This essay on Knoxville’s search for self is one of Jack Neely’s earliest and best-remembered contributions.
Former staff reporter Betty Bean writes about the author of the infamous Whup Ass Tapes, who was none other than her late brother John Bean (aka Leroy Mercer).
Betty Bean looks at AIDS in Knoxville through the eyes of Danny Goodman and his partner/caretaker David McNabb.
Do local heroes Superdrag really have what it takes to be the Next Big Thing? Former music editor Shelly Ridenour chronicles the ascent of Knoxville band Superdrag as it signs with major label Elektra Records.
Frequent contributor Zak Weisfeld, a local cable television producer, learns hard lessons when sleepy Knoxville is visited by big-city tabloid TV.
Jack Neely deconstructs our native speech patterns in this Gamut story.
Tired of seeing News Sentinel columnists Wayne Bledsoe and Chuck Campbell have all the fun during their annually published Grammy awards debate, movie critics Zak Weisfeld and Coury Turczyn stage their own face-off at Oscar time.
“The Art of Not Thinking” (1996)
Former staff writer Hillari Dowdle delves into the world of meditation, a story that served her well when she eventually moved on to become editor of a worldwide Yoga publication.
Zak Weisfeld takes a cable TV assignment to film a documentary piece on the good Doctor himself, Hunter S. Thompson, and learns why you should never meet your idols.
Former editor Jesse Mayshark asks the burning question: Why does TV news suck?
This fragment does small justice to Jesse Mayshark’s award-winning feature on the teen killers of the Lillelid family, a story that rocked East Tennessee in the mid-’90s.
Former staff writer Joe Tarr spends a week at a notorious Broadway flophouse.
“A Very Short Interview with Harry Crews” (2000)
When University of Tennessee professor Erik Bledsoe edited a compendium of interviews with hard-living former Playboy journalist Harry Crews, Jesse Mayshark sought input from the man himself.
Joe Tarr plays hide and seek with the bloodhounds at Brushy Mountain state prison.
Every year, we parody something or someone from around Knoxville for our April Fool’s issue, often another local publication. In 2002, we made fun of ourselves with this spoof of a typical Metro Pulse contents page.
Former entertainment editor Adrienne Martini won a national award for this cover story on her battle with post-partum depression, a story she has since turned into a book.
Jack Neely channels Cormac McCarthy, and brilliantly so, in this parody of our city’s best-known living author.
Paige M. Travis
“Who are We” (1992)
But as we wrestle with our identity, Knoxville is becoming fair game for others who want to give us one. In sitcoms and late-night talk shows, we’re a handy symbol for mediocrity. Of course, much Knoxville-bashing is simple, groundless prejudice. Maybe most appealing to sitcom writers is its unenviable name. Who was Henry Knox, after whom we were named? Easy to miss in any survey course, Knox was a plump, blandly competent Boston general in the Revolution, then a Secretary of War who presided over no wars; he retired from public life at 44 and never came within a day’s ride of Tennessee.
Worst of all, Knox sounds like knocks, a word with mostly pejorative connotations: “Don’t knock it.” “Hard knocks.” “Knock-kneed.” A “knock-off” is a cheap imitation. That’s obviously how a lot of people see us—and, too often, that’s how we see ourselves.
But we can’t lay all the blame on our unfortunate name, or on the hasty opinions of others. Because we haven’t ever established an identity of our own, we fall prey to everyone who would do so for us. It’s not for lack of material—we have a history and wealth of culture that more confident cities would be proud of. But Knoxville is neurotically insecure about itself, shying away from the routine pride people of other cities demonstrate. In the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, country music was local East Tennessee stuff—and, therefore, embarrassing. We were relieved when Nashville took this stinky albatross from around our necks. Roy and Chet moved to Nashville. Later, so did those redneck Everly boys, and, later, Dolly.
And at those rare moments when the world looked straight at us, we blushed and diverted attention away from ourselves. Throughout this century, we’ve defined ourselves by pointing to stuff far outside the city limits: “Gateway to the Smokies,” as if we were all standing here naked. (Don’t look at us! Look at the mountains!)
And, of course, we’re “Home of the Vols.” To alumni and certain other Tennesseans, that means something. But during the World’s Fair a Connecticut woman read VOLS on a sign and asked me what it meant. I told her about the tradition, General Neyland, the SEC, the 1951 National Championship, all that. She seemed disappointed. “I thought it was a Scandinavian liqueur,” she said.
…Preconceptions die hard. People see Knoxville as they expect to see it, maybe as they want to see it; and if they want to believe Knoxvillians tend to be unsophisticated or romantic or violent or obese or nude or Arabic or poetic or thrifty or predominantly homosexual, they’ll always be able to find plenty of evidence to support them.
“The Whup Ass Man” (1993, rerun in 1999)
You better read this story.
If you ever heard anybody say “Ain’t nothin’ for me to whup a man’s ass,” or “hunh”—no question mark, two syllables, dripping with attitude—or perhaps even said it yourself, you might want to know who you’re quoting, and why.
And if you already know about the prank phone call tapes variously known as the “Whup Ass Man” or “Leroy Speaks,” you’ll probably want to find out the truth about them. If you flat don’t care, skip this page and go listen to some Judy Garland albums.
It’s pretty much a guy thing. An East Tennessee tush hog Prince-Albert-in-a can thing stretched so far over the top it’s liable to snap back and take your head off. Or miss you altogether.
Just ask Eddie Harvey.
The 70-something Harvey is the proprietor of Eddie’s Auto Parts, and it’s nothing for him to whup a man’s ass. He barely cracks a smile when you ask him what it’s like to be a cult figure courtesy of the prank call purporting to be “Bill Morgan just this side of Maynardville,” who got him on the phone years ago and offered to whup his ass over a bad oil filter.
