On Lectures in Bars, Campaign Spending, and Phil and Jim

The capacity crowd that turned out for the TEDx lecture night at the Square Room a couple of weeks ago was a small revelation to me. The idea that people would buy tickets to hear ideas is not a new idea, but it's a good one. Why should we go out and drink beer and watch a rock 'n' roll or bluegrass band in a bar, but never do the same for magicians or acrobats or storytellers or philosophers?

There was a time when evening lectures were a common destination, in the Market Hall, in the old Lyceum, at Staub's, or downtown churches. They competed with vaudeville for the pedestrian's attention, and often succeeded. People who gave lectures in downtown auditoriums included Frederick Douglass, Teddy Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation, Will Rogers, lots of others less well remembered. They touted prohibition, conservationism, pacifism, patriotism, socialism. When they were free, they were standing-room only. When they weren't, they often sold out in advance.

It's been assumed that radio and TV killed the American lecture. But over the years we've made the same assumption about live drama, movies, and live music. TV makes the reception of ideas a passive thing; and the Internet is too good at letting us snipe, under cover of anonymity. Bars are good at encouraging active, healthy participation in public life. They don't call them pubs for nothing.

Worthwhile institutions from the American public-library movement to the first team sports in Knoxville were ideas born in public houses. Bringing lectures into the nightclub scene could even double the nightclubbing demographic. Some people like to claim you're never too old for rock 'n' roll, but that hasn't been my experience. I thought about that, looking around the Square Room the other night. I haven't seen that many over-40s paying close attention to performers on a nightclub stage in a long time. Maybe we're too old to get excited about jamming ourselves in a roomful of loud music. It doesn't mean we're ready for bed.

Lectures in bars is a swell idea.


I can't let the season pass without noting this cautionary tale about campaigning for office.

Many citizens and I had a much higher opinion of Mark Padgett before we started getting mailings from him. All of them were misleading, some of them bizarre. A TV pundit dismissed the negative ads, saying he'd "seen worse." I have, too, but not in a Knoxville mayoral race.

Early in the fall, Padgett seemed to have a lot of support, including all of Madeleine Rogero's opponents in the primary, who cumulatively were able to match her numbers then. He spent much more money on the campaign than Rogero did. On paper, he seemed to have a chance.

But in its final weeks, Padgett's campaign seemed devoted to proving to us that their guy was really a jerk. In that regard it succeeded. He lost to Rogero by 17 points. It can't be proven, but if it could I'd be willing to bet: If Padgett had spent a few tens of thousands less on his campaign, it would have been closer.

I'm not sure what campaign money ever does but mislead. Sometimes, maybe, it misleads the candidates themselves.


I felt I knew Phil Pollard, the maverick musician who died suddenly in late October, pretty well, but I omitted parts of his local musical résumé, just because I didn't know about them. The guy was even more complex than I allowed.

About a decade ago, he helped form an unusual folk-pop trio with Sean McCullough and Geol Greenlee, called Evergreen Street who were, for a while, semi-regulars at Barley's and elsewhere. In 2003, they even made an album, named Evergreen Street, still available on the Web. I never saw them play, but based on what I've heard, I wish I had.

The community-college teacher and active father of three was musically adventurous years before the Band of Humans. "He also played in an experimental jazz/rock band called Colorfield with [keyboardist] Sevan Takvoryan and [bassist] Bob Leopold," recalls McCullough. "I think the three of them played together in a cover band called Short Bus for a while, as well."


And I've heard from many people who mourned the loss of iconic Knoxville Journal columnist Jim Dykes, who died just one week after our interview profile appeared.

I can't claim ownership of that story. He wrote it. He lay in bed on a sunny autumn afternoon and dictated it to me. He was on oxygen, and unable to stand for long, but he could tell a story, and the telling seemed to energize him, enable him to ignore his years, and his cancer.

I've never written a story that was more dependent on the subject's own words. Everything Jim said was quotable, even when it wasn't printable.

Some have assumed we were close chums, but there may be hundreds of people who knew him better than I did. He and I were friendly when we encountered each other at parties, and we always seemed to find plenty to talk about. Every once in a while, I'd call him for help with a memory, like that of Lockett's unusual bar and novelty shop on Gay Street. He was peerless at remembering off the cuff, and supplying an interesting and well-told story, with a beginning, middle, and end, culminating in a usually hilarious climax. His stories were true when it was important for them to be true.

I never worked with him, though, and I was not one of those lucky few who accompanied Dykes on his legendary hunting or beer-drinking trips. I've never tried to imitate his style, and our outlooks on life only occasionally intersected. But I can't deny his influence. Back when I was wondering what I was going to do with my life, working on loading docks and running errands for law firms, he made writing a weekly newspaper column seem like a hell of a lot of fun.