Tag Archives: Alabama

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon

Originally published in WELD on October 24, 2015

The Gospel According to T.C. Cannon




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

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

In springtime, a boy’s fancy turns to breaking the law.

April 06, 2006

Thirty years ago, a pair of college pals and I got the bright idea to ride our bicycles to Pensacola during Auburn University’s spring break. But only two of us owned bikes. In 1976, Biggin Hall on campus was home to the school of architecture; industrial design students were assigned to the building’s basement. Tim was the friend without a bicycle. However, he was studying industrial design, and thus experienced at operating the assorted machinery and power tools that were part of his curriculum. The three of us lived on the same floor at Magnolia Dormitory. Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us who was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation never locked his blue Schwinn to any permanent structure in the stairwell, instead looping a heavy chain and lock around the rear wheel and bike frame so it could not be ridden away by a thief, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

We loaded the Schwinn into the trunk of my Chevelle and drove through a deserted campus to the industrial design lab. We scouted for a campus night watchman making his rounds as we crept down to the basement machine shop with the locked-up bicycle. Shortly, an unbearably loud bandsaw-type contraption disrupted the silence of the ghost town the Auburn campus became between quarters. It took 15 minutes to cut the chain loose from the bike. The basement lab had windows that could be seen from the street. Should we be spotted sawing a locked chain off of a bicycle, we doubted that the security guard or any campus cop driving by would believe that we were simply borrowing the bike. Before we could finish, a night watchman walked into the room. Luckily, it was the campus security guard whom Joey, the other friend in our trio of bandits, and I knew from nights spent working on oil paintings in a building nearby. He recognized us and, amazingly, bought our story that we were slicing off the chain because we could not remember the combination to the lock.

The next morning, we drove to my hometown of Selma in the Chevelle with one bike in the trunk and two strapped on top of the automobile (Selma to Pensacola was a much shorter trip than bicycling from Auburn.) At sunrise the following day, we pedaled off on our adventure down Highway 41, a two-lane that led us to a county road, which took us to Oak Hill at the end of day one of our trip, some 50 miles. After stopping at a small grocery late that afternoon to inquire if there were any churches where we could spend the night (due to a drizzling rain), we were instead offered a stable in the backyard of the proprietor’s home a few miles away. Settled into our sleeping bags, we suddenly heard the grocery owner’s wife shouting at her husband from the house: “There’s damn rattlesnakes out there in that damn stable! Let those damn boys sleep up here at the house!” The remainder of the evening was spent on the couple’s stately front porch.

None of us had proper bikes for a 300-mile journey, and our pathetic 10-speed bicycles made the unexpectedly hilly terrain of southwest Alabama a grueling workout. Forty miles farther south by lunch the next day, there wasn’t much fun being had. We were in no shape to pedal all the way to Florida. Finally resorting to flagging down pickup trucks, we lied to an elderly man who pulled over to help, claiming mechanical problems. Three rides later, we arrived at sunset on the outskirts of Pensacola.

We spent the days riding, swimming, and scouting for potential shelter should it rain come bedtime. Each evening we indulged in cheap draft beer and loud bands knocking off Led Zeppelin and Stones covers at beach-front lounges. After midnight, sleeping bags were drunkenly hauled as close to the water as the tides allowed. Few experiences are more hypnotic and peaceful than drifting off to sleep outdoors as waves crash against the shore a couple of hundred feet away. The steady drone of the surf, the stars, and breaking whitecaps were mesmerizing, and a cure for even the worst insomnia. After three days of carousing the bars of Pensacola and sleeping on the beach at night, we headed back north.

The first day we got as far as Atmore, Alabama, without bumming rides. It began to rain. Not wanting to spend the money or violate the spirit of true adventure by getting a motel room, we went to the police station to see if they could suggest a free place to stay. They did. We were given a cell for the night but were told not to close the jail door; the morning shift would never believe our story if we had to ask the jailers to let us out because we accidently locked ourselves up. Having secured sleeping quarters, we walked to a city diner that evening, then went to see the film Shampoo at the town’s lone movie theater. Later, back at the jail, we laughed ourselves to sleep at the spectacle of spending the night in a jail cell with an open door—with a stolen bicycle in our possession.

Pedaling out of town the next morning, we discussed the plight of those locked up in the federal prison on the outskirts of Atmore as we cycled past the scary-looking penitentiary on the highway. The three of us wondered aloud what percentage of those locked up had bicycle theft on their rap sheets. Though taking a different route back to Selma, pedaling again became a strenuous bore, and we reverted to the same lies that had gotten us most of the way to Pensacola in the backs of trucks. By noon, we had reached Camden, about 20 miles south of Selma. While eating lunch at a local cafe, a woman in the next booth overheard us speculating about how long it would take to reach Selma. She was a photographer for the Auburn Plainsman, the school paper, and when she learned that we were Auburn students, she requested a photo with a caption detailing how three students spent their spring vacation. Forgetting we had a stolen bicycle from the Auburn campus, we failed to consider the consequences of having our picture splashed across the front page of the school paper.

