The smell. (The pungent aroma of Polish sausages mingles with the ripe odor of the petting zoo, not to mention the cloyingly sweet top note of funnel cakes and powdered sugar, making for a stink that is, quite literally, breathtaking.) The sights. (A people watcher's paradise, it is one of the few places in town where you can encounter East Tennesseans from all walks of life, spending dollars in the attempt to pop a wilting balloon with a dart and go home with a prize that seems to have been borne of an oversized Cracker Jack box.) The noises. ("Step right up...If you wanna be my lover...Get your cotton candy here...Lost child at the first aid station...C'mon, buddy, win her a stuffed satin heart...Hey, Macarena... Whoooooo.") The sensory overload. Of course, we're talking about a state fair, the annual spectacle of flashing lights, booming Top 40 hits, and one-of-a-kind stink; more specifically, we're talking about the Tennessee Valley Agricultural & Industrial Fair, the lovable beast that invades Chilhowee Park in East Knoxville for 10 days each year. Step right up, and take a trip in time with us, remembering some of our favorite--or, maybe just most pervasive--memories of the TVA&I Fair.
My fondest memory of the Tennessee Valley Fair was the fall of 1980. Every year Rock 104 (the station that would become 103.5 WIMZ with the advent of the digital age) would host a local Battle of the Bands at the Fair. So in the fall of '80 I got together with a few of my chums and we decided we'd "punk out" (that's dress punk in '80s Doyle High School lingo) to go to Rock Wars. I spiked my hair, wore a skinny tie, wrap-around shades, and a trusty pair of torn Levis. I thought I looked just like Johnny Rotten.
We arrived at the Fair around 5:00 p.m. and took a walk through the Midway area to check out the rides. Patrons of the Midway have never been the most tolerant lot, and my little clique was met with stares and giggles from all angles. I remember one carny yelling at me, "Hey space case, let me guess your weight!"
By 8:00 p.m. we'd consumed our hot dogs, rode a couple of rides, and made our way to the tent behind the Jacob Building where Rock Wars was held. The rumor circulating around town was that a real punk band was going to be playing.
The first two bands in the competition were Fantasy and Spellbound, competent if mediocre bands who would bring the crowds to their feet with covers of songs like "Boom Boom Out Goes The Lights" and "Freebird." My friends and I were too sophisticated to succumb to the charms of the first bands. After all, we had been listening to Devo, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones for all of six months, and we were just too hip, baby.
Finally the band we had come to see mounted the stage. We were a little disappointed to see that they weren't wearing skinny ties or safety pins, but as soon as the music started we decided we loved 'em.
The band was Balboa, featuring Hector Qirko and Terry Hill, who would become a figurehead in the first wave of Knoxville's punk scene. Balboa played a mix of slightly experimental rock similar to Television or King Crimson and some faster songs that were similar to the Ramones. We were all floored.
This was the first time I'd ever pogoed in public. I'd had plenty of practice in front of the mirror in my bedroom, so I was ready to pull out all the stops. I remember about 20 people pogoing in the aisles while the rest of the crowd looked on, aghast.
What was most amazing about Balboa was their stage delivery, which was totally devoid of the rock 'n' roll bullshit that was common in those days. Balboa just played hard with passion and precision. They didn't do any covers and didn't end the set with a sermon about, "If you believe in rock 'n' roll, PUT YO' HANDS TOGETHA!!!" They had one song that summed up this delivery perfectly, called "Image Free."
That night at Rock Wars was a pivotal event for what would become Knoxville's first punk scene. All of the future movers and shakers were there: Todd Steed (later of Smokin' Dave, the Opposable Thumbs, and various other combos), Brian Waldschlegger (soon to be singer of the 5 Twins, later of the Dirtclods, and now in Shinola), Shannon Stanfield (a.k.a. Clint Clinton), Trey McReynolds (a.k.a. Colonel Bacchus), Cathy Freeman (a.k.a. Cat Peacent), Carl Snow (later of KoRo and Whitey), Dale Ashe (of the Imposters and later Teenage Love), and a handful of others I've probably forgotten.
It was that night in a tent behind the Jacob Building that a new generation of rock musicians were moved to start their own bands and move Knoxville into a new era. The most amazing thing about that night is that almost everybody who was pogoing in the aisles is still involved in music to this day, even Terry. Rock Wars of 1980 was definitely a seminal event.
Later that night I kissed a girl on the roller coaster, but that's another story.
I was a child of privilege when it came to the Fair. My beloved grandfather worked security at the Fair every year for more than a decade, actually saving up his vacation days from his regular job to spend 10 days in September wearing a pith helmet and strolling around the grounds of Chilhowee Park. (Really, there were few security threats.) So, I grew up not realizing other people had to pay for parking blocks away from the Fair site, that they didn't get to stay on rides two turns in a row. The one time I knew I was privileged, though, was during the concerts at the Homer Hamilton Theatre. My family had cordoned-off, specially-reserved, front-row seats for any and every show we wanted to attend--Chubby Checker, Charlie Daniels. One of my first (admittedly unfortunate) concert experiences was watching Molly Hatchet from my catbird seat; even as a 9-year-old, though, I remember being bored.