“That is one of the most popular damn tapes in the country,” Harvey says.
“Every truck driver in the U.S.A. has one. I never knew who did it, but I did hear he’s died. I wish he hadn’t of, ’cause me and him could’ve made a goddamn fortune... He was good. I’ll give him that. He never hesitated and he never backed up. He’d agitate a person so bad—get ’em so mad they could kill him.”
An old race car driver who’s pretty well known in his own right, Harvey says he’s heard from people all over the country wanting to know if he’s the Eddie Auto. His soldier nephew, furloughed home from Desert Storm, couldn’t rest until he got a Polaroid and five Eddie’s Auto Parts T-shirts to take back to Saudi Arabia to rub in the faces of skeptics who doubted he was who he said he was.
Local Knoxville music legend Todd Steed says he first heard the tapes when a customer brought a copy into the old Raven Records, where he used to work. Before long, Steed had memorized “Eddie’s Auto Parts” tape and “Tom McCann’s” and “C&C Auto Parts,” and he started trying to figure out who the voice was behind the craziness.
“I heard 30 completely falsified, fictionalized versions of who was on those tapes,” Steed says. “The FBI had been bugging somebody, it was an insane lawyer from Maryville, a convict. Everybody had a different theory. A lot of people think it’s not a joke. They don’t think it’s a put-on. That’s part of the artistry of the thing… I got so frustrated. I wanted to understand what makes them so damn funny, and it got to the point where I wanted to know who this guy was more than anything. So I started asking questions. I called up people cold out of the phone book—put the word out—asked everybody I knew. I followed up all the leads I had.”
Finally somebody called him up and told him “Betty Bean would know something about those tapes.”
“Tragedy in Slow Motion” (1994)
He’ll never hike the Royal Inca Road.
Seeing the tiled roofs of Cuzco at the head of the road that snakes along the roof of the world to the ancient city of Macchu Picchu is one of the dreams he’s had to turn loose. Just one of so many.
“I’ve lost most of my whole generation. I’ve lost most of my friends, and now, Danny. How much more am I supposed to lose? I’m just tired of it. I’m tired of having it, tired of treating it, tired of dealing with it. Tired of never beating it, not one time. I don’t even remember life before AIDS,” says David McNabb as he opens his scrapbook and turns to the photograph of a handsome man with a rakish smile.
…He moves on to the pages marking the time in 1991 when he lost three friends in the space of two weeks. One was Fred Horowitz, who came to Tennessee with Rell Lovejoy and became Knoxville’s best known person with AIDS. He was a founder of AIDS Response Knoxville and spent a great deal of time talking to high school students about AIDS prevention. Fred put up a ferocious fight, and became a close friend to Danny and David, living with them during the last years of his life. They cared for him in the bedroom across the hall from the room where Danny now spends his days.
“For Jews, it’s important to remember. That’s why I keep this stuff around,” says David, a convert to Judaism, as he closes the book and puts it on a shelf.
“It’s a trick of the psyche, I guess. We transform the grief of loss into the pleasure of memory.”
His reverie is interrupted by the doorbell. It’s the nurse from Ft. Sanders Hospice here to help with the heavy lifting. David goes with her to the master bedroom where Danny lies dying.
“So You Wanna Be a Rock‘n’Roll Star” (1995)
"Check one, check one, check, check, check.…”
The sound man just can’t seem to get rid of the feedback, which is humming like some kind of ancient Chinese torture method just beneath the low ceiling of the 9:30 Club. On stage, Superdrag is tired and hungry, having driven nine hours straight from Knoxville to Washington, D.C. and then loading their equipment in through the rain.
It was only when they finally got inside that they discovered they were not, in fact, playing the club’s main stage, but the second—and much smaller—stage...in the basement. Looks like a basement, smells like a basement, sounds like a basement. Right now, the floor is littered with a maze of cables, power tools, guitar cases and backpacks, making this hole in the wall seem even smaller than it probably is. The official fire code capacity for the room is 100, but they’re going to have to be 100 really skinny people.
“Check two, check two, check, check, check....”
Finally, after an impossibly long sound check, the static is removed, and the band is free to kill time before the show begins.
“‘Ooh, you’re signed to a major label, you must have a big bus. Roadies to carry your stuff,’” bassist Tom Pappas mocks as he stuffs a pedal into his bag and struggles to zip it shut. “ Right .”
Despite what you might have heard, inking a contract with a major record label does not automatically constitute a Cinderella story. Bands are guaranteed the “Once upon a time,” but no Artists & Repertoire man in the world can promise a “happily ever after.” And these days, one-hit wonders are here today and gone tomorrow as quick as the MTV Buzz Bin can spit them out.
Superdrag, Knoxville’s own pop stars in the making, are “busting ass” to make their fairy tale come true since signing with Elektra Records, an arm of Time-Warner, last April. The past few months have been a whirlwind of recording, touring, pumping hands, ringing phones, industry schmoozing and basically spreading their name to anyone who will listen. In other words, the Great American Rock’n’Roll Dream.
Superdrag has gone from being the biggest fish in Knoxville’s little pond to fresh bait in the sea of sharks that is the music industry. Will they sink or will they swim?
“Tennessee Buttafuocco” (1995)
It was going to be the coup, the real icing on the cake. C and I were in the Ford, like O.J. and Al, heading out to Karns to interview Rob Whedbee and get some real damned answers, some drama . There were only two problems … well, three. There were certainly no more than several, at the outside.
Victor Something-or-other (I never could figure out his last name) of American Journal —a low-rent sibling of Inside Edition —had called around 2:30 that afternoon. They needed someone to cover the Michael Frazier attempted murder trial, known hereabouts as the infamous "love-triangle case." The producers in New York had decided that the trial was seedy enough to warrant national exposure. And I’d have to agree with them—Mr. Frazier was charged with first-degree attempted murder after Whedbee awoke one fateful night to find Frazier standing over his bed wearing rubber gloves and carrying a butcher knife.
