Some December Notes From the Secret History Files

Janis Joplin, ice skating on Market Square, and my personal luncheon at the S&W

When I wrote about Janis Joplin performing at the University of Tennessee's Stokely Athletics Center 40 years ago, the fact that she'd ever played in Knoxville was fairly recent news to me. Reader and musical memorabilia collector Scott Lee enlightened me about the fact a few months ago, and sent me a copy of the Daily Beacon review from which I quoted. He told me a lot of other stuff I didn't know, like the fact that the Rolling Stones played here twice in their early days, at the Civic Coliseum. If anybody remembers those shows, I'd be curious to hear.

A few folks remember the night of the Joplin show well as an all-time high point among local shows. I missed it. At the time, I was a Republican elementary-school kid, disgruntled with the counterculture that had kidnapped my Beatles and turned them into artsy freaks.

My grade-school chums weren't Janis Joplin fans, and I never heard anyone talk about that well-attended show at Stokely, which was at the time also UT's basketball arena. But in the last few weeks, I've heard from a few people a little older than I am who remember the show well. Gary Haynes was a high-school senior from Oak Ridge, and recalls seeing her dancing backstage during the opening band's set as if she was in an especially good mood. He made his way to the front of the main floor and got a good look. He says she passed a Styrofoam cup of whatever she was drinking to the audience. It came back with part of the rim broken off. "Someone must have been hungry," she said. One reader recalls Janis was especially gorgeous that night; Haynes says she was wearing a see-through blouse.

By all accounts, she put on a great show. There were pleas for her to sing "Piece of My Heart," which had been her first radio hit, about a year earlier, when she was just the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. "She seemed really, really reluctant," Haynes recalls. "Maybe because it was too much of a strain.... But she finally relented and gave it her all." He adds what might seem obvious: "It was a great night!"

If someone of her stature had proposed playing at UT after homecoming today, she'd likely get turned down; UT no longer schedules on-campus concerts, or even plays, on Vol home-game days. Even though the UT Vols were contenders for the national championship in 1969, their home game wasn't considered to be the only big event permissible in Knoxville.

Every year, I'm a little taken aback to see the ice skating rink go up in the middle of Market Square. The big blocky obstruction spoils much of what has made Market Square so cool all year. I think, why do they have to do that again, on this wonderful space where teenagers flirt and young women play cello and old friends recognize each other at that other cafe 200 feet away.

Then the rink actually opens. And you walk through the Square on a Saturday night in December, amid laughter and squealing kids, and vendors selling funnel cakes and kettle corn and hot chocolate, and street bands playing Christmas carols, and it seems just like Christmas is supposed to be in the songs and movies. I've walked through downtown Knoxville at night each of the last 30-odd Decembers, and witnessing families having fun there is something I'm not used to just yet. It takes some adjustment. These kids are growing up with memories of a fun public holiday in Knoxville that most of us older folks don't have.

Well, I tried the S&W the other day. Since its reopening, I'd been intimidated, first by the crowds, and then by the prices. Though it offers some sandwiches in the high one-figures, it's more than I'm used to paying for lunch.

When you push through the old wooden revolving door, you have to accept you're paying for the rare place, too. I felt as if I'd stepped into a posh big-city restaurant in about 1960. Not the bright, crowded S&W Cafeteria I'm old enough to remember, but maybe one of those swank restaurants that serve as scenes in I Love Lucy, a place set up to embarrass poor Mrs. Ricardo, with William Holden in the next booth over. The piano was playing sophisticated jazz versions of Christmas carols, and I was pretty surprised to hear strings come in at one point. I looked over to see who the pianist was and realized it was just a player piano, the keys responding to no human's fingers, apparently one souped up with orchestral accompaniment.

I sat at the bar and wanted to try something in character with the S&W's newfound swank, but also something I could afford. I went for the Oysters Rockefella. With tax it was more than 10 bucks, just a "starter" on the menu, but more than I usually pay for lunch. I know places around the corner where I can get a whole big platter of food and a Coke and salad and dessert for 10 bucks. But the fact is, nobody really needs more than this. This small appetizer covers and re-covers the basic food groups: oysters, cheese, bacon, spinach, bread crumbs, and butter. Four small portions, each celebrating its own small oyster, which I savored in tiny bites and chewed slowly enough to take up the time. It was awfully good. These rich, salty flavors made me think of earliest youth. I felt transported, as if I'd been reincarnated as one of my great uncles.

Though it was plenty for a healthy lunch in theory, I went to the nearby convenience store for a post-lunch snack. I pop in there for something almost every day, but that day I felt different, ennobled perhaps. I wondered if they could tell I'd just been to the S&W.