One act of theft was enough to last me a lifetime. Tim had probably had his fill, too. Oddly, Joey soon began getting his kicks dressing in black from head to toe (including smearing black paint on his face), roaming the Auburn campus in the middle of the night to steal potted plants from outside stores and residences. He boasted of eluding the police on several occasions.

We got back to campus before the Nebraska kid returned to Auburn for spring quarter. The stolen Schwinn was returned to its proper place in the dormitory stairwell, as had been our plan all along. We even saved the butchered chain with accompanying lock, draping the chain across the frame and relishing the guy’s probable astonishment that his chain had been cut, yet his bicycle was still where he had left it a week earlier. &


All Souled Out — The famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closes.

All Souled Out

The famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closes.

March 10, 2005

In the late 1960s, the small northwest Alabama town of Muscle Shoals became a magnet for many top recording stars. Attracted by a phenomenally tight and versatile house band later known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, many black rhythm and blues singers, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and others, flocked to FAME Studios to discover that the studio’s legendary funky sound was created by a quartet of white men—Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett, and Roger Hawkins. “The Muscle Shoals Sound” soon was in such demand that the four musicians decided to start their own studio a few miles down the road in Sheffield, and in 1969 opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in an old casket warehouse. The first sessions at the new facility were for Cher’s album 3614 Jackson Highway, so named because it was the studio’s address. R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria” was the studio’s first hit. Leon Russell dubbed them the Muscle Shoals Swampers on the back of one of his albums, and Lynyrd Skynyrd referenced “the Swampers” in the hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Mick Jagger twists the knobs on the console at Muscle Shoals Sound, where the Rolling Stones recorded three songs for the Sticky Fingers, including “Brown Sugar.” (click for larger version)

The Rolling Stones recorded three songs there (“Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “You Gotta Move”) for the album Sticky Fingers while on their 1969 tour. Bands not from the U.S. had to apply for either a touring or a recording visa to be permitted to work in the country. The Stones’ first choice had reportedly been Stax Records studio in Memphis, but since Memphis had a higher profile in the recording industry, the band opted for the relative obscurity of Muscle Shoals. Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player David Hood recalls that the Stones sessions were supposed to be top secret. “We worked during the day, then at night they brought in the Stones. We were supposed to keep it a secret that they were coming because they didn’t have the proper work permits to record in the United States,” says Hood. “They flew from Miami and had chartered an old Super Constellation four-motor prop plane. It was smoking and leaking oil, so half the group wouldn’t get on the plane (in Miami). So they flew in on Southern Airways, so it was kind of hard to keep it a secret.” The recording of “Wild Horses” is documented in the film Gimme Shelter. (In one memorable scene, Keith Richards smiles through rotten teeth as he proudly flashes a Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken souvenir.) The unassuming life of a small Alabama town was a perfect respite for rock stars accustomed to being mobbed by fans. One story has it that the Stones would tell curious waitresses in Muscle Shoals’ diners that they were Martha and the Vandellas. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reportedly wrote “Wild Horses” while lounging in the grass in front of the Executive Inn in Florence (right across the river from Muscle Shoals). Hood remembers the Stones being very business-like. “When people come to a recording studio to work, they’re not doing a lot of showbiz stuff, they gotta work,” he explains. “The way [the Stones] worked up their songs, it was different from us. Whereas we were very quick and would learn a song in 30 or 40 minutes and have it recorded in an hour, they worked all night or sometimes a couple of days on one song. They pretty much knew what they wanted, but they would work a long time to get it because they weren’t polished musicians.”

Pops and Mavis Staples confer during the recording of the Staples Singers hit “I’ll Take You There.” Pops was reportedly disappointed that he didn’t get to play guitar on the session. (click for larger version)

In 1972, Paul Simon showed up in Muscle Shoals looking for the “black musicians” who had backed up Aretha Franklin. “We worked as a rhythm section together so much that we got really tight. We were very fast,” recalls Hood. “Paul Simon rented the studio and booked us for four or five days to cut one song. And we got it on the first or second take. So that’s what led to us recording ‘Kodachrome’ and ‘Love Me Like a Rock’ and other stuff. We had all this extra time.”

The tiny town was once a vital component of the recording industry.