To the joy of the tabloid world, Frazier was also a choir director at an area church and had been carrying on an affair with Whedbee’s wife, Lisa, for over a year (she sang in the choir). What really took the case out of AAA league and into the majors was that Rob Whedbee was accused of frequently beating and raping his wife in the months prior to the alleged murder attempt—which may explain why Lisa stood in the doorway with a baseball bat while Frazier approached her husband’s bed with a knife. It was an all-American story straight from the heartland and ready for syndication.
…I tried to explain the dearth of drama, of juicy interviews to Victor and Kathy, but whenever I described people’s general unwillingness to blab I felt like I was speaking in tongues. I’m sure Kathy was sitting in her office on East 76th St., wearing her DKNY black knit dress, imagining me and C in the parking lot at Weigels handling snakes and playing the banjo while the story slipped away.
It was no use. I hung up the phone and watched a shirtless young man beating on the window of his girlfriend’s car, screaming, "You f***ed him, didn’t you? Didn’t you ?” C went in and got us some Pepsis.
“Southern Accents: Jack Neely boldly searches for the mysterious ‘Knoxville accent’” (1996)
It’s not like we’re unable to form the same sounds as Peter Jennings does. We just use them for different purposes. East Tennesseans pronounce most vowels as other vowels. I suspect it’s a remnant of a massive code-educating effort during the Blount conspiracy.
Long a equals long i (a “plite of bikon and grivy”).
Long e equals long a (a “grain
Short i equals long e (a “seex eench meenimum”).
Short u equals short e (“jest shet ep”).
…Another characteristic is the liberal use of the word that in almost all occasions involving a noun. “I need that filter wrench to change that oil so you’uns could go see that Alan Jackson at that Thompson-Boling Arena.” Interestingly, the same phenomenon describes the ad-libbing of urban nightclub singers of the Rat Pack era. (“When that shark bites with those teeth, dear ...”)
• Emphasis on the first syllable. T-v. TENN-essee. I think it’s just because it sounds meaner, tougher and less mellifluous, with no trace of any pansy foreign influence. (Incidentally, there’s evidence that John Sevier n’em pronounced Tennessee with the accent on the second syllable—which sounds even more foreigny.)
• My same West Virginia friend was also shocked at the phrase You’un’s ( yuns , for short). Y’all is often explained as a struggle to find a distinct plural for the word you , one of the marked deficiencies of the English language—but why do we need plural plurals?
• Do what ? Maybe because we’re used to questioning orders, we got used to employing this phrase to inquire about absolutely anything we don’t understand. It mainly serves the same role as the French “Pardonez?,” the English “I beg your pardon?,” the upper-class “Excuse me?,” and the Brooklyn “Huh?” But some use it for other purposes as well, as in the phrase, “His name was do-what?”
Needless to say, I’m still trying to find my Knoxville Accent, just so New Yorkers can go home and say, “You shoulda hoid dis goy twok!”
“The First Nominal Turczyn-Weisfeld Academy Awards Face-Off” (1996)
There’s not a day that goes by when I’m not stopped on the street by one of Metro Pulse ’s many, many readers and asked: “What are Coury and Zak really like?”
You’ve no doubt felt their mystique as well. So just who are these erudite champions of great cinema, these outspoken social critics who bedazzle us every week? Cruelly enough, this paper doesn’t allow its columnists to print head shots next to their stories. But if it did, you’d see two young gentlemen in the full flower of their talents.
And very different talents they are!
Coury enjoys the mass-appeal products of Hollywood, from mismatched buddy cops to the snot-dripping antics of Jim Carrey. Zak, meanwhile, is drawn to the angst-ridden dramas of Icelandic film makers—in black and white, please.
Coury reads the USA Today “purple section.” Zak rereads Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault.
Coury eats double cheese Whoppers and curly fries. Zak is on a hunger strike.
Coury listens to “classic rock.” Zak jams to field recordings of Alabama prison chants.
Coury drives a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda fastback with the emissions equipment removed. Zak walks—wearing recycled rubber sandals.
What a wacky pair!
Here, then, are their predictions of the winners of this year’s Academy Awards—to be aired March 25—along with some feisty disagreements. Watch out!
COURY: All I’ve got to say is, where’s Mr. Ron Howard? Clearly, along with such greats as John Hughes and Chris Columbus, he is one of our generation’s best film artists. We all know what the best movie of the year is— Apollo 13 , of course—and it should be only fitting that he get his just reward. It’s injustices such as these that plant in me a seed of doubt about the infallible wisdom of the Academy.
ZAK: Ron Howard? RON HOWARD? That miserable hack! Explain why the Academy saw fit to pass over the greatest living film director today: N. Vranchinmeg of Mongolia. Her film, Shackles , though I’ve never seen it, is infinitely superior to the childish drivel you so reverently praise!
ZAK: Yes, Mongolia—the only country left in the world still producing films of potent artistry, unfettered by the paralyzing hand of American cultural hegemony. Even you must have heard about the new wave of Mongolian cinema sweeping the world!
COURY: You’re a pompous idiot. You’ve never even seen a Mongolian movie.
ZAK: Well, I’ve read about people who have! I just got the latest volume of the Central Asian Film Theory Annual , and it had extensive descriptions. In fact, I may be America’s foremost expert on the Vranchinmeg oeuvre.
COURY: You’re still a pompous idiot. Why I ever let you stain our pages with your wacko socialist rants is beyond me.
ZAK: Maybe it’s because your idea of a thought-provoking movie is Tommy Boy .
COURY: I resent that! Chris Farley is a very complex comedian!
ZAK: Too bad he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. I guess you’ll have to settle for that fascist fag-hater, Mel Gibson.