I tend to remember various fairs by the soundtrack that spilled out of the underground tunnel that connected the "normal" side to Billings Million Dollar Midway, that garish wonderland of flashing neon, loud-mouthed barkers touting ring tosses and hoop shoots, stuffed pink teddy bears, goldfish destined to live about as long as it takes you to get home, blue cotton candy and pungent Polish sausages, and creepy "See, With Your Very Own Eyes, The World's Smallest Woman!" signs for freak shows that were invariably "closed for lunch." "I Love The Night Life" by Alicia Bridges marked 1977; Cheap Trick's "Surrender" was the call of the wild for '79, followed by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts' "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" in '81 and "Too Young Too Fall In Love," by Motley Crüe, in '83. AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" was evergreen and never seemed to go away.
As I got older and my self-consciousness swelled in high school, I proclaimed the Fair sweaty, stinky, and (gasp) bourgeois and refused to go. No more funnel cakes or corn dogs or free water from John Duncan for me. No more Himalaya or Spider or tram rides across the Chilhowee Park pond. I was suddenly struck by the skeptical idea that most of the wiry teenage guys carrying oversized stuffed animals on their shoulders were paid to do so, to sucker poor saps into thinking they too could go home with a sad-eyed, sawdust-stuffed unicorn. I had even realized that making fuzzy baby ducks precariously stick their necks out for a nibble of food, only to inevitably careen down a slippery slide at the petting zoo, wasn't cute, it was just plain cruel.
But, then, a few years later, I relented and returned to the Fair. And you know what? It was exactly as I remembered it. Charlie Daniels was still playing at the Homer Hamilton Theatre. The air still reeked of Polish sausages and funnel cakes. The barkers still wanted to guess my weight. The petting zoo ducks hadn't gotten any smarter. And AC/DC was still singing about being knocked about "with those American thighs." Who says you can't go home again?
The circus was sometimes fun. All those ice shows at the Coliseum had their moments. But what we anticipated every year, like Christmas, was the Fair. There was a wild freedom to the Fair, a freedom to move around and make your own choices that a kid rarely found anywhere else.
It was a miniature nation, a weird civilization compressed into this one plot of land, where you had goats and pigs and souped-up tractors over here, oils and watercolors over there, aging rock'n'roll stars and gospel singers in there--and interspersed throughout, on the banks of this minature lake, along these streets without cars, hawkers of T-shirts and all manner of things deep fried.
We respected all this as part of the ritual--but when I was a kid, it was only a dramatic spell before we'd go underneath Magnolia in the tunnel to see the main thing, which was the Midway.
I only went into a sideshow once. My parents didn't approve of them, and wouldn't buy me a ticket. But in 1970, I had my own money from mowing grass all summer, and there was a "tribute" to Martin Luther King and the dead Kennedys. Expecting to be inspired by their heroic example--and, probably more importantly to me at age 12, horrified by gruesome relics of their violent deaths--I paid 50 cents and walked through the door.
Inside were two white department-store mannequins and one black one, and the door out.
I always liked the rides best, especially the roller coasters. The Haunted House, if you can call that a ride, was always my favorite because it was hidden, with stuff you couldn't see from the outside, except for the witch that moved out of the upper window with a lurch and jolted to a stop. It's funny that I can hardly remember anything I ever saw inside, except the very last time I ever went into the Haunted House.
There, behind bars, lit by a purple light, was a gorilla in a plush coffin, half-open so we could view the head and shoulders, like at a Baptist funeral. I didn't know for sure whether dead gorillas were usually buried in coffins, or whether this dead gorilla was somehow special, or Baptist, but there he was. But why not bury gorillas in coffins?, I thought. Surely rotting gorillas pose more of a health risk than most rotting people. I stood there reverently.
Suddenly this particular dead gorilla sat bolt upright and said, "Har!"
I watched, expecting something more.
"Dang," the gorilla in the coffin said. "I need a break."
After a few more turns of dim bulbs on dim subjects, I realized I was near the end and hadn't nearly gotten what I expected from a Haunted House. I turned back just before I had irretrievably exited, and ducked behind a curtain, through a door. Inside was a plain white fluroescent light, a metal sink, some folding chairs, and a few wooden crates of Coca-Cola bottles. I realized it wasn't part of the Haunted House I was supposed to see, that I wasn't supposed to be in there at all. I was, for a moment, scared.
I told everybody at Sunday School the next morning that I sat down in there and opened one of those Cokes and enjoyed a refreshing break on my tour of the Haunted House, but I think what I really did was get out fast. I didn't want to be the next one in that gorilla suit.
There's a time when you start thinking you're too big for the Fair, that the important thing is to be cool, and it's very hard to be cool when you've got a bar across your lap and some other teenager in a polyester shirt is holding a lever and deciding how fast and how far you'll be hurled.
Fortunately, there also comes a time after that.
-- Jack Neely