Jimmy Cliff came to Muscle Shoals to record “Sitting Here in Limbo” for The Harder They Come soundtrack. “They sent him here trying to make him sound non-Jamaican,” says Hood. “This was before Bob Marley and the Jamaican thing caught hold, so they were trying to Americanize his sound.” Bob Seger cut “Old Time Rock & Roll” and “Mainstreet” at Muscle Shoals Sound. When Bob Dylan was recording there, he brought in Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler to record Dylan’s gospel masterpiece Slow Train Coming. Hood said the Dylan sessions were the only ones to draw a crowd of people hanging around outside the studio. When asked if Dylan, who had just converted to Christianity at the time of Slow Train Coming, exhibited any signs of having become an evangelical Christian, Hood says, “I think more than anything else that was a way to cut a different kind of record, a different style. Jerry Wexler [Atlantic Records] is the one who brought him here. Jerry’s a very shrewd businessman, and he saw that this was a commercial thing here, Bob Dylan changing the message of his songs. He saw it as an opportunity. I’m afraid I’m taking a little of the glamour out of this stuff.”

Cher poses in front of the original studio location.

By 1978, the business had outgrown its Jackson Highway space and the studio moved into a 31,000-square-foot building. The company was sold to Malaco Records, based in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1985. Citing a lack of business, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closed its doors in February 2005. As to the secret of the Muscle Shoals sound, Hood has a simple definition: “It was our goal not to sound like ourselves, but to sound like the band of the artist we were working with.” &

City Hall — The council shall determine its own rules


December 30, 2004

“The council shall determine its own rules,” read Mayor Bernard Kincaid from the Mayor-Council Act , which sets the rules of governing for the city of Birmingham. At issue was whether or not Councilor Gwen Sykes could ask for reconsideration of a vote that failed earlier that day. That vote would have secured the remaining $22 million Kincaid had requested from the council for end-of-year budget requests, which total $31 million. The council approved $9 million of the request on November 23.

Sykes abstained on the first vote at the December 7 meeting, causing the budget request to fail in a four-to-four deadlock. The only way a vote can be recalled is by request from the prevailing side, a councilor who had voted against the budget request in this instance. But Sykes asked for a ruling on whether someone who had abstained could seek a second vote. City Clerk Paula Smith, parliamentarian for the council meetings, said that Sykes was allowed to do so. City attorneys and council attorney J. Richmond Pearson agreed with the city clerk.


However, Councilor Joel Montgomery, reading from Robert’s Rules of Order, said anyone abstaining from a vote could only bring it back up in a special or standing committee, such as when the council meets for work sessions in what is called a “committee of the whole meeting [requires a quorum].” Montgomery argued that a regular Tuesday council meeting did not meet such criteria, as it is a legislative body. Council President Lee Loder overruled him and allowed Sykes to bring the vote back, which passed this time when she voted “yes” along with Councilors Royal, Reynolds, Miller, and Hendricks [who had voted "no" the first time]. Councilor Carole Smitherman abstained after voting “no” initially, while Councilors Abbott and Montgomery retained their “no” votes.

It was the second time in a month that a vote has been reversed with Sykes as the swing councilor. On November 9 Sykes abstained from voting to approve the hiring of Henry Sciortino as the city’s financial advisor. That vote had resulted in confusion about whether three votes constituted a majority when two voted “no” and two abstained. Loder allowed the vote to be taken again at meeting’s end, by which time Sykes decided to vote “yes” after talking with Mayor Kincaid. Whether Kincaid will now support Sykes in next October’s council elections is a matter of great curiosity at City Hall.

The budget request has been before the council since October, yet oddly, councilors reportedly did not meet to work out the details, though Kincaid did huddle individually with all but Councilor Montgomery. [Kincaid said that Montgomery failed to reschedule a canceled meeting, while Montgomery said no meeting was ever scheduled.] Councilor Valerie Abbott said she was not opposed to all of the items in the year-end budget, but simply wants the council to sit down as a group to develop a policy for spending from the city’s reserves. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m against fixing a dam or against fixing any of the things on this list. The Mayor was really kind to talk to us individually, but we need to sit down as a group and hear what each other has to say—not to be operating in a vacuum,” said Abbott.

The $22 million, which will be taken from the city’s approximately $88 million in reserve funds, includes $13 million for a Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex parking lot, $1 million for flood mitigation, $500,000 for the Birmingham Zoo, $575,000 for a minority disparity study, $500,000 for repair work at East Lake Dam, and $120,000 for roof work on the A.G. Gaston Motel. Another $5 million appeared to be the most controversial, as it was earmarked for nothing other than “emergencies.”

Councilor Carol Reynolds expressed displeasure with the initial deadlocked vote that caused the budget request to fail. “I’m pretty dismayed about the vote that we just had on the spending,” Reynolds noted. “There are a lot of things in here I maybe could not have supported. But the East Lake Dam and the million dollars for flood mitigation are two of the most important issues in this city.” Then Reynolds shocked her colleagues with this dire warning: “I hope we have enough money to buy body bags if that dam [East Lake] breaks.” Councilor Joel Montgomery immediately took umbrage to that comment. “To characterize us as sitting on it [East Lake Dam], committing murder, and putting people in body bags is totally out of order,” said Montgomery in disgust. “We can pull East Lake Dam out of this entire amount here and vote on it by itself at any time this council deems it necessary.” Montgomery added that a second option was to have the dam declared an emergency if it was that dangerous.

