gamut (2006-39)

TWO WILD AND CRAZY GUYS?: German musicians Roland Kopp, left, and Michael Ströll.

Above, Buddy and the Huddle on tour; Roland Kopp is at left. Below, what remains of the exterior of the original Huddle, closed for 25 years. The mounts for the original sign are visible above the door at left.

About 10 years ago, a couple of uninhibited German tourists arrived in Knoxville, got a room at the airport Hilton, and rented a car. They drove into town on a Saturday morning, and stood in the middle of Main Street, astonished that everything was closed, and there was nobody there. They stood and took pictures with an old-fashioned box camera. They were here to make a record.

Roland Kopp and Michael Ströll made livings as social workers in Neumarkt, a small Bavarian town near Nuremberg, but were also blues musicians more ambitious than most of their peers, who played in classic-rock cover bands. Kopp, who worked at a home for troubled teenage boys had a particular passion for steel guitar and contemporary American literature.

The two brought with them a copy of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the well-known American author of All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian . The novel they brought was one of his earlier ones, a book called Suttree .

McCarthy grew up in Knoxville and set his first four novels here. Sometimes densely here, weaving together real characters unknown or long forgotten by mainstream Knoxvillians, intersecting with real places, some dimly recalled.

But somehow his Knoxville-area novels, especially Suttree , have a following overseas. Kopp came across a German translation of Suttree , quite by accident, because he liked the cover. In German, it’s called Verlore , which translates, roughly, as The Lost .

He took it with him on a family camping trip to Tuscany.

“I read 20 pages, and told my family, ‘Please do not disturb me, I’m doing something important.’ It thrilled me enormously. I read the book in one day.”

That’s no mean feat; the densely written book is almost 500 pages long. Back home, he told his friend Michael about it. “Read this,” he said. “I think we can do something new.”

Kopp and Ströll aren’t the first Europeans who have come to Knoxville hoping to evoke the dark, gritty scenes of McCarthy’s complex, darkly comic story of Knoxville’s moral underbelly, and of a middle-class guy who leaves the comforts of home and family to live among Knoxville’s’ untouchables. Two years ago, the Cormac McCarthy Society met in Knoxville, and literary scholars from Australia and Wales came to find out if they could see the world through Suttree’s eyes.

It’s rare, though, for literary tourists to come with the intention of making an album. “I had an idea to make some music from this book,” Kopp says. “Michael read it and we started to talk. I told him what kind of pictures I’d seen, and what kind of music I’d heard.”  They wrote some music there, but thought it could benefit from authenticity.

“When I read the book, I found Knoxville had been described very well. I wanted to know whether it’s fiction or not.” He got in touch with the local tourist bureau, which sent him some city maps. “There was Main Street, Union Street, the river,” he recalls. “It seemed very real to me. I said, ‘Let’s go to Knoxville.’” In April, 1996, they booked a flight from Nuremberg.

Asked his impression of Knoxville, he repeats what many said of their first visit in the 1990s. “I was astonished when I was able to stand on Main Street at 10 in the morning, taking photos of shops that are closed,” he says. “For 15 minutes, not even one car came by. Not even a bicycle. It seemed no one lived in Knoxville. My first impression was that it was a lost city.”

What resulted from that trip, and further studio work at home in Bavaria, was a record album unlike any other. Employing several other musicians playing instruments ranging from banjos to tubas to cellos, they made a sort of musical travelogue of Suttree’s Knoxville, a rich and diverse album of original music based mainly on scenes from the novel. It includes jazz, country blues, hip-hop, string-quartet minimalism, avant-garde vaudeville decadence à la Tom Waits, and some rock’n’roll evocative of the Velvet Underground. He called the band, and its first CD , Buddy and the Huddle: Music for a Still Undone Movie Maybe Called ‘Suttree.’

When Kopp and Ströll were here, they traveled under the radar. They didn’t get any attention in the media, including Metro Pulse , and we haven’t run across anyone who remembers them. We wouldn’t even have had the chance to hear the Knoxville-based CD if not for the recent efforts of UT psychology professor Wes Morgan. Morgan has become so fascinated with the novel Suttree that he has made a second career of discerning fact from fiction in the unusual novel. Morgan heard of the CD through McCarthy-scholarship sources on the web, and tracked down Kopp in Germany, who sent him a copy. It is, by any standards, a unique and fascinating piece of work.