COURY: His tale of liberation was an inspiration to all, showing that one man can make a difference!
ZAK: Yeah, sieg-heil, man.
COURY: You’re fired!
“The Art of Not Thinking” (1996)
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I’m chanting over and over again, struggling to force my squeaky, slurry voice into a deep resonant bass to match the sounds emanating from my classmates as together we seek an escape from the stresses in our lives through meditation.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I’m sitting in the lotus position on the lawn of Laurel High School as dusk settles over Fort Sanders, my legs twisted up pretzel-style into my lap, as if in some grotesque caricature of a hippie—the kind Sergio Aragones might have hastily sketched out in the early ’70s in the margins of Mad magazine. And I’m pondering my personal motivation. I’ve learned that thousands of Knoxvillians are seeking out meditation of all sorts—Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Christian, and a surprising number of other variations on the old spiritual theme. Can this ancient method of relaxation and enlightenment work for me, a woman who sifts for nuggets of transcendent wisdom by watching reruns of Seinfeld ? I can only hope.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." I’ve just finished a yoga class, a series of stretching exercises designed to release energy—both physical and spiritual.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." And now, I’m supposed to be meditating—freeing my mind from the shackles of the day-to-day thoughts that keep it busy, releasing what the Buddhists among us might call the "monkey mind," the stream of consciousness inner babble—screeching, jabbering, and jumping nonstop from tree to tree—that keeps us all from experiencing inner peace and achieving personal enlightenment.
"Oooooooohhhmmmm ..." The last of our series of five ohms completed, our instructor pauses to exhort us to let our minds relax, quiet down, to focus on our breathing, to listen to the "higher self." We sit in silence, our ears ostensibly tuned to the voice within.
For me, this is impossible. You’d think that your higher self would be pondering all kinds of deep thoughts, would have some perspective on your life, if not at least something interesting to say. But what I hear going on is this: I bet I look stupid ... I was supposed to call Linda—I’ll bet she’s mad ... A cold beer sure would be good right now ... My thighs are fat ... I wonder what the cats are doing right now ... Oh shit, I’m not supposed to be thinking ... Maybe I should be thinking, ’ohm’...It’s not working ... OHM!!! ... Oh, hell, maybe I can fake it ... Then what’s the point? This is for your own good! ... My nose itches ... Don’t scratch—mind over matter, mind over matter ... I’m thinking again ... This story is going to suck ... I’m hungry ... But wait, I’m on a diet ... That weenie Bob—I hope he gets thunked in the head by the great Karmic Wheel … I wonder if I can get a job at HGTV? ... Who cares, you’re supposed to be not thinking! ... Who can not think? ... Geez, maybe I can’t do this ... This story is going to suck ... hard! ... Well, at least I can write it in first person ...
And that was just a 30-second excerpt.
“Bedtime for Gonzo” (1997)
And there he was. In the center of the stage, Warren Zevon was playing a little number on the piano and Thompson stood behind him, a big—surprisingly big—bald guy in sunglasses, smoking a cigarette in a long white cigarette holder and clutching a fire extinguisher. With which he blasted Zevon (and you were probably wondering, "Whatever happened to Zevon?")…
From the looks of things—Thompson lurching across the empty stage, blasting people with the fire extinguisher, and swigging alternately from a beer and a juice glass of bourbon—it was a good thing we planned to have him sit down for the interview.
Two hours later, Thompson came bellowing into the room holding a glass of whisky and a leather riding crop. The current Sheriff of Aspen was at his side (for both Hunter’s, and the world’s, safety), his son and assistant were close behind, and a couple of college girls and a reporter brought up the rear.
The interview was an abbreviated half-hour affair under too-hot lights in a sweltering hotel room. Though a diabolical mumbler, and more than a few sheets to the wind, Thompson was hardly a lunatic. If anything he seemed like a vaguely Parkinsonian uncle. A cantankerous but friendly uncle with a predilection for strong drink and leather goods.
Not surprisingly, the interview was useless. After sending the tape to the National Security Administration for transcription and decoding, all I got back was this:
KP: Does it seem strange to be coming back to Louisville to be lauded like this? A place where they locked you up? (Thompson was arrested several times as a youth for various crimes, mostly theft).
HST: Mrrrmphrrrm hrrrmrumppph urrmrrrhummprrrphg!…coming home for vengeance on the bastards who f--ked with me.
“News You Can Use?” (1997)
"The news starts NOW!"
The voice is urgent, authoritarian, like a ringmaster calling attention to the blindfolded motorcyclist on the high-wire. The 11 p.m. newscast on WBIR-TV Channel 10 is about to begin. And what does our most-watched local news operation have to tell us tonight about the many people, places, trends, and events that make up our community, our culture, our way of life?
Well, a pharmacist was shot in Clinton. A counterfeiter was arrested in Halls. A Jefferson County teenager accused of killing his father appeared in court. And police are looking for two men who allegedly killed a pair of teenage ice cream store workers in Clarksville.
Only two reports in the seven minutes and 13 seconds before the first commercial break run longer than 60 seconds. The first is a two-minute piece on inmates in local jails receiving Social Security checks illegally. Although the report quotes the Anderson County sheriff characterizing the cheats as "laying up like a big dog, collecting this money," and has a largely positive spin—the government getting tough with miscreants—it offers no account of how widespread the abuse might be, how much it’s costing taxpayers each year, or why no one thought to get tough on it before.
The other report is part of Channel 10’s "Crackdown on Crime" series, and it begins with an almost incoherent introduction from spunky anchor Kim Stephens: "A gun may be one of the strongest deterrents to crime, but it can also be one of the deadliest. Windows, doors, and lights are also strong weapons, but the only people they hurt are the criminals." What she’s getting at, it turns out, is a Knoxville Police Department program where cadets tell business owners how to crime-proof their establishments. At the end of the segment, Bill Williams, the sage godfather of local TV, turns to Stephens and says, "Sounds like a really good program."