After the council initially failed to approve the budget request, Councilor Bert Miller expressed shock that his colleagues could not reach a consensus to financially help residents: “We’re going to set this city back 20 or 30 years, possibly more than that!” Miller, who filed for bankruptcy in November with $93,000 in debt (according to an article in the Birmingham Post-Herald published the day the council approved the remaining $22,000,000), admitted, “I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m broke; I’m not afraid to say that, because I’ve tried since I’ve been here to help other people . . . There are the haves and the have-nots.” Miller, who in the past has bragged that he was “the money man,” has made headlines during his council tenure by drawing the names of poor to help. To this observer, it looked like a blatant attempt to purchase votes. Perhaps the councilor should consider that a politician who can’t handle his own finances has no business meddling with taxpayers’ money. &

City Council — City Council Pontification Blasted by Mayor


October 07, 2004

When business owners come before the Birmingham City Council with liquor license applications, it’s routine for the councilors to indulge in self-righteous pontification. This time it’s the Best Convenience Store on Pearson Avenue near West End High School that’s prompting the Council’s grandstanding. Store owner Ashal Saeed bought the business a month ago after moving to Birmingham from California. Community residents and school officials have been distressed that the store’s reportedly long-standing practice of selling single cigarettes and beer to teens is allegedly being continued by Saeed, though no one submits proof during the council meeting that the store owner is guilty. Although Councilor Carole Smitherman said she had seen groups of school children in uniforms leaving the store during the middle of the day while smoking, she said she assumed that they purchased the cigarettes at the Best Convenience Store.

Neighborhood activist Nell Allen has complained about the store for some time. “When you walk into the store you see barrels of cold beer and wine; cold and ready for them [presumably students] to purchase!” complained Allen, who was concerned about the beer signs on the premises as well. Students have also reportedly been pouring beer into soda containers so they can drink in class, though again, no one could prove that the alcohol was purchased at the Best Convenience Store. Arguing that teachers are at a disadvantage when instructing because students are “drugged and drunk” in class, Allen also complained that “you can smell dope in the air” when in the store’s vicinity, a claim which Councilor Bert Miller confirmed in a shocking manner: “I got high [in the store's vicinity] standing on the corner, almost, last week!” He added that the store was “filled with litter and loud music.”


“We don’t need this in our neighborhoods, especially in our black neighborhoods,” Miller said, invoking a racial conspiracy theory. “I think some of these owners are preying on these black people in our neighborhoods!” The councilor often condemns the sale of alcohol in black neighborhoods— when he’s not complaining about the lack of minority contractors employed on city projects. Apparently, he fails to see the discrimination aspect of denying alcohol to black residents more frequently than white ones.

Mayor Bernard Kincaid has grown weary of the Birmingham City Council’s foot-in-mouth reactions when denying applications to sell alcohol. “The council actually uses the issue to pontificate and to express their distress for licenses going into certain communities. That is not what the law says. If it proves to be a nuisance, if it proves to be a detriment to the community, and it’s turned down on that basis, then [applicants] find solace by going across the [Linn] park to circuit court to get the council’s decision overturned,” Kincaid said during a press conference after the September 28 council meeting. In addition to the two reasons for denial mentioned by the Mayor, the third reason for denial as spelled out by state law is violation of zoning ordinances. The law does not allow refusal of an application simply based on proximity to churches or schools.

“It seems to me that what was described with respect to West End High School, and the property that they described over the last two to four weeks, clearly is a nuisance. It clearly is a detriment to the community,” added the Mayor. “And I think if the Council were to just stick with what the law says there would be no problems whatsoever. . . . The council adds too much extraneous conversation to [alcohol license application discussions] because what they say on the dais becomes part of the record,” continued Kincaid, adding that when a City Council denial recommendation is overturned by the circuit court, the city has to pay the attorney fees of the alcohol license applicant who has sued the city. The Mayor added that he sent police to the store in question when he heard about the cigarette and alcohol sales to minors.

Councilor Carol Reynolds emphasized that all neighborhoods need protection from alcohol sales. Using rhetoric fit for a tent revival preacher, she offered a condemnation of beer and cigarettes: “I’ve been standing up fighting for these people in these neighborhoods who do not want this filth, this venom, in their neighborhoods since day one!” said Reynolds. “Liquor stores around the city, I’m watching you! I will get your license revoked if I have to stand in front of your store and take tag numbers myself!” she warned. Later, Reynolds told other councilors on the dais, “If we have to, we’ll go out there together, a united front, and we’ll talk to these children, we’ll council these children. I’m a smoker, but it’s different when you are a developing child, and it’s against the law to buy ‘em!” What cigarettes have to do with alcohol sales is not explained by Reynolds, who added, “I’ll be glad to be a mother to this city. These children are my business.” &

All Hail the Mighty Boll Weevil!