The name of the band comes from the novel. Buddy is one of several nicknames by which the protagonist, Cornelius Suttree, is known. A middle-class guy who fled a wife and kid to live in a derelict houseboat in the shadow of the Gay Street Bridge, Suttree seems to feel more at home among the refuse of society, the poor and handicapped and morally degenerate. Most of the venues mentioned in the novel are real; the Huddle was a downtown bar with a reputation for attracting misfits. As McCarthy describes it, the Huddle’s clientele almost resembles those of Warhol’s Factory. Some who didn’t frequent the place remember the Huddle as a gay bar, but its regulars also included prostitutes, derelicts, newspapermen, and the occasional aspiring novelist.

The footloose protagonist of Suttree finds himself in lots of locations all over town, coffeeshops, whorehouses, tavernboats, the Catholic church, the underside of bridges; but no locale is more frequently returned to than the Huddle. It was home base, the one place where all the protagonists knew each other.

Suttree introduces the Huddle on page 72, when J-Bone, Suttree, Hoghead, and Boneyard approach it from Gay Street:

The interior of the Huddle was cool and dark, the door ajar. They came down the steep street and turned in two by two…. The light from the door fell upon the long mahogany bar. A pedestal fan rocked in its cage and huge flies droned back and forth beneath the plumbing hung from the ceiling. Whores lounged in a near booth and light in dim smoked palings sloped in through the dusty windowpanes. Blind Richard was sitting at the corner of the bar with a mug of beer before him and the wet duck end of a cigarette smoldering in his thin lips, his blownout eyeballs shifting behind squint lids, his head tilted for news of these arrivals…. At a table in the rear a group of dubious gender watched them with soulful eyes….

Suttree and his pals return to the joint at least seven times after that.

The CD’s opening cut, “Prologue,” features a man reading from Suttree. The accent is convincing in spite of a mispronunciation of sumac . There’s a slap-bass rock’n’roll song called “Party at the Huddle” (“Pass the bottle, pass the bottle, it’s a party at the Huddle.”)

Another piece, “A Dance at the Indian Rock,” extols that rural place on Rutledge Pike legendary to a generation or two (“usually somethin’ goin’ on at the Indian Rock on Saturdays”), as Lou Reed might have, if he’d had the insight to make the trip down.

Most of the album’s 25 cuts refer to passages or characters in the novel, several in their titles: “Fruit Lover” (a hip-hop number that includes the chant, “Watermelons is my kick)”; “Gene’s Blues,” “Trippin’ Through the Dew,” “Voodoo Mama,” “Ode to Leonard,” “TN-Pearls,” “Tonto (Is Cooking a Turtle),” “Typhus,” “Bat Rain,” “Fly Them.”

A couple of instrumental pieces, “Suttree” and “the River, “are reprised in different versions throughout the CD, like the theme of an opera.

Now 50, Kopp is a busy guy. He travels some, and has lately been exhibiting his artwork, paintings that he says tend to emphasize horizons. “We know there is something there, but we don’t know what it is,” he says. For Kopp, the artist, the horizon is the edge of consciousness.

It took several days to track him down at his home in Bavaria. He remembers the Knoxville trip vividly.

“We knew that Knoxville was once the World Exposition city, and that it had 185,000 inhabitants,” making it a city four times larger than his hometown of Neumarkt. “But where are they?”

Later that morning they found some more people in the university area, and drove around town enough to see some residential areas. “In the outer parts of Knoxville, things seem to get dangerous,” observes. “The houses got very tiny and very old. The cars in front of the houses were rusty, and there was a lot of garbage behind the houses. I said, ‘Hey, let’s not get out of the car.’”

In the Old City, Kopp made the acquaintance of Greg McGinness, the barber who then ran the Tri-State Barber Shop on South Central Street, which doubled as a junk store. “I thought it was a pawn shop,” says Kopp. He found out that many of the barber’s customers came in with no money to pay him; he often accepted secondhand items in trade. While Kopp was in the shop an apparently homeless woman came in with a few dollars, got a haircut and a complete new wardrobe, including shoes, jeans, and a Hulk Hogan jacket.

The voice heard in the first cut of the record is that of McGinness, recorded in his shop. It closed not long ago.

Kopp says his favorite thing about Knoxville was that “the descriptions in the book seem to be true. I like this. It’s a little bit morbid, but I like the atmosphere.”

But he says the barber had never heard of Suttree . “The whole time we were there, no one knew it,” he says. “I was a little bit disappointed about that.”