"It is," Stephens agrees enthusiastically. "It’s helping business owners, that’s for sure."
"That’s great," Williams rejoins.
Shootings, murders, cheaters, counterfeiters, locked doors, and blacked-out windows—this is local TV news. That’s not all it is, of course. There are also stories about cute kids, courageous grandmothers, dedicated community volunteers, and weather—lots of weather. There’s even government and political news, although as often as not it’s limited to a slow pan across a room of stone-faced politicians coupled with a quote or two.
Local TV stations promise a lot. They promise to give us reports that are "special," "exclusive," and "in-depth." They promise news "Straight From the Heart," "Coverage You Can Count On," news that’s "In Touch with East Tennessee." But how "in touch" is it? How well does it reflect who we are, what we care about, and what’s really going on in our community?
“A Blackened Rainbow: How do we make sense of the Lillelid murders?” (1998)
Prologue: April 12, 1997
People are out in the streets of Pikeville, Ky., for Hillbilly Days, but the carnival’s a little strained. There’s tension beneath the festiveness at the fair, the biggest party of the year in this coal-mining region. Everybody in town has heard the rumor—a bunch of vampire kids have bought up all the razor blades at Wal-Mart and are going to run through the crowds, cutting people. They’re part of the same group as those kids in jail, the ones from around here who killed that family in Tennessee last week. There’s going to be trouble.
The local police have stepped up their patrols. As one walks through the crowd, he says into his walkie-talkie, "Yeah, I’ve got my stake and my holy water." In the end, nothing happens.
"When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
Natasha Wallen Cornett has her thumbs hooked through holes in the sleeves of her white thermal shirt, which she wears beneath the navy blue jumpsuit that marks her as a resident of the Greene County Jail. It may be to keep her hands warm. It may be just an affectation, a small act of rebellion, the only kind left to her anymore. It may be so the sleeves don’t roll back to expose the scars on her arms. I don’t think to ask.
It’s hard, in fact, to know what to ask her. She’s flanked by Crystal Sturgill and Karen Howell, in identical uniforms, all of them pallid under the fluorescent hallway lights. Sturgill’s somewhat frizzy hair and Howell’s puffy eyes suggest they haven’t been up long this morning, an observation Howell confirms. "They got us out of bed," she says, her small voice registering not so much resentment as resignation.
So here they are. Three convicted murderers. Three demonic killers, vampires, would-be anti-Christs, if you believe everything said about them in court and in news reports over the past 12 months. Three confused, angry, wounded children, if you believe their lawyers, their families, and their psychiatrists.
“More Than an Address: Finding the faces behind closed doors at the notorious 5th Ave. Motel” (1998)
Light can blind you. Even as it fades. Driving down Broadway Avenue at dusk, your eye catches the 5th Ave. Motel and won’t let go. The faint yet majestic glow of the city shines through the roof’s large metal letters—which spell out a metaphysical address as much as a literal one. It is breathtaking, the grandeur of urban decay set against the approaching night sky. Your sight shifts to the sidewalk, to old men with beards in tattered clothes, to young men and women smoking cigarettes, sipping from a crumpled paper bag. One of them waves to you, but you do not know him.
To passing motorists, it may be a warning of what could be, of where you could end up if you’re not careful, if you drink too much or mess with crack or squander your money or surrender to despair. Maybe that description sounds pat.
Perhaps this once glorious, now worn sign simply sits above a world you either belong to or gawk at as you drive by in your car.
This stretch of road is Knoxville’s version of Skid Row. The mission just up the street and the Salvation Army next door—modern facilities dedicated to the hopeless—don’t convey the decades of drunken desolation this crossroads symbolizes, not like the 5th Ave. does. This building scares and entertains people, fills them with contempt and curiosity.
What would it be like to live here? Is it really so dangerous, so depraved? I’ve been gawking at this place ever since I moved to Knoxville a year ago, and was curious to know what it is really like.
So I moved in.
A haze of cigarette smoke floats through the apartment complex’s office, as a slight 64-year-old red-haired woman punches away at a calculator. An industrial strength venetian blind shades the lone window, giving the room the dull yellow tint of an afternoon nap. Dorothy Sherwood—or Dot, or Mama Dot, as she’s known—has been running this place for 11 years.
Sitting in the desk next to her chair, it’s sometimes difficult to hear every word her soft voice enunciates. But hang around long enough, and you’ll hear her raise it several notches in order to chase away vagrants or get tough with a tenant delinquent on rent.
Dot is genuinely proud of the 5th Ave, and she’s eager to dispel some misconceptions about it. It is not a crack house or a whorehouse. Most of the people who loiter out front and on the corner are selling drugs or sex, but they do not live here. It is these people that cause the trouble and violence, she says. There are many good people with honest jobs living here.
"One problem we do have here is drinking. They get so bored," she says. "If they don’t work and they don’t get out, all they got is these four walls closing in on them, and they start to drink."
But she adds, "I was married to a drunk for 27 years. I can handle a drunk. I can’t handle these new drugs."
My room costs $60 a week, and as she hands me the key, Dot offers this advice: "Don’t open your door at night. I’m not going to lie to people about where they live. We’ve had muggings in the hallway, people have been stabbed here. We’ve had a couple people stabbed with screwdrivers. They’ll knock on your door at night, but don’t let them in."
“A Very Short Interview with Harry Crews” (2000)
"Harry Crews ."
That’s it. No " Hello ," no " Harry Crews speaking ," just a voice that sounds clenched and very far off saying " Harry Crews ."