All Hail the Mighty Boll Weevil!


Not only does Enterprise, Alabama, boast the only monument in the world dedicated to an insect, the town may also have the most pilfered statue ever. From its perch in the town square, the huge black boll weevil that is hoisted in the air by a cement goddess in a flowing gown has been stolen four times in 83 years. The goddess was once stolen as well. Only in Alabama do you find a community worshipping an insect, but there’s some history behind this odd scenario.

The boll weevil (anthonomus grandis) burrowed its way into the hearts of Coffee County residents in 1915, devastating cotton fields as it migrated from Mexico through Mobile. Farmers were forced to diversify their crops, inadvertently revitalizing the Enterprise area and thus the boll weevil was subsequently revered as a savior of sorts .

Coincidentally, Dr. George Washington Carver arrived in Alabama to take over the agricultural department at Tuskegee University around the same time that the boll weevil invaded the state. Carver preached crop diversification to save Alabama’s soil, its nutrients having been depleted by the planting of cotton year after year. He stressed crop rotation, mainly sweet potatoes, pecans, and peanuts. (Cotton farming had left the dirt rich in phosphates, ideal for growing peanuts.)

The original bug shrine did not include an insect. The woman held only a fountain over her head until 1949, when a black metal boll weevil was added. Five years later the bug was stolen. Even the Saturday Evening Post covered the theft. Enterprise City Hall received a series of cryptic telephone messages that whispered, “You’ll find him in a cotton field!” but despite the tips, the boll weevil was never recovered. A larger bug replaced the original, but this time with the anatomically-correct six legs instead of four. In the early 1970s, the boll weevil and the woman holding it were stolen, only to be found two days later in a patch of weeds along a rural highway. The bug was again stolen in 1981 and 1998. The most recent theft left the goddess with shattered arms and a crack down her spine. Fortunately a mold had been cast several years earlier at the request of the Atlanta History Museum, and the replica of the original statue was unveiled during the 1998 Enterprise Christmas parade.

Enterprise hosts the Boll Weevil Festival every autumn, with arts and crafts, food, and live music on Main Street at the town square. This year’s event will be October 26, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Call 334-347-0581 for details.

Dave Alvin


May 11, 2001

A founding member of the immortal roots-rock band The Blasters, Dave Alvin has built a stellar solo career around impeccable guitar playing and timeless songwriting. The garrulous Alvin paused from packing for relocation to a more pine tree-friendly section of Los Angeles to address the mysteries of American music, electricity, and life in a California home guarded by cartoon heroes Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil.

Have any rolling blackouts hit you yet?

No, in L.A. we have a different power company, and they actually planned ahead [laughs]. So while Bakersfield or Fresno or San Francisco lose power, we’re fine. It’s the one thing in L.A that works [laughs].

Besides reliable electricity, what’s the attraction of living in L.A.?

A few things. Silly things. Mexican food’s the best. And when you grow up out here, that becomes real important. I haven’t found better Mexican food anywhere else. My Texas friends and I always debate that. And the weather. And also the fact that within half an hour I can be in the mountains, or within an hour I can be in the middle of the desert. It’s good for a writer.

What was the coolest thing about radio for a kid in California in the ’60s?

Well, the greatest thing was the border radio stations, because you could hear 50,000 watts, clear channel, just across the border in Tijuana. At night it would be r&b. You could hear everything from Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bobby Blue Bland, doo wop, whatever.

Were you going to shows as a kid?

Oh, yeah. My brother Phil and I–when I was about 12, I guess–we started sneaking into bars. We found out that one of the great things about California is that every type of music was here. When I was a kid, I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins 45 or 50 times. People like T-Bone Walker and Big Joe Turner became actual family friends because we were these little white kids that pestered them. So that was my education.

At what age did you and Phil begin playing in bands?

Well, he started a band pretty early on, and I was never good enough to be in it. So I was always in bad bands [laughs]. It wasn’t until we started The Blasters that we finally played together. I mean, not even around the house. There was a hierarchy. There were a lot of great musicians in our hometown. There were guys who could play exactly like Jimmy Reed or exactly like T-Bone Walker or exactly like Eric Clapton. And they’d come over and play guitar, and we always had guitars in the house. They’d play, leave, and then I’d pick up the guitar and imitate what they did.

What year did The Blasters begin?

We started in March of 1979 but didn’t really come up with a name until, like, July [laughs]. Our first regular gig was playing for free beer in a biker bar in Long Beach. It took us about eight months to just get a gig, because Downey was so far from L.A., a different world, you know? It’s on the east side, and the east side is more or less the blue-collar area. L.A. “proper” is the west side.

Would you tell me a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot story [Alvin did a stint as Elliot's guitar player]?