When Kopp and Ströll visited, American literature’s most detailed description of Knoxville had earned national attention when it was published, and had been in print for 17 years. Americans, Kopp suspects, don’t read much.

On the liner notes is mention of Underground Recording, a makeshift basement studio run by Matt Lincoln in suburban South Knoxville that made some significant recordings of local talent in the ’80s and ’90s.

There’s also mention that some was recorded “live at Lucille’s.” That small Old City restaurant and bar peaked as a live-jazz venue in the ’90s. A couple of pieces, “Joyce” and “Four,” feature Lucille’s-ish crowd noise. The only song on the CD not written by Kopp or Ströll is Miles Davis’s standard, “Four,” sung by an unnamed female vocalist. It sounds as if it could have been recorded straight off the stage.

Kopp says he and Ströll went to Lucille’s for dinner one evening and carried a reel-to-reel tape recorder with them, “to take the atmosphere with us.”  A vocalist began to sing “Four,” but he says their tape quit after one minute. They kept the crowd noise, but added percussion and got a female vocalist in Germany to finish it for the record.

Kopp and Ströll’s own ad-hoc record label originally released the album in a 12-cut version on vinyl. But in 1998, the large German record company Glitterhouse put out a CD, which gave it a wider exposure.

Buddy and the Huddle’s album never made the Billboard charts, but it got some attention in Europe. Wolfgang Doebeling, music critic for the German Rolling Stone , phoned Kopp and said, “You’re crazy, what have you done? It’s fantastic!” He gave the record four stars.

It got more attention in Britain, where the Independent devoted three-quarter page article to it, with a photo of Kopp. The London-based music magazine Uncut described it “like a cross between early Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder’s evocative soundtrack to Paris, Texas .”

“That’s absolutely great for a German band,” Kopp says. “In the British music scene, as a German musician, you have no status. They say all the Germans can do is krautrock.”

Encouraged by the reception, Buddy and the Huddle went on tour; even though it was mainly a studio band, they put together various performing versions of it, sometimes just Kopp and Ströll. Their premiere, in the town of Roth, drew 400 people, and “euphoric” reviews. They played Frankfort, and Nuremberg, where an interviewer informed them they’d received the city’s Cultural Award. “It was a very great honor for us,” Kopp says.

It sounds as if Kopp never expected it to be a hit. You don’t make much money doing what you really want to do, he says. The Glitterhouse CD version of the Suttree project has sold about 5,000 copies, much of it in Japan. The previous LP sold about 2,500.

The band has stayed together and under the same name inspired by a long-defunct downtown Knoxville bar, put together several other eccentric CDs, most of them about offbeat American subjects. Flush with critical success from the Suttree project, they went to New York to work on a project called Take a Ride Into the Life of Thomas Alva Edison and the Appalachian-themed novel, The Lord of the Barnyard , by Tristan Egolf, the young American novelist who committed suicide last year. The current project is called How We Spent Our Childhood , an homage to the duo’s early influences, including the Kinks, the Beatles, and Alice Cooper.

Today the old Huddle has a For Lease sign in the window. Though it’s been empty for 25 years, the bar on the downhill side of Cumberland, near Gay is still roughly intact. The entrance was in the side of the Cook Building, a brick building with two stories on its Gay Street elevation. Down the Cumberland sidewalk, it’s three stories. The Huddle was more or less the basement.

The building was built in 1924 by Joseph Edward Cook, an Irish immigrant who had gotten in some sort of trouble in the old country, but came to Knoxville around the turn of the century, originally working in one of the rowdy saloons of the old Jackson Avenue “Bowery.” After saloons were banned, he worked as a bail bondsman for a while, saving up money to put up his own building. An honest, functional, 20th-century building, it’s not as large or as elaborate in style as some of its Gay Street neighbors.

The Cook Building went up in the middle of prohibition, and the underside of it wasn’t always a bar. Library sources indicate the Huddle opened in 1951 or ’52, about the time of the setting of Suttree , in the basement space previously occupied by a cab company.

The Gay Street front of the Cook was often pretty respectable; the popular Gateway Bookstore was there on the street level for years. Upstairs was a massage parlor. Interestingly, both were connected by interior staircases to the Huddle. By some accounts, Huddle customers sometimes entered via the Gateway.

Today, Joe Cook’s great-grandson, Tommy Hensley, is in charge of the building. He believes it to be the only building on historic Gay Street that’s still owned by the family who built it.