It’s not hard to find his phone number. Just call information in Gainesville, Fla. Getting him to talk to you is more complicated. I’m a reporter in Knoxville, I tell him. I’d like to ask him a few questions about this new book, Getting Naked With Harry Crews . It was edited by a guy here in town, and...
"The interview book?" he says. He sounds a little incredulous.
"I’ll tell you what, buddy, I’m a little jammed up right now."
"Well, we can do it. Sure, we can do it. It’s just a question of when..." He trails off.
I’m going out of town next Thursday, I venture. I could do it anytime between now and then. Or...
"Why don’t you call me when you get back?"
Um, okay. Like next month sometime?
Okay, I say. Thanks. End of conversation. The thing is, next month is after my deadline. I know this. I could probably tell him this. Maybe he’d soften up. Maybe we could do the interview right now. But see, this is Harry Crews.
“Sniff Sniff Sniff... I am a Fugitive from a Tennessee Bloodhound” (2001)
I don’t hear any barking, just the trickling of a creek a few yards to my left and the occasional rustling of the forest canopy above. Crouching against a moss-covered giant hemlock, my butt is moist from the dirt. Ants crawl over my feet and chiggers bite the skin around my ankles, but my efforts to shoo them away are kept to a minimum out of fear that the motion will give me away.
I know he’s out there, looking for me. Or rather, sniffing for me. He’s nine years old and his name is Big Boy. And he has the distinction of being the number one bloodhound for the state’s Brushy Mountain Correctional Complex. His nose has helped find escaped murderers and lost children alike. Right now, he’s looking for me. I imagine his keen nose rising to the breeze, picking out my own peculiar stink from that of various deer, hikers, dogs and other warm-blooded creatures. Shivering slightly, I huddle down closer to the tree and try not to move.
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“Taking Time to Heal: Five days in the psych ward for post-partum depression” (2002)
None of the other drivers pumping gas at the Weigel’s will look at me. Odd, considering that this particular convenience mart has seen some intense action because of its location on Summit Hill. You know your life has taken a surreal turn when you freak out folks who’ve seen some pretty strange behavior.
In my day-to-day world, I would have looked away from me as well. Picture it: crazy-haired woman sobs breathlessly as she pumps gas. Her bruised-looking eyes focus vacantly on some inner distance. It is raining, but she seems to not notice how wet she’s getting. A poster child for mental stability she most definitely is not.
This was not supposed to happen and, at the same time, it was inevitable.
Discovering the absolute beginning is like playing pick-up sticks. Each object touches another. Isolation of the events is impossible. The landscape shifts with each move. And my hands have never been steady.
A short version of the story would read thus:
Two weeks previous, I had a baby and took to motherhood the same way a brick takes to water.
After Weigel’s, I will spend the next five days on Tower Four, St. Mary’s name for its Psychiatry Ward.
Important things will be discovered and should be shared.
Maddy, my daughter, is beautiful, thank you for asking.
Mom is, currently, as close to sane as she ever was, which may not be saying much.
While the last few months have been an Everest-sized ordeal, I wouldn’t trade one second of it. Not even for a nap.
…Describing the sensory assault of the psych floor is difficult, even for those in complete command of all of their faculties. So, then, imagine all of this happening at once: a woman paces around the perimeter of the nurses’ station, muttering under her breath; the hands of another patient snake into your hair and start to braid it; the one person who makes you feel slightly OK is forced to leave because visiting hours are over; a dead-eyed woman wants to ask you questions; your bags are taken and searched and, save for a few chemically-induced hours the night previous, you are wading through deep pools of exhaustion. Oh, and you still cry almost constantly.
Before we go further, let me make note of one very important thing. While I did not believe it at the time, Tower Four was exactly where I needed to be. It is one of the safest places, both physically and emotionally, I have ever been. My stay is both something that I’m glad to have had and something I never want to do again. Everyone, either mentally healthy or no, could benefit from spending some time up there.
That said, it is also an area of any hospital that is full of absurdities, most of which you fail to appreciate until you start to get your head back together. And by highlighting just a few of them, I’m not intending to whine. I’m merely trying to draw as complete a picture as possible. Except for the upcoming bit about one of the social workers who told me I could be cured if I accepted Christ. A certain level of hell is reserved for those who proselytize to those over whom they have power.
“Suttree Come Home, by Carnac McSorley” (2003)
Good friend now in the stinky hours of the town in the directionless years of an unforeseen third century, the mongrel city constructed with no known identity, beset by a thing unknown, sulks above the river’s interstitial wastes. Unbranded city of fleabitten sorcerers and gaelic alchemists unsaved by gnomish bowlers or wellgroomed binominal consultants from foreign climes. Hyperactive pavers moil on asphalt projects beyond mortal reason like men beset with intestinal worms. University deserted by legislative gibbons.
Abominable drainage from dire northern wastes flows along broadway by the gnumgrumous fellinikroger and the doomed baseballstadium then afreight with krystalwrappers slouches into horrid subterranean culverts beneath multilaned asphalt highway. Below the improbably multiballed skyline of the city where a concrete hotel looms like a barren Aztec hydroelectric dam the firstcreek culvert vomits its frothy trashbedizen waters into the dank stoutbrown river.
Fragrant ribbones and fruitrinds in rubber garbagecans. Doomy weddingparties in doubledecker sternwheeler. Gnambrous chubbymen in volparties. Freeparking at airconditioned welcomecenter: unnumbered distended chromewagons of dread purpose unknown. Across the snappercut grass fourfooted shapes go to and fro, leaving fetid stinkpiles of poop. Twofooted forms come behind them and chronicle the excrement of quadrupeds with multicolored plasticflags. Relics of forgotten dogmeals thus adorned: fecal colorguards, standardbearers of putrefaction in grassy battle.
Ruder forms make a decent living.
