Summer’s Lease

A few reflections on the passing season’s stories

Too much stuff to catch up with. I hope you’ll indulge another collection of fragments.

I got a little carried away with atmosphere in my story about the “Last Train to Knoxville” in 1970. The print version contains an error a couple of folks noticed. In describing the last train’s 3 a.m. arrival, I mentioned the big clock tower above the old Southern station. I knew its old clock tower had been torn down long ago, but I assumed it was torn down in the 1970s, after the station closed. I was pretty sure I remembered seeing it there.

But the time wouldn’t have been visible on the clock tower in 1970. The clock tower had been torn down around 1945. Why, I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense that a thriving terminal would tear down a 40-year-old brick clock tower, a familiar landmark that made the low-lying station more visible from the business district. If it were a safety issue, the tower must have been pretty flimsy to begin with.

So if I trust the record, I have to accept the fact that I never saw the thing in my life. I somehow have a memory of it still. Trust memories, but verify them. Better yet, don’t trust them.

***

The University of Tennessee being listed as one of America’s ugliest campuses—based on its own students’ comments—shouldn’t surprise us too much. I’ve heard worse. I was with Pulitzer-winning author Buzz Bissinger when he declared it was the ugliest campus he’d ever seen in his life. Another friend from England visited about 20 years ago and thought it was laughable, told me it looked like a suburban mental institution. But that was back in the ’80s and ’90s. I think it looks a lot better now than it did when I was in school.

UT grew too fast in the 35 years after World War II. But today it looks lovely from some vantages. Stand in front of Clarence Brown Theatre in the twilight, and look toward the Hill, with the valley in between, it looks like an interesting Cubist version of El Greco’s Toledo. Though maybe you have to be drinking Malbec at an opening-night reception to notice it.

***

I followed the coverage of Bar Knoxville’s Vol melee with interest. I’ve never had the pleasure of patronizing that particular public house, at least not in its current incarnation. I doubt they covet my demographic. However, I suspect the outer walls, the concrete husk of the building, may be the same shell that housed a popular triumvirate of businesses back in my Strip-browsing days, 30 years ago: a long, brightly lit record store; a dark, cluttered, blue-collar bar called the Pickle-U Pub; and upstairs, in the attic with the low, slanted ceiling, a punk-rock nightclub called, for reasons never shared with me, Bundulee’s. It was tiny, but one of the first places I knew that hosted traveling rock bands who made actual records. It was all very compact, and you had to walk through Pickle-U Pub to get to Bundulee’s, which provided some provocative anthropological contrasts.

How strange it would have seemed, back then, to name a place “Bar Knoxville.” The city’s name was then a word people pronounced with a whiny sneer, and only when necessary. It offered no frisson of youth or adventure or dangerous opportunity. In promotions, successful businessmen avoided the word, especially when appealing to the young. But we’re seeing more of that now, I think. The gesture seems a positive sign for the city, whether the businesses themselves are or not.

***

Finally, and most importantly, several readers have brought up a figure we should know more about than we do. In the feature of well-known photographer Danny Lyon’s images of Knoxville in 1967, the photographer recalled—in his widely reviewed autobiographical collection, Memories of Myself—a photographer named Bolton, first name unremembered. Bolton attended a meeting of a local photographic club that summer, and showed Lyon some interesting work. I asked a few photographers older than me who that might have been. None remembered a Bolton who was a noted photographer. I couldn’t find any Bolton listed as a photographer in the old city directories. I had a look at the library’s biographical files, but nothing popped out. I wondered whether Lyon might have remembered Harold Bolton, who ran a camera shop on West Cumberland.

But a couple of readers remember Bolton’s first name. Jim Newby met Lyon in 1967 and even appears in a photograph taken in front of Brother Jack’s barbecue joint; artist Eric Sublett also knew Bolton personally. Both are certain the reference is to Robert Bolton.

Born in Knoxville in 1937, Bolton attended UT, studying English with a minor in art, married, had a couple of kids, and got a job as an art director with the local advertising firm of Hogan, Rose & Co, on Fifth Avenue. But he always carried a camera, and mainly as an amateur took photographs of people and places that interested him, some of them striking ones. He had a special interest in musicians: He photographed Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and the Beach Boys. Some particularly remember his series of photographs of a Bob Dylan show in 1965. Eric knew the name well because Bolton worked with his father, artist Carl Sublett. Many are reportedly striking scenes of his home town.

Bolton died in Knoxville in 1988, a few days before his 51st birthday, and is buried at Lynnhurst in Fountain City. His wife, Sharon Adams, died not long afterward. But his photos got around.

Since then, his work has been discovered on the west coast—there’s been a study of it at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—and at UNC Chapel Hill, which in 2006 hosted an exhibit called “The Untamed World of Robert Bolton.” It’s now a permanent part of UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. He’s somebody I suspect we’ll look more into in the future.

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Comments » 1

TomB writes:

Whoever says UT has one of America's ugliest campus has not visited many other universities.

To pick on just a couple of others Arizona State is a sun-baked collection of monotone, Brutalist, concrete buildings interrupted by busy streets, while the University of Illinois is completely flat and mostly devoid of trees.

Why did the students who nominated their own school as one of the ugliest even enroll at UT if they thought it was so ugly?

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