It was always a family project. In the ’70s, when he was a teenager, Hensley and his little brother had the task of collecting rent from the Cook and other buildings the family owned. “My brother and I, we’d hit everybody. But my brother wouldn’t go in the Huddle, said it was too scary. He said, ‘I’ll stay in the car.’”

“It was dark, smoky, always kind of spooky,” he says.

He does remember seeing some of the more daring Vol ballplayers, like Jackie Walker, in there on occasion.

Last week, Hensley showed us around. It’s now just a big, surprisingly long basement room—2,100 square feet in all—on two levels, with a couple of steps in between. There were two doors; the first you come to, going down the sidewalk, was the main entrance, and was once topped with a hanging sign that said, “The Huddle.” The second, lower one, was mainly an exit for the second-floor staircase, but also had access to the bar.

Hensley uses the old space mostly for storage—he has, for reasons he can’t explain, the old plush velvet curtains left over from the renovation of the Bijou, across the intersection.

They sort of match the Huddle’s old wallpaper, which is still hanging on in a couple of patches, plush velvet on paper in elaborate floral designs.

You can tell where the bathrooms used to be, and the old radiator’s still there. Unfortunately, the famous bar is long gone. Hensley says there were about a dozen bar stools, several booths, and some tables.

“Used to be a kitchen in here,” he says, and points to a blackened area in the ceiling. “You can see where it caught fire.” He says it was a minimal sort of bar kitchen that sold hot dogs and maybe popcorn.

He says he’s heard the Huddle was originally a “sports bar,” a common term that may nonetheless require some translation. Today, a sports bar is a place where people go to watch football games on big-screen TV. In the 1950s, a sports bar was a place to gamble—especially on games, whether a baseball game on the radio or a pinball match—but also on whatever happened to be handy. He says the Huddle once had a nickel slot machine and tip boards or punchboards, and parley sheets.

Wes Morgan visited the Huddle occasionally in his early years in Knoxville, the ’60s and ’70s. It wasn’t exactly a gay bar, he says. “It was a sexually eclectic place. Whores from across the street would come in here.”

It might be surprising there would be a place like that in this most respectable part of downtown, near the courthouses and the big bank buildings and the venerable Bijou Theatre.

But in the ’50s, when Knoxville was being condemned in Look magazine for its “open toleration of vice,” especially prostitution, several small hotels and upstairs spaces in the neighborhood catered to prostitutes—as the Bijou was evolving into its ’60s persona as a pornographic movie house. The Huddle filled a niche.

It was also within a block of both daily papers. For years, the Huddle was the handiest bar for newspapermen.

A passage in Suttree describes snow in the “soft neon flush of the beersign like the slow dropping of blood.” Hensley remembers several neon signs in the windows advertising Hamm’s, Falstaff, Schlitz.

For years, both in fact and in McCarthy’s fiction, the Huddle was famous for serving draft beer in big fishbowls.

It closed in the early 1980s, and is one of the few commercial spaces downtown that hasn’t been redeveloped since.

Upstairs is a restaurant space most recently known as Speedy Pie’s, a creative but short-lived venture in good coffee and upscale fast food that closed last week; Hensley says it was his own experiment with a new oven setup that he plans to expand in a larger space. He means to lease it to another restaurant concern soon.

And up on the second floor of the same building that once contained the Huddle is the Cook Loft, a large luxury two-bedroom hotel suite set up for short-term stays downtown. Hensley fitted out the former massage parlor a couple of years ago with a fireplace, granite bar, full kitchen, high-definition TV, whirlpool tub, washer and dryer. Hensley calls it a “bed and breakfast,” but rented at $450 a night, it may be the most luxurious hostelry in town.

Recent guests have included Peyton Manning, Woody Harrelson, and soul legend Al Green, who signed the guest book, “Fantastic rooms. Atmosphere is so romantic.” 

It’s roughly the same layout, and exactly the same square footage, as the old Huddle, two floors underneath. Downtown is a complicated place.

Roland Kopp is still interested in Knoxville, and would like to return, perhaps with his band—or to show some of the approximately 1,000 photographs he took here with a box camera in 1996.

The album, Buddy and the Huddle: Music For a Still Undone Movie Maybe Called “Suttree” is still available via Glitterhouse ( ).

The movie is still undone. But two of McCarthy’s other nine novels have been, or are being made into major motion pictures, most recently the Coen brothers’ take on No Country For Old Men , now being cast. When they get around to Suttree , there’s already a dandy soundtrack.