My favorite Jack story that’s printable was when just he and I were riding one night on the interstate that runs by the Mississippi down by St. Louis, and it was raining. Tornado weather. Hot and raining, thunder and lightning. Just a vicious, stormy night. I asked him if he knew a good Billy the Kid song. He knew a lot of Jesse James songs. And he did a half hour, a capella, of Billy the Kid songs. A private concert.

I’ve always been impressed by performers that keep playing regardless of their age.

Well, there’s no reason not to keep doing it. If there’s one thing I learned from Lightnin’ Hopkins, is that those old guys played for love. You play because it’s your sanity. Without getting too psycho-babble on you, when you’re on stage and it’s a good gig, and the musicians are all connecting nonverbally, nonvisually, there’s no feeling like it, because–and here’s the psycho-babble part–time kinda stands still. There’s no past, there’s no future. It’s just the present. And there’s people that you love that have passed away that are still alive for a few minutes. I’ve talked to people that have run 26-mile marathons and all that. It’s kinda like a runner’s high. I think that’s why so many musicians wind up getting involved in drugs and heavy alcohol use and all that. Because the feeling you get playing is so amazing, that when it’s over, it’s like, “Let’s go play another gig,” you know [laughs]? As long as you’re playing, you’re alive. And as long as you’re playing, you’re working. You’re not sitting around resting on your laurels. You’re not a non-contributing member of society. You’re sharing. It’s hard to let that go and just sit around the house.

[At this point, Alvin excuses himself to address a distant female voice asking where he hid the door key. He can be heard saying, "Yeah, I put the key under Yosemite Sam, there. Oh, I'm sorry, I meant the Tasmanian Devil." The woman finally locates the key, and Alvin returns.]

I read a quote where you said that you heard the song “Shenandoah” [one of the songs on Alvin’s latest release, Public Domain, a collection of traditional American music] before you were born, and you’ll still be hearing it after you die.

Yeah, that song and maybe one or two others out of our folk tradition are genetically encoded. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that people take it for granted, they think it’s corny or sappy. So every now and then you have to put the picture in a new frame and go, “Wow!”

I’d like to toss out a few names and get your reaction. Let’s start with Buck Owens.

I interviewed Buck about two years ago for a magazine called Mix, which is for producers and engineers. Buck Owens is one of the architects of contemporary rock ‘n’ roll. To me, the great thing about California country is that it’s willing to take chances. Buck Owens is a paradox, in that he’s a guy that believes in art for art’s sake, and yet he’s also a businessman. He’s a rebel, and he’s also a conformist. I think he’s amazing.

He told me during the interview that one thing he could never, ever say during the ’50s and ’60s was that his two biggest heroes were Bob Wills and Little Richard. Those were the two guys he modeled himself after.

Johnny Cash.

Alvin: An icon. My favorite stuff of his is what he did at Sun Records. I don’t think people realize that he created that sound that we all take for granted–that Johnny Cash sound. Those records, to me, still sound like they came out of the mud. They weren’t made in a recording studio. They just kind of grew organically.

Any thoughts on Carole King?

[Surprised] Carole King? Wow! I wish I had her songwriting skills. I’m a true sort of folk-blues songwriter, so I write when I’m moved to write. And I really admire people like Carole King, the whole Brill Building gang, that could get up every day and go into the office and write on demand.

Jonathan Richman.

My drummer and keyboard player did a couple of albums and tours with Jonathan a few years ago. He gave me, not a lecture [laughs], but advice about a problem I have, because half my audience wants to hear the lyrics and the quiet songs, and the other half wants to hear the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. The rock ‘n’ roll people usually outnumber the quiet people. And Jonathan goes [imitating Richman with a New Jersey accent], “No, you make ‘em listen. And if they don’t listen, to hell with ‘em.” Jonathan hates loud music [laughs].

I’d be remiss if I didn’t get some thoughts on Joey Ramone.

Oh man . . . I met him once in New York about 15 years ago. He was a real sweetheart. We have a lot of mutual friends. To me, the Ramones were one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever. When I heard the first Ramones record, that was like hearing Chuck Berry for the first time when I was a kid. They were the real deal. They had the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. The Ramones invented the Sex Pistols [laughs].

My first exposure to “American Music” (an old Blasters hit) was as the opening theme for “New Wave Theater” (early ’80s cult cable television program that featured live performances). The host, Peter Ivers, was a strange man.

Yeah, we did that show two or three times. I never could figure Peter Ivers out. He was a nice guy. You know, he got murdered. I think he was a little crazy to leave his door unlocked, living in downtown L.A. I remember seeing him on social occasions–in a bar a couple of times. And he was always talking about what a great harmonica player he was, and how he wanted to sit in with us [the Blasters].

Did y’all ever let him sit in?

Alvin: No [much laughter].