From parts unknown to literature Cornelius Suttree poled his skiff upriver past a corrugated arena, hatbox of a gargantuan mad hatter, peering warily overhead beneath the henley bridge to dodge plummeting unmedicated depressives, ahead a sandcolored baptist hospital, great silver tanks of holston gas, a grievous dearth of tavernboats. He poled to the northshore, up to his old spot in the riverbank. He recognized it by sighting the morning shadow of the Gay Street Bridge, but at the old mooring things were askew. No mudbanks but concrete steps. In his halfcentury gone, the derelict wharf had given way to new forms. There was not the jackstrewn clutter of whorebitten shackboats. Now clean fiberglass hulls in bright orange and white. There was no longer the familiar smell of leprous pariahs and ancient corpseflesh, but in the air fresh barbecue and alpine deodorant. The encampments of the damned were now greenways of concrete and tasteful indigenous plantings. He tied his boat to a hawser and emerged into a demented carnival of aberrant colors and bellyshapes. Men in bowlingshirts, women in powersuits. Orange, bright shades of convictwear.
I never been closer and I never been farther away
Boot camp. That’s what it was, especially in my first year of working there. Metro Pulse was about to move to weekly publication when I replaced Jared Coffin as art director. I was responsible for the overall look of the thing—designing pages, assigning artwork and photography, and designing covers. I was usually so busy that I stayed in my hidey-hole of an office most of the time, willing my computer not to blow up.
The strongest memories I have from that time are sensory. The Arnstein building, where the MP office was located at the time, had a certain odor—not terribly unpleasant, just distinct—like a combination of bank lobby smell and bologna. The back stairwell always reeked of cigarette smoke, but that’s where the best conversations took place.
At Christmas time, Krutch Park in its better (in my opinion) “Secret Garden” days was a lovely sight from the Metro Pulse office because its trees were dressed in white lights. On the Metro Pulse floor, weird faded carpeting had purple dog paw prints on it, a leftover gift from Whittle days, I suppose. And the people who worked there were a colorful parade of information, entertainment, and bewilderment.
One of my favorite office decorations was on the window outside of my office door, where a bored Ian Blackburn had catapulted some sort of sticky dessert onto the glass to see how long it would take to slide to the floor. He marked its progress down the glass with a Sharpie. It took hours to reach the floor. Those marks are probably still there.
I was sort of annoyed that I wasn’t immediately hired by Metro Pulse as soon as I expressed interest in working there. After all, I was willing to jump ship from Whittle Communications with its wellness benefits and free coffee and tea and catered meetings to come work at the slightly grungy local free biweekly.
Of course, I was willing to jump because it was plain to me that Whittle was rapidly losing interest in doing the kind of stuff I wanted to work on—i.e. lots of words, printed on paper, etc.—meaning no job for me, or perhaps a boring one at best. Plus, like countless young would-be’s before and since, I was attracted to the whiff of freedom that exudes from the very ink of a good alt-weekly—freedom, encouragement even, to write about stuff that regular writers didn’t, often in ways they’d never get away with elsewhere. I was always a townie at Whittle, anyway, and Metro Pulse was about my town, not merely located there.
Eventually they hired me and I quickly learned that boring was not going to be a problem. I was working harder than I ever had in my life; I kept an old Army surplus sleeping bag under my desk in the Gay Street office, and I used it a few nights a month at least. And I was learning that journalism is, indeed, fun, but it’s not as easy as writing it all down.
Betty Bean saved me from making at least one major goof in a news story, and while she was fairly kind about it considering the pudknocker nature of my error, my shame at not knowing everything I should before I file provided a lesson I carry with me to this day. And the whole enterprise had the excitement of a scrappy start-up, but also the accompanying rawness and uncertainty of a small staff working in a small space with limited resources and facing an uncertain outcome. I was kind of surprised when I went on to work for another alt-weekly and the ad director and art director didn’t almost come to blows on a weekly basis.
Regardless, I’m grateful to this day for the encouragement I got from Coury and, later, Barry, and the free rein that’s still one of the best perks in journalism. I’m grateful for the many friends I made there, and the chance to work alongside some of the most talented people I’ve met in the field.
Most of all, I’m grateful for the chance Joe Sullivan took in hiring me. As a typical young doofus, I thought I knew much more than I actually did back then, and in spite of that, Joe did eventually hire me and allowed me to learn how much I didn’t know and then learn a lot of what I should, all on his non-remunerated dime.
Wrong things I learned from Metro Pulse
1.) People really, really care what you say about them. See also: All press is not, in fact, good press.
I now deal with publicists to celebrities every day, and sure they sometimes get mad when you call their client a drunk. But not as mad as Knoxville club owners, promoters and bands would get if I accidentally typed in the wrong start time for a concert. And I can say anything about Lindsay Lohan and be almost certain she won’t cuss me out in public—which is what happened after I wrote that the re-formed Misfits were pretty lame minus Glenn Danzig (said
Misfits proceeded to tell me to eff off from the stage of the Electric Ballroom, or so I heard the next day), and also after I generously called The Used the most improved band in town back in 1992 (drummer John Davis, later of Superdrag and also later my boyfriend, got onstage at Flamingo’s and told me to, yep, eff off).
2.) You will have to do a lot of playing dumb about all the co-worker hookups going on after hours.
Unless you work with 23 women and two gay men who can’t stand each other.
3.) You might have to suck it up and write something nice about an advertiser, so they’ll continue to give you money.
Actually, this is still true.
4.) You might have to deal with drunk musicians, drugged-out club owners and assorted lowlifes to get your job done.
Actually, this is also still true. Anyone else miss Mercury Theatre, Gryphon’s, the 1-900$, Satellite Pumps and Taoist Cowboys?
5.) You will work with crazy people.
