones’ hit “Tonight, I Just Don’t Give a Damn” blasted from the car stereo as we drove to Meridian, Mississippi, to give him another chance. There at the city auditorium a posted sign read “Tonight’s Concert Canceled.” A friend, who at the time managed the Longbranch Saloon in Avondale, later said that Jones and the band stopped in Birmingham for lunch on the way to Meridian that day. When asked to suggest a nearby place to drink, a waitress at a local barbecue joint recommended the Longbranch. By late afternoon, a Jones band member reminded the entourage that they had a show to play three hours away in Mississippi. An intoxicated Jones merely shrugged and laughed, “Well, it looks like we ain’t gonna make it!”

Jones disappeared on us again 20 years ago in Birmingham. Several thousand waited inside Boutwell Auditorium as his band played Jones’ introduction for the fourth time. Disgusted, the guitarist finally gave up and told the throng, “Looks like George ain’t gonna make it tonight.” The singer reportedly was out of his head drunk at a popular Southside pub the entire time.

As early as 1967, Jones’ roller coaster life of unpredictability began to zoom out of control. According to the biography, George Jones: The Saga of an American Singer, during an alcohol-fueled argument, Jones shoved soon-to-be third wife Tammy Wynette down the aisle of their tour bus. The band had to lock Jones in the back of the bus, which was proudly emblazoned “Mr. & Mrs. Country Music,” eventually letting him out to force him onstage. The singer performed one song, then left, leaving Wynette to finish the show alone. Four days later, he resurfaced to tell her their impending wedding was off. The next morning he woke up sober, found Wynette, and whisked her across the Georgia state line for an impromptu civil wedding ceremony in the aptly named town of Ringgold. It was the third marriage for each.

The five-year marriage was not a pretty sight. Notorious for destroying the couple’s home on more than one occasion, Jones frequently smashed television sets, hurled whiskey bottles, and even once fired a shotgun at Wynette as she fled from their house in the middle of the night in her pajamas. Wynette once hid the keys to Jones’ fleet of luxury automobiles to prevent him from riding into town to his favorite bar. He simply hot-wired his riding lawn mower, to which the keys had also been hidden, and made the 10-mile trek anyway.

Jones’ steady diet of booze, cocaine, and amphetamines soon fueled even more notorious behavior. One night in Mississippi, Jones was pulled over for speeding. Arresting officers reportedly scraped a sizeable quantity of cocaine off the floormat of his Lincoln Continental. Less than 24 hours after his release from jail, the singer lost control of the Lincoln and barrel-rolled down the same Mississippi highway. Jones checked into Hillcrest Hospital in Birmingham soon afterward for rest and evaluation.

By 1980, Jones was homeless, living out of his car and seedy motels. He was once discovered by police after having apparently ridden around for days in a Cadillac littered with whiskey bottles, empty sardine cans, and a life-size cardboard figure of Hank Williams, Sr., sitting upright next to him. Jones eventually created a couple of imaginary friends named “Deedoodle the Duck” and “The Old Man,” imitating their voices (which sounded like Donald Duck and Walter Brennan) as he frequently carried on a three-way conversation with himself, often on stage.

In 1981, the entire country finally got to witness what transpires when George Jones descends into hell. Jones had been pulled over by Tennessee patrolmen for erratic driving. Caught on film by a Nashville television station cameraman driving by, an obviously drunken Jones, hair disheveled and eyes bloodshot, screamed and lunged at the camera crew. He was led away in handcuffs as millions looked on.

George Jones scored his first million seller in 1982 with his signature hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It was a song he absolutely loathed. His career appeared to be on the rebound until an appearance with Tammy Wynette on “The Tonight Show.” Jones stopped midway through the couple’s duet of “Two-Story House” to confess to the nationwide audience that he couldn’t remember the lyrics.

After three years of trying, I finally saw George Jones in 1984 in Columbus, Georgia. Though inebriated, Jones’ voice was mesmerizing that night, his silver hair sprayed to immaculate perfection. No singer carries a note like Jones. His voice is devoid of the vibrato embraced by most crooners; listeners are treated instead to a pure nasal tenor that has been long-admired by vocal stylists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings. (Jennings once told a writer curious about the diverse styles in country music, “Hoss, if we could all sound like who we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.”)

Jones finally addressed his drinking problem, and through the ’90s became as reliable as a Chet Atkins guitar lick. An album of duets recorded in 1992 with a variety of musical heavyweights included rock ‘n’ roll’s poster child for decadence, Keith Richards. According to a Nashville recording engineer, Jones was late to the studio reportedly having driven around the city for hours to avoid the temptations that Richards frequently brought to recording sessions. Jones finally showed up just as Richards was wheeling a fully stocked portable bar into the studio (Jones later assessed Richard’s vocal performance as “so odd it sounded good.”).

Then two years ago he crashed his car into a bridge, blaming the wreck on a cell-phone conversation with his daughter. A half-empty bottle of vodka found beneath the Cadillac’s seat told the truth, however. Rushed to the hospital in critical condition, it was doubtful that Jones would survive this latest episode, as his long-abused liver was severely lacerated as a result of the accident. A couple of weeks later he walked out of the hospital, and was performing again in two months.

A friend’s grandmother once encountered Jones in the hallway of University Hospital’s psychiatric unit. It was in the early 1980s during one of the singer’s extended stays in Birmingham to get his life-long demons under control. The old woman stared and excitedly exclaimed, “You’re George Jones!” Jones slowly nodded his head and quietly replied, “Yes, ma’am, I am. And I’m a sick man.” &

George Jones will perform at Looney’s Tavern Amphitheatre in Double Springs, Alabama, on Saturday, September 1, 8:00 p.m. Lawn seats are available for $17.00. Call 1-800-566-6397 or visit for further info. Looney’s is located at 22400 Hwy 278 East. Jones is also scheduled to perform in Oneonta on October 27 at a venue yet to be announced. Check for further announcements.