City Hall — October 12, 2000 & September 26, 2000

City Hall

October 12, 2000

September 26, 2000
The summer drought takes center stage at tonight’s Birmingham City Council meeting. Mayor Kincaid reads a memo from the Birmingham Water Works regarding emergency procedures for the rapidly depleting Lake Purdy water source, most of which serves Mountain Brook, Hoover, Cahaba Heights, Homewood, and Vestavia. One option is to add a surcharge to the water bills of those who surpass a predetermined monthly amount. As the city’s legislative body, the Council would have to approve the surcharge because it is considered a rate increase. The surcharge could garner up to $4 million in penalties for the Water Works, though the Water Works Board emphasizes in bold print in the memo to Kincaid that they are not interested in the money. The other option calls for the Mayor, the acting manager according to the Water Works’ agreement with the city, to declare an emergency. A declaration of emergency would levy penalties that include a $200 daily fine and up to 180 days imprisonment for violations of water conservation. Kincaid refuses to declare an emergency without the Council also taking action.

Mike Vann, general manager of the Birmingham Water Works, addresses the Council, stressing that “we are approaching a crisis situation.” He says that Lake Purdy is currently at less than 40 percent capacity, noting that the situation has evolved from “an extreme drought to an extraordinary drought.” The Water Works Board has determined that the surcharge option would be $5 per 100 cubic feet per month for water usage over a determined national average rate of 1400 cubic feet per month for a family of five.

Councilor Sandra Faye Little says she will not approve the surcharge because the people in her area are not the cause of the problem. Irate about expensive water bills, she points out that her home water bill last month was $77. “I don’t wash that much,” she says. Little contends that she was prepared to object to high bills regardless of the drought problem coming up on the agenda. Water Works representatives explain that the Warrior River is the source of water for her district.”I think the surcharge should be put on these people that are using these enormous amounts of water. I don’t intend for my people to be burdened with bearing other people’s problems.” She urges State Attorney General Bill Pryor to get the “state police” to enforce any violations by other municipalities. “Since he wants to get in everything, then he needs to get in this,” surmises Councilor Little, referring to Pryor’s earlier opinion that the Water Works cannot be used by Birmingham to finance city projects since other municipalities also rely on the Water Works as a water source.

Councilor Aldrich Gunn wants to know why water can’t be transferred from other sources to Lake Purdy, and asks if water is pumped through “antique pipes” at Lake Purdy. Mike Vann acknowledges that some of the pipes are old but are “working just fine.” “Birmingham has never experienced a drought of this magnitude,” Vann further states. Gunn replies, “Maybe it’s because we been playing with the Water Board for so long.” Refusing to support the surcharge, Councilor Gunn suggests that someone perform a rain dance to replenish Lake Purdy.

Councilor Loder ponders the legality of placing a surcharge only on residents contributing to the drought. The city’s legal department replies that rates have to be applied in a uniform manner, because the rate increase can’t be used as a penalizing tool. The role of the water crisis as a test of City Hall’s managerial skills is not lost on Loder. “This is one of our first tests of the water system,” the councilor notes, stressing the importance of overcoming the crisis if the city wants to continue managing the system.

Councilor Don MacDermott calls the crisis a “classic example” of why he supports removing all water system assets from the city and returning them to the Water Works Board, stating that this is a problem with which the city shouldn’t have to contend. MacDermott says the city can’t pawn off its problems if it wants to control the water supply. It must instead provide a leadership role. Mayor Kincaid reminds MacDermott that the unsavory options of surcharges and penalties is a creation of the Water Works Board.

Mayor Kincaid says that he wishes the present problem were his because he would find “competent management to make sure that this situation was avoidable.” The Mayor, who wants the Water Works to become a department of the city with professional private management and a regional advisory board, cites the short-sightedness of the Water Works Board. “We left Lake Purdy in splendid isolation while Mulberry Fork and all the other places that have plenty of water are not connected to [Lake Purdy].” Kincaid adds that he would have no problem solving the dilemma. Councilor Gunn jumps in for the final word. “I think that Lake Purdy will be filled back up before we resolve this one,” says Gunn. No state of emergency is declared, and the Council makes no recommendation. No action is taken to solve the drought crisis this evening.


October 3, 2000


Councilor Blake is absent from today’s meeting; however, Council bickering continues in the combative councilor’s absence. A flurry of morning skirmishes between Mayor Kincaid and the Council prompt the Mayor to angrily express his disdain for what he refers to as “being ambushed.”

In response to the continuing drought, Mayor Kincaid and other local municipalities on September 28 finally declared a “water emergency” which allows penalties to be attached to water usage violations. Watering yards; washing automobiles, trucks, trailers, and railroad vehicles [excluding automated car washes]; cleaning outdoor surfaces; defective plumbing leaks; and the filling of swimming pools are prohibited. Twenty-five thousand fliers will be distributed by Birmingham police to inform residents that violations of the water restrictions are punishable daily by a fine of $200 and up to 180 days in jail.