Between our computer guru Ian throwing office furniture off the roof at midnight and coming in dressed as a gorilla, ad managers punching holes in the wall in fits of anger, writer Lee Gardner accidentally breaking out a window with his ass at a holiday party, and people who were willing to scream and huff and slam doors all in the name of saving a story they believed in, I was prepared for pretty much anything the magazine world could throw at me.
Sadly, you do not see this kind of behavior from Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter, although Graydon does smoke in his office, just like Joe Sullivan.
6.) Everyone you work with will be insanely talented. And dedicated. And easy to edit.
To Joe, Barry, Coury, Jack, Jesse, and Lee: thank you for being the best teachers a girl from Fountain City could ever have.
Metro Pulse . Oh aye, I remember Metro Pulse . There were men in those days, by God. Women too. And some children. A few pets, I think. There was definitely a goldfish. And a rubber chicken. Anyway. Times were tough.
We had to hunt down stories and strangle them with our bare hands. None of these fancy ink pens and notepads and like what you see these days. We printed in hen’s blood, on a wooden tablet that the interns had to swab clean every Tuesday for the next edition. It was hand to mouth, I tell you what. Foot to mouth too, sometimes. (That was mostly Ian.) The Movie Guru was an actual guru then. Lived on nuts and Jujy Fruits, in a cave up the Chimneys. We drew straws every week for who’d have to hike up there and get his oracular pronouncements. Half the time he hadn’t seen a movie at all; he’d just make one up. The Fornacles of Pentacleer , or Drays of Spiney Valley . Most of our readers were illiterate anyway, so it didn’t seem to matter. (The ones who could read would send us ornate letters of outrage, calligraphed on moldy sheepskin. We kept ’em for blankets, against the winter chill.)
We were poor, but we were happy. Too ignorant to know better. Every few days an agent of the publisher (some South Knoxville Wall Street swell) would swing by and toss us raw chard and overripe yams from his crumble-down steed. The yams we used for whiskey. The chard, oh God I don’t think I can talk about the chard. Some nights I awake sudden and can taste it still, in the back of my throat. It made us bitter, yes, it did. But it made us strong.
In the early ’90s I was living on 21st and Laurel, putting my hair back in a ponytail, and riding my bike to work downtown. Come lunchtime, I would walk over to the funky new little restaurant on the Square, called The Flying Tomato. I was there on the first day it was open and became friends with the restaurateur, Mahasti Vafaie. She asked me if I’d be willing to barter pictures for pizza, to create ads for Metro Pulse . Providing the ad images to MP was how I met Jared Coffin, then art director for the paper. I think Jared enjoyed working with the pictures as much as Mahasti and I did. We actually won an Addy for the ongoing black-and-white campaign, which ran in MP in those first years.
From there, I began picking up assignments for MP with different writers of the day. The most memorable ones include covering professional wrestling in Johnson City with Lee Gardne r , Club Dance with Coury Turczyn, drag queens with Mike Gibson, and the Tough Man Competition with Alison Glock. The assignments were fun because of the interesting glimpses they provided into East Tennessee culture, and the opportunity they provided to work closely with writers and fellow creatives. Being a man of few words and many exposures, the best way for me to remember and retell those tales is simply looking back at the pictures.
Paige M. Travis
For 15 years, Thursdays have meant at least one constant in my life: fingertips smudged black and the telltale smell of ink-saturated paper.
Because if it’s Thursday, it must be Metro Pulse . Through the rise and fall of other Thursday rituals (Must-See TV, subUrban Thursdays and dance night at The Closet), Metro Pulse has remained present in the heart of Knoxville—and in my heart as well. I was a summer intern, a contributor for six years—an in-house staffer for two and a half of those—but I’ve been a reader throughout. That time went by so fast, blurred by dizzying deadlines and torturous editorial meetings. My memory doesn’t work in anecdotes, only snapshots: nervous interviews with Norah Jones and Barry Hannah; weekends spent camped out with cover stories; Ellen Mallernee transferring weird phone calls to Mike Gibson just to befuddle him; arranging a last-minute photo shoot with the mannequin heads in J’s Mega Mart…. Few of Metro Puls e’s behind-the-scenes goof-offs and dramas appear within the paper. Those are mine to keep, along with the hundreds of issues I’ve collected in plastic bins over the years.
I first picked up Metro Pulse when I started at UT to scour the music calendar—its most pronounced and precious feature—for upcoming encounters with The Judybats or Rapscallion Battery or whatever other bands I fancied. Completely by accident, I got hooked on Jack Neely’s “Secret History” column. Jack introduced me, and I’m sure many of us, to the radical notion that our hometown wasn’t the dull, soulless, underachieving place I’d always taken it for. Knoxville had stories and mysteries and an underground. “Secret History” changed forever the way I feel about my city. Over the past 15 years, Metro Pulse has cultivated and nurtured those feelings and ideas in its readers, evolving a creative and civic energy that’s bigger than its 62 pages a week. Reading Metro Pulse and making up your mind about Knoxville: It’s not a bad way to spend the Thursdays of your life.
Five years ago, I helped set up 10 years of old covers as a celebratory display in what was the shell of Watson’s Department Store. The exhibit, if you can call several hundred Pulse covers stapled to plywood an “exhibit,” was part of a larger celebration on Market Square, which was capped off by a concert by Apelife. Many beers were consumed. Many old faces made the trip from such diverse corners as New York City and Birmingham, Ala. I know a great many anecdotes were bandied about then, but the haze of the aforementioned beers and five years have muddled most of them. I have some vague memory of Todd Steed crafting an impromptu tone poem about all of the Metro Pulse writers—and you’d be surprised what rhymes with “Turczyn.” What I recall the most, however, was the sense of being part of something bigger, as cliche as that might sound. Those covers (and the issues they illustrated) started before my tenure and, I knew, would continue long past it. Happy 15th MP ! Just think, next year you can drive.