Councilor Little complains about the lack of police in her district. Kincaid notes that the problem won’t be solved this morning and points out that there are “surrounding municipalities that pay exponentially, some as many as five figures, more to their police officers than we do.” He suggests that discussion addressing police shortages be examined during the coming weekend council-mayoral retreat in Point Clear. Mayor Kincaid suggests a possible fifth police precinct. But Councilor Little says, “Mr. Mayor, I’ve been crying for a precinct ever since I’ve been on this Council for District Seven. We don’t even have a precinct over there!” Kincaid replies, “Maybe you didn’t hear me. I didn’t say put a precinct in District Seven.” Councilor Little’s temper escalates dramatically at the Mayor’s response, and she blurts, “Oh, yeah, it would be in District Seven! I think everybody else is covered!”

Councilor Little also inquires about the status of the “environmental court,” a legal entity designed to address environmental violations by neighborhood residents. Kincaid says that the issue of deputies is holding up finalization of plans because he and Council President Bell disagree on who should be deputized. Bell wants neighborhood residents to serve as enforcers of neighborhood environmental violations, but Kincaid is uncomfortable with Bell’s proposal: “I don’t think neighbors ought to police neighbors. I think it ought to be a police action of the state. Mr. Bell and I have come to some tacit agreements as to how we are going to fashion this. And we are working to hammer that out.” Bell immediately takes issue with Kincaid’s assessment of their discussion. “Mr. Mayor, I’ve allowed you to tell the press often times that you are scheduling meetings with me. We haven’t hammered anything out,” says Bell. Kincaid agrees that nothing has been “hammered out,” but reminds Bell of their “tacit agreement.” Kincaid offers to define “tacit” for Bell.

Kincaid and Bell continue to argue about the environmental court until Bell finally asks the Mayor when it was discussed, to which Kincaid replies, “In your office, that same day you said, ‘Don’t come back here shuckin’ and jivin’.’”

Councilor Little acknowledges another “emergency” facing the city this week. She introduces Tim Perell, producer of the independent film World Traveler currently being shot in Birmingham, and Michele Foreman of the Governor’s Film Task Force. Pointing out the value of making movies in Birmingham, Foreman notes that before those involved with shooting the movie leave town, they will have spent $400,000 in Birmingham in one month. Apparently the film crew has run into problems securing the state fair for a shoot the Thursday night before the fair opens. “Just to let you know the kind of crisis we’re in, they have a movie star, Julianne Moore, who has been nominated for two Academy Awards, arriving for the scene [at the fair].” Foreman also says that 200 community extras are supposed to be included in the fair scene. The film needs all the carnival lights left on for the shoot, as well as access to five fully operational rides. Perell is disturbed by “exorbitant costs” the movie would have to absorb to cover opening the fair to shoot a movie for just six hours. Little says that the Birmingham Arts Commission (BAC) could possibly cover the costs of operational needs. The councilor, head of the Park, Recreation, and Cultural Arts Committee, which had direct contact with the World Traveler production crew, had previously insisted that the film use students from Lawson State [which is in her district] as movie extras in addition to the UAB students already secured. She asks the Mayor for any comment.

An angry Kincaid replies, “You might not want to hear it. I’m tired of being ambushed up here on the Council.” The Mayor explains that United Shows of America, who stages the fair, has the contract for 10 days, the duration of the state fair. United Shows told the film company that they were welcome to film on the night requested, but they would have to pay $5,000. Foreman apologizes for not knowing that the film company should have approached the Mayor.

Perell explains that he has been talking to staffers from the Mayor’s office for two weeks. Little reassures Perell that the money will be found to cover the fair costs, emphasizing the “emergency” nature of the situation. Bell suggests that the fair operator be contacted to see if payment can be delayed. The Council President agrees to place the $5,000 request on next week’s City Council agenda.

City Finance Director Mac Underwood says that the BAC money Little wants to pay the fair operator is targeted for specific purpose. Little disagrees. Councilor Gunn asks what the movie is about. Tim Perell tells Gunn that it’s “about a man who is traveling cross-country trying to find himself in many ways, and learning to be a parent to his son.” Gunn replies, “All right!” Bell asks if it is Forrest Gump 2? Everybody, including Perell, laughs.

Kincaid says that his staff “has been dealing with someone named Heather Brinson, not these individuals,” pointing at Perell, the movie’s producer, and Foreman. The Mayor says that his office has been cooperative by working out traffic engineering plans as well as use of the police and fire departments. He also notes that he had turned down a film crew request to turn on city fire hydrants to simulate rain. “We’ve done a yeoman’s task in trying to accommodate [the film crew].” Little tells the film group to go ahead and proceed with plans as scheduled for the fair shoot, promising that the Council will “have the